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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


Pseudo-DIONYSIUS

(fl. c. 500)

 

CHRISTIAN NEOPLATONISM

'Pseudo-Dionysius' is the name given to an anonymous author of important writings who sought to reconcile Neoplatonism with Christianity. He was formerly identified with Dionysius the Areopagite (mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as St Paul's convert): but he is now thought to have been a Syrian monk.

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY/ METAPHYSICS

[1] Pseudo-Dionysius regarded the insights of human reason as entirely consistent with faith though subordinate to it [a]. However his philosophy is highly speculative and 'mystical'. He said that God, "who is above all essence, knowledge, and goodness" can be approached both positively and negatively [Mystical Theology, I-III]. The affirmative way (kataphatike) involves attributing to God appropriate perfections, such as goodness and wisdom, found in created beings, but presupposes that God possesses them in a superior fashion. Other qualities, for example, air, stone, belong to God only in the sense that He is the cause of them. As for the negative way (apophatike) we must start by denying of God what is most remote from Him (such as anger, hatred) and then move upwards denying further qualities until we reach "the super-essential Radiance of the Darkness of Unknowing" [M.T., I] — a darkness due to excess of light and a consequence of the finitude of the human mind [b]. God for Dionysius is the Transcendent First Cause from whom all things proceed (proodos — 'procession') or emanate and come into existence [see M.T., IV and V] [c]. God thereby 'multiplies' Himself — the plurality participating in the unity — yet he remains One and distinct from His creation [d]. But Goodness flows out of the archetypal Ideas in him giving rise to the Celestial Hierarchies (and through which it is manifested especially as the beautiful). He is thus both transcendent and 'in' his creation [see Celest. Hierarch, Introd.] [e]. God is also the Final Cause to which created things are drawn back [f]. The emanating world is thus an intermediary between God as beginning and end. Every created thing is good through its participation in God's goodness. Evil is therefore understood as an absence or privation [g], in that a sinner may not live up to the moral standard; or, in nature, a condition, such as disease, may constitute a falling away from health — which is completely good [Divine Names, IV].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The importance of Pseudo-Dionysius lies primarily in his doctrines of (1) the creation of a hierarchical manifestation of God, who is both immanent and transcendent; and (2) negative and affirmative approaches to God. However, while Dionysius supposed reason and faith to be entirely consistent with each other, many of the Neoplatonic themes to which he subscribed do not fit too well with some of the Christian dogmas he accepted, for example, the Incarnation and the Trinity. This issue of compatibility was also to be a stumbling block for many of his successors and led to more sophisticated and subtle metaphysics.

 

READING

Pseudo-Dionysius: De mystica theologica (Mystical Theology), De divinibus nominibus (Divine Names), and De coelesti hierarchia.. (Celestial Hierarchy); see for example, the editions of C. E. Rolt and 'The Shrine of Wisdom' (trans. anon.). (There are several other editions of his works.)

General

R. M. Jones, Studies of Mystical Religion.

C. E. Rolt, Introduction to the Life and Writings of Pseudo-Dionysius.

Studies

A. Louth, Pseudo-Dionysius.

E. D. Perl, 'Pseudo-Dionysius', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

 

CONNECTIONS

Pseudo-Dionysius

 

[1a] Reason subordinate to faith

   Augustine

John Scotus

[1i]

[1b]

 

[1b] Super-essentiality of God; predication — the affirmative and negative ways

   Proclus

John Scotus

Albert

Aquinas

Nicholas of Cusa

[1b]

[1d e]

[1c 3c]

[7a]

[1b]

 

[1c] God as transcendent First Cause; creation from Himself; emanation

   Proclus

John Scotus

Alexander of Hales

Albert

Nicholas of Cusa

[1a d]

[1c d g]

[1a 1e]

[1e 1f]

[2e]

 

[1d] Unity and multiplicity; all in all; God distinct from creation

   Proclus

John Scotus

Nicholas of Cusa

[1d 2f]

[1a e h k ]

[2c h]

 

[1e] Archetypes in Divine Mind; hierarchies; Immanence; beauty

   Proclus

John Scotus

Albert

Aquinas

Nicholas of Cusa

[2a]

[1a h l]

[1g-i]

[1g 11a]

[2c f]

 

[1f] God as Final cause; turning back

   Proclus

John Scotus

[1e 4a]

[1k]

 

[1g] Participation in Divine Goodness; evil as privation

   Augustine

   Proclus

John Scotus

Alexander of Hales

[5b]

[3a]

[1i j]

[1d f]