Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

DIONYSIUS, ST. (THE AREOPAGITE),
AND THE FAMOUS ECLIPSE.

The author of the article “Apocrypha” has neglected to mention a hundred works recognized for such, and which, being entirely forgotten, seem not to merit the honor of being in his list. We have thought it right not to omit St. Dionysius, surnamed the Areopagite, who is pretended to have been for a long time the disciple of St. Paul, and of one Hierotheus, an unknown companion of his. He was, it is said, consecrated bishop of Athens by St. Paul himself. It is stated in his life that he went to Jerusalem to pay a visit to the holy Virgin and that he found her so beautiful and majestic that he was strongly tempted to adore her.

After having a long time governed the Church of Athens he went to confer with St. John the evangelist, at Ephesus, and afterwards with Pope Clement at Rome; thence he went to exercise his apostleship in France; and knowing, says the historian, that Paris was a rich, populous, and abundant town, and like other capitals, he went there to plant a citadel, to lay hell and infidelity in ruins.

He was regarded for a long time as the first bishop of Paris. Harduinus, one of his historians, adds that at Paris he was exposed to wild beasts, but, having made the sign of the cross on them, they crouched at his feet. The pagan Parisians then threw him into a hot oven from which he walked out fresh and in perfect health; he was crucified and he began to preach from the top of the cross.

They imprisoned him with his companions Rusticus and Eleutherus. He there said mass, St. Rusticus performing the part of deacon and Eleutherus that of subdeacon. Finally they were all three carried to Montmartre, where their heads were cut off, after which they no longer said mass.

But, according to Harduinus, there appeared a still greater miracle. The body of St. Dionysius took its head in its hands and accompanied by angels singing “Gloria tibi, Domine, alleluia!” carried it as far as the place where they afterwards built him a church, which is the famous church of St. Denis.

Mestaphrastus, Harduinus, and Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, say that he was martyred at the age of ninety-one years, but Cardinal Baronius proves that he was a hundred and ten, in which opinion he is supported by Ribadeneira, the learned author of “Flower of the Saints.” For our own part we have no opinion on the subject.

Seventeen works are attributed to him, six of which we have unfortunately lost; the eleven which remain to us have been translated from the Greek by Duns Scotus, Hugh de St. Victor, Albert Magnus, and several other illustrious scholars.

It is true that since wholesome criticism has been introduced into the world it has been discovered that all the books attributed to Dionysius were written by an impostor in the year 362 of our era, so that there no longer remains any difficulty on that head.

Of the Great Eclipse Noticed by Dionysius.

A fact related by one of the unknown authors of the life of Dionysius has, above all, caused great dissension among the learned. It is pretended that this first bishop of Paris, being in Egypt in the town of Diospolis, or No-Amon, at the age of twenty-five years, before he was a Christian, he was there, with one of his friends, witness of the famous eclipse of the sun which happened at the full moon, at the death of Jesus Christ and that he cried in Greek, “Either God suffers or is afflicted at the sufferings of the criminal.”

These words have been differently related by different authors, but in the time of Eusebius of Cæsarea it is pretended that two historians — the one named Phlegon and the other Thallus — had made mention of this miraculous eclipse. Eusebius of Cæsarea quotes Phlegon, but we have none of his works now existing. He said — at least it is pretended so — that this eclipse happened in the fourth year of the two hundredth Olympiad, which would be the eighteenth year of Tiberius’s reign. There are several versions of this anecdote; we distrust them all and much more so, if it were possible to know whether they reckoned by Olympiads in the time of Phlegon, which is very doubtful.

This important calculation interested all the astronomers. Hodgson, Whiston, Gale, Maurice, and the famous Halley, demonstrated that there was no eclipse of the sun in this first year, but that on November 24th in the year of the hundred and second Olympiad an eclipse took place which obscured the sun for two minutes, at a quarter past one, at Jerusalem.

It has been carried still further: a Jesuit named Greslon pretended that the Chinese preserved in their annals the account of an eclipse which happened near that time, contrary to the order of nature. They desired the mathematicians of Europe to make a calculation of it; it was pleasant enough to desire the astronomists to calculate an eclipse which was not natural. Finally it was discovered that these Chinese annals do not in any way speak of this eclipse.

It appears from the history of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, the passage from Phlegon, and from the letter of the Jesuit Greslon that men like to impose upon one another. But this prodigious multitude of lies, far from harming the Christian religion, only serves, on the contrary, to show its divinity, since it is more confirmed every day in spite of them.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25