"Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite"
Other names "Pseudo-Dionysius", "Pseudo-Denys", mistakenly identified as "Dionysius the Areopagite"
Born unknown, 5th to 6th century AD
Died unknown, 5th to 6th century AD
Era Ancient philosophy, Medieval philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Neoplatonism, Christian theology

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite ( This false attribution resulted in the work being given great authority in subsequent theological writing in both East and West, with its influence only decreasing in the West with the fifteenth century demonstration of its later dating.

In recent decades, interest has increased again in the Corpus Areopagiticum for three main reasons: in part because of a recovery of the huge impact of Dionysian thought in later Christian thought, in part because of an increasing repudiation of older criticisms that Dionysius's thought represented a fundamentally Neoplatonic and therefore non-Christian approach to theology, and finally because of interest in parallels between aspects of modern linguistic theory and Dionysius's reflections on language and negative theology.


In attempts to identify a date after which the corpus must have been composed, a number of features have been identified in Dionysius' writing, though the latter two are subject to scholarly debate.

  • Firstly, and fairly certainly, it is clear that Dionysius adopted many of his ideas - including at times passages almost word for word - from Proclus, who died in 485 - thus providing at the least a late fourth century early limit to the dating of Dionysius.[2]
  • In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy Dionysius twice seems to allude to the recitation of the Creed in the course of the liturgy (EH 3.2 and 3.III.7). It is often asserted that Peter the Fuller first mandated the inclusion of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy in 476, thus providing an earliest date for the composition of the Corpus. However, Bernard Capelle argues that it is far more likely that Timothy, patriarch of Constantinople, was responsible for this liturgical innovation, around 515 - thus suggesting a later date for the Corpus.[3]
  • It is often suggested that because Dionysius seems to eschew divisive Christological language, he was probably writing after the Henoticon of Zeno was in effect, sometime after 482. However, it is also possible that Dionysius eschewed traditional Christological formulae in order to preserve an overall apostolic ambience for his works, rather than because of the influence of the Henoticon. Also, given that the Henoticon was rescinded in 518, if Dionysius was writing after this date, he may have been untroubled by this policy.[4]

In terms of the latest date for the composition of the Corpus, the earliest datable reference to Dionysius' writing comes in 528, the year in which the treatise of Severus of Antioch entitled Adversus apologiam Juliani was translated into Syriac - though it is possible the treatise may originally have been composed up to nine years earlier.[5]

Another widely cited latest date for Dionysius' writing comes in 532, when, in a report on a colloquy held between two groups (orthodox and monophysite) debating the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, Severus of Antioch and his monophysite supporters cited the Fourth Letter in defence of their view.[6] It is possible that pseudo-Dionysius was himself a member of this group, though debate continues over whether his writings do in fact reveal a monophysite understanding of Christ.[7] It seems likely that the writer was located in a Syriac, as revealed, for example, by the accounts of the sacramental rites he gives in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which seem only to bear resemblance to Syriac rites.[8]


The Corpus is today composed of Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων), Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας), Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας), Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας), and ten epistles.[9] Seven other works, namely Theological Outlines (Θεολογικαὶ ὑποτυπώσεις), Symbolic Theology (Συμβολικὴ θεολογία), On Angelic Properties and Orders (Περὶ ἀγγελικῶν ἰδιοτήτων καὶ τάξεων), On the Just and Divine Judgement (Περὶ δικαίου καὶ θείου δικαστηρίου), On the Soul (Περὶ ψυχῆς), On Intelligible and Sensible Beings,[10] and On the Divine Hymns,[11] are mentioned repeatedly by pseudo-Dionysius in his surviving works, and are presumed either to be lost[12] or to be fictional works mentioned by the Areopagite as a literary device to give the impression to his sixth century readers of engaging with the surviving fragments of a much larger first century corpus of writings.[13]

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, and shows familiarity with Proclus. He also shows influence from Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Origen of Alexandria, and others.

There is a distinct difference between pagan Neoplatonism and that of Eastern Christianity. In the former all life returns to the source to be stripped of individual identity, a process called henosis,[14] while in orthodox Christianity the Likeness of God in man is restored by grace (by being united to God the Holy Trinity through participation in His divine energies), a process called theosis.[15]

Eastern adoption

His thought was initially used by monophysites to back up parts of their arguments but his writings were eventually adopted by other church theologians, primarily due to the work of John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor in producing an orthodox interpretation.[16] Writing a single generation at most after Dionysius, perhaps between 537 and 543,[17] John of Scythopolis composed an extensive set (around 600)[18] of scholia (that is, marginal annotations) to the works of Dionysius; these were in turn prefaced by a long prologue in which John set out his reasons for commenting on the corpus. All Greek manuscripts of the Corpus Areopagiticum surviving today stem from an early sixth-century manuscript containing John's Scholia and Prologue - so John of Scythopolis had an enormous influence on how Dionysius was read in the Greek-speaking world.[19]

Theologians such as John of Damascus and Germanus of Constantinople also made ample use of Dionysius' writing.

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".

Western medieval Dionysian tradition

The first notice of Dionysius in the West comes from Gregory the Great, who probably brought a codex of the Corpus Areopagitum back with him on his return from his mission as papal legate to the Emperor in Constantinople in around 585. Gregory refers occasionally in his writings to Dionysius, although Gregory's Greek was probably not good enough to fully engage with Dionysius's work.[20] In the seventh and eighth centuries, Dionysius was not widely known in the West, aside from a few scattered references.

The real influence of Dionysius in the West, however, began with the gift in 827 of a Greek copy of his works by the Byzantine Emperor Michael II to the Carolingian King Louis the Pious, who in turn gave the manuscript to the monastery of St Denys near Paris.[21] About 838, Dionysius' works were translated into Latin for the first time by Hilduin, abbot of the monastery of St Denys near Paris. It may well have been Hilduin himself who promoted his work (and his abbey) by developing the legend (which would be widely accepted during subsequent centuries), that Saint Denis of Paris was the same person as Saint Dionysius the Areopagite of Acts 17.34, and that Saint Dionysius the Areopagite had traveled to Rome and then was commissioned by the Pope to preach in Gaul (France), where he was martyred.[22][23] Hilduin's translation, however, is almost unintelligible.[24]

About twenty years later, a subsequent Carolingian Emperor, Charles the Bald, requested the Irishman John Scottus Eriugena to make a fresh translation; he finished this in 862.[24] However, this translation itself did not widely circulate in subsequent centuries. Moreover, although Eriugena’s own works, such as the Homily on the Prologue of St John, show the influence of Dionysian ideas, these works were not widely copied or read in subsequent centuries.[24] The Benedictine monasticism that formed the standard monasticism of the eighth to eleventh centuries, therefore, in general paid little attention to Dionysius.

In the twelfth century, greater use gradually began to be made of Dionysius among various traditions of thought:

  • Among Benedictines (especially at the Abbey of Saint-Denis), greater interest began to be shown in Dionysius. For example, one of the monks of Saint Denys, John Sarrazin, wrote a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy in 1140, and then in 1165 made a translation of the work.[24] Also, Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151, drew on Dionysian themes to explain how the architecture of his new 'Gothic' abbey church helped raise the soul to God.[25]
  • In the Canons Regular. Hugh of St Victor edited two commentaries on The Celestial Hierarchy between 1125 and 1137, later revising and combining them as one. Richard of St Victor was familiar with Dionysius through Hugh. Through Hugh, others became exposed to Dionysian thought, including Thomas Gallus and Gilbert of Poitiers.[24]
  • Among the Cistercian tradition, it seems that early writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry and Aelred of Rievaulx were not influenced by Dionysian thought. Among second-generation Cistercians, however, Isaac of Stella clearly shows the influence of Dionysian ideas.[24]
  • It is in the Schools, though, that the twelfth-century growth in influence of Dionysius was truly significant. There are few references to Dionysius in scholastic theology during the tenth and eleventh centuries. At the beginning of the twelfth century, though, the masters of the Cathedral school at Laon, especially Anselm of Laon, introduced extracts from Eriugena’s Commentary on St John into the Sentences and the Glossa Ordinaria. In this manner, Dionysian concepts found their way into the writing of Peter Lombard and others.[24]

During the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Robert Grosseteste made an important contribution by bringing out between 1240 and 1243 a translation, with commentary, of the Dionysian corpus.[24] Soon after, the Dominican Albert the Great did likewise. The thirteenth-century Parisian corpus provided an important reference point by combining the "Old Translation" of Eriugena with the "New Translation of John Sarrazin, along with glosses and scholia by Maximus the Confessor, John of Scythopolis and others, as well as the "Extracts" by Thomas Gallus, and several commentaries such as John the Scot, John Sarrazin and Hugh of St Victor on The Celestial Hierarchy.[26] It quickly became common to make reference to Dionysius. Thomas Aquinas wrote an explanation for several works, and cites him over 1700 times.[27] Bonaventure called him the “prince of mystics”.

It was subsequently in the area of mysticism that Dionysius, especially his portrayal of the "via negativa" , was particularly influential. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries his fundamental themes were hugely influential on thinkers such as Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, Jan van Ruusbroec, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing (who made an expanded Middle English translation of Dionysius' Mystical Theology), Jean Gerson, Nicholas of Cusa, Denys the Carthusian, Julian of Norwich and Harphius Herp. His influence can also be traced in the Spanish Carmelite thought of the sixteenth century among Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.[24]

Astronomical fresco

In a letter addressed to Polycarp, pseudo-Dionysius states "What have you to say about the solar eclipse which occurred when the Savior was put on the cross? At the time the two of us were in Heliopolis and we both witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of the moon hiding the sun at the time that was out of season for their coming together... We saw the moon begin to hide the sun from the east, travel across to the other side of the sun, and return on its path so that the hiding and the restoration of the light did not take place in the same direction but rather in diametrically opposite directions..."[28]

In reality, an eclipse (of the sun by the moon) could not have happened at the time of Christ's crucifixion since Passover (when the gospels state the crucifixion took place) is a full moon event, and solar eclipses always happen at new moon. It seems probable that pseudo-Dionysius had read the and that this influenced his writing.

The passage gave rise to a medieval legend about an eclipse taking place at the crucifixion. This is illustrates in an astronomical fresco in the main gallery of the Escorial Library, near Madrid, Spain, built in 1567-84, which shows Dionysius the Areopagite observing an eclipse at the time of Christ's crucifixion.[30]

Only in the late medieval period did the scientific incoherence of the legend become widely acknowledged: in 1457, for instance, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla wrote: "...the claim of 'Dionysius'... that he observed the eclipse of the sun at the hour of the Saviour's death... is as blatant a fiction as the epistolary form of the report." [31]


The authorship of the Dionysian Corpus was initially disputed; Severus and his party affirmed its apostolic dating, largely because it 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 Justinian I; Hypatius denied its authenticity on the grounds that none of the Fathers or Councils ever cited or referred to it. Hypatius condemned it 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.[32]

The first defense of its 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.[33] 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 until the Renaissance, the authorship was less questioned, though Thomas Aquinas,[34] Peter Abelard and Nicholas of Cusa expressed suspicions about its authenticity; their concerns, however, were generally ignored.[35]

The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), in his 1457 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. 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 the author must have lived after the time of Proclus. The author became known as 'Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite' only after the philological work of J Stiglmayr and H Koch, whose papers, published independently in 1895, demonstrated the thoroughgoing dependence of the Corpus upon Proclus.[35] Both showed that Dionysius had used, in his treatise on evil in Chapter 4 of The Divine Names, the De malorum subsistentia of Proclus.

Dionysius' identity is still disputed. The compilers of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[36] 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.[37] In the past half century, Alexander Golitzin, Georgian academician Shalva Nutsubidze and Belgian professor Ernest Honigmann have all proposed identified pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite with Peter the Iberian.[38] A more recent identification is with Damascius, the last scholarch of the School of Athens.[39] There is therefore no current scholarly consensus on the question of Pseudo-Dionysius' identification.

There was no concept of intellectual property in the ancient world, and plagiarism was widely seen as a homage to the original author. The Stanford Encyclopedia claims "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." [36] Nevertheless, Lucy Beckett's judges pseudo-Dionysius as having achieved "the most successful confidence trick in European literature".[40]

See also


Further reading

Greek editions

  • Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca III, (Paris, 1857) [Greek text]
  • Beate Regina Suchla (ed.), Corpus Dionysiacum, 2 vols (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990–1) [the modern critical edition]
  • La Hiérarchie Céleste, ed. Roques R, Heil G and Gandillac M, Sources Chrétiennes 58 (Paris: Les Éditions de Cerf, 1958) [Critical edition of the Celestial Hierarchy with French translation]
  • Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, De Coelesti Hierarchia, London, 2012., ISBN 978-1-78336-010-9

Modern translations

  • Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987) [The only complete modern English translation (and the only modern English translation of The Celestial Hierarchy), based almost entirely on the text in Migne]
  • Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite: The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, trans. Thomas L. Campbell, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1981)
  • 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), [Includes a translation of the Letters on pp130-160]
  • Jones, John D, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, (Milwaukee, 1980)
  • Rolt, CE, The Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, (London: SPCK, 1920) [reprinted as Clarence Edwin Rolt, Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, 2004, IBIS PRESS, ISBN 0-89254-095-8]

Secondary sources

  • Coakley, Sarah and Charles M Stang, eds, Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) [also published as Modern Theology 24:4, (2008)]
  • Frend, W. H. C.. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972).
  • Fiori, E., "The topic of mixture as philosophical key to the understanding of the Divine Names: Dionysius and the Origenist monk Stephen bar Sudaili", in L. Karfikova, M. Havrda (eds.), Nomina Divina, (Fribourg: Academic Press, 2011), 71-88.
  • Fiori, E., "Mystique et liturgie entre Denys l’Aréopagite et le Livre de Hiérothée  : aux origines de la mystagogie syro-occidentale", in A. Desreumaux (ed.) Les mystiques syriaques, (Paris: Geuthner 2011), 27-44.
  • Golitzin, Alexander. Et Introibo Ad Altare Dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to Its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition, (Thessalonika: Patriarchikon Idruma Paterikôn Meletôn, 1994)
  • Griffith, R., "Neo-Platonism and Christianity: Pseudo-Dionysius and Damascius", in E. A. Livingstone, ed, Studia patristica XXIX. Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995, (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 238-243.
  • 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).
  • Hunt, P. "The Wisdom Iconography of Light: The Genesis, Meaning and Iconographic Realization of a Symbol," Byzantinoslavica, LXVII,1-2 (2009), 55-118.
  • Ivanovic, Filip, Symbol and Icon: Dionysius the Areopagite and the Iconoclastic Crisis (Eugene: Pickwick, 2010). ISBN 978-1-60899-335-2
  • LeClercq, Jean, 'Influence and noninfluence of Dionysius in the Western Middle Ages', in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp25–33
  • Louth, Andrew, Dionysius the Areopagite, (London : Geoffrey Chapman, 1989)
  • 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, 62, 4 (1993), 469–482.
  • Rorem, Paul and John C Lamoreaux, John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus: Annotating the Areopagite, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
  • Stock, Wiebke-Marie, Theurgisches Denken. Zur "Kirchlichen Hierarchie" des Dionysius Areopagita (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008) (Transformationen der Antike, 4).

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • "Catholic Encyclopedia
  • html, and plain text formats) accessed September 1, 2006
  • Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  • The Identity of Dionysius Areopagite. A Philosophical Approach. Logos 1-2007.
  • Pope Benedict XVI on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite May 14, 2008,
External links to bibliography
  • (Theologica Mystica) accessed September 1, 2006
  • Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  • Magdalen College
  • Theologia vivificans, cibus solidus ; Dionysii Opera omnia ([Reprod.]) / translatio per Ambrosium Traversarium ; Jacobus Faber Stapulensis edidit - per Johannem Higmanum et Wolfgangum Hopylium (Parisius), 1498. accessed September 7, 2010.
  • S. Dionysii Areopagitae martyris inclyti, athenarum episcopi, et galliarum apostoli opera ([Reprod.]) / translatio nova Ambrosii Florentini,... - A. Wechelum (Paris), 1555. accessed September 7, 2010.
  • S. Dionysii Areopagitae Opera omnia, Georgii Pachymerae paraphrasi continenter illustrata / opera et studio Balthasaris Corderii,... ; accessed September 7, 2010.