Platonic Emanations

Greetings Readers,

Today I am going to post a piece of writing from the draft chapter i’m composing. I hope that, by putting it up on the blog, I will be able to see what works and what doesn’t with greater clarity. This passage is reminiscent of my previous post on  the notion of a ‘fountainhead’ of symbolic knowledge, a notion most clearly present in Christian Platonism, with particular emphasis on Plotinus. This section is a little more Philosophy-based than I usually go for, but it is after all a chapter on the watery symbolism of medieval epistemology.

I’m currently reading Plotinus’ Enneads, a reminder of A) how much I love a bit of Philosophy and B) How awesome penguin classics are. This particular classic has a beautiful microcosm diagram from the dome of Anagni cathedral. Around an image of the human body with the Roman capitals H-O-M-O surrounding it is the circular motif Id est minor mundus (et) microcosmus, which I believe roughly means ‘man – that is little world (and) microcosm’. The et is in brackets because it is faded on the image, and could be something similar.

This circle is surrounded by the Four ages of man, the four seasons and the four humors, placing humanity within the grand narrative of creation, a ‘little world’ mirroring the bigger world in every way. It is diagrams such as this that remind me of my passion for medieval philosophy and cosmology, and remind me of why I do what I do. It is also a perfect introduction to laying down some crazy emanation theory, which now follows.

Take care, and find something that reminds you of what you love,


Extract from Chapter 1: ‘Introducing a Fluid Epistemology’

In the early 6th century, Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in his Celestial Hierarchy that “Hierarchy, to me, is sacred order, knowledge, and activity assimilating itself, as far as it can, to the likeness of God, and raising itself to its utmost, by means of the illuminations granted by God, to the likeness of God”.1 The Creator was simplex essentia or ‘simple essence,’ the simplest, most powerful and least composite being in Creation: He was the purest concentration of quidditas or ‘whatness’ (a term that translates poorly into the English language) in existence, the ultimate standard of which all other things were a reflection. Through emanation (literally to flow out, from the latin emanatio) the essence of God created the world through a series of existential realisations. From God (the One, or the Absolute), the one prime principle, flowed the divine substance; his own substance never lessened. As the flow proceeded farther from God, however, its divinity steadily decreased. Emanation never ceased, the whole process moving continuously outward from God.

This hierarchy contained within it a flowing dynamic: from the fountainhead of God, creation cascaded ever downward, spreading and expanding as it did so. In the 12th century, Alan of Lille saw the unity and purity of God as the ultimate symbol of religious wholeness, an eternal truth indivisible by means of human failings:

“For surely, when the dreams of Epicurus are put to sleep, the madness of Manichaeus cured, the intricacies of Aristotle argued out, the fallacies of Arius refuted. reason then proves the sole unity of God, the universe declares it, faith believes it, Scripture attests it. In Him is no spot found, Him no evil fault attacks, with Him no tempting passion abides. Here is splendor never failing, life untiring and immortal, a fountain always springing, a fruitful conservatory of being, the great source of wisdom, the primal origin of goodness.”2

The upwards gaze of Christian epistemology was, to some degree, an attempt to reconcile the perfection of the heavens with the imperfection of the world that surrounded one’s daily life. In order to do so, the mind traversed a vertically ascendant hierarchy, a continuum of existence extending from the highest of celestial principles through a multi-faceted and strictly hierarchical cosmic order down to the mind of the human being. Within this hierarchy existed a continuum of knowledge: the purest form of knowledge existed in a state of propinquitas, or nearness to God: it was the cognitio matutina or ‘morning knowledge’, existing in its purest form. As knowledge descended through the celestial hierarchy, it was occluded by the disharmonious nature of the world it interacted with, becoming cognitio vespertina or ‘evening knowledge’. As knowledge emanated from the One, it gradually became less divine, progressing through (as all things within the world must) a life cycle from birth, through life and to death. At the outer limit of knowledge, true understanding became almost impossible: within the sinful world, the emanations faded to nothing, dissipating like the ripples from a stone dropped in water.

In his 9th century Periphyseon, John Scottus Eriugena describes the descent of knowledge in strongly Platonic terms, a river of intellect emanating from the heavens and flowing into the world:

“…the whole river first flows from its source, and through its channel the water which first wells up in the source continues to flow always without any break to whatever distance it extends. So the Divine Goodness and Essence..first flow down into the primordial causes…flowing forth continuously through the higher to the lower; and return back again to their source”.3

Not only was the greater world pouring itself onto the lesser realms below, but through the saving doctrine of Christianity, the waters miraculously returned to the heavens from whence they came, uniting the enriched spirits of the faithful with their fountainhead.4 In order for the intellect to traverse the shifting ambiguities of existence, the whole of Creation was imagined within an all-encompassing cosmic order. In the Enneads, Plotinus claimed that the physical world was a ‘second cosmos’ that “at every point copies the archetype: it has life and being in copy…In its character of image it holds, too, that divine perpetuity”.5 Drawing on the Platonic tradition of Eidos or the forms, the Christian epistemological tradition grew and changed over time, taking shape through a series of reforms, doctrinal changes and re-evaluations.

The belief that the imperfect world of experience was a representation of a higher, perfect realm lead the inquiry of the mind upwards to the contemplation of perfection. As gravity causes water to flow from the heights to the depths, so do was the celestial hierarchy imbued with a cognitive gravity, causing ideas to descend from the heavens to the world below. Through this process, the rationes aeternae or ‘eternal reasons’ that dwelt within the heavens and explained the nature of things made their way into the world inhabited by humanity.

1D.E. Luscombe, ‘Hierarchy,’ in A. S. McGrade (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy ; Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Pr, 2003, p. 60.

2Alan of Lille, The Complaint of Nature, Translation of De planctu natura. by Douglas M. Moffat, retrieved 8th August 2009, <;.

3Periphyseon, III, 632 B-C, as cited in Deirdre Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena ; Oxford, Oxford University Press US, 2000, p. 37.

4This motif bears a strong resemblance to the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, after which the river reversed its flow, returning from whence it came. The motif is a powerful one: the saving grace resulting by Christ’s ministry on earth (initiated with his baptism) had the power to transcend natural laws, to reverse the ordinary dynamics of knowledge.

5Enneads, V.viii.12, as cited in R. Habib, A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present ; London, Blackwell, 2005, pp. 135-136.


2 thoughts on “Platonic Emanations

  1. Yo, I haven’t read this entirely but noticed the ‘Eidos’ bit. In philosophy it’s usually customary to write it in Greek as well.. you could put it in Greek in brackets, maybe. Would look swish: εἶδος

    Just a thought.

    1. Hi Bec. I have noticed the repetition of Greek characters in a lot of Philosophy, but in my personal opinion, this is a disciplinary conceit that promotes ideological elitism and locks the reader out rather than engaging them. For the same reason, I avoid using latin words without explaining them in english. I think i’ll probably cave eventually in the interest of being true to the ‘form’ of the word *snicker*.

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