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Dionysius the Areopagite: On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology.
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III.—THE RELATION OF THE GODHEAD TO CREATION

This principle of Plurality which is thus transcendently contained in Its Undifferentiated Nature compels It to an eternal act of Creation. For all things pre-exist in It fused and yet distinct, as (shall we say?) in a single sensation of hunger there are indivisiby felt the several needs for the different elements of food which are wanted respectively to nourish the various kinds of bodily tissues, or as a single emotion contains beforehand the different separate words which issue forth to express it. Even so the Ultimate Godhead, brimful with Its Super-Unity, must overflow into multiplicity, must pass from Indifference into Differentiation and must issue out of its Super-Essential state to fashion a world of Being.

Now since the Godhead thus pours Itself out on to the plane of Being (which plane itself exists through nothing but this outpouring), it follows that the Godhead comes into relation with this plane: or rather (inasmuch as the act is timeless) stands in some relation to it. If the Godhead acts creatively, then It is related to the world and sphere of creation: eternally to the sphere of creation (which otherwise could not exist), and thus potentially to the world even before the world was made. Hence the Godhead, while in Its ultimate Nature It is beyond all differentiations and relationships, and dwells in a region where there is nothing outside of Itself, yet on another side of Its Nature (so to speak) touches and embraces a region of differentiations and relationships, is therefore Itself related to that region, and so in a sense belongs to it. Ultimately the Godhead is undifferentiated and unrelated, but in Its eternal created activity It is manifested under the form of Differentiation and Relationship. It belongs concurrently to two worlds: that of Ultimate Reality and that of Manifested Appearance. Hence, therefore, the possibility not only of Creation but also Revelation (ἔκφανσις). Just as the Godhead creates all things by virtue of that Aspect of Its Nature which is (as it were) turned towards them, so It is revealed to us by virtue of the same Aspect turned towards our minds which form part of the creation. Hence all the Scriptural Names of God, and this very Name “God” itself, though they apply to the whole Nature of the Godhead and not merely to some particular element or function thereof, yet cannot express that Nature in Its Ultimate Super-essence but only as manifested in Its relative activity. Dionysius, in fact, definitely teaches that doctrine which, when revived independently of recent years by Dr. Bradley was regarded as a startling blasphemy: that God is but an Appearance11Appearance and Reality (2nd ed.), pp. 445 ff. of the Absolute. And this is, after all, merely a bold way of stating the orthodox truism that the Ultimate Godhead is incomprehensible: a truism which Theology accepts as an axiom and then is prone to ignore. The various Names of God are thus mere inadequate symbols of That Which transcends all thought and existence. But they are undifferentiated titles because they are symbols which seek (though unsuccessfully) to express the undifferentiated Super-Essence. Though the terms “God,” “King,” “Good,” “Existent,” etc., have all different connotations, yet they all denote the same undifferentiated Deity. There are, however, some Names which denote not the undifferentiated Godhead, but certain eternally differentiated Elements in Its Manifestation. These are the Names of the Three Persons in the Blessed Trinity. Whereas the terms “God,” “King,” “Good,” “Existent,” etc., denote (though they cannot express it) the same Reality: the term “Father” denotes something different from that of “Son,” and both of these from that of “Holy Ghost.” The whole Manifested Godhead is “God,” “King,” “Creator,” “Saviour,” “Lord,” “Eternal,” “Living,” etc., but only One Persona of the Godhead is Father, or Son, or Holy Ghost. The undifferentiated titles differ from each other merely through our feeble grasp of the Manifestation, and coalesce as our apprehension of it grows; the differentiated titles (διακεκριμένα or διακρίσεις) represent actual distinctions in the eternal Manifestation Itself. Thus the Absolute Godhead is the Super-Essence; the eternally Manifested God head is the Trinity. As to the reasons of this Dionysius deprecates all inquiry. He does not, for instance, suggest that Relationship in this its simplest form cannot but exist within that side of the God head which embraces and enters into this relative world. Here, as elsewhere, his purpose in spite of his philosophical language, is in the deepest sense purely practical, and mere speculations are left on one side. He accepts the Eternal Distinctions of the Trinity because They have been revealed; on the other hand, he sees that they must belong to the sphere of Manifestation or They could not be revealed.

It was said above that the Ultimate Godhead is Supra-Personal, and that it is Supra-Personal because personality consists in the faculty of knowing oneself to be one individual among others. Are the Personæ of the Trinity then, personal, since They are distinguished One from Another? No, They are not personal, because, being the infinite Manifestation of the Godhead, They are Super-Essential, and Dionysius describes Them by that title. And if it be urged that in one place he joins the same title to our Lord’s individual Human Name and speaks of “the Super-Essential Jesus,” this is because the Personality of our Lord (and our own personality also through our union with Him) passes up into a region transcending personality, and hence while the Humanity of Jesus is Personal His Godhead is Supra-Personal. This is implied in a passage from Hierotheus (quoted with approval by Dionysius himself) which teaches that the Deity of Jesus is of an universal character belonging through Him to all redeemed mankind.

The teaching of Dionysius on the Trinity is, so far as it goes, substantially the same as that of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas; only it is expressed in more exact, if at first sight somewhat fantastic, terms. St. Augustine,22[Augustine says indeed that the Father and the Son exist, non secundum substantiam, sed secundum relativum (De Trin. v. 6). But Augustine’s argument is, that while no attribute of God is accidental, yet all attributes are not said with reference to His substance. Certain attributes of God are neither accidental nor substantial, but relative. This applies to Divine Fatherhood and Sonship. For the Father is what He is in relation to the Son, and similarly the Son to the Father. But these are relations of “Beings,” and are relations which are “eternal and unchangeable.” Augustine does not affirm a supra-personal reality of God behind the Trinity of manifestation. For Augustine the Father and the Son are ultimate realities. “But if the Father, in that He is called the Father, were so called in relation to Himself, not to the Son; and the Son, in that He is called the Son, were so called in relation to Himself, not to the Father; then both the one would be called Father, and the other Son, according to substance. But because the Father is not called the Father except in that He has a Son, and the Son is not called Son except in that He has a Father, these things are not said according to substance; because each of them is not so called in relation to Himself, but the terms are used reciprocally and in relation each to the other; nor yet according to accident, because both the being called the Father, and the being called the Son, is eternal and unchangeable to them. Wherefore, although to be the Father and to be the Son is different, yet their substance is not different; because they are so called, not according to substance, but according to relation, which relation, however, is not accident, because it is not changeable.”—Aug., De Trin. v. 6.-Ed.] for instance, teaches that the inner Differentiations of the Trinity belong solely to the realm of eternal Manifestation when he says that They exist secundum Relativum and not secundum Substantiam.33De Trin. v. 6. Also he teaches the Supra-Personality of the Trinity when he says that neither the undivided Trinity nor any of Its Three Persons is a particular individuality;44See De Trin. viii. 4. “Not this and that Good; but the very Good . . . Not a good Personality (animus) but good Goodness”; and vii. 11, where he condemns those who say the word persona is employed “in the sense of a particular man such as Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or anybody else who can be pointed out as being present.” and St. Thomas teaches the same thing when he says that the Human Soul of Jesus does not comprehend or contain the Word since the Human Soul is finite (i.e. a particular individuality) while the Word is Infinite.55Summa, Pars.III. Q. x. Art. i.

Thus while in the Undifferentiated Godhead the “Persons” of the Trinity ultimately transcend Themselves and point (as it were) to a region where They are merged, yet in that side of Its Nature which looks towards the universe They shine eternally forth and are the effulgence of those “Supernal Rays” through Which all light is given us, and whence all energy streams into the act of creation. For by Their interaction They circulate that Super-Essence Which Each of Them perfectly possesses, and so It passes forth from Them into a universe of Being.

Now the Godhead, while It is beyond all particular Being, yet contains and is the ultimate Reality of all particular Being; for It contains beforehand all the particular creatures after a manner in which they are ultimately identical with It, as seems to be implied by the phrase that all things exist in It fused and yet distinct. Thus although It is not a particular being, It in a transcendent manner contains and is Particularity. Again It is beyond all universal Being, for universals are apprehended by the intellect, whereas the Godhead is incomprehensible and therefore is described as “formless.” Nevertheless It contains and is the Ultimate Reality of all universals, for, even before the world was made, It eternally embraced and embraces all things and all the universal laws of their existence. Thus after a transcendent manner It contains and is Universality. And hence in Its transcendent Nature Universality and Particularity are contained as one and the same undifferentiated Fact.

But in this world of Being the particular and the universal aspect of things must be mutually distinguished. Otherwise there could, on the one hand, be no things, and on the other, no bond of unity between them. Hence, when the Super-Essence overflows in the act of creation, It runs, as it were, into the two main streams of Universal and Particular Being. Neither of these two streams has any independent or concrete existence. Taken separately, they are mere potentialities: two separate aspects, as it were, of the creative impulse, implying an eternal possibility of creation and an eternal tendency towards it, and yet not in themselves creative because not in themselves, strictly speaking, existent. Nevertheless these two streams differ each from each, and one of them has a degree of reality which does not belong to the other. Mere universal Being, says Dionysius, does not possess full or concrete existence; at the same time, since it is Being or Existence, he does not call it non-existent. Mere Particularity, on the other hand, he practically identifies with Non-entity, for the obvious reason that non-existence itself is a universal category (as applying to all existent things), and, therefore, cannot belong to that which has no universal element at all. Thus the universal stream is an abstract ideal and possesses an abstract existence, the particular stream is an abortive impulse and possesses no actual existence whatever. The one is the formal law of the existence universe, the other its rough material.

Thus these two emanating streams of potentiality have, from before all time, eternally welled forth and passed away, the universal into emptiness and the particular into nothingness, or rather, through nothingness back at once into the Super-Essence in a ceaseless revolution which, until the appointed moment arrives for Time and the temporal world to begin, leaves no trace outside Its Super-Essential Source and Dwelling and Goal. It is possible (though one cannot say more), that Dionysius is thinking especially of the difference between these two streams when he describes the various motions of the Godhead. The Particular stream of Emanation may be in his mind when he speaks of the circular movement, since the particular existences remain within the Super-Essence, until the moment of their temporal creation: the Universal stream may be that of which he is thinking when he speaks of the direct and spiral movements, since both of these indicate an advance and would therefore be appropriate to express the out-raying tendency of that emanating Influence which, even before the particular creatures were made, had a kind of existence for thought as the other stream had not.

This Universal stream consists of currents or Emanations, Very Being, Very Life, etc. (αὐτοεῖναι, αὐτοζωή, κ.τ.λ.), and of these currents some are more universal than others; Very Being is, obviously, the most universal of all. And since the Super-Essence transcends and so absorbs all Universality, it follows that the more universal the Emanations are the higher is their nature. This stream, in fact, runs, as it were, in the channel which our thought naturally traces; for thought cannot but seek for universals, and the abstract and bloodless tendency of mere Philosophy comes from an undue exaltation of thought over life. From this defect, however, Dionysius is free. For, while he holds that the highest Emanation is the most universal, he also holds (as was seen) that the Emanations are in themselves the mere background of existence and are not fully existent. And he expressly says that while the Emanations become more and more universal the higher we ascend towards their Source, the creatures become more and more individual and particular the higher they rise in the scale. The reason is, of course, that the Super-Essence transcends and absorbs all Particularity as well as all Universality; and hence it is that particular things become particularized by partaking of It, just as universals become universalized by a similar process. But of this more anon.

This Universal stream of Emanations thus eternally possesses a kind of existence, but it is an empty existence, like the emptiness of mere light if there were no objects to fill it and be made visible. The light in such a case would still be streaming forth from the sun and could not do otherwise, and therefore it would not be an utter void; but it would be untenanted by any particular colour or shape. Suppose, however, that the light could be blotted out. There would now remain the utter void of absolute darkness. Such darkness cannot exist while the sun is shining in the cloudless heavens; nevertheless the very notion of light cannot but be contrasted in our minds with that of darkness which is its absence; and so we conceive the light to be a positive thing which fills the darkness even as water fills a void. When the bowl is full of water, the void does not exist; and yet, since it would exist if the bowl could be wholly emptied; we can regard this non-existent void as the receptacle of the water.

Even so the Emanations of Very Being, etc., fill, as it were, a void which does not and cannot exist, since it is, and must be, saturated with them, and yet it is, by the very laws of our thinking, contrasted with them and would, in a manner, exist if the Emanations could cease to flow from the Super-Essence. They, streaming eternally (as they must) from that overflowing Source, permeate the whole boundless region of the world that is to be; a region beyond Time and Space. That region is thus their receptacle. The receptacle, if emptied of them (though this is impossible), would contain nothing, and be nothing whatsoever. Hence, it is called Not-Being, or the Non-Existent (τὸ μὴ ὄν).

So the two Streams flow timelessly without beginning and without end, and cross, but do not mingle: the Universal Stream perpetually advancing and the Particular Stream circling round and slipping through it, as it were, into the void of Nothingness (as a thing by its very nature invisible, would be in darkness even while surrounded by the light) and so returning into the Super-Essence without leaving a trace behind it. This activity, though it must be expressed thus in terms of Time, is really timeless and therefore simultaneous. For the Streams are not something other than the Super-Essence. They are simply distant aspects of It. They are the Super-Essence in Its creative activity. As the river flowing out of a lake consists of the water which belongs to the lake, or as the light and heat flowing from the sun are the same light and heat that are in the sun, so the emanating Streams are the same Power that exists in the Super-Essence, though now acting (or striving to act) at a distance. Or perhaps we may compare the Super-Essence to a mountain of rich ore, the inward depths of which are hidden beyond sight and touch. The outer surface, however, is touched and seen, and this corresponds to the Persons of the Trinity; while the same mountain viewed at a distance is the Stream of Universal Emanation. And though the view becomes dimmer and dimmer the farther away you go, yet it is always the same mountain itself that is being viewed. The Particular Stream, on the other hand, is like the same mountain when invisible at night, for the mountain still sends forth its vibrations, but these are lost in the darkness.

Or we may compare the Super-Essence to a magnet and the Persons of the Trinity to its tangible surface, and the two emanating Streams to the positive and negative magnetism which are simply the essence of the magnet present (so to speak) at a distance. Even so (but in a manner which is truer because non-spatial) the Super-Essence is in the emanating streams outside the Super-Essential plane and thus interpenetrates regions which are remote from Itself. It is both immanent in the world as its Principle of Being and outside it as transcending all categories of Being. This contradiction is implied in the very word “Emanation” (πρόοδος) which means an act by which the Super-Essence goes forth from Itself. And, in fact, Dionysius more than once definitely says that the Super-Essence actually passes outside of Itself even while It remains all the time wholly within itself: This he expresses in one place by saying that the act of Creation is an ecstasy of Divine Love. This thought is vital to his doctrine, and must be remembered whenever in the present attempt to expound him, the Super-Essence is spoken of as “outside” the creatures. The Super-Essence is not, strictly speaking, external to anything. But It is “outside” the creatures because (as existing simultaneously on two planes) It is “outside” itself. And therefore, although the entire plane of creation is interpenetrated by It, yet in Its ultimate Nature It is beyond that plane and so “outside” it. Finite creatures though filled (according to their measure) with Its Presence, yet must, in so far as they are finite, look up to It as That which is Other than themselves. And, in this sense of being Other than they are, It must be described as “outside” them, even though (as their Principle of Being) It is within them.

Thus the two emanating streams, though they pass outside of the Super-Essence, yet actually are the Super-Essence Itself. And, in fact, the very term Emanation (πρόοδος) like the collateral term Differentiation (διάκρισις) may even be applied not only to the two Streams but also to the Persons of the Trinity; not only to the Magnets radiating Energy, so to speak, but also to its actual Surface.

This matter needs a few words of explanation.

There is in the undifferentiated (ὑπερηνωμένη) Super-Essence a Differentiation between the Three Divine “Persons,” which Dionysius compares to the distinction between different flames in the same indivisible brightness. And Each “Person” is an Emanation because Each is a Principle of outgoing creative Energy. There is also a Differentiation between the various qualities and forces of the creative Energy, rather as (if we may further work out the simile of Dionysius) the light seen afar through certain atmospheric conditions is differentiated into various colours. And each quality or force is an Emanation, for it is an outgoing current of creative Energy. Or, by a slightly different use of language, the entire creative process in which they flow forth may be called not merely a collection of emanations but simply “the Emanation.” Thus an Emanation may mean, (1) a Person of the Trinity; (2) a current of the Universal Stream (e.g., Very Being, or Very Life, etc.); (3) a current of the Particular Stream (i. e. a particular force); (4) the entire process whereby the two Streams flow forth. This sounds confusing, but the difficulty vanishes if we classify these various meanings under two heads, viz.: (1) an Emanating Principle (i. e. a “Person” of the Trinity), and (2) an Emanating Act (whether regarded as a whole or in detail). This classification covers all its uses.

These two heads, in fact, correspond exactly to the two main uses of the word “Differentiation” as applying respectively to the Super-Essential sphere and to the sphere of Being. And here Dionysius certainly does cause needless difficulty by employing the same word “Differentiation” with these two distinct meanings in the same passage. The Persons of the Trinity are differentiated, but the Energy streaming from them is undifferentiated in the sense that it comes indivisibly from them all. In another sense, however, it is differentiated because it splits up into separate currents and forces. Each of these currents comes from the Undivided Trinity, and yet each current is distinct from the others. Dionysius expresses this truth by saying that the Godhead enters Undivided ly into Differentiation, or becomes differentiated without loss of Undifference (ἡνωμένως διακρίνεται).

Let us follow this creative process and see whither it leads. The Super-Essence, as It transcends both Non-Existence and Existence, also transcends both Time and Eternity. But from afar It is seen or felt as Existence and as Eternity. That is to say Existence and Eternity are two emanating modes or qualities of the Universal Stream. The Particular Stream, on the other hand, is Time-non-existent as yet and struggling to come to the birth but unable to do so until it gain permanence through mingling with Eternity. At a certain point, however (preordained in the Super-Essence wherein Time slumbered), the two streams not only cross but actually mingle, and thus Time and the temporal world begin. The Particular stream no longer sinks wholly through the Universal, but is in part supported by it. Hence the world of things arises like a substance hitherto invisible but now becoming visible, and so, by this change, springing out of darkness into light.

Now, when the Particular stream begins to mingle with the Universal, it naturally mingles first with that current of it which, being most universal, ranks the highest and so is nearest the Source. It is only along that current that it can advance to the others which are further away. And that current is Being (αὐτοεῖναι). Thus the world-process begins (as Dionysius had learnt from Genesis and from the teaching of Plato) as the level of dead solid matter, to which he gives the name of “merely existent” (οὐσιωδής). Thence, by participating more and more in the Universal stream, it advances to the production of plant and animal and man, being by the process enriched with more and more qualities as Life (αὐτοζωή), Wisdom (αὐτοσοφία), and the other currents of the Universal stream begin to permeate it one by one.

Thus the separate individuals, according to the various laws (λόγοι) of their genera and species, are created in this world of Time. And each thing, while it exists in the world, has two sides to its existence: one, outside its created being (according to the sense of the word “outside” explained above), in the Super-Essence wherein all things are One Thing (as all points meet at infinity or as according to the neo-Platonic simile used by Dionysius, the radii of a circle meet at the centre), and the other within its own created being on this lower plane where all things are separate from each other (as all points in space are separate or as the radii of the circle are separate at the circumference). This paradox is of the very utmost importance.

The various kinds of existences being now created in this world of time, we can regard them as ranged in an ascending scale between Nothingness and the Super-Essence, each rank of being subsuming the qualities of those that lie below it. Thus we get the following system in ascending order: Existence, Life, Sensation, Reason, Spirit. And it is to this scale that Dionysius alludes when he speaks of the extremities and the intermediate parts of the creation, meaning by the extremities the highest and the lowest orders, and by the intermediate parts the remainder.

The diminution of Being which we find in glancing down the ladder is, Dionysius tells us, no defect in the system of creation. It is right that a stone should be but a stone and a tree no more than a tree. Each thing, being itself however lowly, is fulfilling the laws of its kind which pre-exist (after a transcendent manner) in the undifferentiated Super-Essence. If, however, there is a diminution of Being where such diminution has no place, then trouble begins to arise. This is, in fact, the origin and nature of evil. For as we ascend the scale of Being, fresh laws at each stage counteract the laws of the stage below, the law of life by which the blood circulates and living things grow upwards counteracting the mere law of inert gravitation, and again, the laws of morality counteracting the animal passions. And where this counter-action fails, disaster follows. A hindered circulation means ill-health, and a hindered self-control means sin. Whereas a stone is merely lifeless, a corpse is not only lifeless but dead; and whereas a brute is un-moral, a brutal man is wicked, or immoral. What in the one case is the absence from a thing of that which has no proper place in it, is in the other case the failure of the thing’s proper virtues.


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