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23.05.03 Kapriev (ed.), The Dionysian Tradition

23.05.03 Kapriev (ed.), The Dionysian Tradition

This volume--the result of the contributions of a conference held in Varna in Bulgaria twenty years after a previous conference held in 1999 in Sofia--is an intellectual homage to the influence exerted by the Corpus Dionysiacum on both medieval and modern European thought. Following after the publication of the contributions from the Sofia conference in 2000, this new publication sets an important stage not just in the development of the history of research on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, but more generally in the whole historiography of medieval and modern thought. This book examines a vital field of analysis for the history of thought and offers an essential key to understanding ideas from the past. It reveals that the wide-ranging thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite gives us an access point into the philosophical and theological sources of the past even when these appear, on the surface, to have little connection to Dionysius’s approach.

Andreas Speer’s contribution (233) is exemplary in this: Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy would appear to be on shores distant from Platonism, and according to Speer it is explicitly characterized as a middle ground between a materialistic approach to the present world--the reductionism of the ancient atomists--and the devaluation of the present world brought on by Platonic idealism. It could be added, following the studies of Cornelio Fabro, [1] that the concept of participation in Thomas Aquinas plays a much greater role than his paradigmatic criticism of Plato could lead us to believe. Speer notes that Aquinas’s empathetic attitude towards Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite does not depend on whether he is the father of Christian mysticism. There are genuine philosophical reasons: Aquinas reads Dionysius as an Aristotelian, in the sense that he rejects the separate nature of forms, but at the same time uses Dionysius to read Aristotle, and in this way eliminates any possible nominalistic reading of Aristotle. For Aquinas, Dionysius is not a Platonist, but if we were to read Plato outside the rigid notion of separate substances, which is still a key point of Aristotelian criticism, we could see how elements of Platonism creep into an explicit reworking of Aristotle by Aquinas. Fixing a vocabulary and a semantic map is not simple, but a fundamental point emerges: we face a situation that is very complex. It is not useful to trust in historiographical tools placed in rigid schemes for reading argumentations, a sort of black-and-white dichotomy managing a limited plurality of labels, while the great complexity of argumentations demands soft, and not rigid, distinctions. Again, the author himself, in this case Thomas Aquinas, thinks to represent his own philosophical position in an apparently linear way, but finally this representation is, for the curious interpreter, more and more puzzling. Surely, in at least one way of speaking, Dionysius was a Platonic thinker: the contribution of Edwards shows Dionysius as a member of the Athenian School of Neoplatonism, even if it is impossible to identify him with a known pagan philosopher, and maybe in this philosophical school also Christian thinkers are present and active. Oneness of God, participation, essence, theurgy are the Platonic heritage of Dionysius, and his strong idea is spoken about in Edwards’s final lines: “we can no longer decree that everything must be false whose contrary has shown to be true” (52).

It seems to me that the contribution of Wouter Goris is in the same line of philosophical research. Goris deals with another author, John Duns Scotus; moreover, far from Aquinas’s philosophical strategy, Scotus is asserting the primacy of will. Apparently, Scotus does not recognize himself in a trait fundamental to Dionysius’s thought, negative theology. In an essay by a scholar who, like Goris, shows unsuspected prima facie proximity between Scotus and Dionysius, this scholar recalls that for Scotus it seems absurd to love a negation--so he is mocking about negative theology by reducing it to a divine world of negations--and then he develops strategies that appear to be inspired by this negative theology. [2] Goris tries to explain what is usually called Scotus’spropositio famosa, i.e., “which would have a real distinction if it were really separated, has the same distinction conceptually, where it is not really differentiated” (263). It is a complicated theme that often divides past and contemporary scholars, given that counter-intuitive consequences can ensue: for example, somebody can state that this is not a real distinction, but it is grounded in reality. What does it mean? For Scotus this distinction is useful, for other thinkers it is openly absurd--I am thinking about William of Ockham, to remain in the Middle Ages. Goris shows that, in order to understand this capacity for union which is located at the origin of the Scotian philosophical system, Dionysius is useful and pedagogical. If the divine essence contains all the perfections in a unitary way, to the point of identifying itself according to Damascene with the divine essence itself, Scotus distinguishes them ex natura rei et formaliter, according to the nature of the objects and according to the way of this extremely complicated object which are the formalitates, whose only certain thing is that Scotus chooses a neologism to speak of the Platonic or Aristotelian forms, not forma, but formalitas. Goris concludes: “from the first essence everything emanates in an orderly manner, Scotus concludes, and qualifies the word ‘emanat’ with an ut licet loqui--in acknowledgment of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of unity” (273). Here too the situation is very complex: Scotus can make fun of negative theology and then can adopt an essential philosophical strategy associated with his own strategy of formalitates, which I could qualify as an unsuspected bridge towards Neoplatonism, at least unsuspected for one who feels bound a priori to classical logic and to an absolute and universal use, firmissimum, of the Principle of Contradiction. [3]

Speer and Goris are a pair of articles that are only a small part of the contributions that appear in this volume, about various and always conceptually vital topics. I wanted to start from these two because they give the sense of the extreme fruitfulness of the volume, without claiming to exhaust anything, but continually opening avenues of research: it seems to me that Speer and Goris open a line of research on Neoplatonism in medieval philosophy that will engage numerous researchers, of different sensibilities, who deal with authors who are not necessarily homogeneous with each other. In these two articles alone, an immense field of research appears: dynamic definition of the Platonic traditions in the medieval centuries, and a search for previous philosophical strategies in an author who represents those traditions in a different way from how the contemporary interpreter sees them in his meta-language with respect to the object language of the texts subjected to historiographical interpretation. The richness of the volume is also ample in the remaining fifteen contributions, seven of which are written in German.

Several contributions are placed in the panorama of medieval Byzantine thought. Mainoldi shows how the key concepts of the ontology discussed for centuries in the Byzantine cultural world are modeled on the ontology of Dionyius; Bradshaw, author of Aristotle East and West, compares Dionysius with Gregorius Palamas on the non-immediate status of the energies, among other topics. Markov concentrates on the historical moment of the ninth century in which the notion of hierarchy is placed at the center of the philosophical construction and closely associated with Dionysius’s theory of language in which apophatic and cataphatic predication is distinguished; in this way he extends Bradshaw’s reflection on the energies present in God.For someone wishing to tackle the question of Byzantine philosophy, or the conceptual struggle between iconoclasts and iconophiles, this group of essays provides suggestive avenues of analysis full of developments in which abundant conceptual and semantic tools come from the philosophy of Dionysius.

Kobusch can be considered the contribution that opens another group, that of long-term conceptual analyses, perhaps a tribute to Anthony Kenny’s contribution to history of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy. These papers dwell on that focus to show the fecundity of Dionysius’ thought. Kobusch offers us the classic relationship between the One and the many, through universal principles of thought; Dineva addresses the hierophany dimension in the hierarchy as guardian of the radical human freedom that emerges in the pre-Scholastic and Scholastic Latin tradition; and Mensching also returns to this theological theme of hierarchy, analyzing the transition from mystical to political discourse. Ivanovic removes from Dionysius the presumption that his philosophy favors authoritarianism, when instead it favors equality and harmony. Finally, there are contributions that develop comparisons with specific authors. Burger engages with Albertus Magnus and the divine names; Anzulewicz shows how the concepts of illumination and emanation in Albertus Magnus derive from Dionysius; again Reuke shows the relevance of Albertus Magnus to verify the influence of Dionysius, in a story in which the concept of life reaches up to a modern philosopher, Fortunio Liceti, who practices the linguistic role of analogy; Mandrella examines Cusanus in the light of Dionysius, who provides him with arguments against those who criticize him for his coincidence of opposites, a passage from universal validity of the Principle of Contradiction to a local one; Mesaroş then investigates the mystical dimension of Dionyius in Saint Gerard of Cenad (eleventh century), mystical terrain on which Khorkov tackles the mysticism of Erfurt Carthusians in the fifteenth century.

I want to conclude with Kapriev’s contribution, which addresses the possible divergence between a Latin and a Greek interpretation of Dionysius: while the former revolves around causality and substance, the latter revolves around substance associated with energies and dynamics. However, in fact, the situation becomes tangled and one can only register particularities in the cultural debate of one’s geographical area: for Kapriev there is not a single possible reading of Dionysius, and the alternative readings stating an exclusive reading of the Corpus Dionysiacum do not in fact respect the uncertain boundaries of cultural geography. My wish is that the excellent contributions of this volume can unfold their effects throughout the whole dimension of the history of medieval and modern philosophy.



1. Cornelio Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo s. Tommaso d'Aquino, (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1939).

2. O. Gilon-Fischer, Pratique hénologique chez Jean Duns Scot, in «Mais raconte-moi en détail...», Ousia-Vrin, Bruxelles-Paris 2008: this text opens with the translation from Ordinatio, I, d. 3, p. 1, q. 2, et nous n’aimons pas souverainement des négations.

3. A useful introduction to the general Neoplatonic approach is J. N. Martin, Themes in Neoplatonic and Aristotelian Logic, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004); concerning Dionysius himself, see T. D. Knepper, “Three Misuses of Dionysius for Comparative Theology,” Religious Studies, 45 (2009): 205-21.