being itself is not a static series of lifeless forms but a communion of living intelligences

From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl:

It is not the contemplative inward turn but rather the externality of sense that separates the self, as subject, from all else, as external object.

…Intellection, then, is the apprehension of being, as a whole, in a complex but unified vision, and being itself is not a static series of lifeless forms but a communion of living intelligences.

…Intellect, or intellection, is thus genuinely analogous to vision, as a bringing together of subject and object. In sense vision, the subject “reaches out,” extends its gaze toward the object, and the object is taken into the subject’s awareness. Sense perception, as a mode of consciousness, is a partial overcoming of the separation between subject and object, self and reality. In intellectual vision or intuition, this is perfected, for there is no externality or “distance” between the self and reality, and so they are one.

…Intellect, therefore, is perfect consciousness in that it is the knowledge of being as its own content and therefore as itself. As such it is not an object fixed up above in metaphysical space but an activity that we ourselves, as consciousness, can be.

…The self, at the level of Intellect, is Intellect, which means that it is all things. Hence the ascent to Intellect is also an inward turn of consciousness, whereby we encounter reality not, as by sense, external to the self, but as the content of thought and thus within the self.

…Discursive reason, then, apprehends the same content as intellection, but in greater multiplicity. As the unfolded representation of intellection in soul, discursive reason functions as a mean between the unity of the forms in Intellect and the still greater dispersion at the level of sense.

…Intellect and sense, therefore, as modes of cognition, are not apprehensions of different “worlds” or sets of objects, but are more and less unified apprehensions of being, the only object of all cognition. The sensible cosmos as a whole is the sensuous apprehension of being, being as apprehended, most multiply, by sense, and the intelligible cosmos is the same content as apprehended, most unitarily, by intellectual intuition. The sensible and the intelligible are not two worlds, but rather the same reality, the manifestation of the One, apprehended in differing degrees of unity. The ascent to intellection is thus not a passage from one set of objects to another, but a gathering of the content of consciousness into greater unity.

…Plotinus summarizes this account of Intellect by saying that it is “as if there was one quality which held and kept intact all the qualities in itself, of sweetness along with fragrance, and was at once the quality of wine and the characters of all tastes, the sights of colours and all the awarenesses of touch, and all that hearings hear, all tunes and every rhythm.” This strikingly sensuous description of intelligible reality drives home the point that intellectual experience is far more rich, not less, than sense experience, because it apprehends in concentrated unity, although not without distinction, all the same content that sense apprehends in extended, “diluted” multiplicity.

the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God

In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:

For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.

Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.

It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:

Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identification of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.

…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.

the entire hierarchy of reality, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God

There is no contradiction between the hierarchical structure of reality and the immediate constitutive presence of God to all things.

…Thus all things, at every level, participate directly in God in the manner appropriate to them. Therefore the hierarchical structure of reality, far from separating the lower orders of being from God, is itself the very ground of his immediate presence in all things. Every being participates directly in God precisely in and by occupying its proper place within the cosmic hierarchy: stones by merely existing; plants by living; animals by sensing, humans by being rational, angels by being intellectual. It is not hierarchical order, but rather an egalitarian leveling, that would violate the immediate participation of all things in God by blurring the differences and ranks of beings which constitute that very participation.

…The view that hierarchical order separates the lower ranks of creatures from God depends on the mistaken conception of God as the “first and highest being,” standing above the angels at the peak of the hierarchy of beings. If that were the case, then indeed only the highest beings would be in immediate communion with God. But since God is not any being but “all things in all things and nothing in any,” he does not stand at the top of the universal hierarchy but transcends and permeates the whole. “The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.

…Dionysius’ doctrine of analogous participation in God is thus closely parallel to Plotinus’ teaching that the nature of all things is their share in contemplation or intellectual activity (which itself is the manifestation of the One), so that the life of plants is a “growth-thought” and that of animals a “sense-thought.” The same principle can be found in Proclus, in the form of his well-known affirmation, “All things are in all things, but properly in each.” He goes on to explain: “In Being there is life and intellect; in Life, being and intellect; in Intellect, being and life; but each of these exists upon one level intellectually, upon another vitally, and on the third existentially.” For him, too, the less universal perfections are specifications of the more universal ones, so that, for example, living things have intellect “vitally,” i.e. in the mode of life, and intellectual things have life “intellectually,” i.e. in the mode of intellect.

From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl.
Great Chain of Being
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality

Since procession and reversion are in reality the same relation of dependence, a thing’s being made to be by God is not in any sense prior to its desire for him. Rather, the generation of the being consists in its tending toward God no less than in its coming from him. Thus reversion, as the activity of the being, is the being’s share in its own being made to be. As in Plotinus and Proclus, the product has an actively receptive role in its production, and if it does not exercise this activity it cannot exist. For Dionysius, God cannot make beings without their active cooperation, for without that activity they would not be anything. In every being, including animals, plants, and inanimate things, there is an element of ‘interiority’, of selfhood, an active share in its own being what it is and so in its own being. At the level of rational beings, this interiority takes the form of self-consciousness, of personhood and freedom. But the principle that any being’s reversion is creative of it means that there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality, even in inanimate things.

Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl

it is neither monism nor dualism, but can only be called, for want of a better term, “theophanism”

It may be felt that such doctrines make Dionysius into a mere “monist” or “pantheist.” God, he insists, is not something other than the world but is “all things in all things.” Again, if being is nothing but theophany, does this not imply that the world is not real at all, but only appearance? Such objections, however, represent a failure to understand the Neoplatonic metaphysics of manifestation and intelligibility. Dionysius’ metaphysics is not a form of “pantheism,” if by this we mean the doctrine that all things are God. On the contrary: every being, precisely in that it is a being, i.e. something distinct, finite, and intelligible, ipsofacto is not God. Indeed, since to be is to be intelligible and therefore to be finite, to be means to be not God. This, again, is precisely why God is beyond being. Every being, then, absolutely is not God. Nor are all things, taken as a totality, God, for “all things” is plural, a multiplicity of distinct intelligible beings. The God of Dionysius is “all beings and none of beings,” “all things in all things and nothing in any,” and in these formulas the “all” can never be separated from the “none.” As all things without distinction, God is neither any one thing nor all things in their plurality. All things, qua all things, the whole of reality, are absolutely other than God.

But if Dionysius is not a monist or pantheist, neither is he a dualist, regarding God as another being over against the world. All things are not God, but God is not therefore something else besides all things. Such a notion, as the very words indicate, is manifest nonsense. If God were another being besides his products, he would be included as a member of a more inclusive totality, subordinated to a more embracing universal term, and distinct from the other members and therefore finite. If God were merely other than the world, he would be another thing and so not truly transcendent, but contained in the world. All things are other than God, but God is not other than all things. Since all things are not God, Dionysius is not a monist; but since God is not something else besides all things, neither is he a dualist.

Dionysius, like his fellow Neoplatonists, is able to negotiate a way between monism and dualism by means of the Platonic concept of appearance, taken up into the doctrine of being as theophany. The relation between an appearance and that of which it is an appearance is not a relation between two beings: the appearance is not another being, additional to that which is appearing. But in that the appearance, qua appearance, is not that which is appearing itself, neither is this a monistic reduction of the appearance to what is appearing. As Plato says, with reference to the status of sensibles as appearances of the forms, they are not being itself, the forms, but neither are they non-being, or nothing. The appearances both are and are not the reality; they are “in between“ being and non-being. So, for Dionysius, beings are not additional things other than God, in such a way that God and the world would constitute two things. But neither are they nothing, or illusion, as in a monist philosophy. Wherever we look, we are not seeing God, in that every being, every object of thought, is not God; and wherever we look, we are seeing God, as he appears, for every being, every object of thought, is nothing but a presentation or appearance of God.

To say that the world is the manifestation or appearance of God, then, is not to say that it is not real. Rather, Dionysius’ Neoplatonic point is that reality itself is appearance: to be real means to be intelligible, to be given to thought, and thus to be appearance. To go beyond appearance, in this sense of what is given to thought, is to go beyond being. As Dionysius’ Neoplatonic metaphysics is neither theism nor atheism, so also it is neither monism nor dualism, but can only be called, for want of a better term, “theophanism.” The relation between appearance and that which appears is irreducible to either unity or duality and cannot be expressed in any terms other than those of appearance, manifestation, image, expression. Only through this Platonic concept is it possible to understand Dionysius’ metaphysics or to make sense of the relation between the world and God without reducing the world to God (monism) or God to a being (dualism).

Eric Perl in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite
Traditional theophany icon.

the structure of participation

More from Eric Perl’s book Theophany which so far is unpacking that “being as convertible with intelligibility is such an important idea for platonic thought [that has] disappeared with the rise of nominalism” (as a friend who better understands put it).

Despite differences of expression, the structure of participation, implying at once transcendence and immanence, remains the same in Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius: one and the same term is present in many different things, and as what is the same in all of them (immanent), it is other than and unconditioned by all of them (transcendent).

But if all the determinations of all things are the presence of God in them, then God is not merely “in all things,” as if he were in something other than himself. Rather, God is the whole content of reality, “all things in all things.” God “is all things as cause of all things, and holding together and prepossessing in himself all principles, all limits of all beings.” The various features, characters, or natures, the determinations found in a thing, constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing, all that there is in it for the mind to encounter. And since to be is to be intelligible, they constitute the whole of the thing itself. A being can be nothing but the totality of its intelligible determinations, down to the least details by which it is this particular thing and no other. The divine processions are “in” all things, then, not as contained in something other than themselves, but as constituting their entire content. God is the “cause” of all things, and so subject to all names, therefore, in that the entire intelligible content of all things, and hence the whole of reality, is nothing but the differentiated presence of God.

the life of living things and being of beings

Eric Perl, in his book Theophany, quoting and explicating Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:

God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deification of the deified and simplicity of the simplified and unity of the unified… and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.” He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings.” Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being.

…Here these “paradigms” or logoi contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identified as the defining or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or defining logos, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God—in—them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things.” This constitutive presence of God in all things is what Dionysius variously calls the “powers,” “participations,” “processions,” “providences,” “manifestations,” or “distributions” of God. All these expressions refer to God’s causal presence.