Eros and Agape in Dionysius the Areopagite
by J. S. Kupperman
There has been a discussion, or perhaps debate, over the words “eros” and “agape” amongst Christian theologian for quite some time. A certain amount of this discussion, or debate, focuses on the works of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and specifically his use of eros instead of agape in The Divine Names. This paper discusses why this is controversial, what Dionysius means by eros, and how he does, or does not, apply eros to God. I conclude by suggesting the last sixty years of academic work on the subject has neglected an important element of Dionysian thought, which may require a significant change in how scholars understand Dionysius’ approach to God.
The Eros/Agape Controversy
There are three primary words for “love” in ancient Greek. Cyril R. Richardson tells us eros is a sexual word, philen is for affection, to both things and people, as is agapan. In this view, canonized in Ander Nygren’s Agape and Eros, eros is seen as operating in radical opposition to agape,  without any possibility of legitimate reconciliation within Christian thought. Evidence for this may be seen in the New Testament itself, where agapan, and its variations, are used exclusively throughout the Gospels. Eros is completely missing from the New Testament, presumably due to its sexual connotation.
This ideology, and Ander Nygren’s Agape and Eros, began this discussion. The New Testament does not use eros because it is only a sexual, and ultimately selfish, term, whereas agape, representing God’s love, is the opposite. This seems fairly straight forward; where is the controversy? Part of the overall eros/agape controversy revolves around the writings of the fifth or early sixth century theologian known as pseudo-Dionysius. The question is why does Dionysius, an ostensibly a Christian theologian, even if one heavily influenced by Proclean Neoplatonism, use eros instead of agape throughout his Divine Names to describe God’s love? How can God’s love be sexual, material, base, and selfish? How can God be any of those things in order to produce such a love? Given the overall impact and importance of the Corpus Dionysiacum on Christian theology and western esotericism, this is a significant question. In order to answer it, we must expand our understanding of eros beyond sexual desire and better under Dionysius’s view of God.
Dionysius on Eros
What does Dionysius actually say about eros and its relationship to God? The discussion begins in the Divine Names IV.10.708A and goes through IV.17.713D, after which Dionysius turns to the subject of evil. Dionysius makes his case for using eros rather than agape in section 11 of this chapter, which is carried out through the next section as well.
The kinds of divine erotic love are set out at the end of section 10 and are repeated in the beginning of section 13: the love (eros) of the lesser for the greater, the love between equals, and the love of the greater for the lesser. Dionysius is speaking in ontological terms. Greater beings are ontologically “superior” or “prior” to lesser beings. They come first, not temporally but in Being, and so have more Being, are more themselves, are more “real”, than ontologically prior entities. Equal means ontologically equal, or beings on the same level. In Dionysian language, God is greater than everything; the nine genres of angels are less than God but greater than human souls. Within the angelic choirs the Seraphim are the greatest, the Cherubim less than the Seraphim but greater than the Thrones, and so on. All angels within a single choir are ontologically equal. A human soul is ontologically equal to every other human soul.
In sections 11 and 13 Dionysius attempts to defend his use of eros. He writes:
And let no one fancy that we honour the Name of Love beyond the Oracles, for it is, in my opinion, irrational and stupid not to cling to the force of the meaning, but to the mere words…
Dionysius must defend his use of eros because it is not used in the Gospels. His argument is that those who complain about his use of the word are looking only at the external word itself, and not the its meaning. He then quotes Proverbs 4:6 and 2 Samuel 1:26 as evidence for eros’ use in the Bible, even though these are from the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament. He also points to Ignatius, who wrote “my own Love [eros] is crucified” to show other theologians have used eros instead of agape.Finally, he says:
For those who have rightly listened to things Divine, the name of Loving-kindness and of Love is place by the holy theologians in the same category throughout the Divine revelations, and this is of a power unifying, and binding together, and mingling pre-eminently in the Beautiful and Good. . . .
To this he adds:
For the theologians seem to me to treat as equivalent the name of Loving-kindness, and that of Love; and on this ground, to attribute, by preference, the veritable Love, to things Divine, because of the misplaced prejudice of such men as these.
Eros and agape are, at least for Dionysius, equivalent terms.
It is not my intention to defend Dionysius’ use of eros as being scriptural. Whether or not he is scripturally correct is not the point. The point is he what trying to do with the word eros and why?
A number of explanations have been offered for the latter. The most popular has been Nygren’s. According to Nygren, by the time of Dionysius, agape no longer means anything amongst contemporary Greek speakers. But more than this, “Eros was the reality [Dionysius] knew, so he naturally preferred to speak of the thing by its right name.” That is to say, Dionysius doesn’t know agape, so he uses eros instead. However, given that Dionysius clearly explains his position as eros and agape being equal, this explanation seems unlikely.
According to Dionysian scholar John Rist, we are seeing Dionysius use eros in a particular, cosmic way, on par with his contemporaries. It is not that Dionysius does not know agape, it is that eros is the common word of the day, so he uses it. Rist describes Dionysius’ theology as a “cosmic theology,” so it is natural he writes about cosmic eros rather than mundane agape. Specifically, what we see in Dionysius’ description of eros is an ascending love of the less for the greater, a descending love of the greater for the less, and a love between equals. As we will see, these notions of love are greatly influenced by the Neoplatonism of Proclus, the Platonic Successor and head of the Athenian Academy in the 5th century C.E.
For now, let us assume Rist is correct. If so, from where does Dionysius draw his terminology and its use?At least the first two of Dionysius’ forms of love can be found in Platonic dialogues. Plato, in Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, describes an anagogic love of the lesser for the greater. Through this love, first directed at a person, the lover is ultimately taken outside him or herself as he or she strives towards the Form of Beauty and, ultimately, in Neoplatonic terms, the One. In Dionysian terms, this is humanity’s love for God. This love causes us to try to perfect ourselves, to become more god-like, to engage in theosis and, ultimately, henosis.
This understanding of love is important because it answers Nygren’s charge that eros is a selfish love. Dionysius, however, refutes this, saying “But Divine Love is extatic [sic], not permitting (any) to be lovers of themselves, but of those beloved.” Dionysian eros cannot be selfish as it is never for the self, always for another and for that other’s sake.
However, this love of the lesser for the greater does not originate in the lesser, it comes from the greater. Concerning what he terms “pronoetic love” in the Cratylus, Proclus writes in his Alcibiades commentary “Eros descends from above from the intelligible sphere down to the cosmic, and turns all things toward the divine beauty.” This love is ultimately the heart of Dionysius’ hieratic liturgy, which engages in the processes of purification, illumination, and perfection. These divine activities, which are shared between the angelic choirs and transmitted through the Bishop or Hieararch, are related to the Proclean view of the movement of the soul, which undergoes an eternal circuit of remaining, procession, and reversion to and from its source. Dionysius refers to this in a brief discussion on how the “simplex power” of eros is at the heart of this process.
Through theurgic liturgy, especially the Mystery of Synaxis, Dionysius’ term for the Eucharistic rite, we participate the divine activities of purification, illumination, and perfection, which in turn allow us to return to our divine source. That these activities are explicitly divine requires us to understand these rituals as theurgic rites. As Iamblichus writes in De Mysteriis, theurgy
presents a double aspect. On the one hand, it is performed by men, and as such observes our natural rank in the universe; but on the other, it controls divine symbols, and in virtue of them is raised up to union with the higher powers, and directs itself harmoniously in accordance with their dispensation, which enables it quite properly to assume the mantle of the gods. It is in virtue of this distinction, then, that the art both naturally invokes the powers from the universe as superiors, inasmuch as the invoker is a man, and yet on the other hand gives them orders, since it invests itself, by virtue of the ineffable symbols, with the hieratic role of the gods.
Through the divine symbols we engage in divine activity. This is theourgia, “god activity,” or what Dionysius terms hierogia, “sacred activity,”performed by humans but originating in the divine. Through the theurgic liturgy we participate in the anagogic love of the less for the greater.
Dionysius’ third form of love, love between equals, appears at first glance as a new development. According to Rist, this new form of love is between the persons of the Trinity. This may be the case, but is it also true that this love amongst equals is a unique contribution to Neoplatonism by Dionysius? At first glance, it appears so. However, where Rist is looking at important Neoplatonists such as Proclus and Plotinus, he neglects the Iamblichean writings of Julian the Philosopher.
In his “Hymn to King Helios,” Julian describes the role of Athene amongst the visible gods. Amongst other things, “she distributes and is the channel for stainless and pure life throughout the seven spheres, from the highest vault of the heavens as far as Selene the Moon.” In discussing Aphrodite, Julian says “She is, in truth, a synthesis of the heavenly gods, and in their harmony she is the spirit of love and unity.” While Julian uses philia for love rather than eros, that is not the point. Instead, what we see here is a group of equals, the visible gods of Iamblichean theology, who share attributes between them.
This may not be exactly about what Dionysius is discussing, but w also don’t know exactly about whom Dionysius is talking. Assuming Rist is correct in applying this to the Trinity, we are still left with questions about the Dionysian Trinity. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Dionysius’ Trinity may be akin to Proclus’ henads, “who are simultaneously distinct entities and unities not dissimilar to Iamblichus’ idea of the gods as monoiedes, of a single form, or his pre-essential Demiurge as an extension of the One-Being.” These gods, as being of a single form, share qualities amongst themselves. If the Trinity/henads/Aion model holds, then what we have is a pre-essential Trinity, which fits Dionysius’ description, and is also a vertical extension of God at the very top of the Noetic realm. Even if it does not hold, and although there is no explicit description of the henads sharing love for one another, the idea of such a sharing amongst equals is already extant in Neoplatonic thought.
Our difficulty here is that for Proclus, Eros, as a god, has its source below the ontological level about which we are discussing. Even the source of Eros, Aphrodite, in a mode higher than her appearance as one of the visible gods in Julian, is found in a lower level than the henads. And even her source in noeric Uranus is lower than the vault of the noetic realm. For Proclus, Aphrodite is ontologically superior to love. No matter how high the origin of Eros, there is always something higher, Aphrodite, who herself comes from something even greater. The only way to get around this is recourse to Proclus’ noetic Forms, from which all things come. Even in doing so, it is possible that eros as eros does not exist at this level, and instead only the potential of eros is present, to be fully manifested in the lowest part of the noetic-noeric triad. Unless Dionysius’ eros held between the persons of the Trinity is of a different, unformed nature than that of the other kinds of eros, or if Dionysius simply has not developed a full theory of Forms and eros, must credit to Dionysius a new application of an extant Neoplatonic concept and the general raising of eros to a higher level than those before him.
In order to understand Dionysius’ eros amongst equals in the Trinity, we must look to an earlier source: Plotinus. In this we must abandon the idea of the Trinity as a henad and, like John N. Jones, see Dionysius’ Trinity as a way of approaching God or the One itself. What follows is Plotinus’ description of the One’s love for itself:
 And it [i.e., the One], that same self, is beloved and love and love of itself,  in that it is beautiful only from itself and in itself.
 But it [i.e., the One] turns, so to speak,  toward its own interior, as if filled with love for itself, pure radiance,  itself being identical with that which it loved.
The One’s love for itself is turned inwards, neither projecting downwards nor receiving from below. The Greek word for love in these two passages are different, but the overall context shows they refer to the same thing, just as does Dionysius.
According to Alberto Bertozzi, Plotinus sees eros as the essential being of the One. While this love is turned inwards, it must also be productive if there is to be anything other than the One. This is due to the One’s superabundance which “makes something other than itself.” Because the One is perfect it produces something else, as this is the nature of perfected things. On this, Bertozzi writes:
But in what sense is this most perfect productivity of the One erotic in nature? Fundamentally, it is erotic in the sense that the perfection of the One or its very being coincides with the One’s self-love; derivatively, in the sense that what overflows from the Principle bears the mark of the self-love of the One. When the self-love of the One is communicated to (or rather, as) what is other than the One, it becomes love for the One, hence no longer love of itself but love of the Principle qua other.
What we have here are two of Dionysius’ three forms of love: love amongst equals and love of the higher for the lower. Plotinus also has an idea of procession and return, though not as formally codified as Proclus’. Plotinus’ “Principle of Reversion,” much like Proclus’ a few hundred years later, notes the desire for the ontologically inferior for its superior, as expressed through eros. The lower loves the higher and becomes more like the higher for its superior’s sake. If the Trinity is also the One, then Dionysius is doing nothing new with his love between equals, it is already present in Plotinus.
The Divine Name of Eros
While Dionysius’ three forms of love may ultimately be derived from Plotinian thought, the core of his theology is Proclean. As such, we must still understand Dionysius’ divine love in Proclean terms, as would have Dionysius. Much has been made of Dionysius’ claim that “God is Eros.” This is somewhat odd as he does not actually say this, but instead asks “But what do the theologians means when at one time they call Him Love, and Loving-kindness, and at another, Loved and Esteemed”? Even the theologians are not saying “God is Love.” Instead they are calling God Love. That is, Love, Eros, is a name of God, not God itself.
This idea of the names of God is what Dionysius’ The Divine Names is about. That this is true is made clear by its follow-up, The Mystical Theology. The Mystical Theology is about a single topic, the transcendent, apophatic nature of God. God is not, ultimately, anything. In that we cannot say “God does not exist” just as much as we cannot say “God exists.” God is beyond anything related to existence. God transcends even transcendence. If the title of The Divine Names isn’t enough to make us think Dionysius is not talking about God itself, which the numerous scholars who use it to talk about God qua God suggests it often does not, then The Mystical Theology must modify our understanding of The Divine Names. That is, for Dionysius, there is no cataphatic God.
The various divine names, Good, Light, Beauty, Love, Being, Wisdom, Mind, Reason, Truth, Faith, and so on are just what Dionysius says: they are names. In relation to eros, Dionysius writes “And let no one fancy that we honour the Name of Love beyond the Oracles” and “let those who libel the Name of Love hear them,” “that the Name of Love is more Divine…” Similarly, Dionysius speaks of “the name ‘Being’” and “the appellation ‘Good’”and “the spiritual Name of Light.” None of these are God, they are God’s names and, while for Proclus a thing may be present in its name, that does not mean it is the same as its name. Instead, we may understand the divine names, much like the nomina barabara, as sunthemata, or divine tokens, coming from, and representing, the gods, but none of which, even all together, make up the gods from which they come.
About what, then, is Dionysius speaking in The Divine Names? That is, in Platonic terminology, what are these names? They are logoi or “reason-principles.” Logoi are an “expression of a higher principle at a lower level.” As such, we cannot say that God is Eros, eros is an expression of something higher, but something that is not, in and of itself, God. This stems from the basic Neoplatonic theorem that a principle contains nothing of what is derived from it. Bertozzi calls this the “Principle of Henologic Giving” or the giving of something the giver does not have.
Plotinus’ discussion of this puts a fine point on this in a way that Dionysius does not. Plotinus differentiates between the One’s self-love and the love for the One it gives everything else. The second form of love is different from, and less than, the first because its recipients are less than the One. If the One produced the same kind of self-love, ontologically inferior beings would love themselves, not the One.
Although Bertozzi suggests the One’s love is identical to the One, this likely not the case. The One’s self-love cannot be identical to the One, as the One is completely simple. The One may love itself, or this love may refer to a lower manifestation of the One, perhaps in terms of a henadic Trinity, but the One is not Love. To love oneself is to make love is an activity, not an essence, something which the One is beyond anyway. It is even questionable as to whether or not the One has an activity, let alone an essence. The super-simpleness of the One overflows, as per Plotinus, as logoi. It is this way God loves its products; through the logoi God is always present to that which is produced because of it.
Rethinking Love Between Equals
We can now see how Dionysius’ anagogic and genegogic love function, but how does it work in the case of equal beings? Rist says this is a reference to the Trinity, but Dionysius does not. Our above interpretation has depended on this assumption, which is perhaps why our conclusions have been so complicated. Rist’s assertion need not be taken; there are beings of ontological equality other than the Trinity. All humans are ontologically equal, so are all seraphim. Perhaps it is to this Dionysius refers rather than the Trinity. If this is the case, the love between such beings has to do with the presence of God within them, through the logoi or God’s superabundance, just as it does in the cases of Dionysius’ anagogic and genegogic loves. Also, if it is true that the divine names are logoi rather than forms of a cataphatic God, then there must be a serious revision of Dionysian scholarship, as the majority of work on the Divine Names views those names representations of God itself.
A Reasoned Reading of Dionysius
Although viewed as radical, Dionysius’ use of eros over agape is really nothing of the sort. It may be radical for us now, though it need not be, and that does not mean it was so for anyone during Dionysius’ time. Neither is what Dionysius says about love particularly new or essentially Christian. As we’ve seen, Dionysius’ forms of eros are present, in various ways, in the works of earlier, pagan Neoplatonists.
By seeing the divine name of eros as a logoi we are able to put Dionysius’ views of the subject in line with earlier Neoplatonisms. The ramifications of this are important. It is often said Dionysius’ views are ultimately more Christian than Neoplatonic. This has been used to justify the idea that Dionysius must have been a Christian, as only a Christian could write what Dionysius wrote. While there are scholars who have posited that Dionysius was a crypto-pagan, that is not my intent. Instead, my intent is three-fold.
First, I want to demonstrate how deep Dionysius’ Neoplatonism runs. The more scholarship is done on Dionysius’ Neoplatonic sources, the more we see him as a thoroughly Christian Neoplatonist, not a Christian who used some Neoplatonism. Second, I want to demonstrate how flexible Neoplatonism is as a hermeneutic. Although pagan in origin, and although most of the important Neoplatonists were very anti-Christian, many elements of Neoplatonic thought, including its metaphysics and theology, function extraordinarily well outside of paganism. Finally, I want to demonstrate the theurgic importance of eros, regardless of religious tradition. Through eros we come to know others better. Through the descending divine eros we come to know of God and, by riding the divine eros upwards, we can step outside ourselves and try to become like God, so far as possible.
1. J. Warren Smith, “Divine Ecstasy and Divine Simplicity: The Eros Motif in Pseudo-Dionysius’s Soteriology,” Pro Ecclesia 21.2 (2012): 211.
2. Cyril C. Richardson, “Love: Greek and Christian,” The Journal of Religion 23.3 (1943): 173.
3. DN IV.10.708A; IV.13.712A.
4. Eros rather than agape. In John Parker’s translation agape is rendered “loving-kindness,” eros is simply “love.”
5. The Bible.
6. DN 4.11.708B-C.
7. DN 4.11.708B-D.
8. DN 4.11.709A, 4.12.709C.
9. DN 4.12.709B. In this, and his choice of scriptures, Dionysius is quoting Origen.
10. DN 4.12.709C-D.
11. DN IV.12.708B. The “men such as these” refers to those theologians who have mistakenly placed eros higher than agape when they are, in fact, equivalent terms.
12. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson, (London: Westminster Press, 1953), 589, n. 1.
13. John M. Rist, “A Note on Eros and Agape in Pseudo-Dionysius,” Vigiliae Christanae 20 (1966): 236.
14. Ibid., 237.
15. DN IV.13.712A.
16. Quoted. in. Richardson, “Love,” 183-4.
17. CH III.2.165C. Cf. EH VI.5.536D
18. ET §35. C.f. Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 123-4.
19. DN IV.17.713D.
20. CH III.2.165C.
21. DM IV.2, 207.
22. Rist, “Note,” 241.
23. Julian, “Hymn to King Helios,” in Julian: Volume I, trans. Wilmer C. Wright (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913), 409-11.
24. Ibid., 411.
25. See Sallustius, Concerning the Gods and the Universe, trans. by Arthur Darby Clark (Chicago: Ares Publishers, Inc., 1996), VI.5-23.
26. Jeffrey S. Kupperman, “The Limits of Ontology: The Good to Evil in Pseudo-Dionysius.” (paper presented at the annual Conclave of the Apostolic Johannite Church, Chicago, Illinois, May 22-28, 2013). See also Edward Bulter, “The Gods and Being in Proclus.” Dionysius 26 (2008): 93-114.
27. Tuomo Lankila, “Aphrodite in Proclus’ Theology,” Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture 3 (2009): 37.
28. Ibid., 40.
29. Plotinus, The Enneads, VI.8.15.1-2 and 16.12-14 in Alberto Bertozzi, “On Eros in Plotinus: Attempt at a Systematic Reconstruction (with a Preliminary Chapter on Plato) (Ph.D. dissertation, Loyola University, 2012), 200-1. All quotations from the Enneads are from Bertozzi.
30. Bertozzi, “Eros,” 201-2.
31. Ibid., 209.
32. Plotinus, Enn V.2.1.7-9.
33. Bertozzi, “Eros,” 212-3.
34. Ibid., 213.
35. Ibid., 204-6.
36. See, Rist, “Note,” 239-40.
37. DN IV.14.712C.
38. See Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2007), 10-12.
39. DN IV.
40. DN V.
41. DN VI.
42. DN IV.11.708B, emphasis added.
43. DN IV.11.709A.
44. DN IV.12.709B.
45. DN V.1.816B.
46. DN IV.1.693B.
47. DN IV.5.700C.
48. John Dillon and Lloyd P. Gerson, Neoplatonic Philosophy: Introductory Readings (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., 2004), 365.
49. Bertozzi, “Eros,” 215. C.f. Enn VI.9.3.38-41.
50. Perl, Theophany, 45.
51. Ibid., 79.
52. See Tuomo Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture 5 (2011): 14-40.