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Dionysius The Areopagite by Clarence Edwin Rolt


Let us now consider the bearings of the Dionysian theory on certain other currents of modern philosophy.

According to Dr. McTaggart each human soul possesses, behind its temporal nature, a timeless self and each one of these timeless selves is an eternal differentiation of the Absolute. Now if these timeless selves are finite, then none embraces the whole system. And, if that is so, in what does the Spiritual Unity of the whole consist? If, on the other hand, they are infinite, then each one must embrace the whole System; and, if so, how can they remain distinct? Having the same context, they must coalesce even as (according to Orthodox Theology) the |Persons| of the Trinity coalesce in the Unity behind the plane of Manifestation. Dr. McTaggart's philosophical scheme is noble, but it seems open to this metaphysical attack, and psychologically it appears to be defective as it leaves no room for worship, which is a prime need of the human soul. The Dionysian theory seems to meet the difficulty; for since our ultimate being is outside ourselves in the Super-Essence, one side of our Being is supra-personal. Our finite selves are, on that side, merged together in One Infinite |Self| (if It may be thus inadequately described); and this Infinite Self (so to call It) embraces, and is the Spiritual Unity of the whole System. And this Infinite Self, seen from afar, is and must be the Object of all worship until at last worship shall be swallowed up in the completeness of Unknowing.

The paradox that our true existence is (in a sense) outside ourselves is the paradox of all life. We live by breath and food, and so our life is in these things outside our individual bodies. Our life is in the air and in our nourishment before we assimilate it as our own. More astonishing still, Bergson has shown that our perceptions are outside us in the things we perceive. When I perceive an object a living current passes from the object through my eyes by the afferent nerves to the brain, and thence by the efferent nerves once more to the object from which it started, causing a mere sensation in me (i. e. in my body) but causing me also by that sensation to have a perception outside me (i. e. outside my body) in the thing I look at. And all who gaze upon the same object have their perceptions outside themselves in that same object which yet is indivisibly one. Even so are we to find at last that we all have our true selfhoods in the One Super-Essence outside us, and yet each shall all the time have a feeling in himself of his own particular being without which the Super-Essence could not be his.

The doctrine of Unknowing must not be confounded with Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the Unknowable. The actual terms may be similar: the meanings are at opposite poles. For Herbert Spencer could conceive only of an intellectual apprehension, which being gone, nothing remained: Dionysius was familiar with a spiritual apprehension which soars beyond the intellect. Hence Herbert Spencer preaches ignorance concerning ultimate things; Dionysius (like Bergson in modern times) a transcendence of knowledge. The one means a state below the understanding and the other a state above it. The one teaches that Ultimate Reality is, and must always be, beyond our reach; the other that the Ultimate Reality at last becomes so near as utterly to sweep away (in a sense) the distinction which separates us from It. That this is the meaning of Unknowing is plain from the whole trend of the Dionysian teaching, and is definitely stated, for instance, in the passage about the statue or in others which say that the Divine Darkness is dark through excess of light. It is even possible that the word |Unknowing| was (with this positive meaning) a technical term of the Mysteries or of later Greek Philosophy, and that this is the real explanation and interpretation of the inscription on the Athenian altar: |To the Unknown God.|

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