The transcendent Deity, states St Dionysius the Areopagite, is beyond all naming, for it exists beyond differentiation and intelligibility, beyond being and beings, surpassing classification, taxonomy, and categories, even thought itself. “It is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, the totality of existence” (The Divine Names I.5). Yet the baptized nonetheless dare to name the unnameable One in its processions. Divinity has ecstatically moved outside itself into multiplicity and finite self-expression. In the otherness of creation, the divine Good, “transcendent Goodness transcendently there,” has given itself to our apprehension and thought:
This Godhead is granted as a gift to all things. It flows over in shares of goodness to all. And it becomes differentiated in a unified way. It is multiplied and yet remains singular. It is dispensed to all without ceasing to be a unity. Since God is a “being” in a way beyond being, he bestows existence upon everything and brings the whole world into being, so that his single existence is said to be manifold by virtue of the fact that it brings so many things to being from itself. He remains one amid the plurality, unified throughout the procession, and full amid the emptying act of differentiation. Transcendently he surpasses the being of everything, even in the unique leading of all things into being and in the ceaseless flow of his undiminishing bounties. (DN II.11)
In his treatise the Areopagite analyzes multiple appellations of the unnameable God. At the top of the list is “the most important name, ‘Good,’ which shows forth all the processions of God” (DN III.1). The sacred writers have exalted this name above all other names, he tells us: “They call the divine subsistence itself ‘goodness.’ This essential Good, by the very fact of its existence, extends goodness into all things” (DN IV.1). “Good” signifies the One’s erotic movement into creation. It thus comprehends within itself the other divine names. As Eric Perl puts it: “all being is the ‘unfolding’ of the Good, and the Good is the ‘enfolding’ of all being” (Theophany, p. 37). God is Good, because he has eternally determined himself to be creative overflowing. God is Good, because he pre-contains and causes the perfections of creaturely being. God is Good, because all beings depend upon him for their existence. God is Good, because all things desire and move toward him as their good and end. Fran O’Rourke elaborates:
In its first metaphysical significance, therefore, it is as its own infinite and subsistent plenitude, wholly autonomous and self-sufficient, that the Absolute is uniquely and exclusively called the Good. In the order of knowledge, however, the transcendent Good is disclosed only as origin of goodness in beings. It is superior to Being as its originating principle and as such embraces within its superabundance all the perfection of beings. For Dionysius God is the unlimited essence of Goodness, the One and Beautiful, who transcends all Being and embraces within his unity and simplicity the fullness of perfection manifested partially and disparately throughout the universe. (Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, pp. 66-67)
By their participation in the Good, all creatures image and manifest the divine Goodness. All creatures know the Good, for all desire and seek the Good. This is most evident in the teleological and purposive activities of intelligent beings; but like his fellow Neoplatonic philosophers, Dionysius sees all beings as drawn toward the Good as their final cause, according to their respective natures and capacities:
The Good returns all things to itself and gathers together whatever may be scattered, for it is the divine Source and unifier of the sum total of things. Each being looks to it as a source, as the agent of cohesion, and as an objective. The Good, as scripture testifies, produced everything and it is the ultimately perfect Cause. In it “all things hold together” [Col 1:17] and are maintained and preserved as if in some almighty receptacle. All things are returned to it as their own goal. All things desire it: Everything with mind and reason seeks to know it, everything sentient yearns to perceive it, everything lacking perception has a living and instinctive longing for it, and everything lifeless and merely existent turns, in its own fashion, for a share of it. (IV.4)
As a spring gushes forth with water, generating streams, rivers, and lakes, so the Good propels finite beings into existence in an eternal act of self-differentiation, simultaneously summoning them to unity and perfection in himself. The Good is cause and source, goal and end. While all names fail to properly express the ineffable Creator, yet “Goodness” may be said to be less improper than others.
Denys is particularly fond of the sun as a “distant echo of the Good” (DN IV.4). Not only does the sun illumine the world, but by its radiating rays it brings to birth living beings. Marcilio Ficino beautifully expounds upon the metaphor:
No existing thing relates to the nature of the Good more than light. First, in the class of sensibles, light appears as the purest and most eminent. Second, of all things it is most easily dilated and fully so in a moment. Third, it meets all things harmlessly and penetrates them, being the lightest and softest of all. Fourth, it carries heat with it, the kindly heat that nurtures all things and generates and moves them. Fifth, while it is present to, and present in, all things, it is neither tainted by anything nor mingled with anything.
Similarly, the Good itself is more eminent than the whole order of things. It is dilated to the full. It caresses and attracts all. It does not compel. It has love everywhere accompanying it like heat, the love by which single things are everywhere enticed to and gladly receive the Good. Though everywhere most present in the wombs of things, light has no commerce at all with them.
Finally, just as the Good is immeasurable and ineffable, so is light or almost so. For no one of the philosophers has defined it up till now, so that nothing seems clearer anywhere than light, and again nothing more unclear, just as the Good is both the most known of all, and equally the most unknown. (On Dionysius the Areopagite, I:317)
To better understand Dionysius’s understanding of metaphysical goodness, Perl suggests we need to acquaint ourselves with Proclus’s difficult formulation of causality: remaining, procession, and reversion.
Remaining: “the enfolding or undifferentiated containment of the effects in, or rather as, the cause. Remaining is the identity of the effect with the cause, in the sense that the content of the effect is nothing but the undifferentiated presentation of the cause” (Perl, pp. 37-39). Perl calls this a Neoplatonic law: an effect is pre-contained in its cause and is thus always metaphysically “less” in the vertical hierarchy of being (see Proclus, Elements of Theology, props. 7, 24, 28, 30). Fire, for example, causes heat. We may speak of the heat as preexisting in the fire; otherwise it could never be its effect. Scientific explanations of change do not obviate the Neoplatonic insight.
Procession: “the unfolding or differentiation whereby the effects are different from each other and therefore from the cause, and so exist at all as distinct, determinate beings, as effects” (Perl, p. 38). If an effect did not proceed from its cause, it would be indistinguishable from it and thus would not be an effect. Only by proceeding does it become different from its cause (see Proclus, props. 30, 31). Like causes like, yet differently.
Reversion: “the relation of the effect to the cause as its end, or goodness. Since the causal determination of any thing is its way of being good, it is the end toward which the effect tends, and this tendency of anything toward its cause as the good for it is its reversion” (Perl, p. 38). The goods which beings seek are metaphysically determinative. Thus Proclus: “For if it should proceed, indeed, but should not return to the cause of this progression, it would not desire its cause. For everything which desires is converted to the object of its desire. Moreover, every thing desires good, and to each thing the attainment of it is through the proximate cause. Every thing, therefore, desires its cause: and the cause of being to any particular thing is likewise the cause of well-being (good) to it. But desire is primarily directed to the cause of well-being: and conversion or return is to that to which desire primarily tends” (prop. 31).
Proclus provides us with three different angles by which to analyze the causal relation. Remaining and procession make an obvious kind of sense, but reversion needs definite unpacking. Moderns do not typically think in terms of final causality. Pauliina Remes offers a helpful summary:
In Neoplatonic metaphysics, being an entity distinguishable from others requires two things: the production of something other than the cause or source; and the establishing of this something as a thing with its own characteristics. This is done by the conversion of the production towards its source, which is not only the effective cause of the product but also its final cause: that at which it aims (e.g. Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 34). One might claim that the conversion establishes the new identity in three ways. First, the bare act of reverting is already, as it were, a change of the course given to the thing by its source. Thus, by reverting the product gains a characteristic that the mere external activity or procession from the source did not embody. Secondly, because the conversion is a result of a desire towards the source, the thing generated must somehow be, as it were, conscious of its separation from the source. In desiring to go back towards the source, the production, so to speak, acknowledges itself as a distinguishable thing. Thirdly, in conversion, the thing creates its own interpretation of its source. In turning to look back on its source from some distance, in a certain manner it analyses, breaks down or dissects its source, thus giving rise to a new level of reality with its own characteristics. The later Neoplatonists called this process that of self-constitution (the emergence of self-constituted entities, authupostata). Note again that all the phases in the cycle rest–procession–reversion are atemporal, non-spatial and immaterial. The temporal and spatial vocabulary strives to explicate ontological relations, and especially the priority, posteriority and dependence relations. (Neoplatonism, p. 52)
Recall the project of ancient philosophy—to explain the unity and multiplicity of the world, the one and the many. Neoplatonic philosophers propose a hierarchy of causality, from complex corporeal entities to the simpler intelligibles and finally to the infinitely simple source and cause. At each level they see this threefold causality at work—not a multi-stepped process but one atemporal, simultaneous, and dynamic act. In procession the higher principle or being differentiates itself as effect and appearance; in reversion the effect looks upward to its source as its good and receives its distinctive character and features. Hence procession is neither temporally nor logically prior to reversion. The effect does not come first come to be and then revert to its cause; for it is by its reversion that it acquires its determination and thus comes to be. As Perl explains: “Reversion, no less than procession, is constitutive of the effect, in that the very existence of anything consists not only in its proceeding from but also in its reverting to its cause” (p. 38). To proceed is to revert; to revert is to proceed.
Dionysius presupposes the Neoplatonic understanding of causality, and it comes to word in multiple places in The Divine Names. “All being derives from, exists in, and is returned toward the Beautiful and the Good” (DN IV.9; cf. Proclus, prop. 35). An ontological synergism is built, as it were, into the act of creation. The Good does not first make beings, which subsequently respond to him in their autonomy (a Pelagian metaphysics). The Good generates beings oriented to the Good, drawn to the Good, always moving toward the Good. We are desire for the Good and only thus do we exist:
As in Plotinus and Proclus, then, a being’s reversion to God is productive of the being no less than its procession from him. Since procession and reversion are in reality the same relation of dependence, a thing’s being made to be by God is not in any sense prior to its desire for him. Rather, the generation of the being consists in its tending toward God no less than in its coming from him. This reversion, as the activity of the being, is the being’s share in its own being made to be. As in Plotinus and Proclus, the product has an actively receptive role in its production, and if it does not exercise this activity it cannot exist. For Dionysius, God cannot make beings without their active cooperation, for without that activity they would not be anything. In every being, including animals, plants, and inanimate things, there is an element of “interiority,” of selfhood, an active share in its own being what it is and so in its own being. At the level of rational beings, this interiority takes the form of self-consciousness, of personhood and freedom. But the principle that any being’s reversion is creative of it means that there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality, even in inanimate things. For without this active selfhood, a thing would have no unifying identity, it would not be this one distinct thing, and so would not be at all. (p. 42)
All beings come from the Good and return to the Good and only thus are. The act of divine creation includes simultaneously both the downward and upward movements. Alexander Earl shared with me the following helpful illustration: consider what happens when you look into a mirror. You cast your image upon a plate of glass (procession). The glass, in its turn, captures you and reflects you back (reversion). It “desires” to do so; otherwise it would not be a mirror. And finally, the cause (you standing before the mirror and thus causing the image) remains in its integrity (remaining). Now recall my earlier article on theophany. In the act of creation the infinite, simple, and immutable Deity communicates himself in the modality of finitude. From soup to nuts, all of creation is theophany, icon, manifestation, presentation of the one eternal Creator. This is what it means to be a creature in the Dionysian vision—namely, to be reflection and mirror, symbol and image. “In Dionysios,” writes Perl, “to be is to be a symbol” (“Symbol, Sacrament, and Hierarchy,” p. 320).
Yet another dimension beyond the Neoplatonic metaphysics is at work in the Corpus Dionysiacum which philosophical analysis alone does not disclose. The writings of the the Areopagite are suffused with the breath of deification and the eschatological transfiguration given in the Eucharist of the Church and promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have to believe that the Christian monks who read his writings or heard them read would have quickly detected these specifically Christian notes, even if they were unlettered in the philosophy of Proclus. In his ninth letter, Dionysius reminds Titus, and us, of the feasts of the saints in the kingdom of God:
The the King himself will come, it says, and “have them sit at table and will serve them” [Lk 12:37]. What this indicates is a certain common and harmonious sharing by the saints in the good things of God, an “assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven and the spirits of the just men made perfect” [Heb 12:23]. We must think of the leading to the table as the rest from numerous labors, as a life without toil, as a commerce with God in light and in the land of the living, as a fullness of sacred joy, as the unstinted supply of everything blessed and good by means of which one is replete with happiness. It is Jesus himself who gladdens them and leads them to the table, who serves them, who grants them everlasting rest, who bestows and pours out on them the fullness in beauty.
Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.