Ernesto Sergio Mainoldi, Behind “Dionysius the Areopagite”: The Genesis and Aims of the Corpus Dionysiacum, reviewed by Matthew Brielby Ernesto Sergio Mainoldi
ISBN: 978-8831115544
Published by Città Nuova on June 28, 2018
Language: Italian
Pages: 632

Mainoldi has written an exciting book that reads like a “Whodunit,” a detective story in which the reader is invited to engage in the same process of examination of facts and deduction as the protagonist detective. Here, Mainoldi is the detective and the conclusions, based on hundreds of pages of careful analysis of and spirited engagement with scholarly literature (in various western languages), are innovative and bold.

The subject of the book is the corpus of Dionysius’s writings, the Corpus Dionysiacum (CD). A sixth-century writer who wrote under the pseudonym of St. Paul’s convert recorded in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17, Dionysius’s influence has been enormous in both Eastern and Western Christianity. In the Greek East, the CD deeply influenced the thought of Maximus Confessor, John Damascene, and other Byzantine theologians through and beyond the thirteenth-century George Pachymeres. In the West his theology shaped the metaphysics of the ninth-century Eriugena through the high middle ages (especially Aquinas) and beyond. It is difficult to overstate Dionysius’s influence on Eastern and Western thought.

The modern historical and critical study of Dionysius began in 1895 with the appearance of two lengthy articles that demonstrated the heavy dependence of the CD on the texts of Proclus. Mainoldi is immersed in the premodern reception of Dionysius as well as the modern scholarly literature.

The book consists of five lengthy chapters. The first chapter (31–154) examines the historical and dogmatic context of the CD; given this context Mainoldi outlines the objectives of the CD in chapter two (155–284); chapter three provides an outline of the liturgical universe that Dionysius constructs (285–338). All three chapters provide the foundation for Mainoldi’s bold claims in chapters four (339–478), which presents a philological and dogmatic analysis of the texts as well as an advance on his as yet understated conclusions about, among other things, the author of the CD; and the concluding fifth chapter (479–532).

Chapter five brings together the evidence collected and arguments heretofore marshalled to come to the bold conclusion that the original author of the CD was a student of Proclus and Damascius, possibly Hegias (510), who Mainoldi argues converted to Christianity after his time in the Athenian Academy. This Ur-text was then revised by a coterie of theologians writing in the Hormisdas (Boukoleon) Palace (493, 513 and following), which was a refuge for six hundred Syrian monophysite monks. This group of theologians was commissioned by Justinian in the mid-520s, during the time when he was the power behind his uncle Justin’s throne.

Mainoldi begins his book by claiming that not knowing Dionysius’s setting prevents us from understanding his intentions and, furthermore, prohibits us from establishing interpretive paradigms for reading the texts (24). He foreshadows his later argument when he argues, against much recent scholarship, that he will explain Dionysius’s synthesis of his undeniable Neoplatonism with his undeniable Christianity. In this Mainoldi places himself between Eric Perl, Stephen Gersh, and others who see little rupture between Dionysius and Neoplatonism, and authors such as Archbishop Alexander (Golitzin) who argue for a strong break with that tradition (214–215, 222, 252). Mainoldi’s position is that Dionysius presents a transformation of Neoplatonic metaphysics by a synthesis of that metaphysics with the patristic tradition (420). It is not, finally, a Christianization of Platonism. Rather, the terms of philosophy are used to comprehend the mysteries proposed by scripture (411, 434).

Of course, interpreting the CD is not simply a matter of considering its relationship to Neoplatonism. Rather, there are other elements that need to be considered. For instance, there are traces of the Syriac liturgy (147), there are hardly any technical dogmatic terms, and there is the fact that Dionysius mediates between monophysite and dyophysite Christologies. The reflections of the Syriac liturgy, Mainoldi proposes (296 and following, 308, 335), is an attempt of Dionysius to present himself as a first-century Christian who is not au courant with Constantinople’s development of the liturgy. Of course, the source of this, in Mainoldi’s account, is Dionysius’s, and his coterie’s, encounters with Syrian monks in the Palace of Hormisdas. The absence of technical dogmatic terms, too, is an attempt to preserve the pseudonymity of Dionysius and his claim to be the Dionysius of Acts. The attempt to mediate between Christologies really reflects Justinian’s religious and political concern to conciliate the two parties.

Near the end of chapter four (457 and following), Mainoldi begins to establish some of his most original conclusions about the composition of the CD. Mainoldi claims that it is clear, from both philological and doctrinal examination, that there could not simply be one author. On the other hand, the CD could not be the result of successive interventions because there would be no unity of vision such as we see in the CD. Mainoldi posits instead an original author with an Athenian philosophical background (467) who was a student of Proclus (469). This author then became the center of a group in Constantinople commissioned by Justinian to draft a corpus that would address his concerns. Indeed, Mainoldi argues, Dionysius has been fundamentally misunderstood because he has been placed by scholars at the periphery of the empire.

The finished CD that we possess has a number of significant traits that Mainoldi’s argument attempts to account for. It was written to address specific issues: Christology, Origenism, and Manicheanism. It attempts to present orthodox doctrine in a manner that might be acceptable to the non-orthodox (484–485). Finally, it integrates into a Dionysian universe the following: Cappadocian theology, Christological concerns after Chalcedon, the doctrine of theosis, monastic asceticism, angelology, the development of Constantinopolitan and Antiochian liturgical traditions, and Neoplatonism.

Mainoldi proposes the following process of composition of the CD:

  1. The first draft of the CD was composed by a student of Proclus and Damascius (480), possibly Hegias, who had converted to Christianity. It may have circulated among a small group of friends but does not seem to have been circulated beyond that small circle. A patron (Justinian) decided to use this text to address present day theological and political concerns (473).
  2. The CD becomes a multi-author work commissioned by Justinian (49, 474).
  3. The various parts are harmonized (475).
  4. Final pseudoepigraphal additions as well as testimony to the Dormition (a Constantinopolitan liturgical feast) are incorporated into the CD (482–483).
  5. The long paraphrase on evil is inserted (517).

For Mainoldi, the CD is testimony to the pacifying orientation of Justinian’s religious politics, especially in Christology, his tolerant approach to Origenism, and his philosophical response to the school of Athens.

Mainoldi, as previously stated, presents a number of bold arguments about the composition of the CD that go against much, but not all, of contemporary scholarship. It is for this reason that Mainoldi engages the best of modern scholarship in extenso in his first long three chapters. The book, grounded in strong historical, doctrinal, and philological research, comes to conclusions that are in my judgment, at best, probable. But then, in these kinds of questions especially and with our surviving evidence, we can only come to probable conclusions. Mainoldi has presented us with both a bold conclusion and a daring argument that needs to be tested. Mainoldi has begun to do this work in some of his analysis of the CD, particularly in the last chapter of his book. What we need now are works that will take up these conclusions about the composition of the CD and see what fruits will come from such a hermeneutic.

If Mainoldi’s thesis proves right, it could have great consequences both for scholarship and the Church. Mainoldi’s thesis is able to account both for the Proclian influence and the ultimately Christian character of the CD. His positing of a detailed explanation for the origin of the CD will help scholars better understand the texts and the corpus as a whole. This is important for the Church because of the massive influence on Dionysius on the later Church, both East and West. For instance, Maximus Confessor’s Christology is unthinkable with Dionysius, while the medieval and later Latin tradition’s reception of Aristotle was tempered, and ultimately made more coherent, by the influence of Dionysius. Because Dionysius is indebted to Proclus and the later Neoplatonic Academy while retaining a basic Christian orientation, his influence on the Church can be understood to be both philosophically rigorous and ultimately determined by the Father’s revelation in Christ.


Matthew C. Briel
Assumption College