Intellect, Knowledge, and God in Maximus the Confessor’s Ambiguum 22

Intellect, Knowledge, and God in Maximus the Confessor’s Ambiguum 22

For the Christian (or theist, speaking generically) there is always the question of how one may come to know God: in particular, how the faculty of mind, or intellect (νοῦς), by which we grasp natural things in themselves, can grasp and know God in himself. Tricky business, no?

St. Maximus the Confessor, a late 6th–early 7th-century Byzantine-Roman imperial civil servant, later monk and revered theologian, developed a unique answer to this question. Maximus in general is known for his eclectic, original synthesis of Ps.-Dionysius—well-known to us moderns as the Christianization of late Neoplatonism—with the Cappadocian Fathers, as well as a rich, eclectic selection of other philosophical figures: certainly Aristotle, as well as Porphyry and likely other Neoplatonists, and certainly also his recent philosophical contemporary, John Philoponus.

Maximus ultimately develops a unique answer to the question of the intellect’s knowledge of God in his Ambiguum 22.1 The long and short of it is: ‘yes and no’. Not a clear-cut answer one may like, but when cashed out we find a rich way in which Maximus explains this: our intellect does grasp something of God, so that we do have a kind of direct perception or relation of God (lest the Kantians in us insist against this); yet because God embodies the infinity of all reasons for all things’ existence, God in himself transcends what the mind can only grasp by its own finite mode of being.

So far this last paragraph is by way of general introduction. However the details are worth pondering over, so let us look in depth at this short—but dense, yet rewarding—text.

Maximus gives his exposition as a commentary on St. Gregory the Theologian (i.e. Gregory Nazienzen) from the Theological Orations2 where Gregory claims:

Yet the rational account (λόγος) concerning God, insofar as it is more perfect, is also more difficult to attain, since it contains more counter-arguments (ἀντίληψεις) and solutions which are more laborious. (in Amb. 22, 448,1 [Constas]; 1256C–D [PG 91])

Ὁ δέ περὶ Θεοῦ λόγος, ὅσῳ τελεώτερος, τοσούτῳ δυσεφικτότερος, καὶ πλείους τὰς ἀντιλήψεις ἔχων, καὶ τὰς λύσεις ἐργωδεστέρας.

Maximus the Confessor
St. Maximus the Confessor

In the context of the passage in the Orations, Gregory speaks about the general difficulty in all truth and philosophy: ‘All truth, all philosophy, to be sure, is obscure, hard to trace out. It is like employing a small tool on big constructions, if we use human wisdom in the hunt for knowledge of reality’.3 One of the main points of Gregory’s passage is to set out the even greater limitation of apprehending God in theology,4 aside from that of beings in philosophy. Gregory mentions not just that God’s nature (φύσις) is incomprehensible—a foregone conclusion—but even God’s judgments (κρίματα) are also incomprehensible: one sees this in David, as Gregory points out, calling God’s judgments a ‘great abyss’ (Ps. 36:6 [35:7]), and Paul, where the incomprehensibility of God’s judgments indicates ‘the wealth and depth of God’ (Rom. 11:33). A key premise in Gregory’s analysis here is his claim before this passage that, ‘We cannot get nearer the truth by meeting things in their naked reality with naked intellect. Our minds cannot receive direct and sure impressions’.5 The use of καταλήψις with ‘direct and sure impressions’ is indicative of its Stoic epistemological legacy, where knowledge for the Stoics was directly communicated to the human mind from material things in themselves, in virtue of external material rays, or images, projected from those things. The mind thus assents and ‘grasps’ (καταλήψις) the image which it receives as knowledge, asssuming it is secure and stable with the other ‘graspings’ (καταλήψεις) it has of that same item. In any case, Gregory here certainly seems to reject this kind of framework when he presents the reality of the many ‘counter-arguments’ and dizzying possible solutions that the intellect encounters, even apart from the senses which also perplex and mislead.6

To return to Maximus, we are then left with the question how, then, can or can’t one have knowledge of God? That is, whether just in the study of theology, or in the direct knowledge of God (outside a propositional/discursive context, like theology). Gregory’s context seems mainly to focus on the former, but the latter issue is in the background—one that Maximus seems to address directly.

Maximus’ response in the rest of the treatise combines both his theory of intellect and ontology between God and creatures, in cashing out Gregory’s statement. In the first few lines (448, 2,1–7 in Constas; 1256D Migne), Maximus establishes that (1) all created things, if they are many, are also characterized by difference (διάφορα); and (2) in the respect that they differ, their ‘reasons’, or principles—λόγοι/logoi—differ in the same way. Maximus speaks of each thing having its being (οὐσία) in virtue of (δι᾽ ὅν/δι᾽ οὕς) its logos: although the term could be translated as ‘rational account’ initially, factoring in the causal implication of ‘in virtue of’ or ‘because of’ (δι᾽ ὅν) would also suggest ‘reason-principle’ or ‘principle’. One can see here the dynamic way Maximus understands logos: rather than talk of it, as Gregory appears to, in a definitional context, as a scientific definition or account (as when doing theology), Maximus speaks of logos in a similar way to his well-known doctrine from the earlier Ambiguum 7, as the principles by which all things originate in God, where God—or specifically the Logos, as the second person of the Trinity—becomes identified with the logos, or reason, respective to each thing, for which and by which each thing exists. As we will shortly see, the logoi become both the signifier by which God is immanently known and participated—and equally transcendent, unknown, and unparticipated.

The next premise in Maximus’ response is perhaps the most important, where he lays out how the intellect apprehends the logos of each thing—and thereby the God’s immanent activity (ἐνέργεια):

If then, just as the senses—in naturally apprehending (ἀντιλαμβάνομεναι) sensibles by reception [of these objects]—produce many and different apprehensions (ἀντιλήψεις) of the objects proposed7 and submitted to them, so also the intellect—in naturally apprehending all the reasons in beings, by which it contemplates within [them] the infinite activities (ἐνέργειαι) of God—produces many and infinite (to speak truly) differences, whereby it apprehends the divine activities corresponding to (ὧν) [those differences]. (2,7–14 [Constas]; 1256D–1257A [PG 91])

εἰ τοίνυν, ὣσπερ αἱ αἰσθήσεις φυσικῶς ἀντιλαμβανόμεναι τῶν αἰσθητῶν, ἐξ ἀνάγκης κατὰ παραδοχὴν πολλὰς ποιοῦνται καὶ διαφόρους τῶν ὑποκειμένων καὶ ὑποπιπτόντων αύταῖς τὰς ἀντιλήψεις, οὕτω καὶ ὁ νοῦς πάντων φυσικῶς άντιλαμβανόμενος τών ἐν τοῖς οὖσι λόγων, οἷς άπειρους ἐνθεωρῶν ἐνεργείας Θεοῦ, πολλάς ποιεῖται καὶ ἀπείρους, είπείν ἀληθές, τών ὧν ἀντιλαμβάνεται θείων ἐνεργειῶν διαφοράς, […]

Maximus establishes that intellect has access to the divine activities (or ‘energies’/ἐνέργειαι) of God in the same way that sensation has access to its respective object—however in a particular way. This brings up a crucial question of translation, which we will address. But first, let’s analyze the parallel Maximus sets up between sensation and thinking:

  1. The senses apprehend (ἀντιλαμβανόμεναι) their objects
    • (a) by receiving them (κατὰ παραδοχὴν), and in turn
    • (b) by ‘producing’ (ποιοῦνται) many, differing ‘apprehensions’ (ἀντιλήψεις) corresponding with
    • (c) the ‘objects proposed’ (or ‘substrates’: see the above footnote) and ‘submitted to them’. In turn:
  2. The intellect (νοῦς) apprehends (άντιλαμβανόμενος) its objects
    • (a) as all the ‘reasons’ in beings (πὰντων τών ἐν τοῖς οὖσι λόγων)
      • (i) by proxy, the ‘infinite’ divine activities, which are contemplated within the reasons (λόγων […] οἷς άπειρους ἐνθεωρῶν ἐνεργείας Θεοῦ)
    • (b) by ‘producing’ (ποιεῖται) many, infinite ‘differences’ (διαφοράς) corresponding with
    • (c) the divine activities (θείαι ἐνέργειαι).
Christ the Geometer
Christ the Geometer

In both (1) and (2), we see roughly the same structure: the faculty grasps its object(s) by ‘producing’ its corresponding medium (senses: ‘apprehensions’, intellect: ‘differences’)—and in virtue of that medium, grasping the underlying object(s). One may wonder how this exactly works for the senses: what is meant by the senses ‘producing’ its ‘apprehensions’, which correspond to the object? What Maximus is thinking is not immediately clear, but he may be considering something like this: the senses ‘producing’ for themselves8 the apprehensions would be like the sense faculties, for Aristotle in De Anima III (esp. ch’s. 2–4), taking on the forms of their objects, although they remain distinct from their corresponding objects: thus my skin may pick up the quality of heat in another object (a stone, e.g.), and receives—and in this sense, replicates, and becomes—the same sensible quality, or form, corresponding to its object—i.e. hot. Yet it does not become the stone—or let alone the specific heat in the stone. However the heat in my skin still corresponds to the stone, from which it received the heat. In this regard, the senses pick up the accidents corresponding to an object and, in receiving them and taking on the same sensible features present in the object, become oriented to the object in itself—as the bearer or substrate (ὑποκείμενον—the same word Maximus uses above) of those accidents.

With that said, Maximus seems to see generally the same process at work between intellect and its object, the logoi of beings, or rather, the divine activities within the logoi. At first this seems a different case from the senses: the intellect has not one, but two, objects—the logoi and the divine activities. However as one reads the rest of the passage, it becomes clear that Maximus seems to think of the logoi similarly to sensible accidents corresponding to their object: the divine activities become the substrate, or bearers, of the logoi. Thus, just as the senses receive and ‘produce’ the form corresponding to the external object, so the intellect apprehends the logoi and ‘produces’ the ‘differences’ from those logoi—in turn corresponding to their object, i.e. the divine activities.

There is precedent to this reading in Amb. 17 (esp. PG 91, 1225A–D), where Maximus sets out that the attributes corresponding to a thing cannot be conflated with the thing itself: if one defines ‘man’, say, as ‘living’, ‘mortal’, and ‘body’, each term is not exhaustive of the content of ‘man’—‘man’ implies ‘living’, but ‘living’ need not imply ‘man’—nor is the collection of those terms exhaustive of ‘man’, but rather it is the subject, ‘man’, which is ‘living’, has ‘body’, and which is ‘mortal’. In other words, then, ‘man’ is the substrate or container of these properties, which are ‘contained’ by the subject. For Maximus, this ultimately leads to his conclusion that all beings imply a distinction between their substance, or being (τὸ εἶναι κατ᾽ αὐτὸ), and the ‘assemblage of properties which are intuited [or ‘understood’] and spoken of by us concerning it’ (τὸ ἄθροισμα τῶν ἡμῖν περὶ αὐτὸ νοουμένων τε καὶ λεγομένων)—and consequently the same distinction applies to God, between the ‘assemblage of properties’ and God’s being in itself.9 We see this theme strongly reflected in the rest of Amb. 22, to which we will return to shortly.

A couple things should be briefly noted here. First we still have the question of translation, which affects how one should read the parallelism set out above. In Nicholas Constas’ translation of the passage above, the intellect ’recognizes’, rather than ‘produces’:

[…] so, too, when the intellect naturally apprehends all the logoi in beings and contemplates within them the infinite energies of God, it recognizes the differences of the divine energies it perceives to be multiple and—to speak truly—infinite.

On this reading, the intellect ‘producing’ these ‘differences’ are removed—instead it seems:

  1. the intellect apprehends the logoi, and in so doing contemplates the ‘divine energies’; and
  2. the intellect recognizes the multiple/infinite differences of the energies—as it were affirms what it already apprehends.

Yet the way Constas translates these lines seems to miss multiple elements: first, the word, ‘recognize’, for ποιεῖται, if not a mistranslation, fails to bring out Maximus’ emphasis on ‘making’ or bringing about internally, at the level of the faculty of intellect (or also sense), a correspondence with the external object’s side, especially when seen in light of its Aristotelian heritage. Second, put in the way (1) and (2) are, above, it then seems like Maximus asserts a tautology: intellect apprehends the logoi, contemplates the infinite energies, and then ‘recognizes’ (again, contemplates) the infinity of the energies. Yet this seems to be more a problem of translation than Maximus’ content.

Peter Apian, Cosmographicus liber
Peter Apian’s Cosmographicus Liber

Furthermore the question of translation raises a question about a Neo-Palamite reading of Maximus, according to which the divine energies of God are directly perceived and apprehended by the intellect, unmediated. Constas’ translation would lend itself in this direction, while our way of translating it throws a wrench in this reading: the intellect apprehends God/the divine energies via the ‘differences’ it internally produces, i.e. mediated. Yet this need not suggest that the intellect has no relation or grasp of the divine energies. Rather Maximus seems to uphold a general Aristotelian theory of intentionality: the intellect internally produces the form, or concept, oriented to the object which it apprehends, and it is in virtue of these concepts, or ‘differences’, that it comes to know the object in question—and at the same time ‘not know’ the object in its own essence or being (once more repeating the common Byzantine trope of the unknowability of God in his essence—something Palamas himself certainly upholds). And finally this also repeats a theme from Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius: participation is according to the mode of the receiver—a theme Maximus often harps on. Thus the intellect’s grasp of the divine energies is in terms of its own mode of being: hence the ‘differences’ internally produced from its end.

Yet even with this positive angle on knowledge sketched here, Maximus ends up concluding that the substance of God must ultimately escape the power of intellect:

Similarly [the intellect] will imply power which is weak, and [will also imply] as impassable the method of scientific inquiry into really true being, inasmuch as it does not possess understanding of how God—truly not being any of the beings, and chiefly being all things and above all things—is in each logos of each thing existing in itself (καθ᾽ ἑαυτὸν), and is in all the logoi together, according to which all things exist. (2,14–20 [Constas]; 1257A [PG 91])

[…] ἄτονον εἰκότως ἕξει τὴν δύναμιν καὶ τὴν μέθοδον ἄπορον τῆς ἐπιστημονικής ἐρεύνης τοῦ ὄντως ὄντος ἀληθοῦς, οὐκ ἔχων νοῆσαι πῶς ἐν ἑκάστῳ τῶν καθ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἑκάστου λόγῳ καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν ὁμοῦ καθ᾽ οὓς ύπάρχουσι τὰ πάντα λόγοις ὁ μηδὲν ὢν τῶν ὄντων ἀληθῶς καὶ πάντα κυρίως ὢν καὶ ὑπὲρ πάντα θεός.

Maximus’ statement here follows on what we have seen in the previous passages, forming a kind of logical conclusion: the intellect only grasps the logoi presented to it in virtue of the ’differences’ it produces. Yet as we saw from the analogy of the sensible qualities related to their substrate, the logoi are ultimately related to the divine activities as their substrate: intellect apprehends the logoi, like the senses with sensible qualities, but reaches its limits in apprehending the divine activities, i.e. God in himself, underlying the logoi.

And one here finds the mystery: how is God present altogether in all logoi—which the intellect can grasp—yet beyond and above, transcendent over, all the logoi at one and the same time? Certainly in this regard, the intellect cannot grasp God directly, just as the senses cannot grasp the substrate, as the substrate, of the sensible object that they apprehend. Yet just as the properties received by the senses are the medium by which the object’s substance is known, so also for the intellect: the logoi, as received in the intellect with its ‘produced’ differences (διαφορά), become the medium by which God is known.

The Logos of Nature
The Logos of nature

One can see Maximus’ heritage from Ps.-Dionysius, and in turn Proclus within the background. Although Maximus’ use and reception of both these figures is a subject for another day,10 what is clear is that Maximus’ emphasis on God’s simultaneous presence and transcendence is an inherited theme from Ps.-Dionysius, who describes God as paradigmatically embodying the perfections of all beings—as the Good-itself, Being-itself, Beauty-itself, and Wisdom-itself—while God’s mode of being transcends delimitation to just these specific perfections alone. In turn, this is both an adaptation and development from Proclus, who maintains a distinction at the level of the first principle of all beings: (a) the One-itself (τό αὐτοέν), which is the absolute first, unparticipated cause, of all beings; and (b) the henads (αἱ ἑνάδες), or the gods, which are the positive, participated exemplars and first principles of all beings, while mirroring the One’s nature as purely one and beyond being. Ps.-Dionysius ends up collapsing the distinction between the One and the henads, so that God is both transcendent (like the One) and the paradigmatic perfections of beings (like the henads).11 In the case of Maximus’ passage, the parallel can be drawn between God’s being in himself (like the One) and the divine activities (ἐνέργειαι), corresponding with the logoi (like the henads—or also the ‘signatures’ of the henads, immanent within beings).12

Given this backdrop, one still remains in mystery over how God is finally one and many: ‘many’, as present immanently in all things, in the infinite differences characterizing the logoi, and yet incomprehensibly one and irreducible to some, or even all, the logoi. In the same way the intellect becomes aware of what it can and cannot ascertain: as Maximus concludes the passage (PG 91, 1257B), the intellect in this process comes to know that God exists (the positive aspect), yet not know what God is, or what God’s existence in itself entails (the negative aspect). What this means is that knowing God in the intellect—even if circumscribed knowledge is impossible—is a continual process by knowing the ‘reasons’ or natural principles which are constitutive of all beings. Nature, and understanding it, is then essential to seeing God’s presence behind—yet within—the structure of all beings: equally so, the appropriate response when we reach God, in continually apprehending and contemplating the logoi, is silence.

  1. Orationes 28.21 (SC 250:142, 11,14–16). 

  2. Or. 28.21; trans. Fred Williams (from St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series, 2002). Original: πᾶσα μὲν οὖν ἀλήθεια καὶ πᾶς λόγος δυστέκμαρτός τε καὶ δυσθεώρητος· καὶ οἷον ὀργάνῳ μικρῷ μεγάλα δημιουργοῦμεν, τῇ ἀνθρωπίνῃ σοφίᾳ τὴν τῶν ὄντων γνῶσιν θηρεύοντες. 

  3. Thus although I translate the first line of Maximus’ quote of Gregory as ‘the rational account concerning God’, it should also be understood as ‘theology’ simply: Ὁ περὶ Θεοῦ λόγος = θεολόγια. 

  4. καὶ οὐκ ἔχομεν γυμνῷ τῷ νοὶ γυμνοῖς τοῖς πράγμασιν ἐντυγχάνοντες μᾶλλόν τι προσιέναι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, καὶ τὸν νοῦν τυποῦσθαι ταῖς καταλήψεσιν. 

  5. One can also detect an implicit (Pyrhonnian?) Skeptical backdrop in Gregory’s assertion of the lack of certain knowledge: the Skeptics similarly employ the method of difficulties (aporiai)—building an equal set of arguments, and solutions, on both sides of a given puzzle raised—to critique the Stoic framework of knowledge. 

  6. Worth noting the Greek to this phrase: ὑποκειμένων. Maximus almost certainly is referencing the Aristotelian notion of the ὑποκείμενον, or ‘substrate’, as the bearer of substantial and non-substantial accidents, all the more relevant in the case of sensation—sensible qualities are accidents of the object’s substance (οὐσία), functioning as the substrate/ὑποκείμενον. An alternative translation would then be, ‘of the substrates’. 

  7. Taking ποιοῦνται/ποιεῖται as middle verbs, as in the translation, so the action is reflexive, back on the subject. 

  8. Amb. 17, 387, 6,1–12 [Constas] (= PG 91, 1225D–1228A): ‘If, then, nothing among beings is a combination (τὸ σύνολον) in being through itself (τὸ εἶναι κατ᾽ αὐτὸ) with what is and is called the assemblage of properties which are intuited [or ‘understood’] and spoken of by us concerning it, but is something distinct besides these properties, to which they all refer, and which holds them all together, but is in no way held together by them—for it is not derived from these [properties], nor is it these [properties], nor is it something among these [properties], neither is it derived from some of these [properties], or from one of these [properties], nor is it to be numbered among any of the things that are, and are said to be, around it—if, I say, this is so, then every soul accustomed to idle impiety must cease to pounce impudently upon every word predicated of God, and, having learned their limits in small matters, they should honor by silence the ineffable reality of the divine essence, which transcends all thought and knowledge’ (trans. Constas, modified). (εἰ τοίνυν οὐδὲν τὸ σύνολον τῶν ὄντων ἐστὶ κατ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ εἶναι ὅπερ ἐστὶ καὶ λέγεται τὸ ἄθροισμα τῶν ἡμῖν περὶ αὐτὸ νοουμένων τε καὶ λεγομένων, ἀλλ᾽ ἕτερόν τι παρὰ ταῦτα, τὸ περὶ ὃ τᾶυτά ἐστι, συνεκτικὸν μὲν τούτων, αὐτὸ δὲ τούτοις οὐδαμῶς συνεχόμενον (οὐδὲ γάρ ἐστιν ἐκ τούτων, ἢ ταῦτα, ἤ τι τούτων, ἤ ἔκ τινων, ἤ τινος ἀυτῶν, ἢ ἐν τούτοις, ἤ τισιν, ἤ τινι τούτων, τὸ περὶ ὃ ταῦτα καὶ ἔστι καὶ λέγεται), παυσάσθω πᾶσα ψυχὴ παντὶ λόγῳ τῶν περὶ Θεοῦ θρασέως ἐπιπηδᾷν εἰθισμένη τοῦ διακενῆς ἀσεβεῖν, καὶ ἐν τοῖς μικροῖς μαθοῦσα τὴν οἰκείαν ἀσθένιαν, καὶ σιγῇ σεβέσθω μόνον τὴν ἄρρητον τε καὶ ὑπὲρ νόησιν καὶ πάσης ἐπέκεινα γνώσεως τῆς θείας οὐσίας ὀντότητα.) 

  9. While eventually I hope to develop an extra blog post on this, I have a 2017 paper in Studia Patristica on Maximus’ use of Proclus on participation, and a forthcoming article, awaiting review, on Maximus’ reception of Proclus in his doctrine of the logoi from Amb. 7. For those interested, please feel free to contact me for either paper. 

  10. In a forthcoming article on participation in Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Methone, I discuss Ps.-Dionysius’ framework in some more depth. You can see a presentation of an early version from May 7, 2020, here. 

  11. Proclus makes a distinction between the henads (a) as self-subsistent entities, i.e. the gods proper, and (b) as immanent properties, powers, or ‘irradiations’ (ἐλλάμψεις), within the beings the gods act on: see e.g. Proclus’ Elements of Theology 64 and 114 (esp. 100,18–21 [Dodds]). 

Header image credit: Francesco Botticini - The Assumption of the Virgin

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


christian-platonism Maximus the Confessor Knowledge of God intellect Textual Commentary logoi

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