At first blush, however, one would have supposed that classical forms of negative theology would hardly commend themselves to the 'democratic' temperament of post-modern philosophy, if only for the reason that
9 See Jacques Derrida, 'How to Avoid Speaking: Denials', in Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (eds.), Language of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 1-50.
11 Which you might say it is not, that it is intended ironically, as a reductio ad absurdum of any attempt to construct such a general logic of 'difference'. As we shall see, for Derrida, the statement 'Tout autre est tout autre' has a principally ethical force - see pp. 166-8 below. But no ethics, however rhetorically appealing, can provide excuses for bad logic; nor can appeals to 'irony'.
hierarchy is ineradicable from the earliest classical formulations of negative theology; they are born twins in their first incarnations. And if not the first, then certainly the most influential of those incarnations in Western Christian thought must be that found in the pseudo-Denys' Mystical Theology. For the pseudo-Denys a hierarchy is a differentiated structure of differences. Thus, in the fourth and fifth chapters of that work he describes a hierarchy of differentiated denials - denials, that is, of all the names of God. Those names, to use a later, medieval, metaphor, form a ladder, ascending from the lowest 'perceptual' names - 'God is a rock, is immense, is light, is darkness ...' - derived as metaphors from material objects - to the very highest, 'proper' or 'conceptual' names of God: 'God is wise and wisdom, good and goodness, beautiful and beauty, exists and existence'. All these names the pseudo-Denys negates one by one as he progresses up the scale of language until at the end of the work the last word is that all words are left behind in the silence of the apophatic. This ascending hierarchy of negations is, however, systematic, is governed by a general theological principle and is regulated by a mechanism. It has a grammar.
As to the general theological principle, the pseudo-Denys has already said earlier in Mystical Theology12 what he had emphasised in Divine Names,13 that all these descriptions denied are legitimate names of God, and yield the possibilities of true and of false statements about God. Hence, these fourth and fifth chapters of his Mystical Theology are, in the first instance, expositions of an intrinsically hierarchical affirmative theology. Moreover, the foundation of this affirmativeness lies in God's being the Creator of all things. It is God's being the cause of all which justifies God's being described by the names of all the things he has caused, even if what they mean as thus predicated of God must fall infinitely short of what God is; nor is there any sign, anywhere in the Corpus Dionysiacum, that Denys anticipates a problem of consistency between an epistemo-logically realist affirmative theology and a thoroughgoing apophaticism.
Indeed, it is probably one of the chief arguments of Divine Names that if we are not to be misled in our theological language, we not only may but must use as many different ways of describing God as possible:14 as he himself says, if we gain something in how we think of God by describing her as a 'king in majesty', then we ought to remember that she can appear to behave towards us in a manner so irritable and arbitrary that we may as appropriately describe her, in the manner of the Psalmist, as
12 Pseudo-Denys, Mystical Theology, 1033B; Complete Works, p. 139.
13 Pseudo-Denys, Divine Names 593C-D; Complete Works, p. 54.
14 Divine Names 596A; Complete Works, p. 54.
behaving like a soldier maddened by an excess of wine.15 Theological language, for the pseudo-Denys, consists not in a restraint, but in a clamour of metaphor and description, for negative theology is, essentially, a surplus, not a deficit, of description; you talk your way into silence by way of an excessus embarrassed at its increasing complexity of differentiation. Hence, if we must also deny all that we affirm, this does not, for the pseudo-Denys, imply any privileging of the negative description or metaphor over the affirmative. For those denials and negations are themselves forms of speech; hence, if the divine reality transcends all our speech, then, as he says in the concluding words of Mystical Theology, 'the cause of all ... is' indeed, '... beyond every assertion'; but it is also, and by the same token, 'beyond every denial'.16 You can no more 'capture' God in denials than you can capture God in affirmations.
The point of the serial negations of the last two chapters of that work, therefore, is not to demonstrate that negative language is somehow superior to affirmative in the mind's ascent to God; rather it is to demonstrate that our language leads us to the reality of God when, by a process simultaneously of affirming and denying all things of God, by, as it were in one breath, both affirming what God is and denying, as he puts it, 'that there is any kind of thing that God is',17 we step off the very boundary of language itself, beyond every assertion and every denial, into the 'negation of the negation' and the 'brilliant darkness'18 of God. But even here we should note that this 'negation of the negation' entails neither that some ultimate affirmation gains grip, nor that some ultimate negation does so. The 'negation of the negation' is precisely the refusal of ultimacy to both the affirmative and the negative, to both similarity and difference. In this sense the theology of the pseudo-Denys is neither an 'apophaticism' nor a 'cataphaticism'. It is the entirely 'unclosed', 'unresolved', tension between both. It is within that tension that, for the pseudo-Denys, all theological language is situated; it is situated, in a certain sense, within indeterminacy.
So much for the theological principle of his apophaticism - which is necessarily at the same time the general principle of his cataphaticism. As for the mechanism which governs this stepwise ascent of affirmation and denial, we may observe how that mechanism is itself a paradoxical conjunction of opposites: the ascent is, as I have said, an ordered hierarchical progression from denials of the lower to denials of the higher names, and yet at every stage on this ascent we encounter the same phenomenon of language slipping and sliding unstably, as the signifying name first appears
15 Ps. 78:65. See Mystical Theology 1048B; Complete Works, p. 141.
16 Mystical Theology 1048B; Complete Works, p. 141.
17 Divine Names 817D; Complete Works, p. 98.
18 Mystical Theology 997B; Complete Works, p. 135.
to get a purchase, and then loses grip, on the signified it designates. We may say legitimately, because the Bible says it, that 'God is a rock' and as we say the words they appear to offer a stable hold on the signified, God: we have said, Denys supposes, something true of God, albeit by metaphor, and something of the divine reliability is thereby disclosed. But just as we have let some weight hang from the grip of this word 'rock' on the being of God, the grip slips: God is not, of course, 'lifeless', as rocks are, and we also have to say, since the Bible tells us we must, that God is love and must be possessed of intellect and will, and so enjoys the highest form of life of which we know. Hence, in order to retain its grip on the signified, the signifier has to shift a step up the ladder of ascent, there itself to be further destabilised. For God is not 'intelligence' or 'will' either, and the signified again wriggles away from the hook of the signifier and shifts and slides away, never to be impaled finally on any descriptive hook we can devise, even that of existence. For in affirming that 'God exists', what we say of God differs infinitely more from what we affirm when we say that 'Peter exists' than does 'Peter exists' from 'Peter does not exist'. For the difference between Peter's existing and Peter's not existing is a created difference, and so finite. Whereas the difference between God's existing and Peter's existing is between an uncreated and a created existence, and so is infinite.19 Hence, any understanding we have of the distinction between existence and non-existence fails of God, which is why the pseudo-Denys can say that the Cause of all 'falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being'.20 Mysteriously, the pseudo-Denys insists that we must deny of God that she is 'divinity';21 more mysteriously still the signified eludes the hold even, as we have seen, of 'similarity and difference';22 mysteriously, that is, until we are forced to discover just why God cannot be different from, nor therefore similar to, anything at all, at any rate in any of the ways in which we can conceive of similarity and difference; or else God would be just another, different, thing. Just so, for the pseudo-Denys: for 'there is no kind of thing', he says, 'which God is'.23 Therefore, there is nothing we can say which fully circumscribes what God is, and, which is more to the point, there can be no language of similarity and difference left with which to describe God's difference. In short, for the pseudo-Denys, only the otherness of God could be 'totally' other, and that otherness of God is, perforce, indescribable - God's 'otherness' is to be beyond 'otherness'. Hence, as to 'this'
19 See pp. 178-9 below for Thomas's discussion of this point.
20 Mystical Theology 1048A; Complete Works, p. 141
21 Mystical Theology 1048A; Complete Works, p. 141.
22 Mystical Theology 1048A; Complete Works, p. 141.
23 Divine Names 817D; Complete Works, p. 98.
difference between God and creatures, we cannot even describe it as a difference, the difference, of which we can give an account.
For the pseudo-Denys, then, we are justified in making true affirmative statements about God, because if God is the Creator of all things, all things must in some way reveal, in what they are, the nature of their origin. That is his concession, as we might put it, to 'foundationalism'. But creatures do not all reveal the same things about God, or in the same way, or to the same extent. For this reason, it is correct to say that, for the pseudo-Denys, there is a 'grammar' of talk about God, a grammar which governs equally its cataphatic and the apophatic 'phases'. For even if we do not have a proper 'concept' of God (there being no kind of thing which God is for there to be a concept of), we have a use for the name 'God', a use which is governed by determinable rules of correct and incorrect speech. In fact, it is clear that, for the pseudo-Denys, that grammar is complex and differentiated, governing, that is to say, different logics of grounding in truth, different logics of consistency, and above all, different logics of negation, negation being the foundation of all logic, and so of 'difference'. These 'logics' are determined by the order of creation in so far as creation is an order and scale of revelation, a hierarchy, for as some things are 'nearer' to God in their natures, and others 'further' from God, so their likeness to God is more or less 'similar'. Of course, all the names of God fall short of what God is: you can even say that God is equally 'other' than all these names, though they are not equally 'other' than God.24 But because there is a hierarchy of affirmations, there is a corresponding hierarchy of denials.
For, in general, what you are doing in negating predicates of God depends on the logical standing of the predicates you are negating, and four logical types of negation - and so of 'difference' - seem to be theologically at play. First, at the level of metaphor, and so at the 'lowest' level of our discourse about God, we affirm and deny of God what is proper to material creation: 'God is a rock', 'God is a lion'. Obviously 'God is a lion' negates the force of 'God is a rock' to the extent that a rock is lifeless and a lion alive. Hence, one metaphor is negated by its metaphorically negative counterpart. But even metaphors which cancel each other in one respect are with consistency affirmed of one and the same thing in another, for there is no inconsistency in saying that God has the stability of a rock and the fierce energy of a lion. In any case, a negative metaphor, as 'no man is an island', negates an affirmative, such as 'some men are
24 See Divine Names 680B; Complete Works, p. 68. This paradox is not entirely incoherent.
All numbers fall short of infinity infinitely. Even so, 4 is larger than 2, and 5 than 4.
Created differences are not eliminated by their all falling infinitely short of their uncreated cause.
islands', but is for all its negativity, still a metaphor. Consequently, the relations of affirmation to negation within the metaphorical differ from those between a metaphor, whether affirmative or negative, and its negation as a metaphor.
For, secondly, the negation of metaphor simply consists in a recognition of its literal falsehood: 'It is not the case that God is a rock', which is simply a way of acknowledging that 'God is a rock' is a metaphor. But then again, at a third level, a literal affirmation entails the negation of its literal contradictory, for eadem est scientia oppositorum.25 Hence, you may legitimately say that 'God exists', which is in no way a metaphor, and is no more than to say the contrary of what the atheist says; and you may legitimately say that 'God is good', which entails the falsehood of 'God is evil'. In either case, the first, being true, excludes the truth of the second. And all these three relations of affirmation and negation are straightforwardly 'Aristotelian'; they are negations governed by the laws of classical logic.
But as to a fourth level of negation, that which the pseudo-Denys calls 'denial by transcendence', this is the 'negation of the negation', as when he says that the Cause of all 'falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being'. And it is clear that the pseudo-Denys' apophatic negations are of this last kind. For in the sense in which it is correctly said that 'God is not good', it is not now entailed that God is evil; in the sense in which God is said, correctly, not to be 'a being', 'not-being' equally fails of God. What is being negated, therefore, is that any creaturely understanding of the difference between good and evil, between being and non-being, finally holds its grip on God. The 'negation of the negation' is ultimately the negation of that hierarchy which structures the oppositions of affirmation and negation which lead up to it. For that hierarchy is a structure of differentiation, an articulation of a scale of negations; whereas the 'negation of the negation' places God beyond hierarchy itself, for to say that God is 'beyond both similarity and difference' is to say that God is not different by virtue of any of the differences on the scale, but that God is, ultimately, off the scale itself. But how do such denials - the double negation - achieve this?
It is sometimes said that they do so by 'going beyond' Aristotelian logic.26 And this is in one way true, and in another way distinctly misleading. For in so far as what is meant by saying that the 'apophatic denials' reach out to some space 'beyond' the realm in which the principle of contradiction holds is that here, when talking about God, we
25 Or rather, as Aquinas used to quote Aristotle's remark in De interpretation 6 17a 31-33.
26 For example, by Colm Luibheid; see Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, p. 136, note 6.
may happily say contradictory things without 'Aristotelian' scruple, this clearly misrepresents the pseudo-Denys's view. For it is, on the contrary, because two propositions which formally contradict each other could not both be true of God - in other words precisely because here, too, Aristotelian logic does hold - that we know our language to be failing of God. The 'negation of the negation' is not the abandonment of logic's hold on language. On the contrary, it is precisely because logic does retain its hold on language that the negation of the negation is the abandonment of language as such. Hence, for the pseudo-Denys there is no such thing as 'apophatic language'. If it is apophatic, then it is beyond language. If it is within language, then it is obedient to the laws of 'Aristotelian logic'. It is only 'beyond speech', therefore, that, for the pseudo-Denys, indeterminacy rules. In the meantime, and leading up to that point, there is a hierarchical differentiation and structure within negativity, and so within 'otherness', a hierarchy which is intrinsic to the statement of his apophaticism.
If we are to understand the theology of the pseudo-Denys we have to admit this hierarchy of negation and difference, and the consequent hierarchical ontology which underpins it. And such an admission will not be so readily conceded in some quarters today; for it is commonly supposed that if we are today to gain profit from the theology of the pseudo-Denys for our own theological purposes, it will have to be at the cost of his clearly 'pre-modern' hierarchicalism, for which (it is thought) any contemporary ontology can find no place. For no contemporary ontology concedes the pseudo-Denys's scale of being, descending, as I put it elsewhere,27 like a laval flow from the pure fire of its origin down through the slopes of the volcano, hardening and cooling as it flows away from its source. Contemporary philosophies permit no conceptions which correspond with the pseudo-Denys's Platonic notion of 'degrees of reality' such that some things 'realise more' of what it is to exist than other things do, still less ofthe Christianised Platonic notion that the existence which creatures 'more or less' realise consists in their degree of participation in the divine existence. Hence, Christian theologies today, even those claiming much influence from the antique and medieval traditions of negative theology, may feel that they know what they can and what they cannot take from those sources: negative theology they will embrace, on condition of its detachment from a hierarchical Platonic ontology, and its corresponding epistemological hierarchy.28
27 Turner, Darkness of God, p. 29.
28 See ibid., pp. 26-33, for a fuller account of the role of hierarchy in the thought of the pseudo-Denys.
Perhaps theologians of that way of thinking will feel sustained in their hopes for such selectivity by the fact that the theology of the pseudo-Denys is governed by a double movement of thought, the one rooted in an antique hierarchical ontology, the other, corrective of the first, in the directly Christian teaching of the creation of all things 'out of nothing'. If, from the first point of view, a theological language of greater and lesser distance from God is legitimised, from the second point of view this hierarchicalism is radically qualified: all things are also in a certain sense equidistant from the God whose action sustains them equally in existence as opposed to the nothingness 'from which' they are created. For there is no such kind of thing as the kind of thing which exists; there is no kind of being, therefore, which, prior to or beyond its character as pure gift, has any claim on existence because of the kind of being that it is. Hence, even if, given its existence, an angel possesses an existence 'more necessary' than that of a worm, from this 'absolute' point of view of creation - that it exists at all - an angel has no better claim on existence than a worm has. The 'aristocratic' theological language of the angelic hierarchy cannot be justified except in its dialectical tension with, and ultimate subordination to, the 'democratic' ontology of creation ex nihilo. As 'the Cause of all' God stands in the same relation to the whole hierarchy as its Creator: he does not stand as top being on that hierarchy.
Nonetheless, those hopes are vain which are sustained by a prospect of a Dionysian apophaticism rooted in the democratic negativity of creatio ex nihilo but detached from a hierarchical affirmativity, not least because of the distortions thus visited upon the pseudo-Denys's theological project. For a theological apophasis whose denials are disengaged from the hierarchy of affirmations will have to abandon, along with the hierarchy of affirmations, also the pseudo-Denys's careful distinctions within the hierarchy of denials themselves - or, to put it in other terms, within the hierarchy of 'difference', and so within the differentiations intrinsic to our language about God.
Hence, it is not so easy as it might be thought to distil out, as a pure 'rhetoric', an apophatic theology from that hierarchical ontology which, in antique and medieval traditions, underpinned an affirmative theology. For it is once again necessary to emphasise that at work within the pseudo-Denys's articulation of theological language is the Aristotelian principle, eadem est scientia oppositorum - affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge. In general, therefore, 'otherness' and negation are inconceivable except in terms of'sameness' and affirmation; hence, what it is to deny something - what kind of 'otherness' you thereby affirm - depends on what it is to affirm it. It further follows that if the logic of affirmation is hierarchically differentiated, then we have to say that the logic of negation and 'otherness' is differentiated. And it follows finally that if 'otherness' is differentiated, then the differences between one kind of otherness and others are themselves intelligible only against the background of sameness. The conception of an 'otherness' being 'tout autre' is, therefore, strictly unintelligible. Just so, says the pseudo-Denys: to the 'tout autre' we would have to give the name 'God', for it is here alone that logic breaks down, and the principle eadem est scientia oppositorum itself fails, as it must, since God 'is beyond [not only] every assertion .. .[but also] beyond every denial'. As it were, to reverse Nietzsche's famous formulation: we can get God only at the point where we get rid of grammar, where we have pressed 'grammar' beyond its breaking point.
Hence to dislodge any one element in this complex structure of differentiated difference is to cause the whole edifice of theological language to collapse. What, of course, it collapses into if we remove from it that articulation of differentiated differences is precisely what we get in Derrida: a univocity of difference for which every difference is reduced to a generalised indeterminacy, an indeterminacy which is, moreover, logically impossible as of anything finite: 'total difference'. What the pseudo-Denys recognises is that no two anythings can be 'totally different', for that is why he concludes that God, being totally different from all creatures, could not be any kind of thing. As between God and creatures there is, of course, all the difference, but, being beyond description, it cannot be a difference of any kind; but the thought that that, precisely, is how God is different from creation - more 'other' in respect of any creature than any two creatures could be in respect of each other - is one which gets its full development in later Dionysian theologies, in particular those of Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas, to the first of whom we must now turn, leaving the discussion of Thomas to the next chapter.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.