on 19 December 2010
This is a challenging book. I admit that I only read parts of it, and skimmed through the rest.
The unknown writer known to modern scholars as Pseudo-Dionysius probably lived during the fifth or sixth century AD. He may have been a "heretical" Christian monk or even a Neo-Platonist, attempting to cast his message in a Christian mould. To achieve the maximum impact, this unknown writer claimed to be Dionysius the Aeropagite, a person mentioned in the New Testament. This pious fraud is no longer taken seriously by scholars or theologians, hence the designation "Pseudo-Dionysius". Despite this, the writings are still held in high esteem by many in the Eastern churches, where Pseudo-Dionysius is regarded as an unknown Church Father.
This collection contains translations of all writings attributed to Dionysius: "The Divine Names", "The Mystical Theology", "The Celestial Hierarchy", "The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" and ten letters. The book also contains introductory chapters and footnotes. However, it's not really a scholarly treatise on Pseudo-Dionysius. The introductions and notes are quite short. The main point of this volume is to present the works of the man himself. More extensive scholarly analyses can be found elsewhere.
My wild guess concerning Pseudo-Dionysius is that he was a lonely pagan philosopher who attempted to salvage the Neo-Platonist legacy by adding some Christian touches to it. But perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, the writings of "Dionysius the Aeropagite" were held in high esteem by many Christians during the Middle Ages. Clearly, our author must have said *something* that struck a chord. Christianity was already influenced by Platonist philosophy. The experiences of mystics are often remarkably similar across cultural and religious divides. And Pseudo-Dionysius was, of course, a mystic. Finally, Dionysius defends the church hierarchy and the sacraments, claiming it reflects the heavenly hierarchy of angels. As the editors point out: the most successful pseudonymous writings are those who confirm what everyone "knows" already. The texts even contain Christological formulations: one of them sounds Monophysite, while the other sounds Chalcedonian! In the event, both groups claimed Dionysius as their own.
Still, the similarities with Neo-Platonism are tantalizing. Dionysius seems to have an almost pantheist conception of God. He believes that the world proceeds from God and then returns to God. He calls God "Good" and seems to have problems making the Christian Trinity part of his scheme. Neo-Platonist terminology is used through out, and there is a long chain of intermediary beings between God and humanity, just as in later Neo-Platonism. There is also a preoccupation with symbols, initiation, esotericism and "don't throw pearls before swine". The symbols have a double meaning: to make the ineffable understandable to our limited human intellects, but also to hide the truth from the unworthy. The hierarchy of the church stands inbetween the unworthy, who can't see God at all, and the mystics, who experience him without the mediation of symbols. Apparently, Iamblichus had similar ideas about pagan rituals. In the footnotes, the editors briefly point out various similarities between Dionysius and the Neo-Platonists Iamblichus and Proclus.
On a lighter note, one of the letters supposedly penned by the Biblical Dionysius to Polycarp (a real bishop of the second century) claims that Dionysius and a certain Apollophanes observed a mysterious eclipse of the sun while strolling in the Egyptian town of Heliopolis. This, of course, was the eclipse supposedly following the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. Apparently, poor Apollophanes later turned a sceptic and refused to believe the Gospel stories about Jesus. Dionysius vainly pointed out to him that the life of Jesus is written down in the sacred books of the Persians, and that even today, the Magi celebrate "the triple Mithras". That's presumably the Trinity! Ooops. Here the Neo-Platonist syncretism of the writer becomes obvious: Egypt, Judea, Chaldea. And this supposedly in a letter from a disciple of Paul to a disciple of John...
Be that as it may, I nevertheless recommend this volume to serious students of either mysticism, mystical theology or Christian history. Who or what Dionysius really was, he certainly made an impression. His marriage of Christianity and Neo-Platonism was a happy one, it seems.