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Platonic Themes

Transparency and Dissimulation: Configurations of Neoplatonism in Early Modern English Literature by Verena Olejniczak Lobsien(Transformationen Der Antike: Walter de Gruyter) Transparency and Dissimulation analyses the configurations of ancient Neoplatonism in early modern English texts. In looking closely at poems and prose writings by authors as diverse as Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Edward Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Thomas Browne and, last not least, Aphra Behn, this study attempts to map the outlines of a Neoplatonic aesthetics in literary practice as well as to chart its transformative potential in the shifting contexts of cultural turbulency and denominational conflict in 16th- and 17th-century England. What emerges is a versatile poetics of excess and enigma that shows surprising effects above all in the way it helps to resist the easy answers - in religion, science, or the fashions of libertine love.

Neoplatonic Configurations in Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Culture: Enigma and Excess

»The world is, as one calls it, 'Enigma Dei.«1 This is one of the reasons, Nathanael Culverwell claims, why we need the Spiritual Opticks he sets out to provide. His treatise under this title was published posthumously in 1651 with the subtitle »A Glasse Discovering the weaknesse and imperfection of a Christians knowledge in this life«. It was, as Culverwell's friend and editor W.D.2 points out in his epistle »To the Reader«, »intended onely for a taste« of Culverwell's work on The Light of Nature. It is perhaps not surprising that a mid-seventeenth century Cambridge theologian should be concerned with questions of how God's truth is hidden in the visible world, what it consists in, and why it is not immediately apparent. It is, however, less self-evident why his explication of verse 13. 12 in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians — For now we see through a glasse darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known — should place so little emphasis on the eschatological promise contained in these well-known words and so much on the modes of ignorance they imply. It is precisely the types and kinds of unknowing that Culverwell's exegesis unfolds in some detail: the ways of not seeing, or rather, of not seeing properly. He describes what impedes cognition and hinders insight; he analyses the obstacles inhibiting certain knowledge, be they deficiencies in our epistemological equipment or distortions of our spiritual perspective. Interest is focussed not in the first place on the state to come, adumbrated in the apocalyptical meanings of a >face-to-face< recognition of the divine, but on the intervening medium responsible for the >darkness< and partiality of our temporal vision as well as on the glimpses of the beyond it nonetheless affords. It is less the solution to the >enigma< posed by the visible world that commands our attention, but the riddle itself; the ways in which the Book of Nature has become unreadable and the ways in which it communicates in spite of this, with illegible letters still signifying transcendence. If Culverwell's treatise exhorts us to decipher the »print of a Deity« in creation and to explore the manner in which this is defaced or appears obscure, it can be said in a more general sense to epitomise a problem occupying seventeenth-century religious as well as scientific mentalities, resonating not last in the products of the artistic imagination: the problem of transparency.

Transparency and its counterpart, the >hiddenness<, obscurity or opacity of transcendence which I refer to as dissimulation, are at the heart of my study of seventeenth-century literary texts. My guiding intuition is that for the seventeenth century the question of transparency became more pressing than in preceding centuries, and than it was to become again at the end of the long English Reformation leading up to the more settled eighteenth century. This is of course to speak very loosely, and it should be stated from the outset that I am not primarily interested in questions of periodisation or in the history of ideas in a traditional sense. What does interest me, however, is how Early Modern men and women tried to make sense of their lives in extremely troubled times and how they did so in writing, both in poetry and prose. Specifically, I am intrigued by the way they employed certain Neoplatonic concepts and figures of thought. Amongst these, transparency, in a systematic sense, is the most comprehensive concept. It is fundamental for a world-view that was built on readings and re-readings of the thought of Plato and his successors, resting on a multi-layered textual basis that had, in an unprecedented way, broadened during the European Renaissance.

For Neoplatonists from Plotinus to Coleridge, the manifold, perceptible plurality of things is not all there is. The visible is, on the contrary, evidence of a reality that transcends sensory perception. It is this invisible, unitary and unifying reality, which is not only the ground and fountainhead of all being, but which also powerfully attracts everything there is, motivating it to return to whence it came. The One (hen) is ontologically primordial to all there is .4 It is the dynamising force at work within the many that constitute the world of appearance, relating the seemingly unrelated and causing in them a strong drift towards union. The given, to the Neoplatonist, is not all and it is not sufficient. In itself, it contains the germ of its melioration and, ultimately, its perfections — the divine spark or, in the parlance of a seventeenth-century Quaker conflating the Christian with the alchemical and kabbalistic, the »seed and birth« of Christ. Material reality, thus, not only points towards the immaterial, it is transparent to it — diaphanous —permitting its hidden glory to >shine through the veil< (in the language of light so dear to Neoplatonic writers). Indeed, matter serves as a medium through which the One communicates itself. This self-communication and mediated self-revelation of the One in turn effects the conversion and transformation of the things proceeding from it — a transformation which, by way of several stages of self-reflection, recollection and recognition, amounts to an assimilation and finally identification with their origin. Hence it can be said, with a paradox deriving from John Scotus Eriugena, that everything there is, is the appearance of the non-apparent; that the world is, indeed, as the Cambridge Platonist Culverwell claims in Eriugena's wake, 'Enigma Dei, waiting to be read by us and contemplated with the eye of the mind so that we may be gathered into this dynamic, all-embracing movement towards the One. We need to see through the veil, but without disregarding it, for it is, after all, its beauty which directs our gaze towards its proper object in the first place. It is its permeability as well as its resistance that renders it adequate to the dignity as well as the incommensurability of what it conceals.9 Dissimulation is the signifier of the non-availability of transcendence together with its irresistible attraction.

This sketch of a basic pattern of Neoplatonic thought also indicates why it is that transparency comes to assume such unique relevance for Early Modern mentalities. If Early Modernity, in its Renaissance as well as seventeenth century versions, can be said to form the matrix for what we term a >modern< understanding of the world, transparency becomes functional at several levels. While it avoids untenable claims of a simple accessibility of truth and reality, it provides a non-Aristotelian strengthening of metaphysics in a period that witnessed the end of the old (scholastic, speculative) natural philosophy and the rise of empiricist natural science together with >mechanical< (rationalist) thinking — not, in a revisionist sense, in simple opposition to the new scientific endeavour, but, interestingly, in many of its major protagonists, in close conjunction with it. Thus, we see Francis Bacon still pursuing alchemical interests; we observe the Cambridge Platonists, foremost among them Henry More, corresponding with Descartes and following the discoveries of the Royal Society, and we accompany virtuosi like Thomas Browne or John Evelyn in their meanderings between experimentalism and speculation, >seraphic friendship< and scientific practice. There is not only no clear-cut antagonism between Neoplatonic metaphysics and natural science," but also a complex relationship of mutual criticism and advancement and/or revision in the face of the challenges of materialism.

Equally far from the clichés of simple opposition, there also holds a productive relationship between post-Reformation theology, church politics, and Neoplatonism. On one hand, the fundamental structure of the spiritual life based on transparency also implies a model of universal unification. In view of the increasing problems of religious diversity and confessional conflict, notions of oneness and harmonious convergence are likely to appeal to disoriented believers as well as representatives of a Christianity in danger of falling apart and losing its identity in sectarian plurality. On the other hand, it is obvious how the sense of divine truth provisionally veiled, with revelation possible, if not imminent, would appeal to apocalyptic and millenarian tempers within Protestant Nonconformism.12 Besides, the linkage of hiddenness and discovery and their mutual reference implied in the figure of transparency also lends itself to theopsychological argumentation of yet another kind: Anti-institutional groups within reformed spirituality such as the Quakers, who opposed hierarchical, priestly mediation of Evangelical truth and favoured individual inspiration, were convinced, as George Keith wrote in a treatise composed during his imprisonment in 1665, that »Immediate Revelation« had »Not Ceased« and that »Jesus Christ the Eternall Son of God, revealed in man and revealing the knowledge of God, and the things of his Kingdom, immediately« still communicated himself and all the truths necessary for salvation through the inner light possessed by the individual believer.

Finally, if the truth of faith, like the truth of scientific knowledge and the truth of thought, has become a contested area; if, indeed, these have become areas to be distinguished from each other, and if the hiddenness of these truths is what they have in common, this also holds good for the realm of ethics and questions concerning the self and others. What the good life consists in, what happiness is and how it might be found becomes a subject for the experts and a matter of controversy. And again, despite the growing multitude of options and models, what they have in common seems to be their non-obviousness, their lack of evidence. With an increasingly widespread knowledge of Latin and Greek authors and with a growing availability of texts due to the humanist enterprise, arts of life, too, began to proliferate. Classical antiquity, especially in its later, Hellenistic version, became imitable in the shape of life styles and modes of everyday conduct. And as Stoical, Skeptical, and, in the course of the seventeenth century, increasingly Epicurean models of the good life compete for validity, offering to make sense of life and to explain the place and role of the individual self in its interaction with others, it is again the voice of Neoplatonism that makes itself heard in this often dissonant music. For here, too, the optimistic assertion of transparency shows its strength. While it readily acknowledges that the meaning of life may appear obscure, it still conceives of this as a merely provisional and transitory state, with its glorious truth merely dissembled. Hence it offers itself (as will be seen in the writings of Thomas Traherne) as a radiantly attractive alternative and a guide to the perplexed, capable of reconciling confessional antagonism.

It should be added immediately that the Neoplatonist pattern hardly ever presents itself in complete and unadulterated form. If there is anything in the politically turbulent laboratory situation of the seventeenth century that emerges as fairly unambiguous, it seems to be the feeling that the world has become a radically different place from what it was before. »'Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone;« as John Donne famously lamented in his First Anniversarie and as Andrew Marvell reiterated in the 1650s: »'Tis not, what once it was, the world«. It is this sense of change which gives such a note of urgency to many articulations of the human condition in this century. The responses to the felt loss of order, as pressing as it may have been experienced, are, however, anything but univocal, and they rarely result in simple reproductions of former models. Instead we tend to find hybrid stances, syncretistic positions forged from different and often incompatible materials. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England are not a period in which philosophical systems are originated or, like Cartesian thought in France, systematically and consistently developed from first principles. What might be considered a weakness from a modern point of view, however, appears as a kind of strength, at least a source of productivity, from another. The Early Modern period does not only see the rise of the experimental sciences, it is also itself a laboratory. The materials are available thanks to Renaissance humanism. The huge store of wisdom to be found in classical Antiquity provides ample matter and little reason why the ancient answers should not be freely combined in reply to new situations. It is this courage to select meanings from heterogeneous contexts and to test their compatibility, with a kind of >experiential< curiosity, which constitutes the period's achievement and perhaps its most important contribution to the history of culture and thought. Besides, this readiness to engage with ways of thinking other than one's own not only holds in a diachronic sense, with respect to models of classical provenience, but also, as it were, synchronically. As Renaissance humanism was a European movement that spread with different degrees of liveliness and regionally in very different rhythms, and as Early Modern Neoplatonism originated and thrived first of all in fifteenth-century Italy, its transfer to England also indicates — contrary to clichés of insularity — a considerable openness to continental cultural imports. Due to the relative lateness of the English Renaissance in comparison with continental European developments, for the seventeenth century, this implied an added religious relevance, as Neoplatonisms unfolded their explanatory and argumentative potential in contexts of intensifying confessional debate or theological conflict. They became part not only of a >vertical< interaction across the centuries, but also of an ongoing >lateral<, European exchange — indeed an international transformation — of ideas and particularly religious and scholarly mentalities.

Thus, just as Early Modern English Neoplatonism was not an eccentric phenomenon, it never appears in isolation. We encounter it in combination with other modes of thinking, in often unlikely configurations. Of course, this also holds for other explanatory approaches and pragmatic attitudes. Far from being handed down unchanged through the centuries, the systematic positions elaborated by Greek and Latin thinkers were not simply >rebom<, >revived< or even >received< in the belated English Renaissance, but rather recomposed and changed in the process. Antiquity is transformed — not infrequently out of recognition, as elements from competing systems are selected and reorganised in versions aimed at cultural situations very different form their origins. It is particularly worthwhile recalling this truism with respect to Early Modern Neoplatonism. As this is in itself an intensely transformative mode of thinking, it seems to lend itself to reconfigurations capable of incorporating, if not integrating, even naturalistic elements. From a Neoplatonic, especially a Plotinian, point of view, the progress of the soul is a process of alteration and metamorphosis, a transformation in which, ascending through successive stages of reflexion and growing self-awareness, it assimilates itself to Intelligence (nous) and approximates union with the One. Perhaps it is this transformative dynamic, sometimes systematised in terms of the triad of rest (moné), progress or emanation (proodos), and return (epistrophé) suggested by Proclus, which enables the Neoplatonic impulse to energise and draw into its wake even elements that may at first sight appear unrelated, if not irreconcilable. Incidentally, as the Neoplatonic model is the only one in the Hellenistic spectrum offering a sophisticated theory of the self, of consciousness and subjectivity, this may be assumed to add to its attractiveness and the historic functionality of its structures.

Early Modern versions of Neoplatonic thinking in the strict and narrow sense demanded by a history of philosophy are, however, not at the heart of the present study (although such a refocusing would be worth while, as interest in the Neoplatonic waves and vogues throughout the period seems to have waned somewhat over the last decades). Not to deny their importance, this is also not a book on the Cambridge Platonists either, although their works will be quoted now and again — not least because of their literary qualities.22 By itself, the emergence of a cluster of joint, systematic, Neoplatonic effort23 in a historical context that could hardly be termed congenial is surprising enough. And the Cambridge Platonists' contributions to the New Philosophy as well as to the New Science are still waiting to be fairly and comprehensively assessed.24 But the cultural presence of Neoplatonism in seventeenth-century England took many shapes apart from that of philosophical or theological debate. Among the relevant Neoplatonist formations — in the widest sense — that come to mind immediately are Petrarchism, courtliness, and representations of political power. Subculturally, Neoplatonist thinking continued in its more esoteric, hermeticist kinds, in cabbalistic and other theosophic versions, in the fields of alchemy and astrology. Among these, Petrarchism has been a prominent research topic for some time; its conventions and norms, its relevance for the gendering of many areas of Renaissance culture, its politics, themes and topics, have consumed academic energies to an inordinate extent. Still, none of these are in themselves subjects of my study, although their symbolic forms figure strongly in many of the texts I consider as well as in my readings of them. For here, too, it is not in the first place isolated thematic elements from individual fields but their configurations I am interested in. That is to say, I am concerned with the ways in which modes of thinking, kinds — combined elements, motifs, but above all structures — of a certain type of metaphysics, affect and shape mentalities. The major theme in what follows is, then, the figurative potential of Neoplatonism. I try to explore this not only with respect to literary texts, but also with a view to their possible, culturally relevant effects and to the attitudes they are capable of inculcating.

It might be argued that this figurative achievement is really an imaginative one.25 Indeed, if the defining feature of Early Modern imagination is that it goes beyond a merely additive combinatory faculty in that it makes possible a >seeing-as<, which amounts to a genuine metamorphosis producing new and coherent identities, it could even be claimed that it is the cultural imagination that is at the root of these transformative processes. In the seventeenth-century texts I am reading, at any rate, imaginative transformation does result in >creative< rearrangements of symbolic elements that are in turn capable of effecting, at least of assisting and supporting, cultural and historical change. And again, with this critical interest in the potential effects of literary artefacts, a Neoplatonic turn comes naturally. For the processes involved in poetic transformations could be said to resemble the >poetic< productivity of the world of living beings, as perceived and conceptualised by Early Modern Neoplatonism. The concept of »Plastick Nature« as proposed by Ralph Cudworth is, in some respects, an orthodox Neoplatonic attempt, moving along Proclan lines in order to grasp the formative agency and the creative energies making themselves felt in nature. At the same time, however, it draws attention to a fundamental plasticity and to the underlying structures of dynamic change in the order of being, and opens a door to the question of aesthetics.

Is there a Neoplatonic aesthetic? If so, what are its outlines? There is, besides the somewhat schematic and general parallelism between »Plastick Nature« and the workings of the configurative imagination, a strong doctrinal basis for aesthetics in Neoplatonism, famously outlined by Plotinus in Ennead I 6.28 This is the overwhelming, erotic attraction of Beauty; of a beauty that does not rest on proportion, harmony, or symmetry but is somehow immensely more than these and strongly affects the Soul, as it >runs along< the surface of things, and moves it to ascend beyond the visible to the highest Good. The One communicates itself through beauty. In Plotinus' metaphor, the light of the Good »plays on the surface of intelligible being and illuminates it but is not a part of intelligible being itself«. It is therefore the aesthetic experience triggered by charis, the ineffable, diaphanous >charm< or grace of beautiful beings which functions as the metaphysical threshold to be crossed in the direction of the Good. The experience of beauty is a liminal experience in that it enables us to take the step beyond the corporeal, to transcend the finite towards the infinite, the visible towards the invisible. It makes possible, as we contemplate the transparency of the beautiful with the eye of the mind, a move beyond the erotic desire to possess and sensually to enjoy what we perceive.

This is not without consequences. Neoplatonists are convinced that the experience of beauty carries a potential for change, even transformation. We may be altered by it, as the anagogical impulse triggered by beauty leads us towards a more than intellectual illumination and purification. As Plotinus saw (and Augustine knew as well), this kind of love makes us beautiful, too. From the point of view of later Christian Neoplatonists like Dionysius Areopagita, this mutuality in the response to beauty appears even more irresistible, as they stress not only the contemplator's experience but also insist on the intentionality of divine self-communication as precondition for this experience. Here, it is not just the impersonal One expending itself, as it were, automatically, not unlike the sun giving warmth and the snow chilling,31 but a divine agent, a personal God externalizing himself in his splendour and lavishly, unstintingly giving himself in his creation.32 In a fundamental sense, then, Neoplatonic aesthetics rests on a structure of excess, and it is hardly separable from its ethical dimension.

The depth of this aesthetic-ethical >doubleness< may be gauged by a glance at a biblical episode and the different readings suggested by it. As the gospel according to St. Mark narrates,33 Jesus stays at the house of Simon the leper while on a visit in Bethany, immediately before his betrayal by Judas. During the meal, a woman (by later theology and iconography identified with Mary Magdalen) approaches Jesus, »having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.« (14.3) To the indignant protest of some of his companions that the ointment might better have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus replies:

Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.
For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good; but me ye have not always.
She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. (14.6-8 )

Jesus counters the moral indignation voiced by the zealous among his disciples by insisting that »a good work« is precisely what the woman has done. In the Greek New Testament, however, his defense of the uninvited visitor against the reproach of indulging in gratuitous waste, perhaps for dubious reasons, has a different ring to it: It is a >beautiful work<, kalon ergon, that the woman has done. Not the ethical, but the aesthetic aspect of her profoundly ambivalent act is placed in the foreground. The point, admittedly difficult to render in a translation, is, of course, that one does not rule out the other. The Oxford New Bible tries to capture this doubleness by translating the phrase as »a fine thing«; the Neue Züreher Bibel is even less timid in the face of the >aestheticist< challenge by calling the woman's transgression plainly »eine schöne Tat«. If we assume, for a moment, a Neoplatonic perspective on this episode, it is precisely the coincidence of both aspects that accounts for its theological format. The woman's gratuitous act is beautiful because it both imitates and anticipates, in its structure of conspicuous and amazing, indeed shocking, expense, Christ's own excess in giving his life. This remains unsurpassable, but the surprise and irritation triggered in the spectators of the sumptuous anointing give a measure of the extent to which this image of the ultimate excess is a fitting one. The human imitates the divine, the imperfect mirrors the perfect. It manages, in some ways all too successfully, to signify what is beyond signification. It provides an experience of transcendence by means of a transgressive action — the unbidden approach to a famous rabbi by a woman as well as the breaking of the precious container and the spilling of the precious ointment — in the medium of an almost outrageous sensuality: the consequences of the act can be seen, heard, felt, smelt, tasted.

In view of its structure and effect, the woman's kalon ergon provides a radically dissimilar image of what it signifies. This, however, is characteristic of the mimetic relationship that holds between the manifold and the One. In the Neoplatonic system, this paradoxical, impossible assimilation of everything to the highest in a process of unceasing, self-reflexive recursivity constitutes epistrophé. It is also what Dionysian negative theology describes as one of the ways in which the divine can be referred to without being named: the apophatic (as opposed to the affirmative, kataphatic) way, relying on >unlike symbols< (anomoia symbola), which indicate the radical >unknowability< — the hiddenness of the Godhead and the absolute difference between signifier and signified. In Dionysian theory, however, resting on the assumption that all signs are fundamentally inadequate to the divine, dissimilar signs are superior to similar ones and hence preferred to positive analogies. They are more suitable to the via negativa and its awareness of the unnameability of God. In dissembling what they mean and by simultaneously displaying their inadequacy, they succeed in communicating the presence of the divine in created things together with its ineffability.

Indeed, it is the theology and theurgy articulated in the Corpus Dionysiacum that together imply what is in some ways the most elaborate and complete outline of an aesthetic based on a version of Christian Neoplatonism. This appears on one hand palatable to Early Modern minds and on the other, suggestive of an aesthetics of effect,39 as it opens up the possibility of understanding >progress<, >return< and >rest< not only as ontological categories but as performative structures of being as well as art. As has recently been shown with respect to Dionysius' Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, this work contains above all a theourgike techné, an art of effecting the divine — not in the sense of a magical conjuring up or instrumentalising of God, but in the sense of changing the human soul by making it receptive to God, willing and ready to respond to his communication. The human is to be drawn to God in a process of perfection, not vice versa. This process aims at a fundamental ethical change, a transformation towards the right attitude, spiritual condition or state of mind (hexis) attained through habituation and training. It is a movement of adjustment oriented towards the highest, in which the human becomes progressively more attuned to the divine. It ultimately points towards theosis, or a modelling of the self according to God's image and a participation in His divinity. Hence, it involves not only a purgative effort, an active striving for illumination, and a struggle against inner resistance (agon) not least through a channelling of the imagination. This theurgical training is also a thoroughly mediated process in that it relies on signs (symbola and synthemata). It addresses itself to human nature, in other words, by accommodating itself to its capacities and by working through the senses. Dionysian aesthetic-ethic practice quite literally takes us by the hand: it provides a cheiragógia leading us by sensual means towards the divine, be these media liturgy, dance, choral song, or the >symbol< — the paradoxical sign that can only approximate its meaning by displaying its incommensurability with what it signifies, indeed by acting as a coloured veil concealing the mystery whose presence it indicates.

Without needing to go into further detail, we have already touched upon most of the principles of a Neoplatonic aesthetics: an awareness of natural plasticity and a corresponding awareness of the powers of imaginative, poetic >making<;45 the assumption that the experience of beauty must be at the metaphysical heart of the theory; an alertness to the pragmatic as well as the metaphysical effects of this experience based on a systematic linkage of the Good and the Beautiful in a kalon ergon, which makes possible transformative, educational and modelling (anagogic) functions, or, in other words, is capable of bringing about change; indeed, a sense that beauty is an important mediator for the experience of transcendence; an understanding of mimesis that implies figures of reflexivity and return; also, a sense of the universal, if not always evident, >sympathetic< relatedness of created things and their various degrees of participation in higher reality; finally, a particular sensitivity to the signifying potential of darkness and obscurity, of dissimulation or, to use a term central to Modernist aesthetics, of >difficult form<. With a view to its favourite devices and their hoped-for effects, this is emphatically an aesthetics of presence and an aesthetics of identity. Under the conditions of the via negativa, paradoxical re-presentation in the sense of an adumbration of the transcendent is possible. Optimistically, what is dissembled (or dissembles itself) in this manner is assumed to be present even if it is not immediately evident.

The figure of transparency neatly sums up many of these principal aspects. If creation is more than an aggregate of created things; if a work of art is more than the sum of its parts; if it is indeed the unity of its many different elements that constitutes its aesthetic surplus — the excess, or the more-than-necessary that makes it beautiful —, this unity, imitation of the One in miniature, needs to make itself seen and felt. It has to be accessible to human apprehension, to offer itself to sensual and cognitive experience while remaining non-obvious and thus retaining an index of its ultimate unavailability. This it does by way of the intimate linkage and interaction of >medium< and >message<, immanence and transcendence. Both are dependent on each other, and it is their reciprocality that makes possible their signifying relationship. In it, the given becomes a vehicle for what is beyond; more than that, the material becomes transparent, making apparent what is not identical with it, yet constitutive of its identity. In his theology of Creation, John Scotus Eriugena places particular emphasis on this figure of thought: »omnia que sunt lumina sunt« — all created things are >lights<. They are theophanous, because it is through them that God communicates his presence: everything that is, is illuminated. No creature falls outside the scope of the divine. Again, there are different degrees of mediality, but the point is precisely the extraordinary value placed on this mediality. The created world is not a mere product of the divine, passive and inert object of the creator's superior agency; the material is not just that — matter for, and resistant to, the shaping force, somehow opposed, recalcitrant, and certainly morally inferior to what is >beyond being<. This would amount to a dualist view of things, irreconcilable with Neoplatonic monism. Hence, for Christian Neoplatonists, theophany appears as a two-way process, relating >darkness< and >light< in modes of mutual participation.

Henry Vaughan articulates the same idea in his allusion to the Mystical Theology of Dionysius Areopagita:

There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazling darkness;
As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

From a Dionysian point of view, the night deserves highest praise as »sacred vail«, as a transparent, semi-opaque medium — the fundamental condition of spiritual vision, which directs us towards the divine, revealing as it seems to conceal it. For Eriugena, also echoing Dionysius, everything is illuminated in order to light the way towards God: »lumina mihi fiunt, hoc est me illuminant«. On this, the dignity of created things rests. By virtue of its very perceptibility, the world of the senses is the basis for divine self-communication, affirmation of what it seems to deny53 and appearance of the non-apparent. The world, from this perspective, is »divina metaphora« — both divine metaphor and metaphor of the divine. It is indeed, as Culverwell put it, »Enigma Dei«.


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