Love in Plotinus, Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite

Updated: Mar 10

The following is a discussion by Dimitrios A. Vasilakis of his recent book, Eros in Neoplatonism and its Reception in Christian Philosophy: Exploring Love in Plotinus, Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).* Dr Vasilakis completed his PhD at King’s College, London, and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

“Meno’s Paradox,” as expounded in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno, begins with a question: “If I do not know what to search for, how will I know that I have found it, when I come across it?” In the beginning of my work on Eros in Neoplatonism and its Reception in Christian Philosophy, I had similar concerns. If I do not know what to search for, how will I know that I have found it, when I come across it? It was my supervisor, Peter Adamson (host of the History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast),[1] who, like another Socrates, gave me the idea of studying Plotinus’s treatise on love (eros), since he knew of my interests in Neoplatonism. Not unlike love at first sight (or at least sight reading), I immediately felt I had found a theme, which, as it were, I could use as a basso continuo on which I could then write a counterpoint for two voices with which I am enamoured: Proclus Diadochus (the head of Plato’s Academy in the fifth century AD) and Dionysius the Areopagite (the famous pseudonymous Church Father who must have lived around the beginning of the sixth century). This formed the subject of my King’s College doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which was published as Eros in Neoplatonism and its Reception in Christian Philosophy: Exploring Love in Plotinus, Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

If I do not know what to search for, how will I know that I have found it, when I come across it?

The subject of love is not new to the literature, whether in contemporary systematic studies or in the field of the history of philosophy. Just two weeks before the appearance of my own book late in 2020, Alberto Bertozzi published his 2012 thesis on love in Plotinus.[2] Among the studies that take a comparative approach, one thinks of the celebrated 1961 study by one of Plotinus’s best modern translators, Arthur Hilary Armstrong, complemented by the most recent example, from another esteemed scholar of Neoplatonism (and student of Armstrong), Kevin Corrigan, Love, Friendship, Beauty, and the Good: Plato, Aristotle, and the Later Tradition (2018). My own contribution to this discussion fills a significant lacuna in the literature by offering (1) a detailed discussion of love in Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius the Areopagite,[3] as well as (2) a systematic comparative treatment providing a basis for understanding how one can move from Plato to, say, Christos Yannaras, a modern Greek thinker (1935-) who grounds much of his philosophy on the patristic notion of Eros.

What follows is a synopsis of the overarching argument in Eros in Neoplatonism.[4]

The first chapter discusses Plotinus’s treatise on Love (Enneads III.5). According to the renowned Plotinian commentator, Pavlos Kalligas, one of Plotinus’s main aims in this treatise is a defense of genuine Platonic love against the interpretations provided by other philosophical circles, e.g., the Gnostics, on key Platonic passages, such as the myth of the genealogy of Eros in the Symposium (203b1-c6). Despite its dialectical character, this tractate of Plotinus provides us with insights into the function of eros within Plotinus’s system as a whole. My main thesis here is that eros is identified with reversion or epistrophe—the return to the One—because it implies deficiency in need of fulfillment. For an entity, such as the soul, to be or to exist, is to be erotic, that is, directed to the intelligible realm. If, then, reversion is necessary for the constitution of an entity qua entity, unfolding in a vertical scheme (in which an inferior entity has eros for its cause), then it is clear that Plotinus’s entire ontology can properly be called “erotic.”

My main thesis here is that eros is identified with reversion or epistrophe—the return to the One—because it implies deficiency in need of fulfillment. For an entity, such as the soul, to be or to exist, is to be erotic, that is, directed to the intelligible realm.

Chapter 2 deals with Proclus’s Commentary on the First Alcibiades, though the Alcibiades Major is not a straightforwardly erotic dialogue, and scholars have raised questions about its authorship. With Proclus we have a new association of love with procession and providence which is explained throughout the chapter. In the first part, I examine the ethical aspects, while in the second I deal more with metaphysics. Although already in the conclusion of the first part I note that Proclus’s rather glaring divergence from Plotinus is more verbal than substantive, in the second part I explain how Proclus can consistently combine ascending (upwards) and descending (downwards) in the phenomenon of eros. One consequence of the overall treatment is that Proclus emerges as an interpreter of Plato who has affinities with modern scholars, and who should be consulted in the defense of Plato against his modern critics, such as Gregory Vlastos and Anders Nygren, even if Proclus’s ideal may have its own limitations.[5]

The last chapter, which draws mostly on Dionysius’s treatment of God as Eros in On the Divine Names, counters the entrenched opinion about Dionysius’s supposed uncritical reception of Neoplatonism, which has been repeatedly and successfully challenged in recent years,[6] and concludes the book by showing how Proclean language (e.g., that of providential and reversive eros) was transformed in light of Christianity. The main difference stems from a different conception of ecstasy, which neglects (upward or downward) directionality. The chapter is structured along the lines of the metaphysical scheme discussed in the second part of my treatment of Proclus. I have tried to show that Dionysius’s system is at least as erotic as the Proclean, though I also emphasize the differences between them by drawing a contrast between the Neoplatonic hero Socrates, an embodied soul, and Christ, an incarnated person of the Holy Trinity.[7]

Eros in Neoplatonism situates Proclus within this historical scheme as a bridge between the pagan Neoplatonism of Plotinus and the Christian philosophy of Dionysius.[8] In addition to juxtaposing Dionysius with both earlier pagan Neoplatonists, I also explore the question of how Platonic eros interacted with Christian agape (though Dionysius prefers the term eros), and how ancient Greek and pagan conceptions of eros survived (through its “transformed” modality) in the Christian and especially the Byzantine theological tradition[9] of which Dionysius is a cornerstone.[10] Finally, for all the significant differences among these authors, my work on this book led me to consider that, if apart from theology, philosophy is also a way of life (a “spiritual exercise,” as Pierre Hadot would put it, or even a special kind of ars amatoria), then, not only Plato or Socrates, but Plotinus, Proclus and St Dionysius the Areopagite (whoever he may have been) would also be very glad if we transformed our lives into eros. In the current unprecedented times of a war following a pandemic, this might be not just an urgent call, but actually the viable, even if arduous, way to be fulfilled with hope for our society.


* This is a revised version of the paper the author read at the First Online Edinburgh Byzantine Book Festival (7 February 2021), available online here. The author wishes to thank Fr Maximos Constas for his kind invitation, as well as Dr Tikhon Pino for his editorial work.

[1] To date, five volumes based on these programs have been published by Oxford University Press, while the sixth volume, on Byzantine and Renaissance Philosophy, is due to appear later this year. The podcast’s sections on ancient Christianity (in the context of philosophy in late antiquity) and Byzantine philosophy include interviews with theologians such as Andrew Louth (on John of Damascus) that have not been included in the books.

[2] For this excellent book see my review in The Classical Review. Early in 2020 a dissertation central to my project was published by D’Andrès, N. 2020: Socrate néoplatonicien: Une science de l'amour dans le commentaire de Proclus sur le Premier Alcibiade (Paris: Vrin, 2020).

[3] These writers can be described as theologians as well as philosophers, taking also into account the sense of “first philosophy” defined by Aristotle, Metaphysics, VI.1,1026a15-22.

[4] For another review of Eros in Neoplatonism, see S. Klitenic-Wear in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 15.1 (2021): 117-19.

[5] See also D.A. Vasilakis, “A Neo-Platonic Dialogue on the Ethics of Love,”, in Love: Ancient Perspectives. The Metochi Seminar, ed. K. Grødum, H.F. Hägg, J. Kaufman and T.T. Tollefsen (Oslo: Nordic Open Access Scholarly Publishing, 2021), 81-99; available online here.

[6] See (not first, but foremost) Alexander Golitzin, Et introibo ad altare Dei. The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition, Analecta Vlatadon 59, (Thessaloniki: Πατριαρχικὸν Ἴδρυμα Πατερικῶν Μελετῶν, 1994). Archbishop Golitzin, a former student of both Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Fr John Meyendorff, often speaks about the decisive influence (regarding his Dionysian hermeneutics) exercised by Elder Aimilianos (†2019), Abbot of the Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mount Athos; see Et introibo, 9, as well as A.A. Orlov, ed., Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism: Studies in Honor of Alexander Golitzin (Leiden and Boston, 2007), 1-7, esp. 1.

[7] See also D.A. Vasilakis, “Dionysius versus Proclus on Undefiled Providence and its Byzantine Echoes in Nicholas of Methone,” Studia Patristica 96 (2017): 407‑418. For a particular connection between Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor in this respect, see also D.A. Vasilakis, “Maximus as a Philosophical Interpreter of Dionysius: the Case of Christ as Manic Lover,” Θεολογία 87.2 (2016): 103‑112.

[8] On the implications of the bridge metaphor (in the context of Maximus the Confessor and East-West relations), see Maximos Constas, “St Maximus the Confessor: A Bridge Between the Churches,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 63.3-4 (2018): 5-29, at 23-24.

[9] On the reception of this Dionysian theme in the West, see P.A. Kwasniewski, The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2021).

[10] On the relationship between Christianity and Hellenism see the Foreword by Fr Nikolaos Loudovikos, Ἀφανὴς Ἁρμονία: Μεταφυσικὴ Ἱστορία τῆς ἀρχαίας Ἑλληνικῆς φιλοσοφίας [= Hidden Harmony: A Metaphysical History of Ancient Greek Philosophy] (Athens: Armos, 2021), 13-24; also in id., Θεολογική Ιστορία της Αρχαίας Ελληνικής Φιλοσοφίας. 1: Οι Προσωκρατικοί, ο Σωκράτης, ο Πλάτων [= A Theological History of Ancient Greek Philosophy, vol. 1: The Presocratics, Socrates, Plato] (Thessaloniki, Pournaras, 2003); also D.A. Vasilakis, “Hellenism and Christianity: Petros Vrailas-Armenis on the Constituents of Modern Greek Identity,” Akropolis, 3 (2019): 88‑108; available online here (last accessed 04.02.2022).