Episode 96: From Word to Silence: The Rise of the Apophatic in Late Antiquity

[Correction: For some reason we locate Basilides in this episode in the first century. That would be something! He was probably born in the first century, but he wrote, of course, in the early second, which is still striking enough for the kind of intensely-recursive apophatic language he employs.]

Remember the good old days, when all of reality could be comprehended by human language, and nothing lay beyond the power of human thought? Well, now it’s late antiquity, God is radically ineffable, and human language is, at best, an imperfect instrument. But fear not: we can still discuss the ineffable, using the paradoxical linguistic tool of apophatic language!

In this episode we deliver the long-promised discussion of the rise of ideas of absolute transcendence, and thus of absolute ineffability, in the Middle Platonist and Neopythagorean milieux, and development of linguistic tools for attempting to discuss the ineffable, transcendent reality of God, or the One, or the First Cause (in a way it doesn’t matter which name you use, since all names miss the mark when dealing with that which transcends all words).

There will be paradox, there will be labyrinthine deconstructions of statements as soon as they are made, there will be much mental suffering. But there will also be discussion of the relationship between apophasis and esotericism, and of the commonly-received scholarly story of the rise of apophatic thinking and language, which we summarise and also question.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Apuleius: indictus, innominabilis: De Plat. I.5; cf. Apol. 64.7. De deo Soc. III.124: [Plato] prædicet hunc [sc. deorum parentem] solum maiestatis incredibili quadam mimietate et ineffabili non posse penuria sermonis humani quavis oratione vel modice comprehendi.
  • Aristotle on Cratylus: Metaph. 1010a12-13.
  • Basilides ap. Hippol. Hær. VII.20 ( PG XVI/3 3302): ἦν, φησὶν, [sc. Basilides] ὅτε ἦν οὐδέν, ἀλλ ́ οὐδὲ τὸ οὐδὲν ἦν τι τῶν ὄντων, ἀλλὰ ψιλῶς καὶ ἀνυπονοήτως δίχα παντὸς σοφίσματος ἦν ὅλως οὐδὲ ἕν. Οταν δὲ λέγω, φησὶν, τὸ ἦν, οὐχ ὅτι ἦν λέγω, ἀλλ ́ ἵνα σημάνω τοῦτα ὅπερ βούλομαι δεῖξαι, λέγω, φησὶν, ὅτι ἦν ὅλως οὐδέν. ̓́Εστι γάρ, φησὶν, ἐκεῖνο οὐχ ἁπλῶς ἄρρητον, ὃ ὀνομάζεται· ἄρρητον γοῦν αὐτὸ καλοῦμεν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ οὐδὲ ἄρρητον· καὶ γὰρ τὸ οὐδ ́ ἄρρητον οὐκ ἄρρητον ὀνομάζεται, ἀλλὰ ἐστί, φησὶν, ὑπεράνω παντὸς ὀνόματος ὀνομαζομένου. We cite the translation at Banner 2018 (see below), p. 104.
  • Plato: Seventh Letter on the ‘unsayability’ of the highest philosophical knowledge: 341c4-d1.


For Dodds, Festugière, Mortley, Sells, and Whittaker, see Recommended Reading below.

  • The esoteric wonders of ‘The Secret’: Rhonda Byrne. The Secret. Atria, 2006..
  • Murray on the ‘failure of nerve’: see the third essay, on Hellenistic religion, in Gilbert Murray. Four Stages of Greek Religion. Studies based on a course of lectures delivered in April 1912 at Columbia University. Columbia University Press, 1912.

Recommended Reading:

  • A. H. Armstrong. Negative Theology. Downside Review, 95:176–189, 1973.
  • Nicholas Banner. Philosophic Silence and the ‘One’ in Plotinus. The University Press, Cambridge, 2018.
  • Dierdre Carabine. The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition, Plato to Eriugena. Eerdmans, Louvain, 1995.
  • Odo Casel. De philosophorum graecorum silentio mystico. A. Toepelmann, Giessen, 1919.
  • E. R. Dodds. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968.
  • Heinrich Dörrie. Die Frage nach dem Transzendenten im Mittelplatonismus. In Les sources de Plotin: dix exposés et discussions Vandoeuvres- Genève, 21-29 aôut 1957, pages 193–223. Fondation Hardt, Vandoevres/Géneve, 1960.
  • A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2014.
  • Raoul Mortley. From Word to Silence. Hanstein, Bonn, 1986. 2 vols.
  • Michael Sells. Apophasis in Plotinus: A Critical Approach. Harvard Theological Review, 78(1/2):47–65, Jan. – Apr. 1985.
  • Idem. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1994.
  • J. Trouillard. Valeur critique de la mystique plotinienne. Revue philosophique de Louvain, (63):431–444, August 1961.
  • Idem. Théologie negative et autoconstitution psychique chez les néoplatoniciens. In Savoir, faire, espérer: les limites de la raison, volume 1, pages 307–321. Facultés Universitaires St.-Louis, Brussels, 1976.
  • J. Whittaker. Neopythagoreanism and the Transcendent Absolute. Symbolae Osloenses, (48):77–86, 1973.
  • Idem. Numenius and Alcinous on the First Principle. Phoenix, 32(2):144–154, Summer 1978. John Whittaker. Epekeina Nou Kai Ousias. Vigiliae Christianae, 23(2):91–104, Jun. 1969.
  • H. A. Wolfson. Albinus and Plotinus on Divine Attributes. Harvard Theological Review, 45(2):115–130, Apr. 1952.
  • Idem. Negative Attributes in the Church Fathers and the Gnostic Basilides. Harvard Theological Review, (50):145–156, 1957


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