speaking & thinking of the divine


Yves Klein: Leap into the Void, 1960

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the bodiless, the essence of the superessential, the form of the formless, the measure of the measureless, the number of the unnumbered, the weight of the weightless, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible.

––John Scottus Eriugena, Periphyseon (P, III 633A, 678C) [1].

The divine is unknowable in the purest sense of the word. To title this essay “Speaking and Thinking of the Divine” needs additional clarification, since the aim will be to write and think about the apophatic via two ancient Neo-Platonic philosophers who have contributed to writing about negative theology, Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (hereafter Ps.-Dionysius[2]). This means that speaking and thinking of the divine becomes not speaking, and not thinking of the divine. Their cosmology was hierarchical, so the higher up we transcend reality to an understanding of the mysterious divine, the less we know. Their complementary doctrines offer insight into the so-called divine mysteries, and into the 20th century philosophy of deconstruction. Jacques Derrida wrote about negative theology and Ps.-Dionysius. How the apophatic relates to the deconstructive term différance will be briefly considered. Then there is the German theologian Rudolph Otto’s delineation of the ineffable aspects of religious experience that must owe something to Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius. Otto’s contributions to the holy cannot be overlooked. Otto provides for a 20th century perspective in this essay on that which cannot be spoken—the ineffable. Before introducing Plotinus and the others, Simon Oliver’s observations will set the tone for negative theology with his reference to the wise humility of Socrates knowing nothing in Plato’s Apology.

The University of Nottingham produces a series of videos featuring various professors speaking about their academic specialties and why prospective students should study with them. One recent video features the theologian Simon Oliver, where he gives a nice synopsis of what negative theology is all about.[3] Oliver ties negative theology back to Plato’s Apology where Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. A colleague of Socrates is said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi inquiring if Socrates is in fact the wisest person, and the oracle says ‘yes’ Socrates is the wisest. Socrates is dubious of this oracular reply since he claims he doesn’t know anything. Wondering about wisdom, Socrates is said to have questioned upstanding members of the polis as to whether they thought they were wise, and they said yes, we are wise because of all the things we know. Socrates concludes that he is the wisest person, and where other people (like the ones he questioned) claimed to know a lot, they were actually not very wise. Socrates conversely admits that he does not know anything. He realizes his own ignorance where they cannot. Therefore, Socrates is wise because of his ignorance. Here, Oliver points out that we see the beginnings of a way of knowing things as defined by not knowing things.

It is no mistake that those who take up the tradition of Platonic philosophy, the Neo-Platonists: Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius (and others) should have an apophatic way of addressing The One,[4] with Plotinus (who we will look at now) and addressing the Christian God with Ps.-Dionysius (who we will look at later). The 3rd century philosopher Plotinus’ collection of treatises, the Enneads, stands as an immediate example of negative theology with respect to The One. Andrew Louth in his The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition writes praise for Plotinus, he is ‘the supreme exponent of […] ‘mystical philosophy’” and “he represents man’s inherent desire to return to heaven at its purest and most ineffable.”[5] Little is known about Plotinus’s life (he is said to have been exceedingly humble).[6] The writings we do have, were collected by Porphyry, a former student, who arranged and named the Enneads, “arranged according to themes in six groups of nine treatises—hence Enneads, meaning nine.”[7] It is tough to decide where in the Enneads to start with Plotinus’s account of The One, since he talks about The One all the time. A convenient place might be in the treatise titled “The Three Primal Hypostases” (V, 1 [10]). It is in this account where we find his general schema for reality. The three primal hypostases[8] consist of a triadic hierarchy beginning with The One, which is where everything comes from. Secondly, there is The Intelligence which contemplates The One, as much as it also is the comprehensive totality of all form and ideas. And there is The Soul, begotten from The Intelligence. The Soul where being is said to reside, and it is the part of the hypostases that touches our souls, our individual souls[9] which are descended from The Soul—the universal soul.

Again, The One is on top of the hierarchical hypostases. Even though The One is the source of everything, it still is problematic to think of it as multiple. When Plotinus addresses and questions The One as possibly multiple, he evades the question “let us do so not with words but with a lifting of our souls to it and thus pray alone to the Alone” (V, 1 [10], 6).[10] The Alone in this case is The One, and it is implicitly beyond the multiple, beyond a numerical understanding. The One is beyond multiplicity and it is often referred to as a simplex.[11] P.V. Pistorius in his Plotinus and Neo-Platonism helps the matter to suggest that the “ultimate reality [The One] is a One-in-Many, containing the potentiality of the universe.”[12] Although The One is simply one, in its singularity, it contains the possibility of the multiple. The One is unity, not multiplicity. The One is not a number.

But still, the One is beyond being, if it was being it would be limited by whatever form being would take. Herein is the apophatic departure from the way the divine is conceived of these days, whereby we imagine a deity residing somewhere in the heavens that looks like a white-haired bearded fellow in robes. A being like this (or of any other kind of being) is just too limited for The One. Being is too determinate. The hypostases—that triadic infra-phenomena of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonic reality has The One above it all.

In his treatise “The Good or The One” Plotinus plainly asks “what then is The One?” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[13] Plotinus tells us that The One is not being, and that it is beyond form too. So if it is beyond being, and it is beyond form, then it is formless and without being, this is where the encounter with The One becomes increasingly negative. It is too difficult to wrap the mind around something that is a formless being. Plotinus anticipates this problem, he says the soul (our soul) when it gets closer to The One “fears it will encounter nothingness” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[14] Essentially, our soul is more comfortable with the things of sense, the tangible, and the known. Let it not be forgotten that Plotinus’s cosmology is hierarchical, this means that our souls are several layers removed from The One, i.e. on the top is The One, then there is The Intelligence, then there is The Soul, and then there is our soul (The One →The Intelligence → The Soul →the soul of man → the soul of animals → the soul of plants, etc.). When man tries to think of The One, he has no choice but to observe The One through the lens of The Soul, and then through the lens of The Intelligence, while at the same time recognizing that The One is not any of those things in the hypostases.

Another problem with contemplating The One, according to Plotinus, has to do with the limitations of our discursive reasoning. Why is discursive reasoning a problem? Pistorius writes “there is nothing that we can know immediately by the aid of discursive reasoning. Even the most simple statement presupposes analysis.”[15] There needs to be a limited (and multiple) range of conditions (and logical premises) in place for such reasoning. These things need to be in place in order for discursive analysis to get at a reasonable explanation of what a particular thing actually is—but The One is not any of those things. All those rationally discursive things derive indirectly from The Intelligence, via The Soul, and lastly, via our individual souls.

Then there is the ever-mysterious Ps.-Dionysius writing sometime during the 5th and 6th centuries. He is known to us as Pseudo because he wrote as pseudonymously as Dionysius the Areopagite, the 1st century Christian convert of Paul the Apostle. The key to knowing that the Syrian Ps.-Dionysius was actually not Dionysius the Areopagite, was that his Christian writings were written in a distinctive mystical Neo-Platonic idiom—probably after his readings of Plotinus, Proclus, and other Neo-Platonic philosophers. There is no small irony to recognize that here we have one of the most apophatic of thinkers, and he is known only by a pseudonym of who he was not. He wrote a handful of works, but only two will be looked at here: the Mystical Theology and the Letters.

The name Ps.-Dionysius is synonymous with via negativa, apophatic theology, or most plainly said: negative theology. With Ps.-Dionysius there is the idea of hierarchical transcendence whereby an assent to the upper realms of the divine becomes increasingly less knowable, and therefore in the descending hierarchy things become easier to understand. In Ps.-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology, he recounts the biblical story of Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to commune with God, Moses becomes increasingly separated from the multitudes, and when he finds himself in the highest place on the mountain, he “enters into the gloom of the Agnosia; a gloom veritably mystic” (Caput I, §3).[16] This is to say, when in the proximity of God, though not in the actual presence of seeing God, Moses is put into the realm of unknowing—the Agnosia. Nothing about God is discernable, he can’t be seen, he is beyond everything, he is not something or something else, he is known by Moses without knowledge, God is “altogether Unknown, and by knowing nothing, knowing above mind.”[17] For Ps.-Dionysius, God is always greater than our conception of him. To try getting to know God, one has to un-know God, which is to say there is no such thing as knowing God, since he is un-knowable.

Remarkably, in the 1st letter of Ps.-Dionysius, is found another connection between a way to know God, and a way to not know God. It is addressed to Gaius “a monk.” Two sentences stick out:

Taking these things [God’s light that causes ignorance to vanish] in their higher sense rather then as a privation, you will maintain more truly than truth that ignorance according to God eludes those who have real light and knowledge of beings, that His transcendent darkness is hidden by all light and eclipses all knowledge. […then in the closing lines of the letter] Complete ignorance in a higher sense is knowledge of what is above all known things. (1065A-1065B)[18]

In these two sentences there are some curious turns of phrase. In the first line quoted here, Ps.-Dionysius wants to emphasize that any talk of the taking away, the vanishing of ignorance should not be a privation, which is another way of saying that these things should not be taken as lacking. Still, there is the seemingly contradictory idea that knowledge of God dispels ignorance, and this cannot be thought of as a privation. Then what does he mean? He means to focus on that which cannot be focused on: God. Knowledge of God is a kind of knowledge, but it is the kind of knowledge that is openly aware of its limitations. Our knowledge of God, in this apophatic sense, is knowing that there are things that you will never know, there are things greater than you, and it is an acknowledgement of ignorance as a way of knowing (what you do not know). This is highly reminiscent of the professed ignorance of Socrates who claimed to know nothing.

In the Mystic Theology there is frequent mention of the term “superessential.” For instance Ps.-Dionysius writes that God is “the superessential ray of Divine darkness” (Caput I, §1),[19] or “for this is veritably to see and to know and to celebrate super-essentially the Superessential” (Caput II, §2).[20] Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, wrote about this word in his lecture/essay on apophatics “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” from 1987. Early on in the lecture he works with some of the issues surrounding negative theology and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to deconstruction. There is an odd word that Derrida coined that is deconstructive in its meaning: différance.[21] Basically, the word combines the French words for difference and defer—its meaning is always escaping and becoming different at the same time. In “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” Derrida weighs the similarities of negative theology with his term différance. He explains that Ps.-Dionysius used the word superessential in relation to negative theology. Derrida wonders how this theological term applies to différance.

One can always say: hyperessentiality is precisely that, a supreme Being who remains incommensurate to the being of all that is, which is nothing, neither present nor absent, and so on. If the movement of this re-appropriation appears in fact irrepressible, its ultimate failure is no less necessary. But I concede that this question remains at the heart of a thinking of différance or of the writing of writing.[22]

What Derrida is basically saying is that the theological implications carried over by Ps.-Dionysius’s negative use of the term hyperessentiality (being beyond being) must have a connection to différance. The elusive word différance then implicates a being that is beyond being, and by extension a knowing that is beyond knowing. Thereby we find a semi-secular way of thinking about negative theology: a way of differing that becomes different—always an aporia, a mystery. Perhaps Derrida is saying that negative theology, because it is superessential, cannot be wholly secularized. Theological being beyond being becomes only slightly secularized by the deconstructive gesture of différance.

In his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy the German theologian Rudolf Otto, there is a chapter titled “The Numinous.”[23] Otto never associates his concept of the numinous to the apophatic per se, but surely the ineffable relates to negative theology. Otto first wants to separate and refine an idea of the word holy apart from the common understanding of the word as related to issues of ethical goodness. He writes that “we generally take ‘holy’ as meaning ‘completely good’; it is the absolute moral attribute, denoting consummation of moral goodness.”[24] However, he does not want to eliminate altogether an ethical understanding of the word holy. Otto suggests that the numinous is even beyond the rational, so not only should the word holy be considered above an ethical understanding, it also is beyond the rational. There could be a slim comparison with the notion the numinal and fideism, i.e. that faith and reason are not necessarily compatible, but admittedly, Otto’s numinal is not a question about faith. The extra quality of the holy is unsayable. It cannot be expressed in words. Otto defines the ineffable as ἄρρητον (arreton). But the word numinous is derived from the Latin numen, meaning divine. The numinous is to be conceived of as relating to a way of apprehending the divine.[25] The numinous is that particular religious feeling that cannot be put into words. Otto writes “this mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other.”[26]

Otto then elaborates on particular elements of the numinous, an ineffable religious experience in connection to Friedrich Schleiermacher[27] (the late 18th to early 19th century German theologian) who spoke of an element of religious experience that is characterized by ‘a feeling of dependence.’ Otto does not accept Schleiermacher’s full meaning of this concept, since what is being describe cannot really be handled in its fullest realization by conceptual ways of knowing things. Otto opts for what he calls ‘creature feeling,’ a “submergence into nothingness before an overpowering might of some kind.”[28] This ‘creature feeling’ cannot be fully described in words, yet if there were a way to introduce it: it would be a feeling of awed insignificance before a power greater than you. That the divine is greater than you is like saying that the secular universe is so vast that we are infinitesimally tiny in comparison. Still, Otto points out that Schleiermacher’s account of the ‘feeling of dependence’ is merely self-referential, while Otto wants to propose that his ‘creature feeling’ involves the numinal element. This means that the numinal element of a religious feeling of insignificance must be felt in relation to the ineffable that lies outside of our own knowing and understanding, as opposed to just a subjective feeling that one is insignificant in the presence of the divine.

From Plato’s Socrates who claims he knows nothing, to Derrida’s semi-secular différance, and from Plotinus’s The One to Ps.-Dionysius’s mystical unknowing, from the divine to the ineffable, negative theology presents a simple, yet humble, lesson that requires few words to be spoken in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge: ‘I don’t know’ (as a way to know).

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] Eriugena’s quote is from Deidre Carabine’s, John Scottus Eriugena (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 49. Eriugena (ca. 815-877) was an Irish medieval Neo-Platonic scholar/theologian who not only wrote on religious matters, but also translated key authors from Greek to Latin, namely Ps.-Dionysius who influenced Erigena’s own style of negative theology.

[2] I have the scholar Ronald F. Hathaway to thank for this clever abbreviation. Hathaway utilizes this abbreviation throughout his amazing study of Ps.-Dionysius: Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius: A Study in Form and Meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian Writings, (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1969).

[3] Simon Oliver, “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013. http://youtu.be/1X2Buxlcv6g

[4] For this essay, we will opt for capitalizing The One, The Intelligence, and The Soul as in Elmer O’Brien’s translation.

[5] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” in The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 36.

[6] Louth writes “according to Porphyry, Plotinus was extremely unwilling to talk of himself, and would not celebrate his own birthday or allow an artist to take a likeness of him.” Louth, “Plotinus,” 36.

[7] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” 37.

[8] This word hypostases basically means: all that which underlies everything, all phenomena, etc., it is the underlying schema of reality for Plotinus.

[9] For Plotinus’s account of non-human souls, see the treatise: “The Post Primals,” (V, 2 [11]). This is where the souls of plants and animals are spoken of within his hierarchy.

[10] Plotinus, “The Three Primal Hypostases,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964), 97.

[11] A quick glance at the Latin meaning of simplex, does not elucidate the matter beyond thinking of The One as not multiple, since it means: simple or single.

[12] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study (Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952), 26.

[13] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[14] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[15] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus, 8.

[16] Dionysius the Areopagite “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897), translated by John Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 85.

[17] Ps.-Dionysius, “Mystic Theology,” 85.

[18] Ronald F. Hathaway, “The Letters of Ps-Dionysius,” in Hierarchy, 131.

[19] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 84.

[20] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 86.

[21]In collection of interviews from the 1970s titled Positions Derrida is interviewed by the Belgian playwright Henri Ronse, where Ronse asks Derrida about the word différance. Derrida replies “[…] First, différance refers to the (active and passive) movement that consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour, postponement, reserving. […] Second, the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all oppositional concepts that mark our language […].” Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, translated by Alan Bass. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-14.

[22] Derrida, Jacques, with Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 79.

[23] Rudolph Otto, “The Numinous,” in The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-7.

[24] Rudolf Otto, “The Numinous,” 5.

[25] Grace M. Jantzen in her 1994 article: “Feminists, Philosophers and Mystics,” works hard to show the limits of this view of Otto’s (although she does not address Otto directly), she writes “Contemporary philosophers and theologians, feminists among them, regularly speak of mysticism as though the term is clearly understood: it stands for a subjective psychological state, perhaps a state of ‘shared consciousness,’ in which an individual undergoes a private, intense, and ineffable experience, usually of a religious nature. A study of the historical records, however, shows that such and understanding of mysticism is a relatively recent one which bears little resemblance to those who are taken paradigmatically as mystics of the Christian tradition.” Grace M. Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” in Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Autumn, 1994): 187. Her view is worth serious consideration. She follows from Michel Foucault’s (post-structuralist) critique of power relations. And she shows that academic/patriarchal power delimits the mystical to the narrow category of the ineffable. Perhaps such (male-dominated) ideas of the mystic stem from ancient times, where the mystical was largely kept a secret—it was hidden. But it is within this tendency to confine the mystical to a narrow definition that Jantzen has a problem with because it cuts female mystical experience out of the picture. She argues that female mystics, like Julian of Norwich, wrote about mystical experiences in ways that suggest that the mystical is much more than just ineffable, rather, they are experiences that can be communicated and expressed. It might be said that (male) philosophical authority regulates a narrow definition in the interest of maintaining authoritative power over female expressions of the mystical. Let us recall that Julian of Norwich spoke of ‘the motherhood’ of God and the association of God as a mother verges on the transgressive, and examples like this are not merely unspeakable, they just are un-masculine. If anything, Jantzen’s feminist perspective is expansive to include the mystical experiences of women that serve to widen the field away from seeing it as only ineffable.

[26] Otto, “The Numinous,” 6.

[27] Jantzen also cites Schleiermacher, “in his Speeches of Religion, [he] is happy to proclaim the greater religious consciousness of women, whom he also saw as ideally maintaining domestic bliss.” Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” 190.

[28] Otto, “The Numinous,” 7.


Carabine, Deirdre. John Scotus Eriugena. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

—. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dionysius the Areopagite. “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897). Translated by John Parker. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Hathaway, Ronald F. Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letter of Psuedo-Dionysius: A Study in the Form and Meaning of the Psuedo-Dionysian Writings. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969.

Jantzen, Grace M. “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics.” Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion, (Autumn, 1994): 186-206.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

O’Brien, Elmer. The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964.

Oliver, Simon. “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013. http://youtu.be/1X2Buxlcv6g

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John W. Harvey. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Pistorius, P.V. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952.