Reality Roars Bentley
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The works of Dionysius the Areopagite

The works of Dionysius the Areopagite

On The Heavenly Hierarchy
Caput II

translated by Rev. John Parker, M.A.


The works of Dionysius the Areopagite


The works of Dionysius the Areopagite

On The Heavenly Hierarchy
Caput II

That Divine and Heavenly things are appropriately revealed, even through dissimilar symbols.

Section I.

It is necessary then, as I think, first to set forth what we think is the purpose of every Hierarchy, and what benefit each one confers upon its followers; and next to celebrate the Heavenly Hierarchies according to their revelation in the Oracles; then following these Oracles, to say in what sacred forms the holy writings of the Oracles depict the celestial orders, and to what sort of simplicity we must be carried through the representations; in order that we also may not, like the vulgar, irreverently think that the heavenly and Godlike minds are certain many-footed165 and many-faced166 creatures, or moulded to the brutishness of oxen167, or the savage form of lionsIbid., and fashioned like the hooked beaks of eaglesIbid., or the feathery down of birds168, and should imagine that there are certain wheels169 of fire above the heaven,

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or material thrones170 upon which the Godhead may recline, or certain many-coloured171 horses, and spear-bearing leaders of the host172, and whatever else was transmitted by the Oracles to us under multifarious symbols of sacred imagery.

And indeed, the Word of God173 artlessly makes use of poetic representations of sacred things, respecting the shapeless minds, out of regard to our intelligence, so to speak, consulting a mode of education proper and natural to it, and moulding the inspired writings for it.

Section II.

But if any one think well to accept the sacred compositions as of things simple and unknown in their own nature, and beyond our contemplation, but thinks the imagery of the holy minds in the Oracles is incongruous, and that all this is, so to speak, a rude scenic representation of the angelic names; and further says that the theologians ought, when they have come to the bodily representation of creatures altogether without body, to represent and display them by appropriate and, as far as possible, cognate figures, taken, at any rate, from our most honoured and immaterial and exalted beings, and ought not to clothe the heavenly and Godlike simple essences with the many forms of the lowest creatures to be found on the earth (for the one would perhaps be more adapted to our instruction, and would not

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degrade the celestial explanations to incongruous dissimilitudes; but the other both does violence without authority to the Divine powers, and likewise leads astray our minds, through dwelling upon these irreverent descriptions); and perhaps he will also think that the super-heavenly places are filled with certain herds of lions, and troops of horses, and bellowing songs of praise, and flocks of birds, and other living creatures, and material and less honourable things, and whatever else the similitudes of the Oracles, in every respect dissimilar, describe, for a so-called explanation, but which verge towards the absurd, and pernicious, and impassioned; now, in my opinion, the investigation of the truth demonstrates the most sacred wisdom of the Oracles, in the descriptions of the Heavenly Minds, taking forethought, as that wisdom does, wholly for each, so as neither, as one may say, to do violence to the Divine Powers, nor at the same time to enthral us in the grovelling passions of the debased imagery. For any one might say that the cause why forms are naturally attributed to the formless, and shapes to the shapeless, is not alone our capacity which is unable immediately to elevate itself to the intelligible contemplations, and that it needs appropriate and cognate instructions which present images, suitable to us, of the formless and supernatural objects of contemplation; but further, that it is most agreeable to the revealing Oracles to conceal, through mystical and sacred enigmas, and to keep the holy and secret truth respecting the supermundane minds inaccessible to the multitude.

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For it is not every one that is holy, nor, as the Oracles affirm, does knowledge belong to all174.

Section III.

But if any one should blame the descriptions as being incongruous, by saying that it is shameful to attribute shapes so repugnant to the Godlike and most holy Orders, it is enough to reply that the method of Divine revelation is twofold; one, indeed, as is natural, proceeding through likenesses that are similar, and of a sacred character, but the other, through dissimilar forms, fashioning them into entire unlikeness and incongruity. No doubt, the mystical traditions of the revealing Oracles sometimes extol the august Blessedness of the super-essential Godhead, as Word175, and Mind176, and Essence177, manifesting its God-becoming expression and wisdom, both as really being Origin, and true Cause of the origin of things being, and they describe It as light178, and call it life. While such sacred descriptions are more reverent, and seem in a certain way to be superior to the material images, they yet, even thus, in reality fall short of the supremely Divine similitude. For It is above every essence and life. No light, indeed, expresses its character, and every description and mind incomparably fall short of Its similitude.

But at other times its praises are supermundanely sung, by the Oracles themselves, through dissimilar revelations, when they affirm that it is invisible179, and

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infinite180, and incomprehensible181; and when there is signified, not what it is, but what it is not. For this, as I think, is more appropriate to It, since, as the secret and sacerdotal tradition taught, we rightly describe its non-relationship to things created, but we do not know its superessential, and inconceivable, and unutterable indefinability. If, then, the negations respecting things Divine are true, but the affirmations are inharmonious, the revelation as regards things invisible, through dissimilar representations, is more appropriate to the hiddenness of things unutterable. Thus the sacred descriptions of the Oracles honour, and do not expose to shame, the Heavenly Orders, when they make them known by dissimilar pictorial forms, and demonstrate through these their supermundane superiority over all. material things. And I do not suppose that any sensible man will gainsay that the incongruous elevate our mind more than the similitudes; for there is a likelihood, with regard to the more sublime representations of heavenly things, that we should be led astray, so as to think that the Heavenly Beings are certain creatures with the appearance of gold, and certain men with the appearance of light182, and glittering like lightning183, handsome184, clothed in bright shining raiment, shedding forth innocuous flame, and so with regard to all the other shapes and appropriate forms, with which the Word of God has depicted the Heavenly Minds. In order that men might not suffer from this, by

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thinking they are nothing more exalted than their beau tiful appearance, the elevating wisdom of the pious theologians reverently conducts to the incongruous dissimilarities, not permitting our earthly part to rest fixed in the base images, but urging the upward tendency of the soul, and goading it by the unseemliness of the phrases (to see) that it belongs neither to lawful nor seeming truth, even for the most earthly conceptions, that the most heavenly and Divine visions are actually like things so base. Further also this must particularly be borne in mind, that not even one of the things existing is altogether deprived of participation in the beautiful, since, as is evident and the truth of the Oracles affirms, all things are very beautiful185.

Section IV.

It is, then, possible to frame in one’s mind good contemplations from everything, and to depict, from things material, the aforesaid dissimilar similitudes, both for the intelligible and the intelligent; since the intelligent hold in a different fashion things which are attributed to things sensible differently. For instance, appetite, in the irrational creatures, takes its rise in the passions, and their movement, which takes the form of appetite, is full of all kinds of unreasonableness. But with regard to the intelligent, we must think of the appetite in another fashion, as denoting, according to my judgment, their manly style, and their determined persistence

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in their Godlike and unchangeable steadfastness. In like manner we say, with regard to the irrational creatures, that lust is a certain uncircumspect and earthly passionate attachment, arising incontinently from an innate movement, or intimacy in things subject to change, and the irrational supremacy of the bodily desire, which drives the whole organism towards the object of sensual inclination. But when we attribute “lust” to spiritual beings, by clothing them with dissimilar similitudes, we must think that it is a Divine love of the immaterial, above expression and thought, and the inflexible and determined longing for the supernally pure and passionless contemplation, and for the really perpetual and intelligible fellowship in that pure and most exalted splendour, and in the abiding and beautifying comeliness. And 'incontinence’ we may take for the persistent and inflexible, which nothing can repulse, on account of the pure and changeless love for the Divine beauty, and the whole tendency towards the really desired. But with regard to the irrational living beings, or soulless matter, we appropriately call their irrationality and want of sensible perception a deprivation of reason and sensible perception. And with regard to the immaterial and intelligent beings, we reverently acknowledge their superiority, as supermundane beings, over our discursive and bodily reason, and the material perception of the senses which is alien to the incorporeal Minds. It is, then, permissible to depict forms, which are not discordant, to the celestial beings, even from

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portions of matter which are the least honourable, since even it, having had its beginning from the Essentially Beautiful, has throughout the whole range of matter some echoes of the intellectual comeliness; and it is possible through these to be led to the immaterial archetypes—things most similar being taken, as has been said, dissimilarly, and the identities being denned, not in the same way, but harmoniously, and appropriately, as regards the intellectual and sensible beings.

Section V.

We shall find the Mystic Theologians enfolding these things not only around the illustrations of the Heavenly Orders, but also, sometimes, around the supremely Divine Revelations Themselves. At one time, indeed, they extol It under exalted imagery as Sun186 of Righteousness, as Morning187 Star rising divinely in the mind, and as Light188 illuming without veil and for contemplation; and at other times, through things in our midst, as Fire189, shedding its innocuous light; as Water190, furnishing a fulness of life, and, to speak symbolically, flowing into a belly, and bubbling forth rivers flowing irresistibly; and at other times, from things most remote, as sweet-smelling ointment191, as Head Corner-stone192. But they also clothe It in forms of wild beasts, and attach to It identity with a Lion193, and Panther194, and say that it shall be a Leopard195, and a rushing BearIbid.. But,

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I will also add, that which seems to be more dishonourable than all, and the most incongruous, viz. that distinguished theologians have shewn it to us as representing Itself under the form of a worm196. Thus do all the godly-wise, and interpreters of the secret inspiration, separate the holy of holies197 from the uninitiated and the unholy, to keep them undefined, and prefer the dissimilar description of holy things, so that Divine things should neither be easily reached by the profane, nor those who diligently contemplate the Divine imagery rest in the types as though they were true; and so Divine things should be honoured by the true negations, and by comparisons with the lowest things, which are diverse from their proper resemblance. There is then nothing absurd if they depict even the Heavenly Beings under incongruous dissimilar similitudes, for causes aforesaid. For probably not even we should have come to an investigation, from not seeing our way,—not to say to mystic meaning through an accurate enquiry into Divine things,—unless the deformity of the descriptions representing the Angels had shocked us, not permitting our mind to linger in the discordant representations, but rousing us utterly to reject the earthly proclivities, and accustoming us to elevate ourselves through things that are seen, to their supermundane mystical meanings. Let these things suffice to have been said on account of the material and incongruous descriptions of the holy Angels in the Holy Oracles. And next, it is

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necessary to define what we think the Hierarchy is in itself, and what benefit those who possess a Hierarchy derive; from the same. But let Christ lead the discourse—if it be lawful to me to say—He Who is mine,—the Inspiration of all Hierarchical revelation. And thou, my son, after the pious rule of our Hierarchical tradition, do thou religiously listen to things religiously uttered, becoming inspired through instruction in inspired things; and when thou hast enfolded the Divine things in the secret recesses of thy mind, guard them closely from the profane multitude as being uniform, for it is not lawful, as the Oracles say, to cast to swine the unsullied and bright and beautifying comeliness of the intelligible pearls.

165    Ezek. i. 7.

166    Ibid. Ezek i. 6.

167    Ibid. Ezek i. 10.

168    Ibid. Ezek i. 6-8.

169    Dan. vii. 9.

170    Dan. vii. 9.

171    Zech. i. 8.

172     Joshua v. 13, 14;     2 Macc. iii. 25.

173    Θεολογία.

174    1 Cor. viii. 7.

175    John i. 1.

176    Ps. cxxxvi. 5.

177    Exod. iii. 14.

178    John i. 4.

179    1 Tim. vi. 16.

180    Ps. cxlv. 13.

181     Rom. xi. 33;     Jer. li. 15.

182    Acts i. 10.

183    Matt. xxviii. 3.

184    Acts vi. 15.

185    Gen. i. 31.

186    Mal. iv. 2.

187     Num. xxiv. 17;     2 Pet. i. 19.

188    John i. 5.

189    Exod. iii. 2.

190    John vii. 38.

191    Cant. i. 2.

192    Eph. ii. 20.

193    Hos. xiii. 8.

194    Ibid. Hos. xiii 7.

195    Ibid. Hos. xiii 8.

196    Ps. xxii. 6.

197    ἅγια τῶν ἅγιων.


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