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Interpretive and Critical Analysis comparing Gregory of Tours v. Pseudo-Dionysius

Give us help from trouble; for vain is the help of man.
Psalms 108:12

Apotheosis, the soul's attainment of the divine, can be seen as the key point of divergence between the worldviews of Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Tours. This divergence is exemplified by three subjects which are common to their texts; the nature of the problem of evil, the proper mode of reverentia, and finally the reason for silence. For Dionysius, evil resides in a deficiency in turning towards this eventual apotheosis. Proper reverentia entails the attainment of godhood. Silence refers to one's loss of words with respect to the Deity, as well as a desire to keep these teachings away from those who would ridicule them. Conversely, Gregory sees something self-serving in this yearning for ascendancy. The divine is only to be approached within a structure of patronage. Silence is one of the evils associated with ascendancy. Each of these positions have internal inconsistencies which can be illuminated within the context of more modern criticism.

Essential evil, total evil, or more simply "Evil" does not exist for Dionysius. One should speak of evilness, or "incomplete goodness" (88). Goodness is directly related to one's proximity and orientation towards "the Good" (87). Dionysius seems to attribute a kind of destructiveness to those beings who are most remote from God. Those most exemplary of this destructiveness would ultimately be self-destructive. Thus, even the devils, if they exist at all, must of necessity be at least partly good (90). No pure evil can exist at all.

Proper reverentia toward this omnipresent goodness and beyond to God is bound up in the deification of the contemplative being. This essential goodness is communicable through contemplation (50). Contemplation gives rise to the perfectibility and potential divinity of man (51). This interplay of divinity between God and man is central to what may be called Dionysius' notion of reverentia. God, who is beyond all goodness, bestows all good pngts on those below him. Man in return, and out of respect for divinity, seeks to become like God (83,112).

Silence for Dionysius has two purposes. Firstly, it is wise to keep silence with respect to the inexpressible (50). "We must not dare resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being." (49) However, this does not rule out the language of the scriptures. Where Dionysius does employ the language, it is often in self-contradictory phrases that are designed to illustrate God's transcendence. "He is indivisible multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness." (67) "He is at rest and astir, is neither resting nor stirring." (103) This silence is the final abode, as it were, of the seeker of a god who is beyond knowing and unknowing (135).

Secondly, silence is a part of the initiatory tradition from which Dionysius claims descent, and is also a means of keeping these teachings away from the profane. It is important to note that this is a "hidden tradition".

There is reference to an initiated elite; "Let the holy be there only for the holy", and there is an element of secrecy that "such things may be kept away from the mockery and the laughter of the uninitiated." (58)

From the perspective of more modern criticism, Dionysius shows himself to be a formidable thinker. His system is subtly simple, yet vast in what it encompasses. However, he, like many of his modern counterparts, failed to come to terms with paradox, especially with relation to the problem of evil and the omnipotence of deity.

For Dionysius, God is the transcendent Good. There can be no evil in Him or his creation. Evil is actually a deficiency or imperfection in turning to God. As stated before, this deficiency of goodness is directly related to one's distance from God. This relationship becomes problematic when the question is raised as to the nature and source of this distance. How is it that this distance limits the transcendent goodness of God? Why is creation not uniformly Good? Did God create the distance? If so, then He is the source of the deficiency. If not, then the principle of distance preexists creation. It is the essential source of Evil, which Dionysius so disdains.

Similarly, Dionysius is undone by the paradox with respect to God's omnipotence. He quotes Elymas the magician,

This problem is related to the proverbial rock that God can't lift. All of theism resonates with Dionysius as he declares this abysmally lucid logic to be the work of "idle children on the sand". Included in Dionysius' flippant response is this teaser; "He (God) does not know how to lack knowledge." (!) One has to wonder why Dionysius took issue with the noted magician at all! We have omnipotence at the expense of omniscience. However trivial these quips may seem to theists, they uncover the essential slipperiness of any conception of the infinite. The exploitation of paradox would have served Dionysius' argument more than its relegation to folly.

Some find Dionysius' elitism and support of a "hidden tradition" to be objectionable. The moralists and historians with their over worn arguments, would have to answer this fact: Elitism and secrecy are a factor in all human relations. The work of Dionysius would be a wonderful exception, if it did not contain secrecy and elitism. Into this context Gregory of Tours may be introduced.

Elitism, or yearning for ascendancy, is the root of evil for Gregory. It gives rise to envy and jealousy, the sins of idolatry, heresy, and murder, all of which are ultimately manifestation of the Anti-Christ. Early in the History of the Franks these factors are illustrated in the pivotal story of Cain, who being "inflamed with envy" shed "a brother's blood" (7). Cush, a kind of proto-anti-christ, calls fire and stars from heaven and receives "reverence as a god" (8). Nebron, his son, is implicated in the tower of Babyl, where men "strove to reach the heavens". These patterns of jealous murder and self-serving elitism are repeated throughout History of the Franks, especially with reference to the Merovingian Kings. The mighty Clovis is highly illustrative in this connection.

Note that the murder is, like Cain's, consanguinal with self-expansive jealousy as the motive.

For Gregory, the divine can only be approached within the stratified structure of patronage. Angels , saints and men each have their own place. God sits at the top like a super feudal lord, a beneficent patron. However, this heavenly order is not continuous with its earthly counterpart. Gregory shows little more than contempt for the earthly stewards of the feudal order, the kings. The above description of Clovis is ample evidence for the rustic barbarity which Gregory attributes to them. Even so, Gregory reserves his highest contempt for Chilperic. Gregory assures us that Chilperic, "the Nero and Herod of our time" (165), was a glutton who "often punished men unjustly:, who wrote "feeble little verses", and who undermined the authority of the bishops. Many of Gregory's kings are not the image of God, but rather are usurpers, a negative image of God. Though Gregory undoubtedly saw value in heavenly patronage; he, like Augustine, used the earthly orders as an example of what the heavenly order is not.

Usurpers do their work in secrecy by way of silence. The heroic Clovis again serves this brilliant bishop well, this time as an example of treachery.

When Clovis learned that the greedy son had dispatched his father, he sent messengers who underhandedly put him to death. Later, Clovis denied knowledge of this and assumed Sigibert's kingship peacefully. Characteristically, Gregory apologizes for his vivid portrayal of this betrayal.

However, Gregory brokes no apologies for the improbity of Fregunda, the notable wife of Chilperic, who by trickery and secret stratagem succeeded in having her enemy, Bishop Paetextatus excommunicated (119-124). Thus, it is that silence, for Gregory, is a veil for murder, and usurpation, that is, for Evil.

The millennium and a half since Gregory of Tours has witnessed the ascendancy of secular powers. From this perspective it becomes possible to criticize Gregory's exegesis as a demonization of these powers. As it was said earlier, Gregory largely saw the kings and classical scholars as usurpers, the negative image of God. Yet, was it not Lucifer who was the archtypal usurper, who sought to place his throne above that of God, who as a fallen angel contrived the death of the Son of God in a kind of consanguinal murder? One is surprised that Gregory misses this point, of which modern fundamentalists with this medieval mindset are well aware! However, Gregory does not leave one without hints in this direction. Gregory states flatly that Cush, the proto-anti-christ, was "instructed by the devil (8)." It is curious in this vein that the construction of the Tower of Babyl, perhaps the beginning of secular civilization, is attributed to one "giant Nebron, the son of Cush". It has been fashionable in the past for the modern thinker to write off the middle ages along with demonologies like this one. That is too easy. These promethean images may be as intriguing to "enlightened moderns" as they were to Gregory's pagan rivals. Are we not concerned with our ascendancy, our optimistic self-improvement, our upward mobility..., our apotheosis? The comparison of Dionysius with Gregory must be presented within this context as well.

Gregory and Dionysius differ with respect to their conceptions of the problem of evil. As it has been shown, Dionysius was party to a theological tradition which was very old. Since he postulated an omnipresent Good, he did not fear, but rather revered the classics, if they pointed to God. He made extensive use of the Neoplatonic Classicists, thus showing his adroit use of the language. By contrast, Gregory envisioned continual bloody warfare between jealous powers. There is only safety within the fundamentals of the church. The classics were seen as a threat to that safety. He thought that they would cause him to stray, as so he neglected them. His arch-villain, Chilperic, is belittled for his "feeble" attempts to revive classical letters (166). Perhaps the only truly educated man to receive Gregory's praise is Pope Gregory the Great. Yet, even this pope flees the reins of power and ascendancy until he is forced to assume them by his local sovereign (227,8). It seems that Dionysius' world is filled with Good, whereas Gregory's world is filled with Evil.

Dionysius and Gregory also differ with respect to reverentia. If Dionysius can be said to have a conception of reverentia, it would be this; as we pour ourselves out with yearning for the Good, God fills us with his transcendent godhood. Gregory sees an opportunity for excessive pride in such ascendancy. This, as has been shown, is a major theme of Gregory's work. the powerful are jealous and prideful. Man should keep his place and admire God from a distance. Much has been said about reverentia and the influence of feudalism on Gregory's writing. It is nothing more than that; influence. Reverentia was a part of Gregory's age. As such it crept into his writing. It is not a major theme. Though he recognized different degrees of reverentia, this is to be expected as well. He reserved his highest praise for the powerless, the ascetic, and the recluse. Queen Clotilda was powerless to prevent the murder of her grandchildren and favored heirs (63,4). Yet, she is praised since "worldly ambition nor wealth raised her up for destruction" (65). In contrast to Dionysius, Gregory sees little chance for man's progress.

Finally, with respect to silence and secrecy; Dionysius sees this as a two-fold virtue. Silence shows respect for the deity and keeps the holy from desecration. Conversely, Gregory views this with suspicion. Silence is a cloak for evil deeds.

In closing, it must be said that this is no demonization of Gregory. Despite his handicaps, he did what he could to preserve learning in his time. His motives were unimpeachable. Dionysius attempted to preserve a theological position which is lost on most of modern Christianity, a position which reconciled the conception of an all-powerful God with man's yearning for omnipotence. These two figures, Gregory and Dionysius, are twin beacons for our age; Dark and Light, destruction and life, nuclear annihilation and apotheosis, Death and Eros. Truly, what more is there than this.


I used the History of the Franks; Gregory of Tours; Selections Translated with notes by Ernst Brehaut and Pseudo_Dionysius; the Complete Works as translated by Colm Luibheid for this paper.

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