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Dionysius The Pseudo-areopagite

The name identifies an author who probably lived in Syria in the fifth or early sixth century a.d. His writings were originally held in high honor, being initially attributed to Dionysius of Athens. His works made a significant impact on medieval theology. Gregory the Great, Martin I, and the Lateran Council of 649 all approved his writings, and in the Western Church they exerted considerable influence toward mysticism. Hugh of St.-Victor, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Dionysius the Carthusian all drew inspiration from him. So too did Platonists of the Italian Renaissance, John Colet, Dante, and John Milton, among others.

His extant writings include The Celestial Hierarchy (describing the mediation by angels of God to man), The Divine Names (on the attributes of God), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (which describes the sacraments and the three “ways” of spiritual life), and a work on mystical theology which describes the ascent of the soul toward union with God. He wrote also ten letters to monks, priests, and deacons on the points raised in his treatises. His works reveal a knowledge of Plotinus, Proclus, and other Neoplatonists, and considerable familiarity with Scripture and the Apocrypha. His writings attempt a synthesis between Christian truth and Neoplatonist thought. His central emphases are the union between man and God, and the progressive deification of man in which the soul abandons both the perceptions of the senses and the reasoning of the mind. The soul is consequently illuminated and carried ultimately to a knowledge of the ineffable Being. The Pseudo-Areopagite also taught that God is related to the world by a graded series of beings or angels corresponding to the hierarchy of the church (bishops, priests, and deacons). These hierarchies are intended to lead man to deification, a goal which is reached through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages.

In the sixteenth century the Reformers and Roman Catholic scholars doubted the authenticity of these writings, a doubt intensified by the development of literary criticism. Comparison of the writings of the Pseudo-Areopagite with those of the Neoplatonists is now held to establish their genuineness and a single, actual author.

See bibliography in B. Altaner, Patrologie (5th ed., 1958).