Denys l'Aréopagite: Tradition et Métamorphoses. By Ysabel de Andia, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes. By Sarah Klitenic Wear & John Dillon and Pseudo-Dionysius as Polemicist: The Development and Purpose of the Angelic Hierarchy in Sixth-Century Syria. By Rosemary A. Arthur


Pp. 352 . Paris , Librairie J. Vrin , 2006 , £38.75 .

Pp. x, 110 . Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , £49.00 .

Pp. xii, 213 . Aldershot , Ashgate , 2008 , £49.50 .

Over half a dozen important studies have appeared during recent years on the enigmatic Deutero-Dionysius Areopagite. Each has received some consideration in this journal with the exception of these three, which will likely be the last monographs dedicated to this influential thinker for some time, since virtually every aspect of the Dionysian corpus has been subjected to meticulous cartography.

Y. de Andia's work is a well organised, penetrating exposition of central doctrinal constants within the Dionysian tradition, and an overview of subsequent appropriations of his thought by a limited number of important figures. The first section analyses the following Dionysian themes: Suffering the divine; Philosophy and mystical union according to Dionysius; Symbol and mystery; Beauty, light, and love; Negative theology and the cross. The second section portrays the diffusion and influence of Dionysius's writings: the Dionysian corpus in mediaeval Paris; Transfiguration and negative theology according to Maximus Confessor; Remotion and negation in Aquinas's vocabulary; Hugh of Balma and two ways towards union; John of the Cross's assimilation of Dionysius; and Edith Stein's interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysian symbolic theology.

Beginning with Synesius Cyrene's utilisation of the doubtfully authentic ‘peri philosophias’ of Aristotle to emphasise the opposition of ‘mathein/pathein’, de Andia economically traces the utilisation of these notions and their cognates in relation to what is signfied by ‘pati divina’, both by major predecessors of Dionysius and by subsequent thinkers, who relied on his definition of ‘eros’ as a power or ‘dunamis’ rather than a passion, and of initiation as inspiration or experience of divine things that involves knowledge by contact and ignorance of him who touches. Acknowledging the two first hypotheses of Parmenides as undergirding Dionysius's mystical theology, de Andia insists on the latter's originality in utilising the Greek heritage within the Platonic Theology to articulate Christian mystical theology.

The fundamental Dionysian distinction of sayable and unsayable are sensitively linked with the mystical and philosophical modes or methods of contemplative exercise, the one concerning initiation and the other demonstration, the first being obscure and the other clear and evident, the former emphasising symbol and the latter ‘logos’. It is the symbol as veil of light and beauty and as passage from light to light as end, that can not be separated from mystery that it manifests and keeps hidden, any more than the senses as the body's vestments can be ignored in arriving at the intelligible. Development of these themes, and supported by a remarkably judicious series of wide ranging citations from thinkers within the Dionysian tradition, terminates with a consideration of the Word crucified, ineffability, humility, and Moses entering Tenebrae. The chapters of the second section, as already indicated, focus on subsequent influential speculator mystics in terms of how each prioritised these themes and modulated terminology to appropriate them. This profoundly meditative work, so ascetically focussed and richly documented, merits translation into other languages.

The work by S. Klitenic and J. Dillon is distinct in range of concerns and tone from that of de Andia. While it is difficult to discern exactly what each author contributed, the emphasis is on Neoplatonic sources of Dionysius. After a brief introduction that gives an overview of scholarship on the identity of the author of the Dionysian corpus and its context, the authors remark that Greek was not likely Dionysius's native language, even though he evidenced originality in adapting characteristic terminology of the fifth-century Athenian Platonic Academy to create novel alliterations and polyptotons. Seven sharply focussed, richly documented chapters follow: God as monad in the Divine Names; God as Trinity; On Hierarchy; The problem of evil; ‘Theoria’ as onomastic theurgy; ‘Hierourgia’ and ‘Theourgia’ in sacramental activity; Union and return to God.

Chapter one presents astute contrasts between Dionysius and Proclus concerning the metaphorical attribution of motion to God, whether linear, spiral, or circular, which Proclus limited to the realm of Being and correlates with Intellection, while Dionysius specified that motion in God neither indicates change in place nor in the mind of God. However, he admits application of Parmenidean categories to God in terms of Sameness, through focal reference to the One as remaining eternally without change or decline, and Otherness or difference, through focal reference to that which proceeds from the One and to which the One is available according to each being's capacity. In regard to descriptions of the Trinity, Dionysius's portrayals in terms of an ontological ordering of being, life, and wisdom parallel that of Marius Victorinus, who was influenced by Porphyry, although Dionysius explicitly remarks that members of the Trinity are equal, a conclusion that resonates in his apparent concord with orthodox doctrine concerning Christ as fully man and God. The chapter on Dionysius's elucidation of hierarchy centers on his doctrine of analogy, and after examining adumbrations of such in Plotinus, Proclus, and Syrianus, the authors conclude that all that distinguishes Dionysius's concept of hierarchy and process of ‘analogia’ from that of his Platonic predecessors is his insistence on the active love of God for creation.

The problem of evil is examined at the middle point in this treatise, and Dionysius is presented as relying heavily on Proclus's previous reflections, and through sophisticated dialectical reasoning alters and simplifies Proclus's reasoning, he relies in part on Origen's De Principiis to conclude with Proclus that evil as such does not exist. These considerations are followed by what may be the most intriguing of all the richly textured chapters within this work. In elucidating how Dionysius portrays symbols as being unfolded with reference to their level of meaning which corresponds to the progression of the listener, it is established that Dionysian scriptural interpretation reflects Proclus's theory of participation, in that each hierarchic rank of intelligibility and receptivity participates in the higher while being unaffectedly participated in by the lower, such that the highest is unaffected cause of what is lower, while the middle participates the higher and is unaffectedly participated by the lowest. In this way, textual interpretation is not mere commentary, but a hierarchic performative process in which names as symbola reveal ‘ousia’ and act as ‘dynamis’ through ritual chanting, for ultimately, ‘theoria’ is ‘theourgia’.

This has implications concerning the preparation or disposition of initiates for higher receptive attainments, and finds parallels in Dionysius's understanding of sacramental theurgy, which is enacted to recreate the divine work of the Incarnation through material symbols and contemplation, although he subtly shifts terminology inherited from Hellenic sources to emphasise the enactment of Christ's sacred acts through sacramental ‘hierougia’ performed through human co-operation as constituting ‘theourgia’. Appropriately, the final chapter concerns union and return to God, and the authors discern sources for imagery utilised by Dionysius in depicting the return to origin as manifestation of hidden beauty within the soul in Plato's Phaedrus conveyed through Plotinus's Enneads. As well, they relate Dionysius's negative treatment of God in his Divine Names to Damascius's descriptions of the One in his Commentary on the Parmenides and On First Principles, without, however, establishing definitively to what degree such is the case. Apart from a few very minor disputable points, this work may well be the most valuable examination of Dionysius's relation to Neoplatonic sources available.

Rosemary Arthur, as well, has produced a remarkable investigation that has sharply defined objectives. One of her principal aims is to discern why this sixth-century Syrian author elaborated as he did on the angelic hierarchy within the Dionysian corpus, which was likely completed between 527–532 CE, and why he veiled his identify with a pseudonym to avoid persecution for heresy by the orthodox. She masterfully reinforces the case for identifying Dionysius with Sergius of Reshaina, a monastic Monophysite bishop who followed Severus of Antioch, and argues that he wrote mainly to confirm the unity of the church through the episcopal office amidst centrifugal tendencies promoted by semi-anarchical ascetic monastic movements and Originist intellectualising speculations germinated in an agonistic environment of Greek against Syrian, Orthodox versus Monophysite, clergy versus monks, and educated against uneducated.

A particularly attractive feature of Arthur's work is her careful exploration in the initial chapter of virtually every potential Christian and non-Christian influence on the Dionysian corpus. She also offers an impressive series of methodologically controlled, dialectical explorations to eliminate the candidates proposed by all previous investigators seeking to identify Dionysius. Remarking that Bar Sudhaili may have been originator of the terms ‘hierarchy’ and ‘hierarch’, rather than Dionysius as many have alleged, Arthur argues that the Dionysian corpus was in part a polemical response to the former's agreement with Origin and Evagrius that angels and men may metamorphose and choose their rank within the scale of being, thus jeopardising the ordered hierarchies of law, church, and angels, in order to support the position that in the end all necessarily returns to God at ‘apocatastasis’.

Arthur's meticulous consideration of important sources and influences beyond the Middle Platonists is an indication of the uniquely extensive historical range of her analyses, and it is evidenced in many conclusions, including her judgment that it is from Origen that Dionysius derives his threefold hierarchy, rather than from Neoplatonism. As well, Dionysius's emphasis on church structure and sacraments contrasted markedly with the Origenism of Bar Sudhaili, for whom the sacraments were merely symbolic. A correlate of this is Dionysius's close affinity with Judaism in contending that not even the angels may know ‘Ha Shem’, the Name of God, thus indicating his acquaintance with Philo, Enoch literature, the ‘Book of Jubilees’, and other important Jewish sources.

Nonetheless, Arthur detects lacunae within Dionysian doctrines that assuredly give one pause. ‘Dionysius never tackles the question of how to pray to this unknown God. Having taken away the Christ of faith, he has seemingly nothing to put in his place, so far as the ordinary believer is concerned’, perhaps a correlate of the fact that he seldom uses the term ‘logos’ in reference to Jesus. This seems paradoxical at first glance, for Arthur emphasises Dionysius's assertion in Letter 4 that Christ is ‘neither human nor non-human … it was not by virtue of being God that he possessed divine powers, nor by virtue of being a man that he had human ones, but he achieved something new, the power of the God-man, by being God made man’. As Arthur remarks, this formulation arguably obscures the direct affirmation that in Christ one encounters one who is perfect God and (hu)man. However, her assertion that ‘since Dionysius claims to be writing in the first century there is no justification for demanding that he profess the Christological views of the fourth or fifth centuries’ perhaps needs qualification, for although a plausible ontological description of the Incarnation by a believer contrived to pertain to an earlier period need not be questioned in terms of the mode of its expression, it ought to cohere in terms of what is signified or understood in later elucidations and explanations. Nonetheless, one may readily assent to Arthur's conclusion that one of the enduring strengths of Dionysius's doctrine remains his teaching that ‘no one has the right to define the nature of God’.

Any interested in the context, sources, stylistics, doctrinal content, authorial intention, and extensive influence of the Dionysian corpus will find these profoundly integrative studies to be remarkable achievements. By refining our comprehension of this important ‘corpus’ and its doctrines, we may better comprehend how extrapolations from Dionysian hierarchisation and their past imposition upon and encoding within ecclesial and civic society catalysed contrary emphases and symbolisations confirming anthropocentric secularity as capable of sustaining itself as confidence in the natural efficacy of created causality and autonomous explanatory methodologies was increasingly confirmed. This tended to discredit depreciations of creaturely causality to increase reverence towards God, along with the stance that pervasive allegorical sacramental instrumentality was needed to supplement and assure that natural operations achieve their ends, even while it encouraged more rigorous explanations of the proper causal efficacy of sacraments and the magisterial role of the church. Yet, as H. Armstrong once observed, by having implied that a hierarchised and juridically constituted ecclesial society was exclusive true theophany, other operative theophanies within created nature were delegitimised, leaving all ‘outside’ with desacralised visions of the non-human world. The implications and consequences of this thesis still merit examination.