Ecstatic movement from the Good and Beautiful into the multiplicity of the good and beautiful, succeeded by joyful return to the Good and Beautiful. From God, in God, through God, to God. Abiding, procession, reversion; diffusion, illumination, union. Creation and consummation; theophany and theosis. Glory. Love. Bliss. The Dionysian vision, evoked in rhapsodic cadences and metaphorical invocations, captivates and delights, drawing us into the Mystery of the one God who is Holy Trinity:
To put the matter briefly, all being derives from, exists in, and is returned toward the Beautiful and the Good. Whatever there is, whatever comes to be, is there and has being on account of the Beautiful and the Good. All things look to it. All things are moved by it. All things are preserved by it. Every source exists for the sake of it, because of it, and in it and this is so whether such source be exemplary, final, efficient, formal, or elemental. In short, every source, all preservation and ending, everything in fact, derives from the Beautiful and the Good. Even what is not still there exists transcendentally in the Beautiful and the Good. Here is the source of all which transcends every source, here is an ending which transcends completion. “For from Him and through Him and in Him and to Him are all things” says holy scripture. (The Divine Names IV.10)
Why is it, however, that theologians sometimes refer to God as Yearning and Love and sometimes as the yearned-for and the Beloved? On the one hand he causes, produces, and generates what is being referred to, and, on the other hand, he is the thing itself. He is stirred by it and he stirs it. he is moved to it and he moves it. So they call him the beloved and the yearned-for since he is beautiful and good, and, again, they call him yearning and love because he is the power moving and lifting all things up to himself, for in the end what is he if not Beauty and Goodness, the One who of himself reveals himself, the good procession of his own transcendent unity? He is yearning on the move, simple, self-moved, self-acting, preexistent in the Good, flowing out from the Good onto all that is and returning once again to the Good. In this divine yearning shows especially its unbeginning and unending nature traveling in an endless circle through the Good, from the Good, in the Good and to the Good, unerringly turning, ever on the same center, ever in the same direction, always proceeding, always remaining, always being restored to itself. (DN IV.14)
Let us gather all these once more together into a unity and let us say that there is a simple self-moving power directing all things to mingle as one, that it starts out from the Good, reaches down to the lowliest creation, returns then in due order through all the stages back to the Good, and thus turns from itself and through itself and upon itself and toward itself in an everlasting circle. (DN IV. 17)
The classical understanding of divinity, with its talk of simplicity, atemporality, and immutability, is often caricatured in modern theology as static and immobile, indifferent to the sufferings and happiness of its creation—something like Aristotle’s prime mover, oblivious to the entities circling around it. St Dionysius’s vision of divinity is just the opposite. In infinite fecundity and energy, God is always moving, always acting, always expressing himself in erotic self-giving, always redeeming, always restoring, always wooing and drawing his good creation to himself in glorious consummation.
But then comes the inevitable question: whence and why evil? Or as Denys puts the question: “Granted that the Beautiful and Good is something yearned for, wished for, and loved by all … granted that the Beautiful and Good is all this, how is it that the multitude of demons has no wish for it and indeed is inclined to the material and is lapsed from the angelic condition of longing for the Good?” (DN IV.18). The same question may be asked of all beings, including matter. Why the hideousness and horror, the hatred and violence? Is evil endemic to the divine movement into finitude? Is the Creator responsible? “If there is any providence at all,” Dionysius continues, “how can it be that there is evil, that it comes to be, that it is not done away with?” (DN IV.18). His answer is direct and emphatic: “Evil does not come from the Good” (DN IV.19). Just as fire cannot cool us, he says, so God cannot produce anything contrary to his nature. The Good creates only good. Yet evil exists in the good world. It should not exist, yet does; and its presence cries out for explanation.
At this point Dionysius avails himself of the solution long advanced in the Platonic philosophical tradition and adopted by St Gregory of Nyssa and St Augustine of Hippo: evil can only be understood as a privation of reality and goodness:
Evil, then, is neither good nor productive of good, and everything is good to the extent that it draws near to the Good. Perfect goodness reaches out to all things and not simply to immediate good neighbors. It extends as far as the lowliest of things. In some beings it is present in full measure, to a lesser extent in others, and in the least measure in yet others. It is there in proportion to the capacity to receive it. Some share completely in the Good, others participate in it more or less, others have a slight portion only, and to others, again, the Good is but a far-off echo. The Good is present in proportion to capacity. This has to be so, for otherwise the most honored, the most divine things would be on the order with the lowliest. Anyway, how could all things share equally in the Good since not all are equally receptive to have a share? Yet “immeasurable greatness of his good power” [Eph 1:19] is shown by the fact that it gives power even to the very things lacking it, insofar as they participate in it. And, if we must speak the full truth, even the things that resist it owe their being and their capacity for resistance to its power. (DN IV 20)
It’s helpful here to recall our earlier discussion of procession and reversion: the emanation of being necessarily includes the active receptivity of beings. As Eric Perl explains: “Reversion represents existing as the activity of a being, of that which is: any being can be only by actively receiving its identifying determination, which is to say by performing the act-of-existing in its proper way, by enacting or ‘living out’ its constitutive nature” (Theophany, p. 40). Hence Denys’s insistence upon the necessity of the appropriation of goodness according to the creature’s synergistic capacity. Only insofar as beings actively participate in Being do they become beings. To the degree they fail to do so, they fail to achieve existence and therefore goodness. Evil is passivity, inactivity, nonperformance, failure. The Neoplatonic thesis presupposes the convertibility of goodness and being: to be is to be good—and vice versa. Consider the example of an intemperate person: “He is deprived of the Good in direct proportion to his irrational urges. To this extent he is lacking in being and his desire is for what has no real existence. Nevertheless he has some share in the Good, since there is in him a distorted echo of real love and of real unity” (DN IV.20). The privational construal of evil thus entails the logical consequence that pure evil cannot exist, for even the most wicked person shares in the good of being. “Nothing can be and be evil, insofar as it is,” notes Perl (p. 54). Even when a creature attempts to subvert the order and harmony of the cosmos, even when it seeks to murder God, it retains the original goodness of existence. A totally evil being would be devoid of all determinateness, intelligibility, and unity; it would be literally nothing:
What has fallen away totally from the Good can have no place among the things which are more or less good. Whatever is good in some respect and not in some other is in conflict with a particular good but not with the totality of the Good. It is protected by having within it some participation of the Good so that the Good gives substance to what lacks itself precisely for the [eventual] full share of itself. … And so it is that evil is not a being. (DN IV.30)
In other words, evil cannot enjoy a subsistence independent of the God who is love. It must be thought as enjoying a parasitic existence, a cancer that requires a host upon which to feed. Borrowing from Proclus, Dionysius calls it parhypostasis. Christian Schäfer elaborates:
All these problems, along with the question of the ontological status of evil as non-being and its effects on being, are approached with one (Proclean) definition that Dionysius presents in DN 720D: evil is a ‘parhypostasis,’ a bare ‘by-being’ as one might be tempted to translate, or a non-entity of mere secondary ontological claims, to paraphrase that helplessly untranslatable term that denominates the falling short of being ‘a being of and on its own’ (‘hypostasis’). It should be clear what Dionysius means by that; whatever ‘is’ or ‘has being’ is good precisely to the extent that it has being. Whatever should be totally deprived of good is deprived of being altogether and has therefore necessarily ceased to exist (DN 720B). There is nothing entirely or strictly evil (DN 721A) since total privation is ontologically impossible, and whatever is or can be ontologically ‘addressed,’ is good at least to a minimum measure. Evil cannot ‘be,’ nor be thought of, without presupposing good, and if we ‘define’ evil as ‘parhypostasis,’ we do exactly that, namely, we assume a hypostasis or ‘being on its own’ and ‘derogate’ or ‘lessen’ our concept of its wholesomeness by prefixing the par- (‘by-‘, as in ‘by-product,’ or ‘co-‘ as in co-optation). In doing so, we denote its dependence on a logically prior concept, but it is also, in an old metaphysical usage of the Greek prefix, a violation or transgression with an adversative sense … To sum up the more complex and exhaustive discussion in DN, evil per se does not exist and has no rightful ontological status whatsoever (DN 721B). It ‘appears’ or ‘manifests itself’ at the ontic level, however, where it parasitically deprives and/or depraves individual beings in one aspect or another, perhaps even in many, but it always still presupposes good as its host which it debases as a dangerously damaging ‘parhypostasis.’ (The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite, pp. 139-140)
And like every cancer, evil eventually devours its host, thus destroying its only means of survival.
We experience evil as a great power. It seems to have an irresistible and unconquerable dynamism of its own. Yet Dionysius sees in evil only weakness, defect, impotence, insubstantiality, a parhypostasis always poised to collapse into the void of its own nothingness:
The Cause for all good things is one. If, however, evil is contrary to the Good, then evil must have numerous causes. And it is not principles and power which produce evil but impotence and weakness and an inharmonious commingling of discordances. Evil things are not immobile and eternally unchanging but indeterminate, indefinite, and bearing themselves differently in different things. But the Good must be the source and the goal even of what is evil, for all things good and bad are for the sake of the Good. Even when we do wrong we do so out of our longing for it since there is no one who deliberately does wrong for the sake of wrong. Hence evil has no substance. It is opposed to substance since it comes into being not on its own account but for the sake of the Good.
We have to assume that evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so. Desire and event are clearly different. Thus, evil is contrary to progress, purpose, nature, cause, source, goal, definition, will, and substance. It is a defect, a deficiency, a weakness, a disproportion, a sin. It is purposeless, ugly, lifeless, mindless, unreasonable, imperfect, unfounded, uncaused, indeterminate, unborn, inert, powerless, disordered. It is errant, indefinite, dark, insubstantial, never in itself possessed of any existence. (DN IV.31-32)
“Never in itself possessed of any existence”—here again is that metaphysical nullity that perplexes and mystifies. If all activity is from God and of God and in God, then evil is a causeless nonactivity. Perl makes the striking, and baffling, point:
To look for the cause of evil is to ask why it occurs. But evil is not something that occurs, but not-something that does not occur. It is not an act of non-love, but a non-act of love. As we have seen, whatever any being does, it does for some cause, and that cause is a good. As a non-activity, evil is precisely what is not caused to happen and hence does not happen. Hence there can be no reason why a being fails fully to love God, i.e. to be. There there were such a reason, the “failure” would not be a failure but an activity, and as such not evil but good. “Everything which is according to nature comes about from a definite cause. If evil is without cause and indefinite, it is not according to nature” (DN IV.30, 732A). Everything that is, insofar as it is, is according to nature, is caused, and is good. The causelessness of evil, conversely, is one with the identification of evil as a thing’s not fulfilling its nature and so not fully being. (p. 62)
The theory of privation will hardly bring comfort to the victims of evil. For them its effects are all too real. Evil, as I wrote at the beginning of this article, cries out for explanation—yet none can be offered! Not only does evil not make sense, for it gains nothing for the evildoer, but it confronts us with a genuine aporia. Evil should not be, cannot be, yet is in parhypostatic nullity.
The Areopagite’s insistence that no one freely chooses evil for its own sake seems counter-intuitive. The Lucifer of Paradise Lost immediately comes to mind: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Yet deeper analysis proves the correctness of the Dionysian assertion. Every being desires the Good and Beautiful and seeks the Good and Beautiful, even when it sacrifices a greater good for the possession of a lesser or apparent good.
On Dionysius’s view, there can be no actual desire for evil and therefore no positive activity which is evil. Following a common tradition of Greek thought, he argues that all desire is for some good. “And if beings desire the Beautiful and Good, and do all the things they do on account of what seems good, and every goal of beings has the Good as its principle and end, for nothing does what it does with a view to the nature of evil, how will evil be among beings” (DN IV.19, 716C). In other words, whatever is desired is by definition regarded as good, for to desire something means to take it as one’s good. “No one does what he does with a view to evil” (DN IV.31). As the scholastics would say, anything is desirable only sub specie boni. Evil qua evil, as what is not good, has no attractive or motivating power and cannot be a goal, a purpose, an object of desire for anything. Evil, therefore, cannot be the cause of any activity. Rather, as we have seen, all the activities of all beings take place in desire for the Good: “All things, by desiring the Beautiful and Good, do and wish all things that they do and wish” (DN IV.10, 708A). In the absence of any good at which to aim, there is no desire and hence no activity whatsoever. (Perl, p. 60)
Or as the 15th century commentator on Dionysius, Marsilio Ficino, puts it: “The natural appetite of all entities and agents strives for the Good, both as the principle which moves the appetite and as the end in which the appetite finally comes to rest. Therefore no appetite strives for the bad for the reason it is bad. … It is impermissible, therefore, to imagine anything as essentially bad, for whatever is numbered in the order of essence seeks out its own good. To imagine what cannot desire goodness is just a fantasy” (On Dionysius the Areopagite, I:433).
Living in time under conditions of ignorance and scarcity, always faced with the threat of violence, suffering and death, we understand existentially both the attractiveness and possibility of sin. Even God seems to understand. From the Cross the incarnate Son declares: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The choice for evil, however, becomes utterly incomprehensible for angelic beings, who presumably were given to apprehend the Good directly and fully at the moment of their creation. If one knows beyond all doubt and deception that the Good is one’s only good, why choose anything else? Denys offers no solution. Of the angels all he can say is that “they have fallen away from the complete goodness granted to them” (DN IV. 23), even though the gifts bestowed upon them remain “brilliantly complete even if the demons themselves, through a failure of their powers to perceive the good, are not able to look upon them” (DN IV.23); and of human souls all he can suggest is a “deficiency in the domain of good habits and activities, a falling away from these because of innate frailty” (DN IV. 24). And regarding both he denies the destruction of their respective natures: “So, then, evil does not lie in the destruction of one’s own proper nature; the destruction of nature is in the weakness and deficiency of natural qualities, activities, and powers. … Thus, there is no evil nature, for this is evil to nature. Rather, evil lies in the inability of things to reach their natural peak of perfection” (DN IV.25-26). Even so, angels and souls remain morally responsible for their dereliction. “The Good, as scripture says, generously bestows such capacities on each as needed and, therefore, there can be no excuse for any sin in the realm of one’s own good, for any turning aside, any desertion, and lapse” (DN IV.35). The wicked may not appeal to their weaknesses to justify their sins, for the manifesting Creator is always beneficently active in their freedom, as their freedom:
Because God and the being which he makes are not two beings or selves defined over against each other, but rather God is the very selfhood of the being, there is no contradiction between being self-moved, or free, and being moved, or provided for, by God. The being’s self-motion, its freedom, is its participation in God, the “providential” presence of God in it. So, conversely, the being’s failure to move itself, to enact its nature, is its failure to be moved by God, i.e. to desire God, and so to be. (Perl, p. 61)
Therefore, Denys avers, “we should ignore the popular notion that Providence will lead us to virtue even against our will. Providence does not destroy nature” (DN IV.33). That would pit God against God. Yet has not Christ conquered the nothingness on the Cross?
The privational construal hardly satisfies as theodicy—that is its strength. Any justification of evil would render it intelligible and therefore good. Evil is fuliginous, opaque, aporetic, an impenetrable darkness and parhypostatic nullity. Our task is not to comprehend it. Our task is to flee from it, repent of it, and through knowing and unknowing seek communion with the One. “And so it is that all things must desire, must yearn for, must love, the Beautiful and the Good” (DN IV.10).
Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.