Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.40

Eric D. Perl, Theophany. The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite.   Albany:  SUNY Press, 2007.  Pp. 163.  ISBN 978-0-7914-7111-1.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Christophe F. Erismann, University of Cambridge (
Word count: 1505 words

"Dionysius the Areopagite" or, more precisely, the pseudo-Dionysius is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing figures in the history of Western philosophy. The author of the Corpus Dionysiacum -- a set of five treatises: On the Celestial Hierarchy, On Divine Names, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, On Mystical Theology and some Epistles -- was active at the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century, probably in Syria. Previous scholarship has highlighted Dionysius' strong debt to Proclus, and through him, to Neoplatonism. Dionysius' conceptual link to Neoplatonic philosophy is the aspect of his thought which Eric Perl has chosen to consider in his short book, which deliberately leaves aside both the Christian theological aspect of Dionysius' work and the delicate problem of authorship. Perl sets out clearly his aim, which is to give "a reading of the works in purely philosophical terms, simply as a body of thought" (p. 4).

The first six chapters are a discussion of a number of sections of On Divine Names. Perl considers the radical transcendence and unknowability of God (chapter 1), the immanence and manifestation of God in all things (chapter 2), Dionysius' account of God as Goodness, Beauty and Love -- Perl emphasizes at this point that God cannot not create or not produce the world -- (chapter 3), the problem of Evil solved with a privation theory (chapter 4), the hierarchical structuring of being and the understanding of reality as a hierarchically ranked sequence, descending from angels, or pure intellects, to inanimate beings (chapter 5) and the modes of cognition (chapter 6). The seventh and last chapter presents Dionysius' philosophy of symbolism mainly on the basis of the Celestial Hierarchy. This is completed by a good bibliography which judiciously includes the French, Italian and German traditions of study.

Studies on Dionysius' Neoplatonism have benefited recently from renewed scholarly interest, exemplified by the books of Christian Schäfer and of John Dillon and Sarah Klitenic Wear.1 Perl's book gives an opinionated reading of Dionysius, in its claim to reconstruct his understanding of reality in its specifically philosophical dimension. Perl wishes to demonstrate not only that Dionysius appropriates certain terminological and thematic elements from Plotinus and Proclus but also that he takes up their deep philosophical insights in his own thought. This aim is completely met. A great quality of Perl's book is to highlight the importance of a number of (Neo-)Platonic theses in the architecture of Dionysius' philosophical thought. The book is founded on the identification of structures of thought which Dionysius has in common with Plato, Plotinus and Proclus, whose writings are frequently quoted. Perl does not really seek to identify the precise textual source of this or that passage in Dionysius but rather tries to highlight the important presence of a number of philosophical theses. The parallels and conceptual isomorphisms presented by Perl cast interesting light on Dionysius' thought on several occasions.

The central theme of Dionysius' thought is that of the causal relation of God to the world. God, the source of reality, is, according to the model of the Neoplatonic One, beyond being. The whole reality is theophany, the manifestation or appearance of God. The important notion of theophany, which reaches its philosophical acme in the thought of the Latin translator of Dionysius, John Scottus Eriugena, is used to explain the production of all that is as a manifestation of God. God is manifested as the determination of things. The set of features by which a thing is what it is is the cause of the being of this thing. The various features, characters and determinations of a thing constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing and, as a consequence of the thesis according to which being is being intelligible (according to the Platonic principle which was largely endorsed by Dionysius), they are the whole of the thing itself. A being is nothing but the totality of intelligible determinations. Since determination is the cause of being to that which it determines, God is the cause of all things in that he is present to all things as the constitutive determinations by which each is itself and therefore is. A central point of Dionysius' thought is the understanding of God's causal presence in things as their intelligible determinations. According to Perl, Dionysius conceives the relation of God to reality following the model of the relation of Plato's forms to their instances, or of Plotinus' One to all things. He is transcendent in that he is not a being at all. And he is immanent in that he is immediately present in all things as their constitutive determinations. Dionysius summarises this in the Celestial Hierarchy (I.4, 177D): "the being of all things is the divinity beyond being". So God is all things as the cause of all things.

This book raises some questions; however, these do not pertain to the choice of separating, in a way which might seem a little brutal and contrary to Dionysius' own project, philosophy from theology. The principles of Perl's reading are clearly stated; this reading may appear partial to some, in that it does not take into account the Christian theological component of Dionysius' thought and seems to suppose a dichotomy in his intellectual project; but it gives valuable results. This book is a stimulating essay which succeeds in presenting in a clear and coherent fashion the different elements of Neoplatonic philosophy present in Dionysius' thought. Nevertheless, an historian of philosophy may be surprised by two absences: the first concerns the relation of Dionysius to Aristotle and the second pertains to the historiographical categories of the Neoplatonic Schools of Athens and Alexandria.

In order to qualify Dionysius' thought, Perl uses the concept of "Neoplatonic philosophy". This concept is too vague for several reasons. Without entering the question of whether it is possible to speak of a "Neoplatonic philosophy" understood as a systematic and coherent body of doctrine, which each so-called Neoplatonic author endorsed, let us note that Porphyry's philosophy is not that of Iamblichus, Plotinus' philosophy is not that of Proclus. Late ancient Neoplatonism is a multifarious reality. It would be excessive to see in it a constraining doctrinal unity, despite fundamental common tendencies, such as the theological interpretation of the Parmenides.

One of the constitutive elements of Neoplatonism is its relation to Aristotle. The harmony of Plato and Aristotle is one of the characteristic doctrines of Neoplatonism. The practice of commenting on Aristotle, which was initiated by Porphyry on the Categories, is an important feature of Neoplatonism. We owe to Neoplatonic philosophers a number of very important commentaries to Aristotle.2 However, in Dionysius, it is difficult to identify references to Aristotle. If Dionysius were an authentic Neoplatonic philosopher, as held by Perl, should we not find in his work at least some Aristotelian elements? Dionysius' Christianity cannot be taken as an answer to this. Several Christian authors who were contemporaries of Dionysius chose to integrate Aristotelianism into their Christianity -- John Philoponus is an excellent example of this. Independently of the problem of Dionysius' position towards Aristotelian doctrine, an analysis of his relation to Aristotle would have given some evidence as to the current of Neoplatonism to which we might attach him. Dionysius was not open to Aristotelianism, but neither did he endorse a militant anti-Aristotelian attitude. Note for example that Gregory of Nyssa, an important source of Dionysius, knew Aristotelian logic, in particular the Categories. Later, several Christian authors, including Maximus the Confessor, a recognised exegete of Dionysius, reconcile Christianity, Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism. Dionysius' attitude towards Aristotle should probably have been briefly considered in Perl's book, because this lack of Aristotelianism questions Dionysius' Neoplatonism.

The other question which may be raised has to do with historiographical terminology. In his fundamental article Richtungen und Schulen im Neuplatonismus, Karl Praechter suggests a classification of Neoplatonic authors according to currents of thought. His main subdivision is between the Neoplatonic schools of Athens and Alexandria. This theory is not unanimously accepted and has been frequently criticised in particular by Ilsetraut Hadot. Perl refers neither to this hypothesis nor the historiographical category of "Athenian Neoplatonism", without giving any reason for rejecting this terminology. This is a shame, since it is with the doctrines of the contemporary Neoplatonic School of Athens that Dionysius was acquainted (note that in their recent book, Dillon and Klitenic Wear frequently use the expression "Neoplatonic School of Athens"). This remark does not question the essential aspects of Perl's analyses, of which the quality has been noted, since Perl gives rightly much attention to an important representative of the School of Athens, Proclus. However, it seems that using the categories of Athenian and Alexandrian Neoplatonism allows us to situate Dionysius more precisely on the complex map of late ancient philosophy. Moreover, it highlights Dionysius' particularity. As was stated in Praechter's interpretative scheme, the Neoplatonic current which was related to Christianity was that of Alexandria. However, Dionysius was both clearly related to Athenian Neoplatonism, and clearly a Christian. This makes him unique in the history of late ancient philosophy.


1.   Christian Schäfer, The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite: an Introduction to the Structure and the Content of the Treatise On the Divine Names (Leiden, Brill, 2006); John Dillon and Sarah Klitenic Wear, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007).
2.   For example, the commentaries on the Categories by Porphyry, Simplicius and Ammonius; on the Metaphysics by Syrianus, on the Physics by Simplicius.

Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:39, Friday, 03 April 2009