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The doctrine that emanation (Latin emanare, "to flow from") is the mode by which all things are derived from the First Reality, or Principle.
The term emanation, being itself a metaphor, has been, and is still, used in many senses, and frequently by writers who are not emanationists. Others, without using the word, really hold the doctrine of emanation. Furthermore, emanationism is always interwoven with different opinions on various subjects; to separate it from these so as to assign its fundamental elements is more or less arbitrary. Taking emanationism in the sense commonly received today, it is not primarily a theological, but rather a cosmogonic system, not a direct answer to the question of the nature of God, but to that of the mode of origin of things from God. In general it holds that all things proceed from the same Divine substance, some immediately, others mediately. All beings form a series the beginning of which is God. The second reality is an emanation from the first, the third from the second, and so on. At every step the derived being is less perfect than its source; but, by giving rise to other beings, the source itself loses none of its perfections. The first source, then, from which everything flows, remains unchanged; its perfection is neither exhausted nor lessened.
Emanationism is frequently referred to as a form of pantheism; but while this latter is primarily a system of reality, identifying all things as modes or appearances of the one substance, emanationism is concerned chiefly with the mode of derivation. Nor does it necessarily affirm the substantial identity of all things; it may assert the distinct, though dependent, substantiality of emanated realities. It is true that emanation is conceived by some in a pantheistic sense, as an immanent process, an expansion of the Divine substance within itself. But by many it is understood as implying a separation of the derived beings from their source. Hence, not only some forms of pantheism are not emanationistic, but also many emanationists — with more or less consistency — reject pantheism. For those who admit that matter is eternal and exists independently of God, God cannot be more than an architect, who arranges pre-existing materials. In the doctrine of complete emanationism, all things, from the highest spiritual substances to the lowest forms of matter, come from God as their first origin, matter being the last and therefore most imperfect emanation. Some views, however, combine the theory of the eternity of matter with the theory of emanation.
The doctrine of creation teaches that all things are distinct from God, but that God is their efficient cause. God does not produce things from His own substance nor from any pre-existing reality, but by an act of His will brings them out of nothing. According to emanationism, on the contrary, the Divine substance is the reality from which all things are derived, not by any voluntary determination, but by a necessity of nature. And God does not produce all things immediately; the lower are more distant, and are separated from Him by necessary intermediaries. (It may be noted, however, that sometimes the word emanation is used in a broader sense including also creation. Thus St. Thomas: "Quæritur de modo emanationis rerum a primo principio qui dicitur creatio". Summa, I, Q. xlv, a. 1.)
Evolution implies the change of one thing into something else, whereas a reality from which another emanates remains identical with itself. The process of evolution — at least in its totality — is generally considered as an ascent, a movement upwards towards a greater perfection. Emanation is a descent; it begins with the infinitely perfect, and at every step the emanating beings are less pure, less perfect, less divine. The Infinite is postulated as a starting-point, instead of being the goal which the universe is ever striving to realize. Some comparisons used by emanationists, though only metaphors, and consequently misleading if taken literally, may give a clearer idea of the system. Things proceed from God as water from a spring or an overflowing vessel; as the stem, branches, leaves, etc., from the roots; as the web from the spider; as light or heat from the sun or a fire; as the doctrine from the teacher. It is easy to see that all such comparisons are deficient in many points. They are intended simply to illustrate that which is above human comprehension.
Vague indications of emanationism are found in ancient mythologies and religions, especially those of India, Egypt, and Persia. Thus in the Upanishads things are said to issue from their eternal principle as the web from the spider, the plant from the earth, the hair from the skin. But, while these and other comparisons and expressions may be interpreted in the sense of emanationism, they are not sufficiently explicit to serve as a basis for the assertion that such systems of philosophy or religion are emanationistic. Philo's teaching on this point is not much clearer. His thought was influenced by two distinct currents: Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, and Judaism. In his endeavour to reconcile them, he sometimes falls into inconsistencies, and his real position is doubtful. According to him, God, infinitely perfect, cannot act on the world immediately, but only through powers or forces (pneuma) which are not identical with Him, but proceed from Him. The primitive Divine force is the Logos. Whether the Logos is a substance or only an attribute, remains an obscure point. From the Logos the Spirit (pneuma) proceeds. It is the soul, or vivifying principle, of the world. Sometimes God is looked upon as the efficient and active cause of the world, sometimes also as immanent, as the one and the whole (eis kai to pan autos estin).
The first clear and systematic expression of emanationism is found in the Alexandrian school of Neo-Platonism. According to Plotinus, the most important representative of this school, the first principle of all things is the One. Absolute unity and simplicity is the best expression by which God can be designated. The One is a totally indetermined essence, for any attribute or determination would introduce both limitation and multiplicity. Even intelligence and will cannot belong to this Primal Reality, for they imply the duality of subject and object, and duality presupposes a higher unity. The One, however, is also described as the First, the Good, the Light, the Universal Cause. From the One all things proceed; not by creation, which would be an act of the will, and therefore incompatible with unity; nor by a spreading of the Divine substance as pantheism teaches, since this would do away with the essential oneness. The One is not all things, but before all things. Emanation is the process by which all things are derived from the One. The infinite goodness and perfection "overflows", and, while remaining within itself and losing nothing of its own perfection, it generates other beings, sending them forth from its own superabundance. Or again, as brightness is produced by the rays of the sun so everything is a radiation (perilampsis) from the Infinite Light. The various emanations form a series every successive step of which is an image of the preceding one, though inferior to it. The first reality that emanates from the One is the Nous, a pure intelligence, an immanent and changeless thought, putting forth no activity outside of itself. The Nous is an image of the One, and, coming to recognize itself as an image, introduces the first duality, that of subject and object. The Nous includes in itself the intellectual world, or world of ideas, the kosmos nontos of Plato. From the Nous emanates the Soul of the world, which forms the transition between the world of ideas and the world of the senses. It is intelligent and, in this respect, similar to the ideal world. But it also tends to realize the ideas in the material world. The World-Soul generates particular souls, or rather plastic forces, which are the "forms" of all things. Finally, the soul and its particular forces beget matter, which is of itself indetermined and becomes determined by its union with the form. With a few variations in the details, the same essential doctrine of emanation is taught by Iamblichus and Proclus. With Plotinus, Iamblichus identifies the One with the Good, but assumes an absolutely first One, anterior to the One, and utterly ineffable. From it emanates the One; from the One, the intelligible world (ideas); and from the intelligible world, the intellectual world (thinking beings). According to Proclus, from the One come the unities (enades), which alone are related to the world. From the unities emanate the triads of the intelligible essences (being), the intelligible-intellectual essences (life), and the intellectual essences (thought). These again are further differentiated. Matter comes directly from one of the intelligible triads.
Gnostics teach that from God, the Father, emanated numberless Divine, supra-mundane Æons, less and less perfect, which, taken all together, constitute the fullness (pleroma) of Divine life. Wisdom, the last of these, produced an inferior wisdom named Achamoth, and also the psychical and material worlds. To denote the mode according to which an inferior is derived from a superior degree, Basilides uses the term aporroia ("flowing from", "efflux"), and Valentinus, the term probole (throwing forth, projection). The Fathers of the Church and Christian writers, especially when they treat of the divine exemplarism or of the relations of the three Divine Persons in the Trinity, and even when they speak of the origin of the world, may use expressions that remind one of the theory of emanation. But such expressions must be interpreted according to the doctrine of creation to which they adhere. Pseudo-Dionysius follows Plotinus and the later Neo-Platonists, especially Proclus, frequently borrowing their terminology. Yet he endeavours to adapt their views to the teachings of Christianity. God is primarily goodness and love, and other beings are emanations from His goodness, as light is an emanation from the sun. John Scotus Eriugena takes his doctrine from Pseudo-Dionysius and interprets it in the sense of pantheistic emanationism. There is only one Being who, by a series of substantial emanations, produces all things. Nature has four divisions, or rather there are four stages of the one nature:
Arabian philosophy — not to speak here of the various forms of Arabian mysticism — is in many points influenced by Neo-Platonism, and generally holds some form of emanationism, the emanation of the different spheres to which all things celestial and terrestrial belong. According to Alfarabi, from the First Being, conceived as intelligent (in this Alfarabi departs from Plotinus), the intellect emanates; from the intellect, the cosmic soul; and from the cosmic soul, matter. Avicenna teaches that matter is eternal and uncreated. From the First Cause comes the intelligentia prima, from which follows a series of processions and emanations of the various celestial spheres down to our own earthly sphere. For Averroes the intellect is not individual, but identical with the universal spirit, which is an emanation from God. Interesting is a comparison found in one of the later mystics, Ibn Arabi. Water that flows from a vessel becomes separated from it; hence this comparison is defective, for things that issue from God are not separated from Him. Emanation is illustrated by the comparison with a mirror, which receives the features of a man, although the man and his features remain united.
In Jewish philosophy, influences of Neo-Platonism are apparent in Avicebron and Maimonides. In the Cabbala the famous doctrine of the Sephiroth is essentially a doctrine of emanations. It was developed and systematized especially in the thirteenth century. The Sephiroth are the necessary intermediaries between God and the universe, between the intellectual and the material world. They are divided into three groups, the first group of three forming the world of thought, the second group, also of three, the world of soul, and the last group, of four, the world of matter.
Philosophically the discussion of emanationism supposes the discussion of the whole problem of the nature of God, especially of His simplicity and infinity. The doctrine of the Catholic Church is contained in the definition of the dogma of the creatio ex nihilo by the Fourth Lateran Council and, especially, the Council of the Vatican. The latter expressly condemns emanationism (I. De Deo rerum omnium creatore, can. iv), and anathematizes those "asserting that finite things, both corporeal and spiritual, or at least spiritual, have "emanated from the Divine substance.
The literature on this subject includes the works of the authors mentioned in the course of the article, works on history of philosophy, both general and of special schools and philosophers. HEINZE in Realencyk. für prot. Theol., v, 329; HAGEMANN in Kirchenlex., IV, 431.
APA citation. (1909). Emanationism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05397b.htm
MLA citation. "Emanationism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05397b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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