Hierarchy is a word that was invented by Dionysius the Areopagite. In one sense, it is an explanation of the development of the triangular cycle of being, non-being, and becoming.
But the ultimate definition of hierarchy to Dionysius is more of an understanding of the communion of the saints, as opposed to something “hierarchical”.
This structure of hierarchies have been criticized as oppressive constructs of culture, especially by postmodern thinkers.
But we must admit that there is a superficial analysis of Dionysius’ view of hierarchy, which led to a view where God blesses all power structures that exist, even corrupt ones. His writings were translated to Latin to support political states and their leaders. This superficial corruption of power led to the idea that the whole should be supported at the expense of parts. Even among Orthodox thinkers, Fr. John Meyendorff would criticize Dionysius’ view of hierarchy as being too rigid. Hierarchy would be derided as “loveless and Christless” by other critics.
What one must see about Dionysius view of hierarchy is that it is an analogical scheme of reality. Analogos means that which leads up to the word. It is a structure that is analogical because it functions according to the capacity of being enlarged, and as things enlarge things may change.
Instead of a rigid structure, hierarchy allows for an unlimited sharing from top to bottom. It is a downward flow that leads all the way to Hades. There is a mutual capacity, one for the other, to live in a relationship of cause and effect. Instead of thinking of a multinational corporation, we should begin our reflections on hierarchy by thinking of the analogous relationship of a mother and child. This is analogous because in this relationship of mother and baby, there is an initial flow from mother to baby. And yet, we know that this sharing relationship leads to a love of the baby for the mother. It is the most basic structure, or hierarchy, the family. For the family is the domestic church.
So among hierarchies, there is a sense where things flow in complexity from family, to church, to the world, to Being.
And there is one “thing” that is in common of all of these hierarchies, who is not “a thing.” God.
There is a seraph towards the highest level of being, and a gnat towards the bottom level of being, and yet, there is the SAME “Godness”. This same “Godness” is truly present in different measures/intensities.
Perhaps another metaphor/analogy to consider is mirrors. Light is reflected in every mirror, and yet we know that if we think of a burnished copper mirror, it is especially true that the ability of that mirror to reflect reality and light is going to depend upon the polish of the mirror. Dionysius also considers a series of silk veils that are passed in sequence as it is seen to a deeper extent.
Come, then, since we have viewed the exterior comeliness of the entirely beautiful ministration, let us now look away to its more godly beauty (whilst itself, by itself, has uncovered the veils), gazing upon its blessed radiance, shedding its bright beams openly around, and filling us with the fragrance unveiled to the contemplators. For the visible consecration of the Muron is neither uncommunicated in, or unseen by those who surround the Hierarch, but, on the contrary, by passing through to them, and fixing the contemplation above the many, is reverently covered by them, and by Hierarchical direction kept from the multitude.
For the splendour of things all holy, by shedding its light clearly and without symbol to men inspired, as being congenial to the thing contemplated, and perfuming their contemplating perceptions without; concealment, advances not yet in the same way to the inferior, but by them as deep contemplators of the thing contemplated is concealed under the enigmas of the wings, without ostentation, so that it may not be defiled by the dissimilar; through which sacred enigmas the well-ordered Ranks of the subordinate are conducted to the degree of holiness compatible with their powers. – Ecclesiastical Hierarchy IV.2
The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union, as far as attainable, with
God, having Him Leader of all religious science and operation, by looking unflinchingly
to His most Divine comeliness, and copying, as far as possible, and by perfecting its
own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of
the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted
radiance, and again, spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance
with the supremely Divine regulations.
–Ecclesiastical Hierarchy III.9
Ungrudgingly showing radiance-this is the concept of the hierarchy. Everything is in its right place, which has nothing to do with tyranny.
As we continue to consider hierarchy, we will go deeper to see how different states of human existence, and angelic existence, shows the sharing of love and glory that stems from God.