105 - Naming the Nameless: the Pseudo-Dionysius

Neoplatonism is fused with Christianity by the pseudonymus author known as Dionysius. Peter looks at his Divine Names, a monument to God’s transcendence.

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Further Reading: 

• S. Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugena: An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition (Leiden: 1978).

Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. C. Luibheid and P. Rorem (London: 1987).

• F. O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas (Leiden: 1992).

• P. Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to their Influence (Oxford: 1993).

 Stanford Encyclopedia: Pseudo Dionysius

Nadim Bakhshov's picture

Names of God

I was curious - did Pseudo-Dionysius influence the islamic doctrine of the 99 names of God?

Peter Adamson's picture

Names of God

Basically no, the 99 names are extracted from the Koran itself (the number of 99 being given in a hadith). But there is some possiblity that the way the divine names/attributes are understood in Islamic intellectual history (as opposed to the list of names as such) is influenced by Dionysius. His works were translated into Syriac so they were available in the Semitic language-realm and in fact it's been argued by Cristina D'Ancona that Dionysian influence is detectable in the Arabic versions of other works of Neoplatonism (Plotinus and Proclus).

Joshua M. Robinson's picture

Dionysius in Arabic

Some of Dionysius was also translated into Arabic, though rather late, I believe, and I don't know whether it had any influence outside the Arabic-speaking Christian community. See the work of Alexander Treiger on this.

Nadim Bakhshov's picture

names of God

Behind my question is the thought that the conception of divine names serves a similar mystical purpose irrespective of issues of transmission or influence in a horizontal sense between traditions.

Is the desire of the mystic, to approach and access the divine, similar in both? And do the divine names help the mystic to access the divine?

Ted Hand's picture

further reading

for more on Neoplatonism in Pseudo-Dionysius see
Dillon, Wear, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Neoplatonist Tradition
Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite

Nicholas Marinides's picture

Minor correction + some suggestions

Hi Peter,

You twice made the mistake of saying that one of Ps-Dionysius' Epistles was (allegedly) written to the Apostle Paul in exile on the island of Patmos. In fact it was the Apostle John who was on Patmos, and it was to him that Epistle 10 was written. I just thought you would like to catch that before making the book version of these lectures.

On a more substantive note, it has been argued that the emanations of God are not in fact created things themselves, but the powers of God that create them, and which also purify, enlighten, and deify them (one of his many triads). These powers somehow emanate from his unknowable essence but ultimately return to it, bringing creatures with them; basically, this is the nature of divine Love. That at least is how the Gregory Palamas interpreted Ps-Dionysius, and the later Byzantine tradition with him. It gets into the essence-energies distinction in theology, which has been a bone of contention between eastern and western Christendom since the 14th century. I hope you'll be able to include an episode on that!

Also, by focusing on the influence of Proclus, many scholars of Dionysius don't do justice to what he got from the Christian tradition. The Cappadocians especially were past masters of apophatic theology, something already implied by your discussion of Basil's polemic against Eunomius.


Peter Adamson's picture

Patmos and Palamas

Oops, sorry -- thanks for the correction. I've made a note for the book version.

I will indeed cover Palamas in due course, I guess he will get his own episode. I actually read a book recently which covered some of what you're talking about: T.T. Tollefson, Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. I think that Palamas is going beyond what we find in Dionysius, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that the detailed metaphysics of how theophanies work is not as clear in Dionysius as it might be, so people like Palamas come in and make further distinctions?

Thanks again!


Natalia Doran's picture

Energies; Proclus.

Dear Peter,

I would like to echo the first comment in this section re essence and energies: it is vitally important in Patristic theology, and would do away with the pessimism you mentioned in this episode, because, although we cannot know God according to His essence, as far as His energies are concerned, the sky is (not) the limit.

I also wonder whether the differences between Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius deserve a mention. There is one that is regularly overlooked, at the over-looker’s peril, and that is that Proclus’ divine principle creates by nature, the One kind of eternally “overflows”, whereas the Christian God creates “by will and deliberation”, He can stop and start at will, and what He creates does not have to have His attributes any more than a painting has to have the attributes of the painter. A volcano and an arsonist creating a fire may be another analogy.

The above is the difference Proclus himself grumbles about in his Commentary on Parmenides.

Best wishes,

Peter Adamson's picture

Proclus vs Pseudo-Dionysius

Dear Natalia,

Yes, that distinction you mention between necessary emanation (or eruption!) and willed creation is not just a contrast between Proclus and Dionysius but between pagan Neoplatonism and Christian Platonism in general. It is going to be a major theme as we go through all the medieval traditions, including Byzantine. Just as a side note, the Neoplatonists including Proclus do have various ways of avoiding the charge that the higher principles cause "automatically" or without will. Here the foundational text is Plotinus Enneads VI.8, but Proclus also has interesting things to say about how the emanative causes are exercising providence, and he would I think want to say that the higher principles are "free" in the sense that nothing constrains them (this is also Plotinus' view, albeit that the whole story is more complicated - cf the episode on Plotinus and the One).

Regarding the energeia vs essence issue, I guess the question is whether one considers it pessimistic to be told that we can only know God's energeiai but not His essence. Certainly though that is more optimistic than, say, Plotinus who usually (though not always) makes the One completely beyond our grasp.