Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



THE authority of the Dionysian writings is for us (whatever may have been the case in earlier and less critical times) derived rather from the use made of them to express the received doctrines of the Church than from any view that may be entertained of the identity or position of the writer. Their history is a curious one. They first received public notice at a conference held at Constantinople in the year 533 between representatives of orthodoxy under Hypatius, Bishop of Ephesus, and those of a Monophysite sect called after and headed by Severus, patriarch of Antioch. The Severians at this conference appealed to the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite as upholding the Monophysite doctrine, but their quotations were disallowed by Hypatius as probably spurious. From that time forward an increasing importance was attached to the works attributed to the Areopagite, not only by heretical writers, but also by orthodox Catholics, among whom may be mentioned Eulogius, patriarch of Alexandria in 580, Pope Gregory the Great, and Maximus, the author of lengthy scholia on the Dionysian books; and Dionysius was referred to by the Lateran Council in 649 as an authority against Monothelitism. On the introduction of the Dionysian writings into France in the eighth century the idea arose that the author was identical with St Denys of France; and Hilduin, abbot of St Denys at Paris, subsequently did much to promote the authority of the Areopagite by means of this patriotic identification, which, it need hardly be said, has no historical value whatever.

The works of Dionysius were first translated into Latin by Hilduin, and somewhat later by John Scotus Eriugena; other translations were made by John Sarrazenus, Grosseteste, Thomas Vercellensis, Ambrosius Camaldulensis, Marsilio Ficino and Balthasar Corderius. Commentaries were written by Hugo of St Victor, Albertus Magnus, St Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Carthusian; and the great scholastics make copious references to Dionysius -- notably St Thomas Aquinas. Dionysius was called, with some pardonable exaggeration, the founder of the Scholastic method, by Corderius, who gives an imposing list of St Thomas's references to him.

Doubts began once more to be cast on the genuineness of the Dionysiaca by writers of the Renaissance period: the question was raised by Lorenzo Valla, and was for long a subject of vehement controversy, which can hardly be said even yet to be at an end, though the opinion of the most recent and most competent scholars is on the negative side. The arguments on each side may be briefly summarised as follows

1. The style is not that of the sub-apostolic age, but closely resembles that of later Neoplatonist writers.

2. The correspondence of ideas between the works of Dionysius and those of Neoplatonist authors, more especially of Proclus, is very close; moreover, extracts from Proclus's work De Subsistentia Malorum appear, as has been pointed out by Professors Stiglmayer and Koch, in the treatise of Dionysius, De Divinis Nominibus.

3. No mention is made of the Dionysian writings by any author earlier than the sixth century: nor are they mentioned by Eusebius or St Jerome in their catalogues of ecclesiastical authors. The writings in which they were thought to have been referred to before that period have now been proved to be of much more recent date.

4. Certain rites and ceremonies are mentioned as customary in the writer's time which were unknown to the contemporaries of the Areopagite. Other anachronisms are the mention of monks; the use of the word hupostasis (substantia) in its later or post-Nicene sense; a reference to ecclesiastical tradition as archaia paradosis = "ancient tradition"; a quotation of the well-known phrase of St Clement of Rome, "My love is crucified" (Div. Nom., 4), though St Clement's martyrdom did not take place till after the death of St Timothy, to whom the Treatise de Div. Nom. is dedicated, and who is, moreover, addressed by the author as pais = "child" at a supposed time a the designation could scarcely have been appropriate.

None of these arguments were altogether unknown to antiquity, though some of them have been considerably strengthened by modern research. They were replied to at some length by Monsignor (afterwards Archbishop) Darboy, who fairly reproduces all the considerations that have been adduced in favour of the Dionysian authorship from St Maximus onwards.

1. It is contended that the style is due to the early philosophical education of the Areopagite, which would naturally have imparted to it many of the characteristics of Neoplatonism; it may fairly be considered as agreeing with the presumed date of the author.

2 & 3. The correspondences between the Dionysiaca and Proclus may be due to plagiarism on the part of the Neoplatonist, rather than of the Areopagite. Georgius Pachymeres, when advancing this opinion, suggests that the Dionysian works may have been suppressed by the Athenian philosophers who borrowed from them for their own purposes.

4. The anachronisms found in Dionysius are capable of being explained away. Thus, it is fairly certain that the essentials of such ceremonies as the blessing of the baptismal water, triple immersion at baptism, and the rites for blessing the Holy Oils were in use in Apostolic or sub-Apostolic times, though not then committed to writing; the strange ceremony of anointing the dead, mentioned by Dionysius, is found to have been a Jewish, and therefore probably also an early Christian custom. Monks (therapeutae) need not be understood to mean ccenobites or hermits, and a class so called certainly existed in Philo's time. The use of "hupostasis" in its earlier and untechnical sense of "person," is paralleled from Heb. 1., and the word is used in the same sense by Alexander, the predecessor of St Athanasius. The quotation from St Ignatius may have been added in a recension by the author, or may have been the work of a copyist; and a parallel to the phrase "archaia paradosis" may be found in 2 Thess. ii. 14. The designation of St Timothy as "child" is justified by an elaborate calculation of the comparative ages of Dionysius and St Timothy.

On the whole, it may be held that though the Dionysian authorship is not absolutely disproved, the balance of probability is strongly against it. Who the writer, if not Dionysius, may have been, or when he may have lived, it is quite impossible to say. Various dates have been suggested; but the use apparently made of the writings of Proclus seem to point to one not earlier than 462. Hipler's theory that the author was a theologian of the fourth century whose works were, by a misunderstanding, attributed to Dionysius, found some favour at the time of its production (1861), but is now generally rejected. It is indeed difficult to suppose that the direct statements of the author to the effect that he had been a disciple of St Paul, that he remembered the eclipse at the time of the Crucifixion, and that he was present with St Peter and his otherwise unknown master Hierotheus at the interment of the Blessed Virgin, are made with any other purpose than that of supporting his identity, whether real or assumed.

It is of some practical importance to consider whether the value of the books is in any way discredited by the unauthentic character which may with at least great probability be attributed to them.

In the first place, it would probably be unfair to regard them simply as a forgery. As Monsignor Darboy has remarked, no possible motive can be assigned for a forgery of this kind. They could hardly, like the forgeries of Chatterton, have been intended to reflect credit on their supposed discoverer, or to be a source of profit to him; and the supposition that they may have been intended to give support to the cause of orthodoxy is hardly consistent with their subject-matter, which is not directly concerned with any of the controversies belonging to the time of their appearance. Moreover, though perfectly orthodox, they were first quoted in favour of heretics, to whose views they gave no real support. It must be remembered that our present ideas of literary propriety had by no means obtained acceptance in the sixth century; and our modern device of making fiction a vehicle for historical, philosophical or theological speculation had not yet been discovered. Romances were, however, not unknown, and pseudonymous works of a historical and theological character existed in some numbers. We may fairly consider that the Dionysiaca combined both characters. The author would seem to have intended to give the Christian rendering of the philosophico-religious system evolved by Plotinus and later Neoplatonism; and he may have sought to gain a hearing for his views by publishing them under the name of one who had held positions of honour both in the Pagan and in the Christian world. For the sake of verisimilitude the appropriate contemporary references were rather crudely inserted. Whatever, therefore, we may think of the artistic character of the work, we have no more right to fix upon it the moral stigma of forgery than to condemn on similar grounds such works as Waverley, John Inglesant or En Route.

But in any case, the work is of a character. which cannot be affected by the authority attributed to its author, as, for example, a historical work professedly written by a contemporary would be. The Dionysian books must stand on their own merits, no matter by whom or at what time they were written: what they say is true or false for all times and all persons. Their authority, for us, lies not in their authenticity, as the works of any particular writer, but in the fact that they have been adopted by the Church as truly representative of certain phases of her doctrine, and as containing nothing contrary to it: it is, in fact, the accumulated authority of the long list of approved writers whose work has been based on, or in accordance with them.

This is more especially the case with the Mystical Theology and the three letters connected with it. These deal simply with the relations between God, the world of created things, and the soul of man. They depend on no references to persons, places or events, but appeal to that perception of the inner truth of things which is alike in all ages and all countries, and which probably no man is altogether without.

The other extant works of Dionysius are the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and six letters on different subjects, in addition to the three here translated. The Treatise of Divine Names deals with the unique, transcendental nature of God, which of its superabundant fulness creates all that is external to God, and gives to each order of being its proper degree of the divine likeness, and its function of communicating a share of the divine gifts to the order below it. It is hardly necessary to remark that we have here the Christian rendering of the Neoplatonic "one," the Neoplatonic and Gnostic doctrines of emanation, and the Gnostic "Pleroma," or fulness, touched on in a manner somewhat like the Dionysian treatment by St John and St Paul. (St John i.; Eph. i. 23; iii. 19; Coloss. i. 19; ii. 9.)

In the other two treatises, the Angelic hierarchy in its ninefold choirs, and the various orders of the Church, from bishop to penitent, are described. These are the more striking and important examples of the creative energy that flows out from the one personal God, as the primeval Creator, and as the incarnate Head of the Church. In these books God is considered as in a true sense immanent in the creatures which He nevertheless transcends; as in the Mystical Theology, the necessity is insisted on of rising above the created manifestations of the divine power and excellence, for those who desire to obtain some knowledge of the Creator as He is in Himself.

The influence of Neoplatonism, in both terminology and method, is obvious enough in the Dionysian writings, and through them has directly or indirectly passed into nearly all the mystical literature of subsequent ages. But, as we have already seen, the pantheistic doctrines of Neoplatonism are entirely rejected by Dionysius, and are indeed incompatible with his view of creation and of the relations, actual or possible, between God and the soul. It may therefore be plausibly surmised that the main object of the author was to present the orthodox Christian view of the fundamental questions with which all philosophy and theology has to deal, in the form which would be most acceptable to the contemporary philosophic mind, and in terms of that mode of thought which was "in the air" at the time of writing. In much the same way Aristotelianism was christianised by St Thomas, and many apologetic works of the last fifty years have sought to express the concepts of Christian theology in terms of the current physiology and psychology.{1}

Dionysius refers to several works of his own which seem to have remained entirely unknown, and which are by some thought to have had no real existence. These are Theological Outlines, Sacred Hymns, Symbolic Theology, The Just Judgment of God, The Soul, and The Objects of Sense and Intellect.

A full account of the Dionysian writings is given by Professor Stiglmayer in the American Catholic Encyclopedia; a less recent one is to be found in the Dictionary of Christian Biography. The available evidence for the authorship is discussed in Darboy's OEuvres de St Denys, Lupton's introduction to Dean Colet's Paraphrase of Dionysius, and Bardenhewer's Patrologie.

Modern translations have been published in German by Engelhart (1823) and Storf (Kirchliche Hierarchie, 1877), and in French by Darboy (OEuvres de St Denys, 1845) and Dulac (1865). In English a translation was completed in 1895 by Rev. J. Parker; and a translation of the Mystical Theology was published in London in 1653, in a volume of sermons by John Everard, D. D., entitled Some Gospel Treasures opened: or the Holiest of all Unvailing -- whereunto is added the Mystical Divinity of Dionysius the Areopagite, spoken of Acts xvii. 34.

The most recent, and the most accessible edition of the text of Dionysius is that of Corderius, S.J., published at Antwerp 1634, and frequently reprinted, together with Latin translation, translator's notes, the commentary of St Maximus and the paraphrase of Pachymeres; the same edition is included in Migne's Greek Patrology.

{1} "These works were intended to show that all which the Platonic school had gathered of truth in all parts of the world and in all ages, is to be found in a far purer and more complete form in Christianity." -- Görres, Mystique Divine Naturelle et Diabolique (tr. par Ste Foix), vol. i. p. 67.

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