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Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

First, the man's name. It's 'Dionysios' in Greek (he wrote in Greek), but 'Dionysius' in Latin.

Pseudo-Dionysius lived probably in the late-fifth century, which puts him roughly around the same time as Boethius. He was probably a Syrian monk who, known only by his pseudonym, wrote a series of Greek treatises and letters for the purpose of uniting Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian theology and mystical experience. These writings established a definite Neoplatonic trend in a large segment of medieval Christian doctrine and spirituality-especially in the Western Latin Church-that has determined facets of its religious and devotional character to the present time. Historical research has been unable to identify the author, who, having assumed the name of the New Testament convert of St. Paul (Acts 17:34), could have been one of several Christian writers familiar with the Neoplatonic system of the 5th-century Athenian Proclus.

The 9th-century Irish philosopher-humanist John Scotus Erigena made a Latin translation of his writings, and the 12th- and 13th-century Scholastics Hugh of Saint-Victor (Paris), Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas wrote commentaries on them. Thus, it is only in the ninth century, therefore, that Pseudo-Dionysius' influence begins to be felt in the Latin West. In the 9th century Dionysius was confused with St. Denis of France; Vulgate of St Denis was fixed around 835 by Hilduin, abbot of St. Denis, which means the confusion already existed at this time. This was disproved in the 12th century by Peter Abelard, who disproved the confusion between the Areopagite and the bishop of Paris, -- Abelard later had to retract this statement (and a few others) -- the legend was generally accepted. In 1317, the monk Yves wrote a life of St-Denis for his abbot were he still confused the Areopagite and the Bishop pf Paris. And since the Areopagite was considered to have been the first bishop of Athens and had supposedly died in 96 AD, it implied that the Hierarchy had been written during the first century. The Hierarchy contains parts of the St John Gospel and Yves changed the date of redaction of this Gospel to preserve the legend of St Denis.

With Eriugena, as with Boethius, we get a big shot of Greek thinking injected into Western speculation.

Writers of the Greek and Eastern churches, already sympathetic toward Platonic thought, simply absorbed the Dionysian corpus in their theologies as one element among others of this intellectual school. Such syntheses were effected by Gregory of Nazianzus and other 4th-century Cappadocian theologians, the 7th-century résumé of Maximus the Confessor, and the works of the 14th-century mystic Gregory Palamas.

The Man and His Writings

The Corpus Areopagiticum translated by Eriugena consists of ten letters, together with the following four treatises:

On the Divine Names

The Mystical Theology

On the Celestial Hierarchy. This work is important in the later theory of angels and the angelic hierarchy, the "choirs" of angels - lots of stuff about Thrones and Dominations and Powers.

On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. An important but little read source for the history of liturgy and other matters.

There are also references in some of these works to two other writings we do not possess:

Theological Outlines

Symbolic Theology.

These works may or may not ever have existed, but in any event we do not have them today.

Now, why do we call this man "Pseudo-Dionysius"? First of all, who was the real Dionysius the Areopagite? Well, the Areopagus was a hill in Athens (it still is, for that matter), and St. Paul went there to preach to the Athenian philosophers. Most of them laughed at him, but one or two did not. Here is what Acts 17:33-34 says (King James version):

So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Demaris, and others with them.

Well, Demaris has disappeared without a trace. But the texts that have come down to us as the Corpus Areopagiticum claim to be by this man Dionysius or Dionysius. For instance, On the Divine Names and both of the Hierarchies begin with the words: Dionysius the Presbyter to Timothy, his fellow-Presbyter.

The Timothy here is supposed to be the companion of St. Paul, to whom Paul wrote two epistles. The Mystical Theology begins differently, but it too claims to be written to this same Timothy of the Apostolic Age.

The ten letters in the Corpus are not addressed to Timothy, but to others from about the same time: to John the Evangelist; and to certain immediate disciples of the Apostles: to Gaius; to Sosipater; to Polycarp of Smyrna; to Titus, the bishop of Crete to whom Paul directed an epistle; and to a certain Dorothy; and a Demophilos.

Also, in On the Divine Names, III, 2, the author speaks of a certain Hierotheus as being his teacher, "after blessed Paul". There are several other passages like this too, where Pseudo-Dionysius claims to have been taught by Paul himself.

The same section of On the Divine Names contains a remark in which the author claims to have been present with the Apostles James and Peter after the death of the Virgin Mary, to view the body.

In short, the texts tend to put forth their claim to authenticity by name-dropping of the general form "I was just saying to St. Paul the other day".

Perhaps the most striking attempt to establish his credentials, however, is in Letter VII, where the author claims to have observed strange goings-on in the sky at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. (This of course would have been before the conversion of the real Dionysius the Areopagite.) Here is the passage (PG 3, 1081):

But say to him [ = a certain Apollophanes, who had been criticizing "Dionysius"]: What do you say about the eclipse that occurred at [the time of] the saving cross? For both [of us] were present together then at Heliopolis and, standing [there], we saw the moon falling upon the sun - paradoxically, for it was not time for [such a] conjunction. And again, from the ninth hour until evening, [we saw] it supernaturally move to the opposite side [of the sky] from the sun. Remind him also of something else. For he knows that we saw the [moon's] approach beginning from the east, and proceeding to the solar edge, then stepping back, and [then] again both the approach and the clearing away, [this time] occurring not from the same [side as before] but from the diametrically opposite [side].

As a result of this supposed authorship, the Corpus Areopagiticum, once it was translated, had an immense influence. Its author was (or claimed to be) just one step removed from St. Paul himself. People therefore took these texts very seriously; their authority was close to that of Scripture itself. There is some irony in this, and some embarrassment, since the doctrine in the works is pretty bizarre and sometimes of dubious orthodoxy. People really had to strain to make it all fit in.

So much for the real Dionysius, and for the corpus attributed to him. Who really wrote these works? In short, why do we call their author Pseudo-Dionysius?

The first reference we find to the writings in the corpus is from 533, when the Monophysite (and therefore heretical) Patriarch Severus of Antioch appealed to the texts to support a certain point of doctrine.

There were some doubts raised about the authenticity of these writings from the very beginning. At any rate, it has now been definitely established that the works cannot have been written before the late-fifth century (perhaps slightly later, but not much later - not after 533, for instance), and that they rely very much on straight fifth-century neo-Platonism.

The main fifth-century neo-Platonist was one Proclus, the last head of the neo-Platonic school at Athens. Shortly after his death, the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the school, and the last adherents fled to Persia.

Pseudo-Dionysius is strongly influenced by Proclus, and in fact simply copied out huge passage from Proclus verbatim and included them at various points in his own writings. Thus, for example, Chapter 4 of On the Divine Names contains a famous discussion of the problem of evil. Much of it Pseudo-Dionysius just took over word for word from Proclus' work On the Subsistence of Evils. There were other fifth-century neo-Platonists, of course, who were saying similar things. So we can by no means trace out all the influences on Pseudo-Dionysius in detail.

Apart from the dating of the works, we really don't know much else about their author. With suitable caveats, however, we can say that Pseudo-Dionysius was probably from somewhere in Syria or nearby. One recent (and perhaps promising) suggestion is that Pseudo-Dionysius is to be identified with a certain Peter the Iberian, who was a fifth-century bishop of Maiouma. (See the discussion in Campbell's translation of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, pp. 100-101, n. 30. The full reference is given below.)

In any case, the authenticity of the Corpus Areopagiticum was not seriously questioned very much again until Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457) in the Renaissance, as a result of some new translations from the Greek that were prompted by the flight of Greek scholars from Constantinople to the West under pressure from the invading Turks.

This kind of forgery was not at all uncommon in the Middle Ages. And no one really regarded it as a bad thing to do. If you wanted your writings to be taken seriously, you simply attributed them to someone famous. A good measure of a man's importance in the Middle Ages is how many spurious works were attributed to him. Aquinas and Duns Scotus get a lot of them, for instance. This kind of "reverse plagiarism" was not regarded as dishonest. On the contrary, you were honoring the man by recognizing him as an authority to whom you would want to attribute your own writings.


Now I want to look briefly at On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology. If you are interested in reading On the Divine Names, there is a complete translation in the Rolt volume cited in the Bibliography at the end of this Chapter. Chapter 4 of that translation is reprinted in Herman Shapiro, Medieval Philosophy, pp. 42-70. A different translation, and for that matter a complete translation of the entire corpus, may be found in the John Parker volume cited below. Yet another translation may be found in the Jones volume cited below.

First, let's look at On the Divine Names. The term 'names' here doesn't of course refer to a given name or surname, but rather to "predicates" in general. The topic of the book is in effect the good old problem of religious discourse: "What can we truly say about - predicate of - God?" The following references are by chapter and section numbers. For actual quotations, I have also given the column numbers in PG 3.

I, 1-3: The truths about God are "unspeakable and unknowable" (col. 585), they surpass "our logical and intellective power and activity" (cols. 585-588). Our logical power and activity is the power (or activity) that argues, and therefore involves a process in time. Intellective power (and activity), on the other hand, sees in a flash; it is the faculty of insight - what Augustine is concerned with in his doctrine of illumination. The distinction here is perhaps also similar to Boethius' distinction between "intelligence" and "reason".

Hence, if we are going to think of God in positive terms - that is, if we are going to affirm predicates or concepts of him - we must not dare to use any concepts (names) for God except those that have the authority of Scripture. (And we will see that those are quite a few.)

God is above the material, tangible world. He is above the world of essence and intelligence too. He is "the cause of all beings, but is not himself a being, since he is above all being" (col. 588). That should ring neo-Platonic bells for you.

I, 5: Those who enter into union with it [ = God], "according to the ceasing of all intellectual activity, . . . praise it best of all by denying all beings of it" (col. 593). That is exactly what is going to happen in The Mystical Theology. But that is mysticism. There are other points of view besides the mystical one. And, he says, since God is the cause of all things, and since all things aim to return to God (note: the neo-Platonic emanation and return), therefore "we must praise the providence of divine dominion, the source of goods, [in terms taken] from all the things that are caused" (ibid.).

He goes on, "The theologians, since they know this, praise it both as nameless and [yet in terms taken] from every name" (I, 6, col. 596).

Later on in I, 6, Pseudo-Dionysius lists some of the names sanctioned by Scriptures. It is all right to describe God (ibid.):

as good, as beautiful, as wise, as beloved, as God of Gods, as Lord of Lords, as Holy of Holies, as eternal, as a being, as the cause of the ages, as the supplier of life, as wisdom, as mind, as reason, as knower, as surpassing all the treasuries of every knowledge, as power, as master, as King of Kings, as Ancient of Days, as ageless and without alteration, as salvation, as justice, as consecration, as ransom, as surpassing all things in size, and as in the lightest breeze. And they say that it is both in minds and in souls and in bodies, and in heaven and in the earth, and that it is at the same time [and] together in the cosmos, around the cosmos, above the cosmos, above the heavens, above being, [and that it is] the sun, a star, fire, water, wind, dew, a cloud, a veritable stone, and a rock, all beings, and none of the beings.

Now what on earth is going on here? Basically, in all of this Pseudo-Dionysius is saying that there are three points of view we can adopt when talking about God:

(a) We can talk about God as he is in himself. But in himself he is "unspeakable". Hence from this point of view we can affirm nothing of God; no predicate truly applies to him. All we can do is to deny predicates of God. That we can truly and literally say. And that is what goes on in The Mystical Theology. This of course is just what you should expect if God is above being, and so above intelligibility in neo-Platonic fashion. Note also that our inability to affirm things of God is not due just to ignorance. It is not that our finite, creaturely minds simply aren't able to know the truths about God. No, if God is above being and intelligibility in this way, then there is nothing to know about him. Not even God can make true affirmations about God.

(b) We can also talk about God insofar as he is the cause of things - that is, insofar as things proceed from him. For instance, when we call God a "Creator", we are not saying anything about his internal nature\f41; we are only saying how he is related to other things: by producing them. We are "naming" God here only in a backhanded way, by making an oblique reference to other things, his creatures. Recall Augustine on the definition of man. The same kind of "oblique reference" or connotation that went on there in the definition of man is going on here when we adopt this second way of talking about God. This second way is what goes on in the later parts of On the Divine Names. (The earlier parts are the ones we are talking about now; they set out this threefold division.) It is in this second way that we call God, for instance, a "creator", or "light", or "supplier of life".

(c) We can also talk about God in another "connotative" way, this time not insofar as things proceed from God, but rather insofar as things return to him. This is in part the business of the two books on the Hierarchies, and of course fits right in with the neo-Platonic picture of emanation (sometimes called "ecstasy") and return. In this third way, we can call God "happiness", and perhaps even "good" (although later on he treats 'good' under heading (b)).

This triadic approach is characteristic of fifth-century neo-Platonism, and pervades everything they did - their whole system and each part of it.

All this goes in in Ch. 1 of On the Divine Names. In Ch. 2, Pseudo-Dionysius gets down to the particular business of the book.

II, 1: God is not complex. The various names applied by Scripture to God do not pick out parts or distinct properties of God. Rather, they all suggest dimly, in their different ways, God as a whole. The diversity is solely on our part; it is a diversity in point of view, not in the object. Note: Remember that God is here in effect the neo-Platonic One, so that there is no plurality in him, no internal divisions. But if that is right, don't we risk destroying the real distinctions in the Trinity, and making it merely a Trinity from our point of view?

In order to handle this, Pseudo-Dionysius distinguishes two kinds of names:

(a) Undifferentiated. These refer to the entire Godhead - that is, to all three persons of the Trinity. And there are two kinds of these:

(i) Names like "'super-good', 'super-God', 'super-substantial', 'super-alive', 'super-wise'" (he likes to talk like this a lot), "and whatever negative [term implies] superiority" (II, 3, col. 639) - that is, words like 'immaterial', 'unchanging', which mean not just "not material" and "not changing" but rather "more than material", "more than changing", where 'more' means "better than", "higher than" on the ontological hierarchy of things. These terms of kind (i) are discussed more fully in The Mystical Theology.

(ii) "The cause of all goods is named according to all the aetiological terms, 'good', 'beautiful', 'being', 'life-generating', 'wise', and all [the terms taken] from its gifts that imitate the Good" (ibid.). Compare the second of the three ways of talking about God, above.

(b) Differentiated. These are words like 'Father', 'Son', 'Spirit', and the other technical terms of Trinitarian doctrine. These do not refer to the entire Godhead, but only to one or another of the three persons of the Trinity. "In these cases there is no interchange [of one of these terms for another], and they do not introduce [any] community [of properties in the Trinity] at all" (ibid.).

The basic idea here is that the terms that apply equally to all three persons of the Trinity are exactly the ones that relate God in any way, positively or negatively, to creation. The terms that apply to one or another of the persons of the Trinity to the exclusion of the others are exactly those that have to do with Trinitarian theory. There is one exception to this: terms dealing with the Incarnation. According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, only the Son was made incarnate, and yet that is a term relating God to creation.

Well, all this is very untidy. Furthermore, how does this distinction of differentiated from undifferentiated names fit with the earlier claim that God is simple? That is, how have we really answered the problem raised in II, 2? This perhaps just indicates the general problem of making sense out of Trinitarian doctrine if you start off with God as the neo-Platonic One. The doctrine is hard enough to make sense of anyway, without compounding the difficulties that way.

In the rest of On the Divine Names, Pseudo-Dionysius goes through the undifferentiated names of kind (ii). In Ch. 4, he starts with the term 'good'. At the beginning of this discussion, he gives a striking paraphrase of the Sun analogy in Plato's Republic:

For as our sun, without having thought about it or chosen it, but by its own being, lights up all the things that are able to participate in its light, [each] according to its own nature, so too the Good, [which is] above the sun as the exalted archetype above the dim image, in like manner sends out, by its very existence, the rays of all goodness to all beings.

(See n. 1, below. This certainly sounds, at least, as if Pseudo-Dionysius is denying that creation is a free act.) He goes on to speak of this metaphorical "illumination" as a source of knowledge - that is, he uses the same metaphors for knowledge that Plato and Augustine did.

In later sections of On the Divine Names, he goes on to discuss some of the other names for God.

Now let us turn to The Mystical Theology. Here Pseudo-Dionysius argues that, while in On the Divine Names, we attributed names to God from the point of view of his being the source or cause, nevertheless if we are to speak of God as he is in himself, we must deny all these things of him. God is not really good, not really just, and so on. We apply those terms to him only insofar as he causes good things and just things, and so on.

The first way, the way of On the Divine Names, by causality, is called Cataphatic or Kataphatic ( = affirmative) theology, and later on, the "Way of Attribution", or "The Positive Way", the via affirmativa or via affirmationis. (As you can see, the terminology is flexible.) The other way, the way of The Mystical Theology, is called Apophatic ( = negative) theology, or "The Way of Remotion ( = removing)", the via negativa. This is the famous via negativa you sometimes hear mentioned in connection with mysticism.

Both of these ways are necessary for a balanced discourse about God. Cataphatic theology says that God is King and Lord. It therefore requires Apophatic theology to rescue it from anthropomorphism. Apophatic theology ends up saying that God doesn't even exist. That predicate too has to be denied of God, which is not really surprising given the neo-Platonic context in which the One is above even Being. Hence, Apophatic theology requires Cataphatic theology to keep it from out and out atheism.

These two ways of talking about God, the Cataphatic and the Apophatic, seem irreconcilable opposites. But in fact they are reconciled, in a higher plane, a higher mode of talking about God. This is the so called "way of eminence, the via eminentiae or via abundantiae, and so on. Here we say that God is 'super-good', for instance - that is, more than good. Notice how this manner of speaking combines some positive content - 'good' - with the negative 'super- '. The negative element does not just remove the positive content or deny it (then we would be back to Apophatic theology); it goes beyond it. It removes the positive content by saying more, not by saying less.

It is an interesting exercise to try to match this three-fold division with the one in On the Divine Names. As far as I can tell, none of the main divisions there clearly corresponds to the "way of eminence" in The Mystical Theology, although Pseudo-Dionysius certainly hints at it in II, 3-7 (the undifferentiated names of the first kind). And the second and third divisions in On the Divine Names both seem to come under Cataphatic theology.

In any case, this three-fold division in The Mystical Theology later became very famous. You still hear it talked about even today. Recall, Pseudo-Dionysius is the vehicle through which Gregory of Nyssa's darkness mysticism entered the Latin West.

Final Note: The via eminentiae is not meant to be a fully intellectual process. We can only "see" how it works by means of the will, not the intellect. That is part and parcel of putting God beyond Being and so beyond intelligibility.

Bibliographical Note

In connection with Pseudo-Dionysius, you should also read Copleston, History of Philosophy, vol. 2, Ch. 9. And you should at least know about a book by Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Ch. 6 of this book is a discussion of "Pseudo-Dionysius and the Theology of a Christian Magus". Also see her index for further references to Pseudo-Dionysius. Like everything Yates writes, this book is fascinating.

The Greek text of Pseudo-Dionysius' works is contained in Migne's Patrologiae cursus completus, series graeca, vol. 3, Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1857. That edition also contains a seventeenth-century Latin translation and annotations by Balthasar Corderius, SJ, together with the Greek text and Corderius' Latin translation of the Paraphrasis (Georgii) Pachymerae on the works.

Other items you should know about:

(Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite: The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Thomas L. Campbell, tr., Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981.

(Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, John D. Jones, tr., ("Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation," No. 21), Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1980.

(Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology, C. E. Rolt, tr., London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920.

(Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite, The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, John Parker, tr., 2 vols., London: James Parker & Co., 1897-1899. Reprinted in one volume, Merrick, NY: Richwood Publishing Company, 1976. The title page of each volume claims that the works are "Now First Translated into English from the Original Greek". Note: Parker thinks the works are by the real Dionysius the Areopagite! And I should warn you that this "translation" is really more properly a free paraphrase.

The "Introduction" to Campbell's translation contains a good discussion of the question of authenticity, and refers you to the appropriate further literature. There is also a good bibliography (but beware of typos!) at the end of Jones' volume.

Notes to Chapter

1. You might disagree. After all, we are at least saying that God is free, since that is part of the doctrine of creation. But Pseudo-Dionysius is in fact not altogether clear about the freedom of creation. See below. And in any event, to say that creation is a free act is probably only to say something negative, that God is not limited in certain ways, and so comes under heading (a) above. In no case do we get any positive idea about the divine nature.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest