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Philosophie, Religionsphilosophie


Kapriev, Georgi [Ed.]


The Dionysian Traditions. 24th Annual Colloquium of the S.I.E.P.M., September 9–11, 2019, Varna, Bulgaria.


Turnhout: Brepols Publishers 2021. XX, 392 S. = Rencontres de Philosophie Médiévale, 23. Geb. EUR 65,00. ISBN 9782503593395.


Mark W. Elliott

This is a tremendous volume, one whose technical demands are made worthwhile by the sheer range and depth of scholarship on display from which one can learn much. The conference languages appear to have been German and English, which does make one wonder about the reason for the scarcity of contributions from the »Romance« linguistic realm. The work has a centre of gravity somewhere around Prague, which gives it a central European aspect. There is also an effort to relate the influence of Dionysius in the Middle Ages to both ancient philosophy behind Dionysius and modern (Hegel, Heidegger). It has to be noted that not all those mentioned as contributors in the Preface (including Chr. Erismann) appear in this book and there is one unmentioned (Lars Reuke) who does!

In what follows I will simply give some outline of the essays. If there is one ground for complaint it is the small amount of explicit mention of how Dionysian and biblical commentary operated in mutual connection, although in a number of places the biblical Christian stamp of Dionysius and his followers is implicit, sometimes tantalisingly so. The claim by Theo Kobusch (11) that the appearance of the hidden in Dionysius is the origin of the (Protes-tant) Deus absconditus seems plausible, although needing further evidence. The idea of God as the enfolding one who through providential fate un-folds and extends himself into material creation and comes to himself, was taken up by Thierry of Chartres: God is in the in-folding of all things; whereas the un-folding is Fatum or Providence. Yet along with Alan of Lille Therry thought that material could contain potential and be alterable; here is an absolutizing of material to be continued by Cusa and Schelling too. As also held by Eriugena, God is not »the finished article«, but one who in condescension comes to himself in creating. Kobusch writes of Neoplatonic monism as symbolised by Einfaltung and Ausfaltung; the ground of plurality is Selbst-Entfaltung as something unconscious that has need of intellect corresponding to the One which needs the Logos. Like Proclus Dionysius (henceforth »D.«) understood his metaphysical teaching as »mystagogy«, divisible into mystical and revealed-sayable.

In his chapter on D.’s relationship to the Athenian School Mark Edwards notes great kinship, albeit with profound dissimilarities in the context of the mode of usage. Already with Origen God was viewed as superior to being, hence only knowable by voluntary revelation. Yet for D. there is only one henad, because he believed in the Shema, whereas Proclus would see the One as distributed about, allowing for the superiority of a noetic principle. Theology means purgation to secure divine favour; but in D. God is emphasised as the one doing the theurgy. D. differs from Proclus »that we approximate most closely to the truth about God, not by negation alone but by the paradox of affirming in faith what we have denied by logic« (51).

The chapter by E. S. Mainoldi on Byzantine Ontology emphasises D.’s aim to mediate Christologically – although that’s not where his influence has been most felt. Things like the neologism of Hierarchy, the order of deification of hypostases not of »being«; and excluding deification of the rest of cosmos. John of Scythopolis was a key figure in re-founding philosophy on the basis of the Christian vision of the world. It is not the Logos as such who mediates in the world, but rather »the distance between God and the creatures is filled by the non-mediated providential operations of the divine essence common to the whole Trinity« (64 – relying on B. Bucur’s work.) The West’s strict ex nihilo teaching resulted in concepts in mind of God as ontological paradigms, but D. has no place for these, and »universals do not exist before they are instantiated in the outcome of the divine will« (75), thus avoiding the western ontotheological synthesis.

David Bradshaw’s essay on »Divine Processions and Divine Energies« is noteworthy for the attention to the key role of Scripture such as Col 1:29 in its use by Gregory of Nyssa. These divine energies are attributes »around the nature of God«, which in D. are processions – of goodness, light, beauty, etc, as works distinct from his superessential being. The strong influence of D. is traced in Maximus and Palamas.

Smilen Markov follows with the Dionysian side of Photius. For instance, God knows by concept, not experience, the day of judgement. »By passing Judgement over to the Son, the Father acquires experiential knowledge too.« (103) (So, Photius, Amphilochos 228–31. influenced by Dionysius, De divinis nominibus 2.) A key sentence is the following one by Markov: »It is not a novel position within Byzantine philosophy that the single thing has an ontological prior-ity over the common entity. Photius’s analysis of the particularity of Christ, based on his rendering if [sic] the Dionysian concept of divine hiddenness is a kind of epistemological adaptation (Epistemologisierung) of the metaphysical concept of hypostasis.« (105) D. also inspired Nicetas of Byzantium to write of symbolic knowledge as a via media between rational discourse and pure contemplation (110)

We are also introduced by C.-M. Mesaros to St Gerardus of Cenad who lived at the hinge of the millennium and his »extensive commentary« (117) in his Deliberation on the Song of the Three Boys, employing the quadrigua – only known at all because J. Gruenwalder Bishop of Freising chose to comment on it in the early 15th c. E. v. Ivanka has already researched how John Scottus Eriugena had mediated Dionysian thought to Gerardus.

A much better known figure, Albert the Great’s reception of the Nomina Divina in his Sentences Commentary is discussed by Maria Burger. Even before Albert got round to the commentaries, he could write that God is specialissime the subject of theology as principium et finis. God is the name of operation and nature, with the providential operation in foresight (Vorhersehung), and also continentia and impletio. God can be his names – a Dionysian distinctive here in Albert. God in himself cannot be known or spoken, yet through creation the persons as outgoing can be spoken of analogically. Henryk Anzulewicz, also from Bonn, gives an account of Albert as a synthesist. The unfolding of being means an unfolding of thought. The exitus-perfectio-reductio/matches purgatio-illuminatio-reductio. Rom 11:36 is mixed with a kabod-theology that is also onto-theological and also draws from Eccl 1:7 Thomas borrowed this structure from Albert. Illumination is not confined to theophany, for it is not at all physical, but concerns intelligible light emanating.

This is not eclecticism, since the holy Dionysius preceded the pagans who sound a little like him. There is a real uniting of the »Aristotelian« Liber de Causis and the Augustinian: illumination that is yet natural and cognitive. Albert is known to have refuted Avicenna’s emanationism in his Sentences Commentary, but in later work the influence of the Liber de Causis grew.

Lars Reuke completes the triptych on Albert, noting that the relation between cause and effect in this primal life allows for participation. This identifies God with life and life’s procession as a hypostasis Dei, setting up a relationship with creation of archetype and image: all living beings participate in analogous manners.

Andreas Speer focuses on Aquinas’ criticism of those who think intellect sufficient for human happiness; our intellect isn’t much like that of the angels. Our desire to know Gd belongs to nature, but the goal requires grace. This is, Speer contends, a Dionysian reading of Aristotle. Thomas owed a debt also to the Greek commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics such as that by Eustrathius, translated by Grosseteste. Eustrathius in 1112 had debated with Latins who had argued that essence and energy were »two things«, with no easy synthesis.

According to Wouter Goris, Proclus clearly denied »the idea of the self-causation of the One, which Plotinus had applied to the One itself, and ascribes it to the Intellect itself« (255). Hence the One »becomes« through Another. Duns Scotus rejected the »essential being« (esse essentiae) that Henry of Ghent ascribed to creatable essences, as being at odds with the Christian idea of »creation out of nothing« (258). One may speak of a double emanation of things from God in the intellect and extramental reality. There is logical possibility then objective possibility, which goes in a Platonising direction of »unitive containment«. In this Proclean-Dionysian account revised by Scotus. God is simple by immensity, carrying anticipations of Hegel.

Isabelle Mandrella relates how Cusa cited D. frequently and positively, believing till that Proclus was dependent on D. He commissioned and used the 1443 translation of D.’s works by Ambrosio Traversari. The key ideas of Docta ignorantia and coincidentia oppositorum go back to D. In the late 1440s Cusa was attacked for a lack of reason in his thinking and also for too much reason. Cusa wrote that In God long and short coincide, and as such this was a contradiction that was more radical than that understood by Albert’s, such that more than mere intellectual vision was required (De beryllo, 1458) Nothing unknown can be loved, so intellect matters; but cannot do it all as he ruled at Tegernsee in 1454.

Late medieval Carthusians (in Erfurt) worked hard to keep the words as well as ideas of Dionysius in the forefront of their rather radically affective thinking (M. Khorkov’s essay). Dionysian hierarchies allow freedom to be thought of in relative terms (G. Dineva’s essay). Yet occupying one’s proper place allows a participation in God, thus equalizing creatures (F. Ivanovic’s essay).

In Georgi Kapriev’s closing essay there is a reference back to the Sofia 1999 conference published in 2000. Was it the case that Thomas commandeered D. and lost the point? This was denied by A Speer, but it seems clear that Thomas didn’t know the Energienlehre of D. Yet the broader question of God alone being good, as something distinctive to D., and confirmed by Proclus, was something that Eckhart understood (373). »The Good« works outward to cause, working through its essence (per suam essen- tiam). Robert Grosseteste had already learned this from Hugh of St Victor: in substantiam, in virtutem et operationem (it is not clear whether these are two or three in number.) God as cause is as a dynamis that transcends essence. As Heidegger saw for Aristotle, Metaphysics 9, dynamis and energeia are not about »possibility and actuality« but about ground of being and activity. In learning from D. East and West were not fundamentally different. D. was »der Hauptringrichter«, not least in the anti-Palamite Demetrios Kydones, for whom intellectual light is very much created. Essence and energy of God are the same in deed, though distinguishable intellectually. That which is given to humans is grace, not a share in divine creative energy as such.

By the end of this book, one has come a long way.