Plotinus, Augustine, and the Confessions

The Neoplatonic understanding of reality is that the world and each thing in the world is an ontological procession or exit from the One-beyond-being –that is, the super-essential Good or Beauty– into difference and multiplicity (the One generating first Intellect, Intellect generating Soul, etc.), and that each thing returns or reverts to what it is an expression of, and participates in, by way of its own unity, its own nature. Proceeding is often likened to a fall, and reversion to an ascent. Insofar as anything exists, it remains within the generative cause from which it proceeds, no matter how far it exits into multiplicity.

In his Confessions, the parable of the prodigal son plays a central role – not only as a means of figuratively summarizing Augustine’s understanding of his own life, but as expressive of the procession or exit of the whole world; yet Augustine stresses the element of falling in the whole procedure: we fall, and are wasted in the fall; we exit, but do not return; like the prodigal, we exit and exit and exit: we go off in a far country, wasting our native dignity, and do not wake up to return to ourselves, our right minds, and remember the Good of our native homeland, God.

The way that Augustine reads his life within this mirror of this parable, and the way that he gathers up his memories in thanksgiving to God so as not to abandon them within the dissolution of the exit, are exemplary of the way that he seeks to unify his own life by gathering himself back to his essential unity and his native homeland, or rather, to seek the hidden unity being wrought by God in the wasteland of his fractured self.

We shall aim first to outline some elements of the procession and reversion in Plotinus, the reasons Plotinus gives for the soul’s fall, the means of its return, and a major disagreement within the tradition of pagan Athenian Neoplatonism that takes its cue from Plotinus. It will then look at the same themes in Augustine’s Confessions, to place the same themes of that work’s narrative in its philosophical context. Continue reading

Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.

I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)

Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)

Continue reading