Deplatonising the Celestial Hierarchy. Peter John Olivi’s interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius
Angels in Medieval Philosophy Inquiry: Their Function and Significance, edited by Isabel Iribarren and Martin Lenz (2008)
Introduction: Angels have been a favourite topic of high medieval scholastics. They served as a case study for central philosophical issues, from spaciality and temporality to cognition and language. The interest they attracted cannot be solely explained by the various metaphysical subtleties provided by their bodiless, unchanging and ever-operating intellectual nature. Beyond the wealth ofparadoxes they could offer to curious minds, their success is to a large extent also owed to their strategic epistemological importance. They occupy a place on the medieval map of knowledge where Graeco-Arab philosophical traditions and the Judeo-Christian revelation overlap in a manner that necessarily provokes many tensions. Biblical angels are spiritual creatures, playing various parts in the history of salvation, interfering now and then with the earthly course of events, and holding their ranks in the celestial court. On the other hand, the intellectual substances of Greek philosophy are conceived in relation to their cosmological function and as necessary elements in the triple chain of being, causation and intelligibility that holds together the universe.
These two different pedigrees could not be easily reconciled. The encounter of biblical and Neoplatonic angels produced one of the most crucial questions that theologians had to face in the second half of the thirteenth century : could they, or indeed, should they be identified? Except for a few cases to which we will soon turn, the question was not raised so abruptly. Nevertheless, the discussion of any aspect of the angelic being involved such a decision, which had a major epistemological value as to the way in which philosophy and theology would be articulated together. This paper will be mainly concerned with the original and seemingly solitary route taken by one of the most adventurous minds of the scholastic era. The franciscan theologian Peter John Olivi, educated in the Paris studium of the order in the years 1266-1273, produced his main works during the following decade, while teaching in Languedoc convents, before incurring in 1283 a censure on the part of his fellow friars that was provoked by the unusual positions he was taking on many issues. His intellectual projet has to be understood in the background of the debates of this period. Thomas Aquinas was certainly the major thinker with whom he was sustaining an overall confrontation. More generally, Olivi’s main drive was inspired by what he perceived as an abuse of Greek philosophy within theological issues that was, in his view, uselessly multiplicating intermediary beings or mediations between God and the human beings. For the same motives, he was as well concerned with the parisian philosophers, whom he described as ‘averroists’ and who, as recent scholarship has shown, were as much leaning on Averroes as on the Neoplatonic tradition.