Platonic Elements in Pseudo-Dionysius Anti-Manichaean Ontology
Professor Constantine Scouteris
There are two things one cannot ignore when facing Pseudo-Dionysius ontology. The first is his Platonic and Neoplatonic awareness, and the second, perhaps even more significant, his anti-Manichaean mentality and intention.
Anti-Manichaeism is a constant orientation of the author of the Areopagite corpus, given that this "hotch-potch" ecclectic and dualistic system enjoyed broad influence not only in the age and historical environment of Pseudo-Dionysius, but even in earlier times. It is well known that Manichaean ontology had already spread early in the 3rd century to Egypt and by the early years of the 4th century to Rome. Manichaeism, a syncretistic religious system based upon a supposed eternal conflict between "good" and "evil", or "light" and "darkness", was founded upon a dualistic ontology. According to the Manichaeans "bad" and "good" constitute two eternal "beings", originally opposed and separated from each other. The point is that, according to Manichaean gnosis, good and evil are understood as two ontological entities. Not only God, but the devil as well is an eternal hypostatic reality. In fact, according to the Manichaeans, there are two parallel or equal supreme beings: God, the source of goodness, and the devil, the source of evil. These two beings are the cause of the primeval conflict between good and evil, between "spirit" and "matter". In this cosmic dualism man as well is involved, since his body was created by the spirit of darkness, while God is the origin of his soul.
It is of capital importance, for the presentation of a global and thorough image of the theological thought of Pseudo-Dionysius, to underline the fact that his interest is largely in opposition to the Manichaean pessimistic and inhuman dualism. However, in the thought of the author of the Areopagite corpus, there is one more point one has to take seriously into account before studying the Platonic and Neoplatonic "influences" and the relationship between Christian Theology and Platonic teaching. And this is the relationship between the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius and that of St. Gregory of Nyssa. Questions related to "real being", to Manichaean dualism, to the existence of evil, etc., which were faced by Pseudo-Dionysius, had previously been carefully studied by St. Gregory of Nyssa. It is important to note that Pseudo-Dionysius attempts to answer these questions using the method, categories and sources which had already been established by St. Gregory. It is, thus, self evident that, in order to fully appreciate the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius, one cannot treat his work in isolation. In other words, the issue of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic elements in the Pseudo-Dionysian ontology pre-supposes a knowledge of both, the Manichaean cosmology and the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.
The theology of both St. Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius focuses on "Real Being", on the absolute form of the Good. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of "the beauty which is above all beings", of the Good "which always is Good". This Good which is "utterly Good" and "always Being" is "one in kind", and "contains within Itself, transcendentally, the source of the beauty of every good". It is the "cause of all" and "the mover of all"; and "among beings there is nothing which does not participate in the Good and the beautiful". St. Gregory of Nyssa was also fond of such language. He spoke of "Real Being", which is "Goodness itself". He also underlined the fact that this "absolute Good", which is even "above every Good", is the cause of every existence. As the "truly existent" and the "perfect goodness", the real being gathers together in one all beings.
The divine names "One", "Good" and "Being" are connected in Dionysian thought with the notions of "Life", "Wisdom" and "Light". The fundamental intuition of Pseudo-Dionysius is that the One is the beginning and the recapitulation of history. Like St. Gregory of Nyssa, the author of the Areopagite corpus consideres the One, i.e. the "absolute Goodness" or the "Real Being", as the ontological foundation of every existence. In this perspective the One, or Goodness Itself, is the "origin" of every other goodness. From the One, which is "eternally beautiful", "all things possess their existence, each kind being beautiful in its own manner". The One then is the "cause" of existence. Pseudo-Dionysius explicitely points out that "this One Good and Beautiful is in its Oneness the Cause of all the many beautiful and good things". In the Dionysian system, as in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa, history is understood as a vast and continuous progression from a beginning to an end, embracing all things, and advancing them towards the unity and harmony of the unique, the divine life. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of God as the noetic, the supra-sensible Light, the spring shedding light, the Good beyond any light, Who as a Ray which resembles a gushing over enlightens every supra-natural and circum-natural and natural mind. It is striking that both thinkers use the same vocabulary in order to indicate the ontological dependence of all beings on God.
The Platonic background and character of the above mentioned terminology is immediately evident. Thus first Plato, in his Republic, presents the idea of Good as the supreme Idea, which is the source and the basis of the existence of the entire world of ideas. The Good, transcending all beings, gives being to the whole world of beings. Plato uses the example of the "Sun" in order to make his point clear. The Sun which is over everything in the visible world, absolutely transcendent, is not only the cause of vision but equally the source of ex istence, of life and of growth of every being. In the famous second part of his Dialogue Parmenides (137c-166c) the idea of the "One" is extensively deloped. The "One" of Parmenides dialogue, like the "Good" of the Republic, remains absolutely transcendent. It is the unique source of everything and nothing can be said of it except that it is "One".
In the so-called later Platonism the "Good" is identified with the "One". In fact Good or the One is the supreme Divine Mind, i.e. the top of the intelligible hierarchy. The identification of the "Good" with the "One" is for example clearly presented in Plotinus 5th Enneade , while in the 6th Enneade the One is declared as "δΰξανιχ "εξξ"α τΐ ξτα νΫξοω"α ξ 'αωτF λαέ ολ ματτοωνΫξ". Proclus later applied the platonic term "One" to God, affirming at the same time, in an apophatic way, His transcentence. Proclus' terminology and the way of thinking, while profoundly platonic, is very near to christian thought. It was an age when educated Christians and philosophers had much in common, given that they both shared the same greek culture. Studying texts of that period, one must always bare in mind that there was a reciprocal influence. Not only did philosophers influence Christian thinkers, but philosophers as well were influenced by Christians.
Thus, in light of this connection it is significant to mention that Proclus stresses the idea of communion as the bridge between the One, i.e. the "Real Being", and those beings which are capable of self-presence or the self-conscious being. This communion is based on the close relationship between the One and the whole realm of beings. Every being, according to Proclus, has divine elements in its own existence; and it is for precisely this reason that communion can be realized. In his attempt to interpret Plato's Parmenides, Proclus explains clearly that every being, according to its existence, participates in the higher Cause of everything.
The theme of participation has been a constantly recuring issue of great philosophical importance in the Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought. It was Plato himself who first introduced the term "νΫυεκιχ" in order to express the relationship of the many individual beings with the One form or idea. He also used other synonymous terms, like νετοψά, νετΐμ"γιχ and λοιξφξέα which together with the corresponding verbs νετΫψειξ, νεταμανβΐξειξ, λοιξφξε ξ, or other related expressions, indicate the existing relationship between the particulars and the One, between the sensible and the intelligible world.
In Middle and Neo-Platonism this theme was again considered and further developed. Thus, while in the Platonic conception the idea of participation is used to express the relationship of beings, both in the intelligible and the sensible world, in the Neo-Platonic understanding participation tends to be located particularly within the spiritual cosmos. In this connection we have to mention the 3rd Enneade, where Plotinus minimizes the participation of matter in the intelligible forms and locates the sharing in its positive perspective, i.e. between the Soul and the Mind or the Mind and the One. This tendency towards the intelligible forms is also clear when Plotinus discusses the issue of the existence of evil in his homonymous treatise. Here again "participation" serves to indicate the connection between the different levels of the intelligible world.
Turning now our attention to the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, we realize that the concept of participation is a key concept for the understanding of his thought. According to his teaching the ultimate goal of every human being is participation in God's perfections. Althought Pseudo-Dionysius does not directly refer to the creation from nothingness, his conviction, however, that everything has been created by God ex nihilo and depends on Him, both for its existence and its goodness, leads him to the conclusion that the only and One divine existence is the beginning and the end of history, the gathering "together in one of all things... both those which are in heavens, and those which are on earth" (Eph. 1: 10). In order to confront the challenge posed by the dualistic system of the Manechaeans, Pseudo-Dionysius stresses the idea of the Oneness of God and of the dynamic and progressive character of participation. His constant concern is to make clear that the existence of every being is based on God, Who is the One and absolute Existence. For Pseudo-Dionysius the Manichaean perspective that the devil exists as a self-subsistent, as an ontological and hypostatic entity parallel to God, is absolutely unacceptable.
Pseudo-Dionysius, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, is absolutely convinced that, in the reality of the One and absolute Existence and Goodness, i.e. of the "One being" Who gathers together in one all things, evil has no place. Pseudo-Dionysius describes evil as being "alien to good" and not self-subsistent. Evil has certainly neither God as its ultimate origin , as the Stoics claimed, nor the human body or matter , as Plato stated. Evil is understood by the author of the Areopagite corpus as an unnutural condition due to the illness of free will. It is an absence and a privatio of good.
The idea of evil as absence and privation acquired true philosophical importance for the Neo-Platonists Plotinus and Proclus. Both philosophers in their Essays on the origin and the existence of evil developed the position that evil is considered not as an ontological entity, but exactly the opposite, that is to say, as the absence of good which is understood as the real being.
Discussing the question of Dionysian ontology, one cannot deny that many of his concepts were inspired by the Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought. However it would be one-sided to conclude that Pseudo-Dionysius is simply a Christian Platonist, in the narrow sense of the term. In spite of the appearance of a close relationship between Christian theology and Neo-Platonic ontology in his thought, Pseudo-Dionysius is basically and profoundly a Christian thinker. This means that, although he often uses the platonic idiom, his approach is more founded upon a solid biblical ground than upon a deep philosophical background. His constant aim was to interpret the scriptural data using a language relative to his cultural context.
The case of Pseudo-Dionysius is a classical example of what is today called contextualization. This means that he used a language and a way of thought, current in his time, in order to make the Christian gospel accesible to his hearers. In this perspective his Platonic and Neo-Platonic language was in fact an instrument of help; it became for him a vehicle: a mother tongue, in the philosophical sense, to facilitate the presentation of the Christian message.
It is not our task in this rather short presentation, to discuss the issue in its full detail. What we intend to do is to underline what has been agnowledged by various scholars. Neither Pseudo-Dionysius nor any other of the so-called Christian Platonists ever ascribed over-riding authority to Platonic thought. What Pseudo-Dionysius expounded in his works is recognizably Christian, founded on the Holy Scriptures. Thus for example the "One" or the "Good" are understood, not in an abstract, speculative way, but in purely Christian terms. This means that the "One" or the "Good" is the One God in Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the "Three-fold Oneness", Who is the "bright goodness beyond goodness", the "goodness beyond any goodness". His apophatic theology pre-supposes a movement of dynamic return from multiplicity nearer and nearer to oneness, until one reaches the "Cause of all" which "super-esentially transcends them all". Here the Platonic and Neo-Platonic concept of participation is not understood in terms of a logical relation between the many individual and sensible instances to the one idea, or the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible worlds. Participation in the Areopagite corpus has a concrete and clear Christian meaning. It is the communion with the Triune God. This was the primordial vocation of man and this is his call again, within the context of the new situation created by the incarnate Logos. This communion is never understood in terms of direct participation in the divine nature, but rather in terms of participation is God's own proper operation. Thus, God, being the Real Being, the Life, the Goodness etc., offers His existence, life and goodness to those participating in His perfections.
It is within this theological perspective that Pseudo-Dionysius' ontology should be understood. The point is that his exploration of the "Real Being" and the "Supreme Good" has a concrete aim: to defend the Christian faith against any dualistic system, and especially against the Manichaean. Living in a historical context in which the Manichaeanism had a great influence, he presented a complete apologia contra Manichaeos. The Platonic and Neo-Platonic traditions gave him the necessary tools to interpret in a relevant way the scriptural data and to present the orthodox vision in a way accesible to his contemporaries.
Summing up now, we can see that Pseudo-Dionysius applied the Platonic and Neo-Platonic ontological categories to the Christian teaching of the Triune God, fulfilling them, without doubt, in the light of Christian Revelation. Insisting on the absolute existence and unity of the Godhead, his intention was to protect the people of God from Manichaean dualism. It is remarkable to note, in this connection, that the main arguments, proposed by St. Gregory of Nyssa and taken up again by Pseudo-Dionysius, were used in the later debates with the Manichaeans and especially by St. John of Damascus in his Dialogus contra Manichaeos. In fact this treatise is a repetition of the main points of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius. Thus, in the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Platonic and especially the Neo-Platonic concepts were used, not for abstract speculation, but rather as eficient tools to express and expound the Christian Revelation in the complex world of his time.