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. 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. 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. 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)
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. 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)  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.)
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)
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.
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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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.