The apophatic tradition: the theology of Dionysius the Areopagite

The apophatic tradition: the theology of Dionysius the Areopagite

The work of the famous Christian theologian and mystic, whose writings have entered the Christian tradition under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, is a unique phenomenon in the history of philosophical and religious thought. He has had an enormous influence on all Christian philosophy, eastern and western, and consequently on New Age philosophical thought in one way or another since the Middle Ages, where the Areopagitans played such an important role.

Almost all scholars of the Areopagitic Corpus agree that it is Platonism in Christian form. Consequently, we must place it in the general context of Platonic philosophy in order to understand its place and dissect its characteristics.

The Areopagitics are reliably known from the 5th century AD. Thus they are separated from Plato himself and his Academy by about 10 centuries. During this time Platonism underwent a series of fundamental metamorphoses, institutionalisations and interpretative shifts, which must be traced in the most general way to understand the historical-philosophical process from Plato (5th - 6th century BC) to the Areopagitics (5th century BC).

This period can be divided into three phases:

(a) Post-Platonist Academy (Speusippus, Xenocrates, etc.), of which few reliable testimonies are known and whose philosophical specificity is problematic today due to the extremely scarce testimonies;
b) Middle Platonism (Posidonius, Plutarch of Cheronia, Apuleius, Philo);
c) Neoplatonism, which arose in Alexandria and from the beginning was divided into two schools: pagan (Plotinus, Porphyry, etc.) and Christian (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.).

The Areopagitics are closely related to Neoplatonism and their particularity lies in the fact that we find in them the influence of both Neoplatonic tendencies simultaneously - Origenistic (which also indirectly predetermined the dogmatic basis of Christianity) and pagan (embodied in the 5th century in the monumental philosophical and theological system of Proclus Diadochus, who made an unprecedented effort to systematise Platonism as a whole).

On a more general level, we can consider the first phase as a continuation of Plato's paideia in the direction indicated by Plato himself: refinement of philosophical discourse and hermeneutical practices in the general key of Plato's approach, without distinguishing priority directions and convincing attempts to systematise Plato's doctrine itself.

In the second phase, systematisation begins, leading to the identification of the nodal points of his teaching, including the identification of contradictions, problematic segments and conflicting interpretations. Here it is extremely important for us that Plato's teaching is for the first time subjected to correlation with theological knowledge, i.e. it is theologised. This can be seen, first of all, in the work of Philo of Alexandria, who tried to relate Plato's philosophy and cosmology of the Timaeus and the Republic to the religion of the Old Testament and its dogmatic postulates - in particular, about God the Creator, monotheism, etc. - and to the theological theology of the Old Testament. Here, for the first time, the problem arises of how Platonic ideas and Platonic demigods relate to each other and how they can be related to the personal God of Jewish monotheism. Thereafter, Philo had an enormous influence on the formation of Christian dogmatics and, consequently, the relationship between Platonism and theology in his philosophy was of fundamental importance for all that followed.

After Philo, the Christian Gnostics (primarily Basilides) became an important link in the development of Platonism. Many of them were decisively influenced by Plato, as Plotinus says in detail in Ennead II.9. But the Gnostics were already reading Plato through the prism of Middle Platonism and in particular the writings of Philo, and also in the context of early Christianity with its acute reflection on how the New Testament and the age of grace relate to the Old Testament and the age of law. With the Gnostics, this relationship took on an antagonistic expression that resulted in dualism. It is important for us that this dualism was framed through Platonic philosophy. Christian Gnosticism can therefore be said to represent a particular version of Platonism, a dualistic version.

The schools of Plotinus and Origen, i.e. Neo-Platonism proper, as the third stage in the formation of this movement, leading directly to the author of the Areopagitics, were the result of the development of Middle Platonism and to a large extent a response to the dualistic Platonism of the Gnostics. Not only Clement of Alexandria and Origen, but also Plotinus polemised with the Gnostics, and their rejection of Gnosticism prompted them to develop a dialectical and systematised Platonism that accepts the challenge of the theologising and dualism, characteristic of the Middle Platonists and the Gnostics, but gives a decidedly non-dualistic response to them. To borrow a term from Hindu philosophy, it would be fashionable to call Neo-Platonism 'advaito-platonism', i.e. non-dual Platonism.

The mystical theology of the Areopagitics falls entirely within the context of this non-dual Platonism and is a striking example of it, albeit less systematic and developed than those of Origen or Proclus. At the same time, the 5th century represents a time of waning of the dogmatic impulse that had animated the previous centuries of Greco-Roman patristics, anticipating the era of the Christian Middle Ages that followed. The style and conceptual apparatus of the Areopagitica were in the best way appropriate to this transitional period: it completed the era of Neo-Platonism, on the one hand, and Greco-Roman patristics, on the other, but it also shaped one of the most important vectors of the future development of Christian thought - including that of trans-European scholasticism, on whose formation John Scotus Eugenius to Thomas Aquinas had had such an important influence.

Translation by Lorenzo Maria Pacini