Dionysius the Areopagite

Dionysius the Areopagite

Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint, fl. 1st cent. A.D., Athenian Christian, converted by St. Paul. Acts 17.34. Tradition has made him a martyr and the first bishop of Athens. He has been confused with St. Denis. During the Middle Ages he was revered as the author of certain philosophical writings erroneously attributed to him since the 6th cent. These are ten letters and four treatises (The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Divine Names, Mystical Theology) written in Greek, possibly in Palestine, in the late 5th or early 6th cent. It is now customary to refer to their author as Pseudo-Dionysius. Their obscure style was no barrier to their study and repeated translation into Latin, notably by Erigena and Robert Grosseteste. They exerted a lasting influence on the development of scholasticism, particularly through St. Thomas Aquinas. The treatises provided a medium for transmission to Western culture of the concepts of Neoplatonism and of the theology of angels. Feast: Oct. 9.

See studies by D. Rutledge (1965) and R. F. Hathaway (1970).

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Denys, is the anonymous theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century whose Corpus Areopagiticum (before 532) was pseudonymously ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in . The author was historically believed to be the Areopagite because he claimed acquaintance with biblical characters. His surviving works include Divine Names, Mystical Theology., Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and various epistles. Some other works are no longer extant, such as Theological Outlines.


His works are mystical and show strong Neoplatonic influence. For example he uses Plotinus' well known analogy of a sculptor cutting away that which does not enhance the desired image. He shows familiarity with Proclus, which indicates he wrote no earlier than the 5th century, as well as influence from Saint Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Origen of Alexandria, and others. Although many disagree with such simple oppositions and crude characterizations, the most general view is that there is a distinct difference between Neoplatonism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In Neoplatonism, it is often said, all life returns to the source to be stripped of individual identity, a process called henosis (see Iamblichus). However, in Orthodox Christianity, theosis restores the Likeness of God in man by grace (by being united to God the Holy Trinity through participation in His divine energies). The liturgical references in his writings also date his works after the 4th century.

He appears to have belonged to the group which attempted to form a compromise position between monophysitism and the orthodox teaching. His writings were first cited in 519 in a work by Severus of Antioch, Adversus apologiam Juliani, who cited the Fourth Letter. Dionysius was initially used by monophysites to back up parts of their arguments, but his writings were eventually adopted by other church theologians as well, primarily due to the work of John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor in producing an orthodox interpretation. The Dionysian writings and their mystical teaching were universally accepted throughout the East, amongst both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. St. Gregory Palamas, for example, in referring to these writings, calls the author, "an unerring beholder of divine things." And in the West, the manuscripts grew to be very popular amongst theologians in the Middle Ages, but debates over the authenticity of his works began in the Renaissance.

Medieval misunderstandings

During the medieval period Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Denis of France, though two distinct figures historically, were conflated; it was thought that after his conversion by Paul, the Areopagite had traveled to France, preached, and been martyred there. This confusion of historical detail was exacerbated by the common acceptance of Pseudo-Dionysius's writings as the authentic work of the Biblical figure. The great Abbey of Saint-Denis just north of Paris claimed to have the relics of Dionysius. Around 1121, Pierre Abélard, a Benedictine monk at Saint Denis Basilica, turned his attention to the story of their patron saint, and disentangled the three different Dionysiuses. The monks were offended at the apparent demotion of Saint Denis, and Abélard did not remain long at Saint Denis. The confusion over the text might stem from the text being an oral tradition (declamatio) that was only at a later date finally put to record. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "It must also be recognized that 'forgery' is a modern notion. Like Plotinus and the Cappadocian Fathers before him, Dionysius does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition."

The monastery of St. Denis, which had inadvertently conflated the two Dionysiuses, had a good Greek edition of Pseudo-Dionysius's works given to them by Charles the Bald, which was translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena in the late 9th century. This translation widely popularized both Pseudo-Dionysius' teaching and his explanation of the angels.


The authorship of the Dionysian Corpus was initially disputed; Severus and his party concluded their apostolic dating, largely because they seemed to agree with their Christology. However, this dating was disputed by Hypatius of Ephesus, who met the monophysite party during the 532 meeting with Emperor Justin; Hypatius denied their authenticity on the grounds that none of the Fathers or Councils ever cited or referred to them. Hypatius condemned them along with the Apollinarian texts, distributed during the Nestorian controversy under the names of Pope Julius and Athanasius, which the monophysites entered as evidence supporting their position.

The first defense of their authenticity is undertaken by John of Scythopolis, whose commentary, the Scholia (ca. 540), on the Dionysian Corpus constitutes the first defense of its apostolic dating, wherein he specifically argues that the work is neither Apollinarian nor a forgery, probably in response both to monophysites and Hypatius--although even he, given his unattributed citations of Plotinus in interpreting Dionysius, might have known better. Dionysius' authenticity is criticized later in the century, and defended by Theodore of Raithu; and by the 7th century, it is taken as demonstrated, affirmed by both Maximus the Confessor and the 649 Lateran Council. From that point forward, the authorship is largely not in question until the Renaissance.

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 St. 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 noted by modern historians, but whose reservations went unheard.

William Grocyn pursued Valla's lines of text criticism, and Valla's critical viewpoint of the authorship of the highly influential Corpus was accepted and publicized by Erasmus from 1504 onward, for which he was criticized by Catholic theologians. In the Leipzig disputation with Martin Luther, 1519, Johann Eck used the Corpus, specifically the Angelic Hierarchy, as argument for the apostolic origin of papal supremacy, pressing the Platonist analogy, "as above, so below".

During the 19th century modernist Catholics too came generally to accept that this self-identified disciple of St. Paul must have lived after the time of Proclus, whose works he paraphrased in transforming Neoplatonism into Christian terms—which is the philosophical approach that had interested the Christian Neoplatonist Valla in the first place.

Dionysius identity is still heavily under dispute. The compilers of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy find pseudo-Dionysius to be most probably "a pupil of Proclus, perhaps of Syrian origin, who knew enough of Platonism and the Christian tradition to transform them both. Since Proclus died in 485, and since the first clear citation of Dionysius' works is by Severus of Antioch between 518 and 528, then we can place Dionysius' authorship between 485 and 518-28." Ronald Hathaway provides a table listing most of the major identifications of Dionysius: e.g., Ammonius Saccas, Dionysius the Great, Peter the Fuller, Dionysius the Scholastic, Severus of Antioch, Sergius of Reshaina, unnamed Christian followers of everyone from Origen of Alexandria to Basil of Caesarea, Eutyches to Proclus. Georgian academician Shalva Nutsubidze and Belgian professor Ernest Honigmann were authors of a theory identifying pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite with Peter the Iberian. A more recent identification is with Damascius, the last scholarch of the School of Athens.

See also


Secondary Sources

  • Griffith, R., "Neo-Platonism and Christianity: Pseudo-Dionysius and Damascius", in: Studia patristica XXIX. Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995, ed. by E. A. Livingstone, Leuven: Peeters, 1997, 238-243.
  • Frend, W. H. C.. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972
  • Hathaway, Ronald F.. Hierarchy and the definition of order in the letters of Pseudo-Dionysius. A study in the form and meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings. The Hague, Nijhoff, 1969
  • Perl, Eric D., Theophany. The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-7914-7111-1.
  • Rorem, Paul. Pseudo-Dionysius : a commentary on the texts and an introduction to their influence. New York : Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Rorem, Paul and John C. Lamoreaux "John of Scythopolis on Apollinarian Christology and the Pseudo-Areopagite's True Identity." Church History, Vol. 62, No. 4, (Dec., 1993), pp. 469-482

External links

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