Denis the Areopagite, first apostle to the Gauls”, by André Thevet. Note that this reflects a historical conflation of Pseudo-Dionysius with St Denys of Paris (3rd century CE)

‘There and Back Again’: The Mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius

Abjan van Meerten
18 min readJul 8, 2024


…Grant that this God be naught,
Yet let that Naught be Somewhat in thy mouth;
Lie boldly, and say He Is!…

— Euripides, Bacchae[1]


Dionysus (or Bacchus) was a Greek god associated with wine and ritual ecstasy, who featured centrally in one of the greatest tragedies ever written, named after him, The Bacchae by the Athenian playwright Euripides. Centuries later, in the same city, on Mars’ (or Ares’) Hill (Gk.: Hareios Pago, hence ‘Areopagus’), a man called ‘Dionysus’s’ (Gk.: Dionysios) was persuaded by a messianic Jewish missionary, the apostle Paul, who proclaimed the one true God whom the Athenians had long worshipped as ‘the unknown god’ — or so, at least, the account of Acts goes (see Acts 17:16–33). Even more centuries later, probably hundreds of miles to the east somewhere in Syria, an anonymous writer took on the pseudonym of Dionysius and would be rewarded for that choice. He penned, among others, a work that would become “the textbook on analogical predication in the Medieval West”[2], called Divine Names, and what would become the work with the most influence on Medieval spirituality, Mystical Theology.[3] For centuries — until the fifteenth century at least — the author was widely regarded as the very same Dionysius who became a follower of Paul on the Areopagus and who, because of that supposed association with Paul, had virtually apostolic authority.[4] Whereas the Euripedian Dionysius unleashed his wrath on Pentheus, king of Thebes, because the latter did not recognize Dionysus’ true divine identity, the unmasked Dionysius — now Pseudo-Dionysius[5] — could only be content, were he still alive, with how long his true identity had remained concealed — or rather, how long his persona had held up, because the author behind it is still shrouded in dark clouds. The only thing that can be asserted with certainty is that his works indicate dependence on Neoplatonic ideas, and specifically Proclean ones, which therefore locates the author in the late fifth century. Once his apostolic garment was shed, his ideas had already established themselves in the consciousness of Western theology and would continue to be a prominent voice of negative theology, counterbalancing the dominant positive theology.

This paper will focus on Dionysius’ most famous work, Mystical Theology (hereafter MT). First, I want to situate the MT in its philosophical context;[6] second, I want to locate Dionysius’s mysticism within the framework outlined by William Harmless in his Mystics.

1. Dionysius’s Mystical Theology In Its Philosophical Context

A good point of entry into Dionysius’ thinking is provided by Neoplatonism. The classic Neoplatonic movement is one of procession and return — exitus and reditus.[7] This movement is often conceptualized in spatial terms, namely a procession ‘downward’ and a return ‘upward’. At the top of it all is ‘the One’, marked above all by simplicity (i.e. partlessness), as the name indicates. The further downstream (in the emanation from the One), the more pluralization and differentiation, and the further upstream, the more unification and ‘simplification’.[8] The first level below the One is Intellect, from which issue intellects; below that, Soul, from which issue souls; below that, matter.[9] Humans are souls descended into a material body, and can ascend back to the One through theōria, ‘contemplation’. After Plotinus, often seen as the first and foremost Neoplatonic thinker, Neoplatonism developed broadly into two directions: Porphyry focused on theologia, ‘God-word’, whereas Iamblichus and Proclus (also) focused on theurgia, ‘God-work’. These two streams might be said to represent broadly the rational and irrational (or suprarational) pathways to the divine.[10] To understand theurgia, the notion of sympatheia is important: at the ontological-cosmic level, there are bonds between the different levels of reality, with divine power being mirrored at every level, so that, through (lowly) material elements, one might access the higher, divine level.[11] The goal of both rational contemplation and theurgic practice is the return to, assimilation to, and union (henosis) with God — in other words, divinization (theosis).

This very basic outline of Neoplatonic thought will serve to get a grasp of Dionysius’ writing. The MT centers on two ways of talking about God: affirmation and negation (or denial). Since God is the transcendent cause of all things from whom all things emanate, all things can and should be affirmed of him.[12] Creation flows from God and therefore reveals who God is (it is ‘theophany’). However, since God is the transcendent cause of all things, it is more appropriate that all things should be denied of him.[13] Creation is not God and, as finite, will always fall short of revealing the infinite. Therefore, to really get at the transcendent God, we need to move beyond all human categories of language, including both affirmation and negation, into silence (MT 1).

That is, in short, the theological journey: one of procession and return, of ‘there and back again’[14], of proceeding affirmations and returning negations, culminating in wordlessness. This path of positive procession and negative return, seen in these Neoplatonic terms, can naturally be understood as one of descent and ascent.[15] Moreover, Dionysius’ own works are said (however accurately[16]) to be structured in this very way:

In the earlier books my argument traveled downward from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied with every stage of the descent. But my argument now rises from what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.

—MT, ch. 3, 1033BC[17]

The earlier books referenced here are Theological Representations (TR), Divine Names (DN), and Symbolic Theology (ST), which moved from the most appropriate language for God (affirmations ostensibly derived from the creeds,[18]discussed in TR) to reasonably appropriate language (from the conceptual world, in DN) to the least appropriate (from the sensible realm, in ST). As was purportedly reflected in the length of these works, the further ‘down’ from God, the more pluralized language is, whereas the further ‘up’ toward God, the more unified it is (in true Neoplatonic fashion). When we come to the MT, we see that chapter 4 negates all sensible attributes and chapter 5 negates all conceptual attributes, including theological representations, ending in the silent darkness of unknowing. This, then, constitutes the parallel, but shorter, movement ‘upward’.

We can gather these insights about the structure of Dionysius’ thought and works in the following scheme:[19]

Table 1: The tripartite theological journey of Dionysius (the wording being taken from Luibheid, Complete Works, 140)

Chapters 1 to 3, then, can be regarded as the summary or even core of Dionysius’s thought.[20] At the center of these chapters, in turn, is Moses. As for Philo and Gregory of Nyssa, Moses on Mount Sinai figures for Dionysius as the mystic par excellence, showing the way to the summit of divinisation:

It is not for nothing that the blessed Moses is commanded to submit first to purification and then to depart from those who have not undergone this.

When every purification is complete, he hears the many-voiced trumpets. He sees the many lights, pure and with rays streaming abundantly.

Then, standing apart from the crowds and accompanied by chosen priests, he pushes ahead to the summit of the divine ascents. And yet he does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells. This means, I presume, that the holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind are but the rationale which presupposes all that lies below the Transcendent One. Through them, however, his unimaginable presence is shown, walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at least can rise.

But then he breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.

—MT 1, paragraph breaks inserted

This Mosaic conception of the ascending[21] mystical path broadly follows the classical three stages: purification — illumination/contemplation — perfection/union.[22] The end of it all is unknowing union with the one beyond everything.

2. Dionysius’s Mysticism in Harmless’s Framework

In the final chapter of Mystics,[23] William Harmless lays out several aspects of mysticism that have often been overlooked in Western scholarship, which has shad individualistic and psychologistic biases. In this section, I will briefly run through some interlocking aspects Dionysius’s mysticism, namely the meaning of ‘mystical’, the importance of the Scriptures, and the extraordinary use of language.

2.1 ‘Mystical’ Theology?

Rendering the Greek mystikos as ‘mystical’ might be more of a case of transliteration than proper translation, since ‘mystical’ has all kinds of connotations nowadays that it simply did not have in antiquity.[24] Very basically, mystikosmight be translated as ‘hidden’ (as indeed the author of the Cloud of Unknowing did, rendering the MT as ‘Deonise Hid Divinity’), and in that sense mysterious.[25] It was mainly used in relation to the ‘mystery cults’, the mysteries of which were hidden from the uninitiated. The term was applied by early Christians to the ‘hidden’ meaning of Scripture and of the liturgical rites. We see a similar thing happening in Dionysius’s EH, where the ecclesial symbols are said to both conceal (to the uninitiated) and reveal (to the initiated) divine truths, indeed God himself.[26] As Rorem says, “[t]he outsider is kept away even from the symbols, the initiate is gradually learning their explanations, and the hierarch is charged with concealing and sharing these truths.”[27]

2.2 Mystical ‘Theology’?

As Rorem points out, theology literally means ‘God-word’ and as such refers to the word of God, namely the Scriptures.[28] Nonetheless, it also naturally shades into the meaning of discourse about God, since the Scriptures of course are all about God. The mode in which Scripture talks about God is symbolic, and symbols, as we will see further below, play an important role in lifting humans up toward God through their conceptual meaning. These symbols cannot do this ‘uplifting’ (anagogy) by themselves, but only in combination with their correct interpretation, which is provided in the church by the sermon to the initiated.[29] In the MT, Dionysius himself provides a broader interpretation and exposition of the ‘hidden’ meaning of the Scriptures as they constitute a discourse from and about the God beyond words.[30] This discussion is not suitable for all readers, but only for the ‘informed’ who understand that God cannot be known directly by the human mind.[31]

However, there is also a certain tension detectable in Dionysius’s broader corpus between general and special revelation (to use modern theological terms). That is to say, since all things in the universe emanate from God (see above), they all reflect his glory, power, beauty, wisdom, and so on — in other words, they reveal God. Moreover, the rational person can see that all created things fact derive their glory (etc.) from their source — that is, the effects can be traced back to their cause. As McGinn notes, “[a]ny thinking person realizes that the appearances of beauty are the signs of invisible loveliness”.[32] This return to God is in fact the goal of creation.[33] This line of thinking is underlined when we consider Dionysius’s talk about creation as the ekstasis, the ‘standing-out’ of God in divine love (eros).[34] Nevertheless, this tension can at least partially be resolved when we consider that creation as emanated by God is structured by him by means of the two hierarchies, ecclesiastical and celestial, and that the Scriptures play an important role in the former, as we just saw.

2.3 Language Games

As was just mentioned, symbols play an important role in the anagogic process. With ‘symbols’ Dionysius means divine names derived from the sensible world. They are manifold and accessible, as they operate at the lowest anthropological level (for the Platonist), namely the senses. Nevertheless, the senses can be a gateway to the ‘senseless’ (i.e. the intelligible), as symbols can carry metaphorical meaning. The ‘dissimilar similarity’ of symbols steers the observer toward this conceptual meaning. That is to say, symbols are often obviously inappropriate for God, for example because they imply divine corporality or passibility[35], and are therefore effective (more so than conceptual names) at shaking up the observer, through their imagination, from the illusion that divine names are directly appropriate for God.[36] The danger with conceptual names for God, like ‘wisdom’, is that one is tempted to think that they are wholly appropriate to God and that we have properly understood God through those names; in other words, they are so similar that one forgets the (fundamental) dissimilarity, which remains at every linguistic level.[37]

We have already discussed the basic dynamic of affirmation and negation: since all things are caused by God, all things can be affirmed of him, but since God as cause transcends all things, all things must also be denied of him (see above). We can tease this further out by talking about affirmation, privation, and negation. An example of an affirmation about God is that he is alive (this would be a ‘symbolic’ one). It is also true to say, however, that God is not alive; this would be an example of a privation, i.e. simply contradicting the affirmation. This privation is true as well since God, being incorporeal, in fact transcends both being alive and being not-alive — he is ‘beyond-alive’ and ‘beyond-not-alive’. The Greek prefix that Dionysius would use here is hyper- (the Latin equivalent being supra-). This way of denoting God’s supereminence is true Dionysian negation.[38]

Nevertheless, even these negations, being finite, fall short of the infinite, and must therefore be subverted, as Dionysius does at the very end of MT:

Darkness and light, error and truth — it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

—MT, ch. 5, 1048B)[39]

This means that doing mystical theology for Dionysius involves a continually subversive and open-ended use of language; theologians will never come up with a ‘name’ for God that is perfectly accurate and that could be carved into stone, as it were. This does not, however, make the theological task a Sisyphean one, since the goal is to ultimately leave language — the metaphorical rock — behind and enter the silent darkness that is God himself.


Ehrman, B. Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Trans. G. Murray. Project Gutenberg, 2011. Retrieved June 23, 2023, at

Harmless, W. Mystics. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Louth, A. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007.

McGinn, B. The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century. The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism 1. Crossroad, 2004.

Nouwen, N. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Image, 1994.

Oppy, G., and Tratakis, N.N. (eds). Ancient Philosophy of Religion. History of Western Philosophy of Religion 1. Routledge, 2013.

Origen. On First Principles. Trans. J. Behr. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Perl, E.D. Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite. State University of New York Press, 2007.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. C. Luibheid. Paulist Press, 1987.

Rorem, P. Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Stanford Encyclopedia. “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.” Retrieved June 22, 2023, at


[1] Euripides, The Bacchae of Euripides, trans. G. Murray (Project Gutenberg, 2011), retrieved June 23, 2023, at

[2] A. Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2007), 161.

[3] P. Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence (Oxford University Press, 1993), 225. At the end of each of his chapters, which commentate on a work of Dionysius, Rorem includes a section on influence of that particular work during the Middle Ages.

[4] Supposed personal connections of the author to one of the apostles were often used to buttress the authority of Christian writings, no matter the historicity of those connections; think of the Gospel of Mark, supposedly written by Peter’s secretary, or the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, supposedly written by one of Paul’s travel companions. On the phenomenon of Christian pseudepigraphy or ‘forgery’, see B. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[5] Nevertheless, I prefer to stick to his own persona, Dionysius, without the scholarly prefix ‘Pseudo-‘. The original historical figure of Acts 17 is too insignificant to the contemporary reader to cause any confusion between the two.

[6] A ‘contextualist’ approach also supported by W. Harmless, Mystics (Oxford University Press, 2007), 255–7.

[7] To be precise, it is a triad of monē — proodos — epistrophe, ‘rest — procession — return’.

[8] These emanative levels can therefore be understood as a way of tracing ever-higher organizing and unifying cosmic principles; see Stanford Encyclopedia, “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite”, sect. 4.1, “Sources, Ideas, and Terms”, retrieved June 22, 2023, at

[9] Louth, Origins, 157–8.

[10] G. Oppy and N.N. Tratakis (eds), Ancient Philosophy of Religion, History of Western Philosophy of Religion 1 (Routledge, 2013), 286–7. The broad contrast is not just rational/irrational, but also personal/institutional and immediate/mediated. For a possible similar contrast within Dionysius himself, namely between the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH) and Celestial Hierarchy (CH), and the rest, see Rorem, Commentary, 206–10. For a nuanced discussion of mediation in Dionysius, see Oppy and Tratakis, Ancient Philosophy, 284–5.

[11] See ibidem, 282.

[12] Evil things cannot be affirmed of God, but, importantly, they also cannot be said to proceed from God. As such, they lack being or self-subsistence — they are a privation or lack of goodness. Cf. E.D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (State University of New York Press, 2007), ch. 4, “The Problem of Evil”.

[13] Rorem, Commentary, 187–8.

[14] A reference to Tolkien, who takes up a much older motif of homecoming that was also popular in ancient spirituality; homecoming provides a natural image for the return to God, and as such even has biblical precedent (Luke 15:11–32, The Parable of the Prodigal Son). For a modern spiritual interpretation of Rembrandt’s famous depiction of Jesus’s parable, see Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Image, 1994).

[15] The references in MT are too numerous to list here.

[16] Cf. Rorem, Commentary, 196–7.

[17] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. C. Luibheid (Paulist Press, 1987), 139. See also MT, ch. 2, 1025B: “When we made assertions we began with the first things, moved down through intermediate terms until we reached the last things. But now as we climb from the last things up to the most primary we deny all things so that we may unhiddenly know that unknowing which itself is hidden from all those possessed of knowing amid all beings, so that we may see above being that darkness concealed from all the light among beings” (ibidem, 137).

[18] Dionysius does not explicitly mention the creeds, but the topics discussed in TR — God’s unity, trinity, and incarnation — can all clearly be seen to be creedal.

[19] EH and CH are left out simply because Dionysius himself does not explicitly relate them to this structure. However, seeing how the ecclesiastical hierarchy is related most directly to the sensible level and the celestial hierarchy to the conceptual level (see EH, ch. 1, 373AB), it would make most sense to put EH at the same level as ST and the CH on the same level as DN. Further support for this could be that this would map onto Dionysius’ transformation of the Neoplatonic triad One — Intellect — Soul into Thearchy — Celestial hierarchy — Ecclestiastical hierarchy (as noted by Louth, Origins, 158), with TR and MT writing at the level of Thearchy.

[20] Rorem, Commentary, 183.

[21] In this conception, the whole path is an ascent, not just the second half. Mountain climbing is a very common image for the spiritual life in classical mysticism, since divinity is often conceived of as ‘above’, and reaching a summit lends itself easily as an image for ‘perfectionism’ (which Harmless posits as the common denominator of mystical movements: see Mystics, 238–9, 63).

[22] This framework does not map neatly onto the framework of table 1 (although attempts could be made), but that is also not necessary; Dionysius’ thought cannot be captured in one totalizing system, nor would that be desirable (cf. Louth, Origins, 159).

[23] Ch. 10, “Reading Mystics: Texts, Community, Experience”.

[24] For a short overview of the development of the meaning of the term ‘mystical’ and its “terminological inflation”, see Harmless, Mystics, 260–2 (referencing Louis Bouyer, “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods [Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1980]).

[25] So Rorem, Commentary, 184.

[26] Ibidem, 187, referencing CH, ch. 2, 140C (Luibheid, Complete Works, 149).

[27] Ibidem, 95.

[28] Ibidem, 184.

[29] See EH, 376BC (Luibheid, Complete Works, 198–9). In more traditional terms, the ‘literal sense’ of Scripture, which the uninitiated also hear, cannot give life, only the ‘spiritual’ sense can.

[30] Cf. B. McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism 1 (Crossroad, 2004), 171: mystical theology is “the knowledge (or, better, ‘superknowledge’) that deals with the mystery of God in himself”. We have already shown how MT is the climax of the previous works that dealt with symbolic and cataphatic theology. As the goal of those types of theology is mystical theology — the mysterious knowledge of the God-beyond-knowledge — , Dionysius’s whole corpus can be called mystical (ibidem).

[31] 1000AB (Luibheid, Complete Works, 135–6); see Rorem, Commentary, 187. This sort of distinction goes back (at the very least) to Origen, who talked about the ‘simple’ and the spiritually advanced, with only the latter being qualified to hear certain spiritual truths; cf. Origen, On First Principles, trans. J. Behr (Oxford University Press, 2018).

[32] McGinn, Foundations, 161

[33] Ibidem: “The theological center of Dionysius’s concern is the exploration of how the utterly unknowable God manifests himself in creation in order that all things may attain union with the unmanifest Source.”

[34] Cf. DN, ch. 4, 712AB: “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” (Luibheid, Complete Works, 82, emphasis added).

[35] I.e. his subjection to external forces through the passions.

[36] Origen would call them ‘stumbling blocks’; see On First Principles.

[37] Cf. Louth, Origins, 167; Stanford, “Pseudo-Dionysius,” sect. 3.3, “Symbolic Theology.”

[38] See Stanford, “Pseudo-Dionysius,” sect. 3.2, “On the Divine Names”, and 3.4, “Mystical Theology.”

[39] Luibheid, Complete Works, 141.

[40] Luibheid, Complete Works, 141, paragraph breaks added.

Appendix: The Division of MT 5

Although the distinction I made in the scheme between ch. 5a, b, and c is not explicitly signaled in the text, there does seem to be a general ascent from the negation of properly conceptual attributes, like power, life, and wisdom, to the negation of properly theological representations, like oneness, spirithood, sonship, and fathership, to the abandonment of all language:

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom.

It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are.

There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth — it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.[40]

However, these demarcations do not play out perfectly, since goodness, for example, is mentioned together with (i.a.) oneness, while it is not a theological representation but a conceptual attribute. Nevertheless, this is not totally inappropriate since goodness is the highest of all conceptual attributes (see DN).

Personal note: this was a paper submitted for the course ‘Becoming Nothing and Not Knowing (Expanded)’, lectured by prof. André van der Braak at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam. As this was a short course at the end of the year, I did not have enough time (and energy) to dive into the nuanced debates among Dionysian scholars; however, it should suffice as an introductory article to Dionysius.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God