Review of the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius

The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the AreopagiteThe Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, the translation. This is a Victorian translation. I found it, by and large, fluid, but I suspect many will not. I do question some of his choices, and some things do not work in current English. One problem that is not John Parker’s fault is the fact that I kept on wanting to know what the Greek of the terminology was. When Dionysius talks about what Parker translates as nature in relation to Christ, is it actually physis? Given that the Areopagite is popular both sides of the Chalcedonian divide, this is a question of moment.

Second, Parker’s introduction. He does a good job of … introducing the pseudonymous author. And then he gives the circumstantial arguments for the authenticity of the Dionysian corpus. I would like to say that it should not detract from the potency and truth of a document such as this if it turns out to be a forgery (which I think it is). But I am not writing in 1894.

Third, the actual text. Ps-Dionysius has written two treatises translated here, ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ and ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’. They go together. The second, in particular, makes no sense without the first, and you really do need the definition of hierarchy the first treatises provides. Moreover, the first treatise is of less moment for the Christian community without the second.

‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ divides the celestial beings into three orders and explains their functions. Here we see a deft affirmation of the transcendent God, totally Other from His creation, alongside the Neo-Platonic idea of divinity being communicated through what Plotinus would call ’emanations.’ Each order of angelic beings helps the order below it fulfil its destiny and function in the hierarchy, a main part of which is coming to as full a knowledge of God as each nature was designed to have. While those at the top have the fullest knowledge, those at the bottom are able to comprehend and contemplate as much of the divine majesty as they can due to the ministrations of the intervening orders. It is a harmonious whole, working together.

This translates into the second treatise. ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’ is a meditation on the liturgical rites of the Byzantine church in relation to those who perform them. Once again, from the bishop to the excommunicated, the grace of God is communicated through the sacraments, the Scriptures, the preaching, and the communal worship. Each order, clerical, lay, and monastic, has its own special role and place in the apprehension and contemplation of God, and all depend upon each other to fulfil their role.

It is easy to say of the first treatise, ‘Sure, sounds good to me,’ but the idea that, by virtue of his consecration, my bishop is closer to God than I am — that idea is hard to stomach, especially when you consider how many evil men and women, heretics and heterodox, have had hands laid on them. Yet somehow, we lay people are to find peace in resting in our place within the hierarchy. I do wonder what this looks like in practical terms beyond attentively listening to preaching and receiving the sacraments at the hands of the clerics at our churches.

Finally, the whole corpus of Ps-Dionysius is highly influential in both the eastern church and the western church. It is probably worth getting to know, although I think less worth your time than, say, Anselm of Canterbury.

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Is Augustine neurotic or really just Roman?

Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli (in the Uffizi, Florence where I, of course, saw it)

St Augustine of Hippo very frequently comes under attack for his views on the body and sex. In the class on said Church Father that I’m auditing, the lecturer said on Monday that in the 70s, when everyone got liberated, they needed someone to blame for having formerly been un-liberated, so they chose Augustine for being a. a long time ago and b. very influential on the western tradition.

Not to argue that everything the Blessed Augustine said was true, I still have to ask:

Is that really fair?

I believe that the answer is, ‘Nope.’

Whenever we look at an ancient author, we cannot simply look at specific views of his outwith their context in the writer’s work as a whole, nor within the wider cultural milieu wherein they were formed. To do otherwise is symptomatic of my bugbear, the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Which I detest.

Augustine believes that the human body is a lesser good than the mind. He believes that humanity’s rational, intellective/intelligible faculty is how we are made in the image of God. The body is not as good as the mind, and is often described as the source of the fleshly appetites and passions. This, as far as it goes, sounds fairly Platonic, doesn’t it?

He also believes that this fleshly, earthly life is mortality and misery. This is also, if you ask me, simply being a Roman. Imagine a world before anaesthetics and modern medicine. A world where a toothache can cause you endless, agonising pain. A world where your wife/sister/daughter is likely to die in childbirth. A world where you could very quickly and easily die from drinking dirty water. A world where you could lose your entire fortune in a shipwreck. A world where barbarians could raid either in a big way (see North Africa, Vandals in) or a small raid (see North Africa, Berbers in).

I am fairly certain that much of life in the ancient and mediaeval worlds was toil, pain, misery. Is Augustine a neurotic semi-Manichaean when he says that human life is misery — or is he just a fifth-century realist?

According to Augustine, lust is a result of the passions, and desiring sex is lust. This is a result of the Fall — in the prelapsarian state, Adam could have an erection whenever he pleased and thus fulfil God’s edict ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without falling into sin. Alas, since sex tends to involve lust today, it is hard to have sex without sinning; thus the preferred state of celibacy.

Augustine takes a lot of flack for this in particular. It has been said that he is just a recovering Manichee who had a past as a sexual deviant and was making up for it by being a neurotic Puritan.

Once, again, I think not. Bits of this train of thought can be seen in his North African predecessor who was anything but Manichaean and who was probably married, Tertullian. Other bits, about control of the appetites, are found in the Desert Fathers and your standard Roman ethics. For example, the story is told of Cato the Younger that he shamefully admitted to having taken refuge in his wife’s arms during a lightning storm. This sort of lack of control of one’s body, etc, was regarded as not up to snuff by ancient Romans.

As well, the appetites include not just sex but also food. Augustine believes, as seen in The Confessions, that eating is only to be done to relieve hunger. If you eat out of pleasure, that is gluttony. This is a common ancient, Roman belief, and one which he held in common with the Desert Fathers (again) and his contemporary, (St) John Cassian — a fellow who, himself, did not agree with Augustinian views of Predestination (as I discuss here).

Furthermore, Augustine cannot, at least in City of God, be accused of being a Manichaean, because he does not believe the dualist principles at the heart of the Manichaean religion, that all matter — not just bodies — is evil, and we need to be liberated from it. In fact, although I believe his overemphasis and exaltation of the mind and reason finds its origins in (Neo)Platonism, Augustine also goes against the Platonic grain.

Augustine believes that we were created to have bodies. And he believes that at the Resurrection of the Dead and in Paradise we will have bodies for eternity. This is not Manichaeism or Platonism, but Christianity.

So, critique Augustine. But please don’t say that he is either a Manichee or neurotic. This simply reveals your inadequate knowledge of the man’s historical context.

A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.