Monday, February 20, 2012

Looking Up with Dionysius

The phrase in the title of today's post means at least three different things. First it refers to all the looking up of information on Pseudo-Dionysius that I did last week. But more importantly for today is a second sense, the sense that Dionysius looks better to me as I continue reading than he did at first. My last post addressed some problems I was having trying to figure out who and what I was reading. But after three more days, things are looking up.

After a long, dense beginning on God’s existence above existence, Dionysius turns to the divine names of Goodness, Wisdom, and Life. God’s goodness, Dionysius explains, is above all good things and is their source. His wisdom is above all wise things and is the source of them. His life is above all living things and is the source of them. At this point Dionysius takes what seems at first a side track into a discussion of evil. I can see very well here how Aquinas is indebted to Dionysius, as the earlier writer argues clearly that evil is not a thing but a lack of a thing. Evil doesn’t exist except as a lack of goodness, and then only a lack according to a thing’s nature. Aquinas, actually, makes this point clearer with an example. Blindness is an evil in that it is a lack of sight, which is a good. But a stone’s lack of sight is not an evil, because it is not in a stone’s nature to see.

Having established his point about evil, Dionysius can use it to put all the first four divine names in perspective. Since God’s created world includes only things that are not complete and perfect (only God is perfect) and God called his creation good, even those absences, like the stone’s absence of sight, are good. From Plato and Aristotle, Dionysius inherited the idea that all things are good in so far as they exist. But, he adds, in God’s creation, even the non-existences are good. So, the Goodness of God is over all things existing and not existing. His Being (“Tell them I AM sent you”) is over all things existing. The Life of God is over all living things. And the Wisdom of God is over all rational things. Each name covers a smaller subset of the whole and corresponds to a higher category of creature. But Dionysius is careful to say that in God, Goodness, Being, Life, and Wisdom are equal and inseparable. While I wondered last week about Dionysius’ neo-Platonist tendencies, it was this point that convinced me he was teaching Christian doctrine, not neo-Platonism.

The final sense of the title comes from Dionysius’ explanation for how we can know the God who exists (or “hyperexists”) above all knowledge. Since He fashioned all created things from the wisdom of his own plan, we see traces of God’s wisdom all around us in every created thing. Dionysius then urges us to “contemplate, with supermundane eyes, all things in the Cause of all.” Using the things of the world, we look up toward their Source, ascending as far as humanly possible, but remembering that God is actually beyond all the analogies and conceptions we can come up with.

This week I start Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy. I suppose that experience will provide a fourth way of looking up as I contemplate the ranks of angels.

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