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Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite"No Longer I"$

Charles M. Stang

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199640423

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199640423.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite

Charles M. Stang

Oxford University Press

In early sixth‐century Syria there began to circulate a collection of writings allegedly authored by Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian judge who, according to Acts 17, converted to Christianity after hearing Paul's speech to the court of the Areopagus. At the climax of the longest of the four treatises, the Divine Names, the author says of the apostle: “Paul the Great, when possessed by the Divine Love, and participating in its ecstatic power, says with inspired lips, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.’ As a true lover, and beside himself, as he says, to Almighty God, and not living the life of himself, but the life of the Beloved, as a life excessively esteemed.”1 For ancient readers, for whom these were the authentic words of a first‐century Christian convert, Dionysius the Areopagite reveals his teacher Paul to be the exemplary lover of God, whose fervent erōs carries him outside himself in ecstasy, and therefore renders him split, doubled, and so open to the indwelling of Christ, as the apostle himself confesses in Gal 2:20. For modern readers, who know that these are (p.2) the words not of a first‐century disciple of Paul but of a sixth‐century author writing under the name of the Areopagite, this Pseudo‐Dionysius is merely clothing his own theological program in apostolic garb.

This book aims to rebut this predominant modern reading by demonstrating that the key to understanding the Corpus Dionysiacum [hereafter CD] lies in investigating the pseudonym and the corresponding influence of Paul. Why would an early sixth‐century author choose to write under the name of a disciple of Paul, and this disciple in particular, who was converted from pagan philosophy by the apostle's famous invocation of the “unknown God” (agnōstos theos) in Acts 17:23? The CD forwards an elaborate hierarchical account of the universe, a complementary regimen of austere negative theology, and a description of deifying union with the “God beyond being” as “unknowing” (agnōsia)—what does all this have to do with the apostle Paul? The common answer is “very little indeed.” Modern scholars have by and large assumed that the pseudonym was a convenient and mercenary means of securing a wider readership and avoiding persecution in an age of anxious orthodoxies and that the pseudonymous framing could be removed without significant interpretive cost. This is certainly the approach taken by the first wave of Dionysian scholars who, in the wake of the revelation in the late nineteenth century that the CD could not be the authentic writings of the first‐century Dionysius the Areopagite, were eager to document the nature and extent of the author's obvious debt to late Neoplatonism, especially the fifth‐century philosopher Proclus.2 Unfortunately, the second wave of Dionysian scholars, who in reaction to the first were understandably eager to situate the CD firmly in the context of late antique Eastern Christianity, have been—with some notable exceptions—equally comfortable with passing over the significance of the pseudonym.

(p.3) Over the course of this book, I will demonstrate how Paul in fact animates the entire corpus, that the influence of Paul illuminates such central themes of the CD as hierarchy, theurgy, deification, Christology, affirmation and negation, dissimilar similarities, and unknowing. Most importantly, I contend, Paul serves as a fulcrum for the expression of a new theological anthropology, what I am calling (following Bernard McGinn and Denys Turner) the “apophatic anthropology” of Dionysius. Dionysius' entire mystical theology narrates the self's efforts to unite with the “God beyond being” as a perpetual process of affirming (kataphasis) and negating (apophasis) the divine names, on the conviction that only by contemplating and then “clearing away” (aphairesis) all of our concepts and categories can we clear a space for the divine to descend free of idolatrous accretions. What Paul provides Dionysius is the insistence that this ascent to “the unknown God” delivers a self that is, like the divine to which it aspires, cleared away of its own names, unsaid, rendered unknown to itself—in other words, no longer I. Thus apophatic theology assumes an apophatic anthropology, and the way of negation becomes a sort of asceticism, an exercise of freeing the self as much as God from the concepts and categories that prevent its deification. Dionysius figures Paul as the premier apostolic witness to this apophatic anthropology, as the ecstatic lover of the divine who confesses to the rupture of his self and the indwelling of the divine in Gal 2:20: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Building on this notion of apophatic anthropology, I offer an explanation for why this sixth‐century author chose to write under an apostolic pseudonym. He does not merely sign the name of Dionysius the Areopagite to his writings. He goes much further and literally assumes the identity of this first‐century figure. He writes not treatises but letters addressed to other apostles and disciples; he imagines himself into this apostolic community, to the point that he is present at the Dormition of Mary; he counsels John sequestered on Patmos. And yet all the while the author is also somehow in the sixth century: quoting—sometimes at great length—from Proclus' works; treading dangerously close to contemporary Christological controversies; describing the ceremonials of Byzantine churches rather than the home churches of the New Testament. The author seems to be writing as both a sixth‐century Syrian and a first‐century Athenian. The fact that his own pseudonymous writing renders him two‐in‐one suggests that it is much more than a convenient literary conceit, and (p.4) that the pseudonymous writing in fact aligns with the mystical anthropology. I argue that the very practice of pseudonymous writing itself serves as an ecstatic devotional exercise whereby the writer becomes split in two and thereby open to the indwelling of the divine. Pseudonymity is thus integral and internal to the aims of the wider mystical enterprise. In short, Dionysius both offers an account of what it is to be properly human in relation to God—namely, as unknown to ourselves as God is—and, in the very telling, performs an exercise aiming to render his own self so unknown. The result of such agnōsia, however, is no mere “agnosticism” but rather the indwelling of the unknown God (agnōstos theos) as Christ, on the model of Paul in Gal 2:20, wherewith the aspirant simultaneously “unknows” God and self. Thus this book aims to question the distinction between “theory” and “practice” by demonstrating that negative theology—often figured as a speculative and rarefied theory regarding the transcendence of God—is in fact best understood as a kind of asceticism, a devotional practice aiming for the total transformation of the Christian subject.

I want to insist, however, that this approach to the CD does not preclude or impugn the two dominant trends in Dionysian scholarship; in fact it depends on and hopefully furthers both. As I have said, the first trend has been to assess the nature and extent of the author's debt to late Neoplatonism, often implying (if not stating outright) that the author was only nominally Christian. The second trend, spearheaded by Orthodox theologians, has been to weave the CD into the rich tapestry of late antique Eastern Christianity and to downplay the Neoplatonic influence. Both trends continue to this day. At their worst, both trends have retreated into antithetical and mutually exclusive readings of the true identity of the author of the CD, as either a Christian or a Neoplatonist. From this framing of the question of the author's singular identity there followed equally unsatisfactory debates about particular themes in the CD, whether this or that element of the whole was really Christian or really Neoplatonic. Is “hierarchy”—a term Dionysius coins to describe the structure of the created order—a pagan import or his peculiar translatio of a Christian notion? Does the CD possess a robust Christology or is Christ simply “draperies” adorning an otherwise pagan vision? What of his enthusiasm for “theurgy” or “god‐work,” a term associated with pagan wonderworkers who dare to use magical means to compel the gods? Perhaps most acutely, whence comes this author's (p.5) championing of “negative” or “apophatic” theology in the aim of union with the God “beyond being”? Is this a wholesale import of late Neoplatonism's efforts to solicit union with the ineffable One or a properly Christian strategy of resisting idolatry, of safeguarding the “unknown God” from our domesticating efforts to make that God known? These and other questions have to some degree been held captive by the first framing of the inquiry, whereby one starts with the assumption that the author is one or the other, a Christian or a Neoplatonist.

Thankfully, the renaissance in Dionysian scholarship in the past thirty years—inaugurated by the work of Alexander Golitzin, Andrew Louth, and Paul Rorem—has set readers on a more constructive course than the former binary of either/or. On the one hand, scholars who today explore the relationship between the CD and late Neoplatonism are no longer keen, as many of their predecessors were, to fault the author of the CD for his obvious debt to “pagan” philosophy.3 Instead, they are more interested in charting the way in which the author creatively innovates on this philosophical inheritance. On the other hand, scholars who today focus on how the CD fits into the landscape of late antique Eastern Christianity are no longer as prone to downplay the influence of Neoplatonism, on the understanding that “pagan” philosophy was always being “baptized” for Christian use.4 In short, a consensus has emerged that the rhetorically and often doctrinally charged labels of “Christian” vs. “Neoplatonist” (or more widely, “pagan”) present a false dichotomy, unfaithful to the historical record, and are motivated instead by contemporary theological and identity concerns that ultimately obscure our appreciation of the late antique religious landscape.

But the significance of the pseudonym and Paul by no means displaces the influence of late Neoplatonism or of late antique Eastern Christianity—both of which are, to my mind, undeniable. The pseudonym and Paul, I argue, constitute the best interpretive lens for understanding the CD not because they push these others influences to the margins, but rather because they help us precisely to organize, appreciate, and bring into better focus these influences. In other (p.6) words, they allow us to understand better how the author of the CD is both a Christian and a Neoplatonist and that the questions we put to the CD need not be governed by this disjunction. Specifically, I argue, attention to the pseudonym and Paul allows us to made headway on the stalled questions mentioned above: hierarchy, Christology, theurgy, apophasis, and others. One contribution of this book, then, is to demonstrate how this shift in perspective can allow us to make headway on some central but contested questions in the scholarship on Dionysius.

I also aim to show that this new understanding of the Dionysian corpus raises important questions that go beyond scholarly debates about how best to understand the CD, questions that are relevant for the study of Christian mysticism and of religion more generally. First, because for Dionysius a mystical theology assumes a mystical anthropology, it becomes clear that “mysticism” is as much, or more, about exercises for the transformation of the self as it is a description of the mystery of the divine. Thus “mysticism” becomes an important source for understanding theological anthropology and its implementation, that is, normative accounts of human subjectivity and the development of exercises meant to realize these new modes of selfhood. Second, my interpretation of the significance of the pseudonym suggests that we understand the pseudonymous enterprise as an ecstatic spiritual exercise. This opens up the question of whether and how writing serves as a spiritual exercise not only in the case of Dionysius, but also for Christian mysticism and religion more widely.5

This book falls into two parts. In the first part, Chapters One and Two, I survey the late antique milieu from which the CD emerges and the modern scholarship thereon. My aim in these two chapters is to widen the horizon of our understanding of the sense and significance of the pseudonym and the influence of Paul. In Chapter One I chart the reception of the CD in the sixth century, focusing on whether and how early readers understood its authorship. From the sixth century I then jump to the late nineteenth, where modern scholarship on the CD begins in earnest with the exposure of the pseudonymous quality of the corpus. I survey the subsequent scholarship on the CD, again with an eye to discerning whether and how modern readers understood the sense and significance of the pseudonym and the (p.7) influence of Paul. From this survey I highlight three promising leads: Alexander Golitzin, Andrew Louth (along with Christian Schäfer), and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

In Chapter Two, I widen the inquiry and consider the CD against three relevant late antique historical backdrops: pseudepigrapha, notions of writing as a devotional practice, and convictions about the porous or collapsible nature of time. From among the vast scholarship on ancient and late ancient pseudepigrapha, I consider the “religious” or “psychological” approach to pseudonymous writing, according to which pseudonymous authors believe that the distance between past and present can be collapsed such that, through their writing, the ancient authorities come to inhabit them and speak in their stead. To buttress this approach, I marshal two bodies of evidence. First, building on the consensus of a generation of scholars, I argue that late antique Christians understand time to be porous or collapsible, and that the apostolic and sub‐apostolic past can intrude on the present. Second, again relying on a more recent but mounting body of scholarship, I argue that late antique authors understand writing as a practice that could effect this collapse of time, could summon the past into the present. And in order to deepen an understanding of these peculiar notions of time and writing, I look closely at two case studies: the anonymous Life and Miracles of Thekla and John Chrysostom's homilies on Paul.

The first part serves as the foundation for the second (Chapters Three through Five), in which I demonstrate how the figure and writings of Paul animate the whole corpus. In Chapter Three, I examine how Paul animates the Dionysian hierarchies. That this chapter concerns the hierarchies should not be taken to mean that I drive a wedge between the “theology” (as found in DN and MT) and the “economy” (as found in CH and EH) of the CD, as has often been done in order to devalue the hierarchies.6 Following more recent scholarship, I insist on the coherence of the CD:7 that the affirmation (p.8) and negation of the divine names (DN) in the service of “unknowing” the “God beyond being” (MT) must be understood within the sacramental life of the church (EH), which in turn is a reflection of the celestial orders (CH). In this chapter, I address several of the stalled questions in the scholarship on the CD, questions to which the influence of Paul, I argue, offers a fresh perspective. Specifically, I suggest that Dionysius' own definition of hierarchy derives from Paul's understanding of the “body of Christ” as a divinely ordained ecclesial order. I show how Dionysius' Christology, so often found wanting, derives from Paul's experience of the luminous Christ on the road to Damascus. And I argue that Dionysius' appeals to Iamblichean “theurgy”—understood as “cooperation” (sunergeia) with the work of God that deifies the “co‐worker of God” (sunergos theou)—are also consistent with Pauline phrases.

Paul is just as relevant for Dionysius' understanding of how we solicit unknown with the unknown God through the perpetual affirmation (kataphasis) and negation (apophasis) of the divine names. In Chapter Four, I trace Dionysius' appeals to Paul as he heightens the tension between the immanence and transcendence of God in the opening chapters of the Divine Names. I argue that his understanding of “unknowing” (agnōsia), which marks our union with the unknown God, derives from a creative reading of Paul's famous line from Acts 17, “What therefore you worship as unknown [agnoountes], this I proclaim to you.” This line from Paul's speech to the Areopagus then prompts a close reading of that entire speech, with an eye to understanding how it serves as a template for Dionysius' understanding of the relationship between pagan wisdom and Christian revelation.

Finally, in Chapter Five, I chart the “apophatic anthropology” of the CD, the notion that the self who suffers union with the unknown God must also become unknown. Paul is Dionysius' preeminent witness to this “apophasis of the self.” For Dionysius, Paul loves God with such a fervent erōs that he comes to stand outside himself, in ecstasy, and thereby opens himself to the indwelling of Christ, and so appears to his sober peers as a lovesick madman. This ecstatic madness, wherein Christ “lives in” Paul, is equivalent to the descent of “unknowing,” the condition that befalls us as we suffer union with the divine. Dionysius draws on the Platonic and Philonic taxonomies of madness and ecstasy, but, I argue, complements and corrects this philosophical inheritance by appeal to Paul. Finally, I consider a (p.9) challenge to apophatic anthropology, namely Dionysius' lone but important refusal of ecstasy in DN 11. In accounting for this refusal, I distinguish between the denial (arnēsis) of the self, which Dionysius impugns, and the apophasis of the self, which he commends. I conclude the chapter by returning to the definition of hierarchy with which Chapter Three begins and arguing that the second element of that definition—hierarchy as a “state of understanding” (epistēmē)—must be understood as a play on words, that through hierarchy we can enjoy an ecstatic epistēmē, that is, an under‐standing predicated precisely on standing‐outside ourselves.

If Chapters Three through Five address how Paul animates the entire corpus, in the Conclusion I return to the question of the sense and significance of the pseudonym. Gathering threads from the previous chapters, I settle on three interpretations of the pseudonym, each leading to and buttressing the next. First, the pseudonym “Dionysius the Areopagite” signals that the author of the CD is attempting, just as Paul is in his speech to the Areopagus, some rapprochement between pagan wisdom and Christian revelation. By writing under the name of this Athenian judge, the author is looking to Paul, and specifically that speech, to provide a template for absorbing and subordinating the riches of pagan wisdom to the revelation of the unknown God in Christ. Second, the pseudonymous writing of the CD—the author's journey back in time to the apostolic age—is at root no different from the widespread late antique practice of summoning the apostles into the present age. Thus I argue that the pseudonymous author of the CD, like the anonymous author of the Life and Miracles of Thekla and John Chrysostom in his homilies on Paul, aims to collapse historical time so as to become a present disciple to an apostle, here Paul. Writing becomes the means of achieving intimacy with the apostle and, by extension, with Christ, who “lives in” the apostle (Gal 2:20). The notion that writing might be a devotional practice leads me to my third and final interpretation of the pseudonym. I argue that the practice of pseudonymous writing aims to effect the apophasis of the self, that is, it aims to negate the self by splitting it open so that it might be, as Dionysius says of Moses, “neither [it]self nor other.”8 By helping to breach the integrity of (p.10) the singular self—the “I”—writing opens the self to the indwelling of Christ. In this way, “form” (pseudonymous writing) and “content” (mystical theology), “theory” (theology), and “practice” (asceticism) are wed, united in their efforts to divide the self, integrated so as to disintegrate the known self that would suffer union with the unknown God.


(1) DN 4.13 712A; CD I 159.4–8. Unless otherwise noted, all citations in English are from John Parker's translation, The Complete Works of Dionysius the Areopagite. I have chosen Parker's translation because it follows the Greek much more closely than the more recent, and now standard, English translation by Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem. But I have reserved the right to make slight changes in Parker's translations, mostly having to do with the peculiarities of his late nineteenth‐century prose and vocabulary choices. All citations in Greek are from the standard critical edition: Beate Regina Suchla, Corpus Dionysiacum I [De divinis nominibus]; Günter Heil and Adolf Martin Ritter, Corpus Dionysiacum II [De coelesti hierarchia, de ecclesiastica hierarchia, de mystica theologia, epistulae]. In what follows, I refer to the entire Corpus Dionysiacum as the CD and its parts with the followed abbreviations: DN = Divine Names, CH = Celestial Hierarchy, EH = Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, MT = Mystical Theology, and Ep. = Letters.

(2) The modern question of the “authenticity” of this corpus takes as its point of departure the work of Hugo Koch and Josef Stiglmayr, who in 1895 independently published parallel conclusions: that the CD is considerably indebted to Proclus and therefore cannot be the genuine writings of a first‐century Athenian judge, however learned. Hugo Koch, “Proklos als Quelle des Pseudo‐Dionysius Areopagita in der Lehre vom Bösen”; Josef Stiglmayr, “Der Neuplatoniker Proklos als Vorlage des sog. Dionysius Areopagita in der Lehre von Übel”.

(3) Schäfer, The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (2006); Perl, Theophany (2007); Klitenic Wear and Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition (2007).

(4) Louth, Denys the Areopagite (1989); Golitzin, Et introibo ad altare dei (1994).

(5) Stang, “Scriptio,” in Hollywood and Beckman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism

(6) See Roques, L'Univers dionysien. Roques considers the “theology” (DN and MT) and the “economy” (CH and EH) in isolation and thereby compromises the coherence of the CD. In Le Mystère de Dieu, Vanneste divides the CD even more sharply than Roques; see also idem, “Is the Mysticism of Ps.‐Dionysius genuine?” 286–306. For a brief survey of this tendency to divide the CD, see Golitzin, Et introibo ad altare dei, 30–1.

(7) Louth, Rorem, and Golitzin all agree that the DN and MT must be read against the backdrop of the hierarchies (CH and EH) and that the CD is a coherent whole.

(8) MT 1.3 1001A; CD II 144.13.