Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite


Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Denys, was a Christian theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century (writing before 532), probably Syrian, the author of the set of works commonly referred to as the Corpus Areopagiticum or Corpus Dionysiacum. The author pseudonymously identifies himself in the corpus as “Dionysios”, portraying himself as the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. 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.

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, 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.

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”.

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. 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. About 838, Dionysius’ works were translated into Latin for the first time by Hilduin, abbot of the monastery of St Denys near Paris. 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.

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

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. 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. It quickly became common to make reference to Dionysius. Thomas Aquinas wrote an explanation for several works, and cites him over 1700 times. 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.

Pseudo-Dionysius combines Neo-Platonism (such as the works of Plotinus and Proclus) with Christian mysticism. What seems to be the center of intelligibility and comprehension for Pseudo-Dionysius is language, so for the one who is least comprehensible, there is the least language. He highlights the connection between language and comprehension in this passage:

“The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”

Pseudo-Dionysius sees God as so incomprehensible that He is viewed as a “divine darkness,” and the path towards Him leads into “the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing”. (As a sidenote, this phrase is often translated as “the cloud of unknowing,” which lends itself to the title of a Middle English work of Christian mysticism.) Even though God is a “divine darkness,” He is also light, which can be envisioned in the image of the sun, which “illuminates whatever is capable of receiving its light and yet it never loses the utter fullness of its light.”

He describes God as “the God who is” and as the one who “is coming-to-be amid whatever happens,” yet later in the same paragraph, he writes these words: “He was not. He will not be. He did not come to be. He is not in the midst of becoming. He will not come to be. No. He is not.”

How does one reconcile the ideas that God is coming to be and not coming to be, that He is and He is not? The answer lies in mystery. To put it bluntly: “Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.” Explanations of Him may seem contradictory in our minds, but that is because He is beyond us. If we cannot learn the counsel of God can we learn His true nature? As Pseudo-Dionysius writes: “Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being.”

To summarize all this, God is mysterious. The more we try to understand His true nature and being, the fewer words we have to describe Him: to paraphrase Pseudo-Dionysius, the more we climb, the more language falters. In the end, we have no words to describe who God is: He is beyond our understanding, and thus He is beyond our language. We must recognize, then, that the only way we can come to know Him is because He has revealed Himself to us. All we know of God comes from creation and the working of the Holy Spirit upon man.

Essentially, Pseudo-Dionysius posits the inability to say anything about God at all. He writes that God both is and is not. This fits into another principle he works under: “Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being.”

This connects to a long-standing debate in the theological world between two concepts: cataphatic theology (that is, describing God through affirmation and positive terminology) and apophatic theology (that is, describing God through negation and negative terminology). In general, it seems the West is more fond of cataphatic, while the East is more fond of apophatic, though it is by no means and absolute division between the two. In Pseudo-Dionysius’ view, one should begin with the cataphatic and then proceed to the apophatic. He seems to overall support the apophatic over cataphatic: this is the core of the whole idea of “unknowing.” This passage shows this idea well:

“I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge. For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings.”

The twist is that, though Pseudo-Dionysius encourages negation as the greater path (and his idea of “unknowing” continued to affect mysticism after him), he recognizes that even it is not truly effective. God is more mysterious than even apophatic theology could strive to understand. He is “beyond assertion and denial”.

“We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.”


More excerpts from his writings:

“The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.”

“Divinity above all knowledge, whose goodness passes understanding . . . direct our way to the summit of thy mystical oracles, most incomprehensible, most lucid and most exalted, where the simple and pure and unchangeable mysteries of theology are revealed in the darkness, clearer than light, of that silence in which secret things are hidden; a darkness that shines brighter than light, that invisibly and intangibly illuminates with splendours of inconceivable beauty the soul that sees not. Let this be my prayer; but do thou, diligently giving thyself to mystical contemplation, leave the senses, and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intelligible, and things that are and things that are not, that thou mayest rise as may be lawful for thee, by ways above knowledge to union with Him who is above all knowledge and all being; that in freedom and abandonment of all, thou mayest be borne, through pure, entire and absolute abstraction of thyself from all things, into the supernatural radiance of the divine darkness.

But see that none of the uninitiated hear these things. I mean those who cleave to created things, and suppose not that anything exists after a supernatural manner, above nature; but imagine that by their own natural understanding they know Him who has made darkness His secret place. But if the principles of the divine mysteries are above the understanding of these, what is to be said of those yet more untaught, who call the absolute First Cause of all after the lowest things in nature, and say that He is in no way above the images which they fashion after various designs; of whom they should declare and affirm that in Him as the cause of all, is all that may be predicated positively of created things; while yet they might with more propriety deny these predicates to Him, as being far above all; holding that here denial is not contrary to affirmation, since He is infinitely above all notion of deprivation, and above all affirmation and negation.

Thus the divine Bartholomew says that Theology is both much and very little, and that the Gospel is great and ample, and yet short. His sublime meaning is, I think, that the beneficent cause of all things says much, and says little, and is altogether silent, as having neither (human) speech nor (human) understanding, since He is essentially above all created things, and manifests Himself unveiled, and as He truly is to those only who pass beyond all that is either pure or impure, who rise above the highest height of holy things, who abandon all divine light and sound and heavenly speech, and are absorbed into that darkness where, as the Scripture says, He truly is, who is beyond all things.

It was not without a deeper meaning that the divine Moses was commanded first to be himself purified, and then to separate himself from the impure; and after all this purification heard many voices of trumpets, and saw many lights shedding manifold pure beams: and that he was thereafter separated from the multitude and together with the elect priests came to the height of the divine ascents. Yet hereby he did not attain to the presence of God Himself; he saw not Him (for He cannot be looked upon), but the place where He was. This, I think, signifies that the divinest and most exalted of visible and intelligible things are, as it were, suggestions of those that are immediately beneath Him who is above all, whereby is indicated the presence of Him who passes all understanding, and stands, as it were, in that spot which is conceived by the intellect as the highest of His holy places; then that they who are free and untrammelled by all that is seen and all that sees enter into the true mystical darkness of ignorance, whence all perception of understanding is excluded, and abide in that which is intangible and invisible, being wholly absorbed in Him who is beyond all things, and belong no more to any, neither to themselves nor to another, but are united in their higher part to Him who is wholly unintelligible, and whom, by understanding nothing, they understand after a manner above all intelligence.”

“We desire to abide in this most luminous darkness, and without sight or knowledge, to see that which is above sight or knowledge, by means of that very fact that we see not and know not. For this is truly to see and know, to praise Him who is above nature in a manner above nature, by the abstraction of all that is natural; as those who would make a statue out of the natural stone abstract all the surrounding material which hinders the sight of the shape lying concealed within, and by that abstraction alone reveal its hidden beauty. It is needful, as I think, to make this abstraction in a manner precisely opposite to that in which we deal with the Divine attributes; for we add them together, beginning with the primary ones, and passing from them to the secondary, and so to the last; but here we ascend from the last to the first, abstracting all, so as to unveil and know that which is beyond knowledge, and which in all things is hidden from our sight by that which can be known, and so to behold that supernatural darkness which is hidden by all such light as is in created things.”

“Because in proportion as we ascend higher our speech is contracted to the limits of our view of the purely intelligible; and so now, when we enter that darkness which is above understanding, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence, and the negation of thought. Thus in the other treatises our subject took us from the highest to the lowest, and in the measure of this descent our treatment of it extended itself; whereas now we rise from beneath to that which is the highest, and accordingly our speech is restrained in proportion to the height of our ascent; but when our ascent is accomplished, speech will cease altogether, and be absorbed into the ineffable. But why, you will ask, do we add in the first and begin to abstract in the last? The reason is that we affirmed that which is above all affirmation by comparison with that which is most nearly related to it, and were therefore compelled to make a hypothetical affirmation; but when we abstract that which is above all abstraction, we must distinguish it also from those things which are most remote from it. Is not God more nearly life and goodness than air or a stone; must we not deny more fully that He is drunken or enraged, than that He can be spoken of or understood?”

“We say that the cause of all things, who is Himself above all things, is neither without being nor without life, nor without reason nor without intelligence; nor is He a body nor has He form or shape, or quality or quantity or mass; He is not localised or visible or tangible; He is neither sensitive nor sensible; He is subject to no disorder or disturbance arising from material passion; He is not subject to failure of power, or to the accidents of sensible things; He needs no light; He suffers no change or corruption or division, or privation or flux; and He neither has nor is anything else that belongs to the senses.”

“Again, ascending, we say that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, nor opinion or reason; He has neither speech nor understanding, and is neither declared nor understood; He is neither number nor order, nor greatness nor smallness, nor equality nor likeness nor unlikeness; He does not stand or move or rest; He neither has power nor is power; nor is He light, nor does He live, nor is He life; He is neither being nor age nor time; nor is He subject to intellectual contact; He is neither knowledge nor truth. nor royalty nor wisdom; He is neither one nor unity, nor divinity, nor goodness; nor is He spirit, as we understand spirit; He is neither sonship nor fatherhood nor anything else known to us or to any other beings, either of the things that are or the things that are not; nor does anything that is, know Him as He is, nor does He know anything that is as it is; He has neither word nor name nor knowledge; He is neither darkness nor light nor truth nor error; He can neither be affirmed nor denied; nay, though we may affirm or deny the things that are beneath Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him; for the perfect and sole cause of all is above all affirmation, and that which transcends all is above all subtraction, absolutely separate, and beyond all that is.”

“Darkness is destroyed by light, especially by much light; ignorance is destroyed by knowledge, especially by much knowledge. You must understand this as implying not privation, but transcendence and so you must say with absolute truth, that the ignorance which is of God is unknown by those who have the created light and the knowledge of created things, and that His transcendent darkness is obscured by any light, and itself obscures all knowledge. And if any one, seeing God, knows what he sees, it is by no means God that he so sees, but something created and knowable. For God abides above created intellect and existence, and is in such sense unknowable and non-existent that He exists above all existence and is known above all power of knowledge. Thus the knowledge of Him who is above all that can be known is for the most part ignorance.”

“How can He who is beyond all things be also above the very principle of divinity and of goodness? By divinity and goodness must be understood the essence of the gift which makes us good and divine, or that unapproachable semblance of the supreme goodness and divinity whereby we also are made good and divine. For since this is the principle of deification and sanctification for those who are so deified and sanctified, then He. who is the essential principle of all principles (and therefore the principle of divinity and goodness) is above that divinity and goodness by means of which we are made good and divine: moreover, since He is inimitable and incomprehensible, He is above imitation and comprehension as He is above those who imitate and partake of Him.”

“The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.”

Additional quotes source:


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, and our lazy dog, Amos, in a lovely little mountain town called Paradise, situated on the ridge of the Little Grand Canyon, in the Northern California Sierra Nevadas. I have several other sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Poetry and Prosetry: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Free Transliterations of Spiritual Texts: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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