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DIONYSIUS THE AREOPAGITE AND THE
‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ is arguably one of the most mysterious and intriguing
ﬁgures to emerge from the late antique world. Writing probably around 500 CE, and
possibly connected with the circle of Severus of Antioch, Dionysius manipulates
a Platonic metaphysics to describe a hierarchical universe: as with the Hellenic
Platonists, he arranges the celestial and material cosmos into a series of triadic strata.
These strata emanate from one uniﬁed being and contain beings that range from
superior to inferior, depending on their proximity to God. Not only do all things in
the hierarchy participate in God, but also all things are inter-connected, so that the
lower hierarchies fully participate in the higher ones. This metaphysics lends itself
to a sacramental system similar to that of the Hellenic ritual, theurgy. Theurgy allows
humans to reach the divine by examining the divine as it exists in creation.
Although Dionysius’ metaphysics and religion are similar to that of Iamblichus
and Proclus in many ways, Pseudo-Dionysius differs fundamentally in his use of
an ecclesiastical cosmos, rather than that of the Platonic Timaean cosmos of the
Hellenes. This book discusses the Christian Platonist’s adaptation of Hellenic
metaphysics, language, and religious ritual. While Dionysius clearly works within
the Hellenic tradition, he innovates to integrate Hellenic and Christian thought.
ASHGATE STUDIES IN PHILOSOPHY & THEOLOGY
IN LATE ANTIQUITY
Dr Mark Edwards, Oxford University, UK
Professor Patricia Cox Miller, Syracuse University, USA
Professor Christoph Riedweg, Zurich University, Switzerland
The Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity series focuses
on major theologians, not as representatives of a ‘tradition’, whether Christian or
classical, but as individuals immersed in the intellectual culture of their day. Each
book concentrates on the arguments, not merely the opinions, of a single Christian
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By study of the political, cultural and social milieu, contributors to the series show
what external factors led to the convergence or divergence of Christianity and pagan
thought in particular localities or periods. Pagan and Christian teachings are set out
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research in the patristic period, as well as providing new links into later periods,
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Other titles published in this series:
Origen Against Plato
Mark Julian Edwards
Dionysius the Areopagite and the
Despoiling the Hellenes
SARAH KLITENIC WEAR
Franciscan University of Steubenville, USA
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
© Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system
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or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.
Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon have asserted their moral right under the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identiﬁed as the authors of this work.
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Dillon, John M.
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist tradition : despoiling the Hellenes. –
(Ashgate studies in philosophy & theology in late antiquity)
1. Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite 2. Neoplatonism
I. Title II. Klitenic Wear, Sarah
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dillon, John M.
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist tradition : despoiling the Hellenes / John
Dillon and Sarah Klitenic Wear.
p. cm. – (Ashgate studies in philosophy & theology in late antiquity)
Includes bibliographical references (p.
) and indexes.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-0385-6 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. 2. Neoplatonism.
I. Klitenic Wear, Sarah. II. Title.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall.
List of Abbreviations
God as Monad in the Divine Names
God as Trinity in the Divine Names
The Problem of Evil
Scriptural Interpretation [Theoria] as Onomastic Theurgy
Hierourgia and Theourgia in Sacramental Activity
Union and Return to God: The Mystical Theology and the
First Hypothesis of the Parmenides
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The original idea for this book was conceived by Sarah Lloyd of Ashgate, who
some years ago invited JMD to contribute a volume to the series Ashgate Studies in
Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity on the relationship between Dionysius the
Areopagite and the Neoplatonic School of Athens. Not being in a position to take
up this challenge at the time, JMD passed the task on to SKW, who was at that time
completing a doctoral thesis with him on the Neoplatonist Syrianus, a major ﬁgure
of the Athenian School, and who had previously herself worked on Dionysius. SKW
bravely took up the challenge, selected the topics to be dealt with, and composed the
great bulk of the text, with JMD merely exercising a supervisory and advisory role,
and contributing some sections.
In view of the topic that it was asked to address, this book has a somewhat
restricted focus, and it is one that cannot be expected to please all lovers of the
Areopagite. The authors are, after all, approaching him from a predominantly
Neoplatonic, rather than a Patristic perspective, and will thus tend to view patterns of
inﬂuence somewhat differently from someone with the latter background. We would
be the ﬁrst to admit that, in most cases (the topic of Evil being a notable exception),
Dionysius contrives to make it less than perspicuous just where he is getting his
ideas and formulations from, but we feel that we have at least located the broad
ambience from which he is drawing his inspiration. His actual identity must always
remain a mystery, as he would have wished, but we feel that he can be located with
reasonable probability in a certain time and space, and we have expressed our views
on that subject in Chapter 1.
The authors are most grateful for the support of their respective spouses, Kenneth
Wear and Jean Dillon. Because of the distance between Lincoln, Nebraska and
Dublin, Ireland, much of the collaborative work was accomplished during ten very
intensive days in January 2006 in Dublin. This ‘Dionysius boot camp’ would not
have been possible without Kenneth Wear, who took a week off work to watch two
baby girls, and Jean Dillon, a most hospitable host and wife.
We wish also to record our thanks to the Press’s anonymous reader, who made
many useful suggestions, and to our ever-patient editor, Sarah Lloyd.
For translations of the works of Dionysius, we have generally made use of the
translation of Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem, in their Classics of Western Spirituality
edition (see Bibliography), with minor alterations.
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List of Abbreviations
BASIL OF CAESAREA
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA
CYRIL OF JERUSALEM
Com. in Joh.
Commentarius in Johannem
De Principiis (On First Principles)
GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS
GREGORY OF NYSSA
De diff. ess. et hyp.
De s. Trin.
Ex comm. not.
Or. cat. m.
De differentia essentiae et hypostaseos
De sancta Trinitate
Ad Graecos (ex communibus notionibus)
Oratio catechetica magna
De Anima (On the Soul)
In Phaedrum Commentarius
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition
In Timaeum Commentarius
De nat. hom.
De natura hominis (On the Nature of Man)
Contra Celsum (Against Celsus)
De Principiis (On First Principles)
De Iside et Osiride (On Isis and Osiris)
Sententiae ad intelligibilia ducentes
De Malorum Substantia (On the Real Existence of Evil)
Elements of Theology
In Alcibiadem Commentarius
In Cratylum Commentarius
In Euclidem Commentarius
In Parmenidem Commentarius
In Rempublicam Commentarius
In Timaeum Commentarius
Ad orth. resp.
Exp. rect. ﬁd.
Quaestiones et responsiones ad orthodoxes
Expositio rectae ﬁdei
In Categorias Commentarius
In Physica Commentarius
[SIMPLICIUS] (= PRISCIANUS)
In de An.
In de Anima
In Metaphysica Commentarius
In Timaeum Commentarius
Identity of the Author; History of Scholarship
‘Dionysius the Areopagite’1 is arguably one of the most mysterious and intriguing
ﬁgures to emerge from the late antique world. Ever since the mid-sixth century AD,
speculation has swirled around the identity of this portentous ﬁgure. Was he, as
he presents himself, the ﬁrst Athenian convert of St Paul, living and writing some
time in the later ﬁrst century AD, or was he rather a sophisticated late-ﬁfth-century
pseudepigrapher, despoiling the contemporary Athenian school of Neoplatonism in
order to forge a new Christian Platonist theology? Fortunately for the purposes of
the present work, we can now regard the controversy as having been deﬁnitively
settled in favour of the latter alternative, but it is still worth surveying, even brieﬂy,
the course of the argument over the past centuries, as it constitutes an interesting
chapter in the history of ideas.
From the earliest Christian centuries, speculation had centred on the ﬁgure of
Dionysius, precisely because so little was known about him. All we hear in the NT
(Acts 17:34) is that, after Paul addressed the Areopagus, ‘some men joined him
and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite’. Already in the ﬁrst Christian
centuries efforts were made to ﬁll out some details. Eusebius reports (EH 3, 4, 11)
that a certain Dionysius of Corinth identiﬁed the Areopagite as the ﬁrst bishop of
Athens. There is, however, no suggestion in earlier times that he was the author
of any writings. Nonetheless, he plainly constituted a ﬁgure on which intellectual
baggage could be laid. It was not, however, until some time in the very late ﬁfth
century or the ﬁrst decade of the sixth that anything was made of this. Suddenly,
however, in this period, there burst upon the intellectual world of late antiquity a
remarkable series of works purporting to emanate from his pen. These works reveal
a ﬁgure thoroughly acquainted with the latest doctrines and formulations of the
contemporary Neoplatonic school of Athens, along with a burning concern to impose
an intellectual structure on the doctrines of Christianity.
To comprehend why anyone should want to embark on such an enterprise,
we have to consider brieﬂy the intellectual environment in the Greek east of the
empire in this period. The Christian Church at this time was racked by controversy,
in particular as regards the nature (or natures) of Christ. Already back in 451,
the Council of Chalcedon had declared it a dogma that Christ had two natures, a
human and a divine, but this did not silence dissatisfaction among the more acute
1 To be referred to in the following pages as ‘Dionysius’, rather than ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’,
not by any means to deny his pseudonymity, but simply for reasons of economy.
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition
minds of the Christian intelligentsia. Particularly in Antioch,2 various forms and
modiﬁcations of ‘monophysitism’ (the doctrine that Christ had but a single nature)
prevailed, including ‘monotheletism’ (maintaining that Christ had a single will) and
‘monenergism’ (declaring that he had a single source of activity).
Into this cauldron of controversy there plunged the highly-intelligent, but
ceaselessly combative, ﬁgure of Severus of Antioch. Severus was a native of
Sozopolis in Pisidia, born in 465 of a wealthy pagan family and sent to study in
Alexandria and then Beirut, where he was destined for the law. While at Alexandria
in the late 480s he would have had the opportunity to become acquainted with
the doctrines of the Neoplatonism of Proclus, who had just died in 484, since
connections between the two Neoplatonic schools were at this stage quite close,
with much coming and going.3 Severus, however, when he went to Beirut, fell under
the inﬂuence of Christian fellow-students and, as a consequence of the study of
the Cappadocian Fathers, was baptized into Christianity. No sooner did he become
a Christian, however, than he became involved in controversy, gravitating to the
extreme wing of the Monophysite persuasion. He abandoned his career as a lawyer
and went to become a monk in Jerusalem. Subsequently he moved to a monastery
near the town of Maiuma, where he became acquainted with the interesting ﬁgure of
Peter the Iberian, who was at this time bishop of Maiuma.
To detail the totality of Severus’ adventures, physical and intellectual, is beyond
the scope of this work. Sufﬁce it to say that, as a monophysite, he was appointed
patriarch of Antioch in 512 through the favour of the Emperor Anastasius, but was
deposed from this position in 519 on the succession of Justin I. Severus’ importance
in this narrative stems from the fact that he is the ﬁrst known ﬁgure to have made
reference to works of Dionysius the Areopagite. We know this from the record of
a conference held in 532 between a group of orthodox followers of the Council
of Chalcedon, led by Hypatius of Ephesus, and a group of partisans of Severus,4
where the Severians, in support of their position, make reference to a number of
authorities, including the Alexandrian patriarchs Athanasius and Cyril, Gregory
Thaumaturgus, and ﬁnally, ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, all of whom assert that
there is one nature of God the Logos after the union. It is noteworthy that Hypatius
himself, in this connection, expresses some scepticism as to the authenticity of the
works of Dionysius the Areopagite.
It was the ingenious suggestion of Josef Stiglmayr, whose contribution to Dionysian
studies will be mentioned further below, that the true author of the Dionysian corpus
was none other than Severus himself. This attractive proposal, however, has been
forcefully countered by the great authority on Severus, Joseph Lebon, and it seems
2 Though not by any means exclusively – Alexandria had its partisans of Monophysitism
as well, and monotheletism was actually at one point adopted by a pope of Rome (Honorius,
in the early 7th cent.).
3 Speciﬁcally, Isidore the pupil of Proclus was teaching in Alexandria at this time in the
Platonic school of Horapollo, where the young Damascius was also a pupil. It would have
been natural for Severus too as a young Hellenic intellectual to have attended such a school.
4 This report is given in a document bearing the title ‘Epistle of Innocent the Maronite
concerning a Conference held with the Severians’ (Innocentii Maronitae epistula de collatione
cum Severianis habita), reprinted in Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum 4–II: 172.
best to yield to him in this, but the fact remains that the author of these remarkable
works cannot be far removed from the circle of Severus, experienced a course of
education similar to that of Severus, and Severus probably knew who he was.
Our next evidence of the existence of the Dionysian corpus comes from the
annotations composed upon it no later than 532 by John of Scythopolis. John is
much concerned to indicate the orthodoxy of Dionysius,6 and equally concerned to
distance him from any afﬁnity to Neoplatonism, indicating that he was conscious
of the dangers of such a connection. He also lets slip, in a number of details, that
some doubts had been raised as to the authenticity of the corpus.7 Speciﬁcally, he
is at pains to defuse a suggestion that a reference to a formulation by Ignatius of
Antioch at DN 709B constitutes a serious anachronism – as indeed it does. John
makes a valiant effort to argue that Dionysius could have known Ignatius, but what
is signiﬁcant is that the objection had been raised.
John’s efforts were successful, and the works of Dionysius escaped the
condemnation incurred by Severus in respect of all of his works which resulted from
the synod called by the anti-Monophysite Patriarch Menas in Constantinople in 536,
ratiﬁed reluctantly by Justinian. By the latter part of the century, when Maximus the
Confessor composed a commentary on the Dionysian corpus, his authenticity and
his orthodoxy were assured. His translation into Latin, ﬁrst in 838 by Hilduin of
the monastery of St Denys near Paris (who also ventured to make an identiﬁcation
between the Areopagite and the Dionysius who was ﬁrst bishop of Paris), and then
by John Scottus Eriugena in 862, established Dionysius likewise in the Western
Church as the archetypal Christian theologian. Thereafter, the authenticity and
orthodoxy of Dionysius remained substantially unchallenged until the Renaissance,
when Lorenzo Valla directed the ﬁrst shaft of doubt against the authenticity of the
corpus in 1457. These doubts were picked up by the great Dutch scholar Erasmus
in the next generation (1505), but the full force of their challenge was not widely
appreciated until the early nineteenth century, when modern scholarship on
the subject of Dionysius may be said to begin with the monograph of Johann G.
Engelhardt in his Dissertatio de Dionysio platonizante of 1820 and a number of
subsequent works. Engelhardt actually asserted that the corpus exhibited clear and
numerous traces of Proclus’ philosophy, but he failed to produce detailed instances
of dependence. At the end of the century, however, a decisive breakthrough was
made by Josef Stiglmayr in his essay ‘Der Neuplatoniker Proclus als Vorlage des
5 However, the claims of Peter of Iberia have also been put forward by Honigmann
(1952), with rather less plausibility, in view of Peter’s known career. He seems to have gone
from life as a hostage in Constantinople for the good behaviour of his father, who was king of
Georgia, directly to Jerusalem to become a monk. Furthermore his chronology (c. 411–491)
makes him less likely to have been a student of Proclus. As Honigmann admits, Peter, in his
surviving writings, shows no sign of the characteristic formulations or metaphysical system
6 On John, cf. the useful study of Rorem and Lamoreaux (1993). A notable example
of his procedure is his scholion on EH 313, where he is concerned to emphasize (somewhat
optimistically) the orthodoxy of Dionysius on the nature of Christ, a topic to which we will
7 John of Scythopolis, Prologue to the Works of Saint Dionysius, PG, 4, 20.
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition
sogen. Dionysius Areopagita in der Lehre vom Uebel’,8 in which he demonstrated
that Dionysius’ excursus on the nature of evil in Chapter 4 of the Divine Names is
fairly closely dependent on the treatise of Proclus De Malorum Subsistentia on the
same subject. Once this point had been agreed, there was no further need to search
for suitable niches for Dionysius in previous centuries. Stiglmayr’s further proposal,
alluded to above, in an article of 1928, ‘Der sogenannte Dionysius Areopagita und
Severus von Antiochien’,9 proved less persuasive, but does serve to emphasize the
close relationship between the works of Dionysius and the circle of Severus. Further
important contributions to our understanding of the dependence of Dionysius on the
Neoplatonic school of Athens have been made by the eminent scholars Salvatore
Lilla10 and Henri-Dominique Saffrey.11 Among other leading scholars of Dionysius
to whom the present work is indebted on various points are Hugo Koch,12 René
Roques,13 Victor Lossky,14 Walther Völker,15 Jean Vanneste,16 Eugenio Corsini,17
Endre von Ivanka,18 Maurice de Gandillac,19 Bernard Brons,20 Andrew Louth,21 Paul
Rorem,22 Stephen Gersh,23 Ronald Hathaway24 and Ysabel De Andia.25
Dionysius and the Monophysite Controversy
The main features of Dionysius’ philosophy will be discussed in the chapters that
follow. It seems appropriate here, however, to say something about his Christology,
since this feature of his thought is crucial for his relationship to the circle of Severus
of Antioch, and may indeed have been one of the stimuli to the creation of the corpus
in the ﬁrst place – the other, of course, being a desire to ‘reclaim’ the whole ediﬁce
of Neoplatonic philosophy for the Christian faith.
Whatever may have appeared the case to later Byzantine and Western
commentators, it is fairly clear, particularly from a study of such a document as
Dionysius’ Letter 4, that his position, although couched in high-ﬂown and convoluted
terms, calculated to confuse the dull-witted, is in accordance with the Monophysite
Ivanka (1956a, 1956b).
Brons (1975, 1976).
Rorem (1984, 1993).
De Andia (1996).
position – or, more particularly, advances a position which may be described as
Monenergism, that is to say, the doctrine that within Christ there is just one source of
activity (energeia), and that is the activity of the god-man who is Jesus Christ. What
may have led more orthodox pro-Chalcedonian thinkers to suppose that Dionysius
was on their side is his emphasis on the unmixed and pure Christ in his mortal body.
A quotation from Letter 4 may illustrate this:
You ask how it could be that Jesus, who transcends all, is placed in the same order of
being with all men. He is not called a man here in the context of being the cause of man
but rather as being himself quite truly a man in all essential respects. But we do not
deﬁne Jesus in human terms (ouk anthropikôs). For he is not simply a man, nor would
he be supra-essential (hyperousios) if he were only a man. Out of his very great love for
humanity, he became quite truly a human, both superhuman and among humans; and,
though himself beyond being, he took upon himself the being of humans. Yet he is not less
overﬂowing with supra-essentiality (hyperousiotês), always supra-essential as he is, and
supra-abundantly so. While truly entering into essence, he was essentialized in a supraessential way and superior to man though he was, he performed (enêrgei) the activities of
men. (Ep. 4, 1072AB)
This jaw-breaking series of formulations amounts to a statement that God the
Son, as a transcendent, supra-essential divinity, entered and manipulated a human
body, without himself compromising his full divinity. There is no question here of
two natures, since the human body is simply an instrument with which he unites
in order to do his work as Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes on to adduce two aspects
of his human existence as proof of his special status, the ﬁrst his virgin birth, the
second, remarkably, his walking on the water; in this latter case, he speaks of the
water remaining unparted and bearing up his feet because of his supernatural power
(hyperphyês dynamis).26 Lilla, with reference to this doctrine,27 most acutely draws
attention to a possible source for Dionysius’ position in Porphyry’s theory, in his
Symmikta Zêtêmata,28 of the mode of union between soul and body in general as
being a union without contamination on the part of the soul. Here, there is no question
of the body having a conscious ‘nature’ of its own. It is merely an instrument which
the soul viviﬁes and controls. This doctrine, carefully crafted as it is, seems to have
been sufﬁciently obscure to avoid condemnation with the rest of the Monophysite
movement, mainly, we must presume, because of its emphasis on the maintenance
of Christ’s supra-essential status.
Dionysius ends his letter with a ﬂourish of remarkable complexity:
Furthermore, it was not by virtue of being God that he did divine things, not by virtue of
being a man that he did what was human, but rather, by the fact of being God-made-man
26 Ep. 4, 1072B.
27 Lilla (1996).
28 Porphyry, fr. 261 Smith, quoted by Nemesius, De nat. hom. 3, 137–41 (p. 42, 9–43, 11
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition
(andrôthentos theou), he accomplished something new in our midst, the activity of the
God-man (theandrikê energeia).29
This ﬁnal formulation of theandrikê energeia seems to encapsulate very well
Dionysius’ remarkable position, and it plainly was sufﬁciently devious to satisfy
later generations of orthodox theologians, beginning with his ﬁrst commentator,
John of Scythopolis, and continuing with Maximus the Confessor.
The Dionysian Corpus
The full tally of the works which comprise the Dionysian corpus is as follows. The
chief and longest treatise is the Divine Names, which contains thirteen chapters,
discussing the nature of God as both transcendent and creative. Aspects of the
divine are discussed in terms of God’s many names, the sources for which are
both scriptural and Platonic: Chapter 1 introduces the transcendent God; Chapter
2, procession, including Christ as procession; Chapter 3, prayer. In Chapters 4
through 13, Dionysius offers names for God which speak to particular aspects of
God, beginning with, in Chapter 4, ‘Good’, ‘Light’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Love’, ‘Ecstasy’,
‘Zeal’, particularly with respect to God as the source of all things which incites in
them a desire to return to God, as well as a long excursus on the nature of evil (ss.
18–35); Chapter 5 discusses the name ‘Being’ as a procession of God which extends
to all existent things; Chapter 6, the name ‘Life’ as the procession encompassing all
living things; Chapter 7, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Mind’, ‘Word’, ‘Truth’ and ‘Faith’ as the aspect
of God processing downward to rational beings, including angels and human minds;
Chapter 8, ‘Power’, ‘Righteousness’, ‘Salvation’, Redemption’ and ‘Inequality’,
names which point to God as the power for cosmic harmony, delimitation and
arrangement, by which all things are preserved; Chapter 9 treats the following names,
the ultimate source of which seems to be Plato’s Sophist: ‘greatness and smallness’,
‘sameness and difference’, ‘similarity and dissimilarity’, ‘rest’, ‘motion’, ‘equality’
– names applied to God as the cause of everything. Chapter 10, which calls God
‘Omnipotent’ and ‘Ancient of Days’, is a discourse on time and eternity. Chapter 11
calls God ‘Peace’, ‘Being Itself’, ‘Life Itself’ and ‘Power Itself’, all of which present
God as monadic cause. In Chapter 12, Dionysius calls God ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘King of
Kings’, ‘Lord of Lords’ and ‘God of Gods’, names which point to God as the source
of cosmic harmony and law. Lastly, Chapter 13 offers the most signiﬁcant names,
‘Perfect’ and ‘The One’, which address God as the uniﬁed cause of multiplicity. The
work can thus be seen – and indeed has been, ﬁrst by Thomas Aquinas30 but more
29 On this phrase John of Scythopolis has an interesting scholion, adverted to by Saffrey
(1966), to the effect that, one should on no account confuse this term theandrike with the god
Theandrites – as if Dionysius were suggesting a connection between such a god and Jesus
Christ. As Saffrey ingeniously suggests, John would hardly have made this bizarre remark had
he not had in mind, or heard it suggested, that Dionysius might have been inﬂuenced by the
fact that Proclus had written a hymn to just such a god, worshipped in Arabia under the name
30 Aquinas, In de divinis nominibus, IV, 1, 261–5.
recently by Hans Urs von Balthasar – as exhibiting a pattern of ‘procession and
return’, entirely suitable to its subject-matter.
The Mystical Theology is Dionysius’ shortest work, consisting of ﬁve chapters
which address God as ineffable, transcendent, and reachable only by the absolute
abandonment of everything. It presents negative theology as the only path for the
soul’s return to God. Chapter 1 begins with a prayer to divine darkness, a hymn
to God which has been attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus and to Proclus,32 but
which is doubtless Dionysius’ own. Chapter 2 addresses the problem that God, while
being cause of all, yet transcends his creation. Chapter 3 places negative theology
above positive theology as addressing the true nature of God.33 Chapters 4 and 5
describe God as imperceptible and non-conceptual, denying of him both positive and
negative characteristics. It may be that here Dionysius is inﬂuenced by Damascius’
characterisation of his absolutely ﬁrst principle, the Ineffable, in his treatise On First
Principles, but that is not a necessary supposition.
The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy treat the angelic and
human realms respectively, the latter of which mirrors the former, both of them
being divided into a series of triadic ranks. The Celestial Hierarchy discusses the
angelic realm in ﬁfteen chapters. The ﬁrst two chapters discuss the nature of symbol.
Chapter 3 addresses the meaning of the word ‘hierarchy’, which is in fact a coinage
of Dionysius. Chapters 4–5 concern the function of angels as intermediaries between
the divine and human realm. Chapter 6 outlines the celestial hierarchy itself, which
is divided triadically, each rank containing a triad: the ﬁrst contains the Seraphim,
Cherubim and Thrones; the second, the Dominions, Virtues and Powers; and the
third, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. Chapters 7–9 address each rank,
respectively, with Chapter 10 stating the function of the triadic arrangement. Chapter
11 presents the (Neoplatonic) triad of Being, Power and Activity as the three-fold
function within each triad. Chapter 12 connects human hierarchs (as the highest rank
of the ecclesiastical hierarchy) with the lowest levels of the celestial realm. Chapter
13 addresses divine light and power, as mediated through the celestial hierarchy,
particularly with respect to how the angelic realm puriﬁes and illuminates what
is below it. Chapter 14 deals with the number of angels and what that signiﬁes,
while Chapter 15 discusses biblical representations of angels and explains that the
relationship between triads is that of superior, intermediate, and subordinate.
The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy consists of seven chapters, divided according to
liturgical practices (many of which correspond to modern sacraments). It is here,
perhaps, that Dionysius allows his persona to slip most manifestly (though this quite
failed to bother his readers and commentators for almost a thousand years), in that
31 Von Balthasar would even discern the point of turning from procession to return, not
without some plausibility, as occurring in the middle of Ch. 7. See Von Balthasar (1962),
32 This rather complicated problem is discussed by Sicherl (1988). Sicherl concludes
that the hymn does not, in fact, come from Gregory of Nazianzus.
33 We also ﬁnd in Ch. 3 an interesting review of the author’s previous works, one of
which is extant (The Divine Names), two lost – or imaginary, cf. below – The Theological
Representations and The Symbolic Theology.
Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition
he assumes the existence of a fully-ﬂedged panoply of ecclesiastical orders, bishops,
priest, deacons, monks, and various grades of laity, such as would have been quite
impossible for the ﬁrst generation of the infant church. The ﬁrst chapter lays out the
function of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the receptacle for divine power, placed
into a series of material symbols designed to lift the worshipper up through the
hierarchy, to the realm of angels, and beyond to the divine. In the next three chapters,
he deals with the three ‘sacraments’ (teletai) which he recognizes, dividing his
treatment, interestingly, into three sections: ﬁrst, an introduction to the rite; then, a
description of the procedure (praxis); and thirdly, and most discursively, a discussion
of the theory underpinning the rite (theôria). This seems like an adaptation of the
Neoplatonic exegetical distinction between lexis, the discussion of details of the text
of a given lemma, and theôria, the discussion of the broader philosophical issues
arising from the text – but adapted to a theurgical context, where what is at issue is
not the exegesis of a text, but the exposition of a rite. At any rate, Chapter 2 describes
the rite of illumination (phôtisma), or baptism, which Dionysius also refers to as
‘birth into divinity’ (theogenesia). Chapter 3 concerns the rite of synaxis, or the
eucharist, which constitutes the most important of the three sacraments; and Chapter
4 treats of the rite of anointing, or chrism (teletê myrou). These sacraments are
viewed as a triad, conferring respectively puriﬁcation, illumination and perfection
(katharsis, phôtismos, teleiôsis, EH 536D). In the next two chapters he turns to
the detailing of the personnel of the church. Chapter 5 sets out the clerical orders,
again arranged in a triad: the hierarch (bishop) is the highest of the three and is the
perfecting element, in so far as he perfects and consecrates the sacred orders; next
come the priests, in charge of illumination, followed by the deacons, responsible
for puriﬁcation. Chapter 6 discusses the three orders of laity: those being initiated
(catechumens); an intermediate order of those who are have been puriﬁed, and are
being illuminated, whom Dionysius refers to on occasion as ‘the sacred people’
(hieros laos, e.g. EH 532C); and the highest order, that of monks, who have been
uplifted to the highest order because of their sacred understanding. These chapters
also have the same tripartite structure outlined above. Chapter 7, concerning the rite
for the dead, with an appendix on infant baptism, seems somewhat anomalous, and
may in fact be a spurious addition, as suggested by Bernard Brons (1975), added
by someone who found it strange that Dionysius gave no attention to the topic of
Christian burial in his treatment of sacraments.34 This author, or another, adds also
a section on the question of infant baptism, which no longer makes any pretence of
stemming from the ﬁrst generation of the church, as he refers to ancient Christian
authorities (EH 568A)!
The Dionysian corpus also includes ten letters. The ﬁrst four are addressed to
the monk Gaius. Letter 1 discusses God as the unknown; Letter 2, the transcendent
nature of the divine, while Letters 3 and 4 concern the incarnation, Four being of
particular interest in this regard, as we have seen. Letter 5, to Dorotheus, the deacon,
addresses the topic of the unknowability of God. Letter 6 concerns the denunciation
34 It is doubtful that Dionysius himself would have had much enthusiasm for the doctrine
of the resurrection of the body, on which the author of this chapter is very insistent, and on
quite unphilosophical grounds.
of cults, but with an interesting note of admonition to the priest Sosipater. Letter 7
advises the hierarch Polycarp on how to deal with the ‘sophist’ Apollophanes, who
has been abusing Dionysius, it seems, and accusing him of ‘making unholy use of
things Greek to attack the Greeks’ – a most apposite accusation, which Dionysius
is concerned to refute! Letter 8, the longest in the collection, urges kind behaviour
to the monk Demophilus, who is being intolerant towards a repentant sinner, and
the priest who was prepared to pardon him. This is certainly one letter, like that
to Sosipater, where some reference to contemporary tensions and controversies
seems to intrude itself. Letter 9, to the hierarch Titus, which makes reference to the
author’s (probably ﬁctitious) Symbolic Theology (on which see below), constitutes
an important statement of Dionysius’ theory of symbolic interpretation of scripture,
securely based as it is on Neoplatonic principles; while Letter 10 is a brief consolatio
to St John the Evangelist in relation to his exile on Patmos. Even this, however,
might be seen as a coded message to one or other contemporary monophysite ﬁgure
who might have suffered exile after the accession of Justin I; there is mention, not of
the Roman authorities as the cause of John’s exile, but simply of ‘unjust men’.
A special problem arises with a number of works which Dionysius refers to
which have not survived: these include, The Symbolic Theology,35 The Theological
Representations,36 The Properties and Ranks of Angels37 and a treatise On the
Soul.38 It is difﬁcult to decide whether in fact some works have perished or whether
this reference to further works is simply part of the literary game being played, in
particular the title ‘Representations’ (Hypotypôseis) is characteristic of a number of
authors, Christian and otherwise, while a treatise on the soul addresses a fairly basic
A word should also be said about the other characters whom Dionysius introduces
in the course of his works. There is, ﬁrst of all, his revered master, Paul, who he calls
‘my and my teacher’s sun’ (referred to by name seven times), whose works are
quoted copiously throughout the corpus. Then there is his revered mentor Hierotheus
(author of an Elements of Theology: DN 648B; 681A; and of Hymns of Yearning, DN
713A), mentioned by name ﬁve times, and as ‘our master’, twenty-one times, in terms
interestingly reminiscent of Proclus’ references to his master, Syrianus, at various
35 DN 597B; MT 1033AB, 14–26; CH 336A, 3–5; it is looked forward to in the DN as
to be composed next. Rorem (1987) suggests that it may be summarized in Ep. 9, 1104B, 8f.,
1113BC, 22–30. Dionysius suggests that the treatise concerns the perceptible divine symbols,
36 DN 585B; CH 180D; DN 593B, 636C, 640B, 644D, 645A, 953B; MT 1032D, 1033AB.
It is presented as being composed prior to the DN. Rorem suggests that DN 589D–592B is a
summary of the treatise, which is given a fuller treatment in MT 1032D. The treatise discusses
divine unity, Trinity and incarnation.
37 DN 696B. This is also presented as being composed prior to the DN.
38 DN 696C. In this work he claims that he has dealt with all the levels of soul from the
angelic down to the vegetative.
39 Both Porphyry and Iamblichus, among Neoplatonists, composed treatises On the
Author John Dillon and Sarah Klitenic Isbn 9780754603856 File size 1 MB Year 2015 Pages 240 Language English File format PDF Category Philosophy Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ is arguably one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures to emerge from the late antique world. Writing probably around 500 CE, and possibly connected with the circle of Severus of Antioch, Dionysius manipulates a Platonic metaphysics to describe a hierarchical universe: as with the Hellenic Platonists, he arranges the celestial and material cosmos into a series of triadic strata. These strata emanate from one unified being and contain beings that range from superior to inferior, depending on their proximity to God. Not only do all things in the hierarchy participate in God, but also all things are inter-connected, so that the lower hierarchies fully participate in the higher ones. This metaphysics lends itself to a sacramental system similar to that of the Hellenic ritual, theurgy. Theurgy allows humans to reach the divine by examining the divine as it exists in creation. Although Dionysius’ metaphysics and religion are similar to that of Iamblichus and Proclus in many ways, Pseudo-Dionysius differs fundamentally in his use of an ecclesiastical cosmos, rather than that of the Platonic Timaean cosmos of the Hellenes. This book discusses the Christian Platonist’s adaptation of Hellenic metaphysics, language, and religious ritual. While Dionysius clearly works within the Hellenic tradition, he innovates to integrate Hellenic and Christian thought. Download (1 MB) Ibn Sinas Remarks and Admonitions The Philosophy of the Commentators, 200-600 AD From Logos To Trinity Kant And The Meaning Of Religion Divine Powers in Late Antiquity Load more posts