2013-2015: Neoplatonic Heritages in Corpus Dionysiacum

Project development

Scientific report May 2013 – October 2015

 

In this project, I have studied the Corpus Dionysiacum in terms of its relationship with traditional Neoplatonic thinking (Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, Damascius). I have followed a series of themes common to the classical Neoplatonic philosophers and to Pseudo-Dionysius. I focused especially on the way in which Pseudo-Dionysius specifically transforms several traditional Neoplatonic themes, in the light of a thinking that is no longer grounded upon the Platonic texts related to the first principle of the world, but which rests primarily on a revealed truth, upon the idea that God himself, though unknown in nature, wants to manifest himself through all that exists, and to talk about himself through the Scriptures.

I tried to show that, despite the current exegetical trends stating that Dionysius is a mere follower (or even forger) of the Neoplatonic tradition, the main ideas of this tradition takes on a radically different direction when transposed into the new Christian doctrinal context. Furthermore, I have tried to show that, by this mutation of meaning that occurs, Pseudo-Dionysius responds in his own way to certain discursive difficulties in which the Neoplatonic tradition remained blocked, namely, the difficulties related to the impossibility to speak about the First Principle, despite the constant philosophical attempt to overcome this impossibility. For Pseudo-Dionysius, the impossibility to speak about the inexpressible receives a unique resolution, to the extent that the inexpressible itself enter into this dialogue, talking about itself.

In order to shed light on both directions of my project (the “debt” of Pseudo-Dionysius to the Neoplatonic tradition, as well as the specific manner in which he surpasses this tradition), I started my research by elucidating the Neoplatonic philosophical context in which occurs the thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, analyzing how this tradition explained the knowledge of the First Principle. In the first instance, I focused especially on the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius, the last head of the School of Athens, and probably the closest to the period in which Pseudo-Dionysius lived and wrote. I highlighted the way in which, in the works of Damascius, occurs the problem of knowing and thinking of something beyond thought, analyzing the idea of suppressing the discourse and the theme of divination related to a principle that can not be properly thought. This problematic background is of real interest for the analysis of Pseudo-Dionysius’ thought.

Continuing my research, I undertook a detailed examination of the manner in which Pseudo-Dionysius relates to the Neoplatonic tradition, namely to the founding text of this tradition: Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. I then concentrated on the paradox traversing the thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius, namely that of a knowledge of the unknown, or of naming the unnamed.

Also, I focused on the manner in which the thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius is interpreted in the contemporary philosophy, concentrating on the work of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, and on his interpretation of the “distance” between our thinking and God. I analyzed the texts of the Corpus Dionysiacum from this perspective, examining the assumptions of J.-L. Marion’s interpretation, in order to see if they do not allow a different interpretation.

I also had a three months research stay in Freiburg, Germany (20.06.2014-20.09.2014), where I made an index of philosophical terms, that relevant for my research (terms indicating the overcoming of being and the unknowing of God), identifying the main texts from the Corpus Dionysiacum where these terms occur and exploring the way in which their meaning changes from one treaty to another, receiving new semantic nuances.

In the last stage of my project, I focused on the problem of the Principle of Good and the problem of the image in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. Regarding the first theme, I tried to show the radical change that Pseudo-Dionysius brings in Neoplatonic thought, since his exposition upon divine names focus not on the traditional distinction between absolute unity and plurality, but on the idea of God’s presence in all things, whose existence is understood as a gift of divine goodness.

In terms of the second theme, namely the problem of the image to Dionysius, it is the logical counterpart of the problem of ignorance. In the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, the unknowing of God is always accompanied by a paradoxical type of knowledge, in the sense that everything that exists is considered an image of God. To this end, I analyzed how Dionysius develops a unique concept of “image”, i.e. the image of the invisible, the image of the one who, although he shows himself in everything that exists, does not have an image of his own. I focused on this apparent dissymmetry traversing the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius: on the one hand, the things are similar to God, being made on God’s image, but, on the other hand, God himself is not similar to the things, and does not enter in their imagistic logic.

Research Results

During this project, I gave four conferences (three international and one national), and I elaborated five scientific articles: two of them are already published in international academic journals abroad, two other have been accepted for publication in international collective volume; an introductory study for the translation of Dionysius’ treatise On the Divine Names, which will be published at a prestigious national publishing house.

Conferences:

  1. In 10-11 October 2013 I participated in the International Conference Lectures de Jean-Luc Marion, held at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, in the presence of Professor Jean-Luc Marion (Member of the French Academy, Professor Emeritus of the University of Paris IV – Sorbonne, doctor honoris causa of the University of Bucharest) . In this context, I held a conference in French entitled “Jean-Luc Marion lecteur de Denys l’Aréopagite”. I analyzed Marion’s reading of the thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, focusing more specifically on the issue of the “distance” implied by the closeness to God and by any discourse about God. In this respect, Marion insists upon the fact that, for Pseudo-Dionysius, the distance (the impossibility of a direct approach) is what guarantees that God is not transformed into an object of thought (and thus into an idol). In my presentation, I emphasized the possibility of identifying, in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, a dimension of “closeness” or “presence” of God in the very act of speaking about him, by the very fact of invoking the divine names. It is precisely the presence of God in every thing (before any description, before any division specific to the discourse) that makes us unable to describe God. Instead, the divine names (that do not describe, but invoke) are a way to recover this presence, to make us aware of it.
  2. I participated at the 12th conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, the leading global association on this academic domain. In this conference held at the University of Lisbon (from 16 to 21 June 2014), I presented a paper in English entitled “Platonic Aporiai in a Dionysian Setting”, included in the panel Aporia in Late Ancient Platonism, coordinated by Damian Caluori and Christopher Noble. The subject of this talk was related to the role of the Platonic aporias in the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and especially in the treatises on the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names. The Neoplatonic philosophers tried to explain all levels of reality starting from Plato’s analysis of the second part of the dialogue Parmenides, which exposed various problematic ways in which the “One” can be considered in relation to the plurality of reality. These hypothetical explanations of Parmenides are the famous aporias who structured the Neoplatonic thought for several centuries. Pseudo-Dionysius is in no way stranger to this manner of thinking. On the contrary, in his writings, we can find traces of the aporias, but Pseudo-Dionysius has his own way to integrate them, and to use them in order to discover the cause of all things. In my talk, I tried to show how Pseudo-Dionysius integrates the first two aporias from the dialogue Parmenides, referring to the absolute One and to the divine intellect. Also, I focused on the specific role that aporias play in Pseudo-Dionysius’ thinking. I tried to show that the entire structure of the treatise on Divine names is that of aporia: speaking about God, Pseudo-Dionysius unites the discourse of the first two Platonic aporias, which in the traditional Neoplatonism were clearly separated, each referring to different topics. Pseudo-Dionysius affirms all the names, but also suppresses them all. I have tried to show that the double suppression of discourse accomplished by Pseudo-Dionysius (both the positive attributes and negative ones) does not contradict the affirmative discourse about God. I insisted on the fact that the role of aporias is to prepare for the type of discourse in which God manifests himself and exposes himself beyond the predicative manner specific to our thinking, in which any statement can be reversed in a negation. So, if the traditional Neoplatonic philosophers privilege the negation in the discourse about God, for Pseudo-Dionysius, negative and positive discourse – corresponding to the first two aporias of Parmenides – are, non-contradictory.
  3. I also participated at the national conference entitled Sf. Dionisie Areopagitul. Izvoare, context, receptare, organized by the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca (16-17 October 2014), with a paper entitled “Numele celui nenumit – Dionisie Areopagitul sau a ști prin a nu ști / The name of the unnamed – Dionysius the Areopagite or knowing by not knowing”. I insisted on a paradox in Pseudo-Dionysius’s thinking, namely that God, the unknown, is still known both by knowledge and by ignorance. To clarify this paradox, I tried to elucidate what means “unknown” and “ignorance” in this case. The “unknown” belongs to the ultimate meaning of any human knowledge: namely, in everything we know, we discover something that cannot be determined and known in itself. In other words, for Pseudo-Dionysius, any knowledge ultimately leads to a form of ignorance. If the usual knowledge concerns different realities, God is not known as a particular thing, but on the contrary, God is everything, only in the sense that everything and every name indicates finally the being that can not be known as such, but without which nothing can exist and nothing can be known. Thus, all names point to God as the being of everything, but which is nothing specifically. This explains why God can have any name, but remains unnamed and unknown.
  4. In 14th of January, I held a conference entitled “Denys l’Aréopagite et le principe donateur de bien”. This conference took place in Paris, Université Sorbonne, Centre Léon Robin/ CNRS, in the frame of the seminar “Le principe du Bien. L’héritage philosophique de l’antiquité à l’époque tardo-antique et médiévale”, coordinated by professor Anca Vasiliu. In this conference, I discussed the doctrinal change from Proclus to Dionysius the Areopagite, regarding the principle of Good, identifying the reasons and the implications of this change. I started with an exposition of the manner in which the good crosses the Neoplatonic thinking, and I showed that, in Dionysius’ works, one deals with a reversal between the role of the absolute One and the role of the Good. Thus, in the history of Neoplatonism, the identity between the One and the Good was an indisputable doctrine. However, there has always been a certain imbalance between the two, which explains the evolution of the concept of the Good. I showed that, while in the Neoplatonism, the Good did not describe the first principle as such, but rather the tendency of all reality to regain the principle, for Dionysius, the Good indicates the fact that God manifests himself, bestowing his goodness on the whole reality. I analyzed the manner in which the Good manifests itself as radiant goodness, as intelligible light, as beautiful and beauty, and as love, trying to show that, for Dionysius, everything that exists is a manifestation of the Good. There is no plurality outside the Good, but always inside the Good, inside this movement that starts with the Good, in order to come back to the Good, and which never leaves the Good. For Dionysius, the Good is the divine name that indicates God as source of the whole procession of reality. The Good manifests through all existing things and it is a principle that precedes Being, not as a non-being, but as the one who bestows all being. Like as source which never leaves its unity, the Good imprints of all things goodness, as well as the ability to convey and to desire goodness. It gives every thing a particular sense of its existence, which consists of loving the Good and belonging to the Good.

Publications:

  1. In the fall of 2013, I published a scientific article in French, in a highly prestigious international journal (ISI Thomson indexed), edited by Presses Universitaires de Louvain: “Damascius et la divination du principe incoordonné,” Revue philosophique de Louvain, volume 111, No. 3, August 2013, pp. 469-490,. Since my project requires a recovery of the theoretical and doctrinal background of the Neoplatonic School (which is the basis from which I aim to evaluate the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite), it is necessary to undertake a detailed analysis of the way in which the other Neoplatonic authors conceive the access to the unknown First Principle. In this article, I focused on Damascius and on the manner in which he speaks about the first principle (the supreme god of the Neoplatonic tradition). In this regard, I have shown that Damascius does not directly introduce the first principle, which would have constituted a serious contradiction to the axiom that the principle is inexpressible. On the contrary, Damascius shows that the principle should be accepted by our thought because we have a “divination” of its existence, since we have an intuition or a presentiment of that principle. I tried to show what means this “divination” for Damascius: it is a way to deduce the existence of the first principle not starting from some positive evidence, but on the contrary, starting from the aporias (or the difficulties) that the idea of a first principle produces in our thinking. Divination is accepted as a philosophical method, and as an alternative or solution to our discourse, which tends to regress to infinity in front of a principle that cannot be described and cannot be fixed in any way by any concept.
  2. In the fall of 2014, I published a second scientific article, this time in English, in a prestigious international journal published by Walter de Gruyter, indexed in several international databases: „Discourse and suppression of discourse in Damascius’ De principiis“, Rhizomata. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, vol. 2, issue 2 (2014), pp. 187–233, ISSN 2196-5110. This article is dedicated to the philosopher Damascius and to the way in which he attempts to propose an absolute principle that rejects any discursive manner in which we could try to indicate it. I tried to show that the ineffable, beyond the absolute One, relies precisely on a subtle criticism of the ways in which the absolute One is still suggested, being contaminated by the duality and specific discursiveness of our thinking. I have shown that Damascius opens three lines of attack in this regard, suppressing the highest discursive ways available to us: the notion (ennoia), the supposition (hyponoia) and the hymn (hymenin). I looked on all these three concepts referring to three mental acts, showing that, at every time, we can identify a precise dispute of Damascius with the tradition preceding him. The principle should not be conceived because this is the usual way in which we think, in the framework of what we call “the all”, while the principle of everything can not be reinstated in this totality; in this sense, it can not even be called principle, one, or first, as it was called in the precedent Neoplatonic tradition. Also, we cannot make any suggestion regarding the absolute principle, because the suggestion (or the analogy) is a way of determining the principle. If Proclus spoke about the astonishment in the front of the principle, giving us a kind of supposition about the truth, instead for Damascius the principle is truly “worthy of wonder” precisely because we have no supposition about it. Finally, Damascius suppresses even the hymn as a manner in which his precursors have spoken about the last principle, by using the aporetic “hymn” from the second part of the dialogue Parmenides. For Damascius, the sign of the proximity with the absolute principle is not the negative “hymn” of the first Platonic aporia, but the suppression of any type of discourse.
  3. In the first part of 2014, starting from the presentation “Jean-Luc Marion lecteur de Denys l’Aréopagite” presented at the international conference Lectures de Jean-Luc Marion mentioned earlier, I have written an article that has been accepted for publication in a collective international volume dedicated to the interpretations of Jean-Luc Marion on a series of great figures of the history of philosophy. This volume will be published during the year 2016, at a prestigious international publishing house.
  4. I also wrote a scientific article entitled “Denys l’Aréopagite et l’image divine: symbole, empreinte, statue”, which will be published in the volume L’icône dans la pensée et dans l’art, Brepols, 2016, edited by Kristina Mitalaité and Anca Vasiliu. In this article, I focused on three types of divine image in the work of Dionysius the Areopagite. I identify the distinct manner in which things show God: either as his symbols, as his imprints, or as his statues. I argue that any divine image rests upon a paradoxical and non-reciprocal notion of resemblance: all things resemble God, while he remains dissimilar and above all things. Thus, all things show God’s presence, but they also urge us to pass beyond any image, since they are ultimately images of the absolute invisible. In this sense, I show that these types of image closely follow the three aspects of reality depicted throughout the Neoplatonic tradition, and which Dionysius displays in his own way: procession, rest and reversion.
  5. I also wrote an introduction which accompanies the translation of Dionysius’ treatise On the Divine Names into Romanian. This translation is to be published at a prestigious national publishing house. In this introduction, I focused on the main debates in contemporary exegesis, concerning the identity of the author of the Dionysian Corpus, and I also discussed a series of problems linked to the central themes of the treatise.

 

 Summary:

2015

Scientific results:
  • 1 international workshop attended;
  • 2 articles accepted for publication in collective volumes;
Research topics:
  • the principle of Good;
  • divine image.

Funding: 82629 lei

2014

Scientific results
  • 1 international conference attended;
  • 1 national conference attended;
  • 1 article published in an international journal indexed in EBSCO;
Research topics
  • Ps.-Dionysius place in the Neoplatonic tradition.
  • Neoplatonic background of Ps.-Dionysius: Plotinus. Texts analysed: Plotinus, Enneads;
  • Neoplatonic background of Ps.-Dionysius: Proclus. Texts analysed: Proclus, Theologia platonica;
  • Analysis of Corpus Dionysiacum. Texts analysed: Ps.-Dionysius, Mystical Theology; Divine Names.

Funding: 109166 lei

2013

Scientific results
  • 1 international conference attended;
  • 1 article published in an international ISI indexed journal;
Research topics
  • Methodological problems;
  • Systematization of necessary bibliographical material;
  • Analysis of Corpus Dionysiacum. Texts analysed: Ps.-Dionysius, Mystical Theology; Divine Names.
  • Contemporary reception of Dionysius the Areopagite in the work of Jean-Luc Marion. Texts analysed: Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and the Distance.
  • The relation between Damascius and Ps.-Dionysius. The question of the first principle. Texts analysed: Damascius, De principiis; Ps.-Dionysius, Mystical Theology; Divine Names.

Funding: 107245 lei