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Dionysius The Areopagite by Clarence Edwin Rolt


The writings here translated are among the extant works of a theologian who professes to be St. Paul's Athenian convert Dionysius, and points his claim with a background of historical setting. But the claim collapses beneath a considerable weight of anachronisms, by far the chief of which is the later neo-Platonism in almost every paragraph. In fact, these writings appear to reflect, and even to quote, the doctrines of the Pagan philosopher Proclus, who began lecturing at Athens in A.D.430. Moreover, it is probable that the Hierotheus, who figures so largely in them, is the Syrian mystic Stephen bar Sudaili: a later contemporary of the same thinker. The Dionysian writings may therefore be placed near the very end of the fifth century.

The true name of their author is entirely unknown. He was probably a monk, possibly a bishop, certainly an ecclesiastic of some sort. His home is believed to have been Syria, where speculative theology was daring and untrammelled, and his works are the chief among the very few surviving specimens of an important school. The pious fraud by which he fathered them upon the Areopagite need not be branded with the harsh name of |forgery,| for such a practice was in his day permitted and even considered laudable. Nor does it rob them of their value, any more than certain parts of the prophecies ascribed to Isaiah are worthless because they are by another hand. If the Dionysian writings were historical documents the matter would be otherwise, just as the Gospel Narrative would lose nearly all its value if it were a later fabrication. But they are not historical documents. Their scope is with the workings of man's mind and spirit in a region that does not change, and their findings are equally valid or invalid whatever be their date. And yet even historically they have an interest which does not depend on their authorship. For, in any case, they spring from a certain reputable school within the Christian Church, and they were accepted by the Church at large. And thus their bold path of contemplation and philosophy is at least permissible to Christians. This path is not for all men, but some are impelled to seek it; and if it is denied them within the Christian pale, they will go and look for it elsewhere. Nietzsche is but one of those who have thus disastrously wandered afar in search of that which is actually to be found within the fold. Had he but studied the Dionysian writings he might have remained a Christian. At the present time these works have an added interest in the fact that, since neo-Platonism has strong affinities with the ancient philosophies of India, and may even owe something directly to that source through the sojourn of Plotinus in the Punjab, such writings as these may help the Church to meet with discriminating sympathy certain Indian teachings which are now becoming too familiar in the West to be altogether ignored. The bearings of this matter on the missionary problem are obvious.

The first mention of |Dionysius| (to give him by courtesy the name he takes upon himself) is in the year 533, when, at a council held in Constantinople, Severus, Patriarch of Antioch, appealed to these writings in support of Monophysite teaching. In spite of this unpromising beginning they soon acquired a great reputation; indeed, they presumably possessed some authority already when this first recorded appeal to them was made. They were widely read in the Eastern Church, being elucidated by the Commentary of St. Maximus in the seventh century and the Paraphrase of the learned Greek scholar, Pachymeres, in the thirteenth or fourteenth. Through Erigena's Latin translation in the ninth century they penetrated to the Western Church, and were so eagerly welcomed in this country that (in the words of the old chronicler), |The Mystical Divinity ran across England like deer.| They are often quoted with reverence by St. Thomas Aquinas, and were, indeed, the chief of the literary forces moulding the mystical theology of Christendom. Ruysbroeck slaked his thirst at their deep well, and so they provided a far greater than their author with stimulus and an articulate philosophy. Were this their only service they would have the highest claims on our gratitude.

But they have an intrinsic value of their own in spite of their obvious defects. And if their influence has too often led to certain spiritual excesses, yet this influence would not have been felt at all had they not met a deep spiritual want. It arose not merely on account of their reputed authorship but also because the hungering heart of man found here some hidden manna. This manna, garnished though it be in all these writings with strange and often untranslatable terms from the Pagan Mysteries and from later neo-Platonism, is yet in itself a plain and nourishing spiritual meat. Let us now try to discover its quality from the two treatises before us.

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