07 June 2010

Tolstoy, Lewis, Fr Alexander, & St Augustine on Cœlestial Hierarchy


I was recently looking back at Tolstoy’s famous diatribe, What is Art?, and came across the following passage, typical not only of Tolstoy but of a whole strain of post-Reformation thinking about the ‘hierarchies’ of mediaeval Christianity:

And this ecclesiastic Christianity which is quite distinct from the other, began, on the basis of its doctrine, to change the apprication of men’s sentiments and the productions of the arts which conveyed them. This ecclesiastic Christianity not only did not recognize the fundamental and essential propositions of true Christianity,—the immediate relation of each man to the Father, and the brotherhood and equality of all men, resulting from it, and the substitution of humility and love for all kinds of violence,—but, on the contrary, by establishing a celestial hierarchy, similar to the pagan mythology, and a worship of this hierarchy, of Christ, the Holy Virgin, the angels, apostles, saints, martyrs, and not only of these divinities, but also of their representations, established as the essence of its teaching blind faith in the church and its decrees. [1]

The use of the word ‘hierarchy’ of course, and particularly with the modifier ‘celestial’, reminds us quite naturally of the inventor of the word himself, St Dionysius the Areopagite. Thus, while it is disappointing, it is not surprising to find C.S. Lewis describing Dionysian teaching in terms less stringent but hardly more approving than Tolstoy:

. . . [P]seudo-Dionysius is as certain as Plato or Apuleius that God encounters Man only through a ‘mean’, and reads his own philosophy into scripture as freely as Chalcidius had read his into the Timaeus. He cannot deny that Theophanies, direct appearances of God Himself to patriarchs and prophets, seem to occur in the Old Testament. But he is quite sure that this never really happens. These visions were in reality mediated through celestial, but created, beings ‘as though the order of the divine law laid it down that creatures of a lower order should be moved God-ward by those of a higher’ (iv). That the order of the divine law does so enjoin is one of his key-conceptions. His God does nothing directly that can be done through an intermediary; perhaps prefers the longest possible chain of intermediaries; devolution or delegation, a finely graded descent of power and goodness, is the universle principle. The Divine splendour (illustratio) comes to us filtered, as it were, through the Hierarchies. [2]

While I can’t say I was ever seriously troubled by the Dionysian hierarchies, it’s true that at one point they appeared to me to differ from what I took to be St Gregory Palamas’s emphasis on the direct experience of God’s uncreated energies. Any questions I had on that score, though, were more than answered by a brilliant article from the pen of Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin)—‘Dionysius Areopagites in the Works of St Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a “Christological Corrective” and Related Matters’ (available here). I urge all to read the article in full, but the turning point for me was the following statement:

As Romanides pointed out some years ago, neither Palamas nor Dionysius believed that the great theophanies of either the past (to the saints of Israel), or of the present (to the saints of the New Covenant) took or take place through angelic mediation, but rather that the angels served both then and now to explain and interpret the visio dei luminis.

The point was made even more vivid and convincing to me, however, when Fr Alexander went on to compare the angelic mediators to monastic elders:

More specifically, however, as the vocabulary which Dionysius deploys for the angels’ mediatory function should suggest to us—mystagogues, teachers, guides and directors (hêgoumenoi—in short, abbots!)—his own presumption is clearly of a monastic setting. We are reminded in fact, and not accidentally, of the spiritual fathers and elders who appear so prominently in our earliest monastic texts, as in, for example, the Vitae of Anthony and Pachomius, the Gerontikon, the Historia monachorum in Aegypto, the works of Evagrius Ponticus, and others. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere [here, that is], the geron or spiritual father is to a striking degree assimilated to the figure and role of the angelus interpres of the ancient apocalypses in both this earliest monastic literature, and thereafter to the present day.

But when I finally started reading St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana for the first time the other day, I was surprised to find a response to a similar problem. In the Preface, the Bishop of Hippo is dealing with those who object to his producing a book on techniques for exegesis on the grounds that God Himself illuminates the exegete. They are particularly troubled at the notion of being instructed by a human being, and St Augustine seems to assume that they would not be as troubled as Lewis at the mediation of angels. Nevertheless, his arguments are very much relevant to the issues raised by Tolstoy. Responding to these objectors, St Augustine writes:

Let us beware of such arrogant and dangerous temptations, and rather reflect that the apostle Paul, no less, though cast to the ground and then enlightened by a divine voice from heaven, was sent to a human being to receive the sacrament of baptism and be joined to the church (Acts 9:3-8). And Cornelius the centurion, although an angel announced to him that his prayers had been heard and his acts of charity remembered, was nevertheless put under the tuition of Peter not only to receive the sacrament but also to learn what should be the objects of his faith, hope, and love. All this could certainly have been done through an angel [or through God Himself, I would add], but the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his word to human beings through human agency. It has been said, ‘For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are’ (I Cor. 3:17): how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind? Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans. [3]

Already this last statement, which almost seems to anticipate Charles Williams, ought to overturn the Russian novelist's whole take on things. But the final clincher for Tolstoy comes a bit further down. Recall that he essentially made himself the guru of a new religion, accepting disciples and so on. Furthermore, the 2008-2009 Annotated Bibliography in the Tolstoy Studies Journal, Vol. XXI (2009), lists an article by one Pål Kolstø I’d very much like to obtain called ‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’. [4] Consider the synopsis of Kolstø’s argument in light of Fr Alexander’s thesis:

Tolstoy was familiar with and fascinated by the institution of starchestvo, a peculiar Orthodox form of piety. He trasnferred the principles into his own practice of spiritual guidance while at the same time changing the foundation to serve his own purposes. Tolstoy acted as a heterodox starets, the rôle into whichc he was at first forced by his adherents and which he considered a natural burden. The article gives an account of starchestvo in Orthodox theology and practice, discussing Tolstoy’s attitude toward this institution as reflected in his life and works. [5]

Thus, St Augustine’s words very much apply to the ‘elder at Iasnaia Poliana’: ‘But if he reads and understands without any human expositor, why does he then aspire to expound it to others and not simply refer them to God so that they too may understand it by God’s inner teaching rather than through a human intermediary?’ [6] The answer was aptly given by St Ambrose of Optina after his 1890 visit with the writer: ‘He is very proud’. [7]


[1] Count Lev N. Tolstoy, Resurrection, Vols. I-II, What is Art?, The Christian Teaching, tr. Leo Wiener (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1904), pp. 188-9.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 72-3.

[3] St Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, tr. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999), pp. 5-6.

[4] Pål Kolstø, ‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian & Eurasian History 9:3 (2008), pp. 533-554.

[5] Joseph Schlegel, Olha Tytarenko, & Irina Sizova, ‘Annotated Bibliography for 2008-2009’, Tolstoy Studies Journal, Vol. XXI (2009), p. 76.

[6] St Augustine, p. 6.

[7] Qtd. in Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 206.

7 comments:

Extollager said...

"As Romanides pointed out some years ago, neither Palamas nor Dionysius believed that the great theophanies of either the past (to the saints of Israel), or of the present (to the saints of the New Covenant) took or take place through angelic mediation, but rather that the angels served both then and now to explain and interpret the visio dei luminis."

Why did he think so? I don't see the necessity for this idea in the Scriptures. Just asking; won't get into a debate.

Taylor said...

I don't see too much disapproval in Lewis' statment. He was aware enough of the democratic atipathy to hierarchy that he was not in danger of falling into it. Although he did not accept the full doctrine of sainthood as it is expounded and lived in Orthodoxy, his statements on the 'celestial hierarchy' elsewhere, such as in his essay "Transposition" (in The Weight of Glory) are very explicit in affirming the hierarchical nature of the universe. Much of his statements on masculinity and gender in That Hideous Strength can also be seen as an affirmation of hierarchy or 'degrees of glory'.

aaronandbrighid said...

Extollager> I'm not quite sure what you mean specifically by 'this idea', but assuming you're referring to the idea of what is commonly known as the angelus interpres, it is a commonplace in the Scriptures as well as in various other visions throughout the history of the Church. As for the former, the seraph in Is. 6:7 is clearly offering an explanation of the Prophet Isaiah's experience, as is the angel in Daniel 7 of the Prophet Daniel's vision, & the Archangel Gabriel himself in Daniel 8 as well as, most famously, to the Virgin Mary in Luke 1, while angels explain and interpret things to St John throughout Revelation. Obviously, not all of these are specifically explaining the visio dei luminis, but that's not the point. Fathers Alexander & Romanides are merely observing that for Saints Dionysius & Gregory if the angels play any role in the experience of theoria, it is clearly one analogous to the role that they always play in Scripture. In other words, angels never serve somehow to filter God's grace to us, only to guide us to it so we can experience it directly.

Taylor> I realise that Lewis speaks well elsewhere of the idea of hierarchy generally, but when he says that St Dionysius 'reads his own philosophy into scripture' surely we can call this disapprobation, however understated it may be. Indeed, the use of the word 'philosophy' here instead of 'theology' seems to me very significant--implying that Lewis sees St Dionysius as having more in common on this point with pagans like Plato or the Platonist Apuleius than with 'Biblical' teaching.

Extollager said...

Yes, of course angels have interpreted vision to the biblical visionaries. My poorly-phrased remark questioned whether the Bible states or implies that such interpretation must always accompany such vision. I see, though, that one doesn't have to read Romanides as saying that it must. I don't see angelic interpretation in some biblical passages. Thanks.

Taylor said...

Hi Aaron> I guess I don't read approbation in this passage from Lewis as much as the simple statement of what he sees as a fact. Likely, he has never considered the Orthodox position on St Dionysios, that he is more Father than Philosopher. I'm also not sure we should consider Lewis an ardent defender of sola scriptura, such that he would disapprove of someone 'reading their philosophy into the Bible'. I could easily be wrong about this, but I don't recall any passages in Lewis' works with this thrust.

As to the issue of celestial hierarchy in itself, much of Lewis' work seems to me to be a defense of this notion: at the very least the Discarded Image and the Space Trilogy. Tolstoy's reaction to the celestial hierarchy is too hasty and too consistent with the 'spirit of the age' to be compared with Lewis'.

David.R said...

Would you mind commenting on Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is Within You" ? I realize that
I am deviating from the subject of this post, but I
would like your opinion on this work from Tolstoy which was banned in Russia. Thanks

aaronandbrighid said...

David> I've not read this particular work of Tolstoy's, which seems to be mostly taken up with various anarchist and pacifist positions. Of course, none of this is, in the end, Orthodox, and tends more or less to undermine the entire basis of society, but more importantly, Tolstoy attacks the Church herself. He writes, 'Nowhere nor in anything, except in the assertion of the Church, can we find that God or Christ founded anything like what churchmen understand by the Church.' This is just more of Tolstoy's picking and choosing what he finds congenial in the Gospels. His own ego is the final criterion in all religious matters.