The paper deals with an anonymous Hymn to God, which is attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus by some authors, but was most probably composed by a Christian Neoplatonist such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The paper explores the hymn’s relation to Neoplatonic theories of prayer and shows that these affinities are broader in scope than has previously been recognised. Some Pagan and Christian Neoplatonists, including the author of the Hymn to God, seem to have shared the idea of a cosmic prayer by which all beings tend towards God, a prayer founded on the knowledge of the ‘signatures’ (synthemata) that God rooted in our souls.
The Hymn to God ascribed to Gregory of Nazianzus has troubled more than one scholarly reader of the Church Fathers: the hymn does not mention Jesus Christ, and it glorifies instead the inaccessibility of God, his unknowable and unspeakable nature in a vocabulary whose Neoplatonic mark has not escaped its commentators. Since the hymn was included among the manuscripts of Gregory of Nazianzus, it was long thought that Gregory was its author. It was included in the collection of Gregory of Nazianzus’ works published by J. P. Migne in 19th century,1 which still remains the standard edition of Gregory’s works. A contemporary specialist of Gregory, Jean Bernardi, still believes, as he stated in his monograph published twenty years ago, that Gregory is the author of the hymn.2
However, there have been doubts about the authenticity of the Hymn to God for long time. The first scholar who doubted its authorship seems to have been the 19th century French philosopher Victor Cousin, editor of Proclus and Descartes and translator of Plato.3 He concluded that its language and content are rather Neoplatonic and supposed that its author was Proclus since the hymn contains numerous parallels with Proclus, especially with his commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. This idea of Proclus’ authorship was revived later in the 19th century by Friedrich Creuzer4 and his student Albert Jahn,5 and in the last century by Laurence J. Rosán, in his well-received Philosophy of Proclus.6 However, since the middle of the 20th century this view has founded only few defenders. Symptomatically, the two editors of Proclus’ hymns (D. Giordano and E. Vogt) did not retain the hymn in their editions.
The latest study in this respect belongs to Martin Sicherl, who showed, analysing the manuscript tradition, that the author of the hymn is certainly not Gregory.7 He also showed that its Neoplatonic ideas and language are not restricted to those of Proclus and may also be found in other authors like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Since the hymn is present in some manuscripts that contain the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, Sicherl concludes that Dionysius is as likely a candidate for its authorship; a conclusion with which Henri Dominique Saffrey and Robbert van den Berg also agree.8
I think Sicherl is right, but I shall not discuss here whether the hymn was composed or not by Pseudo-Dionysius. I take for granted the commonly admitted fact that it comes from a Neoplatonic milieu, and I shall try to show, by exploring its relation with the Neoplatonic theories of prayer, that these affinities are broader than has previously been recognised.
First, I propose a tentative translation of the hymn and I shall examine further some of its aspects which deserve, in my opinion, to be related to Neoplatonic theology.
I would like to start by analysing the following verses and the manner in which they could be related to Proclus’ theory of prayer:
In late Neoplatonism (at least since Iamblichus), prayer is no longer defined as a request addressed to God and as a peculiar kind of speech, but rather, as a process of return (an ἐπιστροφή) of the human soul to its principle, the One.9 In his reply to Porphyry (better known as De mysteriis), Iamblichus explains at length the role of prayer in the ascent of souls to the gods within the frame of his theory of the three degrees of prayer.10 Proclus proposed a peculiar version of this theory, by expanding the epistrophic function of prayer from the level of the human soul to the entire universe,11 a theory which seems to have been advanced for the first time by a less known 4th century Neoplatonist, a pupil of Porphyry, Theodorus of Asine.12
In his Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Proclus defines the nature of prayer in this manner: “Its essence is to bring together and bind together the souls to the gods, or rather, it unifies all the secondary beings with those that are prior. For, as the great Theodorus says, ‘all things pray except the First’” (tr. Runia and Share).13 We could remark that the formula of the Hymn to God (σοὶ δὲ τὰ πάντα προσεύχεται) is nothing but a paraphrase of Theodorus’ statement.
According to this view, prayer defines the inner structure of the universe; that all things pray continuously means that all things are able to revert to the superior levels of reality and, ultimately, to the One, according to their nature and their place in the cosmic hierarchy. According to Proclus, this universal movement, metaphorically designated as prayer, is made possible by the two signatures of the One and of the Intellect that all beings possess in their nature: the µένειν (remaining in the One) and ἐπιστρέφειν (reverting to the One).14 It is quite obvious that this theory is present in the background of the following two verses of the Hymn to God: “In You alone all things remain. To You all things rush together” (Σοὶ ἑνὶ πάντα µένει. σοὶ δ’ ἀθρόα πάντα θοάζει). The two signatures (µένειν and ἐπιστρέφειν) explain the universal trend towards the One, which Theodorus of Asine and Proclus define as a universal and continuous prayer.
This theory is clearly explained by Proclus also in his treatise On the hieratic art (Περὶ τῆς ἱερατικῆς τέχνης), in relation to the heliotrope, the plant whose movements, led by the sun, are characterised as a hymn performed by the plant to honour the Sun, the god presiding over its chain:
Or why do heliotropes move together with the sun and the moonplants with the moon, accompanying the lights of the cosmos in as far as possible? Because, since everything prays according to its own order and celebrates in hymns the leaders of the whole series noerically or with words or physically or perceptibly, the heliotrope too moves to the extent that it is flexible. And if someone would be capable of hearing it hitting the air as it turns around, he would observe that by means of this sound it renders to the King a kind of hymn, that a plant is capable of singing.15tr. van den Berg
The kind of hymn sung by the heliotrope is precisely the “silent hymn” mentioned in the Hymn to God, performed both by animate and inanimate beings: “To You all things pray. And everything which knows your signature addresses You a silent hymn (εἰς σὲ δὲ πάντα σύνθεµα σὸν νοέοντα λαλεῖ σιγώµενον ὕµνον).” The idea of the “silent prayer” certainly had an important career in both pagan and Christian milieus in Late Antiquity,16 but I think the “silent hymn” in the Hymn to God has to be related precisely to this doctrine.
I am also inclined to think that the theory according to which all things pray in their own manner was rather a commonplace in late Pagan and Christian Neoplatonism, since we find it not only in Theodorus of Asine, Proclus, and in the Hymn to God, but also in the hymns of Synesius, the Neoplatonist bishop of Cyrene in the early 5th century. In his first hymn (in the Lacombrade edition) one could find this verse: σοὶ πάντα φέρει αἶνον ἀγήρων. “All things bring You endless praise”,17 which is another paraphrase of the Hymn to God formula. One could say that the idea of a cosmic litany that all things address to God is shared by more than one Pagan and Christian Neoplatonist; the Hymn to God is part of an intellectual history which goes back to Iamblichus’ theory of prayer.
I would like to return now to this key verse of the Hymn to God: “And everything which knows your signature addresses You a silent hymn”. Two different ideas are present in this verse which echo different aspects of the Neoplatonic theory of prayer: the former is that the universal hymn or prayer is conditioned by a basic theological knowledge; the latter, related to the first, is that this specific knowledge concerns the synthemata, the signatures or the symbols of God in the universe. I shall refer to each of the two aspects successively:
1) Let’s start with the problem of knowledge as a precondition of prayer. In his polemics with Porphyry, Iamblichus, in the first book of De mysteriis, tries to demonstrate that specific kinds of ritual prayer, like the λιτανεῖαι (the ‘supplications’), characterised by an attitude of abasement and humiliation before the gods, are fully appropriate inasmuch as they represent an expression both of the infinite distance, in all respects, between the gods and human nature, and of the consciousness (συναίσθησις) of our own insignificance and nothingness (οὐδενεία) before the gods, which leads us naturally to implore them:
But prayers of petition, you say, are not suitable for presentation to the purity of the Intellect. Not so: for by reason of this very circumstance, i.e. that we are inferior to the gods in power and in purity and all other respects, it is eminently suitable that we entreat them to the greatest degree possible. The consciousness of our own nothingness, if one judges it in comparison with the gods, makes us naturally turn to supplications; and by the practice of supplication we are raised gradually to the level of the object of our supplication, and we gain likeness to it by virtue of our constant consorting with it, and, starting from our own imperfection, we gradually take on the perfection of the divine.18tr. Clarke—Dillon—Hershbell
According to this quite remarkable passage, the supplications are an expression of the οὐδενεία of the man in comparison to the gods and of the absolute superiority (ὑπεροχή) of gods.19 The awareness of the distance between the human and the divine natures turns us (τρέπεσθαι) naturally to supplicate the gods, it awakens the desire to implore them. The existence of this inborn desire is explained by the idea that man has an “innate knowledge” (ἔµφυτος γνῶσις) of the divinity.20 This theory allows Iamblichus to say that the soul has within itself the capacity to return to gods, and that this capacity is realised inasmuch as the soul becomes aware of its place in the universe, that is, more precisely, of its inferior position compared to the gods. So, the supplication appears as an expression of the awareness of the place of the soul in the universe; this awareness is based on an ἔµφυτος γνῶσις, an “innate knowledge”, which makes the prayer possible.
In Iamblichus’ theory of prayer, exposed in the fifth book of De mysteriis, the first degree of prayer, which raises the soul of the priest, is defined precisely as a preliminary awareness (γνώρισις) of the presence of the gods.21 According to Proclus, who extended Iamblichus’ classification from three to five levels of prayer, its first degree is also represented by the initial knowledge (γνῶσις) of the classes of gods.22 This γνῶσις is a theological knowledge whose purpose is to make the one who prays familiar with the gods by the knowledge of their properties (ἰδιότηται). The prayer is conditioned by this knowledge. In Iamblichus’ and Proclus’ theology, the prayer and, more generally, the piety are inseparable from the knowledge of the divine classes and of their properties.
2) The knowledge of the divine classes and of their distinct properties is made possible by the existence in the universe and, especially, in the human souls of the συνθήµατα of the gods. The knowledge of the gods is basically the knowledge of their symbols, and with this problem we touch the second aspect I want to discuss.
According to a theory which goes back ultimately to the Chaldaean Oracles, these signatures (marks or symbols) of the gods are widespread in the material world (they could be inanimate objects, effigies or amulets associated with a specific god, but also secret names of the gods, ἄρρητα ὀνόµατα);23 they allow those who know them to go up to the gods and to enter into contact with them. According to Proclus, two συνθήµατα are universal and fundamental: µένειν and ἐπιστρέφειν. The first one allows all things to remain in contact with the One after being partially separated from it; the second one allows all things, inasmuch as they are separated from the One, to return to it: “All things, therefore, both remain in and revert to the gods, receiving this ability from them and obtaining in their very being a double signature (συνθήµατα), the one in order to remain there, the other so that what proceeds forth can return”.24 (tr. Runia—Share).
The demiurge sets in the souls, according to the One (κατὰ τὸ ἓν), the “character” of µένειν and according to the Intellect (κατὰ τὸν νοῦν) the “character” of ἐπιστρέφειν, through which all beings are able to revert to their principle. These two συνθήµατα, which are found at all the levels of the universe, make prayer possible. The presence of these two συνθήµατα in inanimate objects explains, according to Proclus, the sympathy that can be observed between a special object and a specific god or, more precisely, a chain (σειρά) of gods.25 As we already saw in the case of the heliotrope, some objects have affinities with the sun, others with the moon, and so on.
In my opinion, the verse “And everything which knows your signature addresses You a silent hymn” alludes specifically to the theory of two συνθήµατα, since the following verse mentions precisely the two preconditions which allow us to return to God: all things are partially not separate from God and, inasmuch as they are separate, they go back to Him: “In You alone all things remain. To You all things rush together” (Σοὶ ἑνὶ πάντα µένει. σοὶ δ’ ἀθρόα πάντα θοάζει).
Other aspects of the Hymn to God could be related to Neoplatonic theology, but, for this paper, I choose to restrict my comments to its relation with the Neoplatonic theories of prayer. This relation was, as far as I know, never underlined by those who studied the hymn. To summarize: the theory of a cosmic prayer by which all beings head towards God in their own manner, a prayer founded on the knowledge of the συνθήµατα, of the signatures that God rooted in our souls, is a theory shared by more than one Pagan and Christian Neoplatonist in Late Antiquity. The author of the Hymn to God, Dionysius or someone else, shared these ideas and was a member of the same spiritual family.
Editions and Translations
Gregory of Nazianzus Carmina dogmatica = J. P. Migne Patrologiae cursus completes (series Graeca) vol. 37 Paris 1862 397-522.
Iamblichus De mysteriis Translated with an Introduction and Notes by E. C. Clarke J. M. Dillon and J. P. Hershbell Atlanta 2003.
Iamblichus Réponse à Porphyre (De mysteriis) texte établi traduit et annoté par H. D. Saffrey et A.-Ph. Segonds avec la collaboration d’Adrien Lecerf Paris 2013.
Theodorus of Asine Fragments = W. Deuse Theodoros von Asine. Sammlung der Testimonien und Kommentar Wiesbaden 1973.
Bernardi 1995, 304-306. The same opinion is shared by Fernández Marcos 1968 and Frangeskou 1989.
Cousin 1832, 752.
Creuzer 1838, 19-49.
Jahn 1891, 62-64.
Rosán 1949, 53-54.
Sicherl 1988. See also Weerhahn 1966, 345-347.
Saffrey 1994, 78-79; Van den Berg 2001, 7.
On Neoplatonic prayer, see Esser 1967; Dillon, Timotin 2016; Timotin, 2017.
On Iamblichus’ theory of prayer, see Timotin 2014.
Proclus, in Ti. I, 206.26-214.12 Diehl. On Proclus’ theory of prayer, see Van den Berg 2001; Layne 2013; 2016; Brisson 2016.
Deuse 1973, 35 = Theodorus of Asine, fr. 7.
Proclus, in Ti. I, p. 212.30-213.3 Diehl: οὐσία µὲν αὐτῆς ἡ συναγωγὸς καὶ συνδετικὴ τῶν ψυχῶν πρὸς τοὺς θεούς, µᾶλλον δὲ ἡ πάντων τῶν δευτέρων ἑνοποιὸς πρὸς τὰ πρότερα· πάντα γὰρ εὔχεται πλὴν τοῦ πρώτου, φησὶν ὁ µέγας Θεόδωρος [= Theodorus of Asine, fr. 7 Deuse].
Ibid., I, 210.11-14.
Bidez 1928, 148.10-18: Ἢ πόθεν ἡλιοτρόπια µὲν ἡλίῳ, σεληνοτρόπια δὲ σελήνῃ συγκινεῖται συµπεριπολοῦντα ἐς δύναµιν τοῖς τοῦ κόσµου φωστῆρσιν; Εὔχεται γὰρ πάντα κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν τάξιν καὶ ὑµνεῖ τοὺς ἡγεµόνας τῶν σειρῶν ὅλων ἢ νοερῶς ἢ λογικῶς ἢ φυσικῶς ἢ αἰσθητῶς· ἐπεὶ καὶ τὸ ἡλιοτρόπιον ᾧ ἔστιν εὔλυτον, τούτῳ κινεῖται καί, εἰ δή τις αὐτοῦ κατὰ τὴν περιστροφὴν ἀκούειν τὸν ἀέρα πλήσσοντος οἷός τε ἦν, ὕµνον ἄν τινα διὰ τοῦ ἤχου τούτου συνῄσθετο τῷ Βασιλεῖ προσάγοντος, ὃν δύναται φυτὸν ὑµνεῖν.
See Versnel 1981, 26-37; Van der Horst 1994; Bitton-Ashkelony 2012.
Synesius, Hymns I, 343-344 Lacombrade.
Iamblichus, Myst. I 15, 36.5-17 Saffrey—Segonds: Ἀλλ’ αἱ λιτανεῖαι, ὡς φῄς, ἀλλότριαί εἰσι προσφέρεσθαι πρὸς τὴν τοῦ νοῦ καθαρότητα. Οὐδαµῶς· δι’ αὐτὸ γὰρ τοιοῦτο, διότι τῇ δυνάµει καὶ καθαρότητι καὶ τοῖς πᾶσι τῶν θεῶν ἀπολειπόµεθα, ἐγκαιρότατόν ἐστι πάντων ἱκετεύειν αὐτοὺς εἰς ὑπερβολήν. Ἡ µὲν γὰρ συναίσθησις τῆς περὶ ἑαυτοὺς οὐδενείας, εἴ τις ἡµᾶς παραβάλλων τοῖς θεοῖς κρίνοι, ποιεῖ τρέπεσθαι πρὸς τὰς λιτὰς αὐτοφυῶς· ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς ἱκετείας κατὰ βραχὺ πρὸς τὸ ἱκετευόµενον ἀναγόµεθα, καὶ τὴν πρὸς αὐτὸ ὁµοιότητα ἀπὸ τοῦ συνεχῶς αὐτῷ προσοµιλεῖν κτώµεθα, τελειότητά τε θείαν ἠρέµα προσλαµβάνοµεν ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀτελοῦς.
See Feichtinger 2003, especially 136-138.
See Iamblichus, Myst. I 3, 5.15-20 Saffrey—Segonds: Συνυπάρχει γὰρ ἡµῶν αὐτῇ τῇ οὐσίᾳ ἡ περὶ θεῶν ἔµφυτος γνῶσις, κρίσεώς τε πάσης ἐστὶ κρείττων καὶ προαιρέσεως, λόγου τε καὶ ἀποδείξεως προϋπάρχει· συνήνωταί τε ἐξ ἀρχῆς πρὸς τὴν οἰκείαν αἰτίαν, καὶ τῇ πρὸς τἀγαθὸν οὐσιώδει τῆς ψυχῆς ἐφέσει συνυφέστηκεν. ‘For an innate knowledge about the gods is coexistent with our nature, and is superior to all judgement and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own cause, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good.’ (tr. Clarke—Dillon—Hershbell).
Ibid., V 26, 177.3-11: Φηµὶ δὴ οὖν ὡς τὸ µὲν πρῶτον τῆς εὐχῆς εἶδός ἐστι συναγωγόν, συναφῆς τε τῆς πρὸς τὸ θεῖον καὶ γνωρίσεως ἐξηγούµενον· ‘I declare, then that the first degree of prayer is the introductory, which leads to contact and acquaintance with the divine.’
Proclus, in Ti. I, 211.9-11 Diehl: Ἡγεῖται δὲ τῆς τελείας καὶ ὄντως οὔσης εὐχῆς πρῶτον ἡ γνῶσις τῶν θείων τάξεων πασῶν, αἷς πρόσεισιν ὁ εὐχόµενος· οὐ γὰρ ἂν οἰκείως προσέλθοι µὴ τὰς ἰδιότητας αὐτῶν ἐγνωκώς. ‘Perfect and true prayer is conducted as follows. First there is the knowledge of all the divine ranks to which the person who prays draws near. For he [the person praying] would not approach them in the appropriate manner if he did not know the characteristics of each of them.’ (tr. Runia—Share).
See Lewy 2011, 190-196 and 470-471; Shaw 1995, 162-228; Saffrey 2000, 31-36; Tanaseanu-Döbler 2013, 105-110.
Proclus, in Ti. I, 210.11-14 Diehl: πάντ’ οὖν καὶ µένει καὶ ἐπιστρέφει πρὸς τοὺς θεούς, ταύτην λαβόντα παρ’ αὐτῶν τὴν δύναµιν καὶ διττὰ συνθήµατα κατ’ οὐσίαν ὑποδεξάµενα, τὰ µὲν ὅπως ἂν ἐκεῖ µένῃ, τὰ δὲ ὅπως ἂν ἐπιστρέφῃ προελθόντα. See also Inst. 39 (and the commentary of Dodds 1933, 222-223).
Proclus, in Ti. I, 210.16-26 Diehl: τί γὰρ ἄλλο ἐστὶ τὸ καὶ τούτοις τὴν συµπάθειαν πρὸς ἄλλας καὶ ἄλλας δυνάµεις ἐναπεργαζόµενον, ἢ τὸ σύµβολα παρὰ τῆς φύσεως εἰληχέναι, τὰ µὲν πρὸς ἄλλην, τὰ δὲ πρὸς ἄλλην οἰκειοῦντα σειρὰν θεῶν; ἄνωθεν γὰρ καὶ ἀπ’ αὐτῶν ἐξηρτηµένη τῶν θεῶν ἡ φύσις καὶ διανενεµηµένη περὶ τὰς τῶν θεῶν τάξεις ἐντίθησι καὶ τοῖς σώµασι τῆς πρὸς θεοὺς αὐτῶν οἰκειότητος συνθήµατα, τοῖς µὲν Ἡλιακά, τοῖς δὲ Σεληνιακά, τοῖς δὲ ἄλλου τινὸς θεῶν, καὶ ἐπιστρέφει καὶ ταῦτα πρὸς θεούς, τὰ µὲν ὡς πρὸς θεοὺς ἁπλῶς, τὰ δὲ ὡς πρὸς τούσδε τοὺς θεούς, τελεώσασα τὰ ἑαυτῆς γεννήµατα κατ’ ἄλλην καὶ ἄλλην ἰδιότητα θεῶν. ‘For what else is it that produces the sympathy that they have towards the diverse powers than the fact that they have obtained symbols from nature, which causes them to correspond to the various classes of the gods? Nature is in fact suspended from the world above and the gods themselves, and she is distributed through the ranks of the gods. She thus also instils in the bodies the signatures of affinity to their gods, in the one case solar signatures, in another lunar, in others those of other gods, and she causes these things to revert to the gods as well, some to the gods in general, others to specific gods, bringing her products to completion in accordance with the various characteristics of the gods.’ (tr. Runia—Share) Cf. Plat. Theol. VI 4, 23.27-24.12; IV 34, 101.4-7 Saffrey—Westerink.