St Dionysius is a Neoplatonist, which means that he teaches a metaphysics of participation. In general terms, David Schindler explains, “to speak of metaphysical participation is to say that one thing has what it is with and indeed after and in pursuit of, another: it has its reality, in other words, by virtue of something other than itself.” For Dionysius in particular, participation refers to the divine causal determination in things: created beings participate in God and thus receive their reality, yet God does not participate in finite beings and therefore remains unchanged. Divinity is “unparticipatedly participated” (DN II. 5)—between Creator and created there exists a relationship of asymmetrical dependence.
Dionysius is also a Christian, which means that he rejects subordinate metaphysical principles and divinities—hence the challenge of the Dionysian project. Missing from his writings are the Plotinian hypostases of Intellect and Soul. Missing also are the henads of Proclus, intermediate divinities that mediate between absolute unity and the multiplicities of the cosmos. To invoke the immortal words of the Highlander, there can be only One—one source, one cause, one transcendent ground. Dionysius decisively separates himself from polytheistic henology:
In a letter to me you once asked what I meant by being itself, life itself, and wisdom itself. You said you failed to understand why I sometimes call God “life itself” and sometimes “subsistence of life itself.” Therefore, sacred man of God, I have thought it necessary to solve your problem.
To repeat something frequently asserted already, to call God “life itself’ and “power itself” and then “subsistence of life itself,” “subsistence of peace itself,” “subsistence of power itself,” involves no contradiction. The former names are derived from beings, especially the primary beings, and they are given to God because he is the cause of all beings. The latter names are put up because he is transcendentally superior to everything, including the primary beings. “But,” you may say, “what is meant when we talk of being itself, life itself, and all those other things to which we ascribe an absolute and primary existence derived ultimately from God?” My answer is this. This is not something oblique, but is in fact quite straightforward, and there is a simple explanation for it. The absolute being underlying individual manifestations of being as their cause is not a divine or an angelic being, for only transcendent being itself can be the source, the being, and the cause of the being of beings. Nor have we to do with some other life-producing divinity distinct from that supra-divine life which is the originating Cause of all living beings and of life itself. Nor, in summary, is God to be thought of as identical with those originating and creative beings and substances which men stupidly describe as certain gods or creators of the world. Such men, and their fathers before them, had no genuine or proper knowledge of beings of this kind. Indeed, there are no such beings. What I am trying to express is something quite different. “Being itself,” “life itself,” “divinity itself,” are names signifying source, divinity, and cause, and these are applied to the one transcendent cause and source beyond source of all things. But we use the same terms in a derivative fashion and we apply them to the provident acts of power which come forth from that God in whom nothing at all participates. I am talking here of being itself, of life itself, of divinity itself which shapes things in a way that each creature, according to capacity, has his share of these. From the fact of such sharing come the qualities and the names “existing,” “living,” “possessed by divinity,” and suchlike. (DN XI.6; emphasis mine)
Out with the gods and in with the divine names—or more specifically, in with the intelligible divine names. The names denote Deity in its active determination of created beings. They are not, as Timothy Knepper remarks, “arbitrary signifiers that arbitrarily denote some arbitrary signified” (Negating Negation, p. 1). They are given in Scripture and the metaphysical structure of reality; they apply primarily to God as transcendent cause and secondarily to creatures. God is being for he creates being and beings; God is life for he bestows life on specific classes of beings; God is power for he gives the capacity to act; and so on. Denys contrasts the intelligible names (goodness, being, life, wisdom, power, unity) with perceptible symbols (fire, rock, water, oil). The former are divine causes; the latter divinely-caused effects, figuratively interpreted for the work of hierurgy and deification. Again Knepper: “They are divine processions that source and sustain the basic properties of the cosmos … Thus it is only because divine names are firstly and primarily causes of properties that those properties can be attributed to or denied of those beings that do or do not participate in them” (p. 1; also “Three Misuses of Dionysius“).
We know from earlier articles that Denys considers God as transcending all being and therefore all differentiated identification. He is called the Nameless One because he is not a kind of thing that can be named (see “Beyond the Beyond“). But from this we may not infer that the Areopagite therefore believes God to be an empty nothing. The properties which the intelligible names source (to use the language of Knepper) are precontained within God in his inexpressible simplicity:
And so it is that as Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is. Truly, he has dominion over all and all things revolve around him, for he is their cause, their source, and their destiny. He is “all in all” [1 Cor 15:28], as scripture affirms, and certainly he is to be praised a being for all things the creator and originator, the One who brings them to completion, their preserver, their protector, and their home, the power which returns them to itself, and all this in the one single, irrepressible, and supreme act. For the unnamed goodness is not just the cause of cohesion or life or perfection so that it is from this or that providential gesture that it earns a name, but it actually contains everything beforehand within itself—and this in an uncomplicated and boundless manner—and it thus by virtue of the unlimited goodness or its single all-creative Providence. Hence the songs of praise and the names for it are fittingly derived from the sum total of creation. (DN I.7)
If the divine names must be denied of God subsequent to affirmation, this is because they exist within him by way ineffable excess and concentration. Properties are only properly attributed to finite beings. The transcendent Deity exists beyond finitude, beyond goods and perfections, and therefore beyond intelligibility and nomination. He is named only by his self-communication in divine creation.
Knepper asserts that the divine names of Dionysius are functionally equivalent to the unifying henads of Proclus. He advances three arguments:
1) “Henads—literally, ones or units—pluralize the One (just as minds pluralize Mind and souls pluralize Soul); so too do divine names, which are processions from God that not only are unified and divine but also precede the further procession of God into the realm of mind (angels) and soul (humans)” (p. 27).
2) “Divine names are structured similarly to henads, both individually and collectively. As causes, Procline henads exist in three different respects: according to causation (kat aitan), subsistence (kath hyparxin), and participation (kata methexin); so too do Dionysian divine names, which, as hyper-prefixed, are precontained in and caused from out of God; as auto-prefixed, subsist from out of God; and as ōsis-suffixed, make themselves available to participating beings” (p. 28).
3) “Since Dionysian divine names not only process directly from the unparticipated first principle but also just are the first principle in a pluralized and participated form, they are spoken of as divine unities” (p. 28).
I admittedly know next to nothing about Proclus, but am happy to concede the similarities between the divine names of the Areopagite and the henads of Proclus. Dionysius clearly shares the Neoplatonic concern to ground the muliplicities of the cosmos in the unity of divinity. Who else but a philosopher is going to list greatness and smallness, sameness and difference, similarity and dissimilarity, rest, motion, equality among the appellations of the Creator. Denys may insist that he is simply drawing them from Scripture, but clearly his choices are driven by his metaphysical concerns. Yet Knepper’s thesis goes too far. He too quickly skips over an obvious difference between the henads and the divine names. For Proclus, as Edward Butler explains, the henads are “unique individuals and the real agents of the causality attributed to the One” (“The Gods and Being in Proclus,” p. 94; also see Butler, “Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold” and “The Intelligible Gods“). Yet in my reading of the Dionysian writings, I have never received the impression that the pseudonymous author considers the divine names as anything akin to real causal agents subsisting as subordinate entities. They are powers but powers of the One; processions and activities but always of the One.
For the truth is that everything divine and even everything revealed to us is known only by way of whatever share of them is granted. Their actual nature, what they are ultimately in their own source and ground, is beyond all intellect and all being and all knowledge. When, for instance, we give the name of “God” to that transcendent hiddenness, when we call it “life” or “being” or “light” or “Word,” what our minds lay hold of is in fact nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause being, bear life, and give wisdom. (DN II.7)
In The Divine Names the Areopagite is attempting nothing less than the Christianizing of Neoplatonic metaphysics (cf. Panagiotis Pavlos, “Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite on the Participation in the Good“). The divine names stand, as it were, at the interface between the uncreated and created. They name the metaphysical principles that inform the cosmos yet preexist in the triadic Deity who is “beyond be-ing beyond-beingly before all” (DN V.8). We probably should think of the intelligible names as verbs rather than nouns. In their own way they direct us to the infinite Creator who transcends the world and yet is nondualistically present in its depths.
My interpretation of Dionysius, though, may be skewed. I am reading him in translation and not in the original Greek (a huge handicap!) and attempting (and no doubt failing) to read him simultaneously as a metaphysician and as a monk steeped in the Eastern Fathers who faithfully prayed the Divine Liturgy and monastic offices.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, I believe, offers a more accurate (or at least more congenial) reading of the intent of the Areopagite:
The act by which God allows creation to share in his being, through which the world comes into being and in which it consists, is God himself, in whom each creature participates, as does each radius in the centre of the circle, or each mark of a seal in the original. But as a radius only subsists because of the centre and the mark only because of the seal, and yet the centre is not a radius, nor the seal a mark, we must speak of ‘participation, while not participating’: God’s primordial reasons are ‘participated in for all that they cannot be shared (mamethektos metechomena) [DN II.5]. The multiplication and differentiation of the participants is primarily a matter of ‘closeness’ and ‘distance’—that is admittedly a picture that reminds one of both Origen and Plotinus and yet is understood in the sense of neither—it is, always allowing the necessary deficiency of all being that is not divine, but also a matter of the determination and positioning of beings by God, who allots to each its being and essence ‘analogously’. The deliberate turning of God towards the creature is equally that in which it participates (the communicated God) and the truth of the creature; the ideas or paradigms are equally the predestinations [DN V.8] … One must simply guard against hypostatizing the metocha (the participated) as any sort of ‘gods’ or ‘world demiurges’ or ‘angelic essences’ (as did Proclus and the Gnostics)—in Denys’ theology they have therefore nothing to do with the angelic hierarchies—nor are they simply the archetypal ‘thoughts’ of God (as Augustine interpreted the Platonic ideas); rather, they are the genuine reality of the world itself, in so far as it consists of principles which share their reality with the individual essences that participate (metochonta), of which principles Denys indeed says that among themselves they stand in a relationship of participation, because Life Itself participates in Being Itself, and Wisdom Itself participates in both. (The Glory of the Lord, II: 186-187; emphasis mine)
Or as Alexander Golitzin succinctly states: “The intelligible names are not things, no longer have reference to objectively and independently existing entities, but are instead windows opening onto the sense—and reality—of God present in his powers or energies” (Mystagogy, p. 100).
But I am way out of my depths …