Dionysius and Kant: From The Celestial Hierarchy to the Critique of Practical Reason in the Changeless Ideology of Western Philosophical Traditions. (06/28/2001)

In the long tradition of Western ideology surprisingly few original ideas have entered the arena of philosophical debate. While many concepts might have original details in their articulation, even ones that seem to change the essential nature of the idea being formulated, the essential message nevertheless always seems to remain the same. In his Critique of Practical Reason, for instance, Immanuel Kant employs the concept of the summum bonum (the supreme or highest good) to establish, or prove, the immortality of the soul, on the one hand, and the existence of God, as Creator, on the other. As a function of pure practical reason, which is an original twist he added to prior articulations of the same ideology, even if that concept is only marginally novel in itself to the notion that reason has its seat in the human soul, Kant's perception of how the summum bonum functions to guarantee the elevation of the individual consciousness to a higher level of morality, and hence to goodness itself, while more sophisticated in its argument, is nevertheless essentially identical to the one put forth by Dionysius the Areopagite, fully 1,200 years earlier, in his treatise entitled The Celestial Hierarchy. A primary distinction, apart from the differing levels of sophistication, is that Dionysius only implies that the contemplation of the summum bonum requires an infinite amount of time, thus proving the immortality of the soul, to elevate human subjects to godlike status, whereas Kant overtly advocates that condition as a result of contemplation, but suggests that a truly godlike consciousness of the Good cannot be said to exist in any finite creature because that achievement can only happen in infinitum. One reason for the difference is probably connected to the fact that in the 6th Century AD people in the Christian faith were more inclined to accept the immortality of the soul as a given, while in the 18th Century that possibility was less certain as an article of faith. In other words, Kant felt compelled to prove it; Dionysius the Areopagite was not confronted by any doubt over its validity whatsoever.

According to Kant, then, in the Critique of Practical Reason, "the perfect accordance of the mind with the moral law is the supreme condition of the summum bonum" (Chapter 2, Part IV). Kant goes on to note that this "perfect accordance of the will with the moral law" is the same as "holiness," a condition that cannot be achieved by any "rational being of the sensible world . . . at any moment of his existence" because perfection is something that no one can ever actually realize. Given this circumstance, and since Kant assumes "on the principles of pure practical reason" that "progress in infinitum toward that perfect accordance" is necessarily "the real object of our will," "this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being (which is called the immortality of the soul)." Kant concludes this aspect of his argument by stating that

"The summum bonum, then, practically is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul; consequently this immortality, being inseparably connected with the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason (by which I mean a theoretical proposition, not demonstrable as such, but which is an inseparable result of an unconditional a priori practical law)." (Chapter 2, Part IV)

Kant clearly states here, because the summum bonum is "the real object of our will," that human reality is irresistibly drawn to the effort of achieving a perfect accordance of the will with the moral law but, since a human realization of supreme goodness is not possible in our flawed state of temporal mortality, the rational faculty of the soul must be immortal, and personal, by virtue of necessity in pure practical reason, in order for the summum bonum to exist at all. A problem with this argument, however, seems to exist, from the point-of-view of a strict Christian orthodoxy, since it implies that the idea of the supreme goodness depends, not on the a priori existence of God, which cannot be demonstrated apart from the prior existence of the summum bonum, as noted below, but only on the ground that human reality is irresistibly drawn to it as "the real object of our will." In other words, the supreme goodness, according to Kant, does not seem to have any independently fixed existence prior to becoming an object of human will. This subordinates the highest good to human desire and not, as it should be in Christian orthodoxy, the other way around. Kant suggests that God is more a construct of human reason and desire than he does the obverse, that man is a product or result of God's creation.

Kant then argues that a "second element" of the summum bonum exists as "happiness proportioned to that morality," where morality is necessarily defined as the "first element" of the highest good. He argues that "Happiness is the condition of a rational being in the world with whom everything goes according to his wish and will; it rests, therefore, on the harmony of physical nature with his whole end and likewise with the essential determining principle of his will" (Chapter 2, Part V, emphasis Kant's). While it is difficult to say with certainty that this concept exists as an orthodox object of Christian theology, where it probably does, it is problematic on grounds very different from the ones that were discussed above. The essential problem here, and one always encountered as ultimate truth in Western ideology, concerns the opinion that man is always perceived in contradictory terms as the highest but most flawed aspect of God's natural creation. Kant restricts the flaw to man's inability to conceive of the highest good in his temporal reality, requiring the added component of an immortal soul, but nevertheless makes him the highest achievement of creationist ideology when he suggests that man's happiness is the "whole end" and purpose of the "harmony of physical nature" and the "essential determining principle of his will" to comprehend the summum bonum. To say that morality, as the "first and principle element" of the highest good, is realized in a human happiness characterized as coming into existence only when the "harmony of physical nature" exists for man if, and only if, "everything goes according to his wish and will," falsely elevates human reality, as Christianity has always done, above any and every constraint imposed on it/him by virtue of being part of nature, and not its whole purpose and end, as Kant suggests here that it/he is. Kant makes this point explicit when he says that

"There is not the least ground, therefore, in the moral law for a connection between morality and proportionate happiness in a being that belongs to the world as a part of it, and therefore dependent on it, and which for that reason cannot by his will be a cause of this nature, nor by his own power make it thoroughly harmonize as far as his happiness is concerned, with his practical principles." (Chapter 2, Part V)

In Kant's reasoning, of course, this statement opens the way for postulating the existence of a supreme cause for the existence of that happiness which is the result of the "harmony of physical nature" with man's whole purpose and end simply for the reason that man is not capable of doing this for or by himself. This Supreme Being, as cause of the world, and as justification for the existence of the summum bonum, is further perceived and described as "a being that is capable of acting on the conception of laws [as] an intelligence (rational being), and the causality of such a being according to this conception of laws is his will; therefore the supreme cause of nature, which must be presupposed as a condition of the summum bonum, is a being which is the cause of nature by intelligence and will, consequently its author, that is God." Here, of course, as all Western ideology demands, Kant establishes the pure ground for the existence of binary opposition and hierarchical structure as essential elements of practical reason. Kant's mission, then, with only a few twists and turns added to his argument to make it appear more contemporary than it can actually be called, is to reestablish for his own audience the timeless necessity of God's dominion over man, through the creature's dependence on the summum bonum for the achievement of a happiness that can only be realized in infinitum, and man's dominion over every aspect of nature, which is realized without any moral restriction on how that dominion is practiced during every day of his/her life. In other words, being the dominant force over nature, because man is elevated above and outside its constraints, by virtue of his possession of a rational and immortal soul, which no other part of nature has, can be said to be the sole ground for determining whether a person is moral or not, where morality is achieved or not according to how well or how badly a purely human "harmony of physical nature" is maintained in a state where "everything goes according to his wish and will." Overcoming nature, then, and bending it to a superior human will, in the same way that God is perceived as bending man to His superiority, with the difference that man is given free choice to resist that coercion but nature has no active agency whatsoever, no choice at all, becomes a determining factor in how well or how badly man lives up to an expectation of the moral.

That this essential ideology has nothing in it that can be called novel, with differences only in the verbal surface of the articulation, can be seen clearly in the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, specifically in The Celestial Hierarchy. In the initial explanation of his subject, Dionysius argues that the purpose behind hierarchical structure is to provide man with an object of contemplation that will uplift human reason from a lower to a higher level "through the spiritual and unwavering eye of the mind" (Chapter 1). Less sophisticated than Kant's perception of a "pure practical reason," of course, the Areopagite's "eye of the mind," a phrase he repeats consistently throughout his treatise to signify the conceptualization of the rational faculty of the human soul, performs the same essential function that practical reason plays in Kant's argument. The Areopagite characterizes God's presence in figurative terms rather than in rational ones when he notes that He provides an "original and super-original gift of Light" for the purpose of allowing us to "strive upwards toward Its primal ray" in order to achieve union with the "Source of Divinity" (Chapter 1). He goes on to note that

"For this Light can never be deprived of Its own intrinsic unity, and although in goodness It becomes manyness and proceeds into manifestation for the uplifting of those creatures governed by Its providence, yet It abides eternally within Itself in changeless sameness, firmly established in Its own unity, and elevates to Itself, according to their capacity, those who turn towards It, uniting them in accordance with Its own unity. For by that first divine ray we can be enlightened only insofar as It is hidden by all-various holy veils for our upliftment, and fittingly tempered to our natures by the Providence of the Father."

The idea that the holy and divine Light "elevates to Itself . . . those who turn towards It" is essentially the same argument Kant employs in describing the effects of the summum bonum as a driving force behind man's elevation to a higher consciousness of the supreme Good as "the real object of our will." While Kant expresses the opinion that the immortality of the soul is a necessary condition of the existence of supreme goodness, as noted earlier, the Areopagite only implies the same thing when he notes that the elevation and upliftment of people turned towards God's light always occurs "according to their capacity" and that it is always "fittingly tempered to our natures." Dionysius uses this, or similar, terminology every time he mentions the uplifting power of the celestial hierarchy. Since man's capacity and nature always turns more toward a flawed and sinful nature than it does toward supreme goodness in Christian ideology, the Areopagite's constant reference to that capacity and nature as a limiting factor in man's potential for upliftment certainly implies that a less than perfect union with God is possible over the course of the merely temporal duration of life allotted to any individual. Putting this same idea in slightly different terms, Dionysius says that the purpose of the hierarchical structure of God's creation is to "further . . . the attainment of our due measure of deification" (Chapter 2). Here, again, he clearly implies that perfection is tempered by only a "due measure" and not by a total or absolute one. Making this same point absolutely clear, Dionysius says that

"The aim of Hierarchy is the greatest possible assimilation to and union with God, and by taking Him as leader in all holy wisdom, to become like Him, so far as is permitted, by contemplating intently His most Divine Beauty." (Chapter 3)

Union with God, then, as an ultimate teleological goal for man's flawed state of existence, is the reason behind the fact that He created the world in hierarchical structures in the first place, since the "aim" of such structures is to elevate man from the lower ranks to the higher ones. There is a minor contradiction here, however, since the story of the Fall in Genesis clearly states that eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil was covered by God's absolute prohibition because doing so would elevate him/her to a status of becoming "like one of us, with his knowledge of good and evil" (3: 22). Since Dionysius argues that contemplation of the celestial hierarchy is meant to guide man to "become like [God], so far as is permitted" (an equivocation that does not appear in Genesis), it seems reasonable, if not inevitable, to assert that God, in His "holy wisdom," fashioned the universe in such a way that would insure man's descent into original sin. Once there, in a state of sin, man could begin again to aspire to the inevitable union with deity which, once achieved, would lead again to his inevitable fall into sin. Man, then, seems nothing more nor less than a kind of yoyo under the hand of God who is lifted up only to be cast down because he was lifted up.

Kant, in virtually everything he says about the summum bonum, without ever going so far as to claim that man can, or should, aspire to "become like God," nevertheless grounds his moral philosophy in essentially the same terms when he says that "The only objects of practical reason are therefore those of good and evil. For by the former is meant an object necessarily desired according to a principle of reason; by the latter one necessarily shunned, also according to a principle of reason." Going back to his earlier point, that harmony is achieved, and happiness also, of course, only when "everything goes according to [man's] wish and will," Kant necessarily equates the good, even the highest good, with that which man most desires. Clearly it seems reasonable to suppose, even taken in the ultimate context as "a principle of reason" itself, that it is better to desire to be like God than it is to desire to be unlike God. This is true simply because God is the ultimate source of the highest good and one can only assume that being "like God" is what Kant has in mind when he differentiates in the way he does between good and evil. The same criticism leveled at Dionysius also applies here to Kant, of course, since his prescription for the pursuit of the good necessarily drives man toward becoming "like God," which is the original sin, as opposed to "unlike God," which by "a principle of reason" is defined as that which we ought to shun.

In one instance Dionysius uses the term summum bonum when he notes that

"For the divine fiery wheels truly revolve, by reason of their ceaseless movement, around the highest Good [summum bonum] Itself, and they are granted revelations because to them the holy hidden Mysteries are made clear, and the earthly are lifted up, and the high illuminations are brought down and imparted to the lowest orders." (Chapter 15)

As the Areopagite implies here, the "highest Good" is equivalent to God Himself and the "divine fiery wheels," which are the source of the light God sheds on the lower orders of His creation, absord His "holy hidden Mysteries" to begin the process of lifting up those who are beneath and less than the entities and powers who dwell at the highest levels of the celestial hierarchy. The essential difference between Kant and Dionysius is most clearly expressed in this statement, where the mystical imagery of the latter conceals, as it were, the more rational and philosophical terms of the former at the level of a purely verbal surface that does little else than make one appear to be less sophisticated than the other. At the end, however, Kant's perception of man's elevation to a higher plane of existence through adherence to a divinely ordered and maintained moral imperative adds little more than a rational surface to the mystical language of the Areopagite's celestial musings.

While Dionysius does not exactly express the concept of happiness derived from pursuing the highest good in terms one can find replicated directly in Kant's argument, that same notion does nevertheless appear in the Areopagite's treatise when he says that

"The last thing for us to explain is the joy attributed to the Celestial Orders. For they are utterly above and beyond our passionate pleasures. But they are said to rejoice with God over the finding of that which was lost, as well befits the Godlike mildness of their nature, and as befits their beneficent and boundless joy at the providential salvation of those who are turned to God." (Chapter 15)

Here, in distinction to Kant, who makes joy and happiness the end result of the contemplation of the summum bonum for each individual human soul, since that leads to a harmony of the individual will with the will of God in acquiring a purely moral state of existence, a concept the Areopagite tends to relegate to a level well above the one attainable by human beings who can only achieve "passionate pleasures," Dionysius places all the true joy in the natures of the beings who occupy the higher and highest levels of the celestial hierarchy, in those whose "Godlike mildness" allows them to rejoice over those human creatures who manage to turn themselves to the contemplation of the highest good. Not exactly the same thing, of course, but one can see how Kant was able to suppress the highest order of contemplation down from a celestial level to a purely temporal and human one, which brings the Areopagite's conceptualization of happiness down from heaven, so to speak, and gives it over to those people best able to achieve a higher level of morality than most individuals ever manage to do. Put simply: saints are able to rejoice in their higher state of moral perfection; sinners tend only to suffer in misery for their failure to achieve the same status.