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  • On Dionysius the Areopagite. Volume 1: Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, Part I. Volume 2: The Divine Names, Part IIby Marsilio Ficino
  • Leo Catana
Marsilio Ficino. On Dionysius the Areopagite. Volume 1: Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, Part I. Volume 2: The Divine Names, Part II. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. Vol. 1: Pp. 592. Cloth, $29.95. Vol 2: Pp. 528. Cloth, $29.95.

The volumes under review are of immense value, because they convey to the modern reader how and why one of the most important Renaissance Platonists, Marsilio Ficino, came to regard the writings of one late ancient Platonist, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, as central to the history of ancient Platonism. The philosopher nowadays known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is the author of four treatises composed in Greek in the late fifth [End Page 335]or the sixth century CE: On the Divine Names, On the Celestial Hierarchy, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, On Mystical Theology. In addition, ten of his letters have survived. The acquired prefix ‘pseudo’ derives from the circumstance that, from the sixth to the fifteenth century, these treatises and letters were erroneously attributed to a certain Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17:19 and 17:34, who had listened to Saint Paul preaching on the Hill of the Areopagos in Athens and believed in Saint Paul’s new doctrine. This identification gave the texts a tremendous authority in the medieval and Renaissance periods of the Christian tradition. The Renaissance humanist and philosopher Lorenzo Valla (1406–1457) argued on philological and historical grounds that the author of these treatises and letters could not be identical with the Dionysius mentioned in Acts. Valla’s arguments did not carry conviction immediately in all quarters, but subsequent scholars in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries—Protestants and Catholics alike—questioned the idea that the two were identical. At the end of the nineteenth century it was finally argued convincingly that the author of these works was, in fact, active in the late fifth or the sixth century CE.

The implications of the erroneous dating were quite severe: Dionysius had been seen as a source to late ancient Platonists such as Plotinus (204/5–270 CE) and Proclus (ca. 412–485 CE), and hence viewed as having only defectively conveyed Dionysius’s ideas. With the modern dating, however, Dionysius was no longer regarded as the source for these ancient Platonists, but the reverse: these Platonists were now seen as the sources on whom Dionysius was drawing. The assumption that Christ had perfected Plato’s philosophy and that the Apostles had disseminated this philosophy, written down by Dionysius the Areopagite, came to be questioned; and the Christian Platonism that we find in Dionysius’s texts came to be recognized as derivative from late ancient Platonists, not vice versa.

Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), a Florentine humanist and philosopher, composed Latin translations and commentaries on the works of Plato, Plotinus, Hermes Trismegistus, and other ancient Platonists, including Dionysius the Areopagite. As regards the latter’s status, Ficino adhered to the traditional view: to Ficino, Dionysius, as he called him, was the culmen(summit) of Platonism and the columen(pillar) of Christian theology. Consequently, he saw Dionysius as the source to late ancient Platonists, for example, Plotinus and Proclus, and he often referred to Pseudo-Dionysius’s writings in his commentaries on the works of Plato (e.g. his Symposium), Plotinus, and other ancient Platonists for the sake of clarification.

Pseudo-Dionysius’s writings were translated into Latin several times from the ninth century onward and commented on by medieval theologians and philosophers. Ficino retranslated two of Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatises dedicated to negative theology— On Mystical Theologyand On the Divine Names—and wrote commentaries on them in the early 1490s, which underscored their Platonic content, especially the metaphysics of the Parmenides. Given Ficino’s historical perspective, these commentaries are important to our understanding of his interpretation of ancient Platonism.

The publication under review consists of two volumes. In the first we find Allen’s excellent introduction (vii–xxxix), explaining the reception of Pseudo-Dionysius...


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