Monthly Archives: October 2016

Tracing Apophaticisms and the Problem of Expression: Plato to Post-Modernity

Eastern apophasis and Western via negitiva. In this post, I don’t properly distinguish the two, but they both generally refer to the process of defining something by what it is not.

Introducing Problems of Representation: Why Plato Hates Poetry

Plato’s the Ion considers the problem of knowledge almost in the same way as Book Ten of the Republic. Both dialogues are concerned with epistemology. Plato’s conflict between acquiring knowledge through philosophy versus poetry is repeated, though none of these works specifically deal with poetry as its sole topic. When isolating the topic of poetry in Plato, we are always extricating it from a larger context. In Book Two of the Republic, Plato considers poetry in context of formation and education, and condemns poetry as a hated and useless lie. In Book Three, Plato considers it ethically as an agent of morality. Only after imposing restriction on what poetry can or cannot discuss does Plato deem it tolerable. In Book Ten, poetry is completely dismissed because of its far removal from the truth. Underlined in both texts is the problem of representation, and the question of whether poetry, dialogue, or any form of expression can accurately represent the truth. The Ion examines this same problem in context with divine revelation.

Plato’s theories of mimesis and divine inspiration are similar in various ways: both claim a source, and both interact with us through one of three degrees of separation from that source. However, divine inspiration understood in the Ion is not identical with Plato’s overall concept of mimesis. What possesses the poet, rapsode, and audience is different from the mimetic copy-making discussed in the Republic. Because our minds are capable of being greatly influenced by poetry, Plato takes seriously the issue of poetic representation, and, therefore, misrepresentation. The underlying issue regarding poetry within the Ion and the Republic is not poetry itself, but representation. At the crux of Plato’s attack on poetry is a skepticism towards the limited means of receiving knowledge. This study will highlight the source of Plato’s dissatisfaction with means of representation, and will also examine the way mysticism’s apophatic approach offers a solution to representing ideal truth in a limited reality.

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, William Blake

As with mimesis, the inspirational effect of poetry is demonstrated in the degrees of separation. Socrates uses the imagery of magnetism to describe the phenomenon. The magnet represents the muse (the original source), and the magnetic force represents inspiration. It affects the first ring, the poet, the most intensely, and from the poet, the inspiration is passed down to the rapsode, and from the rapsode, it acts upon the spectators. Like a magnet, it weakens in affect as it moves further from the source. In regards to knowledge, therefore, any second or third-degree representation should be regarded either skeptically or rejected entirely. When adopted absolutely, this position poses a paradoxical dilemma for poets, philosophers, and even Plato. The problem with systematic philosophy, and language itself, is that it cannot properly represent true Reality or Experience from the Real or Divine source.

The Early Church and Platonists: Authority and Experience

Early apostles of the Christian Movement used divine inspiration as a claim to authority. Paul, writing to Timothy in the second letter, defends this old idea of inspiration as the way in which the text was written, and the way it should be read, suggesting the contagious, or “magnetic” nature of inspiration as an authoritative form of hermeneutics. He writes:

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.[1]

The Later Middle Platonic tradition dealt with this issue disparately. Plotinus, who was described by his pupil, Porphyry, to have experienced mystical states of consciousness, has distinguished between the states of “discursive reasoning” and the realm of “Intellect.” This distinction attempted to solve the conflicting modes of consciousness during poetic inspiration and the representation of knowledge gained. For Plotinus, the realm of the Intellect is the experience of the transcendent, and discursive reasoning is that state of mind through which it is processed or recorded.[2] Proclus takes Plotinus further. Proclus shares Plato’s disdain for a supposed knowledge of the part in substitute for the whole. In Ion, Plato makes clear that one cannot know only a portion of thing without knowing its entirety. To further this, Proclus found a solution to this issue in apophatic theology, or via negativa, the method of understanding Reality by affirming what is it not. “Affirmations,” he claims, “cuts off reality in slices.” Affirmations, opposed to the apophatic approach, are cataphatic, meaning they relate truth in positive statements. Proclus’ method concerns itself with subjectively conscious experiences with the Divine. [3] His concept of “negation of negation” is the most accurate way of expressing and accessing an encounter with the “Ultimate One” through a subjective, contemplative act. Proclus writes “negative statements that have been stated do not express anything about the One, but do refer to the One.”[4] These negations offer a solution to Plato’s frustration with representation by offering an alternative, non-representing reference, or signifier.

The early church fathers carried this further. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria had appropriated the Later Middle Platonists into early Christian theology. He is responsible for introducing the word “mysticism” into theology, and like the Gospel of John, incorporates the Greek literary tradition into the understanding of Christ’s teachings. Clement’s writings[5] examine the relationship between divine Logos and the divination of those participating with God in the mystical vision. In the interaction with this divine Logos, Clement shares Plato’s belief in the inexpressibility, and even the unknowability, of God. In Book Five of the Stomateis, he argues, “neither faith without knowledge, and knowledge without faith.” This implies a denial of affirmative knowledge similar to Kant’s claim in Kritik der reinen Vernunft: “Ich mußte also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen.” [I had to lessen knowledge to make room for faith]. In laying the groundwork for systems of knowledge, both philosophers discovered an unknowable and inexpressible element involved in systematic expression.

Modern Movements and Deconstructionism

When it comes to relating knowledge gained through an experience with the divine, several mystics and artists have adopted apophatic expressions, especially in the artistic and intellectual movements of Romanticism. In 1797, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), a student of the German Idealist tradition, turned to apophatic expression after purportedly having a mystical encounter at the gravesite of his departed fiancé, Sophie von Kühn. It sparked an intellectual and creative desire to express the experience that caused a definitive break from Fichte’s philosophy. The idealism of Fichte offered transcendental freedom through an absolute subjugation of the senses. Hardenberg’s concept of the ego took on a more passive role. He wrote, “Spinoza ascended to Nature, Fichte to the Ego, and I ascend to the thesis, God.”[6]  Instead of an active assertion of the mind over body, Hardenberg believed that the path to the Absolute could be found through the ego’s denial of itself and a surrender to nature. This denial required a death of itself unto itself, much like Proclus’ “negation of negation.” The ego’s identity must die in order to be fully representative of itself by entering into a state of non-identity. This state was not much discussed by Fichte, but became a topic of serious interest for Hardenberg. The (Fichtean) Absolute, being within the realm of knowing, yet still undefinable, has a negative function no term can positively grasp. For Novalis, this negative function was death. It required a surrender to an “Unbekannte,” or the “heilige Nichts”[7] rather than a conquering of a mere “not-I.” In a poetic attempt to render the vision of Sophie, Hardenberg wrote Hymnen an die Nacht in which the via negativa transcendence, or the “heilige Nicht,” derived from Fichtean philosophy, is poetically transformed into poetry as the “heiligen, unaussprechlichen, geheimniβvollen Nacht.”[8]

Expressing Experience

This ascension to God was led by an intuition of what God was not. Mystics, and at least those who have had similar encounters, often know explicitly what divine truth is not, and throughout literature, continually grapple with Plato’s old problem of inexpressibility of the Real. Knowledge is found in the unknowing. Thus George MacDonald, “I am no logician. I only know when I don’t know a thing […] wisdom lies in that.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1832, thirty-one years after Novalis’ death, would experience a similar event when visiting the tomb of his dead wife, also two months after her burial. Unlike Hardenberg, who had seen her transfigured spirit in a vision, Emerson deliberately opened her tomb to see her corpse. The need to see, the longing to know the nature of reality, and to test faith to the brink characterized his search for truth. In the months that followed, his approach to life was transformed. In the same year, he left the Unitarian ministry, a system Emerson perceived as what is not of God, with the conviction that the source of spiritual authority must come from within. Thus Emerson:


I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms; it is not saving ordinances, it is not the usage, it is not what I do not understand that engages me to it—let these be the sandy foundations of falsehoods. What I revere and obey in it is its reality, its boundless charity, its deep interior life, the rest it gives to my mind, the echo it returns to my thoughts, the perfect accord it makes with my reason, the persuasion and courage that come out of it to lead me upward and onward.[9]


In the years that followed, Emerson developed a philosophy of he believed reality was, instead of what Unitarianism was not

Memory and recollection, like language, contribute similar obstacles to representation of divine encounter. Plotinus and Proclus agreed that the ascension into Plotinus’ realm of Intellect, though profound, is limited by its brevity. Expression and recollection of it are immediately constricted once the perceiver returns to the realm of discursive reasoning. Henry David Thoreau, a contemporary of Emerson, recounts in Walking an experience of hearing the thoughts of a pine grove while visiting Spaulding’s Farm. The experience came unsought without invocation, though the fullness of the experience returns only yieldingly through recollection. He writes:

But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak, and endeavor to recall them and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord.

Though the attempts of representation, expression, and recollection, have failed to prove ideal, their attempts have proved artistically rewarding throughout the expressions of the Romantic Movements in the 19th century. The modern approach to divine inspiration and mysticism (since Romanticism) is preoccupied with the subjective categories and psychological states of the individual’s experience, as opposed to the earlier objective concepts understood in context of Plato, the Middle Platonists, and the early church fathers. The ideas of J.G. Fichte, other post-Kantian Idealists, and various Romanticisms have changed the way we perceive these spiritual experiences.

Even within the deconstructionism of Derrida, there is a hint of that which cannot be cataphatically named. Derrida’s deconstructionism is, essentially, attacking the logic of identity (put forth by Aristotle), which claims that all knowledge can be divided into categories. In Derrida’s “How To Avoid Speaking: Denials,” taught that the more we know of God (the more similar the similarities, the nearer our language gets) the more other He appears, and yet the more we are aware of the difference between God and creatures the less we understand the nature of that difference. This is because “there is no kind of thing which God is,” and therefore there can be no “kind” or class of differences of which the difference between us and God is a single member.

Nevertheless, the historical context distinguishes how we view problems of representation today, and how we understand texts both as experiences with an ideal state and their representations through a non-ideal medium.

[1] 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

[2] A. H. Armstrong, Paul Henry, and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer. Plotinus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1966. Vol. 4 pg. 396. Print.

[3]Proclus, William O’Neill, and Leendert Gerrit. Westernik. Proclus: Alcibiades I. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1965. Print. Pg. 31-33

[4] Ibid.

[5] Particularly, Stomateis.

[6] II, 157. Novalis. Werke: Works by Novalis, Schriften. Ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel. 2nd. Ed. 4 vols.

Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960-1975.

[7] Werke. Vol 2. Philosophische Studieren: “Das Unbekannte ist das heilige Nichts für uns,” notes Hardenberg.

[8] Werke, Novalis. I, 133

[9] The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Wesley T. Mott. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, vol. 4 (1992), Sermon CLXII.

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