Friday, February 17, 2012

Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite

I’ve been looking forward to reading some treatises by Dionysius the Areopagite for a long time; Thomas Aquinas cites him frequently, and Dionysius’ view of the angels, as I understand it, played a large role in shaping Dante’s Paradiso. But in my first two days with On the Divine Names, I’ve found Dionysius disappointing and puzzling.

If you search for “Dionysius the Areopagite” on the internet, you’ll find “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite” and “Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite.” Chances are, the writer was neither named Dionysius nor a member of the Areopagus. Scholars of the last hundred years or so have determined that the works that come down to us under the name have nothing to do with the Dionysius whose interaction with the apostle Paul is mentioned in Acts 17; the language of his books is more consistent with that of a few centuries later.

So why do the books have the name of the Biblical Athenian on them? Dionysius eventually became the bishop of Athens, a recognized authority on Christian doctrine, and it was common practice in the Middle Ages to put an older authority’s name on a book. To a culture that thought more about passing down teaching than about coming up with original ideas, the practice wasn’t necessarily meant to deceive. Let’s say I wanted to write a tract on issues of music theory taught by my professor at Iowa, W. T. Atcherson. I might call it “The Music Theory of W. T. Atcherson.” Then suppose I wanted to remain anonymous for reasons of humility and respect. I would hope that my document accurately represented Prof. Atcherson, so readers from future centuries wouldn’t be far off if they mistook the words on the cover to mean that they were looking at a book called The Music Theory, and that it was actually written down by W. T. Atcherson. So this author putting the name of Dionysius to his work doesn’t bother me. The problem is that the author of On the Divine Names claims to have been present at the burial of Mary, along with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. Even trying to set aside my modern sensibilities about authorship, I can’t get around thinking that that passage was meant to deceive. Disappointing.

On top of being misleading at least once, the book uses very dense and difficult language. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that On the Divine Names teaches neo-Platonism in Christian terms. Another site says it teaches Christian doctrine in neo-Platonic terms. I don’t know. One way or another I’m reading phrases like “goodly progressions from the whole Deity.” And using these mystical terms and dense sentence structures, the author starts out trying to say that God is beyond our comprehension. But he can’t just say that; he has to demonstrate the concept by using language beyond comprehension. I couldn’t help thinking of William James talking about Hegel and other virtual “lunatics” who go around and around incomprehensible terms in ways that sound wise because they follow the rules of grammar and rhetoric. Very few of their readers succeed in getting the intended message of such writing into their heads, and only after a great deal of effort.

After a “goodly” deal of effort, I think pseudo-Dionysius is trying to say that God doesn’t exactly exist, since He is the source of existence, but that he “is” above existence – not that his non-existence is lack of existence but rather a hyper-existence. Puzzling.

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