Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: De coelesti hierarchia (c.500)

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. Acts 17. 22-34

Unknown: God and Author.

Styling himself as Paul’s first Athenian convert described in Acts 17. 22-34, the unknown author of the De coelesti hierarchia (c.500) is known perhaps only insofar as he provides an authentic and ‘unique blend of Neoplatonism and Christianity…an ecstatic intermingling of divine and human eros’ (Coakley, 2009, p.2). His anonymity, or rather pseudonymity, is something I believe to be of huge symbolic importance in any properly considered understanding of the ‘Areopagite’s’ thinking. More than a mere nom de plume, his pseudonymity should be understood as a literary or hermeneutical device that collapses or ‘telescopes’ the centuries back to an apostolic past, gaining symbolic proximity to Paul and by proxy Christ, the logos. In the following paper, I describe it as indicative of a kind of liturgical ‘timelessness’ manifested between the reader and the text; it is this very ‘timelessness’ that has led me to believe that his philosophy is, in fact, more accurately described as theosophy and should be read as such.

Platonic Reflections.

At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in the water, then the things themselves,’ states Plato’s Socrates as he illustrates what we might later understand in similar terms as the great microcosm–macrocosm cosmological model at the heart of De coelesti hierarchia. In this short paper I hope to show that with the Areopagite’s pseudonymity we are forced, as Plato states ‘ to see the sun, not images of it in the water or some alien place, [the literal earthly aspects of the text] but the Sun itself, [gnosis or the Form of the Good] in its own place, [God] and be able to study it’. Like the prisoners of Plato’s Cave, the unknown author has unfettered us from the bonds of his mundane name or earthly existence. We might be pained and dazzled by this, but we are forced to confront the light out with the lowly material aspects of the text, such as its origins. As the Sun fills our eyes, we, like Plato’s prisoners, become unable or uninterested in the shadowy illusions of the earthly author we once thought necessary.

Indeed, the knowledge of the Areopagite does not represent an intellectual or speculative knowledge but rather a hermeneutical understanding that offers a soteriological rebirth to the reader. As in alchemy, through a hermeneutical engagement with the correspondences of the metaphysical microcosm–macrocosm (a process of refinement and purification) illumination is experienced – a mystical anagogical unity that breaks down the subject-object relationship. For in De coelesti hierarchia, the subject is the reader, and, the object is Dionysus the Areopagite, or rather the potential soteriological rebirth the real Areopagite represented.

Academic Grounding.

In the material realm, however, and thanks to the work of Hugo Koch and Josef Stiglmayr, the De coelesti hierarchia has since at least the nineteenth-century been known to have its earthly origins in the fifth century A. D. Moreover, the author’s adoption of Paul’s famous first-century convert’s identity has generally been assumed by scholars as means by which the author might gain a wider readership or merely save the corpus from the attacks of anxious orthodoxy.

In his article, Dionysius, Paul and the Significance of the Pseudonym (2009) Charles M. Stang presents the claim this may not be true;

The scholarly consensus here is that in the late antique Christian imagination the distance between the historical past and present can be collapsed or ‘telescoped’, such that the apostolic (and sub-apostolic) age and the contemporary world may be fully present to one another (Stang, 2009).

Citing the work of D.S. Russell and his The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic: 220BC -100AD (1964), Stang puts forward the idea that the Areopagite’s pseudonymity is in many ways a hermeneutic and liturgical act, something he states is indicative of Christian writers of Late Antiquity. His findings are considered in conjunction with the Neoplatonic, Gnostic and Hermetic ideas coming out of the period, and they do suggest that the adoption of a pseudonym appears as something of an indicative symbolic act for an aspiring Hellenistic Christianised Platonic theology such as the Areopagite’s.

A Look Towards Beyond.

Platonically speaking, if a text (which might equally be a sign, symbol, myth or image in Neoplatonic tradition) is to be correctly read, that is symbolically read and not taken at face value, such hermeneutical principles lay great emphasis on a ‘turn’ inward for meaning. In looking for meaning in the world, we must look to and then beyond it. In the De coelesti hierarchia it is, in the first instance, the real author we must look to and then beyond.

While Neoplatonic in origin, this notion of different symbolic levels of spiritual knowledge, i.e sense perceptions, rational, intellectual, etc., is perhaps more accurately described as representative of an ancient, complex and fundamentally Platonic, Hermetic and Gnostic ideas emerging from Late Antique Hellenistic religiosity. Evidence suggests there existed a great urgency on the ontological importance of a reader’s capacity for spiritually hermeneutical engagements, all centred on the attainment of symbolic knowledge – an attainment that is of continued importance in later theosophical texts.

The Allegorists of Late Antiquity 

Peter T. Struck in Birth of The Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (2004) explains the importance of allegory (; the goria), symbol (σύμβολα) and metaphor (μεταφοά) in the hermeneutical approaches of Late Antiquity. He states ‘the allegorical approach shares conceptual tools with other well-attested fields of interpretive inquiry in the ancient world, including divination, magic, religious rite and certain traditions of esoteric philosophy’ (Struck, 2004).

More consistently in the allegorical commentaries, one sees a view of the individual poet (or some ur-mythmaker) in isolation, as a figure with some special insight into the underlying structures that govern the world, the hidden way of things. Allegorists are more likely to approach the poetic text not as a finished example of a craft but as a sui generis artefact. Where rhetorical critics see a polished handiwork, allegorical commentators tend to see a deep well of wisdom, which everywhere nearly vibrates with arcane observations on the structure of the world and the place of humans and gods within it. Allegorists see great poetic language as deeply figurative, with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages (Struck, 2004).

All Platonic thought is concerned with these hidden harmonies and our capacity to engage with them. The Platonic Cave clearly distinguishes the literal realm or veil of shadows and signs, with the intelligible, anagogical or mystical world of ‘true meaning’ and knowledge. The allegories of the Sun, Line, and Cave presented in Plato’s Republic divide reality into the intelligible and sensible, that is, into distinct modes of ‘knowing’ that apply equally throughout all levels of Plato’s ancient microcosm-macrocosm ontology. The ancient proponents of this symbolic hermeneutics are described by Stuck as the ‘Allegorists’, and outside of the prevailing Aristotelian rhetoric and analytic approach, these Hellenic authors were interested in σύμβολα (symbol) – something he states is very much ‘boosted’ to the fore in later Neoplatonic philosophy. Described by Struck as mainly engaged with an interpretive task rather than an analytical one, the ‘Allegorists’ were generally not concerned with poetic techné (τέχνη) but with, ‘murky and elusive puzzles, more precisely enigmas (αἰνίγματα) or symbols’ (Struck, 2004). They see in the symbol hermeneutical gnosis – a ‘complete and fundamental truth.’ The Platonic parallels with later theosophers are clear and evident in the De coelesti hierarchia.

Pure Aristotelians do not, in general, have such heady visions…Where Aristotle and his followers see a master craftsman, the allegorist tends to see a master riddler and a savant who can lead the skilled reader to the most profound knowledge the world has to offer.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: The Neoplatonist Theosopher

The Neoplatonist Plotinus (205-270) identifies the One with The Good, as did Plato. Plotinus posited an Absolute, Transcendental One or Good, defined in the Aristotelian phrase as ‘that to which all things aspire’ very similar to Plato’s theory of forms and the Platonic idea that all things must resolve in unity. Neoplatonists demand that the highest principle or existent be supremely self-sufficient, disinterested, and impassive. The One is ineffable; the One is everything means that it is present in everything else and that everything else is One by participating in the One; the One is One, and, the cosmos is alive through it. The One is not an abstract nothing but the transcendental precondition for the world being good since it exists.

In the Neoplatonic tradition, The One emanates or overflows without diminishing and turns towards itself, illuminating the microcosm-macrocosm model as it goes. In contemplating Itself, it thus creates Nous/The Intellect. At the outset of creation, unformed Intellect (the mind of The One) – by this we mean Supreme Intellect (Nous: The first differentiation of the One) – or in other words, the hypostases where unity contemplates itself and where it thereby creates the further different parts of the soul. This begins to fill with the intelligible (Platonic) forms, which includes people, which in turn, are themselves perfect archetypes of everything that will exist in the world of sense. The Intellect/ Nous contemplate both the objects of its own mind (the Forms) and The One (it’s overflow) thus creating Soul. The material world exists to the extent that it shares in the eternal being of the Forms. Just as a shadow exists as a shadow of something else, so does Plato’s  Forms.

Plotinus presented three grades of Higher Being; (1) the Intellect (Nous) that contemplates itself and turns towards itself and The One in reflection; (2) the Higher Soul, whether World Soul or Individual soul, which transcends the physical and that also contemplates itself and turns towards itself and Nous in reflection; (3) the Lower Soul which forms material Nature and the physical world. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke states, ‘Plato had clearly separated the higher world of Ideas from the lower world, but he provided for a soul which was capable of being reminded of the higher world through its sensory experience of things in this lower world’. This separation and subsequent unity is clearly at the heart of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the Neoplatonic and Hellenic worldview.

Plato’s allegory becomes indicative of the Late Antique components of Western esotericism and their Hellenic origins. Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism are all fundamentally concerned with these different varying symbolic levels of hermeneutical knowledge. We see this in Struck’s ancient ‘allegorists’ also. Through different initiatory and visionary hermeneutical approaches, the ‘allegorists’ and the Hellenic esoteric traditions, teach us to turn inward towards an experience of transcendence and transmutation – all essentially Platonic and all perfectly allegorised by Plato’s Cave. Out of our knowledge of the sympathies and antipathies of the universe, particular ontological hermeneutics might help achieve transcendental liturgical enlightenment that transforms not just the text but the reader and the entire world that surrounds them both. The universe is a ‘book’ to be ‘read; God is known by his signature. We can decipher the symbols which point towards God. Therefore as we emerge from Plato’s hermeneutical cave, we can traverse a multitude of metaphors and symbols that help illuminate the levels of knowledge available to the human soul.

Out of our knowledge of the sympathies and antipathies of the universe, particular ontological hermeneutics practices might help us achieve a transcendental liturgical enlightenment that transforms not just the text but the reader and possibly the entire world that surrounds them.

The universe is a ‘book’ to be ‘read; God is known by his signature. We can decipher the symbols which point towards God. Therefore, as we emerge from Plato’s hermeneutical cave, we can traverse a multitude of metaphors and symbols that help illuminate different the levels of knowledge available to the human soul.

In esoteric philosophies, we see the core idea of a second birth; an emergence from the Platonic Cave of separation and unity through the apprehension of correspondences and their transmutational effects. I propose that there exists evidence to show that through the syncretic Platonist tradition interwoven into the Areopagite writings, these ancient pagan ideas find a place in Christianity.

The method they [pagans] had made prominent in the interpretation of Homer was applied by Philo to the interpretation of the Old Testament. Allegorical interpretation appears first among Christians as used by Christ himself… The great wellspring of the allegorical was, however, Alexandria, where it has been remarked that even Christians were trying not primarily to defend dogma by Greek philosophy, but to make their opinions clear to themselves.

The Celestial Hierarchy 

The Platonic Allegory of The Cave describes an ontological move away from appearance, the abandonment of the symbolic and metaphoric. This is itself allegorised by Plato; he chooses myth and allegory to express a deeper truth that lies beyond myth and allegory.

The De coelesti hierarchia describes the Nine Orders of Angels. At the lowest rung of the order, there are mere angels messengers to Man. In the next, the Archangels, and at the top is the home to the Cherubim and Seraphim of Scripture. Splendid in their contemplation of God, these intermediary beings are not independent of God but are God himself present in different forms. They both reveal and conceal; both are and are not – symbolic in themselves, indeed not unlike The Eucharist. The Neoplatonic Areopagite proposed that we can know or ‘name’ God through all created things as their ‘Cause’,  through ‘a theology of the image’.

The reception of the most divine Eucharist is a symbol of participation in Jesus. And so it goes for all gifts transcendently received by the beings of heaven, gifts which are granted to us in a symbolic mode.

It is in this same way that the anonymous author of De coelesti hierarchia is both the first-century Areopagite and the fifth-century pseudepigrapher – he is a symbolic incarnation; gnostic potentiality manifested.

The Areopagite demands a liturgical understanding that is intended to help facilitate an initiatic form of ‘contemporaneity’ with an authentic gnostic and primordial Christian experience.

If we view Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as representing this idea; as a turn towards to the Sun, to the unus mundus of the alchemist, to gnosis, then this is a concept that to many scholars is central to their understanding of esotericism in the Christian West. However, in the backdrop of Paul Acts 17. 22- 34, we see more clearly that when the Areopagite states; ‘honour the hidden of the divinity, beyond mind and being, with unsearchable and sacred reverence of the mind, and ineffable things with a wise silence’, he means God is not just simply ineffable, but as Perl states; God is ‘beyond ineffability and unknowing (hyperarrētos, hyperagnōston)’. This is again an evocation of the historical supra-physical ‘timelessness’ of theosophy. The Areopagite states in his

This is again an evocation of the historical ‘timelessness’ of theosophical philosophy. The Areopagite states in his De coelesti hierarchia;

For as the secret and sacred tradition has instructed, God is in no way like the things that have being, and we have no knowledge at all of his incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence and invisibility.

 The goal of a hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him… Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God himself.

Neoplatonic and theosophical ‘timelessness’ manifested in the present. Indeed, the Areopagite himself states,

We cannot, as mad people do, profanely visualize these heavenly and godlike intelligences as actually having numerous feet and faces. They are not shaped to resemble the brutishness of oxen or to display the wilderness of lions. They do not have the curved beak of the eagle or the wings and feathers of birds. We must not have pictures of flaming wheels whirling in the skies…The Word of God makes use of poetic imagery when discussing these formless intelligences but, as I have already said, it does so not for the sake of art, but as a concession to the nature of our own mind. It uses scriptural passages in an uplifting fashion as a way, provided for us from the first, to uplift our mind in a manner suitable to our nature.

To the best of our abilities, we should raise our eyes to the paternally transmitted enlightenment coming from sacred scripture and, as far as we can, we should behold the intelligent hierarchies of heaven and we should do so by what scripture has revealed to us in symbolic and uplifting fashion.

As we come to conclude, we might well ask by which method does one acquire this intuitive knowledge of the veiled cosmos? How does one break the chains and turn towards the Sun? Furthermore, what does this mean on a theosophical level if the text to be translated is the Book of Nature (physica sacra)? Plotinus tells us that, ‘the world is full of signs’, that ‘the wise man is the man who sees in any one thing sees another’. If hermeneutical wisdom penetrates all the microcosm-macrocosm analogy and ‘the entire universe is a great theatre of mirrors, a set of hieroglyphs to decipher’, does this imply that Nature might also undergo the same kind of dynamic transmutation if ‘read’ or translated in the same way? Will we, like the alchemists, also undergo this soteriological transmutation from the nigredro, albedo, to the rubedo?

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