“To an Unknown God”
“To an Unknown God”
Paul and Mystical Union
Abstract and Keywords
Chapter Four traces 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,” 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, 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.
In the last chapter, we saw that the two treatises on the hierarchies announce that the very goal of all hierarchy is deifying union. This union (ἕνωσις) is bestowed on those who answer the invitation to cooperate (συνεργέω) with the activity (ἐνέργεια) or work of God (θεουργία). But how exactly does one cooperate with the work of God? First and foremost, one participates in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church, wherein Christ gives access to himself, that is, the currents of light and love that process from and return to the divine source. In this chapter, I examine how the next two treatises—the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology—insist on a further, complementary program: that one affirm (καταϕάσκω) and negate (ἀποϕάσκω) the divine names (τὰ θεῖα ὀνόματα) in perpetuity in order to solicit union with the divine. In the Divine Names, Dionysius gathers these scriptural names and contemplates (θεωρέω) them, much as he does liturgical symbols in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. In the Mystical Theology, Dionysius explains that contemplation of these names should follow a strict cyclical order: a progressive affirmation (κατάϕασις) of the names most like the divine to those most unlike followed by a regressive negation (απόϕασις) of the names most unlike the divine to those most like. At the peak and valley of this cycle, Dionysius offers two further and complementary movements: (1) the negation of negation and (2) the contemplation of “entirely dissimilar names.” The aim of this entire contemplative program—in which “saying” and “unsaying” are inextricably bound together—is to heighten the tension between divine immanence and transcendence to such a point that the “unimaginable presence” (p.118) of God may break through all affirmations and negations and the “unknowing union” (ἕνωσις ἄγνωστος) with “the unknown God” (ὁ ἄγνωστος θέος) may descend.
This chapter aims to show how this contemplative enterprise draws for inspiration from the figure and writings of Paul. Here again I must make clear that I do not mean to suggest that the author of the CD draws exclusively on Paul as a resource for his mystical theology, but rather that, influenced by earlier Eastern Christian traditions and later Neoplatonism, he read Paul as anticipating some of those traditions' most pressing issues, including the dilemma of divine transcendence and immanence. (I.1) Dionysius opens his account of the divine names by appealing to Paul's insistence that one contemplate only those divine names revealed in the scriptures. (I.2) Moreover, Dionysius puzzles through the dilemma of divine transcendence and immanence in the Divine Names by constant appeal to Paul's letters, wherein Dionysius finds the apostle already wrestling with questions of how God is both present and absent. (I.3) Although the contemplative cycle in which Dionysius situates the practices of affirmation and negation is of largely Proclean origin, Paul emerges not only as the authoritative witness to the divine operations of procession, return and rest, but as the exemplary case of one who both preaches and himself suffers union with the unknown God. (II.1–2) Furthermore, Dionysius' description of this union with the divine as the descent of “unknowing” derives from Paul's own speech to the court of the Areopagus (Acts 17:23), a speech in which Paul says of “the unknown God”: “That which you therefore worship through unknowing, this I proclaim to you.”1 Thus the sixth‐century author takes on the name of an Athenian judge converted by this speech so as to suggest that his entire mystical enterprise, which aims to worship and eventually to unite with the unknown God, finds inspiration in Paul. (III) Paul's speech to the Areopagus also helps explain how this sixth‐century author understood his commitments to Christ in light of his substantial debts to Neoplatonism. The author is a follower of the Paul who preaches to the court of the Areopagus insofar as he seeks to recover the incipient faith of pagan wisdom. The pagan edifice need not compete with Paul's proclamation of an unknown (p.119) God and a resurrected Christ but rather complements it, owing to the fact that for Dionysius Greek wisdom contains a residuum of divine revelation.
I. Saying and unsaying the divine names
I.A. The “scriptural rule”
Dionysius is acutely interested in specifying the divine names precisely because it is by the contemplation of these divine names that one solicits union with the unknown God. Therefore Dionysius' first task is to establish a “scriptural rule” (ὁ τῶν λογίων θεσμὸς) to limit the names with which to address God: “But, let the rule of the Oracles be here also prescribed for us, viz., that we shall establish the truth of the things spoken concerning God, not in the persuasive words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit‐moved power of the Theologians.”2 Just as in the Celestial Hierarchy, here also Dionysius introduces himself as a disciple of Paul, quoting this time from his first letter to the Corinthians.3 Some scholars have preferred to see in this “scriptural rule” a further instance of Dionysius' policy of disingenuous citation, that his “emphatic assurance”4 is little more than a “superficial formality”5 masking the Neoplatonism into which he was initiated.
Dionysius follows Paul in insisting that speech about God echo God's speech about God—in other words that worship echo revelation. It is more fitting that God graciously descend to humans than that humans recklessly reach beyond our limits, for insofar (p.120) as God is the “Cause of being to all, but Itself not being, as beyond every essence, and as It may manifest Itself properly and scientifically concerning Itself.”6 And so God reveals his divine names to the scripture writers by the power of the Spirit.7 Ten chapters of the Divine Names (DN 4–13) are devoted to the divine names as revealed in scripture. Each of these ten chapters takes up one or several related names and contemplates their many and hidden meanings. As we would expect, Paul is well represented in these chapters, as the divine names from his letters are submitted to prayerful attention. But Paul does not—nor should he—dominate these chapters, as their aim is to gather all the “conceptual names of God”8 that have been revealed in scripture, and Paul is only one of the many “theologians” so blessed by the Spirit.9
I.B. Transcendence and immanence
Beyond the rule that one limit oneself to scripture, Paul is important for Dionysius in the Divine Names not because he crowds out other scriptural sources for the divine names, but because he provides Dionysius with an authoritative witness to a crucial dilemma regarding the divine names: namely, how to name the nameless?
And yet, if It is superior to every expression and every knowledge, and is altogether placed above mind and essence,—being such as embraces and unites and comprehends and anticipates all things, but Itself is altogether incomprehensible to all, and of It, there is neither perception nor imagination, nor surmise, nor name, nor expression, nor contact, nor science;—in what way can our treatise thoroughly investigate the meaning of the Divine Names, when the superessential Deity is shewn to be without Name, and above Name?10
(p.121) The dilemma that Dionysius faces here—how the transcendence of God undermines a knowledge of his names—is a species of a more general theological dilemma: namely how to safeguard the transcendence while preserving the immanence of God. This dilemma was also a central concern of late Neoplatonism, whose proponents pondered how the One could both outstrip all categories of language, thought, and being and yet leave traces in the created cosmos. There is not a shadow of a doubt that Dionysius owes much to these late Neoplatonic debates regarding divine immanence and transcendence, especially as they find expression in Proclus.11 Closer attention to the CD, however, reveals that Dionysius finds his purported teacher Paul already to be struggling with this same dilemma.
In the two treatises on the hierarchies, Dionysius repeatedly cites Paul as an authority on the transcendence of God.12 However, this matter appears with more consistency and urgency in the Divine Names. In DN 1.2, immediately after reiterating the scriptural rule he lifts from Paul, Dionysius offers his first foray into the dilemma:
For even as Itself has taught (as become its goodness) in the Oracles, the science and contemplation of Itself in Its essential Nature is beyond the reach (ἄβατος)13 of all created things, as towering superessentially above (p.122) all. And you will find many of the Theologians, who have celebrated It, not only as invisible (ἀόρατον) and incomprehensible (ἀπερίληπτον), but also as inscrutable (ἀνεξερεύνητον) and untraceable (ἀνεξιχνίαστον), since there is no trace of those who have penetrated to Its hidden infinitude (ἐπὶ τὴν κρυϕίαν αὐτῆς ἀπειρίαν).14
When attempting to treat the transcendence of God, one of Dionysius' characteristic strategies is to resort to the proliferation of alpha‐privatives, simple negations of particular qualities: ἀ‐ (not) + περίληπτον (comprehensible).15 Although this is a strategy he certainly shares with nearly all his contemporaries (Christian and otherwise), three of the four particular privatives he offers here come from Paul: “invisible” (ἀόρατον),16 “unsearchable” (ἀνεξερεύνητον),17 and “inscrutable” (ἀνεξιχνίαστον).18
Dionysius not only expands on this list of three Pauline privatives but also instructs the reader as to how best to understand the meaning of the embedded negation. This is clearest in one of Dionysius' most sustained treatments of the transcendence of God, and one in which his debt to Paul is clearest: the Fifth Letter, addressed to the deacon Dorotheus.
The Divine gloom is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell. And in this gloom, invisible indeed, on account of the surpassing (p.123) brightness, and unapproachable on account of the excess of the superessential stream of light, enters every one deemed worthy to know and to see God, by the very fact of neither seeing nor knowing, really entering in Him, Who is above vision and knowledge, knowing this very thing, that He is after all the object of sensible and intelligent perception, and saying in the words of the Prophet, “Thy knowledge was regarded as wonderful by me; It was confirmed; I can by no means attain unto it;” even as the Divine Paul is said to have known Almighty God, by having known Him as being above all conception and knowledge. Wherefore also, he says, “His ways are past finding out and His Judgements inscrutable,” and His gifts “indescribable,” and that His peace surpasses every mind, as having found Him Who is above all, and having known this which is above conception, that, by being Cause of all, He is beyond all.19
To the three Pauline privatives cited in DN 1.2, Dionysius here adds two more: “unapproachable” (ἀπρόσιτον)—with which Paul describes that light wherein God dwells20—and “inexpressible” (ἀνεκδιηγήτος)—with which Paul describes the gift of God's grace.21 More important, however, Dionysius instructs the reader how best to understand these privatives: not as signifying lack but rather superabundance.22 This is a point he is at pains to make elsewhere with respect to his favorite prefix, ὑπερ‐, often rendered “beyond” or “transcendently,” such as in (p.124) the famous ὑπερούσιος, or “beyond being.”23 Here in the Fifth Letter, Dionysius insists that with respect to God, the two prefixes (ἀ‐ and ὑπερ‐) have the same meaning: namely, they signal not that God lacks the quality in question, but that God manifests that quality so superabundantly, so transcendently, that there is a sharp dis‐analogy between the quality as God manifests it and the quality as we understand it. For example, with respect to the quality of being, ὑπερούσιος does not suggest that God somehow lacks the quality he graciously gives to creation, but rather that God so superabundantly is that one does better to confess that he is not and thereby draw nearer to that divine superabundance.
And according to Dionysius, this very point finds compelling corroboration in the life and writings of Paul. Paul names God “invisible.” But he means not that God lacks the ability to show God's self but rather than the sight of God is so overwhelming that it blinds, as Paul himself experienced when the luminous Christ blinded him on the road to Damascus. If that light is “unapproachable,” it is so precisely because that light always already approaches his creatures. If God is “unsearchable” and “inscrutable,” it is not only because one can never exhaust God's activities—never mind “the depths of his infinity”—but because God always already searches and scrutinizes those ways and judgments. If, as Paul says, “his gifts are inexpressible” (ἀνεκδιήγητος),24 God is also the “Word unutterable” (λόγος ἄῤῥητος)25 who gives floods of words with which to praise those gifts. And if, as Paul says, “his peace passes all understanding” (ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ ὑπερέχουσα πάντα νοῦν),26 God is also “mind inconceivable” (νοῦς ἀνόητος)27 who reveals in scripture those “conceptual names of God” (τῶν νοητῶν θεωνυμιῶν)28 that one affirms and negates so as to suffer a union “above reason and mind” (ὑπὲρ λόγον κ (p.125) αὶ νοῦν).29 For Dionysius, Paul's use of the privative must be understood against the backdrop of his simultaneous confession of divine grace and superfluity. For Dionysius, therefore, Paul is the authoritative apostolic witness to the fact that God's transcendence is excessive. On the basis of this witness, Paul is championed as the exemplary case of one gifted with the paradoxical knowledge of God, for Paul “is said to have known Almighty God, by having known Him as being above all conception and knowledge.…as having found Him Who is above all, and having known this which is above conception, that, by being Cause of all, He is beyond all.”30
There is another way, however, in which one may know God, insofar as God has made God's own self known in the world through revelation. With this we return to the general dilemma with which Dionysius wrestles in the opening chapters of the Divine Names: the balance between the transcendence and the immanence of God. Paul looms large in Dionysius' treatment of the former—but what of the latter? After safeguarding the transcendence of God in DN 1.2, Dionysius adds:
The Good indeed is not entirely uncommunicated to any single created being, but benignly sheds forth its superessential ray, persistently fixed in Itself, by illuminations analogous to each several being, and elevates to Its permitted contemplation and communion and likeness, those holy minds, who, as far as is lawful and reverent, strive after It.31
Many of the themes in this brief affirmation of divine immanence are familiar from the two previous treatises on the hierarchies: enlightenment proceeding from the divine source, proportionate revelation, anagogical contemplation, and deifying union. In the previous chapter I charted how Paul animates these and other themes from those two treatises.
But in his second foray into the matter of divine immanence in DN 1.5, Dionysius makes his debt to Paul even clearer. After another dizzying hymn to the transcendence of God, Dionysius writes:
(p.126) But since, as sustaining source of goodness, by the very fact of Its being, It is cause of all things that be, from all created things must we celebrate the benevolent Providence of the Godhead; for all things are both around It and for It, and It is before all things, and all things in It consist. (Col 1:17)32
This verse from Paul's letter to the Colossians is a favorite of Dionyius': he quotes it four other times in the Divine Names.33 Although the verse speaks generally in support of God's presence in creation,34 I suspect that Dionysius' enthusiasm for this verse has to do with two details. First of all, the verse repeats the phrase “all things” (πάντων…πάντα): God “It is before all things, and all things in It consist.” Later, in DN 1.7, Dionysius again quotes Paul on the “all”: God is “all in all” (τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσι) (1 Cor 15:28;35 cf. Col 3:11).36 Earlier in DN 1.5, following Paul's lead, Dionysius sought to safeguard the transcendence of God by insisting again and again that God is beyond all things.37 Dionysius favors these verses from Paul precisely because they provide the opposite assurance: that God is in all things and that in God all things cohere. That the word “all” appears in his treatments of both divine transcendence and immanence not only satisfies the scriptural rule with which he opened this treatise but also contributes to the coherence of his treatment of the tension between the two, as summed (p.127) up in the final line of his Fifth Letter: “by being Cause of all, He is beyond all (πάντων ἐστὶν ἐπέκεινα πάντων αἴτιος ὤν).”38
The second feature of this verse that might have caught Dionysius' eye also has to do with the coherence of the CD: the verb in the phrase “all things in It consist [or cohere] (συνέστηκεν).” The verb is συνίστημι (to stand together or cohere) and along with ὑϕίστημι (to stand under or subsist) provides a counterpoint in the CD to such verbs as ὑπερίστημι (to stand over or surpass) and ἐξίστημι (to stand outside or be in ecstasy). Paul, therefore, not only provides support for Dionysius' general affirmation of divine immanence but also contributes to Dionysius' peculiar theological lexicon. As we saw earlier in the case of the word ἔργον, or “work,” this lexicon proliferates by adding various prefixes to a small number of common roots, here the verb ἵστημι. Thus the theological lexicon of the CD betrays a linguistic coherence that is impossible to convey in translation.
If earlier in the Divine Names, while standing in awe of the vertiginous alterity of the God beyond being, Dionyius counsels silence—“honouring…things unutterable, with a prudent silence”39—here, marveling in turn at God's ubiquity, he commends praise: “The theologians…celebrate [the supra‐essential being of God], both without Name (ἀνώνυμον) and from every Name (ἐκ παντὸς ὀνόματος).”40 And not surprisingly, in support of this idea that God can be praised by—yet still surpasses—all names, Dionysius again quotes from Paul: God's is “[the Name] which is above every Name (Phil 2:9)…fixed above every name which is named, whether in this age or in that which is to come” (Eph 1:21).41 Thus Dionysius can no easier negotiate divine immanence without his teacher Paul than he can divine transcendence. And this is clearest at the very end of DN 2, where Dionysius explicitly credits his testimony to the tension between transcendence and immanence to Paul: “[This is spoken by] the common conductor of ourselves, and of our leader to the Divine gift of light,—he, who is great in Divine mysteries—the light of the world.”42
The tension between the immanence and transcendence of God is no more resolved in the CD than it is in the letters of Paul. In fact, Dionysius seems to have little interest in relieving the tension. He calls upon his teacher Paul not so much to unravel the knot of divine presence and absence as to bear authoritative witness to it. According to Dionysius, two human activities correspond to the immanence and transcendence of God: affirmation (κατάϕασις) and negation (ἀπόϕασις): “[It is] our duty both to attribute and affirm all the attributes of things existing to It, as Cause of all, and more properly to deny them all to It, as being above all.”43 Here, in the Mystical Theology, Dionysius reveals that the tension that occupied him in the first several chapters of the Divine Names is never relieved, that one never ceases saying and unsaying. On the contrary, he wishes to heighten the tension by insisting that while one is bound to affirm and negate the divine names just as God reveals and conceals, still neither affirmations nor even negations are ever adequate and always miss their target.
Not surprisingly for a thinker so interested in τάξις, there should be an order to affirmation and negation: one begins by contemplation of the most fitting divine names and then “descend[s] from the above to the lowest.”44 This contemplative descent from the one to the many mirrors the beneficent procession of the God beyond being into being and creation. Having contemplated all the conceptual and sensory divine names—and rounding the corner perhaps by contemplating God as a worm or a drunk—one then “ascend[s] from below to that which is above,” denying in sequence each of the divine names just affirmed.45 This equally contemplative ascent from the many to the one mirrors creation's yearning to return to its source. One denies (p.129) these names not because God is not, for instance, good, but because God surpasses the good: God is so superabundantly good that the notion of good no longer has full purchase.
Because they free God from such cramped categories, Dionysius says that “it is necessary, as I think, to celebrate the abstractions (τὰς ἀϕαιρέσεις) in an opposite way to the definitions (ταῖς θέσεσιν).”46 Obviously an “apophatic” enterprise presumes a “kataphatic” one—negation presumes affirmation.47 But according to Dionysius at least, such “negations” are not “in opposition to the affirmations,”48 that is, they do not themselves cancel out the affirmations and thereby allow for the “inconceivable presence”49 of God. God will not be held hostage by a negation any more than by an affirmation: “the Cause of all…, which is above every abstraction and definition, is above the privation.”50 It is not the negation itself, once uttered, that Dionysius would have the reader hold in such high esteem, for, as one scholar puts it, “a not with which we might rest would not be a proper not.”51 As soon as the negation is made, it is already a new affirmation threatening to keep God confined. Michael Sells has done better than most to put his finger on this quandary:
Any saying (even a negative saying) demands a correcting proposition, an unsaying. But that correcting proposition which unsays the previous proposition is in itself a “saying” that must be “unsaid” in turn. It is in the tension between the two propositions that the discourse becomes meaningful. That tension is momentary. It must be continually re‐earned by ever new linguistic acts of unsaying.52
(p.130) What Dionysius values in the negations or denials is precisely this perpetual motion—what Sells calls “the guiding semantic force, the dynamis” that pursues a god who “slips continually back beyond each effort to name it or even to deny its unnameability.”53
One of the many incontrovertible debts of Dionysius to Proclus regards precisely this insistence that any negation of the transcendent must itself be negated. For Proclus, the negations are also “more proper” than and “superior” to the assertions.54 Furthermore, Proclus also insists that it is “necessary…to exempt [God] from the negations also…[for] if no discourse belongs to it, it is evident that neither does negation pertain to it.”55 In order to guard God from even these negations then, Proclus introduces the notion of a transcendent negation, borrowing the term ὑπεραπόϕασις from Stoic logic.56 For Proclus, a “transcendent negation” or “hyper‐negation” is not so much a discrete operation as it is a commitment to perpetual negation. As he says in Platonic Theology 2.10, “language when conversant with that which is ineffable, being subverted about itself, has no cessation, and opposes itself.”57 And although the term ὑπεραπόϕασις never appears in the CD, that very commitment to the ceaseless negation of even what is already negated pulses through the Mystical Theology: “[W]hen making the assertions and negations of things after It, we neither predicate, nor abstract from It.”58
(p.131) Dionysius follows the Proclean contemplative cycle in which one affirms what is most like the divine, carries on affirming all the way to what is least like the divine, negates everything in opposite order, and then negates those negations in turn. But into this smooth cycle Dionysius introduces something of a twist: “its praises are supermundanely sung, by the Oracles themselves, through dissimilar revelations.”59 Dionysius treats these dissimilar similarities in CH 2, in his attempt to explain the anagogical value of the crass imagery in which scripture describes angels. The most significant difference between the celestial and the ecclesiastical hierarchies consists in the fact that angels are intelligible while humans are sensible. This difference, then, leads Dionysius to ask why it is that the heavenly ranks are revealed in scripture in a sensible fashion entirely at odds with their intelligible nature. Angels do not, in fact, have feet and faces, beaks and wings, “and whatever else was transmitted by the Oracles to us under multifarious symbols of sacred imagery.”60 His answer is twofold: first, such a revelation is a concession to our bodily natures, for we cannot perceive intelligible reality without sensible adornment; second, such a revelation through bodies—and especially grotesque bodies—has an uplifting or “anagogic” value. The anagogic goal is contemplation of the intelligible reality of the heavens, a contemplation that engages our intelligence or nous. But our nous can only vault into contemplation of the heavens on the shoulders of our bodily senses.
Accordingly, he says, “the method of Divine revelation is twofold,” through likeness and unlikeness, similarity and dissimilarity (ὁ μὲν ὡς εἰκὸς διὰ τῶν ὁμοίων…ὁ δὲ διὰ τῶν ἀνομοίων).61 In the case of angels, the way of similarity would reveal them as “certain creatures with the appearance of gold, and certain men with the appearance of light, and glittering like lightning, handsome, clothed in bright shining raiment, shedding forth innocuous flame.”62 The danger inherent in this way of revelation is, of course, that we humans might actually come to think that angels' natures are in fact golden, (p.132) luminous, or fiery, when of course they are not. In other words, the way of similarity can lull our intelligence or nous to sleep, since the sensible is thought to be so like the intelligible reality it clothes that it might be mistaken for it. There is no such danger in the way of dissimilarity, since no one is likely to imagine that “the super‐heavenly places are filled with certain herds of lions, and troops of horses, and bellowing songs of praise, and flocks of birds, and other living creatures, and material and less honorable things.”63 The fact that these revelations are patently “absurd, pernicious, and impassioned” (ἄτοπον καὶ νόθον και ἐμπαθὲς) serves to shock the nous out of its complacency and encourages it to contemplate the intelligible reality beyond the sensible adornment.64
This rhetoric of similarity and dissimilarity, however, is not limited to the heavens. Dionysius insists that “the Mystic Theologians”—that is, the authors of the scriptures—“enfold these things not only around the illustrations of the Heavenly Orders, but also, sometimes, around the supremely Divine Revelations Themselves.”65 Thus there is a kind of apophatic angelology that buttresses his apophatic theology. The way of similarity would reveal God as Word, Mind, and Being, since these titles are more “like” God. And yet divine names such as these “in reality fall short of the Divine similitude,” no less than names derived from our embodied, sensory existence.66 However exalted the names Word, Mind, and Being may seem, God “is above every essence and life. No light, indeed, expresses [his] character, and every description and mind incomparably fall short of [his] similitude.”67 That leaves the way of dissimilarity, about which Dionysius writes:
For this [second way], as I think, is more appropriate to It, since, as the secret and sacerdotal tradition taught, we rightly describe its non‐relationship to things created, but we do not know its superessential, and inconceivable, and unutterable indefinability (ἀγνοοῦμεν δὲ τὴν ὑπερούσιον αὐτῆς καὶ ἀνόητον καὶ ἄρρητον ἀοριστίαν).68
(p.133) This second way of talking, the way of dissimilarity, itself includes two modes. The first mode is what he calls “true negations,”69 alpha‐privative divine names like invisible (ἀόρατον), infinite (ἄπειρον), and ungraspable (ἀχώρητον), by which “there is signified, not what it is, but what it is not.”70 This is a, strictly speaking, negative theology: speaking about—or rather to—God through negations.
The second mode within the way of dissimilarity, within this second way of talking, is what he calls “dissimilar similarities” proper—also called “incongruous dissimilarities (τὰς ἀπεμϕαινούσας ἀνομοιότητας),”71 “dissimilar revelations (ταῖς ἀνομοίοις ἐκϕαντορίαις),” and “comparisons…which are diverse from their proper resemblance (ταῖς…τῶν οἰκείων ἀπηχημάτων ἑτεροίαις ἀϕομοιώσεσιν).”72 The adjectives with which Dionysius characterizes these divine names are “absurd, pernicious, and impassioned,” but also “discordant (ἀπά̣δω),”73 “unlike (ἀπεοικός),”74 “incongruous (ἀπεμϕαίνω),”75 “unseemly (δυσμορϕία),”76 and “base (αἰσχρός).”77 He has in mind such scriptural images of God as an ointment or a cornerstone, an animal such as a lion, panther, leopard, or bear, and—clearly his favorite—God as a worm.78 In his Ninth Letter he adds other such scriptural images, such as of God drinking, drunk, even hung‐over.79 We see here Dionysius' keen interest in the very nadir of revelation, those divine names so ostensibly unlike God, even grotesque, as to serve as a stumbling‐block to contemplation. But as it turns out, the nous needs precisely to stumble in order to find its feet. With these dissimilar similarities “goading [the soul] by the (p.134) unseemliness of the phrases,”80 contemplation vaults above the sensory first to the intelligible heavens, and then even beyond the intelligible heavens into the super‐intelligible divinity, the “unknown God” of Acts 17, the “God beyond being.” In this regard, these “last echoes [of revelation] offer due homage”—due homage to the God whom they simultaneously conceal and reveal.81
As with so many other things, Dionysius borrows the notion of “dissimilar similarities” from Proclus. In Birth of the Symbol, Peter Struck has made a strong case for a Proclean backdrop to Dionysius' deployment of this peculiar view of the anagogic value of base, bodily revelations—what Proclus prefers to call “symbols.” Proclus' ontological framework for symbols depends on an elaborate theory of emanation, according to which the ineffable One radiates rays—what Proclus calls chains (σειραί)—that manifest in different immaterial and material forms as they cascade down the great chain of being. A single chain's transformations can be charted: from its source in the One, the chain emanates first as a god, then in the realm of Nous as a kind of Platonic form, then in the realm of the soul as a particular kind of soul, then, as it enters the realm of the material, the chain emanates as actual physical objects, and does so in succession, from more exalted objects to less, until it reaches its nadir in a very quotidian item. What connects all these emanations of the chain is a kind of “sympathy”—which Struck characterizes as “a term of ontological linkage”.82 However difficult it is to pin down the precise nature of this link, it is nevertheless clear that Proclus especially esteems the eschata or “edges” of emanation. His account of why he so esteems them constitutes his theory of the symbol, the development of which Struck traces throughout antiquity, from Homer to Proclus and beyond. Much like Dionysius, who in the CH tries to explain the grotesque biblical revelations of God and the heavens, Proclus tries to explain Homer's grossly anthropomorphic gods. He does this in his commentary on Plato's Republic, where he answers Plato's express worries about such poetic license. Contrary to expectation, Proclus congratulates Homer and the other poets for describing the gods in the basest of terms, for he argues that base (p.135) matter is not meant to imitate but rather to invoke the divine realm with which it enjoys a peculiar sympathy or “ontological link,” to use Struck's term. The lowest element on the chain of being becomes, in Proclus' hands, a symbol, which for him means a base or even grotesque name or object with which the process of cosmic reversion can begin. In other words, according to Struck, what Proclus calls a “symbol,” Dionysius calls a “dissimilar similarity.”83
And so while both affirmations and negations run the danger of idolatry, “[they goad the soul] by the unseemliness of the phrases (to see) that it belongs neither to lawful nor seeming truth, even for the most earthly conceptions, that the most heavenly and Divine visions are actually like things so base.”84 Strictly speaking, these “dissimilar revelations” are names that one must say because they reveal God as much as any other. And yet these names, however affirmative they seem, contain within them the seeds of their own denial. In fact they hover between transcendence and immanence, and resemble, in this regard, the negation of negations. They are “hyper‐apophatic.” Thus at both the peak and in the valley of this contemplative cycle one comes closest to freeing God from all affirmation and negations: at the peak by negating the negation of the name most like the divine, such as the Good; in the valley by holding in mind the notion of God as a worm. At such moments, language and mind are pushed to such a point that they begin to disintegrate and only then is one able to receive the gift of unknowing union.
If Dionysius' theological enterprise is “apophatic,” then, it is so in the Proclean sense that it is “hyper‐apophatic,” that it commends the continual unraveling of all language. Dionysius prefers the term “mystical” to describe this theology—that is, speech in praise of God—which perpetually affirms and negates those names God has graciously revealed. And if affirmation and negation are perpetual practices, they answer the perpetual divine movements of procession (πρόοδος) into created plurality and return (ἐπιστροϕή) to uncreated simplicity.
II.A. Dionysius and unknowing
The goal or σκοπός of perpetual affirmation and negation is to solicit a certain event, namely deifying union with God. This union is the descent of the “unknown God” of Acts 17 and, accordingly, is often described in the CD as “unknowing” (ἀγνωσία) or “unknown” or “unknowable” (ἄγνωστος).85 One of the most famous descriptions of (p.137) such a union is found in the first chapter of the Mystical Theology, where Dionysius, following Philo and Gregory of Nyssa before him, delivers an allegorical reading of Moses' ascent “into the gloom of the Agnosia; a gloom veritably mystic…[where he is] wholly of Him Who is beyond all.”86 This description of Moses' own “unknowing union” is framed as a pastoral letter to a friend, Timothy:
O dear Timothy, by thy persistent commerce with the mystic visions, leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being, and be raised aloft unknowingly (ἀγνώστως) to the union, as far as attainable, with Him Who is above every essence and knowledge.87
That Dionysius offers Moses as a “paradigm”88 for the plunge into the “gloom of unknowing” suggests that one can attain unto unknowing, or at least solicit its descent. One is to strive upward toward union with the unknown God, and one is to do so “unknowingly” (ἀγνώστως).89 Recall that according to the Proclean contemplative cycle, the upward movement is the process of progressive negation, culminating in the negation of negation. When Dionysius counsels Timothy to “leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being,” he is enjoining on his young charge precisely this (p.138) cycle of affirmation and negation, which echoes divine procession and return, immanence and transcendence. One affirms and negates the divine names precisely in order to be delivered from the impasse of how God is both present and absent. Even if union with the unknown and unknowable God only occurs unknowingly through unknowing, still one must insist that one does not achieve this unknowing. Rather we wait for it at the tense cusp between our affirmations and negations, where the dynamis of perpetual apophasis calls out to the God beyond being.
But what does unknowing do to knowledge? Does the descent of unknowing herald the end of knowledge or its fulfillment? In one breath Dionysius can insist both that “by inactivity of all knowledge, [one is] united in his better part to the altogether Unknown” and that “by knowing nothing, [one is] knowing above mind.”90 Is unknowing merely to cease knowing or is it to know precisely nothing? The same dilemma appears just a few lines later: “[We pray that] through not seeing and not knowing, [we will be able] to see and to know that the not to see nor to know is itself the above sight and knowledge. For this is veritably to see and to know.”91 And the goal of all affirmations and negations is that “without veil, we may know that agnōsia (γνῶμεν ἐκείνην τὴν ἀγνωσίαν), which is enshrouded under all the known, in all things that be.”92 As is often the case with other themes, the most sustained treatment of “unknowing” is found among the letters, specifically the First Letter, quoted here in full:
Darkness becomes invisible by light, and especially by much light. Varied knowledge, and especially much varied knowledge, makes the agnōsia to vanish (τὴν ἀγνοωσίαν ἀϕανίζουσιν αἱ γνώσεις). Take this in a superlative, but not in a defective sense, and reply with superlative truth, that the agnōsia, respecting God (ἡ κατὰ θεὸν ἀγνωσία), escapes those who possess existing light, and knowledge of things being; and His pre‐eminent darkness is both concealed by every light, and is hidden from every knowledge. And, if any one, having seen God, understood what he saw, he did not see Him, but some of His creatures that are (p.139) existing and known. But He Himself, highly established above mind, and above essence, by the very fact of His being wholly unknown, and not being, both is superessentially, and is known above mind. And the all‐perfect agnōsia, in its superior sense, is a knowledge of Him, Who is above all known things.93
It would seem that knowing and unknowing were set against each other here, for “varied knowledge makes the agnōsia to vanish.” This may be true, but strangely the converse is not, for “the all‐perfect agnōsia, in its superior sense, is a knowledge of Him, Who is above all known things.” How are we to understand this tension between, on the one hand, knowing and unknowing as oil and water, and, on the other hand, unknowing as still a sort of knowledge, perhaps even the fulfillment of knowledge? For Dionysius, no other faculty takes over when knowledge is undone, as is the case in the tradition of so‐called “affective mysticism,” where love takes over when intellect fails.94 That is to say, union may go well beyond “knowledge” (γνῶσις) and “mind” (νοῦς), but it is closer to a knowledge and mind than it is to any other faculty that lays in wait. Finally, as we have seen in the case of other alpha‐privatives, Dionysius prefers to use them to express superabundance rather than deprivation. “Unknowing” (ἀ + γνωσία) is no different: it signals a superabundant knowledge, in which one is unknowingly united to the completely unknown. As best as Dionysius can discern, then, unknowing seems to amount to “another knowledge”95—that is, knowledge of the wholly other.
What of this unknowing then, and its relationship to Paul? First of all, for Dionysius Paul had in his letter to the Romans already given voice to the divine movements of procession and return long before the Neoplatonists fixed the nomenclature.96 Second, while Paul never uses the terms κατάϕασις and ἀπόϕασις, he does witness to the tension between the immanence and transcendence of God, to which affirmation and negation correspond. Third, while Paul of course cannot be credited with providing Dionysius a dynamic procedure, as Proclus did, for negating negations, when it comes to the very goal of the entire enterprise—the unknowing union with the God who surpasses all—Paul appears again as the authoritative witness.
Recall the Fifth Letter, where Paul is not only the source of so many alpha‐privatives, but also the exemplary case of one who is gifted with the paradoxical knowledge of God: “even as the Divine Paul is said to have known Almighty God, by having known Him as being above all conception and knowledge.”97 Dionysius goes on to say that Paul wrote “as having found (εὑρηκὼς) [God] Who is above all, and having known (ἐγνωκώς) this which is above conception (ὑπὲρ νόησιν), that, by being Cause of all, He is beyond (ἐπέκεινα) all.”98 That Paul is said here to have found God is an allusion to Paul's speech to the Areopagus, where Paul explains to the court that God created the world and “the nations…so that they would search (ζητεῖν) for God and perhaps grope (ψηλαϕήσειαν) for him and find (εὕροιεν) him—though indeed he is not far from us” (Acts 17:26–7). And to find God is to know God, but to know God is to know that God is beyond knowledge (ὑπερ πᾶσαν…γνῶσιν). Dionysius' Fifth Letter makes clear, then, that Paul is the exemplar of the paradoxical knowledge of God: an unknowing union with the God who surpasses all knowledge.
We might think that Dionysius lays this mantle on Paul without much warrant, for the apostle mentions ἀγνωσία only once in his (p.141) letters, and in a derogatory sense best rendered “ignorance”: “Some people have no knowledge (ἀγνωσίαν) of God.”99 So also with the words ἄγνοια100 and ἀγνοέω101—Paul uses both to signify mere ignorance, not the rarefied unknowing of Dionysian ἀγνωσία. Some have argued that the first references to such a rarefied understanding of ἀγνωσία postdate Paul by almost two hundred years.102 But regardless of exactly where Dionysius first encountered this elevated understanding of ἀγνωσία as unknowing, he no doubt found it reflected in the life of his beloved apostle. For apart from the letters of Paul, Dionysius also had the accounts of Paul's missionary activity from the Acts of the Apostles. The climax of that wandering evangelism is (p.142) Paul's speech to the court of the Areopagus in Athens, to whom Paul famously preached: “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown (ἀγνοοῦντες), this I proclaim to you.”103 This last phrase is in fact quite a poor translation in the RSV, for the circumstantial participle ἀγνοοῦντες refers not to the object of worship, but to the worshippers themselves.104 A better translation might be: “What therefore you unknowingly worship, this I proclaim to you.”105 But an equally legitimate, if more daring, translation might be: “I proclaim to you that which you therefore worship through your unknowing.” If we translate the phrase thus, Paul seems to anticipate a central Dionysian theme: specifically the notion that the unknown and unknowable God can only be properly known through unknowing. Paul therefore emerges from this speech as the very first advocate of Dionysian unknowing, the authoritative apostolic witness to the goal of all saying and unsaying. As with the divine movements of procession and return, Dionysius can see in Paul the wellspring of any subsequent elevation of unknowing from mere ignorance to blessed union.106
Dionysius never comments directly on this verse in particular or on this speech in general. This is a curious omission, as it is from precisely this passage that the author draws his pseudonym. Despite this silence, the influence of Paul's speech to the Areopagus on the CD is evident everywhere. There is the obvious fact that for an author writing under the name of a man converted upon hearing of the “unknown God,” any (p.143) one of the many mentions of God as unknown107 harkens back to this speech. Furthermore, while it may not have been the intention of Paul (or the author of Luke–Acts), Dionysius does find in this speech a nascent account of unknowing. If “it is certain that Ps.‐Dionysius writes every word in the context of Acts 17,” then perhaps Dionysius' silence regarding this speech is paradoxical testimony to its importance for his project.108
III. Dionysius: Christian or Neoplatonist?
To this point, I have been walking a rather thin line: acknowledging, where appropriate, Dionysius' clear debts to late Neoplatonism, and yet insisting that scholars have often focused exclusively on these debts and so have been blind to Paul's influence, and how Dionysius understood Paul as anticipating many Neoplatonic themes. I need now explain how Dionysius understands his own allegiances and whether there is a conflict in those allegiances. Following no less an authority than Christ, who teaches that a man cannot serve two masters, many scholars have attempted to fix a label to Dionysius: is he a “Neoplatonist” or he is a “Christian”? The dichotomy is in fact a false one, not least because the labels do not name equal and opposing commitments—two masters, if you will. The disjunction between “Christian” and “Neoplatonist” does not aid in understanding how Christians in late antiquity used Neoplatonic sources in various ways and to various ends.109 The disjunction is perhaps (p.144) especially inappropriate with regard to Dionysius, for in fact he offers, I argue, substantial clues as how best to understand his appeal to Neoplatonism. Chief among these clues is his very pseudonym: Dionysius the Areopagite, member of the esteemed judicial body of Athens to whom Paul delivers his famous speech in Acts 17. In order to understand how Dionysius figures the relationship between Christ and pagan wisdom, we would do well then to look closely again at that speech. We will see that Dionysius follows the model of his master, and opts not to oppose Christ to pagan wisdom, but to enfold that pagan wisdom into a new dispensation, a new order over which reigns an unknown god and a resurrected man.
III.A. Paul's speech to the Areopagus
As soon as Paul arrives in Athens, he is “deeply distressed to see that the city is full of idols” (17:16). He makes straight for the synagogue to argue with Jews and to the marketplace to contend with “Stoic and Epicurean philosophers” (17:17–18). He speaks of Jesus (ὁ Ἰησοῦς) and the resurrection (ἡ ἀναστάσις) and is therefore taken to be “a proclaimer of foreign divinities” (17:18), in this case a divine syzygy.110 He is ushered from the marketplace to the court of the Areopagus, an esteemed judicial body that was, according to Aeschylus at least, convened to judge contests between gods.111 Standing before this august body, Paul begins his speech with characteristic irony: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in (p.145) every way” (17:22). He clothes his distress in feigned admiration for their piety. The barb of his comment is more keenly felt in the Greek, since Paul describes them with a word, δεισιδαιμονέστερος, which can mean exceedingly “superstitious” or “bigoted” just as easily as “pious” or “religious.”112 The embedded word δαίμων—which in the New Testament connotes more of an evil spirit than deity or divinity—also serves as a counterpoint to the altar's inscription to an unknown θεός, or “god.” Always the brilliant rhetorician, Paul is able to hold the attention of his pagan audience with flattery so that he can deftly shift the ground of their piety. This is reflected in his appropriation of their own altar “to an unknown god”: what had been established as a safety measure honoring foreign gods still unknown to the Hellenistic world is now transformed in Paul's hands into the sign of an incipient faith.113 This squares with Paul's letter to the Romans (1:20–5), where he laments the fact that although all of the nations once knew God—“his eternal power and divine nature”—all but the Jews fell away from this ancient faith and “became fools.” They “exchanged” their ancient faith in the unknown god for idolatrous images and human foolishness masquerading as wisdom. The inscription on the altar is for Paul no mere accident or convenient rhetorical hook, but an all‐important trace of a former knowledge of God. From the very start of this speech and the mention of the unknown god, Paul looks forward to a resolution to this apparent conflict between divinities and a restoration of the past: Athens, once more, will have something to do with Jerusalem.
The momentum of the speech is maintained as Paul continues to proclaim this unknown god:
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals all life and breath and all things. From one (p.146) ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each of us. For in him, we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (17:24–8)
As has been amply documented by scholarship, this portion of Paul's speech employs themes and even phrasing familiar to the Greek literary and philosophical tradition. For instance, the phrase “the God who made the world and everything that is in it” recalls phrases from Pythagoras (as reported by Plutarch), Plato, and Epictetus.114 So too with the phrase “does not live in shrines made by human hands,” which recalls phrases from Zeno (as reported by Plutarch) and Euripides.115 And in case these conciliatory allusions were lost on his pagan audience, he concludes this portion of the speech with a direct quote from one of their own, the Stoic poet Aratus of the third century BCE: “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’ ” (17:28).116
Paul develops the Athenians' incipient faith in “an unknown god” by drawing on their own literary, philosophical, and religious lexicon. This is considerably more than mere flattery or rhetorical skill, for it is motivated by the conviction, as expressed in his letter to the Romans, that the Athenians still possess traces of their former faith. The success of Paul's evangelical campaign, however, is witnessed by the audience's rather muted reaction to the mention of the resurrection of the “man whom God has appointed” (17:31). Unlike so much of Paul's speech, the notion of resurrection was foreign to the Athenian mind, even preposterous. Witness these lines from Aeschylus' The Eumenides: “But once the dust has drained down all a man's blood, once the man has died, there is no raising of him (ἀναστάσις) up (p.147) again.” And yet the audience is rather more receptive than we might imagine: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear from you again about this’ ” (17:32). Into this proclamation of an unknown god, Paul so successfully folds the traditions of Athens that some among his audience will hear more and at least a few come to believe. A new order is thereby established: the pagan tradition is absorbed into and subordinated to the new dispensation. This new order is set apart from and above the pagan past by calling upon the world to repent in preparation for a day on which a resurrected man will judge in righteousness. Thus the resurrected Christ stands with the unknown god at the zenith of this new order, which absorbs ancient wisdom and baptizes the past into a new life.
Writing sometime in the early sixth century, probably in Syria, the author of the CD would not have faced the urgent need to enfold popular pagan piety into a new order. But whereas Athens is for Paul a place “full of idols,” it is for this author the seat of Neoplatonism, the Academy and its diadochoi—most recently Proclus. Might this author be turning to Paul—especially the Paul who speaks to the Areopagus—to provide a template for absorbing and subordinating pagan wisdom? Might this author, steeped in Neoplatonism as he surely is, be taking on the role of a convert of Paul precisely to make the point that the riches of Neoplatonism do not constitute “foreign divinities” but rather an incipient faith? After all, the Athenians are the same Gentiles who, according to Paul in Romans, once knew the invisible power and nature of God, and then fell to worshipping images.117 They now betray traces of their ancient faith with an altar to “an unknown god.” Furthermore, for Dionysius at least, if Paul had already given voice to divine procession and return, struggled with divine immanence and transcendence, guarded vigilantly against our casting god in the “image formed by art and imagination of mortals” (17:29), and not only commended but suffered himself “unknowing union,” then Neoplatonism is like the prodigal son, returning after a long (p.148) exile—impoverished, sullied, and aching for home. For Dionysius, the seeds of Paul's wisdom were sown on foreign soil and grew to fruition in Neoplatonism, and these are the very fruits he now plucks from the likes of Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. For Dionysius, Neoplatonism does not compete with Paul; rather, Paul completes Neoplatonism by once again returning this pagan wisdom to the fold and baptizing it again into the life of Christ.
III.B. The Seventh Letter
This speculative foray into the relationship between Christianity and Neoplatonism in the CD is buttressed and deepened by Letter 7, addressed to none other than Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. The pretext of the letter is this: a certain sophist by the name of Apollophanes has apparently charged Dionysius with “parricide,” for “using, not piously, the writings of Greeks against the Greeks.”118 Dionysius is said to be guilty of betraying his paternal tradition by drawing on but subordinating Greek wisdom to his faith in Christ. The question is not, Dionysius insists, what is Greek and whether one is faithful to it, but rather what is true and whether one is faithful to that. By the standards of truth, he contends, it is the Greeks who are guilty, for “Greeks use, not piously, things Divine against things Divine.”119 God has given the Greeks “wisdom” and “divine reverence” which they have squandered. This ancient wisdom is not the piety of hoi polloi who, to quote Paul, “worship the creature rather than the Creator.”120 No: the gift the Greeks squander is none other than the “knowledge of things created” or “Philosophy.”121 Had they remained faithful to the true philosophy revealed to them by God in ancient times, “true philosophers [would] have been elevated to the Cause of things created and of the knowledge of them.”122 Dionysius succeeds then in reading Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 1 together: while “Greeks desire wisdom,”123 they stray from the true wisdom revealed by God. (p.149) Paul proclaims “Christ crucified,”124 who appears as “God's foolishness”125 to the vain and empty, wisdom for which the Greeks have exchanged their true inheritance. Paul reminds them of the “wisdom of God,”126 which, Dionysius claims, is in fact the true philosophy of old and “wiser than human wisdom.”127 For Dionysius, Paul delivers a stern rebuke to the Greeks: return to your roots and you will find there the true philosophy, revealed by God then and now, Christ crucified.
According to this reading, then, Dionysius does not value or scorn Neoplatonism on the grounds of its being Greek, but rather on the grounds of its being true. And like the piety which Paul witnesses in Athens, it bears some of the traces of its ancestor, the true philosophy revealed to the Greeks by God, although obscured by the accretion of human foolishness. Dionysius is therefore called, as Paul was before him, to summon the Greeks back to their true philosophy. His deep appreciation for and debt to Neoplatonism amounts to a deep appreciation for and debt to Paul, who admonished the Greeks to return to their roots and submit their wisdom to the unknown God, and an even deeper appreciation for and debt to that unknown God, who first sowed the seeds of this wisdom. Dionysius' “thralldom” to Neoplatonism is in fact a process of recovery, recognizing the face of the prodigal son beneath the years of filth and labor and welcoming him home. As von Balthasar remarks, “Denys therefore does not want to borrow, but rather to return what has been borrowed to its true owner.”128
Following von Balthasar, Andrew Louth suggests that by assuming the identity of Paul's famous Athenian convert, the author of the CD is signaling some rapprochement between pagan wisdom and the revelation of God in Christ: “Denys the Areopagite, the Athenian convert, stands at the point where Christ and Plato meet. The pseudonym expressed the author's belief that the truths that Plato grasped belong to Christ, and are not abandoned by embracing faith in Christ.”129 Just as the learned pagan judge, Dionysius the Areopagite, was converted by Paul's speech to the Areopagus, so too pagan wisdom can be converted to the revelation of Christ. According to (p.150) Louth, the author of the CD positions himself as a disciple of Paul because Paul's speech to the Areopagus was the inaugural rapprochement between an incipient pagan faith in “the unknown god” and Christian revelation.
Christian Schäfer has developed Louth's insights.130 Schäfer is the first to read the CD against the backdrop of Paul's speech to the Areopagus. He insists that “[t]he pseudonym of ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ is to be taken as a programmatic key for the understanding of his writings…[and that] the key to a proper interpretation of the CD is the methodical acceptance of the literary fiction of reading an author who—Athenian born and raised in the pagan culture of Christ's times—finds himself faced with early Christian doctrine.”131 Schäfer argues that the author's pseudonym suggests that he is “doing the same thing as the Apostle did”132: just as Paul appropriated the tradition of pagan wisdom—preeminently the altar “to the unknown god” in Acts 17:23—in order to show the Athenians that they already possessed an incipient faith that needed only the corrective of Christian revelation, so too Dionysius “wants us to understand that Greek philosophy was on the correct path in its understanding of the Divine, but it obviously needed the eye‐opening ‘superaddition’ or ‘grace’ (if these are the right words) of Christian revelation in order to be released from its ultimate speechlessness and residual insecurity concerning the last Cause.”133 Schäfer also sees that this reading easily squares with Roms 1:20–5, where Paul laments that the Gentiles foreswore their knowledge of God, “exchanging” this ancient revelation for idolatry and human foolishness. Thus, according to Schäfer, Dionysius takes on the name of Paul's convert from Athens precisely in order to “baptize”134 pagan wisdom once again into a new life in Christ.
If we return now to the question of whether Dionysius is really a Christian or really a Neoplatonist, we can safely answer that he is both. But he is both insofar as Neoplatonism is the residuum of what Paul calls the “wisdom of God.” And just as Paul called attention to that divine residuum and admonished his Athenian audience to (p.151) repent of their folly in preparation for judgment, so too Dionysius calls attention to the same divine residuum in Neoplatonism and admonishes his antagonist to “learn the truth, which is above [human] wisdom, of our religion.”135
Apart from von Balthasar, Louth, and Schäfer, scholars have been largely blind to the clues in the CD for understanding the relationship between Neoplatonism and Christ, pagan wisdom and Christ crucified. One concluding example will suffice to make our point. In DN 5.5, Dionysius writes:
[T]he being to all beings and to the ages, is from the Pre‐existing. And every age and time is from Him. And of every age and time, and of everything, howsoever existing, the Pre‐existing is Source and Cause. And all things participate in Him, and from no single existing thing does He stand aloof. And He is before all things, and all things in Him consist.”136
The penultimate sentence is a quote from Proclus' description of the First Cause,137 while the ultimate sentence should be familiar from our discussion of immanence above: it is a quote from Colossians 1:17. According to H.D. Saffrey, “In quoting Proclus in this way, Dionysius lets it be seen in which school he was trained, and naturally he has sought to mask this dependence by the quotation from Saint Paul which he couples with that from Proclus.”138 Is this the only lesson to be drawn from such coupling of Proclus and Paul? After all, if Dionysius wants “to mask his dependence,” he would do better to paraphrase, rather than quote, Proclus. It would be wiser to disguise the provenance of this sentence. Perhaps he does not want to mask this dependence at all. Perhaps, on the contrary, he wants his reader to notice the coupling of Proclus and Paul. This seems much more likely, not only here but elsewhere in the CD where Dionysius quotes freely from the Athenian philosopher. A writer anxious about the influence of Neoplatonism would, we suspect, go to greater lengths to disguise his debt. And yet Dionysius consistently flaunts his (p.152) substantial debts to Neoplatonism—why? The reason is clear enough: we need only look to Paul. God revealed his true philosophy to the Greeks. Paul called their attention to that noble legacy not only in his speech to the Areopagus but also in his many letters. Paul reminded the Greeks that “philosophy” is only “God's wisdom.” Dionysius does not follow Proclus with Paul in DN 5.5 so as to seal a crack in the edifice of Christian Platonism, or to distract from his split servitude. Rather, he follows Proclus with Paul precisely to show that Proclus heeds Paul's reminder and speaks truth. Like the altar “to the unknown God,” Proclus' wisdom is also an incipient faith, a wisdom that not only bears the traces of the ancient and true philosophy revealed by God but also develops some of the specific themes Paul preached in his speeches and letters, including procession and return, immanence and transcendence, and unknowing union. Whatever is true in Proclus Dionysius will credit to God, Christ, and his apostle to the Gentiles; whatever is false he will credit to all‐too‐human folly. In short, whatever cracks remain in the edifice of pagan Neoplatonism—and there are many, owing to the creep of human into divine wisdom—they are sealed only when folded into the new order ruled over by an unknown God and a man crucified and resurrected.
(1) ὃ οὖν ἀγνοοῦντες εὐσεβεῖτε, τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) mistranslates this sentence: “What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
(2) DN 1.1 585B; CD I 107.4–108.3.
(3) 1 Cor 2:4: “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
(4) Sheldon‐Williams, “The Pseudo‐Dionysius and the Holy Hierotheus,” 112: “In spite of the author's emphatic assurance at the beginning of the treatise that he is following the Scriptures, there is nothing peculiarly scriptural in these names, except in the last four. The mysteries into which Hierotheus initiated him are not a revelation of Scripture but of Neoplatonism: a Neoplatonism which is later than Plotinus but could belong to any period from Iamblichus onwards.”
(5) Rorem, “The Biblical Allusions and Overlooked Questions in the Pseudo‐Dionysian Corpus,” 64. Rorem seems to have Sheldon‐Williams in mind when he writes that “[Dionysius'] claims have apparently been thought a superficial formality.”
(6) DN 1.1 588B; CD I 109.15–110.1: αἴτιον μὲν τοῦ εἶναι πᾶσιν, αὐτὸ δὲ μὴ ὂν ὡς πάσης οὐσίας ἐπέκεινα καὶ ὡς ἂν αὐτὴ περὶ ἑαυτῆς κυρίως καὶ ἐπιστητῶς ἀποϕαίνοιτο.
(7) DN 1.1 585B; CD I 108.2–3.
(8) In DN 1.8 597B (CD I 121.1–6), Dionysius explains that he will treat the “sensory names” in a fictitious (or perhaps lost) treatise entitled the Symbolic Theology. He presents the Divine Names, on the other hand, as the “explication of the conceptual names of God.”
(9) Paul is particularly relevant to the treatment of light (DN 4.4–4.6), love (ἔρως) and ecstasy (DN 4.11–4.17), wisdom (DN 4.1), and “King of kings” (DN 12), but is minimally relevant to, even absent from, the treatments of other names.
(10) DN 1.5 593A–B; CD I 115.19–116.6.
(11) Sheldon‐Williams, “The Pseudo‐Dionysius and the Holy Hierotheus,” 112.
(12) CH 2.3 140D (CD II 12.15–17): “[The Oracles] affirm that [God] is invisible, and infinite, and incomprehensible; and when there is signified, not what it is, but what it is not.”; cf. Col 1:15: “[The Son] is the image of the invisible God”; cf. 1 Tim 1:17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen”; CH 4.3 180C (CD II 22.2–4): “[Let it be made learned], and that distinctly, from the most Holy Oracles, that no one hath seen, nor ever shall see, the ‘hidden’ τὸ κρύϕιον of Almighty God as it is in itself.”; cf. 1 Tim 6:16: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”; EH 7.3.5 560B (CD II 125.18–20): “For we must remember that the Logion is true, that ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man to conceive, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.’ ”; cf. 1 Cor 2:9: “But as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.’ ”
(13) There may be a pun here, for βάτος also means “thorn bush,” more specifically the thorn bush in which Moses is supposed to have seen God (Exod 3:2–4). Thus even in the supreme theophany of the Hebrew Bible, in a thorn‐bush or βάτος, God remains inaccessible or ἄβατος. See Danker, A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 171.
(14) DN 1.2 588C; CD I 110.4–10.
(15) Dionysius seems to have made an error with respect to this second alpha‐privative, “incomprehensible” [ἀπερίληπτον], for it is not scriptural, as he contends. Gregory of Nyssa, however, uses it of the divine nature (tres dii [M.45.129C]), as does Gregory of Nazianzus of the Trinity (or. 6.22 [M.35.749C]). See Lampe, A Greek Patristic Lexicon, 183.
(16) Rom 1:20; Col 1:15; Col 1:16; 1 Tim 1:17. ἀόρατος appears no less than twenty times in the CD; ἀνεξερεύνητος four times; ἀνεξιχνίαστον three times. It is a term which may have been particularly aimed at fifth‐century Messalians. The Messalians—whose name comes from the Syriac word for prayer—were a fourth‐century movement in Syria that apparently believed that monks could enjoy a physical vision of the Trinity. They were condemned at the end of the fourth century in Antioch and again at the Council of Ephesus in 431, but survived in Syria well into the sixth century. Golitzin is convinced that the CD was composed precisely to rebut the views of the Messalians and other deviant forms of Syrian Christianity; see Golitzin, “Dionysius Areopagita: A Christian Mysticism?” 177–8; for an excellent overview of the movement and a helpful translation of key texts, see Stewart, “Working the Earth of the Heart”: The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to A.D. 431.
(17) Rom 11:33.
(18) Rom 11:33; Eph 3:8.
(19) Ep. 5. 1073A–1076A; CD II 162.1–163.5: Ὁ θεῖος γνόϕος ἐστὶ τὸ «ἀπρόσιτον ϕῶς», ἐν κατοικεῖν ὁ θεὸς λέγεται, καὶ ἀοράτῳ γε ὄντι διὰ τὴν ὑπερέχουσαν ϕανότητα καὶ ἀπροσίτῳ τῷ αὐτῷ δι᾽ ὑπερβολὴν ὑπερουσίου ϕωτοχυσίας. Ἐν τούτῳ γίγνεται πᾶς ὁ θεὸν γνῶναι καὶ ἰδεῖν ἀξιούμενος, αὐτῷ τῷ μὴ ὁρᾶν μηδὲ γινώσκειν. ἀληθῶς ἐν τῷ ὑπὲρ ὅρασιν καὶ γνῶσιν γιγνόμενος τοῦτο αὐτὸ γιγνώσκων, ὅτι μετὰ πάντα ἐστὶ τὰ αἰσθητὰ καὶ τὰ νοητά, καὶ προϕητικῶς ἐρῶν. «Ἐθαυμαστώθη ἡ γνῶσίς σου ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ, ἐκραταιώθη, οὐ μὴ δύνωμαι πρὸς αὐτήν.» Ὥσπερ οὖν καὶ ὁ θεῖος Παῦλος ἐγνωκέναι τὸν θεὸν λέγεται γνοὺς αὐτὸν ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν ὄντα νοήσιν καὶ γνῶσιν, διὸ καὶ ἀνεξιχνιάστους ἐ̑ιναι τὰς ὁδοὺς αὐτοῦ ϕησι καὶ «ἀνεξερεύνητα τὰ κρίματα αὐτοῦ» καὶ ἀνεκδιηγήτους τὰς δωρεὰς αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν εἰρήνην αὐτοῦ ὑπερέχουσαν «πάντα νοῦν», ὡς εὑρηκὼς τὸν ὑπὲρ πάντα καὶ τοῦτο ὑπὲρ νόησιν ἐγνωκώς, ὅτι πάντων ἐστὶν ἐπέκεινα πάντων αἴτιος ὤν.
(20) 1 Tim 6:16: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (ὁ μόνος ἔχων ἀθανασίαν, ϕῶς οἰκῶν ἀπρόσιτον, ὃν εἶδεν οὐδεὶς ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲ ἰδεῖν δύναται).
(21) 2 Cor 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (χάρις τῷ θεῷ ἐπὶ τῇ ἀνεκδιηγήτῳ αὐτοῦ δωρεᾳ̑).
(22) For an excellent treatment of the fundamental ambiguity in the Dionysian notion of supereminence or ὑπεροχή (lit. “hyper‐having”), see Knepper, “Not Not: The Method and Logic of Dionysian Negation.”
(23) DN 2.3 640B (CD I 125.13–16): “The (Names) then, common to the whole Deity…are the Super‐Good, the Super‐God, the Superessential, the Super‐Living, the Super‐wise, and whatever else belongs to the superlative abstraction” (τὸ ὑπεράγαθον, τὸ ὑπέρθεον, τὸ ὑπερούσιον, τὸ ὑπέρζωον, τὸ ὑπέρσοϕον καὶ ὅσα τῆς ὑπεροχικῆς ἑστιν ἀϕαιρέσεως)”; Ep. 1 1065A (CD II 156.4–5): “Take this in a superlative, but not in a defective sense, and reply with superlative truth” (Ταῦτα ὑπεροχικῶς, ἀλλὰ μὴ κατὰ στέρησιν ἐκλαβὼν ἀπόϕησον ὑπεραληθῶς).”
(24) 2 Cor 9:15.
(25) DN 1.1 588B; CD I 109.14.
(26) Phil 4:7.
(27) DN 1.1 588B; CD I 109.14.
(28) DN 1.8 597B; CD I 121.6.
(29) DN 1.1 588A; CD I 108.8.
(30) Ep. 5. 1073A–1076A; CD II 162.11–163.5.
(31) DN 1.2 588C–D; CD I 110.11–15.
(32) DN 1.5 593D; CD I 117.11–15.
(33) DN 2.2 637B (CD I 124.1–2), DN 4.4 700B (CD I 148.13), DN 5.5 820A (CD I 183.15–16), DN 9.8 916B (CD I 213.4–5).
(34) In fact in this verse and in the proceeding verses Paul is describing not God the Father but “the beloved Son.” Very often Dionysius will use verses speaking of Jesus, Christ, or the Son to refer to God. This is not sloppy exegesis, but in fact reflects his views on the divine names expressing unity and those expressing differentiation as found in DN 2.11: “[E]very beneficent Name of God, to whichever of the supremely Divine Persons it may be applied, is to be understood with reference to the whole Supremely Divine wholeness unreservedly” (DN 2.11 652A; CD I 137.11–13).
(35) Dionysius also favors this verse: it appears two other times in this work: DN 7.3 872A (CD I 198.8), 9.5 912D (CD I 210.7–8).
(36) DN 1.7 596C; CD I 119.13–120.1.
(37) DN 1.5 593C; CD I 116.14–117.4 (my emphasis): “The godlike minds (men) made one by these unions, through imitation of the angels as far as attainable (since it is during cessation of every mental energy (κατὰ πάσης νοερᾶς ἐνεργείας ἀπόπαυσιν) that such an union as this of the deified minds towards the super‐divine light takes place) celebrate it most appropriately through the removal of all created things (διὰ τῆς πάντων τῶν ὄντων ἀϕαιρέσεως)—enlightened in this matter, truly and supernaturally from the most blessed union towards it—that It is Cause indeed of all things existing, but Itself none of them, as being superessentially elevated above all (πάντων…ἐξῃρημένον).”
(38) Ep. 5. 1076A; CD II 163.5. See also DN 7.3 872A; CD I 198.2–3 (emphasis original): “God is known even in all, and apart from all.”
(39) DN 1.3 589B; CD I 111.5–6.
(40) DN 1.6 596A; CD I 118.1–2.
(41) DN 1.6 596A; CD I 118.8–10.
(42) DN 2.11 649D; CD I 136.18–137.1: Καὶ τοῦτο ὑπερϕυῶς ἐννοήσας ὁ κοινὸς ἡμῶν καὶ τοῦ καθηγεμόνος ἐπὶ τὴν θείαν ϕωτοδοσίαν χειραγωγός, ὁ πολὺς τὰ θεῖα, «τὸ ϕῶς τοῦ κόσμου». That Dionysius describes Paul with Christological language (“the light of the world”) provides further evidence for the fact that, for Dionysius, Paul is the exemplar of one who consents to be a medium through whom Jesus, as light and love, fully moves.
(43) MT 1.2 1000B; CD II 143.3–5. If we submit even this passage to the rule with which the Divine Names opens, then we must understand Dionysius to mean not that we should affirm and negate whatever we please, but only those “divine names” drawn from all creation and revealed to the scripture writers.
(44) MT 3 1033C; CD II 147.10–11.
(45) MT 3 1033C; CD II 147.12.
(46) MT 2 1025B; CD II 145.7–8.
(47) Tomasic, “Negative Theology and Subjectivity: An Approach to the Tradition of the Pseudo‐Dionysius,” 426: “the via negativa functions intelligibly only in dialectical polarity with the way of affirmation.”
(48) MT 1.2 1000B; CD II 143.5–6.
(49) MT 1.3 1001A; CD II 144.7–8: ἡ ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν ἐπίνοιαν αὐτοῦ παρουσία.
(50) MT 1.2 1000B CD II.143.6–7: ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρότερον αὐτὴν ὑπὲρ τὰς στερήσεις εἶναι τὴν ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν καὶ ἀϕαίρεσιν καὶ θέσιν.
(51) Rubenstein, “Unknow Thyself,” 387–8.
(52) Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, 3. See also Sells, “The Pseudo‐Woman and the Meister: ‘Unsaying’ and Essentialism”, 115: apophasis “yields then to a language of double propositions, each correcting the previous proposition, and meaning is found only in the fleeting tension between the two propositions. Because the language‐conditioned mind tends to reify the last proposition as a self‐standing utterance, apophasis can never achieve closure. There must always be another, new statement.” Rubenstein quotes this passage from Sells in support of her claim that “negative theology never rests with either positive or negative negativity, but is marked by constant motion.” Cited in Rubenstein, “Unknow Thyself,” 395.
(54) Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, 427, 428.
(55) Proclus, Platonic Theology 2.10.
(56) Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, 523: “[Parmenides] shows how the One, while itself the cause of so‐called transcendent negations, yet does not participate in any of them, nor is any of them, in order that by means of this removal of all of those attributes he may show the One to be fixed above all the intellectual realms.” The editors tell us (523n) that Proclus borrows the term ὑπεραπόϕασις from the Stoics (cf. Diog. Laert. VII, 69), for whom it was a double negative that simply equaled a positive: “it is not not day” = “it is night” (¬¬P = P). But for Proclus, application of the double negative to the One signaled its transcendence of both sides of the opposition. For example, “the One is not not at rest” means that it transcends the opposition between rest and movement. Carlos Steel reminds us (“ ‘Negatio Negationis’: Proclus on the Final Lemma of the First Hypothesis of the Parmenides”), the phrase “the negation of negation” (negatio negationis) does not appear in Proclus. The phrase is in fact taken from Meister Eckhart, but has come to stand for the view, expressed by Proclus and others, that the ineffable One transcends even all negations.
(57) Proclus, Platonic Theology 2.10.
(58) MT 5 1048B; CD II 150.6–7.
(59) CH 2.3 140D; CD II 12.14–15: ποτὲ δὲ ταῖς ἀποϕατικαῖς ἐκϕαντορίαις ὑπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν λογίων ὑπερκοσμίως ὑμνεῖται. For an insightful treatment of how this section in CH fits into (or rather subverts) the cycle as laid out in DN and MT, see Rubenstein, “Unknow Thyself,” 398.
(60) CH 2.1 137A; CD II 10.7–9.
(61) CH 2.2‐3 140C; CD II 12.1–4.
(62) CH 2.3 141B; CD II 13.10–12.
(63) CH 2.2 137C‐D; CD II 11.2–5.
(64) CH 2.2 137D; CD II 11.5.
(65) CH 2.5 144C; CD II 15.8–10.
(66) CH 2.3 140C; CD II 12.11–12.
(67) CH 2.3 140C–D; CD II 12.12–14.
(68) CH 2.3 140D–141A; CD II 12.17–20.
(69) CH 2.5 145A; CD II 16.4.
(70) CH 2.3 140D; CD II 12.16–17: τὰ 〈λοιπὰ〉 ἐξ ὧν οὐ τί ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ τί οὐκ ἔστιν σημαίνεται.
(71) CH 2.3 141B; CD II 13.15–16.
(72) CH 2.5 145A; CD II 16.5.
(73) CH 2.5 145B; CD II 16.10–11.
(74) CH 2.3 140C; CD II 12.4.
(75) CH 2.2 137B; CD II 10.14–15.
(76) CH 2.3 141B; CD II 13.18.
(77) CH 2.3 141B; CD II 13.17.
(78) CH 2.5 145A; CD II 15.20 (Ps 22:6). On dissimilar similarities and Dionysius' appeal to Ps 22:6, see Ruaro, “God and the Worm: The Twofold Otherness in Pseudo‐Dionysius' Theory of Dissimilar Images.” While standard patristic exegesis understands Christ as the speaker in Psalm 22, calling himself a worm, for Dionysius Christ calling himself a worm is tantamount to God calling himself a worm, and so worm is included in the list of divine names.
(79) Cf. Ep. 9.1 1105B; 9.5 1112B–C (cf. S of S 5:1; Pss 44:23; 78:65).
(80) CH 2.3 141B; CD II 13.18.
(81) CH 2.5 145A; CD II 16.4–5 (Luibheid's translation).
(82) Struck, Birth of the Symbol, 232.
(83) I myself have certain reservations about Struck’s treatment of both Proclus and Dionysius, which I intend to publish in the near future.
(84) CH 2.3 141B–C; CD II 13.18–21: ὑπονύττουσα τῇ δυσμορϕίᾳ τῶν συνθημάτων ὡς μήτε θεμιτοῦ μηδὲ ἀληθοῦς δοκοῦντες εἶναι μηδὲ τοῖς ἄγαν προσύλοις, ὄτι τοῖς οὕτως αἰσχροῖς ἐμϕερῆ πρὸς ἀλήθειάν ἐστι τὰ ὑπερουράνια καὶ θεῖα θεάματα.
(85) The CD is in fact peppered with vocabulary related to “unknowing”: ἀγνοέω, to be ignorant or not to know; ἀγνοήμα, the object of ignorance or error; ἄγνοια, ignorance; ἀγνωσία, ignorance or unknowing; ἄγνωστος, unknown or unknowable; and ἀγνώστως, unknowingly. The “unknowing” that accompanies the gift of union must be distinguished from mere ignorance. Throughout the CD, the word ἄγνοια signifies mere ignorance or lack of knowledge that illumination dispels [DN 4.5 700D (CD I 149.12), 4.6 701B (CD I 150.9), 7.4 872D (CD I 199.8); CH 7.3 209C (CD II 30.24); EH 6.3.6 537B (CD II 119.26, 120.4); Ep. 7.2 1081A (CD II 169.1)]. But the word ἀγνωσία has something of a double life in the CD. It appears twice in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy as a synonym for ἄγνοια—specifically the ignorance that afflicts the unbaptized. It is therefore correctly translated as “ignorance” or “lack of knowledge” in those instances [EH 2.2.5 396A (CD II 71.11), 2.3.4 400C (CD II 75.15)]. But in the Divine Names, the Mystical Theology, and the First Letter, ἀγνωσία takes on different meanings that are difficult to explain and is best rendered literally as “unknowing” or “unknowability.” Twice in the Divine Names Dionysius seems to use ἀγνωσία to signify the “unknowability” of God—in one instance quite generally, in another with regard to the Trinity in particular [DN 9.5 913B (CD I 211.6), 2.4 641A (CD I 127.1)]. In this sense, the word becomes part of his lexicon for treating divine transcendence. Likewise with ἄγνωστος [DN 1.1 585B–588A (CD I 107–9), 1.4 592C (CD I 115.2), 1.5 593B (CD I 116.8), 2.9 648A (CD I 133.6), 7.3 869C (CD I 197.19), 8.2 892A (CD I 201.10), 11.1 949B (CD I 218.14), 11.2 949C (CD I 219.7); CH 2.2 137B (CD II 10.14), 15.2 329B (CD II 52.13); Ep. 3 1069B (159.10)]—which can mean “unknowable” just as well as “unknown”: “But we will recall to your remembrance this much, that the purpose of our treatise is not to make known the superessential essence—quā superessential [τὴν ὑπερούσιον οὐσίαν, ᾐ̑ ὑπερούσιος]—(for this is inexpressible, and unknowable [ἄγνωστον], and altogether unrevealed, and surpassing the union itself)” (DN 5.1 816B; CD I 180.9–12). Sometimes it is God in his nature that is “unknown” or “unknowable,” sometimes the hidden meaning of one of the divine names, sometimes the mystery of the Incarnation. But nearly as often both ἀγνωσία and ἄγνωστος are used to describe not only the inaccessible heights of divine transcendence, but also the very union with God for which all our affirmation and negation aims. This correlation between ἀγνωσία and ἕνωσις is made fairly explicit in the opening of the Divine Names (DN 1.1 585B–588A; cf. DN 1.4). Lest the reader miss the fact that our union will be a state of unknowing, Dionysius also introduces a variant on a phrase from the Celestial Hierarchy to make the point absolutely clear: δι᾽ ἑνώσεως ἀγνώστου, “through an unknowing union” [DN 4.11 708D (CD I 156.); cf. CH 13.4 305B (CD II 48.12)].
(86) MT 1.3 1001A; CD II 144.10–13: εἰς τὸν γνόϕον τῆς ἀγνωσίας…τὸν ὄντως μυστικόν…πᾶς ὢν τοῦ πάντων ἐπέκεινα καὶ οὐδενός. This phrase τὸν γνόϕον τῆς ἀγνωσίας is famous as the title of the anonymous fourteenth‐century treatise The Cloud of Unknowing.
(87) MT 1.1 997B; CD II 142.5–9.
(88) See Rorem, “Moses as the Paradigm for the Liturgical Spirituality of Pseudo‐Dionysius' Liturgical Theology,” 275–9.
(89) If we must learn how to unknow, as it seems we must, then why does Dionysius mostly refrain from using the verb ἀγνοέω in the special sense of “to unknow”? Instead he uses the verb as he does the noun ἄγνοια, to signify ignorance or lack of knowledge [DN 2.9 648A (CH I 133.8), 7.2 869C (CH I 197.12), 7.4 872D (CH I 199.9), 8.1 889C (CH I 200.8), 13.4 981D (CH I 230.18); EH 4.3.9 484A (CD II 101.19), 6.3.6 537B (CH II 119.24), 7.3.11 568A (CH II 131.2); Ep. 8.2 1092C (CH II 181.4), 8.5 1096C (CH II 187.1)]. What exceptions there are to this rule hail from the Celestial Hierarchy, where in at least on instance the verb ἀγνοέω may mean to “unknow” in the sense of enjoy “unknowing union” with the unknown and unknowable God: “[W]e rightly describe [God's] non‐relationship to things created, but we do not know (ἀγνοοῦμεν) its superessential, and inconceivable, and unutterable indefinability” [CH 2.3 141A (CD II 12.19–20); cf. 15.9 340B (CD II 50.10)]. By and large, I think, Dionysius refrains from using the verb in this way precisely because it would suggest that unknowing—and thereby even union—is something we do rather than something that is done to us.
(90) MT 1.3 1001A; CD II 144.13–15: τῷ παντελῶς δὲ ἀγνώστῳ τῇ πάσης γνώσεως ἀνενεργησίᾳ κατὰ τὸ κρεῖττον ἑνούμενος…τῷ μηδὲν γινώσκειν ὑπὲρ νοῦν γινώσκων.
(91) MT 2 1025A; CD II 145.1–3: δι᾽ ἀβλεψίας καὶ ἀγνωσίας ἰδεῖν καὶ γνῶσαι τὸν ὑπὲρ θέαν καὶ γνῶσιν αὐτῷ τῷ μὴ ἰδεῖν μηδὲ γνῶναι—τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι τὸ ὄντως ἰδειν καὶ γνῶναι.
(92) MT 2 1025B; CD II 145.11–13: ἵνα ἀπερικαλύπτως γνῶμεν ἐκείνην τὴν ἀγνωσίαν τὴν ὑπὸ πάντων τῶν γνωστῶν ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς οὖσι περικεκαλυμμένην.
(93) Ep. 1 1065A–B; CD II 156.3–157.5: Τὸ σκότος ἀϕανὲς γίνεται τῷ ϕωτί, καὶ μᾶλλον τῷ πολλῷ ϕωτί. τὴν ἀγνοωσίαν ἀϕανίζουσιν αἱ γνώσεις, καὶ μᾶλλον αἱ πολλαὶ γνώσεις. Τᾶυτα ὑπεροχικῶς, ἀλλὰ μὴ κατὰ στέρησιν ἐκλαβὼν ἀπόϕησον ὑπεραληθῶς, ὅτι λανθάνει τοὺς ἔχοντας ὂν ϕῶς καὶ ὄντων γνῶσιν ἡ κατὰ θεὸν ἀγνωσία καὶ τὸ ὑπερκείμενον αὐτοῦ σκότος καὶ καλύπτεται παντὶ ϕωτὶ καὶ ἀποκρύπτεται πᾶσαν γνῶσιν. Καὶ εἴ τις ἰδὼν θεὸν συνῆκεν, ὃ εἶδεν, οὐκ αὐτὸν ἑώρακεν, ἀλλά τι τῶν αὐτοῦ τῶν ὄντων καὶ γινωσκομένων. αὐτὸς δὲ ὑπὲρ νοῦν καὶ οὐσίαν ὑπεριδρυμένος, αὐτῷ τῷ καθόλου μὴ γινώσκεσθαι μηδὲ εἶναι, καὶ ἔστιν ὑπερουσίως καὶ ὑπὲρ νοῦν γινώσκεται. Καὶ ἡ κατὰ τὸ κρε̑ιττον παντελὴς ἀγνωσία γνῶσις ἐστι τοῦ ὑπὲρ πάντα τὰ γινωσκόμενα.
(94) This is especially clear in the case of Thomas Gallus and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing who contend that midway along the mystical itinerary the intellect ceases and loves complete the journey. See Rubenstein, “Unknown Thyself,” 395, citing Turner, The Darkness of God, 46–7. Rubenstein insists: “the apophatic abandonment of the intellect is at once its destruction and its consummation.”
(95) Tomasic, “Negative Theology and Subjectivity: An Approach to the Tradition of the Pseudo‐Dionysius,” 428.
(96) Rom 11:36: “because from him and through him and to him are all things” (ὅτι ἐξ αὐτοῦ καὶ δι᾽ αὐτοῦ καὶ εὶς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα).
(97) Ep. 5 1073A–B; CD II 162.11–163.1: Ὥσπερ οὖν καὶ ὁ θεῖος Παῦλος ἐγνωκέναι τὸν θεὸν λέγεται γνοὺς αὐτὸν ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν ὄντα νόησιν καὶ γνῶσιν.
(98) Ep. 5 1076A; CD II 163.4–5.
(99) 1 Cor 15:34: ἀγνωσίαν γὰρ θεοῦ τινες ἔχουσιν.
(100) Eph 4:18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance (ἄγνοιαν) and hardness of heart.”
(101) Rom 1:13: “I want you to know (οὐ…ἀγνοεῖν), brothers and sisters”; Rom 2:4: “Do you not realize (ἀγνοῶν) that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”; Rom 6:3: “Do you not know (ἀγνοεῖτε) that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”; Rom 7:1: “Do you not know (ἀγνοεῖτε), brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a a person only during that person's lifetime?”; Rom 10:3: “For, being ignorant (ἀγνοοῦντες) of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God's righteousness”; Rom 11:25: “I want you to understand this mystery (οὐ…ἀγνοεῖν)”; 1 Cor 10:1: “I do not want you to be unaware (ἀγνοεῖν), brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”; 1 Cor 12:1: “Now concerning spiritual things, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed (ἀγνοεῖν)”; 1 Cor 14:38: “Anyone who does not recognize (ἀγνοεῖ) this is not to be recognized (ἀγνοεῖται)”; 2 Cor 1:8: “We do not want you to be unaware (ἀγνοεῖν), brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia”; 2 Cor 2:11: “And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant (οὐ…ἀγνοοῦμεν) of his designs”; 2 Cor 6:9: “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known (ὡς ἀγνοούμενοι καὶ ἐπιγινωσκόμενοι)”; Gal 1:22: “I was still unknown (ἀγνοούμενος) by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ”; 1 Thess 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed (ἀγνοεῖν), brothers and sisters, about those who have died”; 1 Tim 1:13: “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly (ἀγνοῶν) in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
(102) Wallis, “The Spiritual Importance of Not Knowing,” 470: “Most important are that there [in Allogenes] and in Basilides we find the first explicit Western spiritual references to ‘unknowing’ or ‘ignorance…’ ”; Wallis cites a passage from Allogenes which illustrates this elevated understanding of “unknowing”: “We reach God by turning our energies within and ascending by stages from self‐knowledge to the One who is known only by ignorance”; as for the dating of the original Greek composition of Allogenes, Karen King puts it in the first quarter of the third century CE; see King, Revelation of the Unknowable God, 60. See also Arthur, Pseudo‐Dionysius as Polemicist, 71–99.
(103) Acts 17:23: διερχόμενος γὰρ καὶ ἀναθεωρῶν τὰ σεβάσματα ὑμῶν εὗρον καὶ βωμὸν ἐν ἐπεγέγραπτο, Ἀγνωστῳ Θεῷ. ὃ οὖν ἀγνοοῦντες εὐσεβεῖτε, τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν.
(104) For ἀγνοοῦντες refers to the implicit masculine plural subject of the verb εὐσεβεῖτε, namely “you Athenians (ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι).”
(105) This is in fact very close to Fitzmyer's translation: “Now what you thus worship unknowingly I would proclaim to you” (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 607). Also Dibelius': “Now, I am going to tell you what you honor even without recognizing it” (Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, 37).
(106) In fact, Reidinger speculates that the late fifth-century Athenian school of Neoplatonism, of which many scholars believe Dionysius to have been a member, found in Paul's speech to the Areopagus a rich resource for thinking about divine transcendence. If this was the case, then Dionysius was not alone among Neoplatonists in looking to Paul as an antecedent to Neoplatonism. See Reidinger, “Der Verfasser der pseudo‐dionysischen Schriften,” 148; cited in Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order, 22.
(107) DN 1.1 585B–588A (CD I 107–9), 1.4 592C (CD I 115.2), 1.5 593B (CD I 116.8), 2.9 648A (CD I 133.6), 4.11 708B–C (CD I 156.1–13), 5.1 816B (CD I 180.11), 7.3 869C (CD I 197.19), 8.2 892A (CD I 201.10), 11.1 949B (CD I 218.14), 11.2 949C (CD I 219.7); CH 13.4 305B (CD II 48.12), 15.2 329B (CD II 52.13), 15.6 336A (CD II 56.5); MT 1.1 997B (CD II 142.8), 1.3 1001A (CD I 144.10); Ep. 3 1069B (159.10).
(108) Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order, 23.
(109) See Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 24: “The distinction between Christian and pagan in the fifth century was not so much a matter of language or method, as we are tempted to view it when we regard commitment to a philosophy such as Platonism as inimical to real Christianity; rather it was a matter of the convictions expressed through language and by means of whatever methods were to hand. It is the substance of Denys's conviction we need to examine”; for close and careful treatments of the range of use to which Neoplatonism was put by Christians in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, see Mortley, From Word to Silence; von Ivánka, Plato Christianus; Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugena; Beierwaltes, Platonismus in Christentum.
(110) This is what John Chrysostom took the verse to mean (In Acta apostolorum homiliae 38.1, PG 60.267); cited in Fitzmyer, Acts of the Apostles, 605.
(111) Biblical scholars differ as to whether Paul was led to Mars Hill (for a history of the name of this hill, see Plutarch, Life of Theseus), a hill on the west‐northwest corner of the Acropolis where speakers often held forth, or to the court of the Areopagus, which was originally convened on the same hill, but which had subsequently been moved and was now charged with important civic affairs. Fitzmyer does not seem to favor either option. But when we consider the legendary establishment of the court of the Areopagus, as reported by Aeschylus, the answer becomes clear. In Aeschylus' Eumenides, Orestes flees the Fates, who are pursuing him for matricide, and makes his way to Athens to seek asylum from Athena. Athena establishes the court of the Areopagus to hear the case between the Fates, representing the will of Mother Darkness, and Orestes, representing the will of Zeus. The twelve members of the court split their vote and Athena breaks the tie in favor of Orestes. When the Athenians hear Paul preach “foreign divinities” in opposition to their own gods, the author of Luke–Acts has them take him before the very court that was convened in the Athenian imagination precisely to judge contests between gods.
(112) LSJ III, 375. See Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 606. See also Moellering, “Deisidaimonia: A Footnote to Acts 17:22,” 455–71, cited in Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 606.
(113) Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 607: “As a Jewish Christian, he realizes that pagan Greeks do not worship the ‘true’ God of Jews and Christians, but he tries to show that the God whom he proclaims is in reality no stranger to the Athenians, if they would only reflect. His starting point is Athenian religious piety, and he tries to raise them from such personal experience to a sound theology. Their piety, in his view, does not go far enough.”
(114) For Pythagoras' understanding of the ordered world as kosmos, see Plutarch, De placitis philosophorum 2.1; for Plato's understanding of the Creator and the Father of the Universe, see Plato, Timaeus 28C, 76C; for “god” as creator of the universe, see Epictetus, Arrian's Discourses 4.7.6. I am indebted to Fitzmyer for these allusions and those that follow. For a more detailed commentary on the many sources for Paul's speech, see Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 607–13.
(115) Plutarch reports: “It is Zeno's teaching that one should not build temples of the gods” (Plutarch, Moralia 1034B); in fragment 968, Euripides writes, “What house fashioned by builders can contain the divine form within enclosing walls?”
(116) Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 611.
(117) Rom 1:20–3: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four‐footed animals or reptiles.”
(118) Ep. 7.2 1080A–B; CD II 166.7–9.
(119) Ep. 7.2 1080B; CD II 166.9–10.
(120) Ep. 7.2 1080B; CD II 166.12–13; Rom 1:25.
(121) Ep. 7.2 1080B; CD II 166.14–15.
(122) Ep. 7.2 1080B; CD II 167.1–2.
(123) 1 Cor 1:22.
(124) 1 Cor 1:23.
(125) 1 Cor 1:25.
(126) 1 Cor 1:24.
(127) 1 Cor 1:25.
(128) Von Balthasar, “Denys,” 208.
(129) Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 11.
(130) First, in remarks scattered throughout his book, The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite; second, in an article entitled “The Anonymous Naming of Names: Pseudonymity and Philosophical Program in Dionysius the Areopagite.”
(131) Schäfer, The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite, 164.
(135) Ep. 7.3 1081C; CD II 170.7–8.
(136) DN 5.5 820A; CD I 183.12–16.
(137) See Saffrey, “New Objective Links between the Pseudo‐Dionysius and Proclus,” 65–74, 246–9; see also idem, “Un lien objectif entre le Pseudo‐Denys et Proclus,” 98–105.
(138) Saffrey, “New Objective Links between the Pseudo‐Dionysius and Proclus,” 73. See Rorem and Luibheid, Pseudo‐Dionysius, 99n179.