Dionysian Ponderings: Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One

Engraving by Dionysius Andreas Fischer for Collected Works of Jakob Böhme

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Divine Names by St Dionysius the Areopagite is his discussion of divine creation—or perhaps more accurately (or not), divine emanation. Dionysius was greatly influenced by the writings of Neoplatonic philosophers, particularly, Plotinus and Proclus. As we saw in “Transcendence and the Plotinian One,” Neoplatonists taught that to be is to be intelligible, and intelligibility necessarily entails finitude and identifying characteristics, a determinative “this.” In the absence of determinativeness, a being is inapprehensible, indistinguishable, ungraspable, and therefore unavailable to thought—and that which is unavailable for thought does not exist. Unintelligible being, in other words, is a metaphysical impossibility. In sum: to be is to be intelligible and therefore determinate; to be is to be determinate and therefore intelligible. Plato puts it simply: “That which altogether is is altogether knowable, while that which in no way is is in no way knowable” (Republic 477a2-3). But what exactly makes something knowable? At this point we come to the Platonic notion of forms. Eric Perl explains:

What is real, for Plato, is the “looks” that sensible things display to the mind, the universal natures or ‘whatness’ that characterize them and can be definitively grasped in thought. The forms, and only the forms, are ‘really real,’ precisely because they and only they are altogether intelligible. Form is ‘what is there for thought.’ (Theophany, p. 6)

A Platonic form is the intelligible nature, present in many things, by which they are such things. As such a nature, it is at once immanent in and transcendent to the instances that participate in it. It is immanent, in that it is present in them as the nature or character by which they are such instances; and it is transcendent, in that, as one and the same nature in many different instances, it is other than and unconditioned by each and all of them … The form’s transcendence is thus a strict implication of its immanence. The instances depend on the form to be such as they are, while the form, as a unitary intelligible nature capable of appearing in many instances, is independent of them. The instances, so to speak, owe everything to the form, as that by which they are what they are, while the form, as the nature which, by appearing in them, makes them what they are, owes nothing to the instances. (pp. 19-20)

Within the multiplicity of the cosmos, each existent possesses its own particular unity or oneness. An orange coheres with its various properties to make one entity. Without this integral wholeness it would not be an orange (indeed would not be anything) and thus would not be a being amongst beings. Oneness, therefore, enjoys metaphysical priority: “without oneness” as Pauliina Remes explains, “nothing can exist: what is, is one, and without oneness it is impossible to conceive of the many” (Neoplatonism, p. 38). Thus the great task of ancient philosophy—to explain the one and the many.

Neoplatonic philosophers analyzed the oneness and multiplicity of beings through the category of causality: that which determines a thing to be what it is and thus distinct from others is the ontological cause of that thing. We should not think of a horizontal causation, as when a rockslide causes a house to tumble-down a mountain, but a metaphysical ordering of priority and posteriority: that is to say, “a ‘vertical’ causation of a lower ontological level by a higher one, as when we say that the intelligible form Fire (i.e. ‘fierinesss’) is the cause of sensible fires in that it makes them to be what they are, to be fires and so makes them to be” (pp. 17-18). Platonic causality = atemporal ontological dependence. Neoplatonists traced this dependence of sensible beings and metaphysical hypostases in a vertical chain of causes, ultimately terminating with the One (Hen; also “God” [theos]) at the top rung of the ladder. “The One is the absolutely simple first principle of all,” states Lloyd Gerson. “It is both ‘self-caused’ and the cause of being for everything else in the universe.” As the ultimate and final explanation for all that is, the One cannot contain multiplicity or composition; otherwise it would itself need a metaphysical accounting. The One is formless, without determination, transcending being and rationality, unconditioned, fully actual, and infinite in its power to generate. Not one something, but, as Plotinus puts it, “one without the ‘something;’ for if it were some one, it would not be the One itself” (Enneads V.3.12.51–53). If the One were a being, even a supreme being, it could not be the absolute enabling condition for the existence of beings. Relationships of dependence lead to the ultimate unity beyond being (see Eric Perl’s illuminating essay on Plotinus in Thinking Being).

Between the One and the world of sensible entities, Plotinus posits two hypostases—Intellect and Soul. The One generates the totality of beings, but its immediate generation is the Intellect, which in turn generates the Soul. Proclus and others devised more complex systems; but all identified the One as the final cause and ultimate source of being. In the words of Plotinus:

It is by the one that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings and those which are in any sense said to be among beings. For what could anything be if it was not one? For if things are deprived of the one which is predicated of them, they are not those things. (Enneads VI.9.1.1–4 )

We should not think, Perl warns, of the causing of the cosmos as a process, like a factory assembly line. The Neoplatonic philosophers are engaged in analysis of the metaphysical structure of reality:

According to Plotinus, to call the One “cause” means only that being, qua determinate, is dependent. At every level, indeed, Plotinian “emanation” or “procession,” the production or causation of a lower level of reality by a higher, is nothing but the dependence of what is determined on its determination. (Theophany, p. 19)

Scholars often refer to the intermediate beings as hypostases, but Remes suggests they are best understood as explanatory principles: “They are (i) basic principles of explanation or fundamental explanatory categories; (ii) paradigms imitated by the lower levels and entities; and (iii) causes that actually generate everything there is” (p. 48). Recall the Platonic view of participation elaborated above: a sensible entity participates in its form, which is both immanent in and transcendent to it. Form makes things what they are, and what they are are the appearance of the form. Thus Plotinus:

But now we must speak more precisely and not assume that the Form is spatially separate and then the Idea is reflected in matter as if in water, but that matter, from every side grasping (and again not grasping) the Idea, receives from the Form, over the whole of itself, by its drawing near to it all that it can receive, with nothing between. (VI.5.8.13-21)

The archetype is present in all of its instantiations but in differentiated mode. Hence we may think of empirical entities as the images, presentations, or appearances of intelligible forms:

As appearances, sensible things are not beings additional to the forms and so do not constitute another “world.” An appearance of a being—e.g., to use a Platonic analogy, a reflection in a mirror—is not another being: when a man stands before a mirror making a reflection, there is still only one man there. But to say that sensibles are appearances is not to say that they are illusions, or not real at all. An appearance of a real thing is not the real thing itself, nor is it another real thing, but neither is it nothing. When we see a reflection, we are not seeing nothing, or suffering a hallucination; nor are we seeing something other than what is being reflected. In seeing the appearance, we are seeing the real thing, as it appears; and yet we are not seeing the real thing itself (as Plato would say, “itself by itself”) at all. An appearance is and is not that which appears. It is in just this sense that since the forms are that which is, sensibles, as appearances of the forms, both are and are not, or are “in between” being and non-being (Republic 478d5-11) … The difference between intelligible forms and sensible instances is the difference, not between two kinds of reality, but between reality and appearance. (Theophany, p. 20)

When translated into the language of ontological causality, we may say that effects preexist in their causes, and causes are simultaneously present in their effects.

It’s easy to get lost in all of this. I keep asking myself, where’s the One and what’s it doing? It’s at the top of the metaphysical pyramid as the undetermined determination of all that exists. But that doesn’t mean that the One is “distant” from the entities at the bottom. The relationship between the One and beings is not competitive, as if it has to move aside to allow beings to exist:

The last and lowest things, therefore, are in the last of those before them, and these are in those prior to them, and one thing is in another up to the First, which is the Principle. But the Principle, since it has nothing before it, has not anything else to be in; but since it has nothing else to be in, and the other things are in those which come before them, it encompasses all the other things. (Enneads V.5.9.6-10)

In its perfect simplicity and unity, the One “contains in itself, or better, is the undifferentiated containment of, all beings. Conversely, all that is found in the effects, and hence the effects themselves, are nothing but differentiated appearances of the cause” (Theophany, p. 25). Every being is determined in its nature and empirical reality, and by this determination is distinct from every other being—and by this same determination is distinguished from the One. Yet the One “is not other than all things, for the One, Plotinus says, ‘has no otherness’ (VI.9.8.32). All the otherness is on the side of being, for the otherness of being from the One consists not in the One’s being defined over against being, but the otherness, within being, of one being from another” (Theophany, pp. 25-26). Each being is an emanation and finite presentation of the One that is beyond being. Or put another way, the One unfolds itself as cosmos. “The One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing,” states Plotinus,” overflows, as it were, and its superabun­dance makes an other” (V.2.1.8-10). Language fails. We need to be particularly careful not to reify the One, to make it an entity, a something, as Perl says, “which both is, or is itself, and also appears and in that sense causes all things” (p. 27). The One is not a being that overflows; it is the Overflow. In the divine transcendence there is no is, only doing. The One is the act and energy of emanating—”the power of all things, present to all beings as that by which they are beings” (p. 45—I am tempted to invoke the language of the Ipsum Esse Subsistens). It’s hard to conceive a more intimate relationship between God and cosmos.

From this understanding of the One not as a producer but as the production of all things, it follows that beings are not additional to the One. If they were, then they would be distinguished from the One as beings from another being, thus reducing the One to a first being which produces other beings. Rather, being is the “trace,” “image,” and “expression” of the One (V.5.5.14; V.5.5.23; V.1.6.45–46). That is to say, all being, all that is, is the appearance or showing forth of the One, the apprehension of the One in differentiated multiplicity. To be a being is to be one, to be an integral whole, in some distinct, determinate way. Each and every being, therefore, is not integrity, or the One, itself, but is a distinct, differentiated presentation of integrity, as the universal condition for being. It is a presentation, that is, is given to awareness, just in that it is differentiated, for determination and therefore mutual differentiation is what renders beings intelligible and makes them beings. Every being, then, in that it is a being, is a delimited presence of “the power of all things,” not the One itself but a differentiated presentation, a showing forth, of the One. All reality, therefore, as a multiplicity of mutually differentiated beings, is the manifestation and apprehension of the One. (Thinking Being, pp. 124-125)

To perceive anything, to grasp anything is to apprehend Deity in one of its differentiated manifestations. Plotinus offers the metaphor of ambient light that makes things visible:

For even the light of the sun which it has in itself would perhaps escape our sense of sight if a more solid mass did not lie under it. But if someone said that the sun was all light, one might take this as contributing to the explanation of what we are trying to say; for the sun will then be light which is in no form belonging to other visible things … This, then, is what the seeing of Intellect is like; this also sees by another light the things illuminated by that first nature, and sees the light in them; when it turns its attention to the nature of the things illuminated, it sees the light less; but if it abandons the things its sees and looks at the medium by which it sees them, it looks at light and the source of light. (V.5.7.13–23)

We do not see light—to look directly at the sun is to be blinded—what we see are the sensible realities which the light illumines. Analogously, the One is not a being of which we may catch a cognitive glimpse if we but search in the right place; it is the transcendent condition for the intelligibility and apprehension of beings. To attend to the pure light in itself requires a noetic asceticism, an abandonment, unknowing, of all things. This is the ultimate goal of the Plotinian quest—ecstatic union with the One (see John Bussanich, “Plotinus’s metaphysics of the One“).

Confused? Let’s make it even more confusing. Perl invites us to think of a circle. All things exist as points along the circumference. Now imagine the points moving simultaneously toward the center, with the circle becoming progressively smaller. When all points converge, the circle “blinks out”—”that is the One: not any thing, but the undifferentiated containment of all things” (Theophany, p. 25).

The One envelops all beings, contains all beings, appears in all beings; yet is neither a being nor the totality of beings. As Plotinus provocatively declares: “The One is absent from nothing and from everything” (VI.9.4). Yet further qualification is yet still necessary:

It is not enough, therefore, to say merely that the One is not anything, no being, none of beings. Taken by themselves, such expressions would imply that the One is simply nothing, that is, nothing by the privation of all intelligible content. Rather, the One is none of beings, that is, not any one thing, not by privation but by concentration, not any thing just as the undifferentiated containment of all things. Hence we must say, with Plotinus, not merely that the One is no thing, but that it is all things and no thing: “The One: all things and not even one; principle of all things, not all things, but all things transcendently [ἐκείνως]; for they so to speak occur there; or rather, they are not yet, but will be” (V.2.1.1–3). To say that the One is “all things transcendently” (literally, “therely,” that is, in the mode of the One) means that it is all things without distinction, and thus not as the multiplicity of distinct, determinate beings. The phrase “not yet, but will be” refers again to the absence of differentiation, such that qua in, or as, the One, all things are “not yet” themselves, “not yet” all things. The One, then, is not a mysterious ‘no-thing’ incoherently posited apart from or outside of all things. Rather, the One is not any thing just as the enfolding, the undifferentiated containment, of all things, and all things, all beings, in their determination, their intelligible distinction and multiplicity, are the unfolding, the differentiated presentation and manifestation of the One. (Thinking Being, pp. 127-128)

Plotinus’s understanding of the emanating One entails a consequence that will be of importance when we look at Dionysius’ understanding of divine creation—namely, the eternal existence of the cosmos. If the One is identical to its productive activity, then, as Perl notes, “being is not made through any ‘choice,’ ‘wish,’ or ‘motion’ on the part of the One” (Thinking Being, p. 124). The spatio-temporal universe exists necessarily. This puts Plotinus (and Dionysius?) in direct conflict with the patristic understanding of divine freedom and the world’s absolute beginning.

(Go to “The God Who is Theophany”)

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14 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One

  1. Jonathan says:

    I’m confused. The “eternal” existence of something is in no way the same as that something existing always. If time is part of the created “spatio-temporal” universe then, yes, technically the universe is without temporal beginning and without temporal end. This does not mean that it is uncaused, or that it is the same throughout its existence: a bang at one end and heat death at the other, for instance. The only way I can see to reasonably posit that the universe was created in time is to imagine that there is more than one kind of time, that time and space are not totally commensurable as they seem (now) to be. And I am wholly in favor of such a position. But it requires us not to talk about time univocally.


    • Jonathan says:

      My whole understanding of liturgical time — and I have this as much from a Jewish thinker like A J Heschel as from anyone in my own tradition — is that it offers a glimpse of cosmic time. And the whole beauty of the liturgical calendar aligning in various ways, depending on location, with the agricultural and astronomical seasons of the Earth is that it then becomes for us a link between cosmic time and earthly time.

      And then there are certain works of art, and even certain kinds of art like absolute music, that seem to function primarily as explorations and effoliations of the nuances of memory and time. My experience of music, particularly classical music but really all music, is very much an experience of number and of time that seems to transcend the ordinary physical description of these things. Or reading something like Proust’s work or poetry like the Four Quartets (note the musical reference!) — surely in such art we see that time is very mysterious, bound up more with consciousness than with space. There’s the familiar distinction between chronos and kairos, right? Well, chronos seems to be entirely of this world. I don’t see how the universe as we currently understand it can be said to have a chronological beginning and end: chronos lives and dies with this universe. But there was certainly a right time (kairos) for the creation of the universe — now what can we mean by saying a thing like that?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      St Thomas Aquinas believed that the eternity of the cosmos was a philosophically tenable position, even while acknowledging that the Latin Church teaches as divine revelation an absolute beginning of the cosmos (see William Carroll, “In the Beginning ….”

      Given my unsophisticated brain, I have long thought of the difference this way: if the world is eternal, then means that the past simply goes on and on and on; if the world has an absolute beginning, then at some point, as one is tracing one’s way through the past, one reaches a wall, beyond which there is no past, analogous to that singularity in the big bang theory where measurement and the laws of nature no longer apply. But that is just one man’s very simplistic way of thinking about it.


      • Jonathan says:

        I think that what I’m saying is that chronos-time is, according to modern physics anyway, not a quality but a quantity, and therefore finite. But if we are talking about a beginning and end of chronos-time, those termini cannot be located in chronos-time itself, just as there is no beginning and end within, say, a sphere or other geometrical figure, yet that figure is not infinite. But from the point of view of the sphere, so to speak, or of being inside the sphere, the answer to the question, “How much sphere is there?” is always going to be, “All that there is.” Chronos-time can only begin and end inside some other kind of time. From the point of view of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis) there answer to the question, “How much chronos-time is there?” is “As much as there is” or “A certain amount.” From the point of view of chronos-time, the answer to the question, “How much chronos-time is there?” has to be, “All that there is.” Does that make sense? We are dealing with something of a parallax here.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If I am reading this right, is what is being described is pantheism, with the One being the underlying unity of all things and all things being individual manifestations of the one underlying unity?
    In which case, I look forward to reading what Dionysius’s take on it is.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think it depends on how you define pantheism. The few Plotinus scholars I have read would say that Plotinus’s construal of the One is too transcendent to count as panetheism. Panentheism?


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        It’s the last two sentences of the last quote that put me in mind of pantheism rather than panentheism, in that it identifies the One as actually being the unity of all things, rather than simply being the ever- and immediately present source of it and being within and intimately and inextricably connected with it, as panentheism suggests as I understand it.


  3. spiltteeth says:

    Ok, well, taking the account of creation by Plotinus and DBH are pretty similar, emanation as reflections of God/The One, with the difference that for DBH God is triune, and He wills creation purposely into existence out of love, then what about Plotinus’s account for his theory of evil ?

    If emanation is not a gradual ontological diminishing, then why are material “reflections” flawed/evil ? I’d think because Plotinus believes they ARE lesser, not just ontologically secondary.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question. I don’t know the answer. I do hope to address the question of evil in Dionysius, as he discusses evil at great length in The Divine Names.


  4. Nathaniel Drake Carlson says:

    It may be time to break out some of Pierre Hadot’s excellent work on Plotinus. Also, in respect to Dionysius and negative theology, I’d be very interested in what you might think of Thomas Carlson’s Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God (FWIW, Desmond really liked it).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m afraid I’m not acquainted with Carlson’s book. Do you recommend it?

      Henry Karlson has been blogging on Dionysius for the past six months. The first article in the series is titled “Dionysius and the Transcendent Truth of God.”


      • Nathaniel Drake Carlson says:

        I do recommend it. It’s among the best books I’ve read on this subject actually. He’s known primarily as the translator of Jean-Luc Marion’s God without Being and he’s also a Hegel scholar (there’s plenty of that in this book). Thanks for the redirect to the Henry Karlson series, by the way; it really is excellent.


  5. Have any of you interacted with Eriugena? I read through the article on his thought over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and he seems to draw a lot off of Dionysius. Frankly, I was scratching my head over Eriugena, but I found the summary fascinating nonetheless.


    • Jonathan says:

      I’ve spent a good deal of time on Eriugena and think he’s mesmerizing. Dermot Moran has an excellent book on Eriugena, as does Deirdre Carabine. I’m not sure there’s a complete English version of the Periphyseon out there, though. The Periphyseon was more influentiak than for a long time people thought. There is a clear line of descent from Eriugena to Eckhart, and then from Eckhart to Cusa and so on. The question on my mind since Fr Aidan began this series, is: Who, if anyone, is the contemporary scion of the apophatic tradition?

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