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Rebecca Ann Pead Coughlin

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of Master of Arts


Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia
August 2006

Copyright by Rebecca Ann Pead Coughlin, 2006


The undersigned hereby certify that they have read and recommended to the Faculty
of Graduate Studies for acceptance a thesis entitled: AND :
Coughlin in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts.


August 22, 2006







August 22, 2006


Rebecca Ann Pead Coughlin






Department of Classics





Permission is herewith granted to Dalhousie University to circulate and to have

copied for non-commercial purposes, at its discretion, the above title upon the request of
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For my grandparents:
Catherine Pead
James Martin Pead


Table of Contents
Acknowledgements ..........................................................................................................vii
Chapter 1: Introduction ..................................................................................................1
Chapter 2: Theurgy .........................................................................................6
Section I
Dionysius Pagan Predecessors.....................................................6
Section II
Dionysius Christian Sources.......................................................22
Section III
Theurgy in the Dionysian Corpus..............................................28
Chapter 3: The Ascent of the Soul................................................................36
Section I
The Place of Man in the Cosmos...............................................36
Section II
The Nature of the Soul ................................................................47
Section III
Theurgy and the Divine Names.....................................................59
Chapter 4: Doctrinal Questions....................................................................75
Section I
Dionysius Doctrine of God .......................................................75
Section II
Section III
The Incarnation .............................................................................88
Chapter 11: Conclusion .................................................................................98
Bibliography..................................................................................................................... 101

In this thesis I demonstrate the relationship between ritual action and philosophical
contemplation in the work of the sixth century Christian philosopher, theologian, and
mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite. The exact nature of this relationship in his work has been
generally unrecognized by modern commentators and critics. In order to re-evaluate it, I
propose to examine Dionysius use of the terms of (contemplation) and
(ritual action) in light of his vision of divine union as the goal of all religious and
philosophical life.
This investigation traces the sources of Dionysius vision of sacred ritual and
contemplation in both Christian and pagan circles in order to reveal that for his predecessors
these ideas were viewed as fundamentally one human and divine activity. Dionysius takes up
this tradition and creates a vision of the world, of humanity, and of God which reveals the
unity of all facets of existence.


The task of completing a post-graduate degree and writing a thesis, no matter how big or
small, how grand or humble the scope is an all-consuming endevour. Given this, it is a
task which inevitably draws upon the kindness and generosity of those whom you come
upon along the way. I would like to thank the Department of Classics and the Dalhousie
University Faculty of Graduate Studies for their generous financial support, without
which the completion of this degree would have been near to impossible. My supervisor,
Dr. Wayne Hankey deserves my utmost appreciation, gratitude and admiration. His
perseverance in the past two years has led me through a truly cathartic process and
allowed me to begin a course of thinking about religion, philosophy and mysticism which
I know will carry me though the rest of my life. I must also thank Drs. OBrien, House,
Cohen, and McGonagill for their insights in class, their leadership in teaching, and their
hospitality; the knowledge I have gleaned from each of them has taken form in the pages
of this composition. I also wish to thank Dr. Torrance Kirby at McGill University, for
sharing his love of Neoplatonism with me, introducing me to the illuminating writings of
Dionysius, and entrusting me the tutelage of his colleagues at Dalhousie. I would be
remiss if I did not also offer my most humble thanks to Donna Edwards and Lynn Lantz
for all of their help and support during my time in the department.
My classmates, past and present, indeed, deserve my sincere thanks for their support over
the past two year: James Flemming for his friendship, support, and linguistic acumen;
Matt Wood for stepping up and telling me how things are from the moment I arrived (and
for leaving me all the comforts of Room 14); Stephen Russell for his gentle
encouragement and grounded understanding of the academic endevour; Tyler Young for
his enthusiasm and fervour for all things ancient and philosophical; Martin Sastri for both
his quite reflections and his entertaining and enlivened rants; Adam Labecki for our
philosophical and existential discussions; and of course, Colin Webster my most
wonderful office-mate, Ben Frenken, Ross Gower, and Dan and Michelle Wilband; thank
you all for making my time at Dal so enriching and memorable.
My parents, grandparents and brother deserve my absolute gratitude for their constant
love and encouragement. For all that you have taught me, nurtured in me and guided me:
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Finally, I wish to thank Terrance: for your time and energy, your strength and confidence
in me, your patience, kindness, lightheartedness, joy, and above all your love. Our shared
understanding of the unity of thinking/acting/making and your vision and passion have
and continue to inspire me.


-1Chapter 1: Introduction

The nature of the relationship between the soul and the body, or the mind and the
body, is of central concern for nearly all religious traditions. In many ways the definition
of this relationship within a tradition informs the way in which that tradition treats the
areas of philosophy, theology, mysticism, and ritual practice.
In the post-Enlightenment modern world we have tended to divide these areas.
We see philosophy as aligned with human rationality over and against religion which has
as its concern theology and ritual, whereas mystical experience has become something
reserved for the select few who individually achieve a feeling or state which is seen as
outside of the realm of either philosophy or religion. Such positions are no more than the
result of the imposition of an arbitrary division between thinking and acting; and this very
division is often reiterated as the division of body and soul.
This division has forced those who have studied ancient religious and
philosophical traditions, during the last two hundred years, to work under the assumption
that such a dichotomy existed among ancient thinkers in a similar way. The modern faith
in human reason coupled with the distrust or even condemnation of anything even
vaguely suggestive of cultic practices or of the supernatural meant that any such work
was de facto excluded from the accepted canon of Western philosophy. This separation

-2between thought and action has led to a deep misunderstanding of ancient religious and
philosophical authors. Dionysius the Areopagite is among these misinterpreted authors.
Much work has been done in the last fifteen to twenty years to re-read the Corpus
Dionysiacum (CD) in a way that attempts to overcome modern assumptions which
inevitably cloud the interpretation of any ancient text. Considering that there is still much
work to be done to correct these artificial divisions, the following treatment of the CD
will endeavour to respond to recent work and to address further implications of its
The Question of Pseudonimity
When first approaching any text, it is necessary to situate its historical and
cultural context and this inevitably involves a discussion of its author. The historical
identity of our author, however, is clouded in mystery. The collection of writings now
attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius or Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite 1 first appeared in the
very early sixth century. 2 Even at his earliest appearance in the textual tradition,
Dionysius caused a stir as defenders of the Council of Chalcedons definitive statement
on the question of the Incarnation questioned his authenticity at a colloquy in 532. 3
However, in the following centuries, Dionysius apostolic identity was generally
accepted, with only a few murmurings, until the end of the nineteenth century.
The name of our author is first found within the Christian tradition in the Acts of
the Apostles (17:34). Here it is the name given to the first of the Greeks whom Paul
converted when he preached at the altar to the unknown god in Athens. Although, within

I will simply be referring to him as Dionysius throughout this paper.

A. Louth, Denys 1.
J Pelikan, The Odyssey of Dionysian Spirituality 13.

-3the hagiographical tradition, many other identities have been attached to Dionysius, 4 it is
this Biblical reference which established his authority within the Western tradition.
The identification of our author with the Greek convert in Acts was found to be
false, in 1895, when two independent examinations of the texts revealed their authors
reliance on and kinship with the Neoplatonic philosophy of the late Athenian school,
particularly that found in the writings of Proclus. 5
At this point it is important to note that authorship in the ancient world was not, as
we understand it now, a matter of innovation or originality. Rather, almost all ancient
writers laid claim to a long standing tradition, the truth of which lay with the founder
whose work they were elaborating or explicating. Given this milieu, our authors choice
of pen-name is actually quite telling. Through it we know that he saw himself as standing
in both the Greek and Christian intellectual traditions. Dionysius tells us he saw St. Paul
as his first and principle teacher, 6 followed closely by the hierarch Hierotheus, whose
work Dionysius tells us he is analyzing and expanding. 7

The identity of the holy

Hierotheus is also veiled; whether he was a historical person or a character created and
used by Dionysius in order to ground his own work more strongly in the Christian
Neoplatonic tradition, remains unclear. What is clear is that Dionysius does not take
credit for creating something new in his works, rather, he insists on his reliance on the
sacred tradition, which for him did not distinguish between Christian and Pagan. This

These associations include Denys as the first bishop of Athens, missionary to the Gauls, bishop of Paris,
martyr, and patron of the Abbey of St. Denys. See A. Louth, Denys 1.
See H. Koch, Proklus als Quelle des Ps-Dionysius Areopagita in der Lehre von Bsen. 438-54; and J.
Stiglmayr, Der Neuplatoniker Proclus als Vorlage des sog. Dionysius Areopagita in der Lehre vom bel.
253-273, 721-748. In A. Louth, Denys 15 note 1.

-4reliance will help throughout our investigation to clarify some points of contention within
the CD. 8
Although there is a lack of general consensus on Dionysius exact historical
identity, there are a few points upon which most scholars agree. The first is that
Dionysius was probably writing in the late fifth or early sixth century. The second is that
he was most likely of Syrian descent, given the similarity between his descriptions of
certain rites and those known to have been practiced in Syria at that time. 9 Finally, that
he was connected with and possibly trained in the Athenian School. 10
The Corpus
The CD itself is a modest collection of four treatises and ten letters. Although the
correct ordering of the corpus has also been a source of contention, I have chosen to list
them here as: The Celestial Hierarchy (CH), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH), On The
Divine Names (DN) and The Mystical Theology (MT), followed by The Letters. For many
scholars these treatises have divided evenly and neatly into the two ecclesial, or religious,
treatises (CH and EH), and the two philosophical treatises (DN and MT). However, this
artificial division is yet again another example of the division of religion and philosophy
mentioned earlier. In light of this, I believe that the only way to give a full account of any
one of these works is to understand that at every point each text must be considered in
relation to the whole corpus.

For connections between Dionysius and the Neoplatonic Academy at Athens see H. D. Saffrey, New
Objective Links 64-74.
A. Louth, Denys 14, 60.
See: H.D. Saffrey, New Objective Links 64-74. Here Saffrey asserts several philological and
philosophical points of contact which connect Dionysius with Proclus and the Athenian school; also I.
Perczel, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Platonic Theology Perczel asserts that Dionysius paraphrased, in
order, a long text, consisting at least of six continuous chapters from the Platonic Theology. 526.

-5The Process
The following examination of the Dionysian Corpus proposes to explore the place
of ritual action, more specifically theurgy, within The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in
particular and within the corpus as a whole. This will begin with a study of Dionysius
Neoplatonic and Christian sources, specifically in relation to their conceptions of theurgy.
Following this I will establish Dionysius use of the term theurgy in the corpus and
suggest a way of reading his discussion of the Christian sacraments which avoids the
problematic division of thinking and acting or contemplation and ritual action. This
reading will provide a better understanding of the relationship between Dionysius
religious and philosophical work by exploring the place of On the Divine Names
within a theurgic context. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this understanding on
Dionysius conception of God, of Creation, and of Christology.

-6Chapter 2: Theurgy

since it make us like unto the gods through acts 11
Section I

Dionysius Pagan Predecessors

The Chaldaean Oracles

Before addressing Dionysius discussion of religious ritual, it is necessary to
discuss the term theurgy () a term used by Dionysius frequently in the
context of his discussion of ritual activity. Hans Lewy, in his extensive text on the
Chaldaean Oracles and theurgy provides the meaning and history of the term. He says,
is a neologism of the Chaldaeans, which recurs in the extant fragments of
the Chaldaean Oracles only once, but it seems that was the title of a treatise
composed by the second of the two Julians. 12 Lewy suggests that was formed
from the contraction of ostensibly on the pattern of .
Thus, just as are (those saying divine things), so
()arethose doing divine things. 13
The authorship of the Chaldaean Oracles themselves is attributed to two men: a
father and son, both named Julian. The first Julian is the Chaldaean, his son is called
the Theurgist. The elder Julian was a contemporary of Trajan, Hadrian and the
Antonines. 14 The younger was born at the time of Trajan and lived in Rome in the


DM V.26 (240:1). My translation.

H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy 461.
Ibid. 5.

-7second half of the 2nd century. 15 The tradition generally attributes the works to a
collaboration of the two men. 16 The Chaldaean Oracles are preserved exclusively within
the Neoplatonic tradition. 17 Lewy goes on to explain,
These Chaldaean Oracles claim to contain the doctrines which the gods
disclosed to the two Julians. They are revelations which the theurgists have
written down. Accordingly, the Neoplatonists who believed in the legitimate
character of the inspiration frequently quoted the Chaldaean Oracles as
utterances of the gods themselves and did not mention quite so often their
Chaldaean hypophets who, in their opinion, had only played a secondary
part. 18
Two familiar gods are central to the Oracles: Apollo and Psyche (the Cosmic Soul,
Hecate), although prophesies are also on occasion attributed to the god or a certain
god. 19 Porphyry was the first Neoplatonist to have recourse to the Chaldaean Oracles
and he does so in several of his works. 20 Following Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus
also employ the Oracles in many of their works.
The term theurgy itself is complex, and as we shall see, the ambivalence of the
term is cause for much of the debate surrounding Dionysius understanding of the liturgy.
Hans Lewy notes that Iamblichus, at times, shares the definition of theurgy as developed
in the Chaldaean Oracles, but that it was later somewhat modified by Proclus.


Ibid. 4.
Ibid. 5.
Ibid. 7.
Ibid. 6.
Ibid. 7.
Ibid. 8. Lewy notes that Porphyry indicates that he referenced the Oracles in his treatise, On the Return of
the Soul, of which we have only quotes from a Latin translation by Augustine. He also argues that Porphyry
relied on the divine sayings in his On the Philosophy of the Oracles although Porphyry does not seem to
make this entirely clear from what we have of the text.

The term theurgy itself is not found anywhere in Plotinus Enneads. 21 Further,
E.R. Dodds assumes that Plotinus did not know of the Oracles for had he known about
them he would presumably have subjected them to the same critical treatment which is
found with respect to the Gnostics at Ennead 2.9. 22 However, as Zeke Mazur has pointed
out, Plotinus critique of the Gnostics here was based on two points which do not
necessarily apply to the Oracles directly. Plotinus believed (1) that the Gnostics were
attempting to manipulate the celestial world; and (2) that the Gnostics were suggesting
that incorporeal deities were affected by material rituals. 23 Mazur concludes that,
Plotinus criticizes the Gnostics not for their use of ritual per se, but for what he sees as
their arrogant, impious, and entirely futile attempts to manipulate their superiors. 24
Plotinus assessment of Gnostic ritual does not extend to his Neoplatonic successors for
whom theurgy was clearly not an attempt to manipulate the gods. This reading of
Plotinus critique of the Gnostics opens the possibility that Plotinus was not simply
rejecting all ritual practice. However, this has not been the dominant reading.
Mazur has noted that Plotinus has generally been characterized as rejecting ritual
in favour of a solely contemplative union with the One. 25 Mazur argues that such a
distinction between theory and praxis, between contemplation and theurgy, is not
satisfactory, either in the Plotinian world view or in many of his predecessors. Theoria
and theurgia are, as he points out, ambiguous categories that admit of some overlap.
Theoria, or contemplation, cannot be understood as simple intellection, just as theurgia

E.R. Dodds, Greeks and Irrational 285.

E.R. Dodds, Greeks and Irrational 285.
Z. Mazur, Unio Magica II 37.
Ibid. 38.
Ibid. 38.

-9does not merely designate external or material ritual practices. Mazur maintains that
Plotinus curious notion of productive contemplation dissolves the apparent dichotomy
between thought and action, and thus blurs the distinction between philosophical and
ritual praxis. 26 He argues that Plotinus mysticism can be understood as comprising a
kind of inner ritual. This category, he suggests, would thus occupy a liminal position
between the cognitive process employed in discursive philosophy and the physical
actions which comprise religious ritual. 27 This inner ritual is not anything other than
contemplation in Plotinus definition of the term. Following Gregory Shaw, Mazur
indicates that Plotinus highest level of contemplation is structurally homologous to
and, in fact, derived from certain theurgical rituals. 28 Thus Plotinus is advocating a
form of ritual praxis as a path to mystical union that is interior and based in
contemplation. Through such interiorization, ritual actions are understood as
contemplative, though they do not admit of the discursive nature associated with
The philosopher, theologian and theurgist Iamblichus was a follower of Plotinus
and a student of Porphyry. It is reported that he was born in Chalcis, Syria and external
sources suggest a date of no later than 240 for his birth. 29 His De Mysteriis was
composed sometime between 280 and 305. 30 It was composed under the pseudonym
Abamon in response to a letter penned by Porphyry to Anebo. Iamblichus pseudonym
was that of an Egyptian priest, which Proclus saw as suitable to the task of responding to

Ibid. 42.
Ibid. 44.
Ibid. 45.
E.Clark, J.Dillon, and J. Hershbell, Introduction xviii-xix.
Ibid. xxvii.

- 10 Porphyrys concerns about the practice of theurgy especially as it relates to magic. 31

Although Porphyrys initial letter has been lost, his arguments can be re-constructed from
Iamblichus responses. However, our main concern here is the way Iamblichus defends
theurgy against Porphyrys attacks through careful theological, philosophical, and
theurgical argumentation.
In Book I, Chapter 11, Iamblichus defends theurgy against the view that it is an
attempt to manipulate the gods. Iamblichus is clear that theurgy, unlike magic or sorcery
which relies on sympathies within the material world, is only dependent on the divine
will of the gods. The gods are not moved by the ritual, as though through the passions, for
they are not subject to such alterations. Through theurgy a certain affinity with the gods is
established. However, it is not the case that Iamblichus is suggesting that somehow the
gods are affected by theurgical activity as if subject to passions, for the incorporeal and
eternal gods cannot be affected by the material. 32 This is the same argument that Plotinus
used against the Gnostics. Rather than affecting the gods, theurgy for Iamblichus serves
to raise the human soul, to align the soul to the gods. 33 The rituals themselves are
directed at our souls and function to elevate that part of us towards the divine in which it
has a part. For example the divine invocations do not affect the gods, but rather they
affect the soul within the person and this illumination is the light given by the gods which
calls the soul, still embodied, to turn from externals and focus on the divine principle
within. 34 This, Iamblichus says, is the method of the salvation of the soul; it is effected


Ibid. 3 note 1.
Iamblichus, De Mysteriis (DM) I.11 (37: 13-16). All translations are by E.Clark, J.Dillon, and J.
Hershbell (unless otherwise noted), the Des Places text page and line numbers are given in brackets after
the book and chapter numbers for convenience.
DM I.11 (38: 8-10).
DM I.12 (41-42).

- 11 because of the divine love which holds all things together. The rites, given by the gods,
dispose the human mind to participation in the gods and bring it into accord with them
through harmonious persuasion. 35
These rites also include prayer in similar way. Thus, prayer functions to elevate
the divine element in the human being and when this element is aroused it strives
primarily towards what is like to itself, and joins itself to essential perfection. 36 Prayer,
as established by the gods, unites humans to the gods through an internal connection. In
the case of the divinely established prayers the divine is literally united with itself, and it
is not in the way of one person addressing another that it participates in the thought
expressed by the prayers. 37 Thus, as supplicants through prayer, we are made like to the
divine by virtue of our constant consorting with it, and, starting from our own
imperfection, we gradually take on the perfection of the divine. 38
Although Iamblichus discusses theurgy in one way or another throughout his
treatise, the final goal of theurgy is most clearly defined in Book II, Chapter 11. Here
Iamblichus states that he will provide a theurgical account of the notion that knowledge
of being is directed towards the gods whereas ignorance descends to non-being. He
clearly suggests that the only way for the soul to accomplish its return to divine union is
through theurgy. He insists that it is not pure thought that unites the theurgists to the gods
and that theoretical philosophers cannot hope to enjoy such union. It is not thought but

DM I.12 (42:11): .
DM 1.15 (46:11-12):
DM 1.15 (47:7-9): ,
DM 1.15(48:1-3):

- 12 the accomplishment of acts not to be divulged and beyond all conception,

and the power of the unutterable symbols, understood solely by the gods,
which establishes theurgic union. Hence, we do not bring about these
things by intellection alone; for thus their efficacy would be intellectual,
and dependent on us. But neither assumption is true. For even when we
are not engaged in intellection, the symbols themselves, by themselves,
perform their appropriate work, and the ineffable power of the gods, to
whom these symbols relate, itself recognizes the proper images of itself,
not through being aroused by our thought.Effective union certainly
never takes place without knowledge, but nevertheless it is not identical
with it. 39
Thus, the knowledge of divine things, as attained through philosophical reasoning, is not
unimportant or useless; however, it is not that through which divine union takes place.
Divine union is achieved only through the practice of the divine rites provided by the
gods for the salvation of the soul.
Knowledge cannot be to sole means of the souls salvation for Iamblichus because
the human soul is fully descended and therefore the intellect alone is not capable of
raising the human to the gods. Shaw explains that the agent of the souls descent [is]
prohairesis, its free will, choice, or disposition. 40 This disposition is what must be
altered in order for the salvation of the soul to be accomplished.
This is why Iamblichus says that theurgy [does] not act through the
intellect but through ones entire character to allow the soul to exchange
one life for another, to sacrifice its mortal life for the life of a god.
Theurgy transform[s] the souls prohairesis by conforming it to the divine


DM II.11 (96:14- 97:7; 98:6-7):

G. Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul 69.

- 13 actions communicated in theurgic symbols: the sacred stones, plants,

animals, prayers, and names that preserve the will of the gods. 41
Thus, although knowledge plays a significant role in the souls movement toward the
gods, it is not that by which the soul is deified. The soul attains divine union only through
theurgic activity which brings about the transformation of the whole person, allowing
him to attain theurgic union.
The final element in the Iamblichean system to consider is his account of
sacrifice. As mentioned above, Iamblichus does not see the efficacy of sacrifice in its
power to affect the universe through some kind of manipulation of latent cosmic
sympathy. Rather he understands the efficacy of sacrifices to stem from a relationship of
friendship and affinity, and in the relation that binds together creators with creations and
generators with their offspring. 42 This bond encompasses the totality of beings through
an ineffable process of communion. 43 Here Iamblichus notes that all beings are brought
to completion by their causes: hence, soul by intellect and nature by soul. With respect to
the human soul this process of affinity liberates her from the bonds of generation, makes
her like to the gods and renders [her] worthy to enjoy their friendship, and turns round
[her] material nature towards the immaterial. 44 Thus, for Iamblichus, the soul, through
theurgic acts, invocations and sacrifices, is brought into participation with the divine
activity and made god-like because of the divine love which permeates the whole of the


DM V.9 (209:9-10): ,
DM V.10 (211:13-15): ,
DM V.12 (216:4-6): ,

- 14 These theurgic acts are not, however, necessarily material. In his article Eros and
Arithmos: Pythagorean Theurgy in Iamblichus and Plotinus, Gregory Shaw has pointed
out that for Iamblichus there were different types of theurgies associated with different
levels of the souls coordination with the All. 45 This coordination was effected first by
material theurgies, then by intermediate theurgies which contained both material and
immaterial elements and finally by immaterial theurgies that employ mathematical
images, not as conceptual abstractions but as noetic signatures of the gods, Pythagorean
hieroglyphs of intelligible reality. 46 Finally, Shaw suggests that for both Plotinus and
Iamblichus the experience [of this immaterial theurgy] is a kind of not-knowing in
which noetic realities do the work, not the soul. 47
In the 5th century Proclus (410-485), the accomplished student of Syrianus,
became the Platonic Successor at Athens. 48 Proclus takes up the Iamblichean tradition
insofar as he adopts the Platonic dialogues and the Chaldaean Oracles as the basis for his
theology. He also follows Iamblichus in maintaining that the human soul is fully
descended, that no part of it remains at the level of Nous. As we saw above, it was this
assertion that led Iamblichus to insist on theurgy as the path to divine union. Similarly,
Proclus seems to suggest at several points that theurgy is necessary in order to attain
divine union. In Book I, Chapter 25, of his Platonic Theology, Proclus concludes that
there are three characteristics which fill all divine beings and extend throughout all the
levels of divinity, these are goodness, wisdom, and beauty. Further, he says that there are


G. Shaw, Eros and Arithmos 134.

.. Armstrong, Introduction 199.

- 15 three characteristics that join all of these together, which are below these, and yet extend
across all the divine worlds; these are: belief, truth, and love. Love binds all things
together; truth illuminates all those in the process of intellection, and the highest truth
unites the intellect with its object. Finally, belief is that which indescribably unites all
levels of divinity, all daemons, and all blessed souls with the Good. The Good is not
attainable by intellection. Rather, Proclus explains, it is necessary to abandon oneself to
the divine light and by closing the eyes to be established in the unknowing and secret
henad of being. 49
The assertion that it is not possible to attain divine union solely through
intellection, but that there is something else necessary, a faculty beyond discursive
knowledge which allows for such union, prompts Proclus in the following section to
insist on the priority of theurgy:
Through these [belief, truth, and love] all is saved and is joined together
with the primary causes, that is through erotic madness, divine philosophy,
and theurgic power, this last is more powerful than all human wisdom and
knowledge, having gathered together the good of the prophetic and the
purifying powers of the perfection of the rites, and equally all activities of
divine possession. 50
For Proclus, theurgic activity consists in all aspects of human connection with the divine.
It encompasses prophecy, purification, ritual, and all things derived from contact with the


Pl.Th. 1 25 (110): .(All

translations from the Platonic Theology are my own).
Pl.Th. I 25 (113): ,

- 16 Even in his early discussion of the task and modes of theology, Proclus is clear
that the task of theology is to reveal the existence of the gods, to contemplate their
existence, and to proclaim the goodness of their activity. Yet, there are different modes of
theology. He tells us: For it appears that [Plato] does not present the teachings
concerning the gods always in the same way, but at times he describes the truth
concerning them from divine inspiration, at time dialectically; other times he makes their
ineffable natures known symbolically, and sometimes by images he rises up to them and
discovers in them the original causes of the world.


Further on Proclus says that he

who is revealing the same truth of the gods according to itself by divine inspiration is
most clearly among the highest of the theurgists. 52 Thus, for Proclus the practice of
revealing the gods by divine inspiration, namely through theurgy, is considered, not only
among the modes of doing theology, but one of the highest. Moreover, he seems to be
suggesting that Plato himself should be considered among the highest practitioners of the
telestic art.
Proclus clearly recognizes that Plato stands within a long tradition of theology,
philosophy and religious practice. These are clearly not multiple traditions, but rather one
single tradition which includes many aspects. Thus Proclus explains that among all of the
Platonic dialogues which treat theology it is necessary to show that each of the doctrines
accords with the Platonic principles and with the secret traditions of the theologians; for

Pl.Th. I 4 (17):

Pl.Th. I 4 (20)
.Hans Lewy describes that
in InTim. III, 6, 8 Proclus says that the title: refers to those who
consecrate, vivify, and move the statues of the gods. H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles 495-496.

- 17 all Greek theology is born from the Orphic mystagogy. First Pythagoras had learned from
Aglaophamos about the rites of the gods, second Plato had received the perfect
knowledge from both the Pythagorean and Orphic writings.


The continuity of the

philosophical, the theological, and the religious for Proclus suggests that he does not
admit strict divisions between these, nor does he privilege, necessarily, one form of the
tradition over the other.
The final passage from the Platonic Theology which I would like to consider
occurs at the end of Book I. Here, Proclus is concluding his discussion of the divine
names. He describes that just as the demiurgic mind brings into existence images of the
primary forms in matter, images of eternal realities in time, and images that exist as
shadows from those things that truly are, so:
in the same way, I believe, our knowledge, modeled on the intellective
activity creates according to this logic the likeness of all other things and
especially of the gods themselves, among them it represents the uncompounded according to the compounded, the single according to the
diverse, and the unified according to the many. And thus forming the
names of the gods it shows the uttermost icons; for each it brings forth
each name just as a statue of the gods; and as theurgy according to some
symbols calls forth the generous goodness of the gods in the illumination
of the created statues, and certainly in the same way the intellectual
knowledge of the gods by the compositions and divisions of echoes
discloses the hidden being of the gods. 54


Pl.Th. I 5 (25):

Pl.Th. I 29 (124): ,,


- 18 -

In this passage Proclus is connecting the illumination of divine statues through symbols
in theurgic rites with the effects of conceptualizing divine names: both activities, in the
same way, make present the divine which is hidden. Proclus is quite clear on this
important point: theurgic activity is not defined by its materiality, but rather by its
effectsits ability to make present the divine to the soul of the practitioner.
Jean Trouillard has written extensively on Proclus and his work provides
invaluable insight into Proclus attitude towards theurgy. At the conclusion of his
discussion of Proclus philosophy in LUn et Lme Selon Proclos Trouillard turns his
attention to theurgy and its place in the Proclean system. Trouillard insists that for the
Neoplatonists the final lesson of the Parmenides is the limit of the mind. Yet, because of
the power of love which drives dialectic for Plato, the limit of formal reason is not the
limit of thought or of action; love expresses itself most fully in myth. 55 Trouillard tells us
regarding myth: Ne croyons pas que le mythe soit rserv aux enfants ou aux hommes
incultes. Car il y a un usage pdagogique du mythe et un usage initiatique. 56 Trouillard
asserts that for Proclus myth is related to theurgy insofar as le rite est un mythe en acte.
Ritual, he says, is the primary expression of and communication with the divine. Reason
can justify it but it cannot rival it. 57 Trouillard describes that: La thurgie est avant tout
chez Proclos un procd de dification. Elle couronne la contemplation, comme lactivit
prnotique domine la vie notique et la dpasse en efficacit. 58 In this sense theurgy is
prior to contemplation as the source of all contemplation. Theurgy is not so much thought

J. Trouillard, LUn et Lme 171.
Ibid. 172.
Ibid. 174.

- 19 in action as contemplation is action in thought. Finally, he insists that: La thurgie nest

pas la liturgie des imparfaits, mais des parfaits. Elle est appele par la thologie ngative
et se place entre la contemplation et lunion mystique, afin de rveiller celle-ci. 59 Thus,
theurgy is the vehicle of mystical union which surpasses contemplation by bringing the
initiate into the life of the divine which is beyond contemplation.
Trouillards description of Proclean theurgy avoids the many difficulties
encountered by modern commentators. These difficulties stem, fundamentally, from
many contemporary commentators inability to abandon the strict privileging of
contemplation over and against ritual activity. Moreover, it represents their consistent
desire to distinguish contemplation from action completely. This is seen clearly in the
more recent work of authors such as Andrew Smith and Anne Sheppard. Both of these
scholars, in their discussions of Neoplatonic theurgy, attempt to distinguish between what
they call high theurgy and low theurgy. Although both chose different points at
which to make these distinctions, neither is able to avoid the imposition of a false
distinction between first, material and immaterial ritual, and second, internal and external
In the second part of his Porphyrys Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition Andrew
Smith discusses the question of theurgy as it relates to Iamblichus, Proclus and the
Neoplatonic tradition in general. Smiths approach does provide a valuable corrective to
earlier divisions which tended to divide theurgy based on if, and to what extent, certain
theurgic activities involved material rites. In his examination of theurgy in the De


Ibid. 177.

- 20 Mysteriis, Smith does maintain a division between high and low theurgy, however he
bases his division on the idea that lower theurgy is restricted to the arena of
, the material world of humans and daemons. It is essentially a horizontal
relationship. Higher theurgy involves the linking of man with his superiors, the gods, not
through , but through . 60 He goes on to attribute these different
types of theurgy to the intention of the practitioner, i.e. If we wish to reach god we use
one type or level of theurgy; if we want to attain only a lower level we can use an inferior
type of theurgy. 61 Contrary to many others, however, the author does not attempt to
divide theurgy based on the materiality of the rites involved. On the contrary, he
maintains that the exact role of ritual at the higher level remains obscure. 62 Thus, he
does not fully deny the place of ritual within the higher theurgy. Although he admits that
the evidence is not quite as clear for Proclus, Smith maintains that Proclus can be best
understood when the same division of higher and lower theurgy is applied. 63
In her article, Proclus Attitude to Theurgy, Anne Sheppard offers several
corrections to Smiths position, particularly with respect to Proclus. Sheppard is
concerned because she believes that the distinction which Smith draws between higher
and lower theurgy applies better to Iamblichus than it does to Proclus, and in dealing with
the latter he is rather too ready to assume that his view will be essentially the same as
Iamblichus. 64 Instead Sheppard suggests a system which further divides Proclean
theurgy into three kinds. She bases this on a discussion between Proclus and Syrianus
related by Hermias. These three levels are as follows: first, a theurgy which concerns

A. Smith, Porphyrys Place 90.

Ibid. 91.
Ibid. 98.
Ibid. 114.
A. Sheppard, Proclus Attitude to Theurgy 214.

- 21 itself with the affairs of human life; secondly, a theurgy which makes the soul
intellectually active; and finally, a theurgy which involves all the other mania as well,
which really does bring about mystical union. 65 This last level of theurgy, Sheppard
argues, is what Proclus is referring to when he praises theurgy above all human activities,
and significantly, this theurgy has no obvious place for rituals in it. 66 Sheppard insists
that what Proclus calls theurgy, when he means that highest level, is not at all ritual
theurgy, rather Proclus still thinks of the final union as a Plotinian mystical
experience, not as some magically induced trance. 67 Again, this argument betrays the
authors overarching bias against material ritual, which forces her to impose on her
ancient sources a set of arbitrary divisions which are not necessary for a clear reading of
the texts themselves.
In his treatment of this question with respect to Iamblichus, Gregory Shaw
maintains that both Smith and Sheppard (though Smith to a lesser degree) reduce
Neoplatonic theurgy to a mysticism imagined as progressive mental abstraction, denying
materiality and corporeality to advanced degrees of spiritual union. 68 He insists that,
Smiths treatment of the inner disposition of the practitioner is a critical criterion of
theurgy, but it is one which distinguishes theurgy from non-theurgy rather than high
theurgy from low. 69 Finally, on this note I think it necessary to take up Shaws
suggestion that, in order to understand [Neoplatonic theurgy] properly, we should, like
Trouillard, follow the principles of the Neoplatonists themselves as guides for studying


Ibid. 217.
Ibid. 224 note 42: Sheppard notes that by Plotinian mystical experience she means an experience of
the First Hypostasis achieved by philosophical contemplation.
G. Shaw, Theurgy 10.
Ibid. 25.

- 22 their work. This demands that we learn to share their sacramental world-view, not in
opposition to the intellectual rigors of Platonism (or of scholarship), but as the matrix
which, they believed, nourished their intellectual tradition. 70
As we shall see below, Dionysius clearly draws from this Neoplatonic tradition in
order to develop his particular vision of theurgy. Thus, by attempting to understand his
predecessors according to their own principles we are given a better opportunity to
understand Dionysius appropriation and adaptation of their principles.
Section II

Dionysius Christian Sources

Throughout its history the Corpus Dionysiacum (CD) has been appropriated by
many groups with seemingly disparate agendas. First, it was taken up by the
Monophysites, then by the proponents of Chalcedon. Its ideas were later taken up by the
scholastics in the west and by Orthodox mystics in the east. However, Dionysius has also
been condemned as the bearer of late Neoplatonic ideas masquerading as Christianity, an
ingenuous mystic, and a heretic. Such accusations and appropriations are not only ancient
or medieval, they are also quite modern and continue to be played out in contemporary
scholarship on the texts.
This is especially clear with respect to Dionysius notion of the sacraments as
theurgic. That Dionysius takes up both the language and theoretical framework
concerning the function of ritual activity from his pagan Neoplatonic predecessors has
been well established by many scholars. 71 However, such an assertion need not limit
Dionysius sources to those predecessors, nor reject the place of the CD within the
Christian tradition.

Ibid. 10.
See: P. Rorem, A. Louth, A. Golitzin, H.D. Saffrey, G. Shaw, and S. Gersh.

- 23 Paul Rorem has suggested, in many of his works on the CD, that Dionysius is an
anomaly within the early Christian tradition. In his, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols
within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis Rorem argues in a section on Iamblichus and
what he calls anagogical theurgy that with respect to theurgic activity and the
interpretation of the sacraments Dionysius is drawing only on later Neoplatonists
especially Iamblichus and effectively stepping outside of his Christian framework. He
argues that Dionysius interpretation of liturgy is unique and has no patristic
precedent. 72 Here Rorem relies on W. Volkers work which he says emphasized
Dionysius connection with the Alexandrian school in all aspects except the liturgical.
Here, Volker suggests Dionysius follows Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of
Mopsuestia. Rorem, however, provides the following caveat to Volkers schema by
suggesting that Volker largely omits a crucial difference. 73 Rorem claims that whereas
Dionysius Christian predecessors tended to point to typological relations between the
symbols of the sacraments and the events in the life of Jesus, the Areopagites
interpretation is timelessly allegorical, relating the activities of the synaxis not primarily
to past events but to eternal truths. 74 The example he gives is the censing procession of
EH 3 and 4. For Dionysius, Rorem argues, the activity of the hierarch is given a timeless
interpretation as the eternal procession and yet remaining of the divine presence. 75 In
rejecting Dionysius place within a Christian tradition with respect to liturgy, he is able to
turn his attention completely to the Neoplatonic sources for the Dionysian corpus.


P. Rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols 108.

Ibid. (italics added).
Ibid. 108 (italics added).

- 24 However, in his recent work, Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin has done a

remarkable job of establishing a line of continuity from the Desert Fathers and the
monastic traditions of Syria-Palestine, and from the Cappadocians to Dionysius.
Golitzins main thesis is that the only way to account for the relatively quick and easy
reception of the CD in the Christian East is to argue that the texts do not, as Rorem would
have us believe, represent a break in the tradition, but rather that they are clearly a
continuation of an existing and widely accepted tradition.
Through a series of well founded textual insights and by relying on the overall
themes garnered from his distinctly Orthodox Christian reading of the CD, Golitzin
places Dionysius squarely within the vibrant and living Christian traditions which come
together in 6th century Syria. The first step for Golitzin is to establish Dionysius in the
New Testament tradition. He does this by pointing to places where the Dionysian texts
and the New Testament converge. These points of contact form, for Golitzin, the basis of
his exploration of the rest of Dionysius predecessors. 76 In each subsequent section the
author presents representatives from different Christian communities in order to draw the
connection between these communities and Dionysius works.. He begins by pointing to
Ignatius of Antioch whom Dionysius himself quotes in DN IV.12: Indeed some of our
sacred authors believed the name eros to be more divine than agape. And so the divine


A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 241. The seven points are for Golitzin: 1) the transcendence and unknowability
of God in se; 2) that God becomes participable by his own will; 3) that the fallen worlds share in the divine
is possible only through Jesus; 4) the resurrection body of Jesus Christ embraces all created existence; 5)
that the new, theandric reality is the Church which is hidden yet realized by the baptized faithful; 6) that
this realization comes specifically through the Eucharist; 7) the light and glory of Christ reside also on the
altar of the individual soul- this is discovered through the contemplation and participation in the

- 25 Ignatius has written: my eros has been crucified. 77 In this reference Dionysius may
betray his pseudonymIgnatius of Antioch died in A.D. 107. However, Golitzin suggests
that Dionysius intends his readers to pick up on themes present in Ignatius that he feels
are basic to his own concerns. 78 Given that this is the only direct reference to a Church
Father in the CD, it seems entirely more plausible to assume that it is an intentional move
on the part of our author to point to his own sources in the Early Church. In similar ways
Golitzin is able to draw lines of influence from Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Irenaeus
directly to the concerns he sees present in the CD.
Secondly, Golitzin traces Dionysius obvious Neoplatonic leanings as they may
have derived from the Alexandrine school, from Philo to Clement and finally to Origen.
Here, once again Golitzin provides a convincing account of Dionysius dependence on a
previous Christian tradition. In Philo and Clement Golitzin sees the groundwork for the
Dionysian corpus. 79 Both authors at once stress the transcendence and immanence of
God; God as unknowable and known. Moreover, he sees in Clements Christian
Gnostic a clear precursor to the Dionysian hierarch.80 In Origen we see the notions of
hierarchy, providence, uplifting (), and the roles given by each to Christ and
the Church. 81 There are of course divergences between the thought of Origen and
Dionysius; for the source of these Golitzin points to the Cappadocian Fathers.
Golitzin sees a further foundation for the CD in the Church Fathers in corrections
to the Origenist position made by the Cappadocians. Moreover, in relation to the mystical

DN IV.12 709B (157:9-11):

.Greek from Schula text, translation altered from A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 242.
A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 242.
Ibid. 269.
Ibid. 282.

- 26 ascent Dionysius is clearly indebted to the Gregory of Nyssas account of the life of
Moses. Golitzin also sees in Gregory of Nyssa the roots of Dionysius use of , his
focus on eschatology and specifically on Christ as the locus of the return to God. 82
Finally Golitzin turns to several sources who he feels have been far too neglected
in Dionysian scholarship. The first is Evagrius, an anchorite of the fourth century. In
Evagrius he sees both elements of Dionysian thought and strong points of disagreement.
However, each of these points places Dionysius within a Christian framework, albeit one
that did not always, or even regularly, agree within itself. In Evagrius, Golitzin is able to
connect Dionysius to his Christian predecessors through his relation to Origen. Thus,
Golitzin claims that Evagrius elaboration and sharpening of Origens general vision of
the creation as providential, as a bearing the of Christ, as centered on
Christ, and finally as the divinely-willed image of humanity (=) intended to instruct
us and bring us back to ourselves, to Christ, and thus to God, are of significance to the
creation of the CD. 83 Moreover, parallels can be seen between Evagrius and Dionysius
definitions of the hierarchies. 84
Dionysius and Evagrius do differ in their vision of the mode of the souls ascent,
insofar as Evagrius focuses on the solitarys ascetic effort that is self mastery and
contemplation, while Dionysius sees the locus of ascent within the community of the
Church, the ecclesiastical structure. 85 More fully, Golitzin points out that Dionysius
places the Church and its organized worship in the place of Evagrius providential


Ibid. 316.
Ibid. 345.
Ibid. 346.

- 27 cosmos. 86 Dionysius is clearly situated within a Christian tradition in many important

respects, however, it is in this final un-explored foundation that Golitzin finally finds the
source of what Rorem argues to be Dionysius novel contribution to liturgical
commentary, i.e. its universal and allegorical interpretation.
This source is the tradition of ancient Syria. The first group he points to is the
mystagogues. He suggests that the during the fourth century the church developed the
notion of mystagogy (initiation into a mystery, and the accomplishment of sacred
action and the oral or written explanation of the mystery hidden in the Scripture and
celebrated in the Liturgy 87 ) in order to in part, meet the demands of its new imperial
role. 88 The second group is the Messalians, among whom Golitzin sees the heart of the
conflict, in fourth century, between the ecclesiastical structure of the Church: the
authority of bishops, priests and presbyters; and, monastic, ascetic, charismatic, and
inspired leaders, and the source of Dionysius systematic approach to his interpretation of
the sacraments. First, the conflict between the ecclesiastical and monastic is evident in
Dionysius description of the monk in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, a description which
finds it predecessor in the Syrian holy man, save the Areopagites insistence on the
role of the ordained clergy, in particular of the hierarchs, as the ascetics guides and
directors. 89 The Syrian locus of this conflict was among the Messalians. 90 Particularly,
Golitzin points to Ephrem Syrus (d. 373), the Liber Graduum, and Macarius as
Dionysius possible fourth century Syrian sources. In Ephrem he sees the source of much
of Dionysius sacramental thought: the listing of three sacraments (baptism, eucharist and

Ibid. 350, quoting Bornet, Les Commentaires Byzantins 29.
Ibid. 356.
See. Ibid 354-359.

- 28 anointing with oil), the vision of the Church as between the types of the Old Testament
and the Kingdom to come, and the notion of hierarchy. 91 In addition Golitzin sees in the
Syrian tradition, particularly in Macarius, the source of Dionysius vision of the soul as a
microcosm of the Church: Macarius development of the soul as throne of God and little
church is the foundation upon which Dionysius would build his synthesis. 92
Thus, Golitzin, clearly establishes that Dionysius is to be understood within a
Christian continuum (although necessarily without denying his obvious debts to late
Neoplatonism). These points will prove useful to keep in mind as we consider Dionysius
discussions of the sacraments in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and further, the broader
implications of his understanding of theurgy for the CD in general.
Section III

Theurgy in the Dionysian Corpus

The term , 93 and its cognates, appear some 48 times in the Dionysian
Corpus, 31 of those are in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. 94 Various attempts have been
made to separate Dionysius use of the term from his pagan predecessors by charging
them with using theurgy in an attempt to manipulate the gods. 95 Porphyry attacked
Iamblichean theurgy with a similar charge which Iamblichus responded to in Book 1 of
his De Mysteriis. In his response Iamblichus explains that the work of theurgy is not to
affect the gods in any way, but rather to effect the salvation of the soul by aligning the


Ibid. 364-371.
Ibid. 385.
The following section is taken from a paper which was presented to International Society for Neoplatonic
Studies on June 27th 2006 in Quebec City, Canada.
M. Nasta and CETEDOC, Thesaurus Pseudo-Dionysii Areopagitae Textus Cum Translationibus Latinis
See A. Louth, Denys.

- 29 soul to the divine so that the human having abandoned its own life, has gained in
exchange the most blessed activity of the gods. 96
Dionysius predominantly reserves the word theurgy itself for his descriptions of
the work of God in human salvation. That Dionysius apparently does not use the word
theurgy to refer directly to ritual actions performed by the members of the ecclesiastical,
or our, hierarchy as Dionysius calls it, has led some to rigidly limit Dionysius
understanding of theurgy to a description of the divine acts especially the [historical]
divine acts or works that Jesus performed as incarnate. 97 However, this account does not
take into consideration the larger range of meanings that theurgy denotes both in the
Dionysian corpus and in the Neoplatonic tradition more generally. For example,
Dionysius frequently refers to the divine illumination as theurgic lights, 98 theurgic
knowledge, 99 theurgic understanding; 100 he also uses the phrases theurgic


DM VIII.7: ,,
.Translation, G. Shaw,
Eros and Arithmos 323.
A. Louth, Denys 74 and A. Louth, Pagan Theurgy 435.
DN I.4 592B (113:12): ; CH VII.2 208C (29:12):
(my translation).Greek text from:B. R. Suchla, (ed.), Corpus Dionysiacum I. Pseudo-Dionysius
Areopagita, De divinis nominibus and G. Heil, und A. M. Ritter (eds.), Corpus Dionysiacum II. PseudoDionysius Areopagita, De coelesti hirearchia, De ecclesiastic hierarchia, De mystica theologia, Epistulae.
The citation refers to (1) chapter, section and paragraph number, (2) Patrologiae Series Graeca, ed. J.P.
Minge column number, (3) the page and line numbers in brackets refer to the Schula or Heil and Ritter
edition. All translations are from C. Luibheid, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, unless otherwise
CH VII.2 209 (30:3):; EH I.1 369A (63:4):
(my translation).
CH VII.2 209C (30:15):(my translation).

- 30 communion, 101 theurgic participation, 102 theurgic likeness, 103 theurgic virtues,104
and the most theurgic myron. 105
Dionysius tells his reader that God has resolved to ensure the salvation of all
rational beings, both human and angelic. He explains that this salvation is the ability of
the saved to become nothing other than divine. And theosis [divinization] is being made
similar to God and in union with God as far as possible. 106 But what does it mean to be
like God for Dionysius?
In the first section of the Celestial Hierarchy he discusses the role of hierarchy in
general. Here he says: I believe that hierarchy is sacred order, knowledge, and activity
becoming as much as possible like the divine form. 107 Thus hierarchy itself is the means
by which each rational being is given the possibility of being as like as possible to God.
For each member perfection consists in this, that it is uplifted to imitate God as
far as possible and, more wonderful still, that it becomes what scripture calls a fellow
workman of God ( ) and a reflection of the workings of God. 108 So,
being like God, or being divinized, consists in imitating God, specifically imitating Gods

EH II.2.8 404D (78:18-19): (my translation).

CH .4 305C (48:18): (my translation).
CH VII.2 209C (29:11): (my translation).
CH VII.2 208C (29:14): (my translation).
EH II.2.7396D (73:5): (my translation). Myron refers to the oil which is
consecrated in the third sacrament discussed in the EH and which is used to bless the water for baptism and
to consecrate the altar for the celebration of the eucharist. Dionysius suggests that it is the most theurgic
because its presence is require for each of the other sacraments to be effective. It is only the hierarch who
can consecrate the oil and use the oil to consecrate.
EH I.3 373D-376A (66:11-13):
CH III.1 164D (17:3):
(amended translation).
CH III.2 165B (18:14-17):


- 31 activity. Thus, as each level of the hierarchy takes on the roles of purified and purifying,
illuminated and illuminating and perfected and perfecting, each will actually imitate
God in the way suitable to whatever role it has. 109 Dionysius reiterates this at the
beginning of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy: he says that having imitated our angelic
superiors as much as possible we shall then be able to be consecrated and consecrators
of this mysterious understanding. Formed of light, initiates in gods work [the actual
word used here is theurgic ()], we shall be perfected and bring about
perfection. 110 In this way theosis for Dionysius is each members proportionately full
participation in the divine activity.
Our hierarchy is a reflection of the more perfect and more immaterial angelic
hierarchy. In his discussion of the first angelic order, that which is most perfectly
assimilated to the divine activity, Dionysius describes the seraphim, cherubim and
thrones as representing purification, illumination or contemplation, and perfection.
However, it is clear that he does not intend for these activities to be rigidly associated,
one-to-one with each of the three orders. Thus, while the seraphim are associated with the
activity of perfection; the cherubim with illumination or contemplation; and the thrones
with purification, they are all pure, all contemplative and all perfect. Yet, it is also clear
that the divisions among the members of this order are not insignificant.
In order to illuminate this dynamic for us it is helpful to look at Proposition 103
of Proclus Elements of Theology. Here he states:


CH III.2 165BC (19:2-3): .

EH I.1 372B (64:11-14):


- 32 All things are in all things, but in each according to its proper nature: for
in Being there is life and intelligence; in Life, being and intelligence; in
Intelligence, being and life; but each of these exists upon one level
intellectually, upon another vitally, and on the third existentially.111
Proclus is not suggesting that these three moments are confused; rather he explains that
each term is characterized by its substantial predicate. Thus, with respect to Being, he
Life and Intelligence are present there after the mode of Being, as
existential life and existential intelligence; and in Life are present being by
participation and Intelligence in its cause, but each of these vitally, Life
being the substantial character of the term; and in Intelligence both Life
and Being by participation, and each of them intellectually, for the being
of Intelligence is cognitive and its life is cognition. 112
Although I do not necessarily want to equate the first order of Dionysius celestial
hierarchy with the Proclean triad of Being, Life and Intelligence, I do think that by
analogy this description can illuminate our own question of the relationship of the first
hierarchy to the divine activity.
Thus, each member of the first order of angels is pure, contemplative and perfect,
but according to its substantial mode: thus the thrones are perfect and contemplative in
purity; the cherubim are pure and perfect contemplatively; and the seraphim are pure and
contemplative perfectly. These properties, as reflections of, or participations in, the
divine activity, are not separate and distinct moments, yet neither are they confused. To
be a seraph is not the same as to be a cherub or a throne, yet they all share in the same


El.Th. 103 (Translation E.R. Dodds 93): ,

El.Th. 103 (Translation E.R. Dodds 93): ,

- 33 activity, that is the divine activity and each participates that activity as perfectly as
possible, according its mode of participation.
Our hierarchy, for Dionysius, is a reflection of the angelic hierarchy and as such it
participates in the same divine activity in so far as possible. Thus, the three activities that
we just mentioned are also found at work in this mediating hierarchy. Similarly,
Dionysius is careful not to equate these three activities in a simple one-to-one analogy
with each of the sacraments. Thus, he states that these same powers are in all the
sacraments- that is the power to purify, illuminate, and perfect.


He explains that the

sacrament of the divine birth is a purification and an illumination, and that the sacraments
of synaxis and of myron both provide a perfecting knowledge and understanding of the
divine workings. 114 Thus, each of the the holy sacraments bring about purification,
illumination and perfection. 115
The other two orders in our hierarchy are the clergy and the laity. Both of these
orders are divided according to their activity in the hierarchy. Thus, the hierarch perfects,
the priests illuminate, and the deacons purify. Of the lay order the monks are those who
are perfected, the sacred people are the contemplative order, and the lowest order are
those being purified. However, it should not be assumed that because the levels of
hierarch and monk are called the perfect order they are the only levels which participate
in the divine activity to the extent that they are divinized. Rather, all the members of each
order are capable of theosis or divinization insofar as they are assimilated as much as is
possible, or proportionately, to the divine activity, that is insofar as they are perfect

See EH 5.3
EH 5.3 504C (106:19-20):
EH 6.5 536D (119:8-9):

- 34 according to their position. Were this not the case the perfection of the cosmos would
amount to the collapse of all hierarchy, and the eradication of the means of theosis. Louth
points this out very clearly when he says that the hierarchies are not static for
Dionysius. That is one does not climb the hierarchy like a ladder to reach theosis. The
hierarchy itself mediates deification by its very existence as a manifestation of the
divine. 116
In so far as each member of the hierarchies is called to deification, they are
participating in the divine activity, thus becoming theurgic. At each level union with God
is possible, in that theosis consists in becoming God-like as much as possible. Just as the
highest angelic hierarchy has a share in each moment of the divine activity according to
its own mode, so each member of the human hierarchy also shares in each activity, but
always according to their proper mode and ability.
On this understanding it seems that the question, for Dionysius, is not one of
material or immaterial theurgy, intellectual or productive contemplation; rather the
question is, given that theurgical and contemplative participation in the divine activity are
both possible, and given that as occupying a mean position our hierarchy as a whole
participates in the full range of such activities, what is the theurgical and contemplative
praxis that is most appropriate for each member to attain divine union?
By suggesting that the theurgic rituals which mediate our participation in the
divine are only effective through our interpretation of them, Rorem reduces ritual action
to the occasion for a form of discursive knowledge based on intelligible symbols. This
move denies the goal of all hierarchy which is our participation in the divine activity, not
our understanding of the material symbols. In response to this position Louth insists on

A. Louth, Denys 105-106.

- 35 the notion of sacramental efficacy by insisting that the sacraments have a divided nature:
they function intellectually for the soul and materially for the body. This position denies a
fundamental inter-relation between the body and the soul, suggesting that the two move
simultaneously yet separately towards union.
The notions brought out by Shaw and Mazur of noetic theurgy and productive
contemplation in the thought of early Neoplatonists suggest it is necessary to refrain from
imposing a separation of contemplative versus ritual theurgy onto the tradition.
For the interpretation of Dionysius use of the notions of theurgy and
contemplation, it seems that this point opens the possibility that theurgy in the Dionysian
conception is at once the divine activity itself and each members participation in that
same activity according to their own nature. Theurgy is for the whole hierarchy at once
an activity in contemplation and a contemplation in activity.

- 36 Chapter 3: The Ascent of The Soul

we must praise the infinite names 117

Section I

The Place of Man in the Cosmos

We have already seen that for Dionysius the end or goal for all humanity is
theosis. Theosis, or divinization, is to become as much as possible like and in union with,
God. This means to imitate, hierarchically, Gods activity and by so doing to share in the
life of the divine. Yet, through Jesus Christ and the Incarnation the whole of creation is
taken up into the life of the divine and saved. Given this, what then is the place and role
of humanity within the entire cosmos?
Dionysius establishes that there are three hierarchies which form the cosmos: the
Legal, the Ecclesiastical, and the Celestial. In Chapter Five of the EH Dionysius provides
an explanation of the Legal Hierarchy. He suggests that following the heavenly hierarchy
God extends his most divine gifts to us. In order to reveal these gifts, God gave us the
Legal Hierarchy, which is composed of symbols and dull images. The hierarchy is led by
Moses and those he initiated. It consists of the laws, which Dionysius suggests are images
of what was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the sacrament which was an uplifting
according to a spiritual worship. 118
Our hierarchy [the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy], Dionysius tells us, is a more
perfect initiation, recalling that one [the Legal], as a fulfillment and completion of
it. 119 Our hierarchy thus occupies a middle position between the two hierarchies.

DN XII.1 969A (224:1-2).

EH V.1.2 501C (105:9-10): .
EH V.1.2 501C (105:17-18):

- 37 Dionysius also explains that each hierarchy is further divided into three. These three
divisions correspond to the stages of purification (first), illumination (middle), and
perfection (last). Further, each hierarchy is ordered so as to provide the sacred
proportion and the orderliness of all things for the harmonious order and binding
communion. 120 The arrangement of the orders, both among the three hierarchies and
within each one, is securely established as the means of salvation. The order itself is what
allows for communion. In this way the hierarchical arrangement of the whole cosmos is
not merely a means of salvation which is overcome in the final perfection. Rather, the
arrangement itself is a reflection of the perfected or ideal cosmic order.
The order which exists between the three hierarchies: the Legal, the Ecclesiastical
and the Angelic, is arranged as a representation or imitation of God. Similarly, such an
ordering exists within each hierarchy. For example, we saw in the previous section that
the angels are arranged within the Angelic hierarchy according to their degree of
perfection. The Ecclesiastical hierarchy is similarly ordered within itself, and this order is
providentially ordained so that it should reflect the divine as perfectly as possible.
As a reflection of God, the order of the hierarchies is also the manifestation of
Gods activity, and Gods activity is directed towards the divinization, or perfection, of
all creation. On account of this purpose, the structure of all hierarchy, but specifically of
our (the Ecclesiastical) hierarchy, reveals the nature of the human soul towards whose
perfection it is directed. Dionysius insistence on the place of sacraments within the
hierarchies is clear. He goes so far as to suggest, at one point, that each hierarchy consists


EH V.1.2 504A (106:2-3):


- 38 first in sacraments. 121 This is the only place where the author describes hierarchy as
consisting of sacraments, initiators and initiated. 122 The sacraments of the Ecclesiastical
hierarchy are thus reflections of the activity which exists in the angelic and the legal
hierarchies, and so in the divine activity itself. However, the sacraments of our hierarchy
are different, they are at once material and immaterial. In his discussion of the sacrament
of illumination, Dionysius explains that the rites are made up of images. These images,
he says are sacred perceptible imitations of intelligible realities. 123
Images or sacred perceptible imitations are not, however, means to a merely
intellectual understanding of God. They are precisely the means of participation in the
divine activity, as the material elements are themselves theurgic. It is through the
perfection of the sacraments, including the actions as performed by the hierarch and
participated by the people and the elements that one is perfected. Specifically,
Dionysius describes how the hierarch and the priest must become like the sacrament:
They must themselves virtually match the purity of the rites they perform
and in this way they will be illuminated by ever more divine visions, for
those transcendent rays prefer to give off the fullness of their splendor
more purely and more luminously in mirrors made in their image. 124
As mirrors, made in the image of the divine rays, those who perform the divine sacrament
of the eucharist, which he our author refers to also as the synaxis, are called to become
like the rituals themselves in order that they should become more God-like.
The human person is not called out of the material world so as to achieve a godlike imitation. Rather, humans are called to become God-like both materially and

EH V.1.1 501A (104:14): .

See C. Luibheid, The Complete Works 233 note 142.
EH II.2.2 397C (74:9): .
EH III.2.10 440 (90:1-3):


- 39 immaterially, as is their proper proportion in imitation of the complexity of the

sacraments. Just as it is human nature to be both physical and spiritual, so it is the nature
of the divine rites to comprise both intellectual and material elements. Together these
elements are to be comprehended and imitated, and in so far as one achieves that
imitation, one participates in the divine activity and is divinized.
The activity of the sacraments allows for such participation precisely because it is
beyond intellectual activity. This is especially clear in Dionysius reflection on the
sacrament of myron, the consecration of the sacred oil:
These divine beauties are concealed. Their fragrance is something beyond
any effort of the understanding and they effectively keep clear of all
profanation. They reveal themselves solely to minds capable of grasping
them. They shine within our souls only by way of appropriate images,
images which, like themselves, have the virtue of being incorruptible.
Hence virtuous conformity to God can only appear as an authentic image
of its object when it rivets its attention on that conceptual and fragrant
beauty. On this conditioncan the soul impress upon itself and reproduce
within itself an imitation of loveliness. 125
The soul, capable of entering into the divine mysteries through the sacraments, itself
becomes an image of God. This passage indicates that God is hidden from our
understanding, like the oil which is covered during its consecration, but also that the
virtuous soul, which is an image of God, conceals that image within itself; in effect the
divine person is the hidden image of God in the same way that the sacrament is a sacred
image of the divine. The nature of this image is in the case of both the human and the
sacrament that it consists of both the material and the immaterial. The immaterial image
is at once concealed within the material and revealed though it. Dionysius uses of this

EH IV.2.1 473B (95:23-96:5):


- 40 interplay between revealing and concealing suggests that he does not see the image as
something outside of or higher than its manifestation in the material. This suggests that
the source of the image is not itself solely immaterial but also material.
The notion of the divine as the source of the union of the material and immaterial
is more fully examined with respect to Dionysius understanding of the Incarnation in
Chapter Three. At this point it is important to note that in the course of his discussion of
evil in the Divine Names Dionysius makes it clear that neither our bodies, nor the
material world in general are to be seen as the source of evil:
And there is no evil in our bodies, for ugliness and disease are a defect in
form and a lack of due order. What is here is not pure evil but a lesser
beauty. If beauty, form, and order could be destroyed completely the body
itself would disappear. It is also obvious that the body is not the cause of
evil in the soul. Evil does not require a body to be nearby, as is clear in the
case of demons. Evil in minds, in souls, and in bodies is a weakness and a
defect in the condition of their natural virtues. 126
The body, in this way is subject to the same ordering as the soul, thus it is, together with
the soul, called to achieve its own proper order in relation to the Good which is its source.
Further, Dionysius affirms that the perfection of the human person within the cosmos
does not require an escape from the body, but rather Life, he says, has promised us that
it will transform what we areI mean our souls and the bodies yoked to themand will
bring us to perfect life and immortality. 127 Moreover, Dionysius strongly rejects any
notion that matter in and of itself can be understood as evil. He says: There is no truth in

DN IV.27 728D (173:17-174:3): .

DN VI.2 865D (192:1-3): ,

- 41 the common assertion that evil is inherent in matter qua matter, since matter too has a
share in the cosmos, in beauty and form. 128 That matter itself has a share in the divine is
what allows Dionysius to preserve his notion of the bodys perfection and the capacity for
the material sacraments to be themselves both the highest participation in the divine
activity in the Ecclesiastical hierarchy, and also the means through which the human
person, body and soul, imitates God and therefore fulfills its place in the cosmos.
To imitate God, or to be an image of God, is participation in the divine activity,
and as such it is theurgic participation. Theurgic participation is theosis for Dionysius.
Thus, our participation in the rites of the hierarchy is at once the means of achieving
divinization and is itself that divinization. Our participation in theurgic activity is the way
we fulfill our role in the cosmos.
The fulfillment of that role, or the perfection of that role, does not indicate either
an end to activity or an escape from hierarchic participation. As mentioned Dionysius
uses the term to describe the capacity of the creature to enter into union with
the divine. He explains that God directly enlightens the first ranks of the angels, and
through them he enlightens the secondary ranks in proportion to their capacity. 129
Dionysius relies on this idea of proportion, or analogy, in many places. In Chapter One
we saw that the idea of the persons proportionate participation in the divine is central to
Dionysius conception of theosis. This participation, according to proportion, also reflects
the nature of the soul itself. Hieromonk Golitzin has suggested that from Dionysius use
of the term two things can be determined: the first that at this point Dionysius


DN VI.28 729A, (174:4-5): ,,

EH VI.2.6 537C (120:11):

- 42 differentiates himself from the Neoplatonists, especially Proclus, second that

necessarily suggests the continuous movement of the creature towards God. Golitzin
claims that in his understanding of Dionysius rejects the Proclean claim that
the creatures return is something which is already present: Unlike the latters
, Dionysius does not denote what is in fact something already
accomplished. 130 The question of the souls return as already fully present for Proclus is
also dealt with at length by Jean Trouillard.
In LUn et Lme Selon Proclos, Trouillard describes this idea as manence.
Manence is the very presence of the divine throughout and beyond the created order.
Trouillard clearly sets out his understanding of the divine presence within Neoplatonism:
La prsence divine que fonde la procession noplatonicienne nest ni la simple prsence
dimmensit, ni la presence cratrice et providente (commune aux choses visible et
invisibles), ni la prsence ajoute et amovible de grce. 131 Trouillard also contests what
he calls the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation, which is not to be equated with
procession: Ltre et lun ne sont pas interchangables. La cration ne se confond pas
avec la procession. La crature est autre chose quun driv et le principe nagit pas
comme un artisan sublim. 132 That creation is not procession for Trouillard requires an
understanding of procession that does not limit the divine principle to a realm above
creation; it also requires a radical understanding of the divine immanence. The creature is
not derived from the Ones procession outside of itself, it is rather based within the
relation of the One to itself.


A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 87.

J. Trouillard, LUn et Lme 5-6.
Ibid. 4.

- 43 The relation of the soul to the One, for Trouillard, is specifically grounded in his
assessment of the Neoplatonic notion of procession and return. In The Elements of
Theology, Proclus explains that every effect remains in its cause, proceeds from it, and
reverts upon it. 133 That every effect remains in its cause is the source of Trouillards
concept of manence: the necessarily prior condition of any procession and return. Si la
procession exige la manence du principe en lui-mme, elle requiert logiquement une
manence du driv dans le principe. 134 Moreover, La est la prsence inamissable
de lorigine, partir de quoi le driv se fait la fois autre et identique. Elle est la racine
nourricire de lexpansion processive et la communication fondamentale qui permet de
convertir lcart en assimilation. 135 This conception grounds all possibility of mystical
union for Trouillard because it highlights the pre-existing union which is the source of the
This is clearly the Proclean notion from which Golitzin wishes to distinguish
Dionysius. The second element which Golitzin suggests comes out of this
idea is the creatures activity or movement. He claims that:
Our likeness to God, our , is not now fully achieved. Rather,
in as much as means the capacity or potential of each for God,
that in us which is capable of and open to the answering of Gods word
to us our personal capax Dei it necessarily opens onto movement. It
denotes not so much what the creature has or is at any one time, but rather
what it is willed to become, the level of contemplation and thus of both
activity and being that it is called upon to realize. 136


El.Th. 35 (Translation by E.R. Dodds 39):

J. Trouillard, LUn et Lme 98.
Ibid. 98.
A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 87.

- 44 The distinction, suggested by Golitzin, between Proclean and Dionysian is

difficult to maintain for two important reasons. First, with respect to the question of the
omnipresence of the return, Trouillards reading of Proclus is necessary within the
Neoplatonic structure of remaining, procession, and return. Trouillard points out that for
there to be a return at all there must first be the moment of remaining. However,
Trouillard is careful to note that for Proclus this does not deny the creature its
creatureliness, nor does it deny the fact of the return.
Dionysius relies on this concept of a pre-existent return when he discusses the
sacrament of divine illumination. This is the beginning of the return for Dionysius, the
point at which the creature begins the ascent, and yet, even at this point there is already
the coincidence of God and the soul. The starting point he says is to dispose our souls to
hear the sacred words as receptively as possible, to be open to the divine workings of
God, to clear an uplifting path toward that inheritance which awaits us in heaven, and to
accept our most divine and sacred regeneration. 137 Further, he says, in the realm of
intellect it is love of God which first of all moves us toward the divine; indeed the
very first procession of this love toward the sacred enactment of the divine command
brings about in unspeakable fashion our divine existence. No one could understand, let
alone put into practice, the truths received from God if he did not have a divine
beginning. 138 The possibility of the creatures return, in this situation, is dependent upon


EH II.1 392B (68:22-69:3):

EH II.1 392AB (69:3-7): ,

- 45 its initial longing for God. Similarly, in Proposition 32 of the Elements of Theology
Proclus writes:
All reversion is accomplished through a likeness of the reverting terms to
the goal of reversion. For that which reverts endeavours to be conjoined in
every part with every part of its cause, and desires to have communion in
it and be bound to it. But all things are bound together by likeness, as by
unlikeness they are distinguished and severed. If, then, reversion is a
communion and conjunction, and all communion and conjunction is
through likeness, it follows that all reversion must be accomplished
through likeness. 139
Thus, for Proclus the creatures return is directed by its likeness to that towards which it
reverts, so for Dionysius there can be no actual differentiation between the moment of the
first procession of love i.e., the moment of return, and the beginning of the divine
existence. In other words in order for there to be a first procession at all there must
already be a divine existence. This suggests that Dionysius has not somehow deviated
from the Proclean system with respect to . 140 Further, as Stephen Gersh points
out, in the Divine Names Dionysius speaks of the Godhead as that by which, from
which, through which, in which, and to which all things exist, are arranged, remain, are
contained, are fulfilled, and revert. In this passage, the remaining is clearly that of an
effect, and so it would seem to represent the first stage in the usual triple schema. 141


El.Th. 32 (Translation by E.R. Dodds 37):

See S. Gersh. Iamblichus to Eriugena 217-229 for a discussion of the Christian transformation of the
Neoplatonic triad of remaining-procession-reversion, where, with respect to the remaining the emphasis
shifts from the remaining of the effects in the cause prior to the procession to their remaining or coming to
rest in the cause as the final goal of the return. He notes that, with respect to this point and to those relating
to the procession and reversion, while hints of a transformation can be seen in Dionysius, Dionysius does
fundamentally adhere to the traditional pagan understanding.
Ibid. 218-219.

- 46 Dionysius does not therefore seem to be altering the Neoplatonic notion of remaining; in
fact, his conception of the return itself as a likeness to God is dependent on it.
Secondly, Golitzin suggests that whereas the Proclean system denies
transformation and movement to the creature, Dionysius system opens onto
movement. For two reasons this distinction between the Proclean and Dionysian return
does not hold. First, Golitzins denial of movement in the pagan system relies primarily
on the notion of the effects remaining in its cause which he believes eliminates the
possibility of any true reversion (read progression) towards God. Second, he connects the
motion of the souls return with an eternal progression into God which inevitably denies
the logic of both Dionysius notion of hierarchy and .
Although these are two separate points, the first has already been addressed in the
above paragraphs, and here it is specifically the question of progression to which I would
like to respond. He claims that, though the creature fulfils its through
discovering its place in a well-articulated cosmos, yet that place itself remains always an
activity and a progress into God. 142 That the creatures place within the cosmos requires
activity, because it is an imitation of God insofar as it is able, has been discussed at
length in this paper and is not in dispute. The question remains, however: Can this
activity be understood as an eternal progression? There is clearly eternal movement,
eternal desire, eternal participation in the divine activities for Dionysius, yet there is also
the creatures perfection and end. According to our understanding of analogy, this
perfection is directly commensurate with the creatures position within its hierarchy. The
creature attains perfection, according to its capacity, and that perfection is assimilation to


A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 89.

- 47 the divine activity; however, the individual creature does not eternally become more
divine, or more proportionately assimilated. Thus, perfection, i.e. divinization,
necessarily implies the end of a progression, though not necessarily the end of activity.
Within his discussion of the sacred rituals it is possible to discern Dionysius
vision of the place of man within creation and the order of the cosmos. This cosmos is
first and foremost hierarchic, thus man is situated within this hierarchic structure, both
from the point of view of his creation and his divinization. Man is called to participate in
the material rituals of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and through these rituals to
participate in the divine activity, or theurgy. Within Dionysius schema, the priests and
deacons are even called to imitate or reflect the rituals themselves, as these are a more
perfect image of Gods activity. Insofar as each member of the hierarchy participates in
the divine activity according to its proportion we see that Dionysius, like Proclus,
requires that the creature always maintain, in some way, its connection with the divine
origin. This connection, however, does not deny the creatures movement back to God,
rather it makes it possible and it preserves the hierarchic structure of the cosmos and the
communal nature of the deification of the whole creation.
Section II

The Nature of the Soul

The souls final goal is divinization and this divinization consists in its
participation, as far as possible, in the divine activity. Participation, for Dionysius, is
hierarchically structured and involves mans fulfillment of his place in the order of the
cosmos as we saw in the previous section. This fulfillment involves mans movement
toward God and in imitation of God, further this movement constitutes the souls return.
Finally, this return is fundamentally dependent on the souls prior remaining with God.

- 48 The creature, as effect, remains always within its cause, thus how can the soul be
said to be other than God? If the creature remains in its cause, what does it mean for
Dionysius to say that the soul is not God? Is the soul absorbed into God in its return?
How does the soul effect its return? These questions are addressed by our author at
different points throughout the CD.
The soul, Dionysius explains in the Divine Names, follows upon the angels and
like them derives its being from the Good:
Next to these sacred and holy intelligent beings are the souls, together
with all the good peculiar to these souls. These too derive their being from
the transcendent Good, so therefore they have intelligence, immortality,
existence. They can strive toward the angelic life. By means of the angels
as good leaders, they can be uplifted to the generous source of all good
things and, each according to his measure, they are able to have a share in
the illuminations streaming out from that source. They too, in their own
fashion, possess the gift of exemplifying the Good and they have all those
other qualities which I described in my book The Soul. 143
Although the text Dionysius mentions here is non-extant, the qualities he mentions can be
generally reconstructed by his comments made about the soul throughout the other
treatises. First, in its procession from the simple unity of God, the soul itself is divided in
multiplicity. This internal division also separates the soul from God. For this reason
Dionysius clearly suggests that union with God consists in the souls being drawn
together in unity, as much as possible, like the divine.
This inward progression toward unity is highlighted once more in the
Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Here Dionysius stresses the unity of each of the highest levels

DN VI.2 696C (145:10-17):



- 49 within the orders. That is, the sacraments, as the summit of the whole hierarchy; the
hierarch as the highest level among the clerical orders; and the monks as the highest
among the laity.
The sacrament of synaxis, the eucharist, is described by Dionysius as, in itself,
one: Similarly [to God] the divine sacrament of the synaxis remains what it is, unique,
simple, and indivisible and yet, out of love for humanity, it is pluralized in a sacred
variegation of symbols. It extends itself so as to include all the hierarchical imagery.
Then it draws all these varied symbols together into a unity, returns to its own inherent
oneness, and confers unity on all those sacredly uplifted to it. 144 Thus, the most perfect
sacrament, the eucharist, is itself the perfection of all sacraments, as all rites culminate in
the communion it effects. 145 The simplicity of the sacrament, even though it is divided
into a variety of symbols, denotes its special unity and reflects both the ideal unity of the
divine and the unity which is the goal of the human soul.
The hierarch, as the embodiment of every hierarchy, also reflects the internal
unity to which the soul is called. Within the hierarch himself the whole hierarchy is
united: The divine order of hierarchs is therefore the first of those who behold God. It is
the first and also the last, for in it the whole arrangement of the human hierarchy is
fulfilled and completed. 146 As the perfection of every hierarchy, the hierarch is turned
towards the rest of the hierarchy in care, and yet remains himself undivided and united to

EH III.2.3 429AB (82:22-83:3): ,

See: EH III.1.
EH V.1.5 505A (107:13-16):

- 50 God. His oneness is the source of his procession and of his ability to return to the One; it
is his remaining. Thus our author explains: For being completely at one, he can
immediately turn back to the One to whom he remains so bound by a pure and
untarnished return that the fullness and the constancy of his conformity to God is
maintained. 147 The hierarch himself is also a reflection of Gods remaining, procession,
and return; and an image of the goal of the human soul as it moves towards unity in itself
and with God.
Finally, the monk, as the highest member of the laity, is elevated because of his
single-mindedness. Due to its position, this order is entrusted to the perfecting power
of those men of God, the hierarchs, whose enlightening activities and hierarchical
traditions have introduced it, according to capacity, to the holy operations of the sacred
sacraments it had beheld. 148 Among the third order of the hierarchy Dionysius spends
the most time discussing the rank of the monk. Their order is called to be solitary and
unique, they are restricted from the allowances of the rest of the laity and they have the
duty to be at one with the One. 149 As a member of the perfected order among the
laity, the monk is analogous to the hierarch whose order is perfected among the clerical
orders. The order of those made perfect is that of the unified monks. 150 The monk,


EH III.2.10 440A (89:17-19): ,

EH VI.2.3 532D (116:11-14):

EH VI.3.2 533D (118:2-3): (amended
EH VI.3.5 536D (119: 12): (amended

- 51 however, is called to imitate the clerics, though he is not a cleric. 151 He is perfect among
the initiated because of this single-mindedness, yet this perfection cannot be equated to
the perfection of the hierarch because, while the monk is unified within himself perfectly
and even united to God as perfectly as is possible he does not move out of that perfect
unity in order to effect the perfection of others. This is why, although the monk is the
special purview of the hierarch, he is not consecrated by the hierarch himself but by the
priest. In this way the monk, in his perfect simplicity, shows the goal of the human soul
to be perfectly united in imitation of God; his position in the overall hierarchy also shows
that the most perfect imitation of God is that which is at once unified within itself, united
with God, and in that union directed outward in perfect participation in the divine
The soul is called to exemplify the Good. The orders of the ecclesiastical
hierarchy show that this goal involves in part the souls ability to be united within itself;
this self unity is in fact the condition of the possibility of all other forms of participation.
This is clear because the monk is still below the deacon in that he does not share the
deacons capacity to transmit his perfection, though the deacon as the member of a rank
above the monk must contain the perfection of the rank below him. This logic is also
developed by Dionysius in the Celestial Hierarchy with respect to the powers of the
angels as discussed in Chapter Two.
The capacity for oneness is not limited to those of the perfected order. The
sacraments themselves convey this oneness on all the initiated. Thus Dionysius can say of
the newly baptized: With these, his sacred vows of complete inclination toward the One,


See EH VI.3.2.

- 52 the tradition receives him who has become one-like out of a love for the truth. 152 Our
becoming one-like, or unified, begins at the moment of initiation into the hierarchy and
the movement toward greater and greater unity is accomplished through our increasing
participation in the sacred activity of the hierarchy: Every sacredly initiating operation
draws our fragmented lives together into a one-like divinization. It forges a divine unity
out of the divisions within us. It grants us communion ()and union ()
with the One. 153 Our lives are fragmented, yet the soul is preserved in its connection
with the One and insofar as that connection holds so does the souls ability to be united
within itself and to God.
Jan Vanneste has explained that there are three senses of in the Dionysian
Corpus. First: La hnsis est dabord, dans le sens primatif du mot, une unification des
tres mans: elle est la consquence dune rduction de la pluralit lunit dans le
movement de la conversion. 154 Next he claims that, un second sens de la hnsis est
celui dune union Dieu, lunion que tout tre man effectue avec Dieu dans la
conversion. 155 Finally he says, un troisime sens de la hnsis simpose: lunit,
imitant lunit transcendente de Dieu par une participation la forme de lUn, mais qui,
chez nous de moins, est, en plus, le rsultat de lunification dune pluralit. 156 Thus,
for Dionysius is at once the union between all things, the individuals union with

EH II.3.5 401B (76:20-21):

EH III.1 424C (79:9-13):

J. Vanneste, Le Mystre de Dieu 194.
Ibid. 195.
Ibid. 195. Vannestes distinction of the three forms of union are helpful as they clearly set out the three
modes we have observed within the texts above. However I do not agree on the point which he argued most
strongly in this text, that Dionysius mysticism was not a genuine mysticism.

- 53 God, and the unification within the individual which is an imitation of the divine. Each of
these senses is found within the Dionysian texts and the fundamental unity of these three
forms of union has been shown in the passages above. All things are united together
because they all participate in the hierarchical activity of the divine, because all things are
united to God through that participation and thus through each other, and finally, because
nothing of that unity would be realized if the individual were to remain divided within
itself. However, there is another sense of the term which may serve as a basis for
each of these three aspects; this is its link to the souls fundamental capacity for union.
Several scholars have connected Dionysius apprehension of the souls capacity to
be unified, which he calls, , with Proclus description of the flower of the
intellect. 157 J. Rist, like Vanneste, has connected Dionysian and Proclean mysticism
with respect to these two notions. He suggests that for both of these authors the faculty
represented by the term (which Proclus also uses)or (which
Dionysius does not use) represents some capacity within the human person by nature to
attain the divine, as opposed to, for example, Plotinus hopeful awaiting of the divine
presence which represents a kind of reliance on grace. 158 Despite the conclusions that
both of these commentators make about the validity of Proclean or Dionysian mysticism,
the connection made between these two terms is helpful for our discussion of the nature
of the soul for Dionysius.
It seems that what both Proclus and Dionysius are trying to demonstrate by their
respective concepts is the souls prior unity in the One and its remaining in the One while


See A. Golitzin, The Place of Negative Theology 14; J. Rist, Mysticism and Transcendence; and
Weakness of the Soul.
J. Rist, Mysticism and Transcendence 215-220.

- 54 it processes into multiplicity. Both and are names given to

denote the remaining which makes all return possible. Thus, the following description of
Proclus notion of the souls return as elucidated by Jean Trouillard is key to
understanding Dionysius conception of the soul.
The souls relation to the One is also self-constituting; the self-constituting nature
of the soul however does not deny its reliance on the One, it is rather that the relation of
the soul to itself is fundamentally grounded in the One. This relation is the source of all
knowledge and the ground of mystical union. Proclus, again, notes that coming to divine
union is nothing but rousing up the One within us and, through this, warming of the
soul we may connect ourselves to the One itself and, as it were find mooring. 159 We
can rouse the One within us only by a turn inward, toward self-knowledge. Trouillard
stresses that his work appuie sur les dclarations rptes de Proclos que nous ne
connaissons rien que dans et travers lme, mais que lme elle-mme ne satteint que
dans la lumire ou sous le motion de lUn. La philosophie se meut donc dans la relation
de lme et de LUn. 160 For Dionysius, as for Proclus, it is the souls prior union with
God, which is the source of all knowledge and all activity.
The souls knowledge and its activity are fundamentally linked. There is no
difference for Dionysius between moving and knowing. In effect movement is knowledge
and knowledge is movement. Dionysius describes three movements which are proper to
the soul; each of these movements are linked to a mode of knowing. First, he says,
[the soul] moves in a circle, that is, it turns within itself and away from
what is outside and there is an inner concentration of its intellectual
powers. A sort of fixed revolution causes it to return from the multiplicity

InParm. 1072, 7 (Trans. G. Morrow and J. Dillon).

J. Trouillard, LUn et Lme 7.

- 55 of externals, to gather in upon itself and then, in this undispersed

condition, to join those who are themselves in a powerful union. From
there the revolution brings the soul to the Beautiful and the Good, which is
beyond all things, is one and the same, and has neither beginning nor end.
But whenever the soul receives, in accordance with its capacities, the
enlightenment of divine knowledge and does so not by way of the mind
nor in some mode arising out of its identity, but rather through discursive
reasoning, in mixed and changeable activities, then it moves in a spiral
fashion. And its movement is in a straight line when, instead of circling in
upon its own intelligent unity (for this is circular), it proceeds to the things
around it, and is uplifted from external things, as from certain variegated
and pluralized symbols, to the simple and unified contemplations. 161
The first movement, circular, concerns the souls unity and its self-constituting nature in
relation to the One. This also corresponds to the notion of perfection which was discussed
above particularly with respect to the monk. The second movement, spiral, that of
discursive activity is the movement of the intellect, it is both outward looking and
centered on the unity of the soul, in this way the soul receives divine enlightenment.
Finally, the third movement is linear. This movement first proceeds towards multiplicity,
and then by way of the multiple is raised up from the many to unity. These movements
should not be understood as distinct, or hierarchically ordered, or as corresponding
distinctly to certain modes of union or progression towards God. 162 The Good and the
Beautiful is the cause of these three movements, as also of the movements in the realm of
what is perceived, and of the prior remaining, standing and foundation of each one. This

DN IV.9 705AB (153:10-154:6):


See. C. Luibheid, The Complete Works 78 note 146.

- 56 is what preserves them. This is their goal, itself transcending all rest and all motion. 163
The movements cannot be seen as a progression, i.e., from straight, to spiral, to circular,
because one does not find its source in the other, nor does one find its end in the other.
Rather, each finds its source and its end in the Good and the Beautiful which is their
supreme cause. Thus the soul contains each of these movements, not as distinct moments,
but as it contains all movement and all rest as it imitates the divine life which is the unity
of motion and rest.
That these three moments within the soul are imitations of the movements of the
divine is expressed by our author in Chapter IX of the Divine Names. Here Dionysius
addresses the question of Gods motion, and how we are to interpret descriptions of God
as sitting, resting, or moving. Here Dionysius gives an explanation of Gods movement in
exactly the same terms as he used in the description of the movements of the soul:
And yet, in some mode conforming to what befits both God and reason,
one has to predicate movement of the immutable God. One must
understand the straight motion of God to mean the unswerving procession
of his activities, the coming-to-be of all things from him. The spiral
movement attributed to him must refer to the continuous procession from
him together with the fecundity of his stillness. And the circular
movement has to do with his sameness, to the grip he has on the middle
range as well as on the outer edges of order, so that all things are one and
all things that have gone forth from him may return to him once again. 164
Thus, it is the three movements of God, the straight, the spiral, and the circular, which are
mirrored in the human soul, and incidentally, in the entire cosmos as well, as they are

DN VI.10 705BC (154:7-10):

DN IX.9 916CD (213:15-20):

- 57 also the movements of the angels. This correlation of divine, angelic, and human motion
confirms that each motion should not, and cannot, be understood as distinct from the
others. They are united insofar as they are ultimately, that is, in their source and their end
the movement of God whose motion ultimately cannot be divided.
We have treated at length the souls unity within itself as a reflection of its prior
union with the One and its union with the members of its hierarchy as a reflection of the
whole hierarchys participation in the unity of the divine which is its source. An
inevitable question arises as to the distinction between the soul and God, or even between
the soul and the hierarchy to which it is united. How does Dionysius preserve the distinct
identity of the creature in the face of the divine unity?
Dionysius is careful to maintain both that the divine is the preeminent source of
the unity of all things and is also the source of all difference and distinction. That the
divine preserves the difference of the creation even within its own unity is understood as
a reflection of its providential care for creation and, more fundamentally, of the very love
out of which it creates.
That there cannot be a relationship of identity between God and the soul is based
partially on Dionysius conception of participation. While he must maintain that the
entire wholeness [of the divinity] is participated in by each of those who participate in it;
none participates in only a part, 165 he does not suggest that because each participant
must participate in the whole fully that all those who participate are essentially the same
or are not distinct from the participated. To account for this, Dionysius employs the


DN II.5 644A (129:4-6):

- 58 metaphor of the seal and the wax. 166 He denies that the differences in the appearance can
be attributed to the seal itself: Maybe someone will say that the seal is not totally
identical in all the reproductions of it. My answer is that this is not because of the seal
itself, which gives itself completely and identically to each. 167 Rather he explains that
the difference in the appearances of the seal is due to the nature and quality of the wax
onto which it is impressed. From this analogy Dionysius concludes that in reality there
is no exact likeness between caused and cause, for the caused carry within themselves
only such images of their originating sources as are possible for them, whereas the causes
themselves are located in a realm transcending the caused, according to the argument
regarding their source. 168 The caused are transcended by their causes and as such are not
capable of being identical with their cause. Here, the notion of appears again,
in this case in order to protect both the divine transcendence and the self-identity of the
human soul.
What finally protects the individual souls identity from its annihilation within the
One is the One itself and the rest, of which, together with movement, it is the source:
And perfect Peace is there as a gift, guarding without confusion the individuality of
each, providentially ensuring that all things are quiet and free of confusion within
themselves and from without, that all things are unshakably what they are and that they


This metaphor is similar to that used by Socrates in the Theaetetus with respect to the effect of sense
perceptions on the soul.
DN II.6 644B (129: 12-14):
DN II.8 645C (132:14-17): ,

- 59 have peace and rest. 169 In this sense God, Peace, as Dionysius names him in this Chapter
of the Divine Names, is the source of both unity and differentiation. It preserves the
individuality of each soul because it is only through the souls individuality and unity
within itself that the unity of all things is preserved.
Section III

Theurgy and the Divine Names

In the previous two sections we have examined Dionysius view of the place of
man within the cosmos and his view of the nature of the human soul. The soul, for
Dionysius, fulfills its proper place, or its , in the cosmos by imitating Gods
activity insofar as it is capable. This activity consists in both Gods consistent and
unwavering unity and in Gods procession out of himself and return to himself in his
providential care for creation.
As the foremost image of this providential care in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the
sacraments are the model towards which each Christian is orientated in imitation. In their
very uniting of material and immaterial, the sacraments are manifestations of the divine
activities, and so humans are called to imitate that union within themselves. Thus, we saw
that Dionysius asserts the perfection of the body and the ultimate goodness of the
material universe.
In its imitation of the God as the One, the soul also seeks its own self-unity. It can
attain this unity because of its prior remaining within the One which makes all unity
possible. In its journey towards perfection, Dionysius explains that the soul has three
movements. These movements are described spatially, temporally, and mentally. The

DN XI.3 952C (220:7-11):

- 60 movements, or activities, of the soul are best understood theurgically as activities which
effect mans union with God.
In Chapter Two, I examined theurgy as a concept which spans the distinction
between thought and action, and cannot be reduced to either. Related to theurgy the
notion of prayer was very important in both Neoplatonic and Christian traditions.
However, the idea of prayer as theurgy is particularly present in Dionysius pagan
predecessors. In this section, I will examine the construction of prayer as effective or
active contemplation within the Neoplatonic tradition and then within the Dionysian
corpus, with specific reference to the Divine Names and also with reference to important
passages in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.
Plotinus notion of productive contemplation was examined in Chapter Two, as
was his notion of inner ritual. This notion of inner ritual is especially helpful in a
discussion of the place of prayer in the CD. There are two key places at Ennead VI where
Plotinus describes the vision or contemplation of the Good in terms which suggest the
kind of inner ritual that was discussed above. 170 In the first passage Plotinus is describing
the souls movement towards contemplation of the One as an ultimate rejection of the
intelligence or the intelligible symbols. He provides us with the image of a person
entering a beautiful and richly adorned house. Inside, the visitor contemplates the
beautiful contents of the house, yet when he finally sees the master, who is worthy of
genuine contemplation ( ), he recognizes him and turns his
attention solely to him: by the continuity of his contemplation he no longer sees a
sight, but mingles his seeing with what he contemplates, so that what was seen before has


See also Z. Mazur, Union Magica; and G. Shaw, Eros and Arithmos.

- 61 now become sight in him, and he forgets all other objects of contemplation. 171 The
visitor rivets himself to his vision of the master; he no longer looks down to the image of
the master in the house and its ornaments, now his sight is raised to a vision of his own
nature and of the master above him. Whereas initially he had received knowledge about
the master from the objects within the house, now he sees the master directly in a
contemplation which is beyond sight and thoughtthe distance between the visitor and
the master is overcome in this genuine, unitive contemplation.
In a second passage, at Ennead VI.9.11 Plotinus describes the union of the seer
and the seen at the moment of mystical union. Plotinus suggests that this union, both of
the seer within himself and of the seer to the Good, is to be understood as when an
initiate enters into the sanctuary of the god and contemplates him directly. Yet he says
that the vision within the shrine is not a contemplation, but a kind of ecstatic seeing,
whereas the vision of the statues outside the shrine were properly considered
contemplations. Entering the sanctuary, he says, makes contemplation real
(). 172 Here Plotinus relies not only on images or metaphors from
religious cult but also on the very fundamental idea of mystical union as contemplation
beyond knowledge. These activities are what Shaw and Mazur have called internal ritual
or contemplative praxis. 173
Iamblichus speaks more directly about prayer itself and its function within
theurgic activity. In Chapter Two I discussed Iamblichus notion of the different types of
theurgy which relate to different levels of the soul. Gregory Shaw has discussed at great

Ennead VI.7.35.13-17:
Ennead, VI.9.11.29-30.
See Z. Mazur, Union Magica; and G. Shaw, Eros and Arithmos.

- 62 length Iamblichus notion of mental theurgy which is centered around Pythagorean and
mathematical symbols elevating the soul above all conceptions. Here, however, I wish to
explore briefly Iamblichus discussion of prayer in the De Mysteriis and how it prefigures
Dionysius discussion in the Divine Names.
In the first book of the De Mysteriis Iamblichus discusses the nature and purpose
of all prayer. The object of prayer is to raise the supplicant up towards the gods through
what he calls harmonious persuasion. Iamblichus identifies this harmonious persuasion
with the source of the efficacy of all prayer and all ritual: And it is for this reason,
indeed, that the sacred names of the gods and the other types of divine symbol that have
the capacity of raising us up to the gods are enabled to link us to them. 174 Here,
Iamblichus first refers to the sacred names as divine symbols. It is as symbols, and not as
arbitrary cognitive or cultural conventions, that the names of the gods bear the power to
join the soul to the gods, to elevate the soul towards union.
Prayer is especially important in its relation to ritual, specifically the ritual of
sacrifice. In this Iamblichus defines three types of prayer: the first he calls introductory,
the second conjunctive, and the third perfected. 175 The third type, the most
perfect[,] has as its mark ineffable unification. 176 Thus, prayer itself is for Iamblichus a
way of attaining divine union. Moreover, Iamblichus insists that prayers serve to
confer the highest degree of completeness upon sacrifices, as it is by means of them
that the whole efficacy of sacrifices is reinforced and brought to perfection.177 In


DM I.12 (42:11-13):
See E. Clarke et. al., De Mysteriis 275 note 355.
DM V.26 (238:3-4): .
DM V.26 (237:7-8): ,

- 63 conjunction with sacrifice prayer provides the perfecting activity of the ritual. However,
prayer also functions alone in the Iamblichean system:
Extended practice of prayer nurtures our intellect, enlarges very greatly our
souls receptivity to the gods, reveals to men the life of the gods, accustoms their eyes to
the brightness of divine light, and gradually brings to perfection the capacity of our
faculties for contact with the gods, until it leads us up to the highest level of
consciousness (of which we are capable); also, it elevates gently the disposition of our
minds, and communicates to us those of the gods, stimulates persuasion and communion
and indissoluble friendship, augments divine love, kindles the divine element in the soul,
scours away all contrary tendencies within it, casts out from the aetherial and luminous
vehicle surrounding the soul everything that tends to generation, brings to perfection
good hope and faith concerning the light; and, in a word, it renders those who employ
prayers, if we may so express it, the familiar consorts of the gods. 178
The effects of prayer are countless, since prayer essentially contains all the effects
of theurgic activity. Yet, ultimately prayer is always linked to ritual, and Iamblichus even
goes so far as to say that the connection of prayer to sacrifice [or any ritual activity] is the
total unity of spirit and action that characterises the procedure of theurgy. 179 Theurgy


DM V.26 (238:12-239:10):
DM V.26 (240:9-10):

- 64 is not simply the ritualistic, or active aspect of Iamblichus system; it is the union of the
contemplative and the active.
Iamblichus also discusses the traditional use of the names of the gods both within
prayer and within theurgic ritual. The names are symbols like a statue or a sacrificial
victim; the divine names, as passed on from the gods themselves to the hieratic priests of
traditional peoples (namely the Egyptians), though unknowable to us are united to the
gods either intellectually or rather ineffably, and in a manner superior and more simple
than in accordance with intellect. 180 That these names are linked to the gods thus allows
that they can be a means or path of the souls return: And moreover, we preserve in their
entirety the mystical and arcane images of the gods in our soul; and we raise our soul up
through these towards the gods and, as far as is possible when it has been elevated, we
experience union with the gods. 181 Thus, we maintain our connection with the gods
through the names, to which they are united and which the soul carries deep within it.
The names are united to the gods specifically because of their nature as symbol.
As symbol the names are the bearers of meaning beyond themselves. Moreover, because
they themselves have the capacity to unite word and reality, material and immaterial, they
are able to function as the means of our participation in that same unity. It is for this
reason that Iamblichus is careful to try and preserve the traditional names, in the
traditional language. For if the names were established by convention, then it would not
matter whether some were used instead of others. But if they are dependent on the nature
of real beings, then those that are better adapted to this will be more precious to the

DM VII.4 (255:3-5): []
DM VII.4 (255:4-256:2):

- 65 gods. 182 Even if none of these names are able to be understood intellectually by the
initiate it does not diminish the efficacy of the prayer or the sacrifice. Indeed, their very
inability to be comprehended intellectually or cognitively actually preserves the symbols
capacity to transcend its literal meaning and reach towards the unity which encompasses
it. In such a situation the intellect cannot hinder the ability of the soul to move beyond
intellectual contemplation to pure vision.
In the Iamblichean system, prayer is not an immaterial theurgy which surpasses
ritual action. On the contrary, an investigation of the place of prayer in the De Mysteriis
suggests that prayer is necessarily coupled with ritual, specifically sacrifice, as its
perfecting movement. Moreover, with respect to the divine names, Iamblichus cannot
help but set up that discussion as a treatment also of theurgy. The names are symbols and
therefore the contemplation of the names themselves, is a participation in theurgic
In the Platonic Theology Proclus also discusses the place of the divine names, as I
noted in Chapter Two. Proclus explicitly connects theurgic ritual (specifically the
illumination of a statue by the god) with the enlightenment that is achieved through the
contemplation of the divine names in the mind. Proclus entreats his reader to follow the
example of Socrates in worshipping the divine name. Further, he says that we must
worship even those most dissimilar of names, as echoes of the divine, because even they
will help us reach the gods. It is by the worship of the divine names, that we establish


DM VII.5 (257:3-6): ,

- 66 ourselves at the highest level of the models of the names. 183 Thus, for Proclus, the
names function as the focus of an internal theurgic ritual which raises the practitioner
through the name to the divine.
In his Divine Names Dionysius is clearly drawing on this tradition within the
Neoplatonic schools. On its own the Divine Names can be seen as an example of the
threefold movement of remaining, procession, and return. Dionysius begins his
discussion with the Good as it proceeds out of itself because of its love for creation. From
the Good Dionysius goes on to discuss the Beautiful and the all the names of God down
to the most unlike or dissimilar to God. From here he rises up again and in the end he
contemplates God as he is in the eternal moment of his remaining, as One. The structure
of the Divine Names is carefully designedindeed the very structure, or form, of the
treatise is a mirror of its content. However, this mirroring is more than just a reflection of
our authors philosophical acumen, the structure itself reveals the nature of the text as
prayer. More importantly it is a theurgic prayer. In its very structure the text images and
therefore participates in the divines procession, remaining, and return. In so doing it
participates in the divine activity and becomes theurgic. Thus, the prayer, like all theurgic
ritual, allows for our participation, through it, in the divine activity. The activity of prayer
in the DN is importantly not our naming of God, or even Gods naming of himself, it is
more properly a naming which takes place in us. Through this naming we ourselves
become theurgic participants in the divine life, a recreation of the procession and return
of all things.


Pl.Th. 1.29 (125):


- 67 The idea of an internal ritual was certainly not foreign to Dionysius. In the
Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for example he equates the way in which an artisan creates a
statue by always looking to the original, with the way a practitioner should always keep
the original in his sight as he creates the image in his mind. The following passage
illuminates this idea:
In the domain of perceptible images, the artist keeps an eye constantly on
the original and never allows himself to be sidetracked or to have his
attention divided by any other visible object. It is thus with those artists
who love beauty in the mind. They make an image of it within their minds.
The concentration and the persistence of their contemplation of this
fragrant, secret beauty enables them to produce an exact likeness of God.
And so these divine artists never cease to shape the power of their minds
along the lines of a loveliness which is conceptual, transcendent, and
fragrant, and if they practice the virtues called for by imitation of God it is
not to be seen by men, as scripture puts it. Rather, they sacredly behold
those infinitely sacred things of the Church disguised in the [rite of the]
ointment, as in an image. 184
Following both Plotinus and Proclus, Dionysius conceives of the conceptual image of
God as a statue, or at least as containing the same efficacious power as statues. It is this
internal theurgy that I suggest is taking place in the Divine Names.
Like Iamblichus, Dionysius does not believe that the divine names can be a matter
of invention or of convention; they are revealed to us by the divine itself. For Dionysius,
this revelation takes place in scripture. Thus, he claims that the names he uses are all
taken from scripture. This is important because it suggests that the author does not see

EH IV.3.1 473CD (96:5-16):


- 68 himself as writing a philosophical exploration of God, but rather participating in an active

theurgic rite which is connected to God though Gods self-revelation. This self-revelation
comes in the tradition of the church:
This is the kind of divine enlightenment into which we have been initiated
by the hidden tradition of our inspired teachers, a tradition at one with
scripture. We now grasp these things as best we can, and as they come to
us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which
the scripture and the hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind
with things derived from the realm of the senses. 185
Thus, the tradition of the divine names comes to Dionysius through his inspired teachers
and is also contained within scripture. Dionysius explains:
We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With
these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the minds
vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own
notions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds and, to
the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being.
Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all
knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay
hold of it nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything
and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendentally it contains
within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. At the
same time it is established by an unlimited power beyond all the celestial
minds. And if all knowledge is of that which is limited to the realm of the
existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend
knowledge. 186


DN I.4 592B (113:12-114:3):


DN I.4 592C-593A (115:6-18): ,,



- 69 These appropriate symbols are found in scripture and in the tradition. The names of God
are themselves such symbols. Our use of them does not constitute knowledge in the way
Dionysius speaks of itrather the use of the names is a theurgical activity which raises
the soul above knowledge towards union.
Dionysius is careful here to stress the unsuitability of our human knowledge to the
divine object. We cannot have knowledge of the divine things in themselves, what we can
have is participation in the divine activities:
For the truth is that everything divine and even everything revealed to us
is known only by way of whatever share of them is granted. Their actual
nature, what they are ultimately in their own source and ground, is beyond
all intellect and all being and all knowledge. When, for instance, we give
the name of God to that transcendent hiddenness, when we call it life
or being or light or Word, what our minds lay hold of is in fact
nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify,
cause being, bear life, and give wisdom. 187
The activities, which we lay hold of with our minds are not themselves the direct
objects of human knowing; rather they are that through which we are united to God in a
union which is beyond intellection. Our laying hold of them, is not our comprehending of
them, but rather our coming-to-be in the divine activity and the divines coming-to-be in
activity in us. Through the naming of the divine activities we ourselves become united to
them in activity, we are thus deified, begotten, given life, and illuminated. Moreover,
these very activities take place in us through our participation in prayer.
In Book Five of the De Mysteriis Iamblichus divides prayer into 3 types. The
intermediate type, he says, produces a union of sympathetic minds (

DN II.7 645A (131:5-10): ,,


- 70 ). Dionysius describes his teacher and guide Hierotheus as

having attained a similar kind of state: my famous teacher has marvelously praised
whatever he learned directly from the sacred writers, whatever his own perspicacious
and laborious research of the scriptures uncovered for him, or whatever was made known
to him through that more mysterious inspiration, not only learning but also experiencing
the divine things. For he had a sympathy with such matters.188 Thus, Hierotheus,
having learned from inspired teachers, from the scriptures themselves, and particularly,
having experienced divine things, was unified to God, as far as possible, and thus shares
that sympathy with the divine which Iamblichus had spoken of in the De Mysteriis.
Dionysius begins Chapter Three of the Divine Names with a discussion of the
power of prayer. He reflects on the inability of the human mind to grasp the nature of the
Trinity: But, he says, if we invoke it with prayers that are holy, with untroubled mind,
with a suitability for union with God, then we are surely present to it. 189 In this
Dionysius also follows Iamblichus by insisting that prayer does not effect God, but rather
serves to raise us towards the divine: That is why we must begin with a prayer before
everything we do, but especially when we are about to talk of God. We will not pull
down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine

DN II.9 648AB (133:13-134:2):


DN III.1 680B (138:7-9): ,,

- 71 reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it. 190 For
Dionysius the human is thus raised up to the divine through prayer.
The goal of both prayer and also of theurgy is union. This union with or
participation in God is attained through mans assimilation to God, or his becoming like
God. This process is undertaken in several ways including material rites and internal
ritual, or prayer. These two methods are structurally homologous for many of Dionysius
Neoplatonic predecessors. In a similar way Dionysius does not seem to differentiate
between the way material images function and the way mental signs function:
The truth that we have to understand is that we use letters, syllables,
phrases, written terms and words because of the senses. But when our
souls are moved by intelligent energies in the direction of the things of the
intellect then our senses and all that go with them are no longer needed.
And the same happens with our intelligent powers which, when the soul
becomes divinized, concentrate sightlessly and through an unknowing
union on the rays of unapproachable light. 191
Both sensible images and mental or intelligible signs move the soul towards God and
both sensible images and mental signs are ultimately overcome in a union which is
beyond both sense perception and intellection. This can be compared to Plotinus claims
with respect to the cultic statue and the inner sanctuary. Plotinus and Dionysius both
insist that despite the need, indeed the necessity, of images and signs, both conceptual
and sensible, mental and real, their proper function is to reveal themselves as symbols. As


DN III.1 680D (139:13-16):

DN IV.11 708D (156:13-19): ,

- 72 symbols these images and signs unite the sensible and conceptual and allow us to
transcended that very division in order to reach union with the supreme deity.
Prayer, as theurgic activity in the Divine Names, relies on words and concepts as
symbols to enact this type of inner ritual. In Chapter Seven of the same text our author
discusses the concepts of Wisdom, Mind, Word, Truth, and Faith. Just as with
respect to the liturgical sacraments where Dionysius understands that the symbols contain
at once their material reality and their divine, transcendent reality, so too with the divine
The human mind has a capacity to think, through which it looks on
conceptual things, and a unity which transcends the nature of the mind,
through which it is joined to things beyond itself. And this transcending
characteristic must be given to the words we use about God. They must
not be given the human sense. We should be taken wholly out of ourselves
and become wholly of God, since it is better to belong to God rather than
to ourselves. Only when we are with God will the divine gifts be poured
out onto us. 192
The unity here refers to the souls remaining with God which I have described as the
source of its return to God. Similarly, the divine names also remain in God, as an effect
remains in its cause. The words themselves, as symbols, contain a transcending
characteristic which allows us to realize their power as vehicles of Gods activity.
Through our participation in the creative activity of naming we are able to move, together
with the symbols, through and beyond the accretions of sense perception and cognitive
activity towards divine union.


DN VII.1 865D-868A (194: 10-15):


- 73 The Divine Names cannot be divided from the rest of the Dionysian Corpus,
especially not from Dionysius hierarchical writings. It is not essentially a work of
metaphysics, ontology or epistemology; it touches on all of these because fundamentally
it is concerned with the salvation of the human as created and loved by God. For this
reason it must be understood within a theurgic context.
I would argue that the text of the Divine Names itself is not about prayer, it is
prayer. 193 It is itself the very process, together with baptism, the eucharist, and the
sacrament of myron, through which we become theurgic and enter into the activity of the
divine life in which the conceptual and sensible are taken up and united. The nature of
this text as prayer is clear at several points, yet it becomes even clearer towards the end,
as Dionysius begins his ascent out of the dissimilarities and towards the One. 194 For
example, he ends Chapter Ten, which concerns the names Omnipotent, and Ancient of
Days, by proclaiming Amen. 195 In Chapter Eleven he begins with an invitation to
worship: With reverent hymns of peace we should now sing the praises of Gods peace,
for it is this which brings all things together. 196 Following this Chapter Twelve begins
with the call to offer up a hymn of praise to the God of infinite names. 197 The treatise
ends with the authors own supplication, where he asks: May what I do and what I speak
be pleasing to God. 198 In the preceding text Dionysius has done both he has spoken,


See DN VI and following.

Similarly, as Dante climbs into Paradise his invocations to the Muses become more and more frequent,
as he requires greater and greater assistance to articulate his vision.
DN X.3 940A (217: 4): .
DN XI.1 948 D (217: 5-6):
DN XII.1 969A (224: 1-2): ,,
DN XIII.4 984A (231: 6): ,,

- 74 and through the theurgic nature of the prayer he has also acted and so he prays that his
work is pleasing to God in that it is a real participation in and union with the One.
Union with God, as the perfection of the creature, is its most perfect existence. As
I will discuss further below, the creation exists only insofar as it responds to the divine
love in procession by turning toward God in the process of reversion. Thus prayer, as our
participation in creations reversion towards God in creative love, is the creatures
coming-to-be in God as its perfection. Moreover, insofar as the creatures love for God is
Gods love for himself, as will also be discussed below, the theurgic prayer of the Divine
Names is Gods very act of creative love as the practical activity of the divine, which is
itself unmoved, within the creature. Through the theurgic activity of the Divine Names
God creates and re-creates in us.

- 75 Chapter 4: Doctrinal Questions

unified through difference and differentiated through unity 199

Section I

Dionysius Doctrine of God

In this final Chapter, I will consider some questions concerning Dionysius

fundamental doctrinal formulations in light of what has already been said. Firstly, I will
examine the doctrine of God inherent in the CD. Secondly, I will suggest an
understanding of creation which is based in the understanding of participation expressed
in Chapter Three. Finally, I will unravel an orthodox Dionysian Christology which
attempts to fully appreciate our authors Neoplatonism, without falsely discrediting his
Dionysius has often been accused of failing to maintain a proper doctrine of
creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, and thus of not addressing Christian doctrinal
concerns. Those wishing to discredit his Christianity have suggested that Dionysius does
not adequately preserve Gods transcendence or distinction from creation or the
creatures distance from God. This kind of criticism is based on an ultimately false
duality which forces a strict division between transcendence and immanence. I will argue
that for Dionysius God is both transcendent and immanent, and each by virtue of the
I suggested above that the individual soul itself is perfected insofar as it
participates in the divine activity and that this activity involved the differentiation of each
individual soul as a self-contained unity in imitation of God. This argument entails that


DN II.4 641B (127:7). Translation by W. Beierwaltes, Unity and Trinity 7.

- 76 God himself is a self-contained unity, and that this unity or transcendence is not
compromised by his relationship to creation as if to something outside of himself. Thus,
the very activity of creation must be understood as nothing other than Gods self-relation.
In Chapter Two of the Divine Names Dionysius expresses this idea very clearly as based
in the notion of Gods procession to all things and remaining always in himself:
[The Thearchy] is granted to all beings. It flows over in shares of goodness
to all. And it becomes differentiated in a unified way. It is multiplied and
yet remains singular. It is dispensed to all without ceasing to be a unity.
Since God is being in a way beyond being, he bestows existence upon
everything and brings the whole world into being, so that his single
existence is said to be manifold by virtue of the fact that it brings so many
things to being from itself. Yet he remains one, nothing less than
himself. 200
God brings into existence the being of all things though he is not himself a being, nor
does he have being as he is beyond being. He does so by virtue of what Eric Perl
describes as production by determination. Drawing first on Plotinus, Perl states: At the
highest level, this doctrine of determination as production means that for Plotinus all
things are by participating in the One, since only by having unity can any being be
anything at all. 201 This doctrine, moreover, maintains at once the transcendence /
immanence distinction which is found in Dionysius: As the universal principle of
determination, the One is both transcendent and immanent: transcendent in that it is not
anything, any determinate being, and does not belong to any one being as opposed to
others; immanent in that it is present to all things as the power by which they are.202


DN II.11 649B (135:14-136:4):

(amended translation).
E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love 48.
Ibid. 49.

- 77 This notion of production by determination explains how it is that Dionysius can claim
that God is at once present in the creation and also remains within himself. For
Dionysius, the idea that the determination of anything is its cause of being means that
God is the Creator in that he is present in every being as the determination which makes
it to be what it is and so to be. 203 As both immanent and transcendent, both the source of
being and beyond being, God is not any part of the hierarchy of beings, he both
transcends and permeates the whole. 204 God permeates the whole as the source of being,
but also as the source of perfection. Thus Dionysius refers to God as the indivisible
multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness which produces, perfects, and preserves all unity
and all multiplicity. 205 Here, Gods unfilled overfullness, as it were, again refers to his
transcendence, in that his emptiness cannot be attributed to a deficiency, but rather to
his inability to be filled; similarly his overfullness must be attributed not to his being
full but rather to his all encompassing immanence.
These cannot be understood as two distinct moments. Gods transcendence and
his immanence are not separable.
And, in truth, it must be said too that the very cause of the universe in the
beautiful, good superabundance of his benign yearning for all is also
carried outside of himself in the loving care he has for everything. He is,
as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed
away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all
things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to
remain, nevertheless, within himself. 206

Ibid. 56.
Ibid. 60.
DN II.11 649C (136:11-12): ,,
DN IV.13 712AB (159:9-14): ,


- 78 -

Gods procession out of himself in creation requires his remaining within himself,
however it is also true conversely, that: His being in himself consists in his being out of
himself. 207 This is seen especially in Dionysius use of the sun analogy to describe the
relation between God and the divine illuminations or activities. The Good, he says, by
the very fact of its existence, extends goodness into all things. 208 It is similar to the sun,
which by the very fact of its existencegives light to whatever is able to partake of
its light, in its own way. 209 The rays of divine light are nothing other than the
multiplication of the suns internal existence as it streams out to creation. Dionysius even
suggests: These rays are responsible for all intelligible and intelligent beings, for every
power and every activity. 210 The rays, or the divine activities, are the cause of all things.
They are the cause of the being of all things in that things only become intelligible or
intelligent insofar as they are differentiated, and all things exist by virtue of their
differentiation. 211 The rays of the sun, or the divine activities, are also nothing other than
God. The activities are God as immanent, God as outside himself, and since there is no
difference between God and his activities, the activities are God. 212 In a short and very
lucid article Stephen Gersh has argued for an understanding of the unity of Gods essence
and his activities. He establishes that Dionysius at once attributes transcendence and


E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love 65. Perl notes that the Ones productive overflow for Plotinus is
equivalent to Dionysius ecstasy. 66 note 63.
DN IV.1 693B (143:12-144:1):
DN IV.1 693B (144:2-3):
DN IV.1 693C (144: 6-7):
See E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love. Here he describes that to-be is to be intelligible.
I wish to thank Dr. Perl for his kind response to my questions which greatly influenced this section.

- 79 immanence to the God as the first cause. 213 Both hypotheses reveal some truth, one
concerning the inexpressible nature of God and the other about something at the center of
creation. But either of these hypotheses, he says is really true in isolation, for only the
synthesis captures the two equally important elements of Gods unattainablility and His
providence for mankind. 214 Gods activities are Gods being for us, insofar as God is
present to creation it is through his activity, however, insofar as the creation is deficient
and incapable of fully comprehending God, God is beyond or above all things.
In Chapter Four of the Divine Names, Dionysius begins his discussion proper of
the names of God. In the course of this discussion he describes God as Love. He claims
that the Cause of all things loves all things in the superabundance of his goodness,
[and] that because of his goodness he makes all things, brings all things to perfection,
holds all things together, returns all things. The divine longing is Good seeking good for
the sake of the Good. 215 God is moved out of himself by his desire for the Good, the
good which is his self-differentiation in creation, this movement is the procession of the
creatures from God, and equally the procession of God to the creatures. In his procession
to the creatures, the creatures own desire for the Good is kindled. But if Gods creative,
self-giving, ecstatic love for the creature is procession, then the creatures creative love
for God, the desire for God in virtue of which it is, is reversion. 216 Perl describes this
creative reversion as ontological,


in that the creature comes to be in its reversion

toward the Good which is also the Goods procession from and return to itself. Perl

S. Gersh, Ideas and Energies 299.

Ibid. 300.
DN IV.9 708AB (155:14-16): ,
E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love 66.
Ibid. 68.

- 80 notices that Dionysius pushes the language of or yearning even further, since the
effects reversion to, or desire for, the cause is the causes reverting or attracting the
effect to itself, God can even be said to desire or to be jealous of his creatures, not as
though he needs or gains anything from them, but in that he makes them to be by drawing
them to himself as their good. 218 Gods jealous love of the creature is also the creatures
love for its cause, this love is the source of its being and ... is God himself at work in the
creature. 219
The love of God for the creature is also Gods love for himself, and the creatures
desire for God is also a reflection of its love for itself as Good. Thus, there can be no
distinction between love of self and love of the other, because, where the relation of
creatures to God is conceived as participation, the self is found only in the other. 220
Love is, therefore, the dynamic activity of participation. This participation is dynamic in
that it consists in Gods procession and the creatures return as one single creative
movement. All being consists in this exchange of selves between God and creatures,
whereby God lives in the creature and the creature lives in God, and this exchange is
what Dionysius describes as love. 221
God is thus at once transcendent and immanent, his ability to retain both of these
seemingly contradictory aspects comes out of his fundamental and absolute unity, and
further, the unity of all things in him. However, it has often been remarked that
Dionysius conception of God is somewhat more nuanced than this simple unity would


Ibid. 70. By asserting that eros is at once both enfolding desire and self-giving love, Perl is able to deny
the status of Neoplatonic eros and Christian agape as fundamentally at odds within the Dionysian

- 81 suggest. On account of Dionysius reliance on scripture and the traditions of the church
he is led to grapple with the notion of God as Trinity.
The task of coming to terms with Gods self-revelation in the New Testament as
One and Triune means that Christian theology was, and has been since its beginning,
decidedly involved in its own special concern: the philosophical relationship between
unity and trinity. 222 Dionysian thought is not at all outside of this concern. Although his
commitment to Trinitarian theology has been widely questioned by those seeking to
discredit him as a true Christian theologian, Dionysius clearly exhibits his profound
concern for the doctrine of the Trinity and its philosophical necessity within his system
throughout the corpus. Werner Beierwaltes succinctly dismisses claims which insist on
seeing Dionysius use of Trinitarian notions as mere lip service. He insists that, while
Dionysius cannot be said to have a trinitarian system, 223 his endeavour to see the
divine unity as nevertheless trinitarian, the Trinity derived from the unity, or the unity
as an internally relational Trinity, deserves the utmost attention. 224
Dionysius dependence on Neoplatonism, which has already been emphasised in
the previous two chapters, also comes to bear on his understanding of the relationship of
trinity and unity within the Godhead. In order to admit the New Testament identification
of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into his philosophical system, Dionysius
conceives the absolute divine unity (the [!] One) also as an internally relational tri-une
oneness. He thereby combines together two philosophically clearly divisible strands of
thought into a unity; this unity appearsat least philosophicallyparadoxical because it


W. Beierwaltes, Unity and Trinity 1.

Ibid. 6.

- 82 entails the attribution of both negativity and positivity to one and the same object. 225 In
so doing Dionysius effectively collapses the first and second hypotheses of Platos
Parmenides into the single Godhead. 226 In this way Dionysius is able to discuss God as
both the highest Good, which consists of all the names given to God in scripture, and as
the One beyond all unity and trinity.
In Chapter Two of the Divine Names Dionysius provides his reader with a formal
description of this unity in trinity:
Thus, regarding the divine unity beyond being, they [the fully initiated]
assert that the indivisible Trinity holds within a shared undifferentiated
unity its supra-essential subsistence, its supremely individual identity
beyond all that is, its oneness beyond the source of oneness, its
ineffability, its many names, its unknowability, its wholly belonging to the
conceptual realm, the assertion of all things, the denial of all things, that
which is beyond every assertion and denial, and finally, if one may put it
so, the abiding and foundation of the divine persons who are the source of
the oneness as a unity which is totally undifferentiated and
transcendent. 227
Here Dionysius sets out the nature of the Godhead as encompassing all unity and
division; the unity of unity and division within the Godhead is the very nature of God as
One and Triune. God as Trinity expresses the immanent relationship of the three person
in God without blurring or erasing the distinctions between the three. In fact, the very
nature of God as unity is dependent upon the distinction of these three natures; within the


Ibid. 6.
Ibid. 7.
DN II.4 641A (126:14-127:4):

- 83 Godhead there is distinction in unity and there is unity in distinction. 228


coincidence of unity and distinction within God is the source of Dionysius doctrine of
the Trinity, however it is also the source of his understanding of Gods activity in the
Beierwaltes provides a syncretic formulation of Dionysius doctrine of the Trinity
which, given the discussion of the first part of this chapter, is suggestive of the
relationship between the Trinity and Gods activity in the world:
Unity pervades or combines the three particulars (each proper hypostasis)
into a One which unifies the different and differentiates the unified
without separating. The relationship of these unified-differentiated entities
should be thought of as a reciprocal being-in-another without the one
becoming the other in a part of the whole, and as a whole they are indeed
in the other as in the whole. The Dionysian trinitarian formula follows the
maxim exactly: one may neither separate the unified () nor
confuse the distinct (). On the one hand, the relational being-inanother of the three towards the unity or as One preserves the particular
identity. On the other hand, the self-distinction of the particulars
conditions and determines at oncein the self-unifying relationthe
whole nature of the Godhead. 229
This being-in-another which establishes both the unity of the Trinity and the distinction
of the persons within the Trinity corresponds to Dionysius doctrine of participation and
his doctrine of love. Thus, for Dionysius, Gods activity in creation and nature of the
relation of the creature to God is fundamentally founded in the nature of the divine itself.
Gods movement towards creation is also the creations responsive movement
towards God. As such, we noted above that this return is nothing other than Gods love
for himself as expressed through creation. Gods activity in creation is not to be


DN II.4 641B (127:7): .Beierwaltes

provides an alternative translation whichfurther emphasises the active function of unity and distinction
with the Trinity: unified through difference and differentiated through unity. W. Beierwaltes, Unity and
Trinity 7.
W. Beierwaltes, Unity and Trinity 9.

- 84 understood as outside of himself, because that activity is identical to Gods eternal and
internal self-relation as expressed by the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, the Trinity
expresses, for Dionysius, at once Gods transcendent self-relation and the identity of that
relation with Gods immanent activity in creation.
Section II


The difficulties which arise from a discussion of the nature of creation in the
Dionysian cosmos are similar to those expressed by a discussion of his doctrine of God.
In Chapter Three I examined how the individual soul participates in the divine activities
and is divinized as far as is possible through that participation. Further, I suggested that
this participation involves all of creation, as the structure and order of creation is itself the
effect of Gods providential care and processing love.
All creation is at once a procession out from, a return towards, and a remaining
with the divine Goodness of the Godhead. All things are ... in a sense, projected out
from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine
paradigms. 230 However, the creation also comes to be in its return. For Dionysius says
of the intelligent and intelligible beings that their longing for the Good makes them what
they are and confers on them their well-being. Shaped by what they yearn for, they
exemplify goodness and, as the Law of God requires of them, they share with those
below them the good gifts which have come their way. 231 That the Good makes them


DN VII.3 869CD (197:20-22):

DN IV.1 696A (144:14-17):

- 85 what they are is no less than to make them to be, since to be is to be determined. Thus,
the return of the creatures to God, no less than their emergence from him, is their
coming to be, their being created. 232 The creatures being is dependent on its desire for
God; creatures can be at all only by desiring God as the Good, and in so far as the
creature fails to desire God it fails to be. 233 Thus Perl suggests that creation is not only
the outward moment of procession, the unfolding of God into creatures, but also the
inward motion of reversion, the enfolding of creatures in God. 234 This understanding
is analogous to the conception of God described above: just as God is at once
transcendent and immanent, so the creature is at once a procession from God and a return
to God.
And yet the creation remains always itself. This is possible because God is the
cause of all differentiation. To be is to be distinct, to be intelligible. The creature thus
must receive its being, its being what it is, its intelligibility, from God.
Every perfection of every creature, then, is God in that creature, making it
to be by making it to be what it is. Thus Dionysius even calls God
Different in that he is present in each creature as its constitutive
difference. Since each being is itself, and thus is, by being different from
all other beings, God the Creator is not a self-contained monad but is
rather the very Differentiation in virtue of which all things are. 235
Thus the creature itself has the source of its distinction, its whatness, in God, who is
the source of all distinction. There has been a tendency for readers to misread Dionysius
by insisting that he upholds a hierarchy of being, of which God is the highest being and
all other beings derive their being from him through the mediation of lower orders. Any


E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love 61.

Ibid. 62.
Ibid. 58.

- 86 such reading which places God as the highest being and inserts secondary and tertiary
levels of causation is clearly misdirected.
Andrew Louth has attempted to construct an interpretation of Dionysian creation
which does not imply this ontological link between God and creation. He claims first that,
Denys does not speak much of creation; he is more interested in the interrelationships of
the created order, and never speaks of creatio ex nihilo, even though by this time the idea
of creation out of nothing had become the normal and accepted way in which Christians
expressed their belief in creation: he prefers to say that we come from (ek) God than from
nothing. 236 That Dionysius does not speak much about creation is indeed difficult to
maintain given the extent to which Dionysius discusses the procession of all things out
from God and their perfecting return to God. However, this does not constitute creation
for Louth. Instead he attempts to apply an outside standard based on a limited
understanding of creatio ex nihilo in order to deny Dionysius interpretation of creation.
In the perceived absence of such a doctrine Louth substitutes a doctrine of illumination.
He also uses this addition to distance Dionysius from his Neoplatonic predecessors and
Denys takes over this Neoplatonic idea of a scale of being, and also the
idea that lower beings are dependent on higher beings, but he rejects any
idea that being is (as it were) passed down this scale of being and the
sense of dependence only has significance in the matter of illumination:
light and knowledge flow from God down through the scale of being
each being becomes radiant with light and thus passes on light to beings
lower down. 237
Louth, while attempting to deny the creatures ontological link to the divine, fails to
recognize several fundamental concepts in the CD. The first is that God is not a being, he


A. Louth, Denys 85.


- 87 is beyond all being. Thus, God cannot be the source of being in the sense that he is the
highest member of a scale of being. God is the source of being only by virtue of his
beyond-beingness. Secondly, there can be no distinction between Gods unending gift of
being and of knowledge: The central principle of Dionysius metaphysics, as of all
Neoplatonism, is that to be is to be intelligible, to be a distinct, intellectual graspable
what. For a thing to be, therefore, is for it to be itself to be what it is. 238 Thus,
illumination, or the knowledge given by God which allows a thing to be intelligible is
nothing less than its source of being. This intelligibility includes the creatures ability to
know itself and so to know God as its source and its end. Finally, Louths position denies
the ability of the created world to return to God, because it denies the worlds remaining
in God, which is the source of its participation in Gods activity.
In a second article Eric Perl has strongly shown the inaccuracy of opposing
hierarchical participation and direct creation in the thought of Dionysius, and his fellow
Neoplatonists. The creature mediates Gods activity through the hierarchical ordering of
the cosmos, yet this does not mean that God is not active at every level. Perl is clear that
the activity of the creature is not anything other than the activity of God, because each
creature participates in God according to its capacity. Thus, ...the activity of the
creature, by participation, truly is that of God. 239 With respect to Gods direct
involvement with the creation which does not require intermediaries Perl points out that:
For all these philosophers [the Neoplatonists], then, God is the sole causal power
throughout the entire hierarchy, and creatures [serve] as intermediaries only to the


E. Perl, Metaphysics of Love 46.

E. Perl, Hierarchy and Participation 23.

- 88 extent that they co-operate with him, making his activity their own. 240 Thus, Gods
activity is directly present to the whole of creation precisely by means of the hierarchical
ordering of the creation which unites all things to God.
Thus Dionysius, in the final chapter of the Divine Names affirms that God is both
the source and the goal of all creation: ... all things are rightly ascribed to God since it is
by him and in him and for him that all things exist, are co-ordered, remain, hold together,
are completed, and are returned. You will find nothing in the world which is not in the
One, by which the transcendent Godhead is named. Everything owes to the One its
individual existence and the process whereby it is perfected and preserved. 241 The
creature therefore has its being through God, is perfected in its participation in God, and
is differentiated by God insofar as it is what it is and what it is called to be.
Section III

The Incarnation

The final question I propose to deal with in this chapter is the question of the
Incarnation of Christ in Jesus. Dionysius has been severely condemned, by many
claiming to represent orthodox Christianity, on the basis that his theology does not take a
full account of the Incarnation or its implications for mans salvation and relation to God.
I propose to examine the views of two of Dionysius more vocal opponents and to
suggest why their interpretations do not fully appreciate the fundamental Dionysian
understanding of the relation of God to man and of man to the world through God.
In his treatment of Dionysian Christology in The Weakness of the Soul John
Rist defines the one basic concern of orthodox Christology as: ...unless Christ in Jesus is


Ibid. 29.
DN 13.3 980BC (228:14-16): ,,


- 89 wholly man, and man in his soul and body entirely, then whatever of man is not in Christ
cannot itself be saved. Hence the possibility of human salvation is removed if Christs
humanity is underplayed. 242 This basic doctrine comes from the 3rd century champion of
orthodoxy, Athanatius, who claimed that, what was not assumed [by Christ] could not be
saved. Thus, the Church had to be sure that nothing of the human person was left out of
the formulation of Christs humanity. This is precisely where it has been suggested that
Dionysius fails the test. Rist himself concedes that Dionysius has a sufficient doctrine of
God on earth. He even suggests that the Dionysian system needs Christ to be God, to
show us the way home, to enable us to experience divine things, but the humanity of
Jesus [is not] essential. What Dionysius needs is a theory of God on earth, not a theory of
Gods assumption of man. 243 What Rist means here is that as a Neoplatonist who sees
something useful in Christianity, Dionysius picks and chooses what he needs, what is
useful in order for him to complete his Neoplatonic theology. This characterization
immediately causes problems.
First, while it is the case that we do not know specifically who Dionysius was or
how he came to Christianity (or Neoplatonism for that matter), it is not the case that his
theology can be at all separated completely from the Christian context in which he clearly
lived and worked. His expert knowledge of the scriptures, and of the internal functioning
of the church are only two of the many examples of his situation within the Christian
tradition. 244 Secondly, as a Neoplatonist, Dionysius would not have needed a doctrine
of the Incarnation to connect God and man, such formulations were already available to


J. Rist, Weakness of The Soul 136.

Ibid. 151.
See Chapter Two, Section II above and . Golitzin, Et Introibo for further evidence of Dionysius
reliance on Christian sources.

- 90 him, as they were for Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. 245 Finally, Dionysius does not
need the Incarnation as an event outside of creation to give a theory of Gods assumption
of man. Mans remaining within God, while proceeding from him, returning to him, and
participating in his divine activities, is his theory of Gods assumption of man. And yet
Dionysius points to the Incarnation of Christ throughout his corpus as the source of our
relation to God and of our deification because, while he is undoubtedly and
unapologetically a Neoplatonist, he is equally a Christian.
Rist does not accept Dionysius Christianity as genuine and so while he cannot
help but acknowledge our authors omnipresent doctrine of salvation he insists that
...Dionysius does not have a doctrine of atonement, only a doctrine of salvation by
God. 246 Rist is correct insofar as Dionysius does not talk about the Fall, or of any of
the metaphors such as the payment of a debt, or the striking of a bargain between God
and the Devil, or between God and Jesus Christ which usually point to atonement in the
way Rist conceives it.
While he does not talk about the event of the Fall per se, he does refer to sin and
to evil. Sin, for Dionysius, is a weakness in the creature. Even with respect to those who
sin knowingly, it is a reference to those who in the matter of knowing Good and doing
good show a weakened grasp. 247 Sin is thus a weakness and a deficiency in the
creatures ability to recognize the good and to desire the good. It is a reflection of the
power of evil, only in that evil has no power to speak of. To have power evil would have


See Iamblichus doctrine of sympathy and cosmic friendship, or kinship; Proclus notion of the One in
us, and the flower of the intellect; or Plotinus doctrine of the undescended soul or description of mystical
J. Rist, Weakness of The Soul 155.
DN IV.35 736A (179:5-6):

- 91 to be a being or be able to confer being, yet evil is nothing other than the tendency of
beings to fall away from God. Evil therefore in itself has neither being, goodness, the
capacity to beget, nor the ability to create things which have being or goodness. 248 The
lack of goodness in anything is a result of its own lack of ability to receive or accept or
turn towards the Good. But the Good, wherever it is present completely, succeeds in
producing goodness that is perfect, untainted, total. When things have a lesser share in it,
then the goodness is incomplete and is mixed in with other ingredients in proportion to its
deficiency of the Good. 249 Nothing that is can be entirely evil, for evil has no being
therefore all beings, to the extent that they exist, are good and come from the Good and
they fall short of goodness and being in proportion to their remoteness from the
Good. 250 The creature has a propensity to fall away from being, towards non-being;
thus, sin consists in this falling away.
This propensity is described in the EH as a forgetting. As Dionysius contemplates
the sacred veils which cover the divine myron at its consecration he compares the twelve
folds in the cloth to the wings of the seraphim who eternally surround. He explains that
the seraphim, as the highest of the transcendent beings surround Jesus and enjoy a vision
of his divine presence. They are capable of such vision because of their purity and
perfection: For the sacred knowledge characteristic of transcendent beings never falters.
Their yearning for God never fails. Their exalted status puts them beyond evil and
forgetfulness. They cry out and are never silent, because, it seems to me, they know and

DN IV 20 717C (165:11-12):
DN IV.20 717CD (165: 12-15): ,,
DN IV.20 720B (166:9-11): ,,

- 92 understand divine truth always and unchangeably, and they do so with all earnestness and
thanksgiving. 251 The seraphim are capable of such vision of God specifically because of
their constancy, their unwavering dedication to God. Evil, of which they have no part is
the opposite of that constancy. It is not itself an activity or a being, it is a forgetting: the
forgetting of God as the source and end of all creation, of the Good as that which is to be
desired and sought after. The angels, at least those closest to God are not subject to this
forgetfulness, for their gaze is always perfectly fixed on the divine source.
Thus, the atonement for Dionysius is not the payment of a debt, but the
reorientation of the whole of creation, and its strengthening in its desire for the Good.
Jesus accomplishes this reorientation as both God and human. In order for creation to be
strengthened in its desire for God, he must perform the divine activities as a man.
Dionysius describes redemption as ... like a loving father making up for what is missing
and overlooking any slack. It raises a thing up from an evil condition and sets it firmly
where it ought to be, adding on lost virtue, bringing back order and arrangement where
there was disorder and derangement, making it perfect and liberating it from defects. 252
This is the activity of Jesus, as he returns order and perfects all levels of creation.
In Jesus is the perfection of the whole creation. Dionysius is clear in the Divine
Names that within Jesus both the human and the divine are preserved:
And out of love he has come to be at our level of nature and has become a
being. He, the transcendent God, has taken on the name of man. (Such

EH IV.III.5 480C (100:1-5):


DN VIII.9 897B (206:16):,

- 93 things beyond mind and beyond words we must praise with all
reverence). In all this he remains what he issupernatural, transcendent
and he has come to join us in what we are without himself undergoing
change or confusion. His fullness was unaffected by that inexpressible
emptying of self, and most novel of all, amid the things of our nature he
remained supernatural and amid the things of being he remained beyond
being. From us he took what was of us and yet he surpassed us here too. 253
Jesus took on our nature (i.e. he came down to earth) in order to return it to holiness (to
assume the human into the divine). Jesus work is the work of reconciling the creature to
God, as participants in this divine activity: We must work together and with the angels
to do the things of God, and we must do so in accordance with the Providence of Jesus
who works all things in all, making that Peace which is ineffable and was foreordained
from eternity, reconciling us to himself and in himself to the Father. 254 In this sense
reconciliation assumes mans deficiency towards God which is perfected through Jesus.
Jesus Christ as incarnate is the source of the creations ability to remain with God
and therefore to achieve its perfection as far as it is possible. He is also the source of all
unity. Dionysius says that ... whatever belongs to the Father and to himself (the Son) he
also ascribes to the divine Spirit within their shared unity. I am thinking here of the
divine works, the worship, the unfailing and inexhaustible Cause, the dispensation of


DN II.10 648D-649A (135:1-9):


DN XI.5 953AB (221:7-10):

- 94 bountiful gifts. 255 Divine works is generally a term used of the work of the second
person of the Trinity, specifically in his becoming incarnate. That these works are also
shared by the whole God-head suggests that as Christ assumes human nature in his
condescension, and yet remains always perfect within himself, that this perfected human
nature is assumed by God through Christ. Dionysius emphasis on the Incarnation as the
perfecting work of Christ cannot be under-valued. It forms a necessary component to his
theology and it should not be treated as superfluous.
In a recent article Fr. K.P. Wesch has suggested that the incarnation is not real
for Dionysius, but merely a symbol. As a symbol, Wesch claims, Dionysius uses it to
raise us to contemplation, but that it has no content outside of knowledge, which he
claims to be the goal of Dionysian salvation. The mediation of gnosis, as the content of
salvation, moreover explains the purpose of the incarnation. For that reason it, too, is
considered as an anagogical symbol: albeit the anagogical symbol par excellence. 256 In
Weschs opinion, salvation for Dionysius is only the attainment of knowledge,
knowledge as attained through the uplifting symbols of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. As a
result, at the core of Dionysius thought, we find that the Incarnation of the divine Logos
is merely a symbol which saves only by providing for the mind the supreme perceptible
token for its contemplation of God. 257 In this reading the Incarnation, like the rites
themselves, have no transformative function except in their role as perceptible symbol.
Thus Wesch complains that spiritual contemplation, and not the liturgical rites
themselves, is the means for receiving the grace of God. And so one should not be

DN II.1 637C (124: 6-8): ,,

K.P. Wesch, Christological Doctrine 64.
Ibid. 67.

- 95 surprised to find little emphasis on the Cross or death of Jesus, for the primary purpose of
Christs Incarnation is not to conquer death through the event of the Cross in itself, but
rather to show God in a perceptible way. 258
Weschs reading of the Incarnation and of the liturgy reflects his desire to
maintain the division between the sensible and the intelligible, even in the very face of
the Incarnation. The Incarnation is a symbol, just as the rites are symbols, yet insofar as
they are symbols they are the coming together (the)of the divine activity and
its human participation through ritual, and image. The Incarnation does show God in a
perceptible way, but this is not a deficiency, it is, like the rites, a theophany. 259 A
showing forth of the divine in order to bring about our salvation.
This salvation does consist in gnosis. It consists in knowing not as discursive
knowledge but as a contentless knowing, which unites the sensible and the intelligible,
and thus allows participation in the divine activities. This participation is the perfection
and deification of the creature in communion with the divine.
Dionysius does not avoid the historical reality of the life of Jesus, in fact he relies
on it and on the historical situation which follows. Yet, just as Dionysius does not restrict
his own work to his particular time and place, he does not restrict the work or the effects
of the work of Jesus to their historical situation. Thus, Jesus is eternally the source and
being of every hierarchy. Wesch is concerned that Dionysius only mentions Jesus
victory over death once:
One passage does speak of the victory over death won by the Cross:
He...willingly died on the cross for the sake of our divine birth, to snatch
us from death and renew us in an inspired and eternal existence. In the

Ibid. 68.
For ritual gesture as theophany see A. Golitzin, Et Introibo 150.

- 96 context of the whole of Dionysius thought, however, this is highly

ambiguous, for it could easily be taken to mean that we are snatched from
death by contemplating the depths of Gods love symbolized on the
Cross. 260
The difficulty here is that Wesch does not equate contemplation with something real. He
needs to distinguish between our understanding of Gods work of salvation and the actual
work. But this distinction cannot hold. Our gnosis 261 of Gods activity is our participation
in it, and this participation is our salvation. Thus, when Wesch compares Dionysius
discussion of the cross with that of Cyril of Alexandria, he states that: For Cyril the
Incarnation was necessary not only as a means of knowing God, but also for raising
man back to full being by destroying death. 262 For Dionysius, the Incarnation serves
nothing other than the same function. The Incarnation destroys death, in that death is the
final result of sin; it is the creatures ultimate falling away from being. Following Perl, I
noted above that to be is to be intelligible. Further, to be intelligible is also to have selfknowledge; with respect to the creation this is a knowledge of the self as from, in, and for
God. This is the knowledge which defeats death, which rescues us from falling away
from being. Thus, for Dionysus, the creature is saved by the knowledge of


Incarnation and through the participation in the divine activity which constitutes this
Dionysius is far from ambivalent about the Incarnation of Jesus. The person of
Jesus permeates the whole corpus. His historical human life is not denied by our author.
Gods activity, his love for humanity, and providential care are not contained by time,
although they take place in time. They take place in time even insofar as the theurgic rites


K.P. Wesch, Christological Doctrine 68-69.

I use gnosis here to distinguish this kind of understanding from discursive understanding.
K.P. Wesch, Christological Doctrine 69 note 51.

- 97 which show forth the divine activity themselves take place in time as they are the
collection of movements and gestures. This ritual movement, which is the particular
activity of the Incarnate Son, expresses eternity in its temporality, because it contains and
is contained by time.

- 98 Chapter 5: Conclusion

with our beings shaped to songs of praise 263

The relationship between the sensible and the intelligible is most often
characterized by the dichotomy of body and soul or of mind and soul. This dichotomy is
too often falsely applied by modern scholars to ancient authors, especially ancient
religious or philosophical authors. This division is, furthermore, the foundation of many
other harmful and destructive assumptions: for example, the opposition between theology
and ritual, or religious and mystical. This division is fundamentally derivative of the
constructed division between thinking and acting. An examination of the Dionysian
Corpus from the basis of the unity of thought and action, of the mental and the real, of
theurgy and theology provides interesting insight into the thought of this late 5th century
In light of this unity the division between contemplation and ritual practice is
resolved, and ritual activity is understood as at once thinking and acting. It is this unity of
thought and action that constitutes participation in the divine activity. This participation
is the creatures union with God, or divinization.
Gods theurgic activity, in which we participate, is the foundation and source of
the cosmos. As such, the cosmos is ordered for the participation of the creation, in order
to bring about their divinization. The human soul finds its place in this order as a member
of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The very ordering of the hierarchies themselves is an


DN I 3 589B (111:9).

- 99 image of God through which the soul finds its place within the hierarchic structure and in
so doing participates as far as is possible in the divine activity.
The human soul seeks its perfection in the imitation of the life of the divine. The
soul itself has a capacity for union with God, this is the souls . It attains this
union in so far as it imitates the unity of the divine within itself. Yet, the soul remains
itself in that its very distinction is protected by its remaining always within the One.
The souls capacity for union with God, is expressed by Dionysius in his Divine
Names. As with theurgic ritual, as presented in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, so too with
prayer in the Divine Names. This text itself is fundamentally a prayer in that it is theurgic.
It does not draw God to us through invocations, rather by the invocation of the divine
names the divine activity happens in us, creation comes forth and returns to God in the
creature. This conception of prayer is found throughout the Neoplatonic tradition and in
his corpus Dionysius preserves that tradition. Here, the prayer itself is a divine uniona
participation in the divine activity. Thus, prayer is the means through which the soul
engages with God in the process of his own naming and therefore his own self-creation.
The unity of thought and action found in ritual activity and prayer is
fundamentally the unity of the sensible and the intelligible. In light of this unity, I
proposed a reading of Dionysius doctrine of God, of creation and of the Incarnation.
Firstly, this unity is seen in Dionysius doctrine of the identity of transcendence and
immanence within God as expressed by the doctrine of Gods unity and trinity. Secondly,
this unity shaped Dionysius doctrine of the creature as being always united to God,
always remaining in God, and yet in that remaining being preserved in its differentiation.
Finally, this unity informs fully Dionysius doctrine of the Incarnation. The Incarnation,

- 100 central to his theology, is in its very activity, its very being, the unity of the sensible and
intelligible. It is through Jesus as the source of this unity that the creature participates in
the divine activity and is returned from its forgetfulness to the One source and end of its
In his letter to Titus, Dionysius considers the interpretation of Biblical symbols.
He insists that symbols are not the place of imagination. They are not set out somehow to
be decoded and understood, these he says are childish fantasies. Rather the real lovers of
holiness alone have the simplicity of mind and the receptive, contemplative power to
cross over to the simple, marvelous, transcendent truth of the symbols. 264 The symbol
serves as the threshold, it enables the initiate to come into contact with the divine by way
of the sensible and the intelligible. For a symbol is both. The most theurgic ointment is a
symbol, as is the divine name Good, or One, moreover each is at once sensible and
intelligible. Dionysius adds, We have therefore to run counter to mass prejudice and we
must make the holy journey to the heart of the sacred symbols. And we must certainly not
disdain them, for they are the descendents and bear the mark of the divine stamps. 265
The symbol bears the mark of the divine stamp in the same way that the human soul itself
bears that mark, as though in wax. The human soul itself is a symbol of the divine, it is
the symbol, for in it God and creation are both reflected and contained. Thus, ultimately
the journey into the heart of the symbol is the journey into the heart of the self, and the
end of that journey is the perfected, sightless vision of the One.

Ep. 9 1105C (197:5-8):

Ep. 9 1108C (199:9-12):

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