The Identity of Dionysius Areopagite. A Philosophical Approach
One of the authors that is mentioned most often and is also brilliantly commented upon by Sergei Averintsev in his “Poetics of the Early Byzantine Literature” is Dionysius Areopagite. This is no coincidence. Dionysius, or better Pseudo-Dionysius, as he is called by the Russian philologist in accordance with the contemporary scholarly convention, has influenced profoundly the spirituality, theology and philosophy in the East and the West, and still represents an intriguing challenge to them.
On this occasion I would like to present a new, philosophical approach to the question of Denys’s identity and – let me divulge in advance my hidden agenda – help him get rid of the prefix Pseudo-, and this without underplaying the pseudonymity by invoking literary conventions of antiquity or by pushing him back to the Athens of the first century. This idea – the novelty of my approach – would most probably not have been admired by Denys, because the novelty sells today; the author of Corpus areopagiticum displaces us to the spiritual words where the greatest value is the antiquity itself (although, to be honest, he was an extremely daring innovator himself in many regards) – perhaps, he would have liked the epitheton “philosophical” because it was not without a reason that Ioannes Scotus Eriugena called him divinus philosophus.
I do not want to go into an attempt to define philosophy itself on this occasion, or to determine what makes a certain thought a philosophical one. I merely want to stress with this adjective that my approach to the question of Denys’s identity will not be committed to the scientifically-historical method, but to the sensitivity to – I hope – a different, alien, “crazy” horizon called by Denys himself alétheia, the truth. In his Divine Names he says:
»The man in union with truth knows clearly that all is well with him, even if everyone else thinks that he has gone out of his mind <exestekós>. What thay fail to see, naturally, is that he has gone out of the path of error and has in his real faith arrived at truth. He knows that far from being mad, as they imagine him to be, he has been recued from the instable and the constant changing movement along the multiform variety of errancy and that he has been set free by simple and immutable stable truth.« (DN 872D -873A)
With a philosophical approach I shall challenge the fundamental presuppositions of the scientific approach to history that resides in this “multiform variety”: the entire field of history, the common time in which the historical event is inscribed, the basic network of space and time where our historical imagination finds it self-evident what identity is. If I may, I would like to ask you for something difficult. A philosophical approach demands the power of the abstraction of everything that is self-evident – and this precisely because of the openness to alétheia.
It has been said that Bertrand Russell once asked Ludwig Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room. When Wittgenstein refused to believe this, Russell looked under the table and said that he was sure that there isn’t one. Wittgenstein was devastated. I beg you all now, do not push me into that kind of devastation. Try to forget for a moment what such a self-evident identity in the history is – and attempt not to turn your eye to the past listening to my weird deliberations.
History and the agapic hermeneutics
Who was in fact Denys? This question with its distinction between the name and facts, the truth and fiction apparently directs towards history. I will try to argue here that the appearance is just an appearance: this question introduces us into ontology. Scientific recourse to the history without the radical ontological turn proves to be here – and also everywhere else – an “errancy”, if I may use Denys’s term. The awareness of ontological dimension of this question demands a new, still undeveloped but necessary hermeneutics where we allow the other of the history to speak without putting the answers concerning the fundamental questions of being into his mouth.
The claim for a philosophical suspense of the common horizon of understanding the past when trying to understand a text and its author does, of course, evoke the well-known topics of the contemporary hermeneutics and its heroes, e.g. of H. G. Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, but I do not want to apply here the loci communes to the question of Denys’s identity. My intention is here to make quite a different move. The fundamental concept of the modern hermeneutics derives from – if you allow me to simplify here – the interplay of two different horizons, and this fusion of these horizons allows the creative modification of our own understanding. I am convinced that the very pre-supposition of the co-related horizons hides away from us the ontological pre-suppositions, in which we inscribe both horizons, our own and that of the other. In our case, these very pre-supposition are the following: the universal time, history, identity in the history, chronological sequence of events etc. The other paradigm of understanding (that I would like to suggest here) consists of our ability to radically question our own ontology which lies at the foundation of this pre-supposed horizon of the very constitution of the historical reality – and that not because of the mere act of scepticism or the phenomenological epoché, but because of the very self-constructed facticity of the other in history. The reality of the history does not demand the fusion of two horizons but the annihilation of our own horizon and a racial intrusion – which is in the logical sense in fact impossible – of the other. The annihilation of the common history, of the somehow already understood time, already understood identity – and the thought of that very annihilation.
Such a thought might be called an agapic hermeneutics. The skill of the interpretation as the expression of the impossible possibility which is agápe – the radical openness for the other in his/her aloneness.
Let me explain what I mean with this.
The question of history in a philosophical sense is connected with our ontological understanding of the absence in time.
How does that which I posit as the modus of being of beings exists? How do exist beings which are not present anymore but for which I assume that they exist and postulate them on the grounds of some other things – e.g. a text – which enters into the realm of my sensations and/or spiritual perception. In the common-sensical of the “past”, in the act of imagination of the being of something which is no more, I return this-which-is-no-more to the reality. When I for example think of the author of the Corpus areopagiticum, I think of one of those people whom I meet in everyday life – or whom I met and have already passed away. As the other of the others. With this return – with my act of memory – I somehow return him to what he was – what he was independently of my memory. But if I reflect this gesture of mine, I see that the absent – despite of the self-obliterating act of onto-thetical imagination – remains in itself utterly non-existent. In the act of historical imagination I am myself bestowing the existence to the non-existent. Making the absent present is not changing the way of being, but radically moving the non-being into being. And yet, this is only one possibility of thinking history. The other is the complete opposite. When I really think of the author of this corpus I think of his hypostacity, regardless of the fact if I place him in a particular century on the basis of this or that historical lead. I think of him as a totality of beings and the only being itself. He is like me. This is an impossible hermeneutical act – I disappear in him. I am being annihilated. The subject of history demands from me the annihilation. The reality of the historical being is the paralogical sythesis between these two paradoxes: between the non-being made present in my hypostasis – and the hypostasis which demands my annihilation in order to be understood. The scientific historiography does not take into account this paradoxical reality of the historical; it remains only the constant jotting down and cataloguing the traces that enable this double jump. If the reflection of the paradox is open to the being of the historical itself, the historiography is in the strict sense of the word being-less.
“Above-worldly pulling together of the othernesses”
The table is – I hope not too cryptically – clean. There is only the text by Denys left on it. The text that is in us, in me. The text that is – in me – the expression of the being of the other. The only being. The text which – regardless of all my ideas on identity – tells me something which is completely its own.
The text which faces us is the text of the author who identifies himself as Dionysius, the disciple of Paul. In the semantics of the philosophical styles, in their scientifically historical syntax, this identification seems impossible. Let us assume for a moment that the texts as traces of the only Being cannot be placed in any context. That Dionysius – in other words – may have known Proclus and other Neoplatonists, and that, in spite of the fact that he had read them, those thinkers were not prior to him but were his contemporaries, enhypostasited in his – the only, incomparable – time. That all the concepts he used to articulate his vision are simply enhypostasited in his Being – and that they at the same time express it.
To put it in a more concrete terms: let us see what the text itself reveals as the understanding of the authorial identity. Let’s allow the textuality of the corpus itself to construct the ontological identity that it expresses.
First, it seems that Denys attempt to maintain the identity of individual beings – i.e. also that of his own. In his explanation of God’s name “Peace” he writes:
»’How is that everything wishes for peace?’, someone may ask. ‘There are many things which take pleasure in being other, different, and distinct, and they would never freely choose to be at rest.” This is true, assuming that what is meant here is that being other and being different refer to the individuality of each thing and to the fact that nothing tries to lose its individuality. Yet, as I will try to show, this situation is itself due to the desire for peace. For everything loves to be at peace with itself, to be at one. and never to move or fall away from its own existence and from what it has. And perfect Peace is there as a gift, guarding without confusion the individuality of each, providentially ensuring that all things are quiet and free of confusion within themselves and from without, that all things are unshakably what they are and that they have peace and rest. If all moving things wish enver to be at rest but aim always for their own appropriate movement, this too is because of a wish for that divine Peace of the universe which keeps everything firmly in its own place and which ensures that the individuality and the stirring life of all moving things are kept safe from removal and destruction. This happens as a result of the inward peace which causes the things in movement to engage in the activity proper to themselves.’« (DN 952B-952D, trans. C. Luibheid, p. 123)
Despite the God-given yearning of all beings for the identity with themselves, the corpus emphasizes the other eros which is in the marked opposition to the first one: the eros to return to one’s own origin and to unite with it. Many textual references could be made here, suffice it to quote here the famous passage from “The Mystical Theology” where the author describes Moses’s ascent to Mount Sinai:
»But then (Moses) … renouncing all that the mind may concieve, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, belongs completly to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither onself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.« (MT 1001A, trans. C. Luibheid, p. 137)
This unification is for the author of the corpus the possibility: the possibility which could or could not be put into realisation. He does not, however, let any doubt concerning the fact that he, as a link in the hierarchical chain, is heading towards this union. That he does not speak about it as about something that is exterior to his experience but as about something which is his most intimate message. I see in that the articulation of his own self-constructed being. The only being. gígnesthai, “becoming”, which is being referred in the prayer, is not an optional alternative, but the path form the less-real to the more-real and towards Reality itself.
What happens to the human identity on this path? Let us listen to the text again: “being neither onself nor someone else …”. The subject of the description of the ecclesiastical, celestial and divine landscapes which lead to the union does not have a fixed identity – precisely because it is the subject of narration and at the same time the subject heading towards union. Someone who in the ideal sense of the word “completely belongs to the one who is beyond all realities”.
In such a changed horizon there is no unified field of history any more, if we are able to open to the experience which is expressed in Denys’s texts in such a way which causes us to renounce our own ontological presuppositions. The subject of periégesis – theological descriptive narration - places us – by annihilating us as subiectus unionis – into the world where our common-sensical or scientifically historical theories of identity do not apply any more.
The fact that the author as the subject of union is not himself or someone else enables him to become in the mystical inversion himself and someone else.
This inversion has in Denys’s world, in his expression of his own experience of being its (meta)ontological foundation. Let us listen again to the text “On Divine Names”, although we might get confused again by “the excesses of the stylistic exuberance” of the author, “who was really unable to utter even one simple word” (S. S. Averintsev):
»And so all these scriptural utterances in holy way celebrate the supreme Deity by describing it as a monad or henad, because of its simplicity and unity of supernatural indivisiblity, by which unifying power we are led to unity. We, in the diversity of what we are are pulled together in one and are led into god-imitating oneness, into a unity reflecting God« (DN I, 4, 589D, ibidem, trans. C. Luibheid, p. 51).
The otherness is in Denys’s view undoubtedly what gives me the identity, what tells me apart form the other other. How are we to understand this mysterious com-plicatio of the othernesses in “god-imitating oneness, into a unity reflecting God«? Undoubtedly, this “com-plication” is the disappearance of the othernesses which constitute the identity of beings, separated from their origin. Istvan Perczel argues that this is the case of a “cut and clear heretical origenism” and refers to the fourteenth anathema of the Fifth ecumenical council. But such a claim is to rash.
Here Denys uses Platonic terminology, there is not doubt about it. But with what intention? The entirety of his works clearly show us that this “oneness” does not mean the demise of the radical difference which separates all creation from its Principle. The radical destabilisation of the identity is taking place beyond the metaphorics of the fusion as new identity. Drawing from his own spiritual experience, Denys in his own way and using his idiosicratic terminology articulates the doctrine about deification, théosis, which is one of the most fundamental messages of the Eastern Church.
“Our redemption is possible only through our deification” is written in “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” (EH 376 A). And then: “God came to us in his love towards humanity … and assimilated us to himself as fire” (EH 393 A). Ysabele de Andia in her article “Mystères, unification et divinisation de l’homme selon Denys l’Aréopagite” comes to the following conclusion: “The new perspective brought by Hierarchies is the deification. The very aim of the hierarchy is to unify and deify intellects, human and divine… The deification is the participation in Divine life and the transmission of this life is enacted in rites which are hierarchical and symbolical at the same time.”
¸ In one of the crucial passages in the “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, which speaks about this process of deification in the ecclesiological and openly Christological context, we find again the expression “pulling together”, sýmptyxis, com-plicatio which we have already met in the explanation of Divine names:
»Indeed the Wold of God teaches those of us who are its disciples that in this fashion – through more clearly and more intellectully – Jesus enlighghtens our blessed superiors, Jesus who is transcendent mind, utterly divine mind, who is the source and the being underlying all hierarchy, all santification, all the workings of God, who is the ultimate in divine power. He assimilates them, as much as they are able, to his own light. As for us, with that yearning for beauty which raises up upward (and which is raised up) to him, he (Jesus) pulls togeher all our many othernesses, thereby making our life, disposition and activity something one and divine, and bestowing on us the power appropriate to a sacred priesthood.«(EH 1, 1, 372A-B, ibidem, trans. C. Luibheid, p. 195-96).
Besides unification with the Origin, the deification, the participation in the divine life has the feature of the mutual union, the community, koinonía. “The com-plication of othernesses” in the process of deification enables also the mutual unification of beings that are on their way towards deification, without introducing any kind of chaos which would replace taxis, order. And yet, we should not mitigate the radicalism of Denys’s thesis. Although Perczel wrongly connects Denys’s doctrine with origenism, his claim nevertheless reveals the radical atopical, displaced understanding of identity in Denys’s discourse on deification. This radically understood theosis with an a-topical identity of the subject of deification allows the author of the corpus to take over the other name which is neither fiction nor historical reality, but the writing from the factually experienced prolepsis of the eschatological koinonía.
This destabilisation of identity in the intimate, paralogical “logics” of deification implies the evacuation of the text itself written by the subject of théosis. Usually, the verification of that what is written is sought in the experience of the writer. Denys’s unhistorical self-identification, grounded in his ontology of deification which annihilates our own ontology, withdraws this certitude.
If Denys is not Paul’s disciple, then he is Paul’s disciple in the very experience of being deified – which happens on the level of identity which transcends every historical ascertainment of identity. When God is pantónymos and anónymos, when he has all names and is whithout any one, then the person, who is experiencing the deification, is ontologically entitled to take over any name. Also the name »Denys, the pupil of Paul«. And yet, he remains utterly without a name – and in the gesture of writing, being alien to every historical identity, he invites reader into that very same mystical être sans papier.
I’m alluding here above all to the very interesting exchange of thoughts on apophaticism between J. L. Marion and J. Derrida that started with Marion’s chapter on Denys in his Idole et distance, Paris 1977 and lasted untill Derrida’s death; for still ongoing scholarly dissensus on Denys cf. A. M. Ritter: Dionysius Pseudo-Areopagita und der Neuplatonismus (im Gespraech mit neuerer Literatur), in: Philotheos 4 (2004), pp. 260-275.
I’m quoting (although sometimes slightly modified) C. Luibheid’s translation of Denys’s texts (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid, foreword, notes and translation collaboration of Paul Rorem, preface by Rene Roques, introduction by J.Pelikan, J.Leclerq, K.Froehlich. London, 1987), p. 110.
Cf. B. McGuinness: Young Ludwig, Oxford 1988 (2005), p. 89.
Denys l’Aréopagite et Symeon le Nouveau Théologien, In: Deny l’Aréopagite et sa posterité en Orient et en Occident. Actes du colloque international, Paris 21-24 septembre 1994, ed. by Y. de Andia, Paris 1997, p. 347, footnote 20.
Orientalia Christiana Periodica 63 (1997), pp. 273-322.
Y de Andia, op. cit., p. 322.
Some far-reaching implications of such understanding of Denys’s identity will be presented in the introduction and commentaries to my forthcoming Slovene translation of the Denys’s complete works.