Final Examination of Brendan T. Sammon
For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 9:00 a.m., Caldwell Room 125
Regis Armstrong, O. F. M., Cap., Ph.D.
The Beauty of God: Beauty as a Divine Name in Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Areopagite
Does beauty have an inherent association with the divine? If so, what sort of impact does such a claim have upon the field of contemporary ‘theological aesthetics’? The present study addresses these questions by investigating the historical, philosophical and theological dimensions of beauty insofar as it is conceived as a divine name. It is a conception that first appears in the thought of the fifth century figure Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius’s thinking on beauty achieves widespread influence throughout the Middle Ages demonstrated by the numerous commentaries written on his treatises. This dissertation examines Dionysius’s doctrine on beauty found in his celebrated treatise On the Divine Names along with the commentary put forth by Thomas Aquinas. The argument advanced in this study is that the Dionysian-
Thomistic approach to beauty, an approach that is foundational for the origins of the Western understanding of beauty, reveals that beauty is inherently and therefore indispensably associated with the divine.
In Dionysius, the association between beauty and the divine that long gestates in the womb of Western thought explicitly enters the Christian theological tradition when it is appropriated to the status of a divine name. Dionysius’s doctrine of beauty exercises extraordinary influence on Thomas’s understanding of beauty, which shapes his understanding of God in significant ways. More broadly, the Dionysian-Thomistic view of beauty as a divine name crystallizes in unique ways a more general understanding of beauty’s inherent association with the divine. Contemporary theology, in the last fifty years or so, has rediscovered the fundamental inspiration that beauty provides to its intentions. Even a brief glance at the publications reveals a notable surge of work being done in what is now called ‘theological aesthetics.’ However, this rediscovery of beauty is beset with difficulties concerning not only the place and role of beauty, but the very question as to what beauty is. It is a primary goal of this study to demonstrate the importance that a Dionysian-Thomistic configuration of beauty has for theological aesthetics, not only with respect to the past but also with respect to the field’s future direction.