The ‘Pagan’ Pseudo-Dionysius
While working on my PhD, I engaged the question of whether or not theurgy is Pagan. I noted that in some sense, it can, as it has a background in Greek philosophy. But the same is true for the use of Logos in Jewish and Christian thought, the Nicene use of homooúsion tō Patrí (“of one Being with the Father”), or Aquinas’s use of Aristotle, Proclus, or Islamic and Jewish philosophers, to name a few. I also noted that rejections of the Christian character of the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius tended to fall into one of three categories: a wholesale rejection of theurgy, usually from an Augustinian perspective, a Pagan re-interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysian tradition, arguing that this Christian theurgical tradition is covertly non-Christian, and a Christian re-interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius which in many ways denies his Platonic inheritance.
Here, I will briefly explore the second one, by offering a critique against a tendency to say that the Areopagite was actually a Pagan writer essentially ‘larping’ as a Christian.
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E. R. Dodds famously argues that Pseudo-Dionysius was an unknown crypto-Pagan Proclean Neoplatonist.He talks of “the activity of the unknown eccentric who within a generation of Proclus’ death conceived the idea of dressing his philosophy in Christian draperies and passing it off as the work of a convert of St. Paul.” Note the dismissive language. The ‘unknown eccentric’ is merely “dressing his philosophy in Christian draperies.” He notes that the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus, the Corpus Dionysiacum (CD), manage to “escape the ban of heresy which they certainly merited,” indicating that they can be dismissed out of hand. I have argued for why I think the Christology of the Areopagite is sound, and I will not spend much time on it here. Here, my point is to explore the, in my opinion ridiculous argument that the Areopagite was not only a heretic, but that he wasn’t even a Christian. And in my mind, the most historically problematic of these arguments are the ones offered by Carlo Maria Mazzucchi and Tuomo Lankila, who argue that the author was someone who worked at the Neoplatonist School in Athens, perhaps even Damascius, its last head. I will focus on a few points from Lankila’s argument, which summarises and develops Mazzucchi’s.
Lankila starts with a tale, a purely speculative piece of fiction, to explain how, perhaps, the Areopagite could have done what he did, if he (or in the case of the tale she) did it. Lankila speculates that a woman he calls Theodora (to whom Damascius dedicated his Philosophical History) may have written the CD on the command of Damascius. “By accomplishing these feats,” Lankila speculates, “she built a fortification around the hidden doctrine in order that the happier future generations need not reinvent all the truth concerning the classes of gods but could enjoy the Platonic vision of the great Proclus.”Noting that others have produced equally speculative accounts, as if that is any any way relevant, he notes that his story only differs on two accounts:
First, it does not assume that the Corpus is Christian in nature. Second, it offers a palpable, concrete and easily understood motive for what may have turned out to be one of the most successful literary frauds in the world’s history. This point should be tested by surveying the historical circumstances at the time of the Corpus’ gestation.
The problem here is that these two points rely on each other. I will not here make a long argument against the arguments Lankila and Mazzucchi. Others have done that already.Rather, I want to point out what I find to be the obvious contradiction in the argument, namely the presumption of what counts as ‘genuine’ Christianity.
In the abstract, Lankila notes that in order to make this argument, we should ignore Pseudo-Dionysius’s “overt claim of Christianity,” in order to see the CD as a crypto-Pagan project, where the author was looking forward to a moment when the polytheistic religion could be resurrected. While that is problematic in and of itself, as it tells us to invoke an inherent skeptical outlook and ignore what the text itself says, this is undercut by Lankila himself. Having said that we should ignore this ‘overt claim,’ he is quick to note that this is not an argument about what counts as ‘genuine Christianity,’ or whether or not Christianity could be Neoplatonist, since “[n]o one is in possession of the measure with which to state what “genuine” Christianity is and then judge how Dionysius is possibly falling short of this standard.”The obvious problem with this argument is that it is hard to see what other reasons one would have of putting forward the thesis in the first place. The construction of this “palpable, concrete and easily understood motive” only makes sense if we first presume that the author’s ‘overt claim of Christianity’ is merely a cover for Pagan Neoplatonist ideas. But why presume that, unless you have already concluded that these ideas cannot be counted as ‘genuine’ Christianity?
Citing the Divine Names,and invoking the expertise of Eric Perl, Lankila notes that the Areopagite has simply taken over Proclus’s “henadological and theophanic teachings, which were articulated in ontic triads, into dimensions of the doctrines of trinitarian Thearchy and angelology.” The reason given for this is that while Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatise “does not affirm that the Good is one thing, and the Being another; and that Life is other than Wisdom; nor that the Causes are many, and that some deities produce one thing and others another, as superior and inferior; but that the whole good progressions and the Names of God, celebrated by us, are of one God,” Proclus likewise holds that the divinities are presences of the One. From this, Lankila asks: “But is it the case that just because Dionysius makes no explicit mention of Proclus’ classes of gods as gods, he cannot be viewed as a pagan? Naturally he has to omit all overtly polytheist prose because otherwise he would destroy the Christian surface that is indispensable for his project.” The obvious answer to that question is yes, because the Areopagite tells us so. And the only valid reason to presume that he is lying, to hold up a ‘Christian surface,’ is to assume that these ideas cannot be counted as ‘genuine’ Christianity. But, as shown above, Lankila denies that his argument is about that.
He goes on:
I find it puzzling how Ysabel de Andia, who has refuted in her monumental study so many claims made in previous scholarship concerning there being a radical difference between Dionysius and Proclus, can resort to a categorical statement such as this: “If it is undeniable that the explanation [for the Corpus] is that Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite’s texts derive from Proclean sources, the intention – and therefore the significance – of the texts is [nevertheless] Christian.”
And I find it puzzling that he finds that puzzling. The Areopagite explicitly tells us that he, and his theology, is Christian, and Lankila is again introducing the presumption that he claims he isn’t introducing, that Neoplatonic ideas cannot be counted as ‘genuine’ Christianity. He asks: “Can it really be held that we can derive the significance of a literary work from the assumed intention of its author?” Yes, we can.
Why presume that we cannot trust the Areopagite’s express intention, unless we have already concluded that these ideas cannot be counted as ‘genuine’ Christianity? What is the motive behind the argument at all? To me, this is an obvious flaw and it renders the entire argument null and void. Lankila claims to not put presumptions of ‘genuinity’ into his argument, just to proceed making arguments that only makes sense if you presume the argument he claims not to. Am I missing something?
Kjetil Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation: On Theurgic Participation in God, PhD dissertation (Durham University, 2021), 13-18, esp. 13-15.
Introduction to Proclus, The Elements of Theology, 2nd ed., reprint, ed., trans., intro., and comm., E.R. Dodds (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), xii, xxvi-xxxiii.
Introduction to Proclus, The Elements of Theology, xxvi-xxvii.
For critical editions of the Corpus in Greek, see Corpus Dionysiacum I, ed. Beate Regina Suchla (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990) and Corpus Dionysiacum II, 2nd ed., eds. Günter Heil and Adolf Martin Ritter (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012). For English translations, see Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid, in collaboration with Paul Rorem (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987) and The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, 2 vols., trans. John Parker (London: James Parker and Co., 1897, 1899). If not otherwise noted, I use Parker’s translation. See Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 4, n2.
Introduction to Proclus, The Elements of Theology, xxvii.
See Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 133-138. Also see István Perczel, “The Christology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: The Fourth Letter in its Indirect and Direct Text Traditions” (Le Muséon 117:3-4, 2004), 409-446; Vasilije Vranic, “The Christology of the Fourth Letter of Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite: Chalcedonian or Monophysite?” (Open Theology: A Theological Quarterly 5, 2008), 1-12.
See Tuomo Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project” (Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture 5, 2011), 14-40 and Carlo Maria Mazzucchi, “Damascio, autore del Corpus Dionysiacum, e il dialogo Περὶ πολιτικῆς ἐπιστήμης” (Aevum 80, 2006), 299-334.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 16.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 16-17, esp. n6.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 17.
See Gioacchino Curiello, “Pseudo-Dionysius and Damascius: An Impossible Identification” (Dionysius 31, 2013), 101-116.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 14-15.
Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names (De Divinis Nominibus, hereafter: DN), V, 2 (816C-817A).
Eric Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 67.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 20.
DN, V, 2 (816C-817A).
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 20.
Lankila, “The Corpus Areopagiticum as a Crypto-Pagan Project,” 20, cf. Ysabel de Andia, Henosis. L’Union à Dieu chez Denys l’Aréopagite (Leiden, 1996), 168 (translation by Lankila).