The Necessity of Nothing

Knowing the Unknowable with Pseudo-Dionysius

Upon encountering the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, many readers enter into conversations about the ‘danger’ of his thought. This ‘danger’ is particularly at issue in Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology, the small text that acts as a sort of guide to his entire corpus. Pseudo-Dionysius cannot be read without reference to The Mystical Theology, without reckoning with his theology of “divine darkness” (135), of “unseeing and unknowing” (138), and because of this even the more ‘conservative’ of his texts, such as The Divine Names, are, in a way, tainted with his apophatic inclinations. Pseudo-Dionysius (and negative or apophatic theology more broadly) is seen as dangerous by some because, when detached from the positivity of dogma, the risk of doctrinal error is perceived to increase. The unknowability and infinity of God is commonly accepted, but to embrace negativity, that is, to “know[] beyond the mind by knowing nothing” (137), is seen by many as discarding reason entirely. This is seen as an opening for heresy. Especially in Protestantism, wherein the tradition of the Church and the Fathers has been supplanted by sola scriptura and the individual’s interpretive capacity, to put reason aside is not just risky but foolhardy. In fearing works like The Mystical Theology, however, we neglect to comprehend a reality that shapes so much of our experience in the world, that knowing nothing is not an error or a heresy but an essential part of human understanding, and is in fact necessary for it.

Well before Pseudo-Dionysius wrote The Mystical Theology, another thinker grappled with the idea of nothing. Indeed, Parmenides of Elea, a Presocratic philosopher writing around the sixth century BC, was deeply troubled by the idea. In his poem On Nature, Parmenides elaborates two “way[s] of thinking,” the “Way of Truth” and the “Way of Appearance” (Waterfield 50, 49), the former being the way of wisdom and the latter that of the fool. One should concern oneself with truth, which is, for Parmenides, being, or better, in his phrasing, what is. In opposition to this, the way of appearance is the way of what is not, and this is “an altogether misguided route” (58). Only what is lends itself to knowledge, because only what is can be grasped by reason. Nothing cannot be known because “there is no end” to what is not. As Robin Waterfield, the editor of the text explains, “there is no end” because “for any positive predicate F, there are infinite things which are not F” (319). To speak of what is not, to speak negatively, is, truly, to speak of nothing, to speak nonsense. We can hear intimations of Plato’s dialogues, here, his excoriation of the Sophists who twist words to prove untruths and unrealities. Parmenides’ thought is of a similar bent: “It must be that what can be spoken and thought is, for it is there for being / And there is no such thing as nothing” (58). To many this is simply common sense. Of course there is no such thing as nothing; the word means as much.

And yet, the problem of nothing remains. Parmenides did not do away with the way of appearance, as we see throughout the work of Plato in his discussions of mimesis and art, and as we see throughout most, if not all of, Western aesthetic theory. If something only appears to be something else, then it is not truly something. And if it is not something, if it only represents something, then it, the aesthetic object, has no being in itself, and is, therefore, nothing. The final step in this line of logic does not hold however. Who of us would deny that an aesthetic representation, an artwork, is something? Our definition of being, of what is, must be revised. Thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer have done remarkable work to this end. But for our purposes here, we must return from aesthetics to nothing as a “way of thinking,” because this is precisely the method of Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology.

Now, it should be clarified that the apophatic way and the way of appearance are not synonymous with one another. For Parmenides, thinking what is not is the way of appearance, because appearance is precisely that absence of being-in-itself that signifies nothing and untruth. The apophatic way, on the other hand is not so concerned with appearances or representations, but with the absence itself which Parmenides sees appearance as signifying. Parmenides writes, “you will not find thinking apart from what-is, on which it depends / For its expression. For apart from what-is nothing else / Either is or will be” (60). And yet, we can, in fact, think of nothing, of that which is absent. Indeed, some modern thinkers would argue that all thinking is in absence, insofar as reflective thought always occurs at a remove, both in space and in time, from that which it reflects upon. Indeed, every sign, Derrida would argue, every linguistic representation of a thing, contains in itself a trace of what it is not, its opposite. Even if one does not know what the opposite of a thing might be, one can conceive of something that might be its opposite, constructing an image of it in one’s mind from the various conceptual categories one has at one’s disposal. This image of the ‘not-thing,’ the ‘other-than,’ is certainly nothing, an appearance, and yet, we can think it, making it into a thing. Now, some might argue that this construction of the ‘other-than’ from available categories is not truly the thinking of nothing, because the ‘other-than’ is, by this line of reasoning, nothing but a composite of other positivities. In response to this, however, we can ask, how, then, does one think these categories? Does the infant truly enter into the world a blank slate, or is she born with certain mental apparatuses already in place intended for the categorization and conceptualization of the world? Regardless of answer, the fact remains that knowledge of difference, the recognition of an aporia, an absence between things, is essential to our understanding. The thinking of nothing goes hand in hand with the thinking of things.

So to return once more from our circuitous by-path to the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, we can now articulate the significance and relevance of Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology to present debates in theology, and to Christian theology as a whole. As Pseudo-Dionysius writes, God is certainly “good, existent, life, wisdom, power, and whatever other things pertain to the conceptual names for God” (139). The difficulty is, however, that “the more we take flight upward” (139), attaining to a fuller and truer understanding of and relationship with God, “the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming” (139). God is transcendent, infinite, perfect—this is accepted by most Christians. But if we are to pursue relationship with him, as the scriptures call us to, how are we, as material, finite, imperfect beings, supposed to ever come close to him? How are we ever to speak truly of the Divine? If we resist unknowing as Parmenides does, if we deny the infinity that cannot be attained by reason, what, then, is our God? Pseudo-Dionysius offers a solution. As we “find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing” (139), there we “plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect” (139), as Moses did on the mountain, coming into the ineffable presence of that which is “beyond assertion and denial,” the only One who is “free of every limitation” (141). Only in acknowledging the ultimate unknowability of the Divine, the total otherness and difference of God, can we speak truly of his transcendence, his infinity, his perfection. Only in forgetting all things and all categories can we grasp that which is above and beyond them all. Only in the final negation of all that is, in the rendering of ourselves into nothingness, can we come to understand the one who is beyond all. Only in absence can his presence be fully felt. And in that darkness, we see his light.

Works Cited

Parmenides. “Parmenides of Elea.” The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists. Translated by Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pseudo-Dionysius. “The Mystical Theology.” Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid, Paulist Press, 1987.

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