Plato’s Two Cities

In his very informative book, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Dominic O’Meara argues that the Platonists of Late Antiquity did not think that Plato intended his strict utopian government reflected in the Republic to be applied to any physical city or polity in this life. Rather, the Republic reflects the principles of the Ideal city, not the city of this world of flux. The Platonists saw a division between two “cities” in Plato’s political writings, between the Ideal city of the Republic and the more realistic (in terms of material limitations) civic polity delineated in Laws. O’Meara explains:

The relation between the ideal city of the Republic and that proposed in the Laws was, for the Neoplatonist, far from what it is often supposed to be today, that is, that the ambitious political reformer of the Republic, disappointed by his experience in Sicily, produced in his old age a more modest project, that of the Laws. Rather, the later Neoplatonist read the relation between the two cities in the light of a passage in the Laws (739b-e), which distinguishes between the best constitution (where all is held in common); a second-best constitution which seeks to approach the best, but admits of private property and family units; and a yet lower, third-best city.  Thus, in the Laws, a political project is sketched which approximates to the ideal, while at the same time making concessions to human nature as regards the need for private property and family. The ideal, best constitution, on the other hand, makes no such concessions and seems indeed hardly possible for humans, since it is described as a `city of gods or of children of the gods’ (Laws 739d). The Neoplatonists understood this city of the gods mentioned in the Laws as corresponding to the project of an ideal city of the Republic (Kindle Locations 1024-1031).

For example:

Proclus sees the political projects of the Republic and the Laws as situated on different levels: the Republic takes individuals that are pure and educates them, whereas the Laws takes people who have already lived in other cities and are less perfect. Thus the city of the Laws is inferior in its political ambition to that of the Republic: not only does it not foresee the highest positions for women [as the Republic does], it also allows private property (banned from the life of the rulers in the Republic), which, given woman’s weaker nature (in Proclus’ view) and thus her presumed preference for the private to the public good, means that it is prudent to exclude her from the highest office at the level of the less perfect city of the Laws. (Kindle Locations 952-957).

What, then, is the relationship between the two cities? How are they connected? The Platonists answer, is the philosopher king or the political philosopher. O’Meara explains the role of the political philosopher in uniting the two cities:

The purpose of the political philosopher is to promote a political order which favours the development of the `political’ virtues among the citizens and thus the achievement of `political happiness’, as a first stage in the process of divinization. Political life, a life in which soul, as living in relation to the body, is confronted with problems of order both within itself and in relation to others, is thus a school of virtue, an extended version, so to speak, of the philosophical school, the ruler being consequently a kind of mentor or guide who brings order to political life, inspired by a privileged  access to the divine (Kindle Locations 1001-1005).

By imitating the divine model of wisdom and providing an example of that wisdom in his person the political philosopher points the earthly city to the Good. This sort of education divinizes the earthly city. O’Meara notes:

At any rate, the goal of political science, the common good that includes the individual good on the political level, is `good’ to the degree that it relates to, or participates in, a transcendent Good. In short, the finality of politics is sharing in the divine, i.e. divinization, just as `political’ virtue represents a form and early stage of divinization. Thus the political good, or `political happiness’, is not an ultimate goal, but a stage giving access to the ultimate Good (Kindle Locations 998-1001).

For Platonists, the good of the earthly city is only good insofar as it participates in the Good of the heavenly “city of the gods” by means of public laws that bring order and structure to the souls of citizens; thereby divinizing the earthly city. This, of course, means that the Platonists were not merely political philosophers but political theologians.

“God is an Infinite Sphere”: A (Very) Brief History

I saw a tweet a few days back that was a quotation from the English Puritan, George Swinnock’s The Blessed and Boundless God, in which Swinnock notes, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This quotation, Swinnock admits, comes from an unknown “heathen” author. Though Swinnock does not name the source or the book, he is most likely quotting from the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, that is, The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers. The second principle head of this work states: DEVS EST SPHAERA INFINITA CVIVS CENTRVM EST VBIQUE, CIRCVMFERENTIA NVSQVAM, which translates, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The metaphor of God as a sphere was bequeathed to English theologians of the 17th century both by the Liber XXIV Philosophorum itself and by Medieval authors who quoted from it. Nicholas of Cusa was one Late Medieval author who made use of this phrase. In his De Docta Ignorantia I.23, Cusa argues that the metaphor of an infinite sphere is appropriate to describe the existence of God (Sicut sphaera infinita est penitus in actu et simplicissima, ita maximum est penitus in actu simplicissime).  English theologians, like Cusa, found this metaphor to be quite useful. Joseph Hall, for example, states in a sermon, “O God, thou art an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere but in thyself.” Another Puritan, Peter Sterry, states, “God is that Sacred Circle of All-Being, of Infinitness, of Eternity, whose Center is everywhere, in the smallest Point of Things; whose Circumference is no where bounded” (The Appearance of God to man… London, 1710, p. 300).

There is no record or evidence of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum before the Medieval period. Swinnock, like his European predecessors would have thought that the book was composed by the famed Hermes Tristmegistus. Modern historians reject that claim, yet they are divided over the exact lineage of the book. Some argue that it was composed in Antiquity from various quotations taken from Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and others. Kurt Flasch, however, argues that there is little evidence for this composition in the text itself. No matter the date of composition, the author of the book was clearly influenced by Aristotle and later Neoplatonic authors. From the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, then, comes the idea of God as an infinite sphere, an idea that would fascinate Late Medieval authors as well as Puritans and also those early modern authors who would seek to wed theology to mathematics.

Johannes Tauler (†1361), the Image of God, and the ‘Dominican’ Proclus

For those interested in the recovery of Neoplatonic texts in Late Medieval Europe and/or the Protestant Reformation, TaulerJohannes Tauler should be quite interesting. He was a Dominican student of Meister Eckhart and his works were quite influential for Martin Luther. Tauler’s concept of the imago Dei was one of the most unique of his time. In a sermon on John 3:11 Tauler explicitly distances himself from Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the imago. For Tauler the Seelengrund (ground of the soul) is the true image of the Trinity as opposed to the traditional Augustinian concept of the imago as reflected in memory, understanding, and will. One may only enter their Seelengrund, says Tauler, by shedding “all outward attachments” and “pious action” since, in one’s return to the hidden God “exterior precepts and techniques will be of no avail.” Tauler’s doctrine of the Seelengrund is unique because it is partly influenced by his readings of a quite recently translated passage from Proclus’s De Providentia. Tauler explains:

(English translation below)

Hievon sprach ein heidenscher meister Proculus: alle die wile und also lange da der mensche mit den bilden die under uns sint, umbget und mangeld do nút, so ist daz nut gelouplich daz der mensche in disen grunt iemer komen múge; das ist uns zümole ein ungloube daz das in uns si; wir múgent nút gelouben das es si und ouch in uns si, sunder – sprach er – wiltu daz bevinden das ez si, so la alle manigvaltekeit und sich dis an mit eime verstentlichen gesihte dis ein; wiltu nu noch hoher kummen, so la das vernúnftige gesihte und daz ansehen, wan die vernunft ist under dir unde wurt eins mit dem einen, und er nemmet dis eine alsus: eine stille swigende sloffende götteliche unsinnige dúnsternisse. Kinder, das ein heiden dis verstunt und darzü kam, das wir dem also verre und also ungelich sint, das ist uns laster und grosse schande. Dis bezúgete unser herre do er sprach: ‘das rich Gottes ist in úch’…

A pagan master, Proclus, has this to say on the subject [of the imago Dei]: “As long as man is occupied with images inferior to himself, and as long as he does not go beyond them, it is unlikely that he will ever reach this depth. It will appear an illusion to really believe that this groung exists within us; we doubt that it can actually exist in us. Therefore,” he continues, “if you wish to experience its existence, you must abandon all multiplicity and concentrate your attention on this one thing with the eyes of your intellect; and if you wish to rise higher, you must put aside all rational methods, for reason is now beneath you, and then you may become united with the One.” And he calls this state a divine darkness: still, silent, at rest , and above all sense perception. Beloved, it is a disgraceful thing that a pagan philosopher understood and attained this truth, while we are so far from both. Our Lord expressed the same truth when he said: “The kingdom of God is within us.” – Tauler, translated by Maria Shrady in Johannes Tauler: Sermons, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

According to Loris Sturlese, Tauler does not merely quote Proclus as an authority but implies that he understands the context and some of the more intricate details of Proclus’s philosophy. Judging the content of Tauler’s few references to Proclus, Sturlese determines that he must have had full access to three whole chapters of Proclus’s De Providentia (from where the references originate) within the Tria Opuscula translated by William of Moerbeke ca. 1268. Sturlese explains the full extent of the influences on Tauler’s concept of the Seelengrund:

(English translation below)

Tauler lehnt die thomistische These ab, die Gottebenbildlichkeit der Seele bestehe in der aktuallen Entfaltung ihrer Seelenvermögen (Gedächtnis, Verstand und Wille), und betont, das Bild Gottes liege vielmehr »in dem allerverborgensten tieffesten grunde der selen«, wobei er sich ausdrücklich auf Proklos … und stillschweigend auf Dietrich und Berthold beruft […]. Die Lehre Dietrichs, die er für sich in Anspruch nimmt, ist seine bekannte Identifizierung des Bildes Gottes mit dem »abditus mentis« Augustins […]. Die Lehre des Proklos ist die des »unum animae«, in noch ausführlicherer Weise im Rahmen der Erklärung des Begriffes vom Gemüt … dargestellt wird […]. Tauler macht sich das Proklische »unum animae« zunutze, um der Interpretation des »abditum mentis« im Sinne des Intellekts, die Dietrich von Freiberg – einem Motiv Alberts des Großen folgend – vorgetragen hatte (Tauler kennt sie…), die Deutung des »abditum mentis« als transintellektuelles Prinzip gegenüberzustellen […]. Hierbei zeigt sich Tauler als vom philosophischen Denken Bertholds von Moosburg abhängig, denn er interpretiert die Proklischen Texte zum »unum« in einer Weise, die bei Berthold, und nur bei ihm, eine genaue Entsprechung findet… Unter dem Gesichtspunkt der damaligen deutschen philosophischen Debatte betrachtet, ist Taulers Übereinstimmung mit Berthold als eine Stellungnahme gegen den Thomismus anzusehen, welche die in der Dominikanerprovinz verbreitete Stimmung reflektierte, die ihre markanteste Erscheinung im Prokloskommentar des Moosburger Lektors fand… – Loris Sturlese, Homo Divinus: Philosophische Projekte in Deutschland zwischen Meister Eckhart und Heinrich Seuse, (Kohlhammer GmbH: Stuttgart, 2007), 194, 195).

Tauler rejected the thomistic position, that the image of God in the soul consists in the actual development of its faculties (memory, understanding, and will), and stresses , that the image of God lies, rather, “in the completely hidden, deepest ground of the soul,” whereby he makes explicit reference to Proclus … and by implication to Dietrich [von Freiberg] and Berthold [von Moosburg] […] Dietrich’s theory, which [Tauler] claimed for himself, is his well-known identification of the image of God with the “abditus mentis” [the hidden depth of the mind] of Augustine. Proclus’s theory is that of the “unum animae” [the one in the soul], depicted in a yet more detailed way in the context of the representation of ideas from the mind. Tauler made use of Proclus’s doctrine of the “unum animae” in order to counterpose the interpretation of the “abditum mentis” as properly intellectual – and Tauler knew that Dietrich von Freiberg followed the motive of Albert the Great in handing down this concept – with the reading of the “abditus mentis” as a trans-intellectual principle. By this Tauler shows that he is dependent upon the philosophical thought of Berthold von Moosburg, because he interpreted the text of Proclus regarding the “one” in such a way that one finds an exact equivalent [of it] in Berthold’s work and only in his work. When viewed from the perspective of the German philosophical debate of the time, Tauler’s agreement with Berthold is seen as a reaction against Thomism, which reflected a common attitude in the Dominican Order and which found its most marked appearance in the Proclus-commentary of the Moosburg lecturers.

Tauler was a fellow Dominican and resided in the same cloister as Berthold von Moosburg, the first in the European West to read and comment upon a major work of Proclus’s, i.e., the Elements of Theology – Aquinas commented on a portion of the Liber de Causis which contains selections from Proclus’s Elements translated from Arabic. So, Sturlese argues, it is most likely the case that Tauler received excerpts from Proclus’s De Providentia from his Dominican brother. Combining this new teaching of the “one in the soul” with the mysticism of Albertus Magnus mediated by Dietrich’s earlier teaching (which Eckhart also incorporated into his theology) on Augustine’s abditus mentis, Tauler was able to construct a theology of the imago Dei that challenged the hegemony of the Dominican magisterium. Tauler’s theology also functioned as an apologetic for what he saw as humanity’s absolute need of the divine mediation of Christ to enable one to lose oneself and return to the One within the Seelengrund, which, as he says, is the “Kingdom of God within us.”

The Optimism of a Dualistic Reality in Later Neoplatonism

ImageAs Radek Chlup argues in his recent monograph on Proclus, later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus seem at first glance to present a more pessimistic account of the soul’s abilities than that of Plotinus who thought of the “higher soul” as freely able to navigate between different levels of ontological reality. For Plotinus the higher soul remains in the intellectual realm while the lower soul descends into the body. Thus, the material aspect of human existence is merely a hindrance to perfection and contemplative virtue is promoted as the only means of “escaping from here.” For Iamblichus and Proclus there is no higher undescended soul and the intelligible universe does not exist within the soul. Chlup explains that, although this divergence from the teaching of the original “father” of Neoplatonism may seem pessimistic, things are not as they may seem on the surface:

At first sight, the Neoplatonic approach [of later Neoplatonists] may appear rather pessimistic. While Plotinus had the entire universe at his fee, so to speak, and was able to pass through its various levels freely, starting with Iamblichus philosophers were ‘imprisoned’ on the psychic level, having no access to the higher ones. In fact, however, their position implies no pessimism whatsoever, and in some regards it is actually optimistic. Above all, eastern Neoplatonists have a much more positive relation towards the corporeal world. Plotinus’ identification with his ‘higher self’ established in the intelligible world caused our philosopher to show little concern for what goes on at the corporeal level. It is symptomatic that Plotinus has a very negative conception of matter, regarding it as the ultimate source of all evil. Late Neoplatonists cannot afford such a view or the simple reason that they have nowhere to escape from bodily reality. According to them, humans are mediators between the intelligible and the sensible world, and they have no choice but to take seriously both of them … A soul of this kind … should combine its contemplative activity with active providential care for things in this world. – Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction, (Oxford: 2012), 28, 29.

Thus, these later Neoplatonists, though they held a more pessimistic view of the soul, actually were more optimistic about the “hylemorphê” or the united body-soul composite that is the essence of a human. This also reflects a more optimistic metaphysics with regard the gods and their relation to the material world. According to Proclus:

[The soul] wants to imitate the providential care of the gods; it is for this reason that it abandons its contemplation. For divine perfection is of two kinds: one is intellective, the other providential; the former consists in rest, the latter in motion. This being so, the soul imitates the intellective and unswerving stability of the gods by its contemplation, but their providence and motion by its life in the world of  generation. – In Tim. III 324.6-12; Chlup, 245.

And, of course, Proclus’s more optimistic view of the hylemorphê and of the gods corresponds to a more civic oriented virtue ethic. Since human reality is ultimately a dualistic unity of mind and matter and because man desires to imitate the providential actions of the gods, so his contemplation will always return to bodily action, from which one might say it never truly departed. Proclus explains:

Moreover, since virtue is not one and indivisible but multifarious, we must understand that providence always incites us to ever different projections of our reason-principles, in order that the virtuous person might realize all possible modes of virtue and be shown as its true champion in the eyes of those who have arranged the contest of virtue [i.e., the gods]. For this reason providence often brings externally active people to rest, making the intellect within them revert on itself, but it moves to actions those who only look inside themselves; in this way it teaches us what form virtue has and that it is of two aspects. This is why providence gives us various tools but then takes back again what it has given: by making human lives variegated it challenges good people to actualize their dispositions in all possible manners, training them in this way to administer this universe together with the gods. – De dec. dub. 37.9-20; Chlup, 249.

Martin Bucer on Dionysius as Church Father

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)
Martin Bucer (1491-1551)

Dionysius “Platonizes more than he Christianizes” is now a famous quote by Martin Luther. In fact, most scholars in the area of Dionysius studies take it for granted that this statement marks a total rejection of the Corpus Dionysiacum by not only Luther but all Protestants. Kalfried Froehlich argues otherwise in his short introductory essay “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Reformation of the 16th century,” in the Pseudo-Dionysius: the Complete Works. He points out that Luther only seems to reject the Mystical Theology in these statements. Furthermore, Froehlich notes that Calvin also harshly judged the so-called Areopagite for his vain curiositas but in the end he admits that his works “contain some things not to be totally despised” (Comm. on Acts 17:34). Some of the most significant Reformers continued to quote Dionysius as an authority even though they accepted Valla’s proof of forgery. Froehlich points out that Martin Bucer, though distancing himself in some regards, saw Dionysius in a more positive light than Luther and Calvin.

This distanced appreciation is visible, for example, in Martin Bucer of Strassburg and in the Lutheran polemicists of the later decades of the sixteenth century. We know that in his early years Bucer used Ficino’s edition and commentary of the Divine Names. Even later he appreciated the “sublime, almost inspired style characteristic of all his [i.e., Dionysius’s] writings.” The authorship question is not discussed in Bucer’s works but he freely quoted Dionysius among his patristic sources on a number of issues: the question of the prayer for the dead; the double character of the mass, heavenly and earthly; the instrumentality of the Ministry. For Bucer, Dionysius was not an apostolic writer but one of the “older” fathers; he is placed somewhere between Irenaeus and Augustine, being mentioned together with Cyprian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Cyril (Pseudo-Dionysius, 45).

The works of Ficino and Pico were instrumental in bringing Dionysius into the Early Modern period, no longer as a proof text for scholastic arguments but for the humanistic pursuit of wisdom in the original sources of the faith. Bucer, following Ficino’s commentary, used Dionysius’s writings for the sake of the Reformation. The clearest example of this is in his Commentary on Romans where he discovers in Dionysius what he believes is corroboration for his Protestant concept of faith. Bucer writes:

However, since Dionysius expresses our point quite wonderfully in the sublime, almost inspired style characteristic of all his writings, we will quote what his work on The Divine Names (ex libro de Divin. nominibus cap. 7) has to say about faith. ‘Faith’, he writes, “relates to the divine Reason, which is the simple and truly existent truth, and so the solid foundation of believers, establishing both them in the truth and the truth in them with an unwavering permanence. For those who believe and are persuaded possess a simple knowledge of the truth, and this knowledge avails to unite the knower and the objects of knowledge, while ignorance is ever the cause of change and self-discrepancy in the ignorant. Consequently, the man who believes in the truth according to the sacred word will never be dislodged from the stable foundation furnished by faith, on which he will surely enjoy the security of immovable and immutable permanence (immutabilis identitatis). Indeed, he who is united with the truth knows perfectly that all is well with him, even though the multitude rebuke him for being out of his mind (raptum extra se); for it naturally escapes them that he has been rescued from error (ereptus est errori) by the truth through true faith. But he knows well enough for himself that instead of being, as they say, out of his senses, he has been delivered from the unstable and ever-varying twists and turns of protean error through the simple, self-consistent, unchanging truth. Hence it is that our chief preceptors in divine wisdom die daily for the truth, thereby bearing witness by both word and deed to that singular knowledge of the truth which Christians profess, testifying that it is more simple and divine than all other forms of knowledge, or rather that it is the only true, the only simple knowledge of God (sola simplex Dei cognitio).” It is handsomely evident from these words that this saint made the characteristic mark of faith just this, that it renders the believer certain of the divine promises and so united to God and zealous for his glory as to count it gain even do die for its sake. (Metaphrasis Et Enarratio In Epist. Ad Romanos [1562], 22).

Divine Names 7 was perhaps the most popular chapter of this book for Aquinas because it includes a very explicit reference to Dionysius’s “three ways” of knowing, that is, denial, transcendence, and causation. One interpretation of Dionysius’s argument in chapter 7 is that “faith” is the illumination of the mind that permits one to access the three ways of knowing. Bucer sees in this discussion a denial of the scholastic concept of faith “formed by love” or of cooperative justification. Perhaps Bucer would agree that justification sola fide could be stated in Dionysian terms as justification sola simplex Dei cognitio, and that this cognitio enables one to be raptus extra se, where one participates in, to use Luther’s language, iustitia extra nos.

Addendum: If you are wondering “why so much on Dionysius?”, the current posts are part of a presentation that I will deliver in Toronto this weekend at the AAR-EIR.

Pseudo-Dionysian Biblical Exegesis

Image
“Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” by Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), Oil on panel

If you know anything about Pseudo-Dionysius you will know that his works, aside from the Bible, were the most studied works of the Medieval period. Though certain works of Augustine were just as influential, Augustine’s complete works did not become available until the 14th century. Even Aquinas, known for his devotion to Aristotle and Augustine refers to Pseudo-Dionysius more than any other author in his opera. Among Protestants, Dionysius never carried as much authority as with other Christian traditions, primarily because Valla’s proof of forgery was unanimously accepted by all of the Reformers. Also, Luther’s and Calvin’s criticisms of “that Dionysius whoever he was” mentioned the latter’s seemingly unbridled devotion to Platonic philosophy, placing him at odds with their renewal of biblical exegesis.

Modern research on the Corpus Dionysiacum, however, through the use of modern tools of textual criticism has displayed a more careful reading of the Pseudo-Areopagite. My point here is not to summarize the entirety of this research but to point out the curious mixture of biblical and Proclian exegesis within Dionysius’s works. István Perczel, for instance, makes an interesting point re: Dionysius’s eclectic synthesis:

It is quite obvious that the structure of the Dionysian Corpus imitates that of the New Testament. We have in Dionysius three « synoptic Gospels », so to speak: the Divine Names and the two Hierarchies; another « Gospel », the Mystical Theology which, like Saint John, treats the loftiest theological ideas, and, finally, letters clarifying the meaning of the « Gospels. » And just as the canonical Gospels tell the same story – that of Jesus the Son of God – from different aspects, so the four major treatises of Dionysius treat one common story – that of the manifestation of the divine in the world – from four different angles. In this context, it is all the more interesting to note that the structure of all four treatises is determined above all by the Platonic Theology of Proclus.   Perczel, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Platonic Theology,” in Proclus et la Theologie Platonicienne: Actes du Colloque International de Louvain (13-16 mai 1998), A. Ph. Segonds and C. Steel, eds., (Leuven University Press, 2000), 491-531.

Based on this information, one may interpret the Dionysian enterprise as an attempt at Neoplatonic biblical exegesis similar in some ways to that of Augustine.

Carlos Steel on Platonism and Christianity

Carlos Steel is a highly respected scholar and specialist in the history of Platonism from antiquity to the Renaissance. This lecture is a great introduction to the topic of Platonism and its historic relationship to the Christian faith given at the Lumen Christi Institute in 2011. Like any general overview of a topic, however, the way in which the details fit together to form the general narrative is precisely where the problematic questions emerge.

Steel does not shy away from asking difficult questions. Some Platonists joined philosophy to religious ritual (Iamblichus, Proclus, et al.), yet were these philosophers distorting the original message of Plato? Steel replies that these represent “creative developments” of Plato rather than outright distortions, esp. since Plato tended to emphasize the use of prayer in philosophy.

Another difficulty in relation to a Christianized Platonism: Does Augustine’s platonizing of the Gospels represent a corruption of the original message of Christianity? Again, Steel points to elements in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem quite commensurable with Plato’s teachings.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difficulty regarding the relationship between these two “philosophies” has to do with authority. Though the Platonists considered Plato to be a divine prophet and he was held in highest authority over other philosophers, he did not hold the authority and claim to divinity which Christians claimed of Jesus. How, then, can Christianity be wedded to a philosophy that promotes a certain freedom of inquiry that seems incompatible with the comparably rigid and authoritative doctrines of the church? The church after all merely uses philosophy to guard its own theology from the aberrant teachings of heresy. Steel merely hints at a solution to this by way of Boethius, noting the latter proposed a better way, a way that permitted the study of philosophy as an exercise detached from the strict sequestering of free thought apparent in theology. One can see at this point in Steel’s argument a particular political theology that denotes a rather strict separation between religion and philosophy, one that a Protestant following the “two Kingdoms” formulation of the Reformers would read rather differently. But alas, this is just an introduction.

Apparent Dionysian Themes in Luther’s Theology

Scholars such as Bernard McGinn and Paul Rorem have highlighted Martin Luther’s explicit criticisms of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in gauging the relationship of the Wittenberg Reformer to his Medieval and mystical theological predecessors. As Rorem points out, Luther’scriticisms of Dionysius are continuous throughout his early and mature theologies. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of Luther’s more mature writings, he states:

[I]t greatly displeases me to assign such importance to this Dionysius, whoever he may have been, for he shows hardly any signs of solid learning. I would ask, by what authority and with what arguments does he prove his hodge-podge about the angels in his Celestial Hierarchy—a book over which many curious and superstitious spirits have cudgeled their brains? If one were to read and judge without prejudice, is not everything in it his own fancy and very much like a dream? But in his Theology, which is rightly called Mystical, of which certain very ignorant theologians make so much, he is downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian. So if I had my way, no believing soul would give the least attention to these books. So far, indeed, from learning Christ in them, you will lose even what you already know of him. I speak from experience. Let us rather hear Paul, that we may learn Jesus Christ and him crucified. He is the way, the life, and the truth; he is the ladder by which we come to the Father (LW 36:109).

Erich Vogelsang distinguished between (1) Dionysian mysticism, (2) Latin mysticism, and (3) German mysticism. Since Luther emphasized Christ’s humanity and the mystic’s self-despair, Vogelsang argues, he represents German mysticism to the exclusion of all other types. In his chapter in the recently published, Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, Piotr Malysz challenges this neat categorization of Luther, specifically with regard to Dionysian mysticism. Though Luther is critical of Dionysius, perhaps, Malysz asks, these criticisms should be openly weighed against Luther’s use of similar themes in his theology.

Malysz claims that Luther’s theology of the cross, his reference to God as Deus absconditus, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone bear similarities to the Dionysian concepts of Deus incognitosand the Neoplatonic theme of divine procession and return. Malysz, depending upon Rorem’s earlier work (“Martin Luther’s Christocentric Critique of Pseudo-Dionysian Spirituality”), notes that much of the history of the Corpus Dionysiacum revolved around the interpretive task of situating Dionysius’s Christology. According to Rorem, theologians from Maximus the Confessor to Bonaventure sought to make the Areopagite’s theology more Christ centered. Malysz argues that Luther continues the line of thinkers who contribute a Christocentric interpretation of Dionysius, adding his own particular solution to the problem of where Christ fits in Dionysian negative theology.

Dionysius, Malysz argues, distinguishes God from creation as theos agnostos. “Because ‘he is not some kind of being’, God enables the distinct identity of the world and is the framework for the unfolding of the world’s astounding multiplicity” (Malysz, 681). For Dionysius, man cannot know God in his nature but can know him in some way from the projection of things from him. But, God is not known through any particular thing. What is known is God’s simultaneous presence in all things while remaining unapparent and transcendently other to all. For Malysz, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is an elaboration of divine hiddeness. Deus praesens appears in this work, he argues, as God at work in creation – all things transpire through the will of God which is his essence. Luther notes, “everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact … necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (ibid). The unfolding of God’s omnipotence, Malysz clarifies, does not violate the human will, in Luther’s view, but animates it. Doing the good out of free choice cannot occur apart from the Holy Spirit. Creation cannot yield knowledge apart from God. Malysz argues:

Luther does not reject divine unknowability but locates it, as does Dionysius, on the level of divine operation ad extra. Luther departs from Dionysius in questioning whether God’s unknowability can be conceptualized at all apart from God’s being God in relation to creation. It is fundamentally as praesens that God, for Luther, is unknown and unknowable (ibid., 684).

Malysz argues that Luther turns from the argument over divine presence with Erasmus to engage in similar debate with Zwingli. He argues with Zwingli that the presence of Christ’s humanity along with his divinity does not destroy Christ’s humanity. Luther correlates the presence of the humanity of Christ with God’s presence noting, “all created things are … much more permeable and present to him than they are in the second mode,” Malysz clarifies, “that is, when the risen Christ passed through closed doors, for example” (idib., 684).  For Luther, God’s presence is not a filling of space but space is present to him. For Luther:

God is no such extended, long, broad, thick, high, deep being. He is a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things. . . . Nothing is so small but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger . . . He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined (Luther quoted in ibid., 684).

Both Luther and Dionysius maintain that one does not come into God’s presence since God has the world present to himself: “he is the time and space of the world” (ibid., 685).  God remains in himself while giving himself to the created order. One difference between the two, notes Malysz, is that for Dionysius, God’s creating activity is for the sake of returning all things to him. For Luther, on the other hand, God’s majesty only evokes terror. However, Luther’s soteriology has a procession and return structure, Malysz argues. For Luther, the terror of God’s majesty is not meant to lead to absolute despair but to salutary despair. The God who is revealed as wrathful is also the God who reveals himself in the weakness of the cross. “Rather,” Malysz notes, “the purpose of his all-working hiddenness is to bring proud humans down to nothing, at which point they are not longer able to trust in themselves” (ibid., 686).

Despair over God’s majestic hiddenness gives way to faithful appreciation of his salvific hiddenness. For Luther, sin in its essence is a turning of the mind toward its self, principally in seeking to gratify ones desires by one’s own perceived righteousness. The sinner whose will is turned inward upon itself, who seeks self-justification, must come to nothing. In losing one’s relatedness to self, the relationship with God can be re-established. Malysz argues that, for Luther, one receives the joy of salvation through faith by fleeing from the majestic hiddeness of God to the hiddeness of the cross.

Rather than being instruments, the locales of God’s favour are Christ’s testament, which establishes the believer’s identity by imparting to her Christ’s life, righteousness and salvation. More importantly, they convey God’s relationship to humanity by defining this relationship as unquestionably favourable, rooted in God’s merciful identity (ibid., 687).

Freed to live in an “identity-bestowing relationship” with God, the believer is freed from self-justification and thus made open to relational living (ibid., 687).  By being properly placed in an orderly relationship the believer is freed from the self and enabled to seek to justify others. Malysz affirms that this other-seeking motive brought about by justification has important socio-political implications:

Luther’s dramatic plea that public offices be filled by Christians must be seen in this context. The transactional nature of civil law, despite its capacity for social order, cannot by itself assure justice, for the law objectifies those under it. It is therefore imperative that public officers not lose sight of those under their authority as persons and apply the law with equity” (ibid., 687).

Believers exhibit in their lives Christ’s “other-justifying descent” (ibid., 688).  In seeking to share the divine light through justifying others, believers are simultaneously returning to their source. Luther acknowledges that God is the source of every good – faith “consummates the Deity … it is the creator of the Deity, not in the substance of God but in us” (Luther quoted in ibid., 688).  In performing just acts the believer participates in the return of God’s own divinity to himself. Luther’s point of departure, Malysz argues, is the necessity of salvation seen in primarily psychological terms (bondage of the will, etc.). For Dionysius it is the attribution of harmony to a multiplicity of created goods.

For Dionysius the creature has an anological identity – participating in the harmonious gathering and return of all things to the One. The creature’s identity is encompassed by the desire to participate in God’s own desire to create. Malysz affirms that, in Dionysius’s view, creatures are able by free will to act against the divine harmony and cause chaos and disorder, yet all of creation yearns for and is called to oneness with God. With both Luther’s and Dionysius’s affirmations of the sinful predicament of the human will and the created order in mind, Malysz asks, “How can such sinners come to know God?” Both Dionysius and Luther agree that to think that one sees and understands God is to mistake the creation for the Creator. For Luther, God has veiled himself in creation and in the humanity of Christ to preserve man’s analogous nature. In accepting the hidden God believers must halt the activities of the mind and receive him who is “hidden even amid the revelation” (Luther quoted in ibid., 689).  Malysz summarizes what he sees as the quintessential similarities between the Areopagite and the Wittenberger. Both: (1) see creation’s harmony as a structure of divine impartation (2) this impartation can be phrased in terms of procession and return (3) emphasize the analogical relationality of the human person and the divine.

Though Malysz’s comparison and contrast of Luther and Dionysius performs a much needed second look at Luther’s relationship to his Medieval theological predecessors, he leaves the reader with some unanswered questions. What is Luther’s exact relationship to the Corpus Dionysiacum? How do we balance an apparent influence of Dionysian Neoplatonism on Luther’s theology with his own words in opposition to the Areopagite? Malysz does not offer a solution to this overarching problem, other than pointing to some intriguing similarities. On this note, Malysz’s analysis could stand to be more empirical. It could stand to focus more on Luther’s explicit positive use of Dionysian terminology. Also, his analysis might be more thorough if it focused on the importance of faith and the relationship between the law and gospel, two very prominent themes in Luther’s theology where, I believe, he uses Dionysian terms and reasons most explicitly. For a more text-based analysis of the similarities between Luther and Dionysius, I point the reader to Knut Alfsvåg’s article which I may get around to reviewing later, “Luther as a Reader of Dionysius the Areopagite” (Studia Theologica 65 [2011], pp. 101- 114). Also, a mention of the difficult tension between justification and deification in Luther’s theology would have been apropos. A needed clarification on this point comes by way of Bruce Marshall’s “Justification as Declaration and Deification” (International Journal of Systematic Theology, 4:1 [2002], pp. 3-28).

A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.