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The Journal of Esoteric Studies
Volume II
Dionysius the Areopagite

One of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity, Dionysius the Areopagite remains an unknown author sometimes called "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite" in order to distinguish him from the figure of the same name mentioned in Acts 17:34. Here, I use the name under which Dionysius chose to write, while keeping in mind that Dionysius was almost certainly not the one mentioned by Paul. Many scholars believe he probably wrote these works around 500 A.D. There are a wide range of scholarly hypotheses about the dates of the Corpus Dionysianum, ranging from some who date the works to as early as 300 A.D., to others who place him as late as 544 A.D.

For our purposes much more important than which of these dates is valid is Dionysius's influence, which is enormous. However anachronistic this may be in actuality, Dionysius has historically been regarded as an "apostolic Father" of the Christian tradition, and was extremely important for such authors as John Scotus Erigena, John Tauler, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas Aquinas, Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. Indeed, one might with some justification see Dionysius as central to the Italian Renaissance, for Pico translated his work just as had Erigena before him.

What makes Dionysius so influential? In my view, there are two central aspects of Dionysius's work that we must consider. On the one hand, in Divine Names and Celestial Hierarchy, he emphasizes the power of symbolism to convey spiritual understanding, and in this his work can be seen as a cornerstone for what has come to be known as Western esotericism, for Dionysius's work speaks to the power of the imagination in perceiving transcendent reality through symbolism. On the other hand, in Mystical Theology, Dionysius emphasized the absolute transcendence that cannot be conveyed by any symbolism, but only through negation like that of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Buddhism. Thus in Dionysius's work we can clearly see both of the central currents that run throughout the history of Western esotericism, on the one hand the attraction to the power of imaginal symbolism that manifests in magic, on the other hand a path toward sheer transcendence that is to be found in the mysticism of Tauler, The Cloud of Unknowing, and such contemporary figures as Bernadette Roberts.

We included links here to the full texts of Dionysius's Celestial Hierarchy and Mystical Theology. These versions are based on an anonymous early twentieth century translation, but were substantially revised in order to clarify some of the language. There are several excellent relatively recent published translations of Dionysius's work, including that of the Complete Works (Paulist Press: 1987), unfortunately now out of print. We include these versions here primarily for use in teaching, as currently there is no other available source for Celestial Hierarchy, and there are no other works of Dionysius on the Web. Our archivist Josh Strozeski was responsible for scanning these in; I edited them.

- Arthur Versluis

Celestial Hierarchy [no images version]

Mystical Theology

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