An Exposition of The Divine Names, The Book of Blessed Dionysius by Thomas Aquinas (review)

Review of Metaphysics 77 (2):345-347 (2023)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:An Exposition of The Divine Names, The Book of Blessed Dionysius by Thomas AquinasMichael J. Rubin, Elizabeth C. Shaw, and Staff*AQUINAS, Thomas. An Exposition of The Divine Names, The Book of Blessed Dionysius. Translated and edited with an introduction by Michael A. Augros. Merrimack, N.H.: Thomas More College Press, 2021. xxv + 549 pp. Cloth, $65.00The profound influence that Pseudo-Dionysius had on Aquinas’s thought, especially in his metaphysics of participation and his apophatic theology, has been known for some time now, thanks to the excellent work of such scholars as Fran O’Rourke. One would therefore think that Aquinas’s Exposition of the Divine Names (his only commentary on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius) would have been translated a lot sooner. This delay is assuredly due not just to the difficulty of translating this work but also to a certain embarrassment felt by Thomists over Aquinas’s sincere belief that the “Dionysius” who wrote the Divine Names was the Areopagite whose conversion at the teaching of St. Paul is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. That the author calling himself “Dionysius” was in fact a theologian writing in the fifth or sixth centuries has been well established by modern scholarship. Hence, Thomists may have felt tempted to discount or at least pass over the influence of this author on Aquinas since it is discomfiting to think that the Church’s greatest theologian accorded such authority to an imposter.Michael Augros tackles these concerns head-on in the excellent introduction to his new translation of the Divine Names commentary. First, Augros points out that in past centuries a pseudonym was usually not an act of forgery but, rather, a way of concealing the author’s identity, which an early Christian theologian might well decide to do either out of humility or out of a desire “to avoid provoking certain prejudices” in those who disagreed with him in contemporary theological disputes. Moreover, it is likely that the work was never intended for the general public (who could easily mistake the pseudonym as genuine) but, rather, was written for those “already initiated in a particular Neoplatonic school of Christian theology,” who would recognize the author as being “one of their own” but without knowing his precise identity. Finally, in taking the particular name of “Dionysius,” the author of the Divine Names was indicating his intention for the work: Just as the biblical Dionysius was a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity, so the works of Pseudo-Dionysius [End Page 345] are an attempt to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Christian faith.It therefore seems likely, as Augros observes, that Aquinas would still have accorded a great deal of respect to the Divine Names even if he had learned the truth of the author’s identity. The work would not have had the same deuterocanonical authority for him that comes with being written by a direct disciple of St. Paul himself, but “the inherent cogency, coherence, and beauty” of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology would have been the same. Hence, Pseudo-Dionysius would surely have earned from Aquinas the “docile attitude” appropriate “for a philosopher and theologian of the first order, such as Boethius.”That Aquinas was right to see the author of the Divine Names as a master philosopher and theologian becomes evident when one dives into the text itself, in which Aquinas sees a truly dazzling order, both externally and internally. According to Aquinas, the Divine Names discusses those truths about God of which there are intelligible likenesses in creatures, such as goodness or wisdom, whereas the truths about God of which there are sensible likenesses (for example, “when God is called a lion, or a rock”) are treated by Pseudo-Dionysius in The Symbolic Theology; meanwhile, in the lost or fictional work The Divine Characteristics, Dionysius claims to have treated those truths about God (such as the Trinity) that cannot be known through any likenesses in creatures.Aquinas finds a still more intricate order within the Divine Names itself. Since this work is dedicated to “the divine names by which the processions of God to creatures are manifested,” the plan of the work...

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Author Profiles

Michael J. Rubin
Mary Washington College
Elizabeth Shaw
University of Aberdeen

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