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The translations of which the present volume consists are the work of a scholar who died at the age of thirty-seven. It has been felt that since the translator did not live to write a preface his work should be introduced by a few prefatory words. My excuse for accepting that office is that I probably knew the lamented writer as well as any one living. He was deprived of both his parents while very young, left almost friendless, and entrusted to my care from the age of fourteen. He had already shown promise of unusual ability. I sent him to King’s College School, where in the opinion of its distinguished Head, the Rev. Dr. Bourne, he could have done anything if only he had been given the health. At Oxford he was awarded the Liddon Studentship.
Nothing can show more clearly what was thought of him by competent judges in Oxford than the following letter written by the Professor of Latin, A. C. Clark:
“He was one of the best scholars who passed through my hands at Queen’s College, and I know no one who made greater progress after coming into residence. In those early days he had wonderful powers of work. I was seldom so delighted as when he earned the great distinction of being ‘mentioned’ for the Hertford University Scholarship in Latin. At the time everything seemed to be within his grasp. But most unfortunately his health failed shortly afterwards, and he was never able to do himself justice. Still, of recent years he wrote a remarkable book, full of fine thought, brilliantly expressed, which was much admired by good judges. I well remember, too, his Latin sermon preached at St. Mary’s not long ago. It was delivered with feeling and fire, and seemed to me an admirable performance. I am sure that he would have gained distinction in the Church, if he had lived.
“He seemed to me a fine and noble character, free from all mortal taint.”
He was a singularly refined and religious character, combining the acuteness of a philosophic mind with the fervour of a mystic. He therefore possessed undoubted qualifications for a study of Dionysius, with whose neo-Platonic ideas and mystical tendencies he was in the warmest sympathy.
The Introduction, containing a masterly exposition of Dionysian principles, is entirely the translator’s work, and, within the limits which he set himself, may be called complete. Rolt’s fervid and enthusiastic disposition led him to expound Dionysius with increasing admiration as his studies continued. He laid his original introduction aside, because to his maturer judgment it seemed insufficiently appreciative.
In its final form the Introduction is beyond all question a very able and remarkable piece of work. There are, however, several instances where the writer’s enthusiasm and personal opinions have led him to unguarded language, or disabled him from realizing the dangers to which the Areopagite’s teaching tends. He does indeed distinctly admit that Dionysius has his dangers, and says in one place definitely that the study of him is for the few: but the bearing of the whole theory of the Supra-Personal Deity on the Person of Christ and the Christian doctrine of the Atonement requires to be more thoroughly defined than is done in the exceedingly able pages of Rolt’s Introduction. It is not the business of an editor to express his own views, but yet it seems only reasonable that he should call the reader’s attention to questionable expositions, or to dogmatic statements which seem erroneous. In four or five places the editor has ventured to do this: with what effect the reader must decide. The Introduction of course appears exactly as the Author left it. The few additional remarks are bracketed as notes by themselves.
It is only right to add that the translator laboured under certain disadvantages. The original text of Dionysius is perplexing and confused, and no modern critical edition has as yet been produced. Rolt was frequently in doubt what the Author had really written.
But, beside the drawback incidental to any student of Dionysius, there was the fact of the translator’s solitary position at Watermillock, a village rectory among the Lakes, shut off from access to libraries, and from acquaintance with former writers on his subject. This is a defect of which the translator was well aware, and of which he pathetically complained. Friends endeavoured to some extent to supply him with the necessary books, but the lack of reference to the literature of the subject will not escape the reader of these pages. He was always an independent thinker rather than a person of historical investigation.
Hence it is that one branch of his subject was almost omitted; namely, the influence of Dionysius on the history of Christian thought. This aspect is far too important to be left out. Indeed Dionysius cannot be critically valued without it. An attempt therefore has been made to supply this omission in a separate Essay, in order to place the reader in possession of the principal facts, both concerning the Areopagite’s disciples and critics.
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