Dionysius the Areopagite – St. Paul’s convert in Athens
The Holy Father taught regarding this famous Athenian convert of St. Paul:
“In the course of the Catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, today I would like to speak of a rather mysterious figure: a sixth-century theologian whose name is unknown and who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite.
With this pseudonym he was alluding to the passage of Scripture we have just heard, the event recounted by St. Luke in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles where he tells how Paul preached in Athens at the Areopagus to an elite group of the important Greek intellectual world. In the end, the majority of his listeners proved not to be interested and went away jeering at him.
Yet some, St. Luke says a few, approached Paul and opened themselves to the faith. The Evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius a member of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris.
If five centuries later the author of these books chose the pseudonym "Dionysius the Areopagite", it means that his intention was to put Greek wisdom at the service of the Gospel, to foster the encounter of Greek culture and intelligence with the proclamation of Christ; he wanted to do what this Dionysius had intended, that is, to make Greek thought converge with St. Paul's proclamation; being a Greek, he wanted to become a disciple of St. Paul, hence a disciple of Christ.
Why did he hide his name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer I have already given: he wanted, precisely, to express this fundamental intention of his thought.
But there are two hypotheses concerning this anonymity and pseudonym. The first hypothesis says that it was a deliberate falsification by which, in dating his works back to the first century, to the time of St. Paul, he wished to give his literary opus, a quasi apostolic authority.
But there is another better hypothesis than this, which seems to me barely credible: namely that he himself desired to make an act of humility; he did not want to glorify his own name, he did not want to build a monument to himself with his work but rather truly to serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, neither individual nor based on himself.
Actually, he succeeded in elaborating a theology which, of course, we can date to the sixth century but cannot attribute to any of the figures of that period: it is a somewhat "de-individualized" theology, that is, a theology which expresses a common thought and language. It was a period of fierce polemics following the Council of Chalcedon; indeed he said in his Seventh Epistle: "I do not wish to spark polemics; I simply speak of the truth, I seek the truth". And the light of truth by itself causes errors to fall away and makes what is good shine forth.
And with this principle he purified Greek thought and related it to the Gospel. This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialogue: it is not about seeking the things that separate, but seeking the truth in Truth itself. This then radiates and causes errors to fade away.
Therefore, although this author's theology is, so to speak, "supra-personal", truly ecclesial, we can place it in the sixth century. Why? The Greek spirit, which he placed at the service of the Gospel, he encountered in the books of Proclus, who died in Athens in 485. This author belonged to late Platonism, a current of thought which had transformed Plato's philosophy into a sort of religion, whose ultimate purpose was to create a great apologetic for Greek polytheism and return, following Christianity's success, to the ancient Greek religion.
He wanted to demonstrate that in reality, the divinities were the active forces in the cosmos. The consequence to be drawn from this was that polytheism must he considered truer than monotheism with its single Creator God. What Proclus was demonstrating was a great cosmic system of divinity, of mysterious forces, through which, in this deified cosmos, man could find access to the divinity.
However, he made a distinction between paths for the simple, who were incapable of rising to the heights of truth — certain rites could suffice for them — and paths for the wise who were to purify themselves to arrive at the pure light.
As can be seen, this thought is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a late reaction to the triumph of Christianity, an anti-Christian use of Plato, whereas a Christian interpretation of the great philosopher was already in course. It is interesting that this Pseudo-Dionysius dared to avail himself of this very thought to demonstrate the truth of Christ; to transform this polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, into the harmony of God's cosmos, where every force is praise of God, and to show this great harmony, this symphony of the cosmos that. goes from the Seraphim to the Angels and Archangels, to man and to all the creatures which, together, reflect God's beauty and are praise of God.
He thus transformed the polytheistic image into a praise of the Creator and his creature. In this way we can discover the essential characteristics of his thought: first and foremost, it is cosmic praise.