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Dionysius, Pseudo-Areopagita

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Dionysius (1) Pseudo-Areopagita. Under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite there has passed current a body of remarkable writings. Before shewing that the author of these writings was not the Dionysius converted by St. Paul (Act_17:34) we must discriminate both of them from a third Dionysius the St. Denys of France. The identity of all three was popularly believed for many centuries and even yet is maintained by some.

Was, then, the convert of St. Paul at Athens the first apostle of France? The answer would not seem doubtful from the statement of Sulpicius Severus, that the earliest martyrs in Gaul were under the reign of Aurelius (Sacr. Hist. ii. 46), i.e. after a.d. 160; and from the circumstance that neither the old martyrologies nor the old French chroniclers contain any hint of the identity of the two. Gregory of Tours ( Hist. Franc. i. 30) fixes the coming of St. Denys into France as late as the reign of Decius, i.e. after a.d. 250; while Usuardus, who wrote his Martyrologium for Charlemagne, assigned Oct. 3 to the memory of the Areopagite, and Oct. 9 to that of the patron saint of France. The reasons for believing St. Denys of France to be the author of these writings are equally slight. Their style and subject-matter all betoken a philosophic leisure, not the active life of a missionary in a barbarous country; and a residence in the East is implied in the very titles of those to whom they are addressed. It is the opinion of Bardenhewer ( Patrol. p. 538) that the writings of Stiglmayr and Koch (see under Authorities, infra ) have proved "that the Areopagitica were nothing more than a composition written under an assumed name, and in reality dating from about the end of the fifth century."

We may deal with the writings under: (1) External History; (2) Nature and Contents.

(1) It is generally admitted that the first unequivocal mention of them is in the records of the conference at Constantinople in 532. The emperor Justinian invited Hypatius of Ephesus, and other bishops of the orthodox side, to meet in his palace the leaders of the Severians. During the debate, these alleged writings of the Areopagite were brought forward by the latter in support of their Monophysite views; and the objections of Hypatius have been preserved. If genuine, he asked, how could they have escaped the notice of Cyril and others? (Mansi, viii. col. 821); and this question has never been satisfactorily answered. Supposed traces of them have been pointed out in Origen; and other ingenious reasons, explaining their concealment for five centuries, have been confuted again and again. Still, whatever their parentage, they are henceforward never lost sight of. Writers of the school which had at first objected to them soon found how serviceable to their own cause they might be made. Thus a chain of testimony begins to be attached to them in unbroken continuity.

In the Western church we first find them mentioned by pope Gregory the Great (c. 590); but his manner of citing them makes it probable that he only knew them by report. In any case, they did not become generally known in the West till after a.d. 827, when Michael the Stammerer sent a copy to Louis le Débonnaire, son of Charlemagne. The abbey of St. Denys, near Paris, was thought the most fitting receptacle for such a treasure; and its abbat, the superstitious and unprincipled Hilduin, compiled a collection of Areopagitica in honour of the event. This work professes to be based on documents then extant, but is described in equally unfavourable terms by Sirmond and by Cave. In the next reign, that of Charles the Bald, a Latin trans. of all the Dionysian writings was made by the great scholar Joannes Erigena. It is first publicly mentioned by pope Nicholas I., in a letter to Charles in 861, and is warmly praised by Anastasius Bibliothecarius in 865.

(2) The Dionysian writings consist of four extant treatises: On the Heavenly Hierarchy; On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; On the Names of God; On Mystic Theology; after which come ten letters or fragments of letters.

This list from one point of view is complete as an exposition of the Dionysian system and is also in its proper order. For we may take as its epitome the words of St. Paul with which the first sentence in the volume concludes: "For of Him and to Him are all things" (Rom_11:36). God the centre towards which all tend and at the same time the all-embracing circumference within which all are included; the constant streaming forth from Him like rays from the visible sun of divine influences whereby men are purified illumined and drawn upwards to Himself; man's powerlessness to know the real nature and being of God while yet he may be drawn near to Him in the mystic communion of a loving faith: such is very briefly the burden of the Dionysian strain. And if we take the de Divinis Nominibus as the central portion of the writings and recognize the two Hierarchies as one consecutive whole we have enough to fill up the outline sketched above. In the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies with their ninefold orders of heavenly and of earthly ministrations; we have the means the machinery (so to speak) whereby God communicates Himself to man. In the Divina Nomina we have disclosed to us so far as can be seen through veils and shadows the Fountain-head of all light and being the object of all thought and desire. In the Mystic Theology we have the converse of the path marked out in the Hierarchies the ascent of the human soul to mystic union with God. The three great sections of the Dionysian writings thus answer very strikingly to the three elements of which he makes his hierarchy to consist: τάξις ἐπιστήμη and ἐνέργεια πρὸς τὸ θεοειδὲς ἀφοιουμένη (Eccl. Hier. iii. § 1).

Yet the author refers to a series of treatises, still more numerous than the preceding, as if he thought them necessary for the completion of his design. These are: On Divine Hymns; Symbolic Theology; On the Objects of Intellect and Sense; Theological Outlines; On the Soul; On the Just Judgment of God . To these are added by Sixtus Senensis and others: On the Properties and Orders of Angels; The Legal Hierarchy .

The question of these missing treatises is most perplexing. Did they ever exist? If so, what has become of them? Are they mere inventions of the author, designed to parry attacks on his own weak points, and to suggest the filling up of deficiencies which in reality he left unsupplied? This last seems very probable. But, if true, while our respect for the intellectual completeness of the author's mind is increased, our opinion of his moral straightforwardness must be diminished. However, he is certainly entitled to the credit of his conception of such a theological system, whether all the parts be duly filled in or not.

Limits of space do not here allow a minute analysis of the extant works. The Heavenly Hierarchy opens with what sounds almost like the keynote of the whole the text πᾶσα δόσις ἀγαθή κ.τ.λ. of Jam_1:17. The language in which the simple words of these Apostles are expanded and paraphrased will convey no bad idea of the generally turgid style. To bring us to Himself God graciously makes use of signs and symbols and of intervening orders of ministers by whose means we may be gradually raised to nearer communion with Him. Such an organization he calls a Hierarchy—"a sacred order and science and activity assimilated as far as possible to the godlike and elevated to the imitation of God proportionately to the Divine illuminations conceded to it " (Cel. Hier. iii. § 1 tr. by Westcott). The members of the Heavenly Hierarchy are the nine orders of Angels—the term Angel being sometimes used alike of all the orders and sometimes in a more proper and restricted sense of the lowest of the nine. The names of the nine orders appear to be obtained by combining with the more obvious Seraphim Cherubim Archangels and Angels five deduced from two passages of St. Paul Eph_1:21 and Col_1:16. In each of these passages four names are mentioned of which three (ἄρχαι ἐξουσίαι κυριότητες) are common to both while one is peculiar to each δυνάμεις to the former θρόνοι to the latter. The nine are subdivided into triads ranged thus in descending order:

1. Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones.

2. Dominations, Virtues, Powers.

3. Principalities, Archangels, Angels.

The long and important treatise On the Names of God ( Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων ) has been shewn by Stiglmayr and Koch to contain an extract from Proclus's treatise de Malorum Substitentia; which has reached us in a Latin trans. It is an inquiry into the being and attributes of God as indicated by the Divine Names in Holy Scripture. These Names, like all outward channels of spiritual knowledge, can reveal His real nature but very imperfectly; and even so, not without prayer, which, like the golden chain of Homer, lifts us up to Heaven while we seem to be drawing it down to earth; or like the rope thrown out to mariners from a rock, which enables them to draw their ship nearer to the rock, while they pull as if they would draw the rock to them (Div. Nom. iii. § 1). The first thing thus revealed is God's goodness, the far-reaching effulgence of His being, which streams forth upon all, like the rays of the sun ( ib. iv. § 1). Evil is nothing real and positive, but a defect, a negation only: Στέρησις ἄρα ἐστὶ τὸ κακόν, καὶ ἔλλειψις, καὶ ἀσυένεια, καὶ ἀσυμμετρία, κ .τ.λ. ( ib. iv. § 32). As what we call cold is but a deficiency of heat; or darkness, of light; so what we call evil is a deficiency of goodness. When the sky grows dark, as evening sets in, that darkness is nothing positive, superadded to what existed before: we are conscious of gloom merely from the disappearance of the light, which was the true existence ( ib. iv. § 24). This subject is pursued in a very noble train of thought to some length, and is followed by a discussion of still other names and titles, adapted to the infirmity of human understanding, under which God's attributes are made intelligible to us. That the author is conscious of his theory of evil not being logically complete appears from his briefly referring to another supposed treatise, Περὶ δικαίου καὶ θείου δικαιωτηρίου ( ib. iv. § 35), for a settlement of the question how far evil, being such as is described, deserves punishment at the hands of God.

Of two legends, widely known in connexion with the name of Dionysius, from their insertion in the Breviary of the Latin church, one must be noticed here, as found in the present work. When Dionysius was present with Timothy, to whom he is writing, and James, ὁ ἀδελφόθεος , and Peter, ἡ κορυφαία καὶ πρεσβυτάτη τῶν θεολόγων ἀκρότης , and other disciples, "for the spectacle of the body which was the beginning of life and the recipient of God" (ἐπὶ τὴν θέαν τοῦ ζωαρχικοῦ καὶ θεοδόχου —al. φωτοδόχου —σώματος ( ib. iii. § 2)), no one but the apostles surpassed Hierotheus, his preceptor, in the inspired hymns and praises which he uttered. This is generally considered to refer to a gathering of the apostles round the deathbed of the Holy Virgin. The language is vague, and the passage comes in with singular abruptness, as a sequel to one on the power of prayer. In the paraphrase of Pachymeres, the names of the apostles are omitted. The explanation of Barradas (quoted by Hipler, ubi inf. p. 48 n.) is that the gathering round the θεοτόκος really represents the assembly of believers for the reception of the Holy Eucharist, bending (as the words of one liturgy express it) "ante splendida et theodocha signa cum timore inclinati."

The short treatise on Mystic Theology indicates the means of approaching more nearly to God, previously set forth under the Divine Names , by reversing the procedure adopted in the Hierarchies. He who would aspire to a truer and more intimate knowledge of God must rise above signs and symbols, above earthly conceptions and definitions of God, and thus advance by negation, rather than by affirmation, κατ᾿ ἀφαίρεσιν , not κατὰ θέσιν . Even in the Hierarchies (Cel. Hier. ii. § 3) Dionysius had spoken of ἀπόφασις as a surer way of penetrating the divine mystery than κατάφασις , and now enforces the same truth by an illustration which, if not taken directly from Plotinus, presents a striking parallel to one used by him—that of the sculptor, who, striving to fashion a beautiful statue, chips away the outer marble, and removes what was in fact an obstruction to his own ideal (Myst. Theol. c. ii.; cf. Plotinus, de Pulchritudine , ed. Creuzer, 1814, p. 62).

Of the Letters the first two are little more than detached notes on points of the Mystic Theology—on our ἀγνωσία of God and His transcendent nature. The third is a short fragment on the meaning of the word ἐξαίφνης in Mal_3:1 "The Lord . . . shall suddenly come to His temple," and its application to the Incarnation. The fourth addressed like the three previous ones to the monk Caius treats briefly of the Incarnation and the nature of that human body with which Christ could walk upon the waters (cf. Div. Nom. ii. 9). The fifth to Dorotheus is on the meaning of the divine darkness (ὁ θεῖος γνόφος) spoken of in the Mystic Theology. The sixth to Sosipater teaches that labour is better spent in establishing truth than in confuting error. The seventh is a much longer letter addressed to Polycarp in which he bids him answer the taunts of the Sophist Apollophanes by recalling the days when he and Dionysius were fellow-students at Hierapolis and his own remark when they beheld the darkness of the Crucifixion: ταῦτα ὦ καλὲ Διονύσιε θείων ἀμοιβαὶ πραγμάτων. The exclamation attributed to Dionysius himself as it appears in the Latin Breviary Aut Deus naturae patitur aut mundi machina dissolvitur or as it is given by Syngelus in his Life Ὁ ἄγνωστος ἐν σαρκὶ πάσχει Θεός κ.τ.λ. is not found in the Dionysian writings. The eighth letter to a monk Demophilus is on gentleness and forbearance and the topic is illustrated by a dream which St. Carpus had in Crete. The ninth also a long letter addressed to Titus bp. of Crete refers to matters treated in the Symbolic Theology. Many points are discussed in what to some would appear a strangely neologic spirit. The anthropomorphism of O.T. the bold metaphors of the Song of Songs (τὰς τῶν ᾀσμάτων προσύλους καὶ ἑταιρικὰς πολυπαθείας) and the like can only be understood he says by true lovers of holiness who come to the study of divine wisdom divested of every childish imagination (πᾶσαν τὴν παιδαριώδη φαντασίαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν συμβόλων ἀποσκευαζομένοις). In this letter we seem to see before us a disciple of Philo. The tenth and last is a mere fragment addressed to St. John the Divine an exile in Patmos foretelling his approaching release from confinement.

Authorities .—Isaac Casaubon, de Rebus sacris Eccl. Exercitt. xxi. (1615); Jean Launoy, Varia de duobus Dionysiis (1660); J. Dallaeus, de Scriptis quae . . . circumferunter (1666); P. F. Chifflet, Opuscula quatuor (1679); Ussher, Dissertatio de Scriptis . . . appended to his Historia Dogmatica (1690); M. Lequien, Dissertatio Secunda , prefixed to tom. i. of Joannis Damasceni Op. (1712); Cave, Script. Eccl. Hist. Lit. (1740); Brucker, Hist. Crit. tom. iii. (1766); J. L. Mosheim, Commentatio de Turbata per Recentiores Platonicos Ecclesia (1767); J. A. Fabricius, Biblioth. Graeca , tom. vii. (1801); J. G. Engelhardt, de Dionysio Areop. Plotinizante (1820); Milman, Lat. Christ. vol. vi. (1855); Dr. Franz Hipler, Dionysius der Areopagite (Regensburg, 1861); B. F. Westcott, Essay on Dionysius the Areopagite in the Contemp. Rev. May 1867; Dean Colet, On the Hierarchies of Dionysius (1869); J. Fowler, Essay on the works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, in relation to Christian art, in the Sacristy , Feb. 1872; H. Koch, in Theol. Quartalschrift, 1895 and 1898 Stiglmayr in Hist. Jahrbücher (1895).


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Dionysius, Pseudo-Areopagita'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​d/dionysius-pseudo-areopagita.html. 1911.
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