Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Palamas

The Byzantine Synthesis of Eastern Patristics

by Agnieszka Świtkiewicz-Blandzi (Author)
©2022 Monographs 244 Pages


The study shows the reception of the views of Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite by Gregory Palamas. The author presents the doctrinal context of Palamas' dispute with Barlaam from Calabria on the possibility of knowing God, the most important issue in 14th-century Byzantium. The author distances herself from many previous interpretations of this problem. She proves that, considering how much Palamas succumbed or did not succumb to the Areopagite or “corrected” his position, he has a very weak doctrinal basis. The author notices that over-emphasizing Dionysius' dependence on the Neoplatonic tradition does not lead to a solution to the problem. Palamas' teachings are placed in the context of the traditions of the Christian East and their relation to the thoughts of the Areopagite himself.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Studies in the Presence of Pseudo-Dionysian Thought in the Works of Palamas
  • 1.1 The Consistency of the Palamite Doctrine with the Patristic Tradition of the Eastern Church
  • 1.2 The Relation of Gregory Palamas’ Doctrine to the Thoughts of the Western Church and Protestant Theology
  • 1.3 Research in Poland on Gregory Palamas’ Thought
  • 2 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: The Person and His Thinking
  • 2.0 Introduction
  • 2.1 Scholarship on Pseudo-Dionysius’ Neoplatonism
  • 2.2 The Issue of the Reception of Corpus Areopagiticum in the Eastern Church from the Sixth to the Fourteenth Centuries
  • 2.3 Doctrinal Commentary: “Scholia” by John of Scythopolis and “Mystagogia” by Maximus the Confessor
  • 2.4 Corpus Areopagiticum in the Byzantine Liturgy and Patristic Thought
  • 3 Gregory Palamas and His Era
  • 3.1 The Life and Work of Palamas Against the Background of Fourteenth-Century Byzantium
  • 3.2 Discussions with Barlaam and Akindynos. Circumstances of the Creation of Works, Treatises and Synodal Volumes
  • 3.3 The Dispute over Gregory Palamas’ Doctrine Against the Backdrop of Church-State Relations
  • 4 The Issue of Knowing God in the Thought of Pseudo-Dionysius
  • 4.1 The Patristic Tradition
  • 4.2 Theological Discourse: Ways of Knowing God According to Pseudo-Dionysius
  • 4.3 Onomatodoxia and Cataphatic Theology
  • 4.4 Symbolic Theology as a Path Upward
  • 4.5 Apophatic Theology
  • 5 Conditions for the Possibility of True Knowledge of God According to Gregory Palamas
  • 6 The Palamite Distinction of Divine Essence and Un-created Energies as the Basis for the Metaphysics of Light
  • 7. The Light of Good and the Light of Knowledge in the Thought of Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Palamas
  • 8. Palamas’ Metaphysics of Light in Relation to the Hierarchical and Symbolic Structure of Pseudo-Dionysius’ World
  • 8.1 The Cognitive Dimension of Hierarchy and the Role of Symbol
  • 8.2 The Moral Aspect of the Dionysian Hierarchy as Interpreted by Gregory Palamas
  • 9 Christ as the Foundation of Knowledge in the Thought of Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Palamas
  • 10. The Areopagite’s Thought in the Context of Palamite Anthropology
  • 11 Unifying Vision
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Abbreviations
  • A. Primary sources
  • B. Primary sources
  • C. Secondary sources
  • D. Encyclopedias and dictionaries:
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

←8 | 9→


Theosis is said to go hand in hand with gnosis. … Ignorance divides and separates, knowledge connects and deifies. R. Roques1

The path to the light passes through darkness. The path to knowledge begins with ignorance. The figure of Gregory Palamas, the most outstanding theologian and philosopher of the Byzantine Empire, whose influence on contemporary Russian philosophy and Orthodox theology cannot be overestimated, is almost unknown to Polish audiences. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the second figure to whom this book is devoted, is also a mysterious character to such an extent that it is a matter of dispute to this day as to who this exceptional theologian and mystic actually was. That having been said, without his Corpus Areopagiticum, we would be hard-pressed to imagine the culture of the Middle Ages broadly understood, the treatises of St. Thomas Aquinas, even Gothic architecture.

So, we begin our story like a wanderer at the foot of a mountain whose magnificent peak is shrouded in clouds, invisible at first sight and yet so promising. We begin by acknowledging our ignorance, but also our desire that the darkness be brightened by the light of knowledge.

And finally, the problem of knowing God, raised by both thinkers, can be summed up in one word: apophatic, by which we mean, quite precisely, abscission, understood as abstract thinking, the abandonment of concepts, the process of negation. The cognitive order from dark to light is also tied to the stages of spiritual development about which Pseudo-Dionysius and Palamas write using the vast tradition of Eastern monasticism and mysticism.

The philosophy and theology of Gregory Palamas, the most versatile thinker of the fourteenth-century Byzantine Empire, has become increasingly the subject of study for Polish historians of philosophy. Over the past several decades, a variety of academics in Europe (including Poland), the United States and Russia (on universities in St. Petersburg and Moscow) have published his works translated into their national languages. At the same time, scholars have published numerous works on specific issues. Thanks to broader and deeper studies focusing on the writings of Gregory Palamas, historians of medieval philosophy ←9 | 10→unanimously view him as the author of an extremely interesting doctrine, one that is deeply rooted in the tradition of the Eastern Church2

Gregory Palamas, known as the Doctor of Hesychasm,3 is the creator of the synthesis of patristic thought, around which – as Vladimir Lossky wrote – many misunderstandings arose and whose true value was underestimated for many years.4 Recently, however, the conviction has deepened that an understanding of the Bishop of Thessaloniki’s views, along with their theological and philosophical foundation, is a prerequisite for getting to the heart of orthodoxy. After all, Palamas’ metaphysics of light, based on the tradition of Greek patristics, is one of the most important attempts to present the foundations of Eastern Christianity in philosophical language. Nowadays, scholars have no doubts that Gregory Palamas was the thinker through whom the prayer practices of the hesychasts and the doctrinal framework of the Eastern Church’s theology found their fullest expression. At the same time, he was a figure who closely tied to his epoch. The most important political events in fourteenth-century Byzantium – dynastic struggles and political disputes – found their dramatic reflection in the life of the Doctor of Hesychasm and had a fundamental influence on the development of his doctrine. It was fully presented in the work entitled The Triads,5 which ←10 | 11→emerged gradually, during discussions on the interpretation of the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius. Many scholars of Palamas’ achievements believe that the significance of The Triads in Byzantine theology and philosophy can be compared to the role played by Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in the development of Western Christianity’s philosophy and theology.

The circumstances of the creation of The Triads and treatises written in defense of the hesychasts are related to a dispute that flared up at the court of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos III. The essence of this dispute over the conditions for knowing God was nothing new, since the Fathers of the Eastern Church considered themselves from the beginning with the way in which a human being can come to know the Creator. In the patristic tradition, it was a firmly established belief that knowing God, possible through the experience of a unifying vision along (that is, full communion – σύναξις), constitutes the highest and most necessary goal of human life realized through the process of deification.6 Therefore, the doctrine of salvation is perceived precisely as a way to resemble God. The presence of this issue, as Vladimir Lossky noted, is a characteristic feature of all dogmatic controversies within the Eastern Church, “all the history of Christian dogma unfolds itself about this mystical center.”7 In other words, theology revolves around the problem of the absolute transcendence of God as the source of all existence, with the simultaneous revelation of the Trinity to its creations (both noetic and corporeal beings) out of consideration for love of him, thanks to which it can return to its Creator in unifying cognition. In ←11 | 12→this antinomic (transcendence/presence in the world) understanding of God, there is a whole spectrum of issues considered by the Cappadocian Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and the monastic tradition starting with Evagrius Ponticus. I have deliberately listed here theologians who wanted to show how a non-participatory being becomes participatory through its manifestations, its actualizing powers, just as it is simultaneously indivisible and divisible, and then how these energies find hypostatic constitutions in the three Persons of the Trinity, though they are not its consecutive persons. I consider – on the one hand – how the divine-human person of Christ is a condition for the possibility of transforming human nature to know the essence of God through energies, and on the other hand – how man, a psycho-physical being, is capable of experiencing the Supreme Being, seeing It thanks to deifying energy, while at the same time It is beyond all participation. These considerations culminated precisely in fourteenth-century Byzantium, when monastic thought was already fully formed, based on the tradition of generations of monks, holy elders, and ascetics. Understanding and support for the mystical experience, which already dominated the religious life of the Eastern Empire at the end of the thirteenth century, clashed with resistance derived from paideia – a certain intellectual baggage possessed by society’s educated classes. Byzantines, who considered themselves to be Romans and claimed Constantinople to be the second Rome, were undoubtedly the heirs of the ancient Greek culture.8 According to L. Bréhier, the Byzantine Empire should be understood as an organic whole of the Hellenized and Christianized Roman Empire. Bréhier sees in Byzantium three basic elements of European civilization that make up one whole: Hellenism, Roman law and Christianity; Byzantine society was thus the heir to antiquity.9 This heritage, rich and at the same time constraining, found its reflection in every area of life, including in language, literature, art and, of course, philosophy. The Cappadocian Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and ←12 | 13→John of Damascus put a great deal of effort into adapting Greek concepts to the presentation of Christian truth in order to use them in a way that would exclude heresy. As B. Tatakis notes in his introduction to Byzantine Philosophy, the Church Fathers tried to systematically and consistently express the new faith by assimilating Greek contents that did not conflict with the truths of faith. Therefore, as the Greek scholar writes, “they are true masters; the authority of tradition does not burden them, for they create tradition.”10 And yet, the problem of their dependence on the Plato or Plotinus’ thought as a factor that runs contrary to orthodoxy is raised to this day.11 While, in the field of theology, heresies originating in Greek thought (e.g. the views of Arius, Eunomius, Origen) were condemned, in other areas Byzantine scholars were faithful disciples and followers of the ancient masters. As M. Wesoły emphasizes, there is nothing contradictory in this:

The distinction was accepted between external knowledge, which was secular Hellenic science, from internal knowledge, the inexpressible mystery of revealed faith and apophatic theology.12

The anathema of the Synodicon, repeated every year, clearly defined the boundaries beyond which an interest in “secular knowledge” could not go:

For those who plumb the depths of Hellenic teachings and nurture them not only for the sake of education, but who follow and follow these vain views as true, and thus regard them as something certain … – anathema!13

Fourteenth-century Constantinople, Nicaea, Thessaloniki, and Mystras were thus the cities where Plato and Aristotle’s teachings were studied. From these philosophers, their inhabitants learned logic, the art of analysis, and synthesis. For this reason, in court and church circles steeped in Hellenism, the tension between the ancient legacy and Eastern Orthodoxy became increasingly acute. Doubts emerged both among the clergy, where many higher ecclesiastical functions were performed by people studying Greek philosophy, and among well-educated aristocrats familiar with the scholarship of antiquity. The emperor’s court and its ←13 | 14→philosophical school were a place that brought together both groups, where the orthodox patristic tradition was simultaneously cultivated. In 1330, the monk-scholar Barlaam of Calabria was officially appointed head of the philosophy faculty at the imperial university. John Kantakouzenos, marshal of the court (megas domestikos) during the reign of Emperor Andronikos III, entrusted Barlaam with this position based on latter’s broad knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and logic. During his lectures, the Calabrian thinker dealt mainly with the works of Pseudo-Dionysius; John Kantakouzenos thus officially appointed Barlaam to interpret and expound upon the Areopagite’s thoughts on the issue of knowing God.14 Describing Dionysian thought more in the spirit of nominalism rather than patristic antinomy, Barlaam came to the following conclusions: 1. God is absolutely unknowable and utterly transcendent to human cognitive faculties, both mental and sensual. 2. Man is unable to transcend the determinants of his created nature. 3. The only knowledge about God we can possess results from the knowledge of created beings, and it is therefore partial and incomplete. 4. We know God only in a way that is possible for us – that is, through created symbols and analogies arranged in a specific hierarchy.15 Barlaam claimed that Pseudo-Dionysius derived these conclusions from his reading Greek philosophy, and that in his Mystical Theology he even used expressions he had found in the writings of the Pythagoreans, Panaetius of Rhodes, Brontinus, Philolaus, Charmides, and others.16 The Calabrian thus believed that the light-energy visions of the hesychast monks of Athos had no epistemological value, since it was one of many created divine manifestations; cognition therefore remains in the sphere of natural knowledge. In Barlaam’s view, the monks were uneducated ignoramuses, and their visions were without divine grounding, mere delusions. His attack on both the theory and practice of Hesychasm initiated a stormy discussion, whose essential focus was the question of one’s ability to know God. Palamas’ subsequent responses consistently focused on various aspects of the issue. Thus, the first of the three parts of The Triads deals mainly with the possibilities of getting to know God through the acquisition of knowledge in the process of secular education. ←14 | 15→Palamas’ opponents, as I mentioned, believed that knowledge of God could be achieved indirectly through beings’ knowledge. Barlaam based his position on a literal interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius’ works De Coelesti Hierarchia and the Divine Names. In his opinion, negative theology, Pseudo-Dionysius conceived it, serves only to emphasize the limitations of the human mind in terms of knowing God’s nature. The essence of apophaticism is the assertion that our mind, as a creation that is subject to change, cannot know the essence of its source. It thus produces negative concepts related to the object of knowledge – i.e. it can only define what God is not. This cognition, partial and uncertain, should avail itself of the image of the world acquired through the senses, since the cosmos as created by God shows traces of his presence in the form of symbols; it leads to the Creator through hierarchies and analogies. According to Barlaam, real knowledge available to man relating to the supreme Being is symbolic knowledge, and therefore relative. Full illumination – i.e. knowledge of the essence of the divine being – can be achieved by a rational creature after the death of the body, have reached a new state of mind permeated with divine energies. According to the Calabrian philosopher, Pseudo-Dionysius’ system excludes the possibility of a direct vision of divine essence, which it is absolutely inaccessible, and if one has any chance of crossing through the cloud of ignorance, it is after getting rid of the mortal shell of the body.

This was the interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius, supported by numerous quotations from his writings, that Palamas had at his disposal. Due to the thematic framework of my work, I will omit the issues that are currently under discussion by academics about Barlaam’s correct or incorrect understanding of Pseudo-Dionysius. I will only point out here that an excellent introduction to this issue is provided by the works of a renowned translator and researcher Robert Sinkewicz, e.g. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in the Early Writings of Barlaam the Calabrian (1982); Reinhard Flogaus, Palamas and Barlaam Revisited: A Reassessment of East and West in the Hesychast Controversy of 14th Century Byzantium (1998); and the most recent study by Håkan Gunnarsson, Mystical Realism in the Early Theology of Gregory Palamas (2002).17 On the other ←15 | 16→hand, it seems to me of paramount importance to highlight the role that Barlaam played in the Palamite reading of the Areopagitics. Let us note that Gregory’s intention was not to reinterpret undisputed patristic authority or to provide any correction, but to discuss with Barlaam and find a doctrinal foundation in defense of his brothers – the monks of Athos, whom Barlaam had ridiculed and contemptuously named omphalopsychoi (men with their souls in their navels), reflecting one of the details of the prayer practice. According to the Calabrian, this is the “prayer of the heart” – i.e. the long-lasting and constantly repeated formula “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us,” a kind of “mantra,” that caused a state of inner quiet (hesychia), enabling one to see and experience divine light, visions as experienced by the apostles on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration of Christ.18 Barlaam deliberately simplified and trivialized this process, presenting centuries-old prayer practice as a purely automatic activity which – without the need for internal transformation – was supposed to lead to visions God. Based on Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophatic theology, he found such a belief very harmful, and he argued that these visions were symptoms of mental illness. According to this interpretation, the monks of Athos were at risk of being accused of preaching the heretical view that one could attain illumination of the mind through a specific prayer practice, not only by ignoring the knowledge of created beings, but also by denying the order of sacraments and the mediation of priests. Through such an approach, the teaching of the hesychasts would be both a falsehood and a doctrinal error like that taught by the Bogomils and condemned by Alexios I Komnenos.19 In view of the far-reaching consequences of ←16 | 17→Barlaam’s interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius, it is obvious that Palamas’ main goal, who was closely associated with the Athos community, was to challenge his opponent’s conclusions. The Doctor of Hesychasm therefore directed his argument against Barlaam, and he was forced, by way of counterarguments, to present a correct understanding, in his opinion, of Pseudo-Dionysian thought – i.e. to carry out a plan that, absent the controversy, he would have never had in the first place.

In this book, I try to answer the fundamental question about the way Palamas understood and assimilated the Pseudo-Dionysian tradition, not only in The Triads (where Pseudo-Dionysius is most often quoted, but also in other treatises cited due to their significant and substantive content: Apologia dieksodikotera, Hagioretic Tome, and The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters (Capita physica, theologica, moralia et practica CL).

After many years of study – beginning with the monastic tradition expressed in the Apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers and the broadly understood Byzantine theology broadly understood (comparative works on Pseudo-Dionysius, Theodore the Studite, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor) and ending with the doctrine of Gregory Palamas – I noticed that that the method adopted by most historians of philosophy does not allow us to obtain satisfactory results when analyzing the influence of Pseudo-Dionysian thoughts on the works of Palamas. The current method of research has a tendency to deal with strictly defined issues concerning the relationship between the Doctor of Hesychasm’s thoughts and the patristic legacy. This is done by quoting the text he used and then providing comparative context, though it is tacitly assumed at the outset that Palamas’ writings are either contradictory or compatible with the particular thread under investigation. With such an approach, disputes – especially those concerning the presence and meaning of Pseudo-Dionysian thought in Palamas’ works – become difficult to resolve. It seems to me that the solutions used so far, which consist of analyzing the explicit or implicit dependencies of Pseudo-Dionysius’ doctrine on Neoplatonism, and then showing how much Palamas was, or was not, influenced by this thought, cause greater controversy and do not solve the problem. Therefore, the method applied here is different than previous methods. For example, I consider theological and philosophical problems in connection with specific issues by placing them in the context of the tradition in which the author moved and the polemics from which these issues arose and were clarified, and by situating them in their respective historical environment. This methodology was postulated by Stefan Swieżawski when, in Rozmyślanie o wyborze w filozofii (Reflecting on choice in philosophy), he wrote that scholars should consider issues of medieval philosophy and theology from ←17 | 18→the inside – i.e. from a medieval rather than modern point of view.20 Instead of only examining the compatibility of Gregory Palamas’ thoughts with the output of his predecessors – in this case, instead of referring to Pseudo-Dionysius, as if superimposing the former’s works on the latter’s – I made an attempt to analyze controversial issues and terms in their natural surroundings: personal, theological and historical. In other words, my intention in this work was primarily to examine, on the basis of source texts, the intentions of both thinkers, and to check whether they were consistent in their basic doctrinal assumptions. The next stage of deliberations was an attempt to read the Areopagitics through the eyes of the Bishop of Thessaloniki, while maintaining the most impartial position possible. At the same time, I tried to determine whether, according to Palamas, a correction of certain aspects if Pseudo-Dionysius’ thought was necessary; whether this correction took place at all; if so, what it consisted of; and finally, whether this was a conscious procedure or one that also the need, resulting from polemics, to demonstrate the doctrinal foundations of the hesychasts’ practices. In a broader sense, another intention emerges from the studied works of Gregory, namely the desire to present the mystical experiences of his confreres using the systematic language of theology, one which was drawn from the rich legacy of the Cappadocian Fathers, Maximus the Confessor, Pseudo-Dionysius, John of Damascus, Macarius of Egypt, and Evagrius Ponticus. For this reason, one of my aims is to present the thoughts of the Doctor of Hesychasm as a synthesis of the great heritage of the Eastern Church, thought inspired by many components of tradition, which requires at the same time that I provide an overall look at the quantum of issues that inspired Gregory.

1 R. Roques, L’Univers dionysien: structure hiérarchique du monde selon le Pseudo-Denys (Paris, 1954), 88.

2 For a bibliography and the state of research in the Polish language, see Yannis Spiteris, Palamas: La grazia e l’esperienza: Gregorio Palamas nella discussione teologica (Rome 1996). The author who first conducted research on the entirety of Palamas’ works (he studied them in manuscript form and published some of them) was J. Meyendorff. He published the results of his research in his now classic work Introduction à l’étude de Gregoire Palamas (Paris 1959). We also find there a deetailed biography of Palamas (pp. 45–170) and a thorough list of his works (Appendix 1, pp. 331–401).

3 “A hesychast – a person who practices (ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ) inner quiet; a term sometimes used to denote a hermit or a recluse; used especially for monks from Mount Athos who practiced constant prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer and who sought to achieve a vision of divine light” – from Georgios I. Mantzaridis,The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, trans. Liadain Sherrard, Contemporary Greek Theologians Series, no 2, English and Greek Edition (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1997, 1984); see also T. Špidlik, I grandi mistici russi (Roma: Città Nuova, 1983; M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 3 (Chicago 1988), 218–220.

4 Vladimir Lossky, “The theology of Light in the thought of St. Gregory Palamas,” in In the Image and Likeness of God (London 1988), 45–69.

5 Gregory Palamas, Ὑπὲρ τῶν ἱερῶν ἡσυχαζόντων (“Triads For The Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude”), PG 150, 1101–1118; a critical edition and French translation, J. Meyendorff, Grégoire Palamas. Défense des saints hésychastes. Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes (Louvain 1959).

6 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (ISD LLC, 1991), 4–17.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (October)
Byzantine theology Maximus the Confessor metaphysics of light knowing of God apophatic theology hesychasm
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Świtkiewicz-Blandzi (Author)

Agnieszka Świtkiewicz Blandzi is a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, Poland. Her main area of research concerns Byzantine philosophy, especially the philosophy and theology of Gregory Palamas and the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor.


Title: Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Palamas
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