The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius
‘The Place of the Lion’ (1933) by Charles Williams concerns the fate of a group of friends when Platonic forms erupt into the mundane world in the shape of wild animals. At the beginning of the novel Anthony and Quentin are shocked to behold a lion in the English countryside.
‘The lioness as if startled made one leap over the gate, and her flying form seemed to collide with the man just as he also began to take another rhythmical step. Forms and shadows twisted and mingled for two or three seconds in the middle of the garden, a tearing human cry began and ceased as if choked into silence, a snarl broke out and died swiftly into similar stillness, and as if in answer to both sounds there came the roar of a lion–not very loud, but as if subdued by distance rather than by mildness. With that roar the shadows settled, the garden became clear. Anthony and Quentin saw before them the form of a man lying on the ground, and standing over him the shape of a full-grown and tremendous lion, its head flung back, its mouth open, its body quivering. It ceased to roar, and gathered itself back into itself. It was a lion such as the young men had never seen in any zoo or menagerie; it was gigantic and seemed to their dazed senses to be growing larger every moment. Of their presence it appeared unconscious; awful and solitary it stood, and did not at first so much as turn its head. Then, majestically, it moved; it took up the slow forward pacing in the direction which the man had been following; it passed onward, and while they still stared it entered into the dark shadow of the trees and was hidden from sight. The man’s form still lay prostrate; of the lioness there was no sign’.
The lion is ‘a lion such as the young men had never seen in any zoo or menagerie’ because it is the ideal form of a lion- the essence of lionhood rather than any particular lion. On one level the novel can be read as a fantasy of ideas or perhaps the elaboration of a theological conceit. On another level it is arguably a presentation of William’s philosophical and spiritual beliefs in fictional form. Certainly Williams is credited with viewing commonplace perception as a thin veil obscuring a numinous reality.
‘Through his writing during the nineteen-twenties ran an increasing element of supernaturalism. He had never fully accepted the conventional distinction between natural and supernatural , or ‘Arch-natural’ as he preferred to call it; and as the years passed he came to feel that no barrier really existed between the two states , and that the supernatural was constantly present , requiring only extra awareness from the beholder to make it visible.’
The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Their Friends, Humphrey Carpenter
There is certainly an element of the magician in William’s depiction of the mysterious Mr. Berringer and his ‘study circle’.
‘Mr. Berringer is a very remarkable man, and he generally gives us a short address on the world of principles, as one might call it.””Principles?” Damaris asked.”Ideas, energies, realities, whatever you like to call them,” Mr. Foster answered. “The underlying things.” “Of course,” Damaris said, “I know the Platonic Ideas well enough, but do you mean Mr. Berringer explains Plato?””Not so much Plato–” but there Mr. Foster was interrupted by Mrs. Rockbotham, who came up to Damaris’.
The character central to the themes of the novel is Damaris Tighe an academic and Anthony’s girlfriend. She is writing a thesis on ‘Pythagorean Influences’ and her name is a major indicator. Damaris was an early Christian follower mentioned in the New Testament-
‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others’.
Acts 17:34 New International Version (NIV)
Traditionally the biblical Damaris was thought of as the wife of Dionysius the Areopagite – considered to be the author of a number of mystical works with a Neo-Platonist theme. In later times this tradition was considered mistaken and the ‘Corpus Areopagiticum’ became attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite who like the author of William’s fictional ‘De Angelis’ (which I will discuss in greater detail later) posits a hierarchy of forms and powers.
‘Perhaps even more vexing than the nature of union in Dionysius is the question of how the theological treatises relate to Dionysius’ two treatises on hierarchy. The Mystical Theology suggests an ascent from the lower sensuous realm of reality through the intelligible intermediate realm to the darkness of the godhead itself, all accomplished by a single person. The hierarchic treatises, on the other hand, suggest that the sensible and intelligible realms are not places reached by a single being, but different kinds of beings, and that the vision of God is handed from being to being downward through the levels of the hierarchy. On the Celestial Hierarchy describes the intelligible realm as divided into nine ranks of beings: the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels’.
Corrigan, Kevin and Harrington, L. Michael, “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/pseudo-dionysius-areopagite/>.
In a presentation to members of Berringers’s study circle Damaris Tighe makes reference to this ‘Celestial Hierarchy’ and argues that angels are medieval distortion of classical ideas.
“You will all know that in the Middle Ages there were supposed to be various classes of angels, who were given different names–to be exact” (“and what is research if it is not exact?” she asked Mrs. Rockbotham, who nodded), “in descending order, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, princes, powers, archangels, angels. Now these hierarchized celsitudes are but the last traces in a less philosophical age of the ideas which Plato taught his disciples existed in the spiritual world. We may not believe in them as actually existent–either ideas or angels–but here we have what I may call two selected patterns of thought. Let us examine the likenesses between them; though first I should like to say a word on what the path was by which imaginations of the Greek seer became the white-robed beings invoked by the credulous piety of Christian Europe, and familiar to us in many paintings”.
Damaris Tighe also makes direct reference to Dionysius the Areopagite in the following passage
‘The Eidola and the Angeli,” Damaris answered. “It’s just a comparison, you know; largely between the sub-Platonic philosophers on the one side and the commentators on Dionysius the Areopagite on the other, suggesting that they have a common pattern in mind’.
The character Damaris seems to personify a detached intellectualism devoid of engagement. She is someone who plays with ideas but does not engage with them spiritually.
‘..she would go on thoughtfully playing with the dead pictures of ideas, with names and philosophies, Plato and Pythagoras and Anselm and Abelard, Athens and Alexandria and Paris, not knowing that the living existences to which seers and saints had looked were already in movement to avenge themselves on her. “O you sweet blasphemer!” Anthony moaned, “can’t you wake?” Gnostic traditions, medieval rituals, Aeons and Archangels–they were cards she was playing in her own game. But she didn’t know, she didn’t understand. It wasn’t her fault; it was the fault of her time, her culture, her education–the pseudo-knowledge that affected all the learned, the pseudo-scepticism that infected all the unlearned, in an age of pretence, and she was only pretending as everybody else did in this lost and imbecile century’.
When Berringer summons Neo-Platonic archetypes (‘the Eidola And The Angeli’) into the mundane world and causes a kind of apocalypse he uses knowledge referred to in a philosophical tome which he found in Berlin- ‘De Angelis’ of Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna, published in the year 1514 at Paris, and dedicated to Leo X’.
(Marcellus Victorinus is probably a fictionalisation of the Renaissance scholar Lorenzo Valla (1407 –1457) who argued that the author of the ‘Corpus Areopagiticum’ and the biblical Dionysius the Areopagite were not the same person).
As well as the ‘Corpus Areopagiticum’ referred to earlier this imaginary book brings to mind the apocryphal ‘Necronomicon ’ of H. P. Lovecraft and the various fictional grimoires of M.R. James such as the ‘Liber Nigrae Peregrinationis’ or ‘Book of the Black Pilgrimage’ in his tale ‘Count Magnus’.
“Berringer picked it up in Berlin–it’s not complete, unfortunately—and lent it to me when he found I was interested to have a shot at translating. There’s nothing to show who our Marcellus was, and the book itself, from what he says in the dedication, isn’t so much his own as a version of a work by a Greek–Alexander someone–written centuries before ‘in the time of Your Holiness’s august predecessor, Innocent the Second.’ In the eleven hundreds about the time of Abelard. However, that doesn’t matter. What is interesting is that it seems to confirm the idea that there was another view of angels from that ordinarily accepted. Not very orthodox perhaps, but I suppose orthodoxy wasn’t the first requisite at the Court of Leo…The idea seems to be that the energies of these orders can exist in separation from the intelligence which is in them in heaven; and that if deliberately or accidentally you invoke the energy without the intelligence, you’re likely eventually to be pretty considerably done for.”
That the author of ‘De Angelis’ dedicates his book to the colourful Pope Leo X is significant. Alexandre Dumas wrote in his work ‘The Cenci’ that
‘Under his pontificate, Latin Christianity assumed a pagan, Greco-Roman character, which, passing from art into manners, gives to this epoch a strange complexion. Crimes for the moment disappeared, to give place to vices; but to charming vices, vices in good taste, such as those indulged in by Alcibiades and sung by Catullus’
There is certainly ‘a pagan, Greco-Roman character’ to the theology of ‘The Place of the Lion’. In ‘The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Their Friends’ C.S. Lewis is quoted as calling the novel a ‘Christian fantasy’ but it appears to be missing many commonplace Christian themes; indeed Charles Williams seems more engaged with ‘Gnostic traditions, medieval rituals, Aeons and Archangels’ than with ideas such as sin and salvation and redemption through the sacrifice of Christ. Certainly the eschatology revealed in the closing scenes of the novel tends to reinforce this opinion-
‘There fell over the whole scene a strange and lovely clearness, shed from the wings of a soaring wonder that left the shoulder where it had reposed and flew, scattering light. The intermingled foliage of the trees of knowledge and of life–if indeed they were separate–received it; amid those branches the eagle which was the living act of science sank and rested. But far below the human figure stood and on either side of it were the shapes of the lion and the lamb. His hand rested on the head of the one; the other paused by him. In and for that exalted moment all acts of peace that then had being through the world were deepened and knew their own nature more clearly; away in villages and towns such spirits as the country doctor in Smetham received a measure of content in their work. Friendships grew closer; intentions of love possessed their right fulfilment. Terrors of malice and envy and jealousy faded; disordered beauty everywhere recognized again the sacred laws that governed it. Man dreamed of himself in the place of his creation’.
The ‘lovely clearness’ which falls upon the world seems framed in Gnostic terms with reference to the ‘trees of knowledge and of life’ and salvation through knowledge as ‘all acts of peace that then had being through the world were deepened and knew their own nature’. The ending can also be seen as a resolution of the Damaris bifurcated sensibility theme with unity of mind and soul being symbolised by ‘The intermingled foliage of the trees of knowledge and of life’.
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