15 June 2012

Comparing the Fathers on the Cœlestial Hierarchy

In his classic paper, ‘Dionysius Areopagites in the Works of St Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a “Christological Corrective” & Related Matters’ (here), Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo first called my attention to a passage in Palladius’s Lausiac History when he played the ultimate trump card against those who say St Dionysius derived his teaching on the cœlestial hierarchy from the 4th-c. Platonists. First, Bishop Alexander quotes the Areopagite, Cœlestial Hierarchy 8.2 (240D): ‘The divine source of all order has established the all-embracing principle that beings of the second rank receive enlightenment from the Godhead through the beings of the first rank. This has been asserted frequently by the scripture writers, as you may discover.’ [1]

Then His Grace quotes the ‘Letter to Lausus’ appended to the beginning of Palladius’s monastic history: ‘The first order of beings have their learning from the most high Trinity, the second learns from the first, the third from the second, and so on down to the least. Those who are higher in knowledge and virtue teach the lower.’ [2] Finally, having set these two side by side, Bishop Alexander observes:

Given this passage, might we not say that the lines which I quoted above from Celestial Hierarchy 13, [3] and which both Professor Ritter and I cited from Celestial Hierarchy 8.2, are no more obviously a paraphrase of the pagan Neoplatonism of, for example, Iamblichus than they are of the Christian monk and predecessor of Dionysius, Palladius? The passages are so close as to argue for a match, down to and including an even more explicit expression of the triadic form, so dear to Dionysius, than we found in the latter's texts cited above, together with the language of ‘firsts’ (prota), ‘seconds’ (deutera), and, here, ‘thirds’ (trita).

But Robert Meyer’s translation of Palladius has an endnote to this passage—remarking the similarity to St Dionysius—that I found puzzling. He writes, ‘Palladius’ angelology is similar to that given in St John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa 2 f., and John Damascene (De cael. hier. 8.1) attributes a like opinion to Dionysius the Areopagite; but apparently there is no literary connection between the three writers.’ [4] First of all, why wouldn’t the first comment concern the similarity to St Dionysius, by most accounts a near-contemporary of Palladius, rather than to St John Damascene, who lived hundreds of years later? Second, if St John ‘attributes a like opinion’ to St Dionysius, then doesn’t it seem as though there is at least a literary connection between the latter two?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I had some difficulty finding this passage in St John, or even making sense of the citation of ‘De fide orthodox 2 f.’ in comparison with Frederic Chase’s translation of this text. My first thought was that the ‘2’ signified ‘Book 2’, a fairly large portion of text, but nothing at the beginning of Book 2 resembles this idea of hierarchy. I noticed in the table of contents, however, that each chapter number is followed by a chapter number in parentheses. The first number begins again at one at the beginning of each ‘Book’, but the numbers in parentheses are continuous throughout the Books, suggesting to me that these are an older system. At any rate, Chapter (2) also happens to be Chapter 2 of Book 1, but I saw nothing in this chapter that corresponds to St Dionysius or to Palladius.

Of course, it occurred to me that the likely place to look for the ‘angelology...given in St John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa’ would be the chapter ‘On Angels’—Chapter 3 (17) of Book 2. And there indeed, is the closest thing I can find to the other two Fathers: ‘They [the angels] illuminate one another by the excellence of their rank or nature. Moreover, it is evident that the more excellent communicate their brightness and their knowledge to them that are inferior.’ [5] So, Meyer’s citation is just very nonspecific, but furthermore, I do not find St John exactly attributing ‘a like opinion to Dionysius the Areopagite’. There is indeed a reference to St Dionysius in this chapter, but it is not directly connected to the passage just quoted at all. Here is what St John writes about the Areopagite:

As the most holy and sacred Dionysius the Areopagite, who is very well versed in theology, says, all theology, that is to say, sacred Scripture, has given the heavenly substances as nine in number. The divine initiator divides these into three orders of three. He says that the first of these is ever round about God and that to it has it been given to be united directly and immediately to Him. This is the order of the six-winged Seraphim and the many-eyed Cherubim and the most holy Thrones. The second order is that of the Dominations and the Virtues and the Powers. The third is that of the Principalities and the Archangels and the Angels. [6]

The closest this passage comes to attributing a ‘like opinion’ on the cœlestial hierarchy to St Dionysius is the comment that to the first order ‘has it been given to be united directly and immediately to Him’. But there is nothing about passing on the light to those below. Of cource, Chase has given us a couple of citations of St Dionysius in the footnotes. Footnoting St John’s ‘hierarchy’ passage, he has ‘Cf. Pseudo-Dionysius. Celestial Hierarchy 3 (PG 3.164ff.).’ [7] Footnoting St John’s reference to St Dionysius, he has ‘Pseudo-Dionysius, op. cit. 6.2 (PG 3.200D-201A).’ [8]

So the first footnote gives us all of chapter 3 of CH—slightly more than two pages in Luibheid’s translation—in which the closest comment to St John’s ‘hierarchy’ passage is ‘It [hierarchy] ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to beings further down the scale.’ [9] As for the second citation, St John has essentially just paraphrased CH 6.2 (I would simply compare the Greek of the two passages to see if it is actually more a quotation than a paraphrase, but unfortunately, while I have the Greek text of the rest of the Fount of Knowledge, I am missing De fide orthodoxa).

At any rate, there is certainly a connection here between these three texts, but Meyer has rather dropped the ball in more ways than one in his footnote referring to this connection. Still, one wonders if that footnote wasn’t enough to give Bishop Alexander the idea of the monastic tradition behind St Dionysius’s notion of hierarchy. His Grace at least cites Meyer’s translation in his footnote (n. 35) to the quotation from Palladius. For more on this issue of hierarchy, with reference not only to Bishop Alexander, but to Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, and St Augustine, see this post from two years ago.

[1] St Dionysius the Areopagite, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, tr. Colm Luibheid & Paul Rorem (NY: Paulist, 1987), p. 168.

[2] Palladius, The Lausiac History, tr. Robert T. Meyer, No. 34 in Ancient Christian Writers (NY: Paulist, 1964), p. 21.

[3] This passage is in CH 13.3, 301C—p. 178 of Luibheid’s translation.

[4] Palladius, pp. 168-9, n. 11.

[5] St John Damascene, Writings, tr. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church series (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999), p. 207.

[6] Ibid., p. 208.

[7] Ibid., p. 207, n. 3.

[8] Ibid., p. 208, n. 7.

[9] St Dionysius, p. 154; translating CH 3.2.

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