Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dionysius and Aquinas

Pico's admiration for Dionysius is not in doubt. He refers to Dionysius as "prince of Christian theologians" and

along with Dionysius as "the glory of our theology." Dionysius plays a major role in each of the texts under

discussion in this paper because Pico's angelology is largely drawn from Dionysius, who was the main architect of

Christian angelology. The profound influence of Dionysius is discussed in detail in the recent studies of Brian

Copenhaver and Crofton Black. Whatever Pico means by "magic and Kabbalah," it is clear that they must make sense in

terms of Pico's grounding in Dionysian mysticism. He introduces Kabbalah in the Oration using terms connected with

Dionysius. Kabblah is a "supersubstantial theology of ineffable deity" and contains an "exact metaphysics of angels."

Later in his Conclusions Pico will highlight the significance of Cabala for his conception of magical operations, but

in the Oration he describes finding in Kabbalah "the same things we read daily in Paul" _____. Pico's principle

interest in Kabbalah seems to be in comparing it to the mystical theology of Dionysius; any magical meanings are


The influence of "The Angelic Doctor" Thomas Aquinas on Pico is no less profound, although his admiration for the

medieval scholastic philosopher is more complicated. We know that Pico collected the works of Aquinas, reading him

enthusiastically and extensively. We will see that Pico follows Aquinas' metaphysical innovations and reading of

Dionysius for certain aspects of the angelology of Heptaplus and negative theology of On Being and Unity. But in the

Conclusions Pico feels free to disagree with Aquinas, and uses his criticism of Aquinas as a general example of the

kind of philosophical opinions that are merely "probable" and should not be confused for matters of faith. Pico does

not attack Aquinas because he is anti-scholastic: Pico is attempting to situate himself within the scholastic

tradition using scholastic methods of debate, although he so provocatively disagrees with certain scholastic

doctrines. Unfortunately, since Pico did not have the opportunity to debate his Conclusions, we do not get very much

information about the specific criticisms he makes of Aquinas. However, in his late works, these controversies are

largely forgotten and he follows Aquinas' reading of Dionysius closely.

What discussion of Pico's profound debt to these two Christian theologians have not taken into account is the

profound influence of Dionysius on the metaphysics and angelology of Aquinas. It has long been understood that Aquinas makes frequent reference to Dionysius in his theological writings, and especially in the "Treatise on Angels" of the Summa Theologiae. But recent scholarship on the influence of Dionysius has demonstrated the decisive impact of Dionysius on the metaphysical developments which Aquinas made in constructing his account of God as "Ipsum esse subsistens." Rather than seeing God as "beyond being" in the manner of Dionysius, Aquinas understood God as "being itself," crafting an interpretation of Dionysius to suit this understanding. This modification of the metaphysics of Dionysius will be crucial to Pico's polemic against Platonists who argue that God is beyond being, based on the idea that unity transcends being. Aquinas took the Dionysian notion of God as self-giving Good to craft his notion of God bestowing being as a gift on his creatures. While this move to understanding God as Being has been understood as an Aristotelian one, more careful scholarship on Aquinas has emphasized the importance of Platonism in his thinking. In particular the Platonic notion of participation--which Aristotle rejected--plays a key role for Thomas, as it will for Pico.

We will see that in his Neoplatonic conclusions Pico explores the metaphysics of participation in the Platonists that Aquinas himself was responding to. Wayne Hankey has studied in detail the presence of "Iamblichean and Procline" philosophical principles which reached Aquinas not only through Dionysius, but in the text of Proclus which was made available in Aquinas' lifetime. Aquinas noticed that Dionysius seems to "everywhere follow Aristotle" on the one hand, but agree with Proclus on certain matters on the other. It was Aquinas' study of the Neoplatonists which led to his own understanding of both the Aristotelian and Platonic traditions, and Aquinas did not always side with the Aristotelians. This complex relationship to the opposing philosphical traditions of Platonism and Aristotelianism characterizes Pico as well as Aquinas, and it makes much more sense to understand him in this context rather than seeing his encounter with Neoplatonic metaphysics as a resort to magic.

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