The Human Person as Icon of God

The Almighty God, Holy Scripture teaches us, created humanity in his Image; but precisely what this means is unclear. Theologians have offered various interpretations of the Imago Dei over the centuries, typically identifying a property or attribute mutually shared by divinity and mankind: the human being images God because he possesses the faculty of reason … or because he he has an immortal soul … or because ____. Staying within the framework of his personalist philosophy, Christos Yannaras locates the divine image in hypostatic identity: each human being sums up in himself human nature, but each also transcends (or at least has the potential to transcend) human nature “because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 19):

This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and natural necessity.

The reason for this is that human existence derives its ontological substance from the fact of divine love, the only love which gives substance to being. The creation of man is an act of God’s love: not of His “kindly disposition,” but of His love which constitutes being as an existential event of personal communion and relationship. Man was created to become a partaker in the personal mode of existence which is the life of God—to become a partaker in the freedom of love which is true life. (p. 19)

This passage raises an immediate question. Is it true that to be a person means freedom from “space, time and natural necessities”?  The Christian confession of bodily resurrection might suggest otherwise. What ever glorified corporeality means—and we cannot know until we have been raised into our new existence—it would seem to entail some manner of spatio-temporal existence, however inconceivable such may seem to us now. Yannaras discusses the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his Elements of Faith. Perhaps the following passage assuages any misgivings:

By his obedience to the Father’s will even to the point of death, Christ leads his human nature to the perfect renunciation of every demand for existential self-sufficiency, transposing the existence of nature into the relationship of love and freedom of obedience to God. And this nature which draws its existence from the relationship with God does not die because, even though created, it exists now in the manner of the uncreated, not in the manner of the created. Christ’s raised body is a material body, a created nature. But it differs from the bodies of other raised people because it exists now in the mode of the uncreated, the mode of freedom from every natural necessity. And so, while it is sensible and tangible, with flesh and bones (Lk 24.30), while it can take nourishment like all other bodies (and the risen Christ eats honey and fish before the eyes of his disciples [Lk 24.42]) and while the marks of the wounds which he received are obvious on him, still this same body enters the upper room “with the doors locked” (Jn 20.1) and vanishes at Emmaus after the breaking of the bread (Lk 24.31) and finally is received into heaven (Mk 16.19; Lk 24.51) enthroning the human “clay” in the glory of the divine life … The body of the risen Christ is the human nature free from every limitation and every need. It is a human body with flesh and bones, but which does not draw life from its biological functions, but is hypostasized in a real existence thanks to the personal relationship with God which alone constitutes it and gives it life. (pp. 115-116)

Returning to the Imago Dei

I am with Yannaras when he states that “human nature of itself cannot form a hypostasis of life” (Morality, p. 20). If we insist on life on natural terms, then we will only know death and nothingness. Only Divinity can bestow an existence that transcends the corruption and mortality of human nature. This is precisely what God has accomplished in the Incarnation and Resurrection. The eternal Son assumed, redeemed, transfigured, and glorified human nature. This is a traditional way of speaking. Would Yannaras be satisfied? Perhaps … yet I have a sneaking suspicion that he may be suggesting something different. If salvation means absolute liberation from nature, then  how does this not signify transubstantiation into pure subjectivity. (Angels are persons, too, right?) Philosophy meets theology meets science fiction.

All creatures, Yannaras states, derive their reality from the will and energy of God and are dynamic manifestations of the “creative principle of divine love. Man, however, derives his ontological hypostasis not simply from the will and energy of God, but from the manner in which God gives substance to being. This manner is personal existence, the existential potentiality for loving communion and relationship—the potentiality for true life” (p. 20). The human being fulfills his iconic destiny and becomes truly human only when he kenotically surrenders himself to God and neighbor, thereby realizing an eternal mode of love within the Holy Trinity.

(1 January 2015; mildly edited)

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“This mountain is the place of mysteries, this is the place of the unspeakable”

“How terrible is this place,” I will cry out on the Festival of the Mountain, joining myself to the Patriarch Jacob; for like him, I see a ladder, as it were, reaching its way from earth to heaven, with the ladder supported on the ridge that crowned the mountain; so gripped by amazement at the vision, I cry, “How terrible is this place! This is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven!” This is the gate from which the Father bore witness from above, the gate in which Christ, the sun of justice, shone forth; the mountain on which the stone cut from the mountain was revealed; the mountain which the angels celebrate in song; the mountain about which the prophets speak; the mountain which the holy singer proclaims; the mountain enlightening fishermen; the mountain making the foolish wise; the mountain about which David cried out when he said, Christ has “led them to his holy mountain”; the mountain which your right hand founded; the mountain fat like cheese; the mountain which God has been pleased to make known, and to dwell in it. …

This mountain is the place of mysteries, this is the place of the unspeakable; this rock is the rock of hidden things, this summit is the summit of the heavens. Here the signs of the Kingdom are shown beforehand, here the mysteries of the crucifixion are communicated in advance; here the beauty of the Kingdom is revealed, here the descent of the glorified Christ’s second coming is anticipated. On this mountain, the brilliant radiance of the just is shown in shadows; on this mountain, the good things to come are presented in image, as if they were here. This mountain proclaims the coming rapture of the just in the clouds, by means of the cloud that surrounds it; this mountain shapes today, without any deception, the process of our own being shaped and conformed to the image of Christ.

Today he forms the image of the earthly man into the image of heavenly beauty, and transfers it to Mount Thabor. Therefore I am justified in saying again, “How terrible is this place; this is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven’—and properly so! “Thabor and Hermon shout out together,” and call the world to the fullness of joy. The land of Zabulon and the land of Naphthali make festival with one voice, and lead the dance for all people under the sun; Galilee and Nazareth dance today, and begin a rural celebration; Mount Tabor rejoices in the festival, too, and by renewing all creation, draws it toward God. For today the Lord hs truly appeared on the mountain; today the old nature belonging to Adam—once made in the image of God, but dimmed to resemble the shapes of idols—is transformed in shape once again, transfigured to its ancient beauty in God’s image and likeness. Today, on the mountain, an aimless, idolatrous nature that had wandered into the mountains has been altered, never to change again, and now sparkles with the shining brilliance of the divinity.

Today on the mountain, he who was wrapped in those sad, depressing garments of skin has put on a divinely-woven robe, “wrapping himself in light as in a garment.” Today, on Mount Thabor, the joyous state of the coming city and kingdom has appeared, in a way that preserves their secrets. Today—miraculously—on the mountain, the heralds of the old and new covenants have come to stand on both sides of God, having become the recipients of wondrous mysteries. Today on Mount Thabor, the Mystery of the cross, working life through death, has been sketched out. Just as on Golgotha, he stood “between two living creatures,” conformed to a cross, so here he stands between Moses and Elijah in a way conformed to God. The present festival reveals another Sinai—or rather, a mountain much more precious than Sinai in its miraculous reality, surpassing those symbolic, shadowy visions of God with divine revelations that are closely modeled on them.

St Anastasius of Sinai

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Dionysian Ponderings: Created by the Good as Desire for the Good

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.

(Go to “Divine Names”)

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“You see Christ, not in a manger but on an altar, not carried by a woman but offered by a priest”

Christ gave us his flesh to eat in order to deepen our love for him. When we approach him, then, there should be burning within us a fire of love and longing. Otherwise the punishment awaiting us will be in proportion to the magnitude of the graces we have received and of which we have shown ourselves unworthy.

The wise men paid homage to Christ’s body even when it was lying in a manger. Foreigners who did not worship the true God left their homes and their native land, set out on a long journey, and on reaching its end, worshiped in great fear and trembling. Let us, the citizens of heaven, at least imitate these foreigners. They only saw Christ in a manger, they saw nothing of what you now see, and yet they approached him with profound awe and reverence. You see him, not in a manger but on an altar, not carried by a woman but offered by a priest; and you see the Spirit bountifully poured out upon the offerings of bread and wine. Unlike the wise men, you do not merely see Christ’s body: you know his power as well, and whole divine plan for our salvation. Having been carefully instructed, you are ignorant of none of the marvels he has performed.

Let us then awaken in ourselves a feeling of awe and let us show a far greater reverence than did those foreigners, for we shall bring down fire upon our heads if we approach this sacrament casually, without thinking of what we do. By saying this I do not mean that we should not approach it, but simply that we should not do so thoughtlessly. Just as coming to it in a casual way is perilous, so failing to share in this sacramental meal is hunger and death.

This food strengthens us; it emboldens us to speak freely to our God: it is our hope, our salvation, our light and our life. If we go to the next world fortified by this sacrifice, we shall enter its sacred portals with perfect confidence, as though protected all over by armor of gold.

But why do I speak of the next world? Because of this sacrament earth becomes heaven for you. Throw open the gates of heaven — or rather, not of heaven but of the heaven of heavens — look through and you will see the proof of what I say.

What is heaven’s most precious possession? I will show you it here on earth.

I do not show you angels or archangels, heaven or the heaven of heavens, but I show you the very Lord of all these. Do you not see how you gaze, here on earth, upon what is most precious of all?

You not only gaze on it, but touch it as well. You not only touch it, but even eat it, and take it away with you to your homes.

It is essential therefore when you wish to receive this sacrament to cleanse your soul from sin and to prepare your mind.

St. John Chrysostom

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Dionysian Ponderings: The Parhypostatic Nullity of Evil

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.

(Go to “Desire for the Good”)

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Plotinus, Augustine, and the One God

by Alexander Earl

In my previous article, “In Defense of Christian Platonism,” I introduced the contours for defending a substantive relationship between Christianity and Platonism; the two are irrevocably entangled, and any attempt to separate them will inevitably lead to disaster.1 Such a danger rests in the central metaphysical maxim of Platonism that to be is to be intelligible. However, one might object that any system of thought can claim a belief in the cosmos’s intelligibility without thereby becoming a soi-disant Platonist. That may be true if Platonism is thought of as reducible to its historical contingencies, but I aver that the core of Platonism is actually in its philosophical maxims and the consequences that follow from them, not necessarily any of its idiosyncratic expressions—though, to be clear, that does not mean those expressions are dispensable; I simply aim to express the fundamental point as a certain kind of vision of reality that is not necessarily dependent on the tendencies of the grammar that might scaffold it.2 Regarding this maxim, we gleaned some of its content by following Plotinus’s reasonings from empirical experience, to soul, to intellect. By using the principle of causality—that actuality always precedes potentiality—Plotinus first distinguishes between those bodies that are animated (self-moving) and those that are inert. He continues this investigation by reflecting on the different kinds of bodies possessed of self-motion, and discovers that certain self-movers are so by the use of a rational faculty. But reason, which moves discur­sively and entails a separation between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking, must be grounded in an intellectual reality that just is the possession of its own content of thought.3

I. Intellect

But what exactly does this claim entail? What does it mean to say intellect is thought-thinking-itself? Unsurprisingly, Plotinus says it best:

Since, then, there is soul that reasons about just and beautiful things, and reasoning that inquires whether this is just or that is beautiful, there must also be some stable justice, from which there comes to be reasoning at [the level of] soul. Or how else could it reason? And if soul sometimes reasons about these things and sometimes does not, there must be in us intellect, which does not reason discursively but always possesses justice.4

Stephen R. L. Clark, commenting on this passage, explains that “this identifies the need, in any reasoning, for premises. If our premises are wrong, so will all our reasonings be.”5 Clark continues by asking an intuitive follow-up: “where do we get right premises?”6 If prior to any right reasoning we need an apprehension of right premises, and those right premises were right before we recog­nized them, then, Clark concludes, there must be “some further permanent rightness” that acts as a standard for all our judgments.7 To avoid an infinite regress, that permanent rightness will have to be a rightness self-possessed, so to speak; that is, it cannot be a rightness discovered, which involves moving from potentially to actuality qua coming-to-know the standard—again, invoking the principle of causality—which will entail that the case in question is just another instance of something under the standard, instead of the standard itself. Plotinus, in countering other 3rd century Platonists about the status of the forms relative to intellect, argues that

If one grants that the objects of thought are as completely as possible outside Intellect, and that Intellect contemplates them as absolutely outside it, then it cannot possess the truth of them and must be deceived in everything it contemplates. For they would be the true realities; and on this supposition it will contemplate them without possessing them, but will only get images of them in a knowledge of this sort. If then it does not possess the true reality, but only receives in itself images of the truth, it will have falsities and nothing true.8

In other words, if the forms, or the intelligibles, are outside of intellect such that it thinks them as something external to itself, then that intellect will only have impressions, or images, of those intelligibles instead of knowledge of them. Thus, it is an actualized intellect. To repeat, something under the standard, but not the standard itself.9 If, therefore, there is to be a standard for reasoning—and we should hope there is, otherwise all our reasoning is for naught—then the infinite regress will have to terminate in something that is intellect full-stop, not an actualized intellect, but actually intellect. Per Plotinus:

If we are to use the word in its true sense, we must take this intellect to be, not that in potentiality or that which passes from stupidity to intelligence—otherwise we shall have to look for another intellect before it—but that which is actually and always intellect. But if it does not have its thinking from outside, then if it thinks anything it thinks it from itself and if it has anything it has it from itself. But if it thinks from itself and derives the content of its thought from itself, it is itself what it thinks. For if its substance was other [than its thinking] and the things which it thought were other than itself, its substance would itself be unintellectual: and, again, potential, not actual. Therefore one must not be separated from the other.10

Therefore, the reality that grounds all reasoning must be thought-thinking-itself, or as Plotinus says, “all together are one, Intellect, intellection, and the intelligible.”11 Perhaps these points can be better understood through the characteristic beauty of St Augustine of Hippo in his rapturous Confessions, where he narrates how Platonism freed him from the confines of Manichean materialism:

I asked myself why I approved of the beauty of bodies, whether celestial or terrestrial, and what justification I had for giving an unqualified judgment on mutable things, saying ‘This ought to be thus, and that ought not to be thus’. In the course of this inquiry why I made such value judgment as I was making, I found the unchangeable and authentic eternity of truth to transcend my mutable mind. And so step by step I ascended from bodies to the soul which perceives through the body, and from there to its inward force, to which bodily senses report external sensations, this being as high as the beasts go. From there again I ascended to the power of reasoning to which is to be attributed the power of judging the deliverances of the bodily senses. This power, which in myself I found to be mutable, raised itself to the level of its own intelligence, and led my thinking out of the ruts of habit. It withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it was flooded. At that point it had no hesitation in declaring that the unchangeable is preferable to the changeable, and that on this ground it can know the unchangeable, since, unless it could somehow know this, there would be no certainty in preferring it to the mutable. So in the flash of a trembling glance it attained to that which is. At that moment I saw your ‘invisible nature understood through the things which are made (Rom. 1:20).12

In this passage, we have the rational ascent from bodies to intellect, the recognition of the need for standards of judgment for the operation of reason, and an example of one such standard, that the “unchangeable is preferable to the changeable,” since only by unchanging and eternal truth can there be the possibility of changing and temporal reason in the first place. However, Augustine says something rather fascinating at the end of this passage; in a “flash of trembling glance” he attained to that which is. Moreover, he was able to do so by moving from “the things which are made” to the invisible nature that made them. Is Augustine suggesting that the intellectual reality under discussion is the first principle of all reality? Is he also suggesting a kind of rational demonstration for this reality by inquiring into the created order?

II. The One

In order to get answers, we have to ask whether intellect can be the first principle. Plotinus emphatically responds: no. But why? Plotinus points us to the priority of oneness (or the principle of prior simplicity):13

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. For an army does not exist if it is not one, nor a chorus or a flock if they are not one. But neither can a house or a ship exist if they do not have their one, since the house is one and so is the ship, and if they lose it the house is no longer a house nor the ship a ship. So then continuous magnitudes, if the one was not with them, would not exist; at any rate, if they are cut up they change their being in proportion as they lose their one. And again the bodies of plants and animals, each of which is one, if they escape their one by being broken up into a multiplicity, lose the substance which they had and are no longer what they were but have become other things, and are those other things in so far as each of them is one.14

A pedagogical tool I often use with students (and it was one which was once used on me) is to ask them to give an example of something that is not one. Typical answers can range from something as simple as a pair of shoes to witty appeals to some quantum phenomenon. In any case, as Plotinus shows, the moment someone says anything, such as the aforementioned pair of shoes, that person has described one thing. The pair of shoes is one pair of shoes. Take away a shoe and you no longer have one pair; it is “cut up” and “broken into a multiplicity,” thereby it “loses its substance” and its parts “have become other things.” It is no longer a single pair of shoes, but a single shoe, which itself has a certain oneness that is due to the combination of the laces, leather, sole, and so forth. If we continue its decon­struction and begin to remove these component parts it will no longer be a shoe, but just laces, which in turn is made up of parts, and so on and so on. Thus, a thing is what it is by its being this one thing and not something else, but to be the one thing that it is entails a combination of other things, which in turn have their one, and yet, despite this combination, it is not a mere aggregate of ones or an unintelligible heap, but somehow has an intelligible look (or form); it has coherence as this one thing. How does the priority of oneness apply to intellect? Intellect is in fact a composite since its oneness is an actualized oneness; for although intellect is one, in that it thinks itself, it is also double, in that it thinks something, namely, itself. Plotinus’s criticism relies on the intention­ality of thinking in that there is a necessary distinction between the act of thinking and the object of thought, and only with both can you have thinking proper. As Plotinus explains, “if it was intellect it would have to have an object of thought, and if it was thinking in the primary sense it would have to have its object in itself.”15 So we have two important points regarding intellect. First, in order for it to be intellect its object of thought must not be outside it such that its thought is actualized by something external, and, second, in order for intellect to be thinking it must be double as act of thinking and object of thought: “it must therefore be one and a pair.”16 This criticism entails that there must be a principle before intellect that actualizes its unity.

For since the nature of the One is generative of all things it is none of them. It is not therefore something or qualified or quantitative or intellect or soul; it is not in movement or at rest, not in place, not in time, but “itself by itself of single form”, or rather formless, being before all form, before movement and before rest; for these pertain to being and are what make it many.17

If the One is the cause of intellect, which is real being and pure intellect, then that means the first principle of all must be ‘beyond being,’ ‘beyond form,’ and ‘beyond intellect.’ Further, since the One is the cause of all things, then it cannot be all things or any one thing, but must be oneness itself, for it could not cause the totality of all things if it were a thing within that totality. As a result, the One is no-thing, bestowing on intellect its oneness, and in that case its existence. As Plotinus says, “For there must be something simple before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it.”18

III. Augustine’s God

Speaking charitably, given Augustine’s familiarity with Plotinus, it is doubtful that he would make such an obvious metaphysical blunder as to confuse intellect for the first principle (though, to be fair, he made a few in his time).19 Here is not the place to amass the evidence, but we can begin to see why by looking further at Augustine’s own causal insistence in Confessions.

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession (Job 28: 12 f.). I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’ (Ps. 99:3).20

Both this passage and the previous one cited above have something in common: they are reflections on mutability, finitude, and dependence. The theme is constant through­out the Confessions; in fact, Confessions may be typified as one long reflection on the profound tension between our obvious finitude and our insatiable desire for the infinite. As the famous line attests, fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te: you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.21 Such insatiable desire surely drives Augustine’s insistent and frequent questioning. Why do I find things beautiful? How do I judge things as good and true? What is the object of my love? Even more perplexing, he has to wrestle with how he can say with the sun, moon, and stars “he made us,” and yet how know there is a special clause appended to the human case, “for yourself.” This kind of causal insistence inevitably reveals that what I am is mutable. I delight in beauty, yet all the beauty in the world seems to fade; I reason, and yet in order to reason there must be some eternal truth above that reveals its own limits; I love, and yet the immediate objects of my affection do not satisfy, but leave me longing for more. The insatiable desire takes him deeper and deeper into himself, into his memory, into the depths of his own mind, erotically panting and longing, reaching out to find the rest that beckons him, thereby advancing into the ever-increasing paradox of the intimate union between the finite and the infinite, akin to the paradoxical intensity of brightness and darkness in the rings of a mandorla in Orthodox icono­graphy. As Augustine delves into those more abstract and philo­sophical questions regarding memory, time and eternity—all the while providing some of the most profound reflections on human sin and frailty—we unsurprisingly end up with commentary on the book of Genesis. And what do we find? God must be beyond intellect.

Surely it is not false that the only source of all nature endowed with form and matter capable of form is he who is supremely good because he supremely is. They say, ‘We do not deny that.’ What then? Do you deny that there is a sublime created realm cleaving with such pure love to the true and truly eternal God that, though not coeternal with him, it never detaches itself from him and slips away into the changes and successiveness of time, but rests in utterly authentic contemplation of him alone?22

For Augustine, this “sublime created realm” is synonymous with the “heaven of heavens,”23 “realm of intellect,”24 “House of God,”25 and “created wisdom.”26 This intellectual realm is God’s ‘first’ act, and it cleaves intimately to him. In fact, “its delight is exclusively in you. In an unfailing purity it satiates its thirst in you,” for “it has no future to expect. It suffers no variation and experiences no distending in the successiveness of time.”27 Compare this account with Plotinus’s own explanation of the derivation of intellect from the One, and the similarities are uncanny.

This, we may say, is the first act of generation: the One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, overflows, as it were, and its superabundance makes something other than itself. This, when it has come into being, turns back upon the One and is filled, and becomes Intellect by looking towards it. Its halt and turning toward the One constitutes being, its gaze upon the One, Intellect.28

While it would certainly take more work to fully defend Augustine’s conception of God, for our purposes I consider these passages, within the context of the Confessions as a whole, a sufficient demonstration that at least Augustine is aware of the limitations of intellect and the necessity of God to be beyond it as the true creator of all things. After all, the Confessions masterfully ends by describing God as the One and the Good, always working and yet always at rest, the transcendent one beyond human understanding, graciously accessible through the humble petitions of his servants.

IV. The Neoplatonic Argument for God

Thus far my attempt has been to continue the causal insistence begun in my last article to further flesh out the metaphysics of Neoplatonism, as well as show how that metaphysics is bound up with Christian theological reflection, for which my partner has been Augustine. It is worthwhile at this point to try to distill the argument for the One. According to Plotinus, if God is truly to be God, the cause and sustainer of all, then he must be absolutely simple, beyond intellect, and so beyond being. The argument has been present throughout our reflections—though not articulated formally—and it can take any number of starting points. It is not a controversial claim to say that all of the traditional arguments for the existence of God are really just one argument from different vantage points, and the Neoplatonic argument is one such vantage, and it is that iteration I find the most compelling. As mentioned earlier, there is a persistent reflection on our finitude, mutability, and dependence in Augustine, and as we can see now, this reflection is constantly active in Plotinus as he tries to account for the nature of beauty, bodies, rational souls, and their corresponding conditions. At the height of any causal inquiry, one question remains pivotal: what gives composite things their unity? The question is pervasive and exhaustive, for it applies to the lowliest shoe to the highest reality of intellect qua thought-thinking-itself. The question cuts across all material and metaphysical entities; more accurately, any being whatsoever, since to be a being ultimately involves having the character ‘one’ in order to be ‘this’ being instead of ‘that’ one. At the very least, your ‘one’ gives you identity, but that identity is defined by contradistinction; thus, you are at least two as a composition of identity and difference. To speak piously, our ‘one’, our ‘unity’, is always the free gift of the God who not only makes us to be, but places us in a web of relations that constitute that very being.

A common confusion, however, is to think of this causal activity as linear rather than hierarchical. In Edward Feser’s recent book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, he explains that

What makes a hierarchical series of causes hierarchical, then, is this instrumental or derivative character of the later members of the series. The desk will hold the cup aloft only so long as it is itself being held up by the floor. If the floor collapses, the desk will go with it and the cup will fall as a result. The members of a linear series are not like that. The air conditioner is on because you turned it on. Still, once you’ve done so, the air conditioner will keep cooling the room even if you left the house or dropped dead.29

When we are conceiving of the unity of any thing, we can think of it in two ways. Consider a chair as an example. There is the unity of the chair which is caused by the craftsman producing it as he combines the plastic, cloth, and screws (clearly an Ikea chair, perhaps craftsman is too strong here), and then there is the question of how the chair retains its unity after the craftsman’s initial unifying activity has ceased. In the former kind of causal sequence, the craftsman does not need to continue to act on the chair for it to retain its unity. We can say that the craftsman initially causes the chair to be by unifying its disparate parts, but after he has done so, much like the air conditioner in Feser’s example, the craftsman could drop dead and the chair would not crumble to the ground with him. This kind of causality is not the kind of causality we are concerned with. Instead, our interest is in the second way a thing is unified, which asks how it continues as a unity after it is initially caused. How is it unified here and now, at this moment? In order for the chair to stay unified, there are a variety of causes (what Feser terms concurrent causes) that have to constantly act on it at every instant, such as the gravity of the earth, the laws of friction, and so on.

So, what’s the point? There’s no issue with linear causes going on to infinity; the chain of linear causes can defer back to some prior agent on and on and on without remainder. There need not be a first member of such a series. For all we know, such an infinite chain could be infinitely cyclical, and so be perfectly self-contained (this fact is why something like the Big Bang is essentially irrelevant to the question of God). However, a hierarchical series cannot go on infinitely, otherwise there is absolutely no explanation for how some thing is, here and now, at this moment. For a hierarchical series—which applies to everything that is composite, and so to every single being—if there is no first member, then there is absolutely no explanation for how things are currently actualized.30 Everything would be the product of sheer fortuitous magic. The inexorable assembly of brute facts of an absolutely inane variety. Per my last article, the cosmos would reduce to nihilism, as any thing at any moment could be any way without the slightest explanation. Since, obviously, that is quite contrary to our experience, the unity of any being, and even being as a totality, requires a first member that is not liable to the vicious infinite regress of causal questions regarding composition. Therefore, in order to terminate the regress, there must be a first member which is not composite in any way, and so not liable to such a causal question. Feser, helpfully, provides us with a more formal argument:

(1) The things of our experience are composite
(2) A composite exists at any moment only insofar as its parts are combined at that moment
(3) This composition of parts requires a concurrent cause
(4) So, any composite has a cause of its existence at any moment at which it exists
(5) So, each of the things of our experience has a cause at any moment at which it exists
(6) If the cause of a composite thing’s existence at any moment is itself composite, then it will in turn require a cause of its own existence at that moment
(7) The regress of causes this entails is hierarchical in nature, and such a regress must have a first member
(8) Only something absolutely simple or non-composite could be the first member of such a series
(9) So, the existence of each of the things of our experience presupposes an absolutely simple or non-composite cause.31

In order for there to be intelligibility, there must be the absolutely simple One beyond it, and any rejection of this irreducible oneness is subject to the vicissitudes of an encroaching nihilism, for that person inevitably begs the causal question of what causes God’s unity. To deflect is to make God a most convenient brute fact; and it is unclear how the cosmos (or anything else, really) could not just as easily accept the role. Therefore, God cannot have any parts whatsoever, whether metaphysical—there can be no distinction between what-he-is and that-he-is—or material—he most certainly does not have a body of any kind, be it fleshly or ethereal—God is not in time, as if contained by some reality other than himself, nor is he even outside of time, which would curiously suffer the same fate by making God and the cosmos two things alongside one another. In line with Plotinus, Augustine, and Feser, if we are to have any hope in our rational capacities, any hope that the world is intelligible, any hope that our deepest longings can find satisfaction, we should turn our gaze to that great Good, the One, by keeping “the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from above,”32 persisting in our asking, begging for understanding, incessantly knocking on the door of the Logos (Matt. 7:7-8). “Yes indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened.”33


[1] Perhaps, more forcefully, I resist any narrative that makes the relationship between Christianity and Platonism accidental rather than ancillary. In fact, I think if one really is to believe the claims of the Gospel, that Christ was incarnate “in the fullness of time,” then that fullness should include the broad intellectual milieu in which the incarnation occurred. Surely it cannot be merely accidental that a Platonic metaphysics was the lingua franca as Christianity emerged and began its doctrinal reflections.

[2] One such account of Platonism that looks for the fundamentals underneath various idiosyncratic expressions can be found in Lloyd Gerson, From Plato to Platonism. However, Stephen R.L. Clark’s wonderful work, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, demonstrates the indispensability of Plotinus’s particular language and metaphorical usage to the philosophical life he exhorts his followers to.

[3] Alexander Earl, ‘In Defense of Christian Platonism.’ See intro.

[4] Plotinus, Ennead V.1.11, 1-7 (trans. Eric Perl)

[5] Stephen R.L. Clark, God, Religion & Reality p. 68

[6] ibid.

[7] Clark 69

[8] Plotinus, Ennead V.5.1, 51-60

[9] Clark 70

[10] Plotinus, Ennead V.9.5, 1-9 (trans. A.H. Armstrong); c.f. Clark 68

[11] ibid. V.3.5, 45

[12] Augustine, Confessions VII.17 (trans. Henry Chadwick)

[13] Dominic O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads, chapter 4.

[14] Plotinus, Ennead VI.9.1, 1-16

[15] ibid. V.6.2

[16] ibid. V.6.1

[17] ibid. VI.9.3, 40-45 (trans. amended)

[18] ibid. V.4.1

[19] One could provide examples ad nauseum on the question of Augustine’s Platonism. There are developmentalists who see Augustine disavowing Platonism in favor of Christianity, of which Peter Brown’s Augustine: A Biography is perhaps the most popular example, but you can find similar accounts of this divergence in Thomas Wassmer’s (1960) ‘The Trinitarian Theology of Augustine and his debt to Plotinus,’ Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 261-268, and Thomas Williams’s ‘Augustine v. Plotinus: The Uniqueness of the Vision at Ostia,’ Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, pp. 143-152. There are, of course, others who see Augustine as having a relatively positive and consistent relationship to Platonism, such as John O’Meara’s ‘The Neoplatonism of St. Augustine,’ pp. 34-44 in Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, John Rist’s ‘Plotinus and Christian Philosophy’ in the Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Peter King’s (2005) ‘Augustine’s Encounter with Neoplatonism,’ The Modern Schoolman, 82 (2005), pp. 213-226, Adrian Pabst’s Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, and Erik Kenyon’s Augustine and the Dialogue.

[20] Augustine, Confessions X.9 (trans. Henry Chadwick)

[21] ibid. I.1

[22] ibid. XII.19

[23] ibid. XII.8

[24] ibid. XII.9

[25] ibid. XII.19

[26] ibid. XII. 20

[27] ibid. XII.12

[28] Plotinus, Ennead V.2.1

[29] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, p. 23

[30] ibid. p. 20

[31] ibid. p. 80

[32] Plotinus, Ennead V.1.12, 19-20

[33] Augustine, Confessions XIII.53

* * *

Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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“When Peter counted on the Lord’s help it enabled him to walk on the water”

The Gospel tells us how Christ the Lord walked upon the waters of the sea, and how the apostle Peter did the same until fear made him falter and lose confidence. Then he began to sink and emerged from the water only after calling on the Lord with renewed faith.

Now we must regard the sea as a symbol of the present world, and the apostle Peter as a symbol of the one and only Church. For Peter, who ranked first among the apostles and was always the most ready to declare his love for Christ, often acted as spokesman for them all.

For instance, when the Lord Jesus Christ asked who people thought he was and the other disciples had cited various opinions, it was Peter who responded to the Lord’s further question, “But who do you say I am?” with the affirmation: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” One replied for all because all were united.

When we consider Peter as a representative member of the Church we should distinguish between what was due to God’s action in him and what was attributable to himself. Then we ourselves shall not falter; then we shall be founded upon rock and remain firm and unmoved in the face of the wind, rain, and floods, which are the trials and temptations of this present world.

Look at Peter, who in this episode is an image of ourselves; at one moment he is all confidence, at the next all uncertainty and doubt; now he professes faith in the immortal One, now he fears for his life.

“Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you upon the water.” When the Lord said “Come” Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk on the water. This is what he could do through the power of the Lord; what by himself? “Realizing how violently the wind was blowing, he lost his nerve, and as he began to sink he called out, ‘Lord, I am drowning, save me’!”

When he counted on the Lord’s help it enabled him to walk on the water; when human frailty made him falter he turned once more to the Lord, who immediately stretched out his hand to help him, raised him up as he was sinking, and rebuked him for his lack of faith.

Think, then, of this world as a sea, whipped up to tempestuous heights by violent winds. A person’s own private tempest will be his or her unruly desires. If you love God you will have power to walk upon the waters, and all the world’s swell and turmoil will remain beneath your feet. But if you love the world it will surely engulf you, for it always devours its lovers, never sustains them.

If you feel your foot slipping beneath you, if you become a prey to doubt or realize that you are losing control, if, in a word, you begin to sink, say: “Lord, I am drowning, save me!” Only he who for your sake died in your fallen nature can save you from the death inherent in that fallen nature.

St Augustine of Hippo

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