The Apophatic Way in Gregory of Nyssa

Written by Ivana Noble

(Posted by Martin Vaňáč on St, 21 March 2007)

Gregory of Nyssa (c.330 - c.395) is best known for his contributions, along with his brother, Basil, and their friend, Gregory Nazianzen, to the Trinitarian formulations of the Council of Constantinople. However, my main concern in what follows is another aspect of Gregory´s theology. I wish to consider Gregory´s understanding of the apophatic elements which are to be found in our journey to and in communion with God.

To do this, I will need to examine five areas. First, in what sense is it possible to call Gregory of Nyssa´s theology apophatic? Second, and in order to answer that first question, I will consider the two key controversies: with Origen and with Eunomius. Out of this polemic I will look at how Gregory´s concept of God´s infinity on the one hand and the infinite progress of humanity on the way to God on the other developed. This will lead to an analysis of what Gregory thinks can be known about God and how. Finally, I will look at the use of speech and silence as means of communication, an investigation that is of particular relevance in present discussion about the rediscovery of the apophatic method in philosophy and in theology.[1] In the Conclusion I make this link more explicit and also consider two problems: first, why it is not enough to speak of God's transcendence - so, what else can apophaticism bring that would be relevant for our life of faith; second, wheather we can employ an apophatic method without affirming a progressive hierarchical ascent, and thus exclusivism in who can and who cannot reach higher stages of communion with God.

1. The Place of Gregory in the Apophatic Tradition

The word „apophatic", in Greek ἀπόφατικη, comes fromἀπόφασις, which has two basic meanings, namely „revelation" and „negation".[2] It comes from the negative particle ἀπό and φασις which means either "phase" or „discovering, showing itself" (if it comes from the word φαίνω, to show or reveal), or "ratification" or "spelling out" (if it comes from the word φημί, to say). Vladimir Lossky defines apophaticism as follows:
Apophaticism consists in negating that which God is not; one eliminates firstly all creation, even the cosmic glory of the starry heavens and the intelligible light of the angels in the sky. Then one excludes the most lofty attributes, goodness, love, wisdom. One finally excludes being itself. God is none of all this; in His own nature He is the unknowable. He „is not." But here is the Christian paradox; He is the God to whom I say „Thou," Who calls me , Who reveals Himself as personal, as living.[3]
Using as an example the liturgy of John Chrysostom, he shows that in the patristic tradition the apophatic way is the journey towards a personal God: ‘In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, before the Lord's Supper, one prays: „And grant us, O Lord, to dare to invoke Thee with confidence and without fear, by calling Thee Father."'[4] And Lossky comments that the Greek text says precisely ‘God on high Whom one cannot name, the apophatic God'.[5]

The apophatic way, however, is not an independent discourse. It has to go alongside the kataphatic way, in which the hidden God, dwelling beyond all that he reveals, is also the God who reveals himself as wisdom, as love, as goodness. Apophaticism, according to Lossky, emphasises that it is not God´s substance which is available to us but God´s communion which is made possible through revelation.[6] Lossky´s understanding of apophaticism stems from the Greek Fathers, mainly from Gregory of Nyssa, who is often quoted. In later works, however, Lossky relates apophaticism more to Dionysios the Aeropagite, the sixth century mystic.[7] My interest, nevertheless, remains with the fourth century situation in which Gregory of Nyssa follows in the tradition of the Alexandrian school, in particular Origen and Clement and emphasises the infinity and incomprehensibility of God. Yet the apophatic way is not given priority, as some sort of higher knowledge, but rather is seen as a complementary discourse to the kataphatic one. As Lenka Karfíková argues:
Gregory does not wish to develop a system of apophatic theology only in the sense of private or negative statements, as can be found with the Arians. Gregory explicitly rejects Eunomios's „technology" of negative statements as meaningless and says that positive statements have generally a priority over negative ones.[8]
Gregory stands within the tradition of Christian philosophers and theologians who made use of Middle Platonist and Plotinian themes mediated through Philo of Alexandria and his exegesis of the Old Testament texts.[9] And, although we do not find in Gregory explicit references to these sources,[10] his application of their insights is somewhat more radical than we find e.g. with Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria. Justin Martyr (c.110-165) stresses God's transcendence against anthropomorphism, but also claims that divine transcendence cannot be divorced from divine immanence. He asserts that the language we use about God does not pin down who God is in God's essence, but rather is derived from God's activities, thus we know God as the Father, as the Creator, as the Lord, etc. We find in Justin two key concepts of negative theology in nuce, namely, the namelesness and the ineffability of God.[11] Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220) relates God's transcendence to the incarnation. He brings about a more systematic presentation than Justin. D. Carabine puts it this way: ‘We can know what God is not (not what he is), the use of the concept of abstraction and his mention of the dark cloud of Sinai, wherein God is invisible and ineffable.'[12] Clement's method of abstraction (aphairesis), outlined in the Stromata consists of three stages of the path to wisdom: illumination (achieved through instruction); purification (attained through confession); and contemplation (achieved through analysis).[13] The transcendent divine nature, then, makes itself known to us through grace and through the Logos.[14] This conclusion, then, opens the door for the more explicit trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians, within which the relationships between the transcendent unknown nature of God and the immanent knowable presence of God are revisited.

Gregory of Nyssa's contribution to the apophatic tradition develops the previous approaches against the complex theological background of the fourth century. Thus, it is not surprising that one of Gregory´s chief aims is to oppose the Arian tradition,[15] which claimed that the negative is superior to the positive when it comes to discourse about God. However, Gregory adopts a more radical approach, which enables him to hold a non-hierarchical understanding of the Trinity. Yet, he does not wish to develop a better way of talking about God, as if that would render the Arian position invalid. Rather, he recognises the limitations of both positive and negative language about God, since neither the one nor the other can ever hope to comprehend fully the ultimately incomprehensible God.

For him, then, the apophatic approach is a safeguard against any temptation to think that God can be defined by any system, be it positive or negative. Instead, he sees the necessity of having a plurality of discourses. No single one, nor indeed the sum of all of them, will be able to define or grasp the reality of God. Nevertheless, by having this plurality of discourse, the partial validity of each discourse can be recognised and valued. Ultimately, the very plurality will guard against the danger of thinking that God has been comprehended[16]. It is in this particular sense that I want to argue that Gregory is very much in the apophatic tradition and uses apophatic discourse in some of his major works. Thus, he makes a contribution to our (not)knowing of God and I will argue that this is a necessary step in bringing about conversion,[17] a necessary complement of any way to knowledge and to communication.

2. Two key controversies

Gregory´s position developed in the context of two controversies. The first was with the radical neo-Arian, Eunomius (d.394/5), and the second was with Origen (c.185 - c.254), who was as already mentioned also a source of great inspiration for Gregory.

Eunomius was a disciple of Aetius, whose extreme Arianism argued for the complete unlikeness of the Father and Son. He followed Aetius as leader of the Anomoeans, arguing that God was the ungenerated Being, the one single supreme Substance. The „Son of God" was created by the Father and not of his essence and neither was the Spirit, who was created in turn by the Son. But what interests me most here, since it elicited some of Gregory´s clearest statements on the subject, is Eunomius´ emphasis on orthodoxy. He claimed that if right doctrine was kept, then in principle God could be perfectly known by human reason and thus God would no longer be mystery.

Gregory´s reply, Contra Eunomium (c.382) is heavily tied up with his defence of the Constantinopolitan position on the divinity of the Son and the Spirit. But in it, Gregory also argues strongly that to call God "unbegotten", or „ungenerated" Being, is not the definitive way of naming God. Gregory writes:
Thus whenever a man speaks of „heaven" he directs the notion of the hearer to the created object indicated by this name, and he who mentions "man" or some animal, at once by the mention of the name impresses upon the hearer the form of the creature, and in the same way all other things, by means of the names imposed upon them, are depicted in the heart of him who by hearing receives the appellation imposed upon the thing. The uncreated Nature alone, which we acknowledge in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, surpasses all significance of names.[18]
Gregory claims that to know the definitive name means to know the essence of God, which is, according to him, indeed, something beyond our reach; ‘the Divine Essence is ineffable and incomprehensible: for it is plain that the title of Father does not present to us the Essence, but only indicates the relation to the Son.'[19] Over against this designation, he says that the most important attribute of God is his infinity,[20] as it does not betray the fact, that our knowing God always includes leaving behind what we think we have grasped and moving beyond that, something, which Bernard Lonergan would perhaps call an intellectual conversion.[21]
Gregory's position can be summed up in three points. First, he argues that no single human word (or combination of them) can hope to grasp the essence of God. This first argument is broadened in the second argument, where he points out that in fact it is doubtful if any human word can fully express the essence of a thing (thus paving the way, as we shall see later, for the concept of symbolic language). Finally, he denies that unbegottenness, uncreatedness, ungeneratedness, is the most adequate way to name God.[22] And these three critical points open a way to Gregory's alternative, in which he insists upon the absolute transcendence and unknowability of the Trinity.[23] According to Gregory, we cannot know God in his essence (ousia), but what we can do is to acknowledge God's effects (energeiai).[24]

Gregory´s relationship to the tradition of the Alexandrian school and in particular Origen is a great deal more complex. Much of Gregory´s theology was influenced by these sources. He took from them the allegorical interpretation of scripture, their teaching on human freedom (with its denial of any form of determinism), and the concept of eschatological hope when all will be well in God.[25]

However, in one area Gregory found himself in disagreement with Origen. This was over Origen´s idea of a cyclical cosmos, where the soul becomes sated with contemplation of God and falls back into created matter once again, to begin the process of returning to God. It is effectively a version of reincarnation and Gregory rejects it.[26]

This doctrine of Origen led Gregory to develop his own response which was based on the concept of epektasis.[27] With this Gregory refers to the constant striving and straining of humankind on the never-ending journey towards God. New life in God is not the end of the journey, but a new phase in which the striving of the heart for God continues unabated. This is related to Gregory's notion of us being created in the image of God. As Carabine puts it, ‘since God's chief characteristic is unknowability, the human mind must be also unknowable to itself.'[28] Then, as God's essence (ousia) cannot be known even by the restored soul, what the soul is left with is a never-ending striving for perfecting the image of God in itself, by a rigorous practice of abstraction from the self (aphairesis). The soul, according to Gregory, cannot know its own essence, but it can know itself as the image of the divine uncreated beauty. The process of the restoration of this image is made possible by the incarnation.[29]

3. God´s infinity and human progress

Now we can return briefly to Gregory´s polemic with Eunomius. In it he distinguishes three types of infinity. The first he calls an absence of limit. For the second he uses the term "adiasthematic", which refers to God´s infinity, and the third type is he calls "diasthematic" which refers to the infinity of the human journey. By "adiasthematic" he means that God´s infinity is not mediated through time and space, whilst "diasthematic" means that the infinity of created beings must always be mediated in this way.[30] Moreover, Gregory also wants to argue against Eunomius´ critique of the Cappadocian model of the Trinity. Eunomius claimed that this presented the Trinity as a composition, the Divinity being composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Gregory responds by saying that God cannot be understood as a composition in human terms. Rather, God must be understood precisely in terms of an infinity (the immediacy, that is, the unmediatedness of God), within whom are non-hierarchical inner relationships and inner communication.[31] Furthermore, this inner life of God, although it remains unbounded by time and space, is not something which is therefore totally alien to creation. For we can experience its energeiai, its effects on us, such as mercy, goodness, love.

This ability to experience the effects of God´s infinity leads Gregory to posit another step. If God´s infinity can be known through its effects, then in that sense we are enabled to participate infinitely in God´s infinity.[32] To this participation in God´s infinity, though, we must necessarily bring our createdness, with all its implications of bodily existence rooted in particular times and spaces. Thus, the infinite human journey is one which involves both this mediatedness and the challenge posed to it by the participation in the infinity of God. It is through this encounter between the mediated and the unmediated that spiritual progress is made.

The theme of spiritual progress is central to Gregory of Nyssa. M. Simonetti describes it thus: "the progressive ascent of man from the moment when he turns away from sin, until the attainment of final beatitude".[33] Here I intend to examine three of Gregory´s works which are central to this theme, namely the early Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms, and two later works, On the Song of Songs and The Life of Moses. They present different approaches primarily because they respond to different problems. The Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms, which was written around the year 379,[34] is a contribution to a controversy with those exegetes, who claimed that these inscriptions were the work of the editors. Gregory follows Hippolytus and Origen in insisting that the titles of the Psalms belong fully to the Scriptures, and thus are also inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is not a theme of central interest for my study, but the treatise develops another theme, namely of the progress in spiritual life, alongside with Gregory´s notions of the apophatic way.

The Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms situates the theme of spiritual progress within questions about the aim of the Psalter and how this aim should be fulfilled. He begins by saying that the whole Psalter, including the inscriptions, has the capacity to lead us to virtue. Thus, the aim of virtue is, according to him, a blessed life: "For everything that one takes pains in doing is always referable to some goal. Just as the art of the physician looks to health, and the aim of farming is to provide for life, so also the acquisition of virtue looks to the one who lives by it becoming blessed."[35] Human blessedness, then, is defined as likeness to God. The role of history, which will find a much bigger place in Gregory´s later works, is minimised here. We find perhaps a stronger Platonic influence:[36]
But someone might also further inquire why the world of the order of the Psalter is at variance with the sequence of history. ...We say, then, ...that our teacher [the Holy Spirit] has no concern for these matters. ...All other things seem incidental, then, to this guide and teacher of our souls except the zeal to save those wandering in the vanity of life and to attract them to true life.[37]
The sequence of the Psalms is soteriological, according to Gregory. It is to help us to progress towards the good in each of the events depicted in the psalms. Progress in spiritual life involves what Gregory summarises in his exegesis of t he first three verses of Psalm1:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by the streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Gregory proposes the following interpretation:
Now, on the one hand, it pronounces separation from evil to be blessed, since this is the beginning of turning to what is better. But after this, it calls the mediation on things that are sublime and more divine blessed, since this actually produces the capacity for what is better. Finally it pronounces blessed the likeness to God which is achieved by those who are being perfected through these stages, and on account of which the blessings previously received are mentioned. This latter is intimated by the evergreen tree, to which the life which has been perfected through virtue is linked.[38]
Gregory, then, sees three stages of spiritual life:

(1) separation from evil;
(2) meditation on the sublime and more divine blessed things; and finally
(3) participation in the blessedness, in the likeness to God.

In comparison with Clement's three stages of the way to wisdom,[39] these more strongly resemble the three Platonic principles: (1) katharsis;[40] (2) anamnesis;[41] and (3) methexis.[42] However, in Gregory the separation from evil is not identified with a purification from the material world, but the meditation on the more sublime and more divine things allow for these being identified with the Ideas. Later, as we will see in the Life of Moses this meditation is firmly rooted in history. And finally, participation in the blessedness, in the divine likeness, regaining what was lost by the fall, which in Gregory's earlier writings allows for a similar non-historical interpretation is later revised. It seems that only when the historical appreciation falls into place, does Gregory introduce the themes of the darkness[43] and infinity of God, as well as our striving towards God. These will all be present in the Life of Moses, where the ascent of the soul to God is rooted in the history of salvation. But the figure of Moses appears already in this treatise, and with this figure, the other themes developed later are introduced:
He sweetened the bitter and undrinkable water with the wood, and changed the rock into a spring for the thirsty. He exchanged earthly food for the heavenly. He had keen vision in the divine darkness, and beheld the One who is invisible in it. He vestment of the priesthood in a worthy manner. He received the tablets made by God, and engraved them again after they were shattered. He bore upon his face a toaken of the divine power which had been revealed to him, and by the brilliance from his face, as though by flashes of sunlight, he averted the eyes of those who met him unvorthily.[44]

4. What can we know about God and how

As was already said, according to Gregory, we cannot know God's essence (ousia), but can know God's effects (energeiai). Now let us examine how he develops this theme in his later work, The Life of Moses, where he includes a positive notion of darkness, and where his notion of the spiritual progress involves the history of salvation more explicitly. The Life of Moses was written round the year 385, when Gregory is more directly involved with the defence of Cappadocian orthodoxy.[45] He writes a work of narrative, rather than speculative theology, in which one of his key concerns is precisely what we can and what we cannot know about God. Gregory writes as a Greek from the Alexandrian school, wishing to mediate to his contemporaries the Jewish scriptures. So it is that he seeks on the one hand to inculturate the story of Moses, using concepts which are accessible and comprehensible to his readers. Yet, part of his purpose is also to demonstrate the total otherness of the God of Moses, especially in respect of alternative philosophical formulations, such as those found in Platonism, for example.[46]

Gregory is at pains to emphasise that the God of Moses is knowable only through relationship. John Meyendorff, in his Preface to the Life of Moses, puts it like this:
But the God who is perceived by Moses is still the God of Israel, the totally Other, the living and personal God, not a philosophical idea, the One of Plotinus. The best proof of it is the constantly recurring affirmation of God´s infinity, and, therefore, of the impossibility of exhausting Him or comprehending Him, as the human mind comprehends a concept. Communion with God is a constant ascent „from glory to glory". Each step of this ascent includes the joy of further expectation, the knowledge that He always remains greater than anything we can know of Him, and also that He gives Himself to man without setting any limits, because of his own inexhaustibility. Thus, in meeting God, there is never frustration, or satiety, but only the discovery of true Love.[47]
The work consists of four parts: an introduction, historia (a paraphrase of the Biblical story), theoria (an application of the story by means of contemplative reading to discern its spiritual import) and finally, the conclusion. Historia is not only the title of part of the work, but central to Gregory´s purpose, since he frequently emphasises that contemplation is impossible without being rooted. There can be no theoria, if the historia is not respected and recognised as central to the undertaking. Thus, history becomes for Gregory a symbol of the human journey, the progress of the soul towards God.

He chooses the life of Moses, precisely because such a life can help the traveller on his or her journey: ‘Lives of honoured men would be set forth as patterns of virtue for those who come after them'.[48] As already alluded to, it is in the context of this historically situated journey and through contemplation of the particular lives of the honoured women and men who have preceded us that we are brought face to face with the limits, but also the possibilities, of our understanding.
But such thoughts as are beyond our understanding - like the questions, What is the essence of God?, What was there before the creation?, What is there outside the visible world?, Why do things which happen happen?, and other such things as are sought out by inquiring minds - these things we concede to know only by the Holy Spirit, who reaches the depths of God, as the Apostle says.[49]
Gregory has not abandoned the concepts resembling those of katharsis, anamnesis or methexis which had served him so well previously. However, these are now transformed and have ceased to be a-historical. Gregory emphasises rather the history of salvation, the arena for our journey, and the context in which human life is played out. Thus it is that everything else must take its meaning within this historical rootedness. Katharsis, anamnesis and methexis move from being Platonic concepts which are, at heart, in opposition to human existence and in Gregory come to take their meaning and their force from what they can offer to an understanding of human spiritual progress on the unending journey towards God.[50]

In delineating the nature of this journey, Gregory follows the classical stages of the mystical ascent of the soul to God, light, cloud, and darkness.[51] Again, Gregory roots these in the word of the Scriptures. He analyses how God speaks to Moses and comes up with three modes of revelation, first, in light, when Moses understands what is going on, then in a cloud, when his understanding is becoming questioned, and finally in darkness. Heine summarizes:
When Gregory explains what he means, the appearance in light represents a correction and clarification of our concepts of God. The appearance in a cloud stands for the passing of the soul from appearances perceptible to the senses to an apprehension of the hiddenness of God, and the appearance in darkness points to the mystery into which the soul is led, as even what is perceivable by the intellect is left behind, and the soul stands where Moses stood, in the darkness which surrounds God.[52]
Darkness is not a univocal concept in Gregory. Rather, he postulates two types of darkness, the darkness of ignorance and the darkness of restoration. The former is perhaps the more common way in which darkness is used as a metaphor: ‘the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth.' But there is another sort of darkness, which is a precursor to light, the ability ‘to perceive the final restoration which is expected to take place later in the kingdom of heaven of those who have suffered condemnation in Gehenna'.[53]

If Gregory perhaps follows Origen here with an allusion to apokatastasis, he nevertheless still rejects fully, as we have seen, Origen´s other idea of a cyclical cosmos. This is part of the soul´s journey, a journey rooted in time and space, towards God, and this journey will never end. So, darkness is not the final answer, the last word about God (for of course Gregory argues all the time there can be no last word about God). Instead, it is a stage, a part of epectasis, this striving of the soul for God, which has a beginning but no end.

5. Speech and silence as means of communication

It is perhaps not surprising that in reflecting on the life of Moses Gregory finds it necessary to consider the nature of human and divine communication. He sees communication as related to the inner life of God. Even if in principle knowledge of that inner life is beyond us, we are included into it. Gregory wants to maintain the fundamental difference between human and divine communication, but he differs here from later Western thinkers like Aquinas. Gregory does not explain the difference by means of analogy;[54] he simply states the incompatibility, which can be bridged from God's side, as God enters into relationship with us, as God reveals his plans, his actions and himself to us.

Human communication is, for Gregory, an integral part of human existence. We need tools (media) to express our experience of the world in which we live, of our own existence and of God. The prime medium is our bodily existence - it is through this reality that we are enabled to experience and to communicate our experience.
By emphasising the centrality of bodily existence as the prime communicative medium of humanity, he is making a specific point. First of all, it harks back to his fundamental distinction between humanity and God - God is neither spacial nor temporal, but humanity is. Our existence is always spreading through space and time. We are bound by and found in a spatio-temporal reality. Human communication happens somewhere and sometime. For this reason, the first form of a creaturely communication is sensual - we know the world and relate to it through our senses. This first form of communication Gregory ascribes to all "irrational animals": "[f]or it is characteristic of the nature of irrational animals that they are governed by the senses alone divorced from understanding. Their sight and hearing often lead them to what stimulates their appetites. Also, all other things through which sense perception becomes active assume an important place in irrational animals.'[55] But for human beings, this is but one stage on the road to knowledge. For clearly precisely what separates the rational animal (i.e., the human being) from the irrational is the ability to understand what is perceived sensually.

This higher knowledge is about moving on from the world of sense perceptions to another plane, one on which our thoughts can operate free from the limitations of the directly perceptible. In order to marshal our thoughts, though, language is necessary. Language provides signs which make the public utterance and communication of our thoughts possible. This is the step which is only possible for human beings (and not even for all of them).

As far as communication in God is concerned, Gregory is quite clear that we cannot reach God as we can reach creation. There is in this sense no "common language" between God and us, and we have to resist the temptation to make God into something smaller, which can be captured by spatio-temporal categories. But at the same time Gregory refuses to counter an almost complete agnosticism about God, or some sort of almost Deist God, destined to remain utterly alien to creation. For we can in fact come to know something about who God is through the way in which God reveals himself to us, the way in which we are enabled to know God in our lives, in our bodily existence.[56] Key to this is the idea of contemplation:
For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends, but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it [the human mind] keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence´s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing which is not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.[57]
Thus, the encounter with God, the coming to see God through the contemplation of God as he reveals himself to us, is not a gift of a final ability to know God. It is a gift which does not remove the paradox, a knowledge of the unknowability, a seeing of the unseeable, a grasping of the still ungraspable. With this paradox, Gregory is operating at the boundaries of his language and conceptual framework, and yet at the same time he remains faithful to his core belief in the infinite transcendence of God and the infinite possibilities inherent in the never-ending human journey towards God. Perhaps the best way to summarise Gregory´s thoughts is to quote the words of the Preacher ‘there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Qoheleth is, according to Gregory,[58] the great meditator in the Old Testament on the presence of the absent God, or the absence of the present God, and it is this reality that Gregory is trying to wrestle with. The time to keep silence is only there because it helps to make sense of the time we speak and the time to speak is only there because it makes sense of the time when we keep silence.

6. Conclusion

Gregory of Nyssa represents a turning point in the apophatic tradition. This includes more than a claim to God's radical transcendence. Gregory's emphasises the unknowability of God's essence (ousia) and yet the approchability of God in his effects (energeiai). This helps to build up a consistent Trinitarian theology, and also develop another theme of key importance to Gregory, namely that of spiritual progress on our journey to God. This, in Gregory, is achieved by a practice of the Clementian abstraction from the self (aphairesis), but he goes further and emphasizes, that this is a never-ending journey, as this process is never completed, even when the soul enjoys heavenly recreation. The soul can never know the essence of God, as too it can never know the essence of the self. Gregory claims that this is not a disadvantage. Spiritual progress is not about putting the human soul and its knowing to the centre of this process, but about the uncovering the image of God's uncreated beauty in the soul. Similarly , we do not strive to master God's essence, but to participate in God's goodness, as has revealed itself in the history of salvation, and as will be eschatologically transformed. My argument has been that we can trace in Gregory a thematic resemblance to Plato's principles of katharsis, anamnesis, and methexis, although explicit references are missing.[59] These principles make it possible to apply apophasis not only to our ways of knowing, but to the whole realm of religious, moral and intellectual life.[60] Here Gregory can be of a great inspiration to the holistic theologies of conversion, as well as to theologies and philosophies recovering the unity between the mystical and the practical.[61]

Gregory's Trinitarian theology in the defence of non-subordinacialism excludes the notion of hierarchy. Instead, he argues for an understanding of the Trinity based on the inner relationships of the equals.[62] I think that here we can argue further and say that if we are created in the image of God, our striving for the recovery of that image involves also this radical equality with others, abstraction from the self at the horizontal level, which expresses itself as growing solidarity with others. The concept of heavenly and earthly hierarchies later developed by Dionysius[63] does not have an earlier analogy in Gregory, whose apophaticism does not offer either a privileged knowledge (in comparison to Eunomius) or a privileged access to knowledge (in comparison to Dionysius). Rather, Gregory's approach offers a welcome corrective of definite conceptions concerning knowledge, but also spirituality, ecclesiality, morality and politics, even if it has to be noted that especially with regards to politics, Gregory was not always able to provide us with practical examples of application of this corrective.[64] Yet what he has given us are useful theoretical tools, an inspiring exegesis, Trinitarian teaching and recommendarions for the spiritual progress.

[1]These themes are dealt with in the other article presented in this collection, ‘Apophatic Elements in Derrida's Deconstruction, and also in a lecture'Apophatic Aspects of Theological Conversation' at the 3rd International LEST Congress hold in November 6-9 2001 in Leuven, which will be published by Leuven University Press.
[2]The word revelation comes from πόφαίνειν, while the word negation from πόφημι.
[3]Lossky, V., Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1978: 32.
[4]Lossky: 32.
[5]See Lossky: 32.
[6]‘Thus side by side with the negative way, the positive way, "cataphatic," opens out. God Who is the hidden God, beyond all that reveals Him, is also He that reveals Himself. He is wisdom, love, goodness. But His nature remains unknowable in its depths, and that is exactly why He reveals Himself. The permanent memory of apophaticism must rectify the cataphatic way. It must purify our concepts by contact with the inaccessible, and prevent them from being enclosed within their limited meanings.' Lossky: 32-33.
[7]See Lossky, V., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Cambridge, Clark & Co, 1991.
[8]Karfíková, L. Řehoř z Nyssy [Gregory of Nyssa]. Oikúmené,Praha, 1999: 186.
[9]See Carabine, D., The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena. Peeters Press & W.B. Eerdmans, Louvain, 1995: 223-233; Goodenough, E.R., The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and its Helenistic and Judaic Influences. Philo Press, Amsterdam, 1968; Palamer, D.W., ‘Atheism, Apologetic, and Negative Theology in Greek Apologists of the Second Century', Vigiliae Christianae 37 (1983), 234-259; Price, R., ‘Helenisation and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr', Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988), 18-23.
[10]Carabine claims that Gregory's knowledge of Middle Platonism and of Plotin was mediated through the Alexandrian school of exegesis, Origen in particular, through Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianus, and his brother Basil the Great (236). Compare to claims of direct knowledge of the sources in older literature: Daniélou, J., ‘Grégoire de Nysse et le néo-Platonisme de l'école d'Athènes', Revue des études grecques 80 (1967), 395-401; Courcelle, P.,‘Grégoire de Nysse lecteur de Porphyre', Revue des études grecques 80 (1967), 402-406.
[11]See Carabine: 226-228.
[12]Carabine: 229.
[13]See Stromata V.10-11; in Carabine: 231. Compare to my references below to Plato's three principles as these are mirrored in Gregory.
[14]See Carabine: 232. Compare to Irenaeus's concept of the Trinity, where the Son and the Spirit are symbolised as two hands of God, and to the developed Cappadocian teaching on the Trinity.
[15]This includes the heresies of both Arius and Eunomius. Arius's claim that there is an essential difference between the ungenerate nature of the Father and generate nature of the Son (refused in 321 - and opposed by the Council of Nicea in 325) is radicalised by Eunomius's assertion that the'ungenerate' is not only the fundamental characteristic of God, but also God's essence (ousia).
[16]See Karfíková: 196; Compare to Begzos, M., ‘Apophatische Theologie und Ekklesiologie', in Verborgener Gott - verborgene Kirche? Die kenotische Theologie und ihre ekklesiologischen Implikationen. Ed. J. Brosseder, Verlag W. Kohlammer, Stuttgert, Berlin, 2001:26-33.
[17]Bernard Lonergan defines conversion in the following way: 'Conversion is a matter of moving from one set of roots to another. ...It occurs only inasmuch as a man discovers what is inauthentic in himself and turns away from it, inasmuch as he discovers what the fulness of human authenticity can be and embraces it with his whole being.' (Method in Theology. Darton, Longman and Todd, London. 1972:271) Conversion, then, has three aspects to it; he speaks of religious, moral and intellectual conversion, but not of different conversions. Conversion is a holistic process which happens at the roots of our humanity, where one can be edified by the encounter with the living God. See Lonergan: 270.
[18]Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium libri I et II. Ed. W. Jager, GNO II, Leiden, 1960, 3-311: II.3.
[19]Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: II.3.
[20]Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: I. 673.
[21]Or rather an intellectual aspect of conversion. See note 18.
[22]See KarfíkováTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'">: 279.
[23]The Eunomian controversy manouvered Gregory to the position in which he claimed that what applied to one person of the Trinity applies to all, which opened up difficulties e.g. for the theology of the Cross. Gregory subordinated his Christology to his Trinitarian theology, and also lost some of the economic characteristics of the Trinity. See Carabine: 248; Lossky, V., ‘Apophasis and Trinitarian Theology', in In the Image and Likeness of God. London, Oxford, 1975: 13-29.
[24]This distinction between ousia and energeiai was further developed by Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359) and accepted as an Orthodox teaching at the Council of Constantinopole in 1351.
[25]We find in GregoryTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'"> a similar position to Origen's teaching on apokatastasis, namely that all will be well in God in the end, which included the conversion and inclusion of everything and everyone, including all people, but also all the dark forces, even Satan. Gregory's position runs on similar lines, but, perhaps, as it remained less explicit, it avoided condemnation, which Origen's teaching on Times New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'">apokatastasisTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'"> did not.
[26]In this Gregory keeps with the anathema of Constantinople, which we know from the Edict of Justinian in 542. See Karfíková: 25.
[27]This concept Gregory takes from Phil 3:13: "πεκτεινόμενος" - striving toward that which is coming to it.
[28]Carabine: 244; he refers to Gregory's treatise De hominis opificio XI.3-4.
[29]See Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: II; Carabine: 247.
[30]See Karfíková: 293.
[31]We have to be careful with the interpretation of Gregory's claims that God is adiasthematic as well as with his arguments for non-hierarchical relations within the Trinity, as opposed to subordinationism. Neither of these concepts constitutes any type of knowledge of the divine essence in Gregory.
[32]See Karfíková: 195.
[33]Simonetti, M., Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. Edinburgh, 1994: 65.
[34]Daniélou argues that it was written before the year 379, possibly during Gregory´s exile, R.E. Heine places it after that date, arguing that it bears traces of the following events, the death of his brother Basil, the controversy with Eunomius, the death of his sister Marcina, and the intensification of the Origenist controversy. See Heine, R.E., ‘Introduction' to Gregory of Nyssa´s Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995: 10-11.
[35]Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.5.
[36]Heine argues that we find in Gregory either explicitly or implicitly fragments of Iamblichus´s rules of Platonic philosophy. See ‘Introduction': 36. Cf. note 10.
[37]Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms II.131-132.
[38]Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.8.
[39]Compare to Clement's notions of illumination, purification, and contemplation, as three stages of abstraction (aphairesis) in Stromata V.10-11.
[40]In the Sophist we find also the so called Cathartic Method ascribed to Socrates. It is concerned with ‘the purifier of the soul from conceits that stands in the way of knowledge' (Sophist 231.e). The word καθαρμός (from the passive substantive κάθαρμα - offscouring, outcast) refers to the removed impurity rather than to what is purified. Purification is related both to body and to soul. The body has to be purified from disease and ugliness. For this end, medicine and gymnastics are seen as means of help. The soul, then, has to be purified from wickedness and ignorance, here virtuous life and instruction are seen as means of help, help towards getting rid of evil. (Sophist 229.d)
[41]The notion of anamnesis is already introduced in Meno. Plato states there that knowledge is always latently present in the soul. It is not acquired by our senses, but by recollection in this life of realities which the soul saw before its incarnation. See Meno 81. And as Plato is led step by step to arguing for the separate existence of the forms, like justice or beauty, he also develops his notion of anamnesis and includes a more explicit teaching on the non-dependency of the spiritual on the material, which he applies to the example of human soul. See Phaedrus 92.a.
[42]In Parmenides the notion of participation is shown through a conflict: if there is no limit given to the forms, do not they remain unknowable for us, who are limited? How are we related to them? Plato's reply is that through participation in them. But the Forms are present to us here and now only through their copies, and as one form can have an endless number of copies, it raises the question of how close or how far these are from the original. In Parmenides the ideal world is far beyond human knowledge. (Parmenides 129.a-ff)
[43]The theme of darkness is represented in the Scriptures primarily in the pejorative sense. It symbolises sin, hell, evil, death, damnation, and is contrasted with the symbolising of light, such as knowledge, faith, goodness, happiness, salvation, eternity. In the New Testament symbolics the darkness is broken by the light of Christ, and those who follow in his light. In this sense the darkness is seen as negative also in the early Christian theologies, including these of Justin and Clement. A positive notion of darkness refers to a minority of the Scriptural texts, which relate the darkness to the hiddenness of God, which yet is full of presence; see e.g. Ex 20:2; Dt 5:22; 2 Sam 22:12; 1 Kings 8:12; 2 Par 6:1; Ps 18:12; 97:2.
[44]Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.54.
[45]Gregory took part in the councils of Constantinople in 381, 382 and 394, and contributed to the acceptance of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. See his oration from 383 ‘De deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti'.
[46]See notes 10 and 11.
[47]Meyndorff, J., ‘Preface' to Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Paulist Press, New York, Ramsey, Toronto, 1978: xiii-xiv.
[48]Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses: 65.
[49]TheLife of Moses: 79-80.
[50]See The Life of Moses: 93; compare to Karfíková: 95.
[51]See Daniélou, Platonisme et thེologie mystique. Paris, 1944; Heine, ‘Introduction': 53.
[52]Heine, ‘Introduction': 53.
[53]The Life of Moses: 73.
[54]See G.J. Hughes's analysis of Aquinas's analogical language in ‘Aquinas and the Limits of Agnosticism', in The Philosophical Assesments of Theology. Eds. G.J. Hughes, Search Press, Kent & Georgetown University Press, Washington, 1987, 37-63
[55]The Life of Moses: 93.
[56]Compare to Karfíková: 181.
[57]The Life of Moses: 95.
[58]See In Ecclesiasten homiliae. Ed. P. Alexander, GNO X/2, Leiden, 1996, 277-442: 411.
[59]Compare notes 11 and 37.
[60]Compare to the three aspects of conversion in Lonergan, note 18.
[61]This area is explored in detail in my book Accounts of Hope: Problem of Method in Postmodern Apologia. Peter Lang, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, 2001.
[62]This argumentation has, however, its shadow side, namely the supression of the Christological emphasis and of some of the economical qualities of the Trinity. See note 24.
[63]See Dionysius's Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. Eds. C. Luibheid & P. Rorem, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series, London 1987.
[64]For the troubles Gregory got into through his attempts to intervene in ecclesio-political matters, see Karfíková: 36-37.

Saying Nothing about No-Thing

Apophatic Theology in the Classical World

by Jonah Winters


(chapters & notes link to original document) 
  1. Introduction to the Classical Background
  2. Apophaticism and Contemplation in Early Byzantine Christianity
  3. Negative Theology and Contemplation in Neoplatonism
  4. Summary and Conclusion
  5. Bibliography

Introduction to the Classical Background
The set of beliefs which, along with faith and practice, are the core of a religion, are not merely given by the founder or prophet of the religion and then passively handed down to believers through the generations. What is actually the case is that theology, the intellectual side of a religion, is created by the believers themselves every bit as much as by the founder. The literal meaning of the word `dogma' is not a fixed and incontrovertible doctrine, as the usual connotation would hold, but rather "opinion," or "belief," (Am. Heritage Dic.) from the Greek word dokein, "to seem" or "to appear." (Liddell & Scott Gr. Lexicon) In Western revealed theologies, God grants the initial revelation "through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature," (The Catholic Encyclopedia XIII.1) but then it is up to the believer to structure and order it in such a way that it becomes serviceable to his rationality. One of the first things the mind realizes when it embarks upon this task is that the mind of God is inaccessible to the human mind, so the only things one can know positively about Him are those which He has voluntary disclosed about Himself.[1] One can, however, know quite definitely all of the things that God isn't by means of a way of negation, a via negativa. Applying eleventh-century theologian St. Anselm's famous dictum that God is "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived," (Hick 16) one can conclude that anything which can be conceived must then, by definition, not be God, and any attribute comprehensible to the human mind must not be an attribute applicable to the divine.
The use of such a "negative" methodology in examining the divine nature was of cardinal importance in two of the major philosophical traditions of the classical world: Neoplatonism and Byzantine Christianity. The way of negation is by no means limited to just these two traditions, though. Speaking of ineffable subjects "apophatically," by means of denial, or "peripatetically," by (used in this context) means of linguistically "walking around" the subject in question without substantially defining it, are universal phenomena in the history of the world's religions. The following discussion will focus on apophatic theology as found only in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and the eastern Christian thinkers who wrote before the time of Pseudo-Dionysius.
These two traditions had little or no influence on each other, and so direct comparisons would be historically ill-founded.[2] They were in complete agreement on two things, however. Both posited a transcendent realm, called "God" in Christianity and "The One" in Neoplatonism, and both agreed that this transcendent realm is wholly ineffable. Furthermore, both traditions stressed the importance of contemplation, though for different reasons. For Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, the "hypostatized" world is the source of all defilements and confusion; that one exists demonstrates that one has "fallen" from a more pure transcendent state. Contemplation is thus the key to achieve personal transcendence. For Christianity, on the other hand, salvation comes through the mediation of Christ and the sacraments he instituted. Contemplation in Eastern Christianity aids one's personal quest for self-improvement, but is not the central factor that it was for Plotinus. An examination of the use of contemplation in each tradition will shed much light on the use of and the meaning of the via negativa in each.
Knowledge of God in Christianity comes primarily through His self-revelation. An inherent limit of human knowledge is implicit in the action of revelation, for, if the human mind could through its own power access divine truths, then the need for God to reveal Himself would be obviated. In contrast with revealed theology is natural theology, which holds that human reason alone can acquire knowledge of the divine, that human understanding of God is not entirely dependent upon His self-disclosure. (Am. Heritage Dic.) Human reason can arrive at an understanding of God through an examination of the sensible realm, and so one does not have to be a privileged member of a people who have entered into a covenant with God to learn about Truth. "The greatness and beauty of created things give us a corresponding idea of their Creator," says the Wisdom of Solomon. (Wisdom 13:5) Plato taught that the mind can intuit divine truths through contemplation, and the tradition of Aristotle holds that everything in the divine Intellect has its foundation in the sensible world, from which locus divine truths can be inferred. (The classical philosophies did not, of course, refer to themselves as "natural theology." That is a term applied later by the revealed religions to refer both to "pagan" theologies and to elements within their own traditions.) However, natural theology as well is aware of an essential limitation of its ability to penetrate the divine nature. Neoplatonism, for example, also posited an ultimate Principle which was, relative to the human sphere, transcendent. Although Neoplatonism did not posit the same ontological dualism between the Creator and His contingent creation as Christianity did, the ultimate Principle was no less transcendent and inaccessible to human thought. In speaking of Plotinian scholar A. H. Armstrong, John Kenney writes that "in [Armstrong's] negative theology, just as in the ancient Platonists, one never encounters any serious doubt about the reality of the One," but one does encounter substantial skepticism "about our capacity to define or describe it." (Kenney 1993, 12)
While Christianity and Hellenic thought have quite different conceptions of the nature and function of God, they are fully in agreement about His ineffability. As Raoul Mortley said, "the via negativa... is the most remarkable feature of the philosophical life of late antiquity, Greek and Christian." (quoted in Pelikan 197) The use of this so-called negative, or apophatic, (from Greek "to deny," or "to say no") theology tends to take two forms. One form is a philosophical ana-lysis, the "breaking apart" (from Greek "to undo" (Am. Heritage Dic.)) of all qualities seemingly attributable to the divine to arrive at an understanding of His underlying nonqualified nature by knowing what that nature isn't. St. Macrina explained this method in this manner: "In the very act of saying that a thing is `not so and so,' we by implication interpret the very nature of the thing in question." (Pelikan 205) This form of apophaticism is more pervasive than might be realized. Words such as "infinite" and "ineffable" are obviously negative. Less apparent is the negation hidden in words like "individual" or "immense" (not measurable). Finally there is apophaticism hidden even in positive terms. For example, one defines God as "free" in order to show that He lacks the contrarieties found in finite creatures, and one calls Him "alive" merely to discriminate His nature from that of the lifeless. (James 431)
The other form of apophaticism is a more contemplative awareness of ineffability, a perception of just how transcendent and thus incomprehensible God's nature is. Armstrong says that, by this perception, "we mean that, however dimly, we are aware in all things which we apprehend of the presence of something or someone which exceeds them, and on which their total existence depends, so that there is nothing in them which is not there because of that presence, which... makes them exist." (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIV, 177) This perception affirms the incomprehensibility of God, who "exceeds" all things. Contemplation of the created world points to its underlying essence which is unattainable, for that which proceeds from the Principle does not necessarily provide any clue as to the essence of that Principle. An example is that a machine is produced by, or proceeds from, a human maker, but an examination of the machine would not necessarily provide any clues as to the essence of the human. It may provide clues about the function of the maker, as, for example, an umbrella handle implies the shape of the human hand. Functionally, then, one could say that God's act of creating, for example, which is self-evident, evidences His function as a Creator. Such knowledge is indirect; it is not the same as "quidditative," or essential, knowledge. Even scripture can not provide a real description of God's nature. "Who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord?" asks the Psalmist. (Ps 89:6)
It must be pointed out at the beginning of this discussion that negative theology is not "negative" in that word's usual sense. Part of the reason that the term `apophatic' is pressed into service, says historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan, is because "speaking about a negative theology sounds--how should one put it?--too negative." (Pelikan 1988, 6) Apophatic theology is not to be understood as a form of skepticism or, far less, atheism. Atheism is an active disbelief in or denial of divinity. (Am. Heritage Dic.) As such, it is not so much the opposite of belief as it is its dialectical component. That is, atheism shares the same concerns as religion, i.e. the search for an absolute, but differs only in that it arrives at a diametrically opposed answer. While (most) religions emphatically posit an Absolute, atheism wholly denies it; "There is no God," the atheist avows. (Pelikan 1993, 8) The antithesis of religious belief, then, would be skepticism, a state of agnosticism or active doubt. Skepticism is to be distinguished from apophaticism because it often takes the form of refraining from making any statements and taking any stance, positive or negative.[3] The via negativa, however, is quite active; it is a way, or via, of philosophizing. The genuine pursuer of the way of negation, writes Armstrong, "spends his time destroying his God-concepts and perhaps (if he is as radical as his principles require) undermining his whole system of thought till it falls in ruins. Then he picks himself up quite cheerfully and begins again." (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIV, 178)

Apophaticism and Contemplation in Early Byzantine Christianity

Applying the way of negation to Christianity, one immediately sees an apparent contradiction. Is not Christianity a religion of revelation, a history of God revealing and manifesting truths about His nature? God must know what He Himself is, and so surely His revealed descriptions of Himself are valid. Would not these divinely-revealed descriptions, being given by the source of all knowledge Himself, escape apophaticism, which seems to be the bane of true knowledge?
There are two ways to resolve this initial paradox. One is by distinguishing between God's essence and God's energies, between His inaccessible nature and its "natural processions." (Lossky 89) Revelation discloses certain aspects of God's workings, energeia, as they relate to the created sphere, without disclosing the nature of the Creator itself. As St. Basil explains: "We say that we know the greatness of God, the power of God, the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, the providence of God over us, and the justness of the judgment of God--but not the very ousia [essence] of God." (Pelikan 1993, 55) God accommodated to the human predicament because, says Pelikan quoting Gregory of Nyssa, it was "impossible for the naturally finite to rise above its prescribed limits, or to lay hold of the superior nature of the Most High." The divine, bestowing "on us this helpful gift of grace," granted humans what they were capable of perceiving through revelation and incarnation. (ibid. 219-20) Human nature was capable of receiving epithets of God, characterizations of His "energies," which allowed for a certain limited understanding of His nature. This is not the same as bestowing a real knowledge of His ousia. St. Basil's list of revealed qualities given above do not constitute the real nature of God. No human faculty "was capable of perceiving the incomprehens-ible" essence of the divine, Basil said. (ibid. 55) Thus these cataphatic, or positive, assertions are intended to be pointers towards the divine nature and are not to be taken as transcendentally valid. In this way, writes Armstrong, "negative theology is perfectly compatible with conservative Christian orthodoxy." (Armstrong 1982, 217)
Another way to look at this apparent paradox between saying that God has revealed knowledge about Himself and saying that no knowledge of God is possible is to distinguish between absolute truth and pragmatic truth. Absolute truth requires a transcendent index against which all worldly propositions can be measured. The better a proposition conforms to the universal index, the more true it can be said to be, and if the proposition does not conform, then it can be declared false. Pragmatic truth, on the other hand, is wholly relative and contextual. William James defines pragmatic truth as being "any idea that will carry us prosperously from one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, saving labor, is true for just so much, is true instrumentally." (Thilly 602, emphasis in original)
This distinction can solve the paradox between negation and revelation if it is posited that the purpose of God's revelations is pragmatic. If God's primary goal for humanity is the human's justification and salvation, then God would reveal only those things which would help the believer better himself as he seeks salvation and awaits God's grace. The revealed truths, even propositional ones, could be seen as but "labor-saving" tools and not absolute Truths. In this way, elements of doctrine like the Trinity and the incarnation can be seen as valid truths irrespective of the limits on human knowledge posited by apophaticism.[4] These truths are valid regardless of whether or not an apophatic reductio ad absurdum questions their ultimate metaphysical veracity. While certain types of theological knowledge are pragmatically useless, writes William James, others "positively determine fear and hope and expectation, and are foundations for the saintly life." (James 437)
Such a pragmatism is, in fact, what we do find in Christianity. "It was the specific message of the Christian gospel," writes Pelikan, "that the Logos as Creator... was also the Savior." (Pelikan 1993, 263) God's incarnation in the world was a renewed call to humans to pursue the salvific quest and theosis, individual divinization, as well as providing the medium through which to do so. Since God's purpose in revealing Himself was to provide for salvation, and not to provide an understanding of His nature, there need be no contradiction between His necessary ineffability and His appearance in propositional revelation and in human form. Had He "deemed it necessary for salvation that [humans] should know the divine essence," explains Pelikan, "that would have been revealed; but it had not been revealed, which proved that such knowledge was not necessary." What was necessary, Pelikan continues, was that "the human memory learn and retain all the various names under which knowledge of the divine had come to it." (ibid. 55)
The apparent paradox between revelation and ineffability could actually be utilized to emphasize, not to call into question, the validity of revelation. Pelikan writes that revelation was never intended to "grant to the initiate an opportunity to peek into the secrets of ultimate Being. Rather, he writes, Biblical revelation deliberately chose metaphors to refer to the transcendent that were so completely at variance with the transcendent that the dissimilarity would be obvious and the apophaticism implied would be unmistakable. (Pelikan 1993, 7) Pseudo-Dionysius also emphasizes this metaphorical use of language in pointing out that the writers of the Old Testament often used words to refer to God that were obviously not to be understood literally. God is referred to not only with inspiring poetic terms such as "sweet-smelling ointment," but also with seemingly blasphemous and insulting terms like "worm." Such terminology does not merely hint at the fact that the language should not be taken literally, but, with a term like "worm," fully requires a metaphorical interpretation. (Celestial Hierarchy) [5] There is a definite need to make affirmative statements about the divine, if for no other reason but to know which god one is worshipping, and this cataphasis does have a limited validity. In making such statements, though, there was always the danger that "degraded and abject thinking" (Pelikan 1993, 87) could take them too literally. For example, a medieval theologian rhetorically inquired of those who believed that the banquets in heaven were literal meals, "Does this mean that there are also heavenly bathrooms?" (source unknown) One of the functions of apophatic theology is thus a preventative one, an attempt to forestall misunderstanding. "It was precisely a desire to avoid errors which would arise from confusing expressions of the Truth on the human plane with the Truth itself" that led the Church Fathers to speak of ultimate realities negatively, writes historian of Eastern Christianity Philip Sherrard. To present people "with the Truth in a form which they are incapable of understanding is no better than not presenting it at all." (Sherrard 52-3)
The primary reason for speaking of God negatively is not one of apologetics or of preventing misunderstandings, though. The Christian theologians spoke of God with negations because they felt that they forced to, that there was no other way to speak of Him. All that we can know about God is what He is not rather than what He is, explains Gregory of Nazianzus. (Pelikan 1993, 41) "The Divine," St. John Damascene elaborates later, "is infinite and unknowable, and the only thing that we are able to comprehend is Its infinity and Its incomprehensibility." Any positive statements about God do "not declare His nature, but what surrounds His nature," explains John. (Sherrard 32-3) That human thought can attain an understanding of "the Truth" Sherrard calls a "fallacy" of the "philosophical mentality." Logic and reason can not understand God, because His nature is not itself logical and rational. (ibid. 56) To the question "on what subjects and to what extent can we philosophize?" Gregory of Nazianzus answered: "Only on matters within our grasp." (Pelikan 1993, 50) The divine ousia is not a subject transparent to our mental investigations, and so we must speak of it through the use of negations, saying what it is not rather than what it is.
God is, by theological definition, simple and noncomposite. If He had parts, then His boundlessness and ultimate uniqueness would be compromised. Component parts would imply internal divisions and boundaries, and such boundaries would imply a plurality of natures within Him. Even the doctrine that God is a trinity does not posit an internal plurality, for orthodox teaching insists that the three natures are actually one in essence, homoousion. As a metaphysical "simple," partial attributions could not apply. He could not be partly comprehensible and partly incomprehensible, for example, or partly transcendent and partly immanent; His nature must be wholly embracing of each attribute. In the relation between Him and human thought, Gregory of Nazianzus said, His essence thus had to be either "wholly incomprehensible or perfectly comprehensible." (ibid. 207) The latter is obviously out of the question, and so one is obliged to declare God fully above human comprehension and speak of Him through apophasis.
God's nature is not impredicable and above comprehension because qualities receive their highest manifestation in it such that it presents a sort of Hegelian synthesis of opposites, but rather because His nature completely transcends the sphere of predication. It is true that Anselm, for example, taught that one can select any positive quality and describe God by saying that He represents the most perfect manifestation of that quality. (Hick 16) Gregory of Nazianzus said, similarly, that "God is the highest of the objects of thought, in whom every desire finds its goal and beyond whom it cannot go further." (Pelikan 1993, 201) But these are mere relational descriptions of God's nature, describing how it fits in the scheme of human predication by manifesting the paragon, the highest instance, of each quality. The higher truth, though, is that His nature is so transcendent that it is fully beyond the sphere of predication. God is not merely infinite, but is wholly beyond the spatial realm. He is not merely omniscient, but represents the very essence of knowledge itself. God is not just everlasting and eternal, i.e. possessing infinite time, but is wholly timeless. (ibid. 115) God is not "unique," but should rather be referred to as "non-plural." One can not even say that God is, writes St. John Damascene, "because He is beyond all beings, beyond Being itself." (Sherrard 33) In fact, one must even deny that God has an essence as such, for positing that God has an ousia would suppose that this nature, if not knowable, could at least be seen imperfectly with the aid of analogical concepts, for such a simple essence would by definition be identical to its attributes. (Lossky 51) "One would sooner affirm that God cannot be termed a simple essence," writes historian Vladimir Lossky, "than allow His absolute unknowability to be weakened." (ibid. 51) Only by removing God this fully from characterization can one prevent the inevitable theological conundrums such as "If God is omnipotent can He create a rock so big that He can't lift it?" or "If God is eternal then what was He doing before creation?" be avoided. (In response to such useless debates, St. Augustine quoted an unspecified source as saying that before creation God was keeping busy designing hell for those who ask such questions! (Confessions XI.xii.14))
A rational study of God's attributes like that described above is, at most, of secondary importance in Christianity. One thing that must be kept in mind is that the key to Christianity is not gnosis, but salvation, the transformation of Adam into Christ. (Magoulias 66) Knowledge is, of course, important in the Christian tradition; Jesus said that "the truth shall make you free." (Jn 8:32) The truth referred to, though, is not one of an intellectually discursive nature, but rather a grasp of things spiritual achieved through illumination. Like most soteriologies, Christianity stresses that study alone will not enable one to realize this illumination. A process of self-preparation is required. (Sherrard 27) In such a contemplative pursuit, as well as in the philosophical one, negative theology comes into play.
A hallmark of Eastern Christianity is an emphasis on contemplation. The contemplative lifestyle received its first major impetus in the East when St. Basil of Caesarea, inspired by his sister Macrina's asceticism, organized the monastic life in the late fourth century. (McManners 133) The tradition expanded and developed over the centuries and came to a full fruition in the fourteenth century, when St. Gregory of Palamas taught the way of hesychia, an inner stillness and silence often accompanied by a yoga-like control of the breathing and leading to a vision of divine light. (ibid. 148) The pervasive awareness of the limitations of reason demonstrated the need to prepare oneself by spending time in contemplation, with the reason shut off. "Heaven," St. Basil said, was a place "of silence," and of "unspoken meditation as the word of instruction, teaching the purified heart, by means of the silent illumination of the thoughts, the truths transcending speech." (Pelikan 1993, 48) The key to receiving this teaching, Gregory of Nyssa affirms, is quietude, the "unspoken meditation," the "silent illumination of the thoughts." (ibid. 301) The experiencing of the divine must be preceded by and accompanied by a cessation of discursive rationality to allow for silence. The mystical experience itself achieved through such contemplation is also incapable of being described, this time because it transcends the realm of words. When Gregory of Nyssa received a vision of "the ineffable depths of the Lord's thoughts," he experienced a sublime height to which "it was impossible for words to mount along with thought." (ibid. 50)
Silent, non-discursive meditation is not the only form of apophatic contemplation possible. Clement of Alexandria, writing one-and-a-half centuries before the Cappadocians, described a quasi-Platonic way of contemplating God through intellectual abstractions. This method does not abandon rational analysis, but utilizes it. An example of this method is Clement's "geometric analysis." One first thinks of a body in space. By abstraction and ana-lysis, one eliminates the spatial attributes of volume, surface, and length, arriving at a point. Next the point's situation in space is eliminated, thus reaching the notion of an "intelligible monad." What remains is then stripped of everything that can be attributed to intelligible beings, and one is left with a certain notion of the nature of God. (Lossky 19) Gregory of Nyssa also described a similar method of achieving transcendental knowledge through intellectual analysis. He first itemized four ways of knowing, which were 1) contemplation of an object as existing spatially, 2) an object suggesting by analogy spatial existence, 3) an object perceived through being circumscribed by a principle (arche) or a goal (telos), and 4) a phenomenon perceived through its relation to a quality, such as change. (Pelikan 1993, 58) Taking these four categories as a starting point, he explained, we could then use intellectual exercises like Clement's geometric analysis to proceed with a step by step delineation and aided with a gift of "transcendent reflection" to perceive "truths beyond sight." (ibid. 60)
A difference between Clement's method and Gregory's is that while Clement used apophasis as method, proceeding with a step by step series of negations, Gregory appears to affirm the validity of a certain empirical epistemology without recourse to apophaticism. However, it was recourse to the apophatic method that allowed Gregory to use epistemology in a positive way in the first place. St. Basil had earlier exclaimed that the created world is so marvelous that "knowledge of the least of the phenomena of the world [is] unattainable to the most penetrating mind," (ibid. 53) and Gregory, similarly, tried to forestall misunderstanding by preceding his discussion with a warning to any inquirer against claiming any real knowledge of the transcendent and ineffable. (ibid. 58) In this way, writes Pelikan, negative theology was not only "a limitation on the mind but at the same time a liberation of the mind," setting it "free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it." (ibid. 57)
The Cappadocians may have agreed that a fully real type of knowledge is not to be found in the created world, but they were careful not to make knowledge, even if necessarily limited, seem unimportant. On the one hand, Gregory of Nyssa reminded the seeker that even the apostle Paul, who was granted a vision of the "third heaven," admitted to not having access to any real knowledge "whether in the body or out of the body;" only God knows, Paul said. (2 Cor 12:2-3) If not even Paul could have any positive knowledge, Gregory pointed out, then how much less could we. (Pelikan 1993, 202) But then, lest this be a deterrent to seeking understanding, Gregory ingeniously used this very inability to know to demonstrate the importance of learning. He pointed out that all we can know of God is His unknowability, and so, paradoxically, the more we are aware of His ineffability, the more we can be said to understand! (ibid. 202) Gregory of Nyssa could thus urge the necessity of striving towards a greater understanding of the divine nature, because a genuine, positive, and beneficial awareness of the utter incapacity to understand, not useless ignorance, was the result.
Apophatic theology might at first glance seem to be incompatible with the most affirmative form of cataphasis, faith. Faith in the received revelation and desire to bring oneself into harmony with its teachings is a primary motivation behind the contemplative path in Christianity. "Belief," said Gregory of Nyssa, is "greater and more sublime than any token of divine knowledge." (ibid. 49) Faith is a form of knowing, but not one that is self-achieved. The knowledge provided by faith, whether propositional knowledge or mystic communion, is given by God to mortals through a revelation. As revelation, then, it is by theological definition knowledge which would have been unattainable without God's voluntary self-disclosure. It is, in Gregory of Nazianzus's words, the "fulfillment of reason," (ibid. 216) for it is a form of knowledge that is, because of its authority, fully certain. It allows the believer to "look into the "depths of the thought of God." (Gregory of Nyssa quoted in ibid. 216) Yet faith is also the most apophatic of all forms of knowing for the same reason--it yields knowledge otherwise wholly out of reach of the created mind.
Faith, for the Cappadocians, is thus a sort of compromise between apophasis and cataphasis. The God which is the subject of faith is so absolutely out of reach of reason that He had to take the initiative to proclaim Himself for humans to know anything; natural theology could yield substantial insights into His nature, but was not in itself sufficient. Yet at the same time, the ascriptions of the divine provided by faith are substantial, that is, they are cataphatically valid. As Gregory of Nyssa explained, "when we say that God is just, and almighty, and Father, and imperishable, we are not saying this merely... on the basis of any relation to any other thing that exists." (ibid. 219) What God is, and what He is believed to be, Gregory explained, must be the same. If faith asserted an untruth about God, then the revelation would be invalid. The key to understanding this apparent paradox between apophatically denying that God can be characterized and asserting that faith's ascription of qualities to God is valid is God's grace-ful revelation. He "bestowed on us this helpful gift" of grace to provide a certainty about His nature through faith, Gregory said. (ibid. 220) We can take these cataphatic assertions as true provided we keep in mind that the meanings of the characteristics ascribed to God are not the relative meanings, but transcendent ones. By use of such an apophasis, faith and reason become, not contradictory, but mutually complementary. (ibid. 36)
The above pages demonstrate that the via negativa is paramount for Byzantine Christianity, both in terms of formulating doctrine and in the context of pursuing contemplative quietude. As John Meyendorff says, "The whole of Byzantine theology--and particularly its `experiential' character--would be completely misunderstood if one forgets its other pole of reference: apophatic, or negative, theology." (Pelikan 1993, 328) The way of negation both aids in practicing quietude and in achieving a greater clarity of thought than could be arrived at through cataphatic description and analysis only. Such a use of apophaticism need not contradict the fact of revelation. Meyendorff continues: "By saying what God is not, the theologian is really speaking the truth, for no human word or thought is capable of comprehending what God is." (ibid.)

Negative Theology and Contemplation in Neoplatonism

The Christian way of negation had its origin and major stimulus in its confluence with classical thought. (Pelikan 1993, 1-21) In fact, writes Kenney, Hellenic thought, especially Neoplatonic, is "the principal philosophical foundation for apophatic theology in the West." (Kenney 1993, 1) It was a Neoplatonic philosopher, Proclus, who was the first actually to use the term "via negativa" in the fifth century. (Encyc. of Religion) However, such a perspective of the divine was not innovative with the Greeks, either.
Speaking of divinity through use of negations is a method that can be found in texts from the very oldest of the world's cultures. The name of Ammon (or Amen), in ancient Egypt's only avowed monotheism, translates as "The Hidden One." (Luck 240) A hymn to the yet more ancient Egyptian god Aton praises the things he has made, "[all of which] are hidden from the face of man," and asserts that, of Aton himself, "there is no one that knows thee." (Pritchard 229) Hesiod said that the primal principle, before the appearance of any gods, was Chaos. (Theogony line 116) Most apophatic of all is a hymn from India's oldest text, the Rg Veda. "When neither Being nor Not-being was," asks the hymn, "...was there a below? Was there an above?... Who knows truly? Who here can declare it?... Only he who is its overseer in highest heaven knows. Or perhaps he does not know!" (Sproul 184)[6]
The Hellenic mind was highly analytical, and would not accept assertions about the nature of God uncritically. Armstrong wryly contrasts this philosophy with the Christian attitude by saying that "the Hellenic answer to `Thus sayeth the Lord' is `Does he? Let us enquire together into your credentials for making so tremendous an assertion,'" and the answer to "I am the truth" would be "In that case, Lord, you will certainly not mind answering a few questions..." (Armstrong 1979, essay XIV, 45) Under such an approach, the impulse towards apophaticism became more systematized and its relation to cataphatic theology was expressly clarified. The second century A.D. mythographer Maximus of Tyre expresses well the theological methods of Greek thought:

"God Himself... is unnamable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. But we, being unable to apprehend His essence, use the help of sounds and names and pictures [to obtain] the knowledge of Him... Why should I further examine and pass judgment upon Images? Let men know what is divine, let them know: that is all." (Campbell 238)

Such was the background thought which Plato inherited. The philosophers were making it clear that anthropomorphic or euhemeristic (speaking anachronistically) conceptions of the divine were misguided. Xenophanes had derided such anthropomorphism some one hundred years before Plato in his famous argument that "oxens, lions, and horses, if they had hands wherewith to carve images, would fashion gods after their own shapes and make them bodies like to their own." (ibid. 243) Finally, Antisthenes, born just a few years before Plato, flatly asserted that "God is not like anything; hence one cannot understand him by means of an image." (ibid. 243)
This movement to explain reality by recourse to a level of explanation beyond the relative sphere and negation of those elements within the relative was likely one of the major influences of much of Plato's thought. In his dialogue the Cratylus Plato emphasized that the sensible world is in perpetual flux, and thus no real knowledge about it is possible, but only opinion. Only a changeless world of Ideal Forms can be an object of knowledge. (Wallis 1986, 462) In the Seventh Letter, Plato expressly states that names, definitions, images, and the knowledge based on them are fully inadequate to express the nature of a "thing-in-itself," a Form. (ibid. 462) "It is hard to find the maker and father of this universe," writes Plato in Timaeus, and "...impossible to declare him to all." (ibid. 463) The primal Principle is thus describable only in negative terms. Plato did hold that one type of knowledge was valid, namely, knowledge of the Forms attained through rational insight. Aristotle, following Plato, did not emphasize the transcendent realm as much as Plato. That is, whereas Plato focused much on the discussion of Forms, sophia, and myth (cf. Timaeus), Aristotle focused more on an examination of logical analysis and on the natural realm, ta fusika. His philosophy was on the surface more theological, but conveys far less a sense of meditative contemplation. Knowledge, for Aristotle, was less of a transcendent matter, for the world of knowledge and of the senses is the real world and the true object of science. (Thilly 96) But he nonetheless admitted the impossibility of real human knowledge about the divine. In Pelikan's words, Aristotle held that the human sense of not being able to comprehend divinity is "a universal trait common to all humanity," (Pelikan 1993, 41) and that the nature of "being itself" is, in the final analysis, "the eternal conundrum." (ibid. 55)
The first century B.C. witnessed a new transcendentalist version of not-knowing in what has been termed Middle Platonism. (Gnosticism, Christian and otherwise, and Philonic thought will not be discussed due to lack of space and energy of the author.) Middle Platonism presented an "apophatic-cataphatic mixture" which combined denials that God is anything we could conceive with assertions that God is the supreme being or intellect. (Kenney 1993, 4) For example, Albinus, the second-century author of an Epitome of Platonic doctrine, declared God to be a self-contemplating Aristotelian Nous, and the followed this with a hinting that perhaps God is rather the transcendent cause of Nous. On the one hand, God transcends logical classification and has no quality; but then, on the other, neither is he without quality. (Wallis 1986, 466) Middle Platonism is thus "endemically paradoxical," in Kenney's words. It chooses either denial or description depending on the context. (Kenney 1993, 5)
It is in Neoplatonism that we finally encounter a fully apophatic and mystical philosophy. The third-century founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus, is unequivocal in his contention that the transcendent Principle, the "One," is fully incomprehensible. Plotinus's One is indubitably unintelligible because it precedes the very existence of Nous, intelligence itself. An examination of Plotinus's use of the via negativa would prove to be incomprehensible without a brief summary of his theology, and so such shall now be attempted (although it may very well prove to be incomprehensible even with a background exposition!).
As a Platonist, Plotinus accepted the theory of Forms. Aristotle had taught that all evidences of duality imply the world of Transcendence. Given any set of dualities, such as Limit and Limitless, one must postulate a final unity beyond the duality. "Those who suppose two principles must suppose another, a superior principle, and so must those who believe in the Forms; for why did things come to participate, or why do they participate, in the Forms?" Aristotle argued. (Kenney 1991, 41) By the time of Plotinus, these Forms were taken to be the thoughts of an immanent divine mind, a collective unity called Nous, Intellect. (ibid. 32) Plotinus took this notion of Nous as the Divine Intellect which is also the World of Forms to a point far beyond any previous Platonist philosophy. "His doctrine of the Divine Thought which is True Being and Primary and Eternal Life is rich and subtle," writes Armstrong, "...and his descriptions of it are magnificent." (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIII, 80) This level of reality is what most people seem to mean by God, and Plotinus's descriptions of it certainly can sound like paeanistic descriptions of a God, albeit a pantheistic one: "[In Nous] each has everything in itself and sees all things in every other, for all are everywhere and each and every one is all, and the glory is unbounded." (Armstrong 1967, 245)
But Plotinus does not stop here. At this point he decisively breaks with his tradition by saying that Nous itself is limited, i.e. is beyond the very quality of existing, and thus could not be the highest reality. First, Intellect contains a variety of Forms, and so can not represent ultimate simplicity. Second, it is not wholly independent of contingency, for it needs to exercise thought in order to continue functioning as Intellect. Third, the highest principle must not be merely another name for the world of Forms, as Nous is, but must be the source of the Forms. (Wallis 1972, 57) There must be a higher reality which is formless, Form-less. This highest reality Plotinus calls the "One," or, alternately, the "Good." These names are not to be taken too literally, though, for they are meant to be merely pointers towards that which cannot be named. Plotinus's "One," like the Cappadocian's apophatic God described above, is that which exceeds the final divine unity. It is not so much numerically one and therefore unique as it is distinct for its position as the ultimate source of all reality. (Kenney 1986, 285) Plotinus points out that the Pythagoreans were right to name the One "Apollo," for this word comes from a = not, plus polla = many. (Wallis 1972, 59) "We give the name of "One" to [it] by necessity," writes Plotinus, "... [but] we do not when we call it one and indivisible mean it in the sense of a point or unit." (Kenney 1991, 141) Neither can the "Good" be understood as being "good" in the normal sense of the word. Plotinus does not call it "good" because it partakes of a quality, but merely as a direction finder of sorts, a pointer in the direction of more, not less, supreme. It can be termed "good," not because good things and the Good partake of one and the same quality of "goodness," but because a reality devoid of divisiveness and internal contradictions is, by definition, good. That is, good things reflect the Good by possessing greater degrees of unity and perfection than non-good things; it is not that the Good is similar to good things.
The relation of Nous to the One is quite subtle and Plotinus's descriptions of this relationship are rather complex. Speaking metaphorically, Plotinus explains: "Intellect stands from our point of view in front of the first principle, as if in the porch of the Good, proclaiming to us all that is in it, like an impression of it in greater multiplicity while the Good remains altogether One." (Kenney 1991, 129) Nous is thus a sort of window through whose intelligible structures, the Forms, the unity of the One can be viewed. The "procession" of Intellect from the Good seems to happen in this way: By its mere presence, the One makes the existence of all things possible. A pure indeterminate potentiality emanates from it, which Plotinus calls power, life, or energeia. The Good, being the supreme object of desire by virtue of its utter freedom from contrarieties, is attractive to this potentiality that has just emerged. A sort of direction, a relation, is thus produced, and the Intellect comes into being. This Intellect can now be described as having two different manifestations. First, the still-indeterminate energeia desires the Good and looks in its direction, but is still too close to it to see anything distinct, anything separate from itself. It is, Plotinus says, "a vision that does not see." (P. Hadot 242) Since the energeia is not aware of distinctness, it can not be said to be Intellect proper yet, for there would be no object for its intellection. The Nous would like to turn back and re-merge with the One, but it is too late; it is already existent. It thus falls farther away from its source and begins to circle around the Good as if around a center. This movement away from and simultaneous pull towards the source creates a dialectic that allows for intellection, and the second manifestation of Nous as Intellect proper is now generated. (ibid. 242) By a continuing process of dialectical internal division, the World of Forms is produced.
The One is not expressed as being a dispassionate and mechanical principle, but is often seen as being in some sense personal, and the relationship into which the relative world enters with it is seen in somewhat personal terms. (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIII, 87) Likewise, the relationship between Nous and the One is something of a personal one. Intellect is depicted as striving to understand the One, and has a motivation to "attain for ever what it ever desires," i.e. union with the One. (ibid. 81) The second function of Intellect described above is Intellect "in its right mind." The Intellect contemplates its source through the various windows of the Forms, the structures which enable intellection to take place. The first function is Nous "out of its mind," non-contemplative because not far enough from the Good to properly see it. Plotinus calls this "Intellect in love, ...drunk with the nectar [of union]." Nous "falls in love, simplified into happiness by having its fill: and it is better for it to be drunk with a drunkenness like this than to be more respectably sober." (P. Hadot 243) This distinction between the Intellect and the One in Plotinus's philosophy will prove to be of central importance in understanding his use of negative theology.
The One, as explained above, is not "one" in the sense of being an ultimate unity; it is not a "supreme" being, the highest epitome of divinity, a sort of capstone on a hierarchical scale of being from the less divine to the more divine. It is, rather, completely separated from that hierarchy, and yet fully present in every level of it. As Plotinus says, "The One is all things and not a single one of them: it is the principle of all things, not all things." (Kenney 1991,133) The One can accept no characterizations, not even positive ones. "It is not therefore Intellect, but before Intellect," Plotinus explains. "...It is not therefore something or qualified or quantitative or intellect or soul; it is not in movement or at rest, not in place, not in time, but `itself by itself of a single form,' or rather formless, being before all form, before movement and before rest." (ibid. 134) The Good is too perfect to need intelligence, which Plotinus calls only "an eye for the blind." (Wallis 1986, 472) Finally, it is not even proper to call the One "transcendent." Its relationship to all things is too absolutely indescribable, even in terms such as immanence-transcendence, identity-otherness, or any others. (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIII, 82) Plotinus does not so much point at the One with his philosophy, but points in its general direction and describes how obscure it is. In Armstrong's words, what the Neoplatonist "is doing is `running around and pointing,' ...making signs in a queer oscillating way which may help his and others' awareness of a presence." (ibid., essay XXIV, 181) The One of Neoplatonism is thus, as Kenney describes, a "hid divinity." (Kenney 1991, 148)
The most obvious necessity of describing the Good apophatically arises from the distinction between Nous and its "transcendent" source. Human intellect is but a reflection of the supreme Intellect. The supreme Intellect is necessarily distinct from the One, which is in itself not intellectual. Thus, neither human nor divine intellect could ever hope intellectually to understand the One. Movement from the level of the ineffable to that of the intelligible is actually a loss, because the Intellect is of a lesser order of being than the pre-intellectual One. The closest that the human soul can come to understanding the One is through contemplation leading to a mystical "union" with it. The closest union into which one can enter with the One is the above-mentioned "first manifestation" of energeia, in which the undifferentiated potentiality gazes on the Good without seeing anything separate. This "drunken" and "loving" state, by virtue of its transcendence of dialectic, is non-thinking. Conceptual activity will have fallen away by the time this state has been reached. "The Intellect must return, so to speak, backwards, and give itself up, in a way, to see what lies behind it," says Plotinus, "...and there, if it wishes to see that first principle, it must not be altogether intellect." (P. Hadot 243)
No attributes can be predicated of Plotinus's One, not because it is deficient in any qualities, but because its transcendence is so complete that it exceeds (or precedes) the sphere of characterization. It is indefinable. We might do well to recall that the word "define" is from the Latin de = off, plus finis = boundary, or "to place within bounds." The One, though, is "infinite," from in = not, plus finis, or "not bounded." (Am. Heritage Dic.) Any attempt to define the One with characteristics would create internal conceptual subdivisions within the utterly simple. "Affirmations," said the later Neoplatonist Proclus, "cut off reality in slices." (Armstrong 1979, essay XXIII, 81) Negations are made of the One, then, not because it lacks qualities, but because it cannot be cut up into slices, it can not be ana-lyzed. Because it is the source of all subsequents, it cannot be expressed by any quality whose meaning is derived from the relative sphere. It is a commonplace of religious thinkers, says Armstrong, to assert that God is absolutely unknowable and ineffable. "But all too many of those who make this assertion, fail to apply it sufficiently in their practice." (ibid. essay XVIII, 189) One can not just predicate an attribute of God and then slap on a hyper-, or a pre-, or a super- suffix, as many Neoplatonists who weren't rigorous enough in their thinking were wont to do, said Proclus. In the end it is necessary to negate your own negations, he explained. (ibid. p. 189) For, even an apophatic statement, if left standing alone and uncontradicted, expresses a sort of limitation. Saying that the One is non-Intellect, for example, denies it the possibility of having intellect, an obvious limitation. If calling it "Absolute" is too cataphatic of a statement, still one can not say that it is "non-relative," for this would exclude its presence from the relative sphere. Anonymous writings of one of the later Neoplatonists exemplify, through paradoxical contradiction, how this "negation of negations" could be carried out: We must abide in a "non-comprehensive comprehension and an intellection that intuits nothing," the anonymous philosopher says. We may thus arrive at "an ineffable preconception that represents the One in silence, without awareness of that silence, ...or knowledge of anything whatever." This produces an "image of the Ineffable that is ineffably identical with the Ineffable." (Wallis 1972, 114-5)
Such a pursuit of silence was paramount for Plotinus's philosophy. The contemplative life taught and exemplified by Plotinus is the ancient world's mysticism par excellence. Plotinus also, as mentioned above, makes more explicit use of the via negativa than any previous philosopher, Hellenic or Christian. However, these two elements, mystic contemplation and apophasis, are not as directly related in Plotinus's thought as they were in some of the philosophies discussed above. It is not in describing the mystical experience itself that Plotinus had to resort to negative description, but only in describing the object of such experience. This is a contrast with much of the Byzantine thought, in which the experience itself was apophatic (cf. above, page 12). The importance of apophasis for Plotinus's contemplative life has more to do with the methods of intellection than with the methods of purification.
Plotinus's modus vivendi was basically a continuation of the Greek philosophers' pursuit of freedom from the world of matter. This was manifested in daily life as an emphasis on apatheia, impassability, which freed the true, rational self from the distractions of the lower self. (Armstrong in Armstrong, 1967, 229) Negative theology was certainly a vital component of investigating the divine nature, but did not really enter much into the specific actions and methods of the contemplative life. In Ennead VI Plotinus summarizes the method of his contemplative life in a sentence succinct enough to warrant quotation in full:

"We learn it [the Good] by comparisons and negations and knowledge of the things which proceed from it and intellectual progress by ascending degrees; but we advance towards it by purifications and virtues and adornments of the soul and by gaining a foothold in the world of Intellect and settling ourselves firmly there and feasting on its contents." (ibid. 227-8)

The closest link that can be made between apophasis and the actual living of the contemplative life for Plotinus is in drawing a correlation between the function of thought in the One versus the function of thinking in human contemplation. As shown above, the highest level of qualified divinity in the universe is Nous, which can be seen as having two functions or hypostases: one an unformed pre-thought and the other a form of pure and non-discursive thought. Preceding the emergence of either form of Intellect is the wholly thoughtless One. The human soul can have two forms of mystical experience, corresponding to the two forms of Intellect. (P. Hadot in ibid. 244) The first is a mere transcendence of discursive reasoning. Rationality by necessity must function at the level of duality and dialectic. When the soul arises to this level it experiences a mystical quasi-union with the One, a sort of mystical proximity to it in which the soul has the quality of undifferentiated thought separate from and gazing on the Good. The second form of mystical union the soul can experience corresponds to the highest hypostatization of Nous, pre-intellect, in which Nous is distinct from the One but not aware of separation. (ibid. 242) At this level, Plotinus says, "we think we know nothing" because the pure thought experienced is so dissimilar from the normal discursive activity of reason. (ibid. 240) This is a union in which the Intellect is literally "out of its mind," by virtue of not yet thinking. Here the experience is, Plotinus says, one of being "drunk with the nectar" of being "in love, simplified into happiness by having its fill." (quoted above)
These two forms of mystical experience are both characterized by a lack of discursive thought. The soul has had to discard every element of complexity in order to arrive at this level and be completely simple, non-composite. In the first, the lower level of mystical experience, undifferentiated thought is obtained. In the second level, the highest form of union possible for Intellect and the soul, thinking has been discarded completely, along with all other earthly defilements. This description of the soul's ascent and discarding of complexity is not, however, an example of apophasis, for the via negativa was only a rational way of knowing for Plotinus, not a description of contemplative method. (P. Hadot 247)
Plotinus's philosophical contemplation is to be distinguished from the silent and meditative contemplation of the Cappadocians. However, it may be that the distinction is nothing more than one of emphasis, Plotinus describing the actual ascent and the Cappadocians emphasizing the mental quietude. A likely explanation of this difference in emphasis is the difference in the cosmologies of Neoplatonism and Christianity. Christianity, of course, focuses on the absolute ontological distinction between the Creator and His creation. God is the Wholly Other, with whom no union as such will ever be possible. Plotinian thought, on the other hand, leans more to the pantheist side, in which one can ascend in a graded hierarchy of ontological levels and finally achieve a sort of union with the primal Principle.

Summary and Conclusion

These two traditions, Neoplatonism and early Byzantine Christianity, are fully in agreement about the ineffability of God and the One, and the necessity of resorting to apophaticism in philosophizing about the transcendent reality. The major difference between the two traditions is in the importance of contemplation and its relation to the via negativa. For Christianity, salvation comes only through Christ, justification with God, and the sacraments. One cannot achieve salvation on one's own initiative; one's salvation is rather wholly dependent upon God's grace. Quietude, then, has certain uses, and the contemplative life has many advantages over the non-contemplative one, but such meditative introspection is not essential. The Plotinian cosmology, however, by necessity places a supreme importance on quietude. Through some vaguely-understood process and for no apparent teleological reason the world has hypostatized out of the undifferentiated One and has fallen from a greater Reality to a lesser one. True being is found only at the level of Nous, the Divine Intellect. Beyond Nous is the Absolute, the Good, which is beyond being itself. To regain the state one has lost, one must transcend the world of defilements through one's own initiative. The contemplative lifestyle is indispensable in ridding oneself of worldly hindrances, be they animalistic desires or just the mere fact of existence itself.
In Christianity, negative theology is indispensable in speaking about God, but studying God in the first place is not indispensable. Philosophizing can aid one in leading a proper life and pursuing the salvific quest, but all ultimately depends on God's initiative and His grace. Plotinus, similarly, does not emphasize too greatly the direct connections between apophaticism and contemplation, but he does emphasize the importance of contemplation and understanding in themselves in the quest to "try to bring back the god in you to the divine in the All." (Armstrong 1967, 215) That the highest hypostatization is termed the "Intellect" is in itself a call to strive for philosophical acuity. To achieve such understanding, negative theology is of supreme importance. One must understand that one's true source is the Good, and the nature of the Good is ineffable.


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1 The masculine singular pronoun will be used to refer to the Christian God in this paper out of respect for convention. For further explanation the reader can consult Pelikan, pp. 87-88. 2 This statement warrants a cautionary remark. There was, of course, an inestimable influence of Hellenism on Christianity. What is meant here is that Plotinian thought specifically had little or no influence on the Byzantine Christians before the time of Pseudo-Dionysius specifically.
3 There are, it should be noted, forms of skepticism that do not fit this description but that call for a complete rejection of any such apophatic/cataphatic dichotomy. An example is the Jain syadvada, the "Doctrine of Maybe," which says that all statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless..., false and meaningless..., and true and false and meaningless in some sense. (Malaclypse 39-40)
4 An insight into this distinction between pragmatic religious truth and logical propostitional truth is afforded by comparative languages. The English word "to know" does not explicitly distinguish between what types of knowledge are being known. Many languages use different verbs to translate this one English verb. French, for example, often uses "savoir," "to know [a fact]," when propositional knowledge is meant, and uses "connaitre," "to know [a person]" or "to be familiar with," when religious or personal knowledge is meant, as in "la connaissance de Dieu."
5 Scholarly integrity requires pointing out that Pseudo-Dionysius was stretching facts: the use of the word "worm" in Psalm 22.6, the text he quotes, is in self-reference to King David, not God.
6 It may be noted that some of the above examples appear to represent more of an epistemological limitation than theological apophaticism proper. The distinction, though, is often nebulous.