Introduction to Dionysius the Areopagite by James Cowan

I first encountered the name of Dionysius the Areopagite when I purchased a second-hand copy of his Celestial Hierarchies in 1971. Reading his work changed my life forever.  Not because his thought was comprehensible (which it wasn’t) but because he intimated a way of viewing reality that suggested an alternative engagement with the world as I knew it then. In a few remarkable pages he proposed something entirely new: that to embark upon a journey into what he called the “super-celestial world” was entirely possible if one was prepared to dismiss physis as the only determinant for understanding the mysterious workings of the cosmos.

It is hard to gauge the effect of such an insight upon me more than fifty years later. Suffice it to say that this remarkable metaphysician upended most of my pre-conceptions to the point where I had to re-educate myself about what constituted the essential nature of being. I have lived with that revelation ever since. Moreover, the fact that he introduced me to the method of apophatic, or negative theology, made me realize how important it was to accept that there is a limit to what language can say. The use of apophasis, however, means that saying what a thing is not enables the intellect to glimpse what it might be. In other words, isness, the substantiality of a thing, can only be glimpsed through the lens of articulating a not-ness.

Dionysius was the first philosopher I had read that expressed a genuine ontology of the spirit. He did so by suggesting that sensible things contained within themselves an intangible essence which could only be discerned through the forms in which they were embodied. He called this essence a “super-essence”, thus distinguishing it from the essence of the form itself. Invisible and incomprehensible, it nonetheless existed as part of the composition of the physical world. It was a spiritual particle entirely consistent with the accompanying idea of sub-atomic particles underpinning the formation of matter. In other words, this spiritual particle was as important to the composition of the cosmos as neutrinos and photons. Not even Plato’s concept of Ideas was as far-reaching in expressing the notion of Unity as a manifestation of such a coalescence.

Of course, Dionysius did not use the word ‘ontology’ to describe his vision. He simply called it the “Divine Science” which he believed was the sole possession of God.  This Divine Science contained the immoveable permanence of the perfect thoughts of God Himself. Even the foolishness of God is wiser than men, he tells us. Indeed, all human thought is a kind of error, he further argued, thus making it important for us to develop a transcendent sense if we are ever to understand the language of God.  Such a language, so the Divine Names explains, is the wisdom of un-reason (which he called “foolish wisdom”), the moving away from ratio as our primary tool for comprehending the world as it is. For Dionysius, the world of matter and form is only a part-world, a sign of the super-essential expression of Deity itself, no more.

Such ideas offer us a release from our dependence upon the quantifiable nature of the world as we know it. Dionysus made it possible for us to dispense with the limitations of matter and form if we are to attain to a deeper level of understanding as to the spiritualized nature of matter. In one stroke he has done away with the old dualized belief that matter and spirit were separate entities. There could be no good or evil as such, except as a reified condition; rather, unity determined all, Divine Unity, the voice of God as Logos, none other than the ineffable Truth as the only Reality.

In his Divine Names Dionysius makes a powerful case for the existence of angels. Of course, his angels are not the sentimental images that we are made familiar with through art. His angels are far more subtle in their operations, given that they do not perceive how the world functions through sense-perception, but through a faculty derived from what he calls “Godlike Intelligence.” Angels participate in, and understand what might be called a-causal knowledge – that is, a knowledge inherent in the mind of God Himself. They are, so to speak, emanations of Godhead that are capable of entering the world of men as a theophany or divine manifestation, which in turn reinforces the ontological nature of God as Being.

In a secular age it is hard to imagine the existence of angels. They hark back to a time when men believed in intermediaries between the living world and the other world of the gods. Today we find such a concept untenable. Angels cannot be ‘real’ since they lack embodiment. Yet to the ancients and early Christians alike the proposition that angels existed was clearly relevant to their lives. For a man like Dionysius, an angel’s role was to intercede on men’s behalf. When they do announce themselves, it is to inform, purify, enlighten, perfect, and so represent the Divine Truth to that person. To him they were known as the “Glowing Ones” or “Streams of Wisdom,” their attributes an indication of their proximity to Godhead. Moreover, they give credence to the realm of the spirit by way of their intercession.

It is a concept that we have lost sight of today in our bid to materialize all existence. Angels, prophets, mystics and shamans, they all predicate the existence of an alternative reality which can only be accessed by non-sensual perception. Dionysius made this the foundation of his thought as he struggled to articulate what he believed to be a freedom from all defilement, and the existence of a complete and utterly untainted purity within the personhood of the Godhead. “Very Beauty,” he called it, as distinct from the partial beauty that constituted the manifestation of nature and the world. For all his Neo-Platonic leanings, one should never forget that Dionysius possessed a profound understanding of the nature of deity in a way that men like Parmenides, Plato, and Plotinus were never able to fully express.

I find his concept of angels liberating. I do not mean that it merely confirms the images that I am familiar with through art; but rather, the idea of a “Hidden Intelligence” permeating the world by way of such intercessionary figures suggests a non-material demonstration of reality. The idea of what Dionysius calls an unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power that need to be made manifest in the consciousness of men holds a certain appeal, in spite of scientific approbation. It banishes forever our need to reduce everything to quantifiable and calculable premises in our bid to ‘know’ how reality actually works. Dionysius tells us instead to be alert to the workings of Providence in the form of angelic entities as an expression of Divine Wisdom.

It is into this realm that a serious reader of the Divine Names plunges when he or she enters its pages. It is not a book for the light-hearted. One should not expect some easy revelation to emerge, a convenient way to live or a cogent philosophy. The book transcends such categories. One has to accept that the text reflects an intense vision of someone – a monk perhaps – who has not only read his Proclus, and so drunk at the well of Neo-Platonism, even as he struggled to come to terms with what he felt as a man of God. Dionysius, whoever he was (and we do not know his true identity), represents a synthesizing voice that had entered Christianity, complete with its Hellenized ideals and desire to distance itself from the constraints of old Judaic law. His was a new voice, a powerful voice, that was to open the way for such theologians as Duns Scotus Erigena and John of Roosbroec to invigorate Christian thought during the medieval period.

Dionysius is an exciting thinker, however.  We are left with a clear image of a man in whom language has been stripped of its capacity to enunciate. For many readers this will prove to be disconcerting, as we have been taught to understand what we read immediately. The Divine Names does not allow this to happen. In many ways, the text resists interpretation. This is because Dionysius introduces us to a method of thinking that we have forgotten. To think theophanicly, that is, to allow God’s revelation to penetrate our thoughts as a system of Names that progressively reveal themselves through a hierarchy of emanations (read, angels), calls upon all our faculties of understanding. We are no longer able to simply comprehend what is said; but rather, we are being asked to explore the metaphysics of language itself, and, so to speak, enter into the ‘saidness’ of things.

A reader can only do this when he or she suspends his belief that knowledge is the primary object of understanding. Dionysius is asking us to wade into the murky waters of what he calls the “Divine Gloom” of the wholly Unknowable. This Darkness, which is beyond the accessibility of Light, can only be penetrated through the loss of sight and knowledge altogether. It requires an emptying of all our faculties by a complete self-noughting of the mind. This is the Via Negativa working through us, apophasis as a methodology. It leads to the blindness of a visionary, the making of an Oedipus or a Tiresias. Only men who see, truly, are those who have undergone a spiritual crisis that enables them to transcend ordinary reality as we know it.

We must therefore regard the Divine Names as a theophanic text. Dionysius has sought to not only bring us into contact with the limits of language, but also to consider once again the possibility of entering into a state of aggelo mimetos.   That is, to consider the manner of angels as a viable expression of Deific presence. If we can accept on evidence the existence of sub-atomic particles, which we cannot apprehend, is it not possible to accept angels as a real presence in our lives? This is what Dionysius is urging us to do. He is arguing, and quite particularly, that there is a science of the spirit which explores the nature of Unity through the use of the theophanic imagination.

Dionysius paved the way for light to become the first principle of metaphysics in medieval Christianity. Creation for him was an act of illumination, thus ensuring that all of creation could not exist without light. If light ceased to shine all being would fade away into nothingness. From this fact Dionysius deduced his own epistemology, which is that creation is the self-revelation of God. All creatures are therefore ‘lights’ whose existence bears testimony to the Divine Light, thus enabling the human intellect to perceive it. The frailty of our intellect, however, makes it necessary for God to interpose images between Him and us. It is these images that make up the forms of the world. According to Dionysius, this constitutes a metaphysic of nature.

The Abbey of St. Denis in France is considered to be the first Gothic cathedral in Europe. Conceived under the aegis of Abbot Suger (1081 – 1151), a brilliant statesman and historian, he introduced to Romanesque architecture the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing forth in different directions, as well as flying buttresses, which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows in the building for the first time. Light streaming through these ambulatory windows, and later a rose window constructed above, were a clear formulation of Dionysius’ theories of light as detailed in his writings. Suger, it seemed, deliberately set out to articulate the thought of Dionysius, who had only recently been translated into Latin by Erigena. Thus, our Syrian mystic and anonymous philosopher entered the byways of Europe, both in the writings of Erigena and the architecture of Suger. The stained-glass windows he created made a profound impression on all who saw them, and were considered to be “most miraculous” by Abbot Suger himself.

The Divine Names, and its companion work, Celestial Hierarchies, is a seminal text in western thought. It cemented our relationship with the Neo-Platonic impulse, and gave it new meaning in the context of Christian theology. Writers such as Pico di Mirandolo and Marsilio Ficino during the Renaissance are heirs to this impulse. The beauty of Dionysius’ thought is in the way it enraptures us with his idea of “Super-Unity,” and how this overflows into multiplicity, from Indifference into Differentiation, as a condition of being emanating from Being itself. Such ideas excite us because they break with the old materialist models that make up our understanding of physis in the modern world.  We are so inured to the idea that the world of appearance is the only world on offer, that when a philosopher like Dionysius is brought to our attention we begin to realize the importance of the “Undifferentiated Godhead” as a way of combatting the ever-present pluralities of ordinary existence.

  1. E. Rolt’s 1920 translation of the Divine Names is a milestone in the rediscovery of this great mystical thinker.  One must be grateful that such a scholar, who died so young, felt impelled to retrieve from the past an exceedingly complex Latin text that heralds the beginning of our renewed acquaintance with the concept of Via Negativa and the apophatic method of analysis. Few would argue that such a method might have greater relevance today than it did in the past.

To allow the notness of things to re-emerge as a viable expression of reality at a time when we are so inundated by factuality that we are barely able to distance ourselves from its limitations, this is of real importance. With Dionysius’ help we can once more engage in angelus mimetos, and experience all the beauty of angelic encounters. Reading Dionysius, we find ourselves drawn into a world where metaphysical entities abound. It is a world that we should respect as representing the beginning of our own journey into the very essence of God. To heed his voice is to hear the distant plangency of the Super-Essence reverberating in our soul once more.

James Cowan, 2018