Is Our Ultimate Perfection a Knowing or an Unknowing?

I am currently taking a very interesting course at UD on Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Below is a brief comparison of St. Thomas and Dionysius in regard to our ultimate perfection. In his treatise, The Divine Names, Dionysius writes,

“[w]e now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. […] But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We cal a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendently it contains within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. […] And if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge” (The Divine Names, pp. 52-53).

I certain do not pretend to understand nor to be able to unpack everything in this passage; however, I do want to focus on some of the differences that come to the surface between Dionysius and St. Thomas. In the passage above, three different activities are discerned: seeing, knowing, and unknowing (union). Both Thomas and Dionysius would agree that the senses will be used in the life to come (hence, above we read of a “sight of God”). Likewise, both would agree that we will engage in intellectual activities—as Dionysius puts it, “we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him.” However, Dionysius adds that the highest “activity” will be an unknowing, a union—that which is beyond nous. Thomas of course does not agree with this last addition, as he believes that our perfection is a kind of knowing. In other words, for Dionysius our perfection comes in a non-cognitive union with God (an unknowing or that which is beyond knowing altogether). Whereas for Aquinas, our union with God is a form of understanding, different (and superior) from the way that we understand now. In addition, for Thomas, we will (in our future state) know God’s essence (not in the sense of comprehending God). In Dionysius as well, we do have knowledge of God’s essence; however, that is an inferior knowing which is surpassed by a non-cognitive experiencing of God who is beyond being. This has to be the case for Dionysius given what he states in the last sentence of the passage quoted above, viz., “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.”


Pseudo Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

3 thoughts on “Is Our Ultimate Perfection a Knowing or an Unknowing?”

  1. Thanks for this fascinating passage. In case you haven’t already seen it, Augustine has a very relevant passage in De Civitate Dei XXII.29. I blogged on it here.

  2. Aquinas, when he deals with passages like this (Cf. ST 3.92.1 ad 3; ST 1-2.3.8 ad 1), makes a sharp distinction between the highest activity of the wayfarer and the highest activity of the blessed; the highest activity of the wayfarer is unknowing, knowing that He is beyond all our conceiving, but that of the blessed is direct illumination by God (and hence there is no need for our conceiving, because the light by which we see God is God’s, not our own). This is a distinction he believes is found in the Dionysian himself. And, at least at first glance, the passage you quote supports this, since it seems to distinguish how things will be when blessed (“struck by his blazing light”) and what happens for now. And even in the beatific vision Thomas insists that our vision of the divine essence will be imperfect, and that God’s intelligibility and light exceeds what the saints will have the capacity to see. Further, while Thomas regards the perfection we receive from our union with God to be knowledge of God, he is very clear that the union itself is constituted by charity (cf. ST 2-2.27.4), knowledge of the beloved being simply its culmination. So while there may be a difference, I think there’s room to argue that it would have to be more subtle than you suggest.

  3. Dear Brandon,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I do think that the significant different between Thomas and Dionysius is that for Thomas our final perfection (in a beatified state) consists in a kind of knowing (which of course involves as you put it, “a direct illumination by God”). However, for Dionysius our ultimate perfection is a non-cognitive union—that is, a union which is beyond nous. Thomas thinks that Dionysius means that this union is a “vision” of the divine essence; however, this is a debated point among Thomists and Neoplatonic scholars.


Comments are closed.