Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

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Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as pseudo-Denys, is the name scholars have given to an anonymous theologian and philosopher of the fifth or sixth century C.E., who wrote a collection of books, the Corpus Areopagiticum, under the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite, a convert of Saint Paul from Athens. However, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this pseudonym was so convincing that it carried an almost apostolic authority on church doctrines. Out of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, four treatises and ten letters currently survive including the Divine Names, Celestial Hierarchy, Mystical Theology, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and various others. His thought characterizes the affinity, and perhaps tension, between Neoplatonism and Christianity; nonetheless he is significant of his philosophical approach to issues of theology and church doctrine.


His works are mystical and are characterized by the Neoplatonic tendencies that were developed by the Platonic Academy in Athens—for example, he uses Plotinus' well-known analogy of a sculptor’s cutting away that which does not enhance the desired image. He shows familiarity with Proclus, which indicates he wrote no earlier than the fifth century, as well as Neoplatonic ideas that were developed by Saint Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Origen, and others.

He incorporates Christian theology within this Neoplatonic context, which, despite certain tensions that it creates, was a significant mode of philosophy that sought to reconcile pagan and Christian ideas. Signature Neoplatonic ideas that characterize his works include the idea of God as the “Good,” or the “One” of Neoplatonism, and the hierarchy of the "divine procession" that emanates from the origin, God.

In the Divine Names, he further elucidates that the “One,” God, is unknowable, except through the names, or symbols, that depict God in the scriptures; that the only way to approach the God that is beyond human understanding is by the contemplation of these symbols. He then discusses the philosophy of these symbolic terms that appear in the scripture, such as God, life, beautiful, love, ecstasy, and zeal, and goes on to address ideas such as life, wisdom, truth, power, Holy of Holies, King of King, and Lord of Lords among others.

Another application of Neoplatonic principles to Christian theology appears in his exposition on the celestial hierarchies. He explains that these symbols are not meant to be taken at face value, for the value of the symbols is two-fold: that they enable man, who cannot contemplate the divine being itself, to contemplate the divine origin through the symbols; in addition, these symbols are also in place to prevent the divine truth from being exposed to those for whom it would be inappropriate. Thus, the existence of hierarchies reveal the idea of ordered realms of existence based on the beings' ability to contemplate God—which he first categorizes in the hierarchy of the angels in his work on the Celestial Hierarchy, and further, of church authorities in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

Aside from his treatises, the remaining epistles cover various topics ranging from the functions of theology and negative theology, Jesus, and the Good.

Dionysius the Areopagite

Dionysius the Areopagite (Greek: {Polytonic|Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης})) was the judge of the Areopagus who, as related in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:34), was converted to Christianity by the preaching of Saint Paul. According to Dionysius of Corinth, quoted by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae III: IV), this Dionysius then became a bishop of Athens.

Centuries later, a series of famous writings of a mystical nature, employing Neoplatonic language to elucidate Christian theological and mystical ideas, was misleadingly ascribed to the Areopagite. They have long been known to be fifth-century works in his name (pseudepigrapha) and are now attributed to "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite."

Dionysius was also popularly misidentified with the martyr of Gaul, Dionysius, the first Bishop of Paris, Saint Denis.

Identity of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), in his commentaries on the New Testament, did much to establish that the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum could not have been Paul's convert, though he was unable to identify the actual historical author. The fictitious literary persona had long been accepted on face value by all its readers, with a couple of exceptions, such as Nicholas of Cusa. John Grocyn pursued Valla's lines of criticism, and Valla's critical viewpoint of the authorship of the highly influential Corpus was accepted and publicized by Erasmus from 1504 onward.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dionysius the Areopagite. The Mystical Theology and the Divine Names. Edited by Clarence E. Rolt. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 0486434591
  • Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre: Chronicle, Part III. Liverpool University Press, 1997.
  • Harrington, Michael L. 2004. A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris: The Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite in Eriugena's Latin Translation. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters. ISBN 9042913940
  • O'Rourke, F. 2005. Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0268037248
  • Rorem, P. 1987. Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. ISBN 0809128381
  • Rorem, P. 1993. Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to their Influence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195076648

External links

All links retrieved December 2, 2022.

Works available online

General Philosophy Sources


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