ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

105. The Writers of the Fifth Century. Pseudo-Denis. -- From the beginning of the fifth century Patristic philosophy began to decline. The return of Neo-Platonism -- reconciled with Christianity -- is perceptible in the works of SYNESIUS OF CYRENE (363-370 to 430). PROCOPIUS, of the school of Gaza, wrote a treatise to combat the Stoicheiôsis Theologikê of Proclus. From the point of view of the general movement of ideas, we find in this period only one notable man in Oriental literature: the author falsely known under the name of St. Denis the Areopagite, the disciple of St. Paul. There has been a considerable amount of controversy about the real identity of this writer, and the question is not yet quite settled. His writings must apparently be ascribed to the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century. They were unknown before the time of the great religious conference at Constantinople. The treatises of PSEUDO-DENIS on the Divine Names, Mystical Theology, the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, largely inspired mysticism and scholasticism down to the time of the Renaissance. They contain a systematic exposition of the Christian Religion based largely upon allegory. One of the first imitators and admirers of this Pseudo-Denis was MAXIMUS THE CONFESSOR (about 580-662).

The philosophy of Pseudo-Denis centres around the thought of God and of mystic union with God.

God in Himself has all the perfections of creatures. He is goodness, beauty, power, unity (treatise on the Divine Names). But by reason of His transcendence (treatise on Mystical Theology), He is to a certain extent ineffable, obscure, non-being (Plotinus).

God the Origin of things is, above all, goodness and love. Other beings are effusions of His goodness (processiones divinae), just as light is an effusion from the sun (Plato, Plotinus); they are the object of His providence. Between man and God there is a hierarchy of celestial spirits (treatise on the Celestial Hierarchy), of which the ecclesiastical hierarchy is an imperfect copy (treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy).

God the End of things draws all things towards Himself. Goodness, after descending to the creature, returns to its source. The deification which results from this return extends even to organic and inorganic beings. For man the return to God is realized by raptures of knowledge and transports of love.

Numerous parallels{1} go to show that Pseudo-Denis was influenced principally by Proclus, not only in a multitude of individual doctrines, but also in his general terminology and formulas. His mysticism, moreover, reveals the symbolism, the allegories, the mystic states and ways of the Alexandrians, their theory of prayer and of the Divine character of ecstasy "where like is known by like". But, notwithstanding those borrowed elements, the philosophy of the Pseudo-Denis is theistic, not pantheistic; for it affirms a substantial distinction between God and the creature. And his mysticism is Christian; for it is based on Divine grace. It is true, however, that the obscure and exalted terms in which the author expresses himself may be interpreted in a pantheistic as easily as in an individualistic sense.{1} They misled many in the Middle Ages, when the heterodox mystics appealed to Pseudo-Denis just as freely as the orthodox (see Medieval Mysticism).

By their race, their mode of thought and the influence they exercised, the writers who flourished from the fifth century onward belong rather to the medieval period proper than to any earlier epoch.

{1} H. KOCH, Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita in seinen Beziehungen zum Neo-Platonismus und Mysterienwesen (Mainz, 1900).

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