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.

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.