Dionysius the Areopagite: On The Celestial Hierarchy (500 A. D.) (01/15/2001)
A small measure of doubt exists about the identity of the individual who wrote The Celestial Hierarchy, in as much as that person apparently claimed, or implied, that he was the individual converted to Christianity by St. Paul in Athens during the early part of the first century, rose afterward to become the first Bishop of Athens, and was ultimately martyred for the faith. He also claims to have witnessed the solar eclipse that occurred during the crucifixion. Any of these things could be true, of course, were it not for the fact that Dionysius's writing did not appear, and was not referred to by any other church Father, until well after the beginning of the sixth century. Hence, it seems improbable that he might have been acquainted with St. Paul in any way not directly related to some form of spiritual ecstasy or contemplation.
For those not familiar with the term, an Areopagite is a member of the highest council of individuals who ruled ancient Athens. A minor problem can be said to arise here with respect to Dionysius calling himself an Areopagite in the sense that he came along about 1000 years after the council ceased to exist in the real world. Calling himself Areopagite goes to the claim he makes of being the first Bishop of Athens, which would have placed him 500 years closer to actually being one. What any of this leads me to believe is that it might be appropriate to recognize the fact that his use of the self-descriptive term, even if he implies some genetic familial connection to an ancestral past that connects him to an original member of that body, nevertheless suggests the existence of a rich and varied fantasy life not restricted solely to the way in which he names himself but one that obviously spills over into the subjects he chooses to discuss in his treatise on The Celestial Hierarchy. I say that only because Dionysius limits his subject to aspects of Christian ideology one can only see, and bear witness to, through the eyes of faith and never once reduces his discourse to the mundane level of anything, or any idea, susceptible to verification through ordinary means associated with human reason. To say that his discourse is irrational, therefore, only means to suggest that it lies well beyond the realm of anything anyone has ever seen in a state of consciousness not wholly agitated by divine aspirations of the kind that always seem to lead one to hallucinogenic frenzy. Calling The Celestial Hierarchy an ecstatic discourse intends only to alert the reader to the fact that it is virtually devoid of sense.
In his invocation the Areopagite tells us, his readers, what we must do in order to comprehend his message, that is,
"let us raise our thought [to the Origin of Light], according to our power, to the illumination of the most sacred doctrines handed down by the Fathers, and also as far as we may let us contemplate the Hierarchies of the Celestial Intelligences revealed to us by them in symbols for our upliftment."
Several themes inherent in the discourse are apparent in this passage. The first is that "we" must "raise our thought" to a higher plane than the one on which it usually stands, "according to our power," as it were, where one must recognize the fact that not everyone's "power" is the same or equal because if it were there would be no justification for the existence of hierarchical structures of any kind in the first place. The initial act, or need, to "raise" our level of thought upward to the level of the "Celestial Intelligences," to God as the "Origin of Light," also makes it perfectly clear that hierarchies are inherently necessary to this kind of thinking because without God in the first place, and by definition God is that which is higher than man, there would be no need to turn our thoughts higher than they already are if there is no thing higher than we are to contemplate. The purpose behind the contemplation of the hierarchy inherent in this form of thought, of course, is to "uplift" us to a higher level than the one on which we were created in the first place. The Fathers of Christianity, stretching back at least as far as Genesis, invented, or at least embraced, the concept of original sin in order to fix the perception of the highest and lowest levels of the hierarchy into a permanent place in the ideology of the true believer. The Areopagite makes it clear why this strategy was necessary when he notes that
"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."
A significant problem this passage addresses is the conflict generated by the assertion that God, the supreme, absolute "Light" that can never be "deprived of Its own intrinsic unity," nevertheless manifests Itself in a multiplicity of symbols meant "for the uplifting of those creatures governed by Its providence." In other words, if God is absolute singularity in His own "unity" and "changeless sameness," how is it possible for Him to become "manyness" in the manifestations that are meant to uplift the creatures from lowest to highest levels of the hierarchy in which He has placed them by virtue of being their Creator? Christian ideology created this problem for itself, as it were, by insisting on God's singularity (if God is not absolutely singular in His unity there might be another one out there somewhere to share in or appropriate the power He alone holds and administers over His creation), but then did not monitor (or censor) carefully enough what various Church Fathers said about Him as they began the process of filling their empty signifier with this or that product of hallucinogenic frenzy as this piece or that of the manifestations occurred to them. Put differently, since every human mind is the unique product of its own experience, the task of filling an empty signifier with content cannot be regulated severely enough to insure that the end result will resemble anything like a unified entity who possesses a "changeless sameness" from first to last irrefutably uttered Word. The qualification used here, "according to their capacity," again means to suggest that not everyone who is "uplifted" by the symbols of the celestial hierarchy are, or can be, raised to the same level. In other words, there is a God-ordained inequality inherent in every word spoken about celestial hierarchies in Christian ideology.
The notion of the empty signifier that I have been harping on here, but not like an angel, of course, is a highly charged ideological content of my own meant to express a personal bias against the idea that God exists as anything, substance or otherwise, susceptible to quantification. When describing a thing that does not exist, when filling an empty signifier with content, there is no natural limit anywhere apparent in the process that can be said to guide, or restrain, the attributes that are applied to the thing being signified by the term. Hence, if one chooses to say that God is "changeless sameness," as opposed to absolute contingency, and if there is nothing out there in the real world that corresponds to the thing being characterized by this quantity or quality or the other, then there is no chance at all that this or that assertion will ever be contradicted by anything like a fact. This is simply saying over again what I have already said before: using the product of hallucinogenic frenzy to develop a characterization of God is just as viable as applying strictly limited processes of reason and rationality to the task. Where nothing is signified by the term being defined any characterization of IT is as valid as any other. When western theology begins its definition of God by calling IT unknowable and incomprehensible, making IT an empty signifier from day one, every qualification after that ground is established becomes as viable as any other. The point to be taken here is that God, because IT is an empty signifier, can, or even must, be "changeless sameness" and "absolute contingency" simultaneously. Since one term of definition contradicts the other, calling God nothing at all seems the only logical assertion to make.
Another problem Dionysius confronts concerns the fact that the Fathers, more often that not, used material terms and symbols to express their experience of purely spiritual realities. Addressing this issue, he says that
"Wherefore that first institution of the sacred rites, judging it worthy of a supermundane copy of the Celestial Hierarchies, gave us our most holy hierarchy, and described that spiritual Hierarchy in material terms and in various compositions of forms so that we might be led, each according to his capacity, from the most holy imagery to formless, unific, elevative principles and assimilations. For the mind can by no means be directed to the spiritual presentation and contemplation of the Celestial Hierarchies unless it use the material guidance suited to it."
An early debate in the first century centered around the issue of whether the soul ("mind") of man was material or immaterial, whether it was substance or substanceless. The question arose out of contact with Greek philosophy as Christian faith spread outward from its point of origin into the wider world of eastern Europe. Many Greek philosophers, who were universally reviled by Christian theologians as pagan unbelievers, argued that the soul was immaterial. The early Fathers rejected this notion on the ground that an immaterial soul could not receive punishment for evil and reward for good if it did not have material substance on which one or the other could be visited. Here, that idea is extended to include the notion that instruction of the soul or mind of man in the realities of the celestial hierarchies, which clearly must be spiritual, cannot occur unless they are clothed, as it were, in some kind of material, albeit symbolic, flesh. The other significant idea expressed here is that the earthly hierarchy, characterized as "our most holy hierarchy," is a copy of the one that exists in a heavenly or spiritual realm, which the Areopagite refers to as a "Celestial Hierarchy." This is little more than an adaptation of Plato's concept of ideal types informing the nature of mundane reality. He makes this point clearly enough when he says that
"Similarly the details of the sacred teaching correspond to the feast of contemplation in the soul, while the ranks of order on earth reflect the Divine Concord and the disposition of the Heavenly Orders."
What this suggests, of course, is that the earthly order by rank in social hierarchies, by virtue of the "details of the sacred teaching" in the writing of the Church Fathers and in the Bible, has its origin in, and is wholly justified by, the ordination of God, since whatever exists on the earth in a Christian community is a direct reflection of the "Divine Concord" of the "Heavenly Orders."
Finishing the progression of this argument, the Areopagite says that
"To further, then, the attainment of our due measure of deification, the loving Source of all mysteries, in showing to us the Celestial Hierarchies, and consecrating our hierarchy as fellowministers, according to our capacity, in the likeness of their divine ministry, depicted those supercelestial Intelligences in material images in the inspired writings of the sacred Word so that we might be guided through the sensible to the intelligible, and from sacred symbols to the Primal Source of the Celestial Hierarchies."
It is in this statement that Dionysius gets to the point of his discourse. Put simply, the purpose of the Celestial Hierarchy, and the reason it exists at all, is for the sake of our edification in uplifting us, who are and constitute a flawed creation, to a higher level of being as we attain "our due measure of deification," and as always "according to our capacity," in order to become ever more godlike in our essence. Hence, the reason for the existence of the Celestial Hierarchy is said to be for the sake of our instruction in how to become more godlike than we are in a natural state as created beings. Drawing closer to God, then, is the reason it is necessary to stratify social reality into ranks of good, better, best and bad, worse, worst. Being able to tell who has been uplifted the most, to the highest level of "deification," as it were, always resides in those who have attained the most power and influence over the lives of everyone who has attained the least in the effort to become godlike. As everyone knows, of course, the Bishop has more power than the Parish Priest and therefore has attained a higher level of deification. The Parish Priest has more power than the Parishioner and has attained a higher level of deification. The Parishioner has more power than a non-believer in the earthly hierarchy, and so on and so forth, until at some point, and sooner rather than later, it becomes perfectly justifiable, even necessary, for those at the top to begin the process of weeding-out the ones at the bottom who have attained no discernible level of deification at all. The people at the lowest level of the hierarchy, non-believers, pagans, heathens, and infidels, are always perceived as dangerous to the community of true believers because, and by virtue, of being bad examples they threaten the fidelity of everyone else. Such people are generally excluded from the community; incarcerated, driven out, or simply put to death, in order to protect the purity of the unified whole from the corruption they embody or represent. Nothing in the ideology, since God Himself condemns the non-believer to eternal death, prevents the harshest possible treatment being visited upon them. While it might be inappropriate to argue that belief in the celestial hierarchy always leads to genocide against the non-conformist other, the potential for that outcome always exists as a justifiable alternative to other forms of behavior, a potential that has a rich and varied history in cultures dominated by Christian traditions.
Going back to an original point of departure; Dionysius aligns himself with the Areopagus of ancient Athens, that city-state's highest council, because he does not want anyone to mistake the level of deification he has achieved in his own life. People who cling most ardently to concepts of social hierarchy always place themselves at its highest level. And indeed, who better to explain the concept to the rest of us than someone who has moved upward through the earthly model of heavenly forms to stand closer to godlike omnipotence than any of the rest of us are ever likely to achieve.