One of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity,
Dionysius the Areopagite remains an unknown author sometimes
called "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite" in order
to distinguish him from the figure of the same name mentioned
in Acts 17:34. Here, I use the name under which Dionysius
chose to write, while keeping in mind that Dionysius was
almost certainly not the one mentioned by Paul. Many scholars
believe he probably wrote these works around 500 A.D. There
are a wide range of scholarly hypotheses about the dates
of the Corpus Dionysianum, ranging from some who
date the works to as early as 300 A.D., to others who place
him as late as 544 A.D.
For our purposes much more important than which of these
dates is valid is Dionysius's influence, which is enormous.
However anachronistic this may be in actuality, Dionysius
has historically been regarded as an "apostolic Father"
of the Christian tradition, and was extremely important
for such authors as John Scotus Erigena, John Tauler, the
author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas Aquinas,
Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. Indeed, one might
with some justification see Dionysius as central to the
Italian Renaissance, for Pico translated his work just as
had Erigena before him.
What makes Dionysius so influential? In my view, there
are two central aspects of Dionysius's work that we must
consider. On the one hand, in Divine Names and Celestial
Hierarchy, he emphasizes the power of symbolism to convey
spiritual understanding, and in this his work can be seen
as a cornerstone for what has come to be known as Western
esotericism, for Dionysius's work speaks to the power of
the imagination in perceiving transcendent reality through
symbolism. On the other hand, in Mystical Theology,
Dionysius emphasized the absolute transcendence that cannot
be conveyed by any symbolism, but only through negation
like that of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Buddhism. Thus
in Dionysius's work we can clearly see both of the central
currents that run throughout the history of Western esotericism,
on the one hand the attraction to the power of imaginal
symbolism that manifests in magic, on the other hand a path
toward sheer transcendence that is to be found in the mysticism
of Tauler, The Cloud of Unknowing, and such contemporary
figures as Bernadette Roberts.
We included links here to the full texts of Dionysius's
Celestial Hierarchy and Mystical Theology.
These versions are based on an anonymous early twentieth
century translation, but were substantially revised in order
to clarify some of the language. There are several excellent
relatively recent published translations of Dionysius's
work, including that of the Complete Works (Paulist
Press: 1987), unfortunately now out of print. We include
these versions here primarily for use in teaching, as currently
there is no other available source for Celestial Hierarchy,
and there are no other works of Dionysius on the Web. Our
archivist Josh Strozeski was responsible for scanning these
in; I edited them.
- Arthur Versluis