Part I: Augustine and Un-modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. […] Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing; I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me, “Look, here he comes!” as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away. I had become a great enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer.[1]

In this passage, Augustine the narrator reflects upon the all-consuming grief coloring his world following the death of his beloved friend. Here Augustine pours out his heart to God as he does throughout the book, confessing his sorrows and his struggles, posing philosophical and theological questions to God, himself, and his readers. Augustine’s soul, however, when it comes to providing the answers for which he longs, has no idea how to respond [nihil noverat respondere mihi]. That is, contrary to commonly accepted modern and postmodern interpretations of Augustine, painting him as the precursor to psychoanalysis, I argue that Augustine’s multiple confessions were not primarily about himself; rather, his narrative, which no doubt includes soul-searching, personal stories, and so forth, was first and foremost about God, the unfolding narrative of redemption, and how the self, left to itself, turned in upon itself does not give rise to greater self-revelation and liberation; rather, Augustine’s confessions announce repeatedly that the self-absorbed, incessantly introspecting self—the self whose inward turn does not have as its goal a deeper union with the Christian God—is ultimately left famished, speechless, and restless—“inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te” (“Our heart is unhinged, forever moving to and fro, until it finds in You a peaceful, resting abode”).[2]

Against the rather entrenched view that a more or less straight line can be drawn from Augustine to Cartesian inwardness and thus to the modern introspecting subject, in this post I offer a counterargument, based upon a reading of select texts from the Confessions, that Augustine’s narrative and his understanding of the self has little in common with modern autobiography, autonomous notions of the self, or staticized views of selfhood and subjectivity.[3]

Returning to the passage from book four, we have Augustine’s phenomenological description of grief, his own grief over the death of his beloved friend. “Black grief closed over my heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum], and wherever I looked I saw only death.”[4] As O’Donnell points out, Augustine draws upon language from the Old Testament, specifically Lamentations 5:17,[5] where we read: “Because of this our hearts [cor nostrum] are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim [contenebrati]” (NRSV).  In a way similar to the New Testament authors’ appropriation of the Old Testament, Augustine weaves together Scriptural fragments and metaphors, expanding their meanings and applying them for his present purposes. In context, the Lamentations passage speaks of the suffering of God’s people as a result of their turning away from God. Their sins, as Lamentations 5:16 explains, are the cause of their heart sickness and lack of vision. In both the Old and New Testaments, descriptions of darkened eyes and obscured vision are often used metaphorically to connote negative spiritual and moral conditions. Thus, in Scripture we find images depicting a lack of sight and consequent dwelling in darkness set in contrast to living in the light—itself a metaphoric description of God. Whether penned by the Psalmist or St. John the Apostle, to dwell in the light is to live in God and to see oneself, others, and the entire created order in his light.[6]

With the Lamentations connection in mind, that Augustine chose the Scriptural image of a darkened, grieving heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum] suggests a desire to communicate something more than his own pain.  In fact, as the chapter unfolds, Augustine the narrator states explicitly that his sorrow had become excessive and self-focused. In addition, he loved his friend without taking account of the latter’s finitude, and he failed to acknowledge the friendship as a gift which must some day return to its Giver. Discussing why his grief had so overwhelmed him, Augustine asks rhetorically: was it not “because I had poured out my soul into the sand by loving a man doomed to death as though he were never to die?”[7] Then in the following paragraph, Augustine highlights the proper way to love another deeply, namely, the other must be loved in God. “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you […] He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost. And who is this but our God.”[8]

Here we should note that Augustine affirms the value and goodness of friendship. Loving others deeply is not in itself problematic or to be avoided.[9] Rather, Augustine is at pains to stress that only God, given his nature and character, can provide the solidity we seek, the abode for our unhinged hearts. On the one hand, that all creation, including human beings, is good, Augustine in no way denies. It must be good because its very existence comes from a God who is good.[10] On the other hand, our loves must be properly ordered, and when we love the creature in place of the Creator—that is, as the final goal or ultimate meaning of our lives—we set ourselves up for sorrow upon sorrow. Whether or not we agree with Augustine’s assessment of his grief is beside the point. Perhaps he is at times too hard on himself when it comes to his emotional life. What is to the point given our present purpose is to foreground Augustine’s primary aim in recounting and analyzing his grief over the loss of his friend.


[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. by Maria Boulding), 4.4.9; 97 [CSEL 33, 70]. Unless noted, all subsequent references are to this edition. As Boulding explains in her Introduction, the earliest manuscripts of the Confessions were simply divided into thirteen chapters. Then in the fifteenth century chapter numbers were added, and finally with the Maurist edition of 1679 paragraph numbers likewise were added. Boulding’s translation includes all three sets of numbers; thus, I have adopted the following system to reflect all three numbers and to conform to Boulding’s text:  4.4.9; 97 means book 4, chapter 4, paragraph 9, page 97. My Latin citations are from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 33, which shall be abbreviated, CSEL 33, followed by the corresponding page number.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1 [CSEL 33, 1]. My translation. We find variations on Augustine’s “enigmatic self” theme, at 4.4.9 [CSEL 33, 70] (factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio), 2.10.18 [CSEL 33, 43] (factus sum mihi regio egestatis), and 10.33.50 [CSEL 33, 264] (mihi quaestio factus sum).

[3] For an argument in favor of the Augustine-Cartesian continuity thesis, see Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine. For an argument against Menn’s continuity thesis, see Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity. See also, Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, esp. 26–46. In addition to her helpful discussion on Augustine and interiority, Taylor offers her thesis for the absence of Augustine in Foucault’s writings.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 4.4.9; 97.

[5] O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, commentary on 4.4.9, (accessed 3/11/11).

[6] Thus, the Psalmist writes, “in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9, NRSV).

[7] Augustine, Confessions 4.8.13; 100.

[8] Ibid., 4.9.14; 101.

[9] Schuld elaborates Augustine’s position as follows: “[e]ven the most intimate and heartfelt affection between friends or lovers can remain viable only if it continually streams through and is by the love of God […] To love something other than God for its own sake as a solitary entity does not allow a circular form of love but only a stagnated one that cannot move far from itself, caught up, as it always becomes, in the standing pools that collect around self-absorbing persons and ends” (Foucault and Augustine, 40).

[10] Cf., Augustine, Confessions 4.12.18 for a similar description of Augustine’s view of the created order as good.


Jean-Luc Marion: A Postmodern Dionysian of Sorts

As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,

“[w]hat characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon […] comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.”

Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.

Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon

“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”

Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.

Part II: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy

As mentioned in the previous post, in Marion’s more recent work, St. Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy. Regarding the first characteristic, viz., inscribing God within the domain of metaphysics, Thomas is “acquitted” because for him (unlike Scotus and Suarez) esse commune (common or created being) is the proper object of metaphysics. Hence, God only factors into the consideration of metaphysics in an indirect way, viz., as the causal principle (Creator) of common/created being. For Aquinas in contradistinction from the thinkers mentioned above, God and creatures are not conceived under a common univocal concept of being.

Regarding the second characteristic, viz., that the “God” establish a causal foundation of all the common entities (which turns out to be a reciprocal founding of sorts), Thomas is likewise “not guilty” because of the distinction he makes between esse commune and esse divinum. Esse as used in these two designations is not understood univocally (either metaphysically or predicatively), but analogically. That is, the “esse” in esse commune is received from God and is common to all created beings—beings that are esse/essence composites. In contrast, the “esse” of esse divinum has only one referent, viz., God who is the “act of being” and whose esse is identical to his essence. Thomas, then, given this distinction, upholds God’s transcendence. Though it is the case that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy names God as the efficient cause of common being, he escapes the second characteristic of Heidegger’s critique because his understanding of causality in creation is asymmetrical. In other words, God (the “ground” of esse commune) does not stand in a reciprocal relation to his creation. Rather, the dependency is “one-way”—creation is wholly dependent upon God for its being and intelligibility, but God is in no way dependent on creation for either.

Regarding the third characteristic, Marion highlights two arguments of St. Thomas’ against the idea of God as causa sui. The first appeals to a logical contradiction that such a claim would involve. That is, given that nothing can cause itself, God cannot cause himself because God would have to exist prior to and in some way distinct from himself (p. 56). Secondly, (and Marion thinks that this argument is more significant), in order to maintain his transcendence as efficient cause (in the redefined Thomistic sense), God must “withdraw Himself from causality.” In other words, God exercises causality toward beings but he himself is not part of this causality—a causality extended only to created beings whose existence and essence are distinct and composite. Created, composite beings receive their esse from God whose esse and essence are identical. Stated in a slightly different manner (and basically the argument of the De ente), given that all created beings are esse/essence composites, there must be a first whose esse is his essence and hence whose esse is both wholly other from created esse and the principle (Creator) of created esse, lest we have an infinite regress. In this schema, causality only applies to created beings and clearly does not apply to God [pp. 56-57].

Marion ends the article by suggesting that even though Aquinas privileges being (ipsum esse) instead of the Good (as in the Dionysian tradition), there is still a way in which this may be interpreted such that Aquinas is exonerated from the onto-theo-logy charge. At this point many Thomists have concluded that Marion seems to suggest that we read Aquinas as promoting a radical apophaticism—God is esse in name only. In other words, because God’s esse is so wholly other than created being, it can be revealed or known only as unknown. As Marion explains, “this pure esse reveals itself in principle as unknowable as the God it names. God known as unknown—this implies that his esse remains knowable only as unknowable, in sharp contrast to the esse that metaphysics has essentially set in a concept to make it as knowable as possible” (p. 63). A few lines later, Marion writes, “[Thomas] does not think God in a univocal way according to the horizon of being. Or simply: the esse that Thomas Aquinas recognizes for God does not open any metaphysical horizon, does not belong to any onto-theo-logy, and remains such a distant analogy with what we once conceived through the concept of being, that God proves not to take any part in it, or to belong to it, or even—as paradoxical as it may seem—to be. Esse refers to God only insofar as God may appear as without being—not only without being as onto-theology constitutes it in metaphysics but also well out of the horizon of being, even as it is as such (Heidegger)” (p. 64). Such an interpretation would suggest that given the radical transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’s esse, Thomas’ naming of God ipsum esse should be taken as a negative name without any conceptual content; hence, Thomas’ understanding of the divine names, as well as his doctrine of analogy should be understood in a radically apophatic way. However, others[1] have argued that on Marion’s read Thomas’ doctrine of analogy, as well as the divine names, function phenomenologically and indeed reveal something truly (yet not exhaustively) about God. In other words, following Denys, the divine names are a kind of “iconic speech” that unfolds and discloses God to us in the context of the liturgy. Here (idolatrous) predication of God in the sense of defining God is ruled out and in its place a new discourse springs forth—the discourse of praise as the proper response to Him who makes Himself known as Goodness, as Love, as Gift.

[1] See e.g., Morrow, Derek J. “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of the Divine Names?” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 46, no. 1 (March 2006): 25-42.

Part I: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy

Since I am scheduled to present on this topic for one of my classes at UD, I thought that I would revisit Marion’s take on St. Thomas as reflected in his article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy.”[1]


In this article, Marion retracts a good deal of his former criticism of St. Thomas as found in God Without Being. Specifically, he withdraws his former claims that Aquinas’ naming God ipsum esse¬ makes an idol out of being, and that Aquinas is guilty of onto-theo-logy. So what is meant by onto-theo-logy? According to Heidegger onto-theo-logy characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition and is expressed as an attempt by philosophy to use conceptual systems in order to control and master Being (as well as God). Marion is sympathetic to Heidegger’s critique, yet he sees Heidegger making an idol out of Being. For the purposes of this article, Marion highlights three foundations at work in onto-theo-logy.

First, there is the Gründung, i.e., “the conceptual foundation of entity as such by being.” Whatever serves as the conceptual foundation—be it “God” or whatever—must be inscribed within the domain of metaphysics. That is, it itself must become thinkable as an entity (or according to a [univocal] concept of entity). To illustrate his point, Marion turns to one of the ways (there are other ways as well) in which Descartes exemplifies this Gründung. In Descartes, being is defined on the basis of thought. Consequently, being grounds entities conceptually, “to be is to think or to be thought” (esse est cogitari aut cogitare). All entities, including the “first” or “highest” rely on this foundation through being (p. 41), and all entities including the “highest” or “first” are thought according to a (univocal) concept of being. In sum, the first characteristic of onto-theo-logy amounts to inscribing God (as subject or object) within the domain of metaphysics and making God subject to a univocal concept of being.

Second, we have the Begründung. That is, “the foundation of entities by the supreme entity according to efficient causality.” Here we have a reciprocal grounding between the “first entity” and all other entities. That is, there is a reciprocal grounding between whatever serves as the “first entity” (e.g., Pure Act) and all other beings, and this grounding reciprocally perfects/establishes both the first entity and all other entities. E.g., according to Aristotle, beings “are” to the extent that they are in act. The “Unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s system is of course “Pure Act.” Here we find a kind of mutual “grounding” principle. That is, the Unmoved mover is not only the final cause toward which all beings move, but is established in a preeminent way by the (same) principle by which beings “are,” viz., by the principle of actuality (“to be is to be in act”). This principle founds the Unmoved mover as highest being, that is, as Pure Act, just as it establishes all other beings in so far as they are. Or returning to Marion’s Cartesian example, the ego as preeminent being thinks itself as res cogitans and therefore grounds its own existence. Likewise, it also “grounds in reason” the other entities “which are, only insofar as they are thought by it” (pp. 42-43). In sum, the “God” (or highest being) functions as the (efficient) causal foundation for all entities. This founding relationship is reciprocal, i.e., the “God” grounds beings and beings ground/establish God.

Third, there is the self-grounding of the ground or the causa sui. That is, “the foundation of the conceptual foundation by the efficient foundation” (p. 42). The preeminent being is defined by its function as causa sui. Here you have a supreme being that “grounds by grounding itself through itself” (p. 42). In other words, the conceptual foundation is grounded in the (efficient) causal foundation, which in the case of our Cartesian example is the ego or res cogitans. In sum, the “God” founds itself, just as it founds all other beings.

In the next post, we shall see how (according to Marion) Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy.

[1] As found in in Mystics: Presence and Aporia eds Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2003), pp. 38-74.

Part VI: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Section four, “The Indifference to Be,” is perhaps one of the most important sections of chapter three. In light of what he sees as an inherent connection between the Being/being framework and idolatry, Marion attempts to outwit Being by its own rules—which in essence means to outwit onto-theo-logy and the “ontological difference.” The phrase “ontological difference” is a reference to Heidegger and speaks of the difference between Being (as such) and beings. One aspect of the “difference” between Being (as such) and a being is that the former a dynamic process and is therefore not a being, yet the history of Western philosophy on the Heideggarian read has ossified/static-ized Being and made it a being (e.g., pure act, highest cause etc.), which is why Heidegger gives his critique as he does. This dynamic process (Being) reveals itself differently in different epochs and allows particular beings to manifest/appear as the beings that they are. Being as such then seems to provide the condition for the possibility of beings appearing. [This is my understanding of “ontological difference” as used in this context. However, as I have stated before, my knowledge of Heidegger is very basic, and I welcome criticisms and corrections to what I have said here].

In order to outwit Being, that is, to break out of the horizon of Being, we must find a new rule whose difference is not that of “ontological difference” and consequently, whose difference does not refer at all to the horizon of Being (which would involve us in the idolatrous gaze). Ontological difference has a built-in reflexivity and it is this very (idolatrous) reflexivity that Marion wants to avoid. This other difference turns out to be biblical revelation. In other words, Marion employs that which is “foolishness to the Greeks” to outwit the (wordly) logic of Being. E.g., appealing to two texts from St. Paul (Rom 4:7 and 1 Cor 1:26-29) and one from St. Luke (the prodigal son), Marion shows how biblical revelation is indifferent to Being. To elucidate what is meant by this, Marion writes, “one must distinguish, in fact, between two extremely different points. Incontestably, biblical revelation is unaware of ontological difference, the science of Being/beings as such, and hence of the question of Being. But nothing is less accurate than to pretend that it does not speak a word on being, nonbeing and beingness” (p. 86). Marion appeals to these texts because all of them speak about being (or ousia) in one way or another. Though Marion admits that some might be frustrated with his interpretation of these texts, he asks the reader to exercise patience and see his argument through to the end.

For the sake of brevity, I shall engage only one text, viz., Rom 4:17. In this text we read that Abraham was made “the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations,’ facing Him in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as beings” (p. 86). As Marion observes, we see St. Paul seemingly employing the language of the philosophers when he speaks of a movement from non-being to being. The Greeks of course were very much concerned with the possibility or rather impossibility of this transition; however, the transition that Paul has in mind does not depend on any human conception, nor is it solved by a movement of a being from potency to act. Instead, the transition comes to the (non)beings from the outside. As Marion puts it, the transition is an “extrinsic transition” and “does not depend on (non-)beings but on Him who calls them” (p. 87). Of course Marion does not mean that these “dead” individuals do not actually exist. Rather, his emphasis is that in the eyes of the world, they are non-beings. In contrast, God is indifferent to the world’s (ontic) determination of being and nonbeing. God’s call in fact “does not take into consideration the difference between nonbeings and beings” (p. 88)—nonbeings are called as if they were beings.

In the texts from St. Paul that Marion examines, we find that nonbeings (ta mē onta) do not mean that or those who are not, and as a result nonbeings in the context of revelation do not play according to the logic of Being and do not submit to the horizon of Being. (The same of course is true of beings (ta onta). Marion highlights an interesting point in the 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 passage, viz., that the wisdom of the world goes against its own logic. That is, it calls the brethren nonbeings, though strictly speaking they, as humans, exist. But as Paul points out, the “world” contradicts itself because it founds itself or is founded not as a result of the fold of Being but on its own works and therefore boasts in itself before God. So even in spite of itself, the “world” when bedazzled by the light of God, becomes so distracted that it, being revealed as a “forger of itself,” “acknowledges that its funding does not lie in ontological difference, but in the pretension to ‘glorify itself before God’” (p. 94). In the end, what counts here as to the debate between beings and nonbeings has little to do with ontic or ontological difference, but rather with the two opposing boastings—one which is founded on itself and one which boasts in the Lord because of God’s call (p. 94). Consequently, we now see how “being and nonbeing can be divided according to something other than Being” (p. 95).

Later in the chapter (after giving his interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son), Marion identifies this “something” as the “gift.” The “gift” not only outwits the Being game, but it makes possible Being/beings in the first place—it “gives Being/beings” (p. 100). As Marion explains, “[t]he gift crosses Being/being: it meets it, strikes it out with a mark, finally opens it, as a window casement opens, on an instance that remains unspeakable according to the language of Being—supposing that another language might be conceived. To open Being/being to the instance of a gift implies then, at the least, that the gift may decide Being/being. In other words, the gift is not at all laid out according to Being/being, but Being/being is given according to the gift. The gift delivers Being/being. It delivers it in the sense first that the gift gives Being/being and puts it into play, opens it to its sending, as in order to launch it into its destiny. The gift delivers also in that it liberates being from Being or, put another way, Being/being from ontological difference” (p. 101). This gift in fact is inextricably linked with charity/love itself, “which gives and expresses itself as gift” (p. 102). In sum, being is not a being because (the horizon of) Being has provided the condition by which it can become manifest [or said slightly differently, a being is not a being because of the “ontological difference”], rather a being is a being because it has received a gift (e.g. the “call”) from Love Himself.

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).