Zizioulas : Ethical Apophaticism

Zizioulas : Ethical Apophaticism

Published: Jan 17, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

In 1991, Zizioulas introduces the phrase, “ethical apophaticism… with which to indicate that, exactly as the Greek fathers spoke of the divine persons, we cannot give a positive qualitative content to a hypostasis or persons, for this would result in the loss of his or her absolute uniqueness and turn a person into a classifiable entity.”1 Zizioulas’ is concerned that the “uniqueness of a person escape and transcend any qualitative kataphasis.”2 Uniqueness, essential to true personhood, answers the question who we are, not what we are. What we are includes “qualities and capacities of any kind: biological, social or moral.” Zizioulas acknowledges that we cannot divorce who we are from what we are, but stresses the importance of distinguishing between the them. Discernible qualities, such as being a Orthodox european-american upper-middle class educated woman are crucial for personal identity, but because they are my qualities rather than another’s I am unique, and I cannot be reduced to simply any Orthodox european-american upper-middle class educated woman. Uniqueness is only recognized through free relationships in which a person “simply is and is himself or herself and not someone else.”3 Love then, is not based on particular qualities of the other, but the recognition of their unique irreplaceability. To isolate a person by a particular quality is to reduce their full, unique identity to something which is quantifiable and replicable.

Ethical apophaticism, then, allows for a certain amount of indescribability, of ‘mystery,’ in each and every person who is unique, irreducible and free. The qualities and capacities that each person has come together in something more than merely the sum of its parts. Zizioulas hints at the implications of his ethical apophaticism when, in an illustration of his point, he condemns the cultural essentialism which answers the the woman who asks, “who am I?”, by saying, “you are a woman.” According to Zizioulas, “this is an answer of ‘what’, not of ‘who’.”4 Zizioulas argues that uniqueness “cannot be guaranteed by reference to sex or function or role….”5 Zizioulas is correct that his notion of personhood as uniqueness realized in relationship is not a “‘misty’ mystery,” but he does very little dispel the the rather foggy relations embodied in society, or the Orthodox church.

This is in part because Zizioulas repeatedly rejects ethics. “Ethics,” says Zizoulas, “operates on the basis of the polarity of good and evil,” and while culture and time may affect what principles belong to the categories of good and evil, “there can be no ethics without a categorization of what ought and what ought not to be done.”6 Since the unique, irreducible and free human person cannot be identified by the qualities of good or evil, nor, slips in Zizioulas, can their actions, “the notion of ethics automatically collapses.”7 Zizioulas supports this inherently reductionistic quality of ethics by citing the definition of ethics given by V.J. Bourke, in which Ethics is “the philosophical study of voluntary human action, with the purpose of determining what types of activity are good, right, and to be done… What the ethicist aims at, then, is a reflective, well-considered, and reasonable set of conclusions concerning the kinds of voluntary activities that may be judged GOOD or suitable (or EVIL and unsuitable)….”8 Eliding doing with being, Zizioulas rejects both deontological and natural law ethics. I absolutely agree with Zizioulas that ethics is not the study about good or evil persons. I suspect that no person other than Christ is fully either. I do not however, understand his rather brief claim that “acts” cannot be so described. I certainly do not prefer the language of good or evil, but I would like to ask Zizioulas, is not an act which reduces another person to a quality or capacity, which denies their unique, irreducible and free personhood, a sin? Does it not miss the mark of personalizing the other? Of humanizing the other?

To be continued:

“gifted personhood” (Papanikolaou), kenoticism and the “ascetic ethos” (Zizioulas), and of course, a feminist Orthodox critique.


1 John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 112.

2 Ibid., 112.

3 Ibid., 111.

3 Ibid., 111.

5 Ibid., 111.

6 Ibid., 81.

7 Ibid., 82.

8 From “Ethics”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2003, vol. 5, p. 388f.” Cited in Ibid., 81-2, n.180