Part V: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

In chapter three, section three, “Being or Else (the Good),” Marion enters the debate concerning the issue of the primary name for God, which St. Thomas claims (based on Ex 3:14) is ens and Dionysius claims is bonum. Marion links agape with bonum because certain texts of the Denys (Dionysius) seem to justify such a connection. Hence, the debate between ens and bonum is likewise a debate between ens and agape (1 John 4:8, ho theos agapē estin). We should here emphasize that when Dionysius privileges Goodness as the first divine name, he is not simply replacing one category for another, which would be to replace one conceptual idol with another. In fact, Goodness as the first name for God speaks against any categorical statement concerning God. As Marion explains, Dionysius “does not pretend that goodness constitutes the proper name of the Requisite [aitia=cause], but that in the apprehension of goodness the dimension is cleared where the very possibility of a categorical statement concerning Gxd ceases to be valid, and where the reversal of denomination into praise become inevitable. To praise the Requisite as such, hence as goodness, amounts to opening distance. Distance neither asks nor tolerates that one fill it but that one traverse it, in an infinite praise that feeds on the impossibility or, better, the impropriety of the category. The first praise, the name of goodness, therefore does not offer any ‘most proper name’ [contra Thomas and ipsum esse as ‘maxime proprie’ name of God] and decidedly abolishes every conceptual idol of ‘God’ in favor of the luminous darkness where Gxd manifests (and not masks) himself, in short, where he gives himself to be envisaged by us” (p. 76).

For the Denys, Gxd is the principle of beings from which both beings and existence itself derives. Moreover, this Gxd gives Being to beings but himself is greater and beyond the gift of Being that he gives. Being is a gift which is disclosed in the act of giving and this act is goodness, a goodness which in fact gives itself. [For the Dionysian tradition, the denomination “Goodness” allows for a Trinitarian vision of God—after all Christ as ultimate gift gives Himself on our behalf]. Moreover, for Dionysius the good is preferred because it extends not only to beings but to non-beings. According to Thomas, Dionysius goes this route because it takes “God” into view not only as efficient cause [the Creator of beings] but also as final cause and hence desirable even by non-beings (p. 78). [Question: Would those versed in the Dionysian tradition help me to understand what is meant by non-beings here?] For Thomas this becomes a question of whether the good indeed “adds” something and becomes primary or not. If not, then ens must be established as primary.

Thomas takes the second path and attempts to establish the primacy of ens. Thomas does this, according to Marion, by introducing a “new point of view”—a point of view that “limits one’s view to the measurements of the ens” and from this certain point of view, the ens becomes a “solid-point.” In other words, though convertible with the other transcendentals (one, good, and true), ens exhibits a primacy because “the ens finds itself comprehended in their [i.e. the transcendentals] comprehension, and not reciprocally.” Ens is both the “first term that falls within the imagination of the understanding,” and the primary and proper object of the intellect and is primarily intelligible because “everything is knowable only inasmuch as it is in actuality” (pp. 79-80).
In addition and somewhat summing up Marion’s point, “[t]he primacy of the ens depends on the primacy of a conception of the human understanding and of the mind of man. The primacy of the ens has nothing absolute or unconditional about it; it relies on another primacy which remains discreetly in the background. But it is this second primacy that one must question, since it alone gives its domination to the ens, to the detriment of the good (and of the Dionysian tradition)” [p. 80]. Ens as an object of the human intellect and hence as a representation seems a prime candidate for an idol. In fact, Marion does not see how Thomas’ doctrine of analogy can uphold God’s transcendence given that the “primacy of ens over the other possible divine names rests on primacy of human conception” (p. 81).

According to Marion, if theology is to be understood as a “science” that proceeds by the apprehension of concepts, then ens will be primary and the human being’s point of view normative as to method. However, if theology wants to be theo-logical, it must “submit all of its concepts, without excepting the ens, to a ‘destruction’ by the doctrine of divine names, at the risk of having to renounce any status as a conceptual ‘science,’ in order, decidedly nonobjectivating, to praise by infinite petitions” (p. 81). Thomas seems to attempt a both/and (maintaining both the primacy of ens as the first conception of the human understanding and a product of the faculty of imagination and a doctrine of divine names), which makes his view (as Marion sees it) idolatrous (see pp. 81-82).

Near the end of the section, Marion asks whether a new path, viz., agapē can “transgress Being” […] Can it manifest itself without passing through Being?” Again, Marion states that he does not want to simply substitute one divine name (goodness or agapē) for another (ens), rather in order to free Gxd from Being he will attempt to show “how the Gxd who gives himself as agapē thus marks his divergence from Being” (p. 83).

6 thoughts on “Part V: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry”

  1. Dear Cynthia,

    You asked about what “non-being” means according to P. Dionysius. As far as I know, non-being signifies for him what it does for the rest of his Neoplatonic predecessors (Plotinus and Iamblichus), namely, either that which is above being or below it. Here, then, the operative term is ‘being’ (ousia) for it’s the negation of the term (either in a superlative or inferior direction) that governs Neoplatonic thought.

    For Plato, that which is being (ousia) are the Ideas, beingly being (to ontos on). Each Idea is one, self-same, unchanging, eternal, etc., but each idea is also ‘other,’ i.e., different from other Ideas. Just as each Idea accounts for a plurality in the sensible world, by means of which such plurality is unified, there must be something which stands above the world of the Ideas and unifies them in their reality. In bk 6 of the Republic Plato suggests that this is the task of the Good (to agathon); but inasmuch as the Good stands above the other Ideas, “superior in rank and power,” Plato says that the Good is not-being (ouk ousias) in the sense of beyond and above being.

    Of course, non-being could also refer to that which is below being (ousia), below the Ideas and is more appropriately understood as ‘becoming.’ This is the realm of the sensible world.

    This notion of non-being finds its way into Plotinus’s Enneads, wherein he describes Nous as being, the One (to hen) as non-being in the sense of beyond being, and the world of becoming as non-being in the sense of below being.

    I believe that Platonic/Neoplatonic conception of being is what ultimately stands behind P.Dionysius’s understanding of non-being.

    Hope that helps.

  2. Dear Anxietas,

    Thanks for addressing my question. I was aware of the Neoplatonist view of the One as beyond being, but was not sure exactly what was being referred to with non-being. If I understand you correctly, the NP tradition takes “becoming” or anything below the level of Forms/Ideas as non-being–correct?

    Thanks again for your helpful comment.

    By the way, how is the dissertation coming?

    Warm regards,

  3. Cynthia,

    Yes Neoplatonists take anything below AND above being to be “non-being.”

    In answer to your other question, the dissertation’s coming along. I’m about a third of the way into the final chapter. I can’t wait to be done.

    All the best.

  4. Dear Anxietas,

    One thought occurred to me as a follow up to my last comment, viz., doesn’t the NP tradition consider evil as nonbeing (a privation, lack). For some reason, I vaguely remember that in Plotinus you have the One (beyond being in the “positive sense” so to speak) and at the other extreme evil (which is beyond being at the “negative” extreme), yet somehow the One is ultimately “responsible” for both. If this is right, wouldn’t it be the case then that those “beings in between” are not nonbeings given that they participate to some extent in being (whether in Platonic Ideas/Forms or Ideas in the Divine Mind)?

    Kind regards,

  5. Dear Cynthia,

    Sorry to take so long to get back to your question. I have to say, first, my answer is extraordinarily tentative since I’m not an expert, by any means, in Neoplatonic metaphysics.

    You ask whether those “beings in between” would still be beings since they participate in the Ideas or Divine Mind. Well, their participation in the Ideas guarantees a certain similitude to them [the Ideas]; but at the same time precisely because they participate, they are not essentially that in which they participate. In other words, there is introduced a certain dissimilitude. The relation, then, between those “beings in between” to the Ideas (Being) is that of a dissimilar-similitude. Are they “beings” then?–Well, yes, from a certain perspective, but not in the same sense that the Ideas are Being. In emphasizing this otherness or difference between the Ideas and beings in between, the latter are called non-being or, what’s the same, becoming.

    I hope this provides some kind of answer to your question, and again I apologize for the delay.

    All the best!

  6. Dear Anxietas,

    No problem in the delayed response. I too have been swamped with coursework. I suppose the nuancing of the answer depends on what perspective one emphasizes when speaking of the “beings-in-between.”

    I look forward to reading your dissertation upon its completion!

    Best wishes,

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