The Cloud of Unknowing Criticism - Essay

Phyllis Hodgson (essay date 1944)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hodgson, Phyllis. Introduction to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the “Book of Privy Counselling,” edited by Phyllis Hodgson, pp. ix-lxxxvi, 1944. Reprint. London: The Early English Text Society, 1958.

[In the following excerpt, Hodgson discusses the themes of The Cloud of Unknowing and some of its sources, chiefly the writings of Dionysus the Areopagite, Thomas Gallus, Saint Augustine, and Richard of St. Victor.]



The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling, treatises full of individual experience as well as of typical fourteenth-century speculative and affective mysticism, have an importance to-day for the man of prayer and the psychologist no less than for the student of medieval thought. The author, describing an exercise of contemplative prayer, was obviously drawing from his own mystical experience. Having a fine insight into the workings of the mind, and being highly conscious of his own different mental states, he was able to describe spiritual processes accurately and vividly. He was also a priest and a trained theologian, fully alive to the controversies of his time. The direction of his thought, so closely resembling that of other fourteenth-century mystics such as Eckhart, Tauler, or Ruysbroeck, shows that he was in the full stream of fourteenth-century mysticism. Emphasis in his works on certain disputed themes such as the need for grace, Immanence and Transcendence, the relationship of body and soul in the work of contemplation, the respective merits of the active and contemplative lives, suggests that he had some voice, at least, in contemporary controversy. Though his own mystical experiences are the unmistakable background of both these treatises yet, being schooled in the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, he naturally shaped his thought according to the teaching of those writers who had most influenced him, because their experience was most akin to his own. Many of his turns of thought and phrase are traceable to known sources, but in their context they are so vividly personal that one must assume that such borrowed expressions best described his own mental and emotional experiences.


Both treatises were written specifically for a young disciple, but in actual fact for all those on the threshold of the highest form of contemplative life, to give instruction how to be ‘knit to God in spirite, & in oneheed of loue & acordaunce of wile’.1 Perfect oneness with God, which is the aim of the contemplative, is to know God, not objectively as a being to be analysed and understood in all His parts, but subjectively, as a divine force working in and through the soul, the soul moving only in God. To others who do not understand the contemplative purpose the treatises may be harmful, because they may so easily be misconstrued.

Disciplining of the body, the cleansing of conscience, customary spiritual exercises of reading, meditation, and vocal prayer are necessary in preparation, but they lead only to the beginning of the act of contemplation and leave the soul still separate from God. The Cloud of Unknowing treats almost exclusively of an exercise of the will which will overcome the separation and lead to union. Privy Counselling supplements the teaching of The Cloud. The real character of this exercise is an uninterrupted focusing of all the attention solely upon the being of God. This work has a double aspect—the concentration of all the faculties of the soul upon one single point involves a strenuous effort of the will to clear away from the mind everything that is between God and the soul. Both treatises describe the psychological difficulties at different stages of the work and show how they may be overcome.

The directing of the attention is ‘hard & streyte in þe byginnyng’2 because there is no clearly defined goal. God is infinite and the finite mind can grasp only finite things; man's highest knowledge falls short of God, and what he affirms of God falls short of the truth. The author had discovered that his discursive mind could never comprehend God, and its activities were, after a certain stage, a hindrance in the work of contemplation. He needed then to silence its inquiries by concentrating all his intellectual powers in a straining towards one single point, God as he knew him through a blind intuition of faith. When the usual connexions are severed from the consciousness there is at first no compensatory illumination of the spirit. The mind is in a state of darkness,

‘as alle þat þing þat þou knowest not, or elles þat þou hast forzetyn, it is derk to þee; þe first tyme when þou dost it, þou fyndest bot a derknes, & as it were a cloude of vnknowyng—þis derknes & þis cloude is, howsoeuer þou dost, bitwix þee & þi God, & letteþ þee þat þou maist not see him cleerly by lizt of vnderstonding in þi reson, ne fele him in swetnes of loue in þin affeccion’.3

The hardest discipline of the contemplative is to persevere in this darkness with faith, keeping the reason and the senses from their usual activities by placing a ‘cloud of forgetting’ between himself and the thoughts and images of all creatures.

The exercise will be difficult and barren at first, but if the contemplative perseveres, God will ‘sumtyme—seend oute a beme of goostly lizt, peersyng þis cloude of vnknowing þat is bitwix þee & hym, & schewe þee sum of his priuete. … Þan schalt þou fele þine affeccion enflaumid wiþ þe fiire of his loue’.4 The exercise, at first deliberate and difficult, becomes easier and spontaneous; sudden impulses of the soul will be ‘as it were vnauisid, speedly springing unto God as sparcle fro þe cole’.5 The deliberate concentration and rigorous blind focusing of the attention gives place to a spontaneous reaching up of love, unimpeded and sure of its direction.

The author does not belittle the difficulty of simplifying the consciousness by excluding from it all creatures, but the three chief obstacles which he stresses and shows how to overcome arise from the contemplative's preoccupation with himself. The contemplative must refuse to allow his mind to dwell on the memory of particular sins which he has committed. If he does not overcome this natural tendency, his mind will be distracted and in conflict, and this brooding might sooner raise in himself ‘an abelnes to haue efte synnid, þen to haue purchasid by þat werke any pleyn forzeuenes’6 of all his sins. He must put aside the thought of individual sins committed by the positive means of shifting his attention and looking only towards God; ‘& þou haddest God, þen schuldest þou lacke synne’.7 Even then the feeling of collective sin will remain as a consciousness of limitation and unworthiness—‘synne, a lump, þou wost neuer what, none oþer þing bot þiself’8 … ‘onyd & congelid wiþ þe substaunce of þi beyng’.9 This feeling may with greater difficulty be surmounted by an absolute rejection and dissociation from sin. ‘Crye þan goostly euer upon one: “Synne, synne, synne; oute, oute, oute!”’ This is more than repentance for sinfulness, desire for amendment: it is another aspect of that burning desire to see and feel and have only God. As the contemplative advances in love, the barrier of sin will gradually disappear, but consciousness of separation from God will painfully persist:

‘þou schalt fynde, when þou hast forzeten alle oþer creatures & alle þeire werkes, ze, & þerto alle þin owne werkes, þat þer schal leue zit after, bitwix þee & þi God, a nakid weting & a felyng of þin owne beyng: þe whiche wetyng & felyng behouiþ alweis be distroied, er þe tyme be þat þou fele soþfastly þe perfeccyon of þis werk.’10

Chapter 44 of The Cloud teaches that this feeling may only be broken down by very special grace and by ‘a stronge and a deep goostly sorow’, again that burning desire for God alone. Privy Counselling describes in detail the further stage in the work of contemplation, the final stage before union. The contemplative must persevere in the feeling of his own being. Without trying to know what he is, he must realize to the full that he is, for only then can he offer himself wholly to God:

‘a nakid entent streching into God … freely fastenid & groundid in verrey beleue, schal be nouzt elles to þi þouzt & to þi felyng bot a nakid þouzt & a blynde feling of þin owne beyng: as zif þou seidist þus vnto God withinne in þi menyng, “Þat at I am, Lorde, I offre vnto þee, wiþoutyn any lokyng to eny qualite of þi beyng, bot only þat þou arte as þou arte, wiþouten any more.”’11

‘Þof al I bid þee in þe biginnyng, bicause of þi boistouste & þi goostly rudenes, lappe & cloþe þe felyng of þi God in þe felyng of þiself, zit schalt þou after whan þou arte maad by contynowaunce more sleiz in clennes of spirit, nakyn, spoyle & vtterly vncloþe þiself of al maner of felyng of þiself, þat þou be able to be cloþid wiþ þe gracyous felyng of God self.’12

It is tempting to regard The Book of Privy Counselling as a fulfilment of the promise in Chapter 74 of The Cloud to expound any difficult passages. Though this treatise continues the teaching of The Cloud, it also supports his doctrine by giving a background of metaphysical reasoning. The mysticism of The Cloud is more affective, of Privy Counselling more speculative. The Cloud is more concerned with the will and love, Privy Counselling with the intelligence. In the latter the author describes at length how God is immanent in all things, being the essence of all things and maintaining all things in being. To simplify the consciousness by a concentration of all the faculties on the feeling of one's being, to return to one's centre, is therefore to return to God.

In the first part of Privy Counselling the author also explains by metaphysical reasoning why the ‘nakid entent streching into God’ shall not be ‘cloþid in any specyal þouzt of God in hymself … but only þat he is as he is’. The nature of God may not be apprehended by a summation of all the attributes of goodness, beauty, power, or wisdom; ‘þat same is to him only to be, þat is alle þees for to be.’13

As Privy Counselling teaches a more advanced stage in the prayer of contemplation than The Cloud, the psychological experiences he describes belong to one who has progressed farther along the ‘mystic way’. In current terminology, the art of recollection taught in The Cloud results in the ‘dark night of the senses’, when the ‘cloud of forgetting’ hides all customary objects of consciousness and the ‘cloud of unknowing’ hides God. The spiritual processes described in The Cloud are those of the Purgative and Illuminative Ways. The state described at the end of Privy Counselling, however, when the soul alternates between sharp consciousness of grace and a feeling of emptiness and abandonment, is the condition of the contemplative on the very verge of the Unitive Life. The barrenness and confusion describe ‘the dark night of the soul’.

Though the author of these two treatises never digresses far from his main purpose of expounding one particular aspect of contemplative prayer, associated trains of thought show that he took an active interest in some of the leading controversies of his day.

On the question of the relative merits of the active and contemplative life, for instance, he takes up a position that is definitely one of defence, sometimes of counter-attack, suggesting that, like Richard Rolle at an earlier date, he himself had been subjected to opposition, perhaps from the supporters of the Wycliffite movement at the end of the fourteenth century. His defence of the contemplative life is most vehement in Privy Counselling, where he becomes almost abusive to its attackers;14 but there are lengthy and quite disproportionate digressions15 in The Cloud, in which he emphatically asserts the superiority of the contemplative life above the active and mixed lives.

He is much concerned with the burning question of grace. The whole progress of the soul towards God rests entirely upon grace. By grace man is called to the contemplative life (ch. i); the desire of perfection ‘behoueþ algates be wrouzt in þi wille, bi þe honde of Almizti God & þi consent’16; this grace is freely given, ‘specyaly wrouzt in what soule þat hym likiþ, wiþoutyn any deseert of þe same soule’17; all those truly stirred to the contemplative life should ‘worche in þis grace & in þis werk, whatsoeuer þat þei be, wheþer þei haue ben customable synners or none’18. ‘Somme, þat haue ben orrible & customable synners, comen sonner to þe perfeccion of þis werk þen þoo þat ben none. & þis is þe mercyful myracle of oure Lorde, þat so specyaly zeuiþ his grace’19; whereby it may be seen that ‘no man schuld be demyd of oþer here in þis liif’ (chs. 29, 30). The emphasis in The Cloud on the part played by grace in contemplation is reinforced in Privy Counselling by a long interpolation showing how nothing can be done without God in any state of life, active or contemplative.20

The author of The Cloud is careful to dissociate himself from the heresy of Pantheism, which was the charge made against much of the continental mysticism of the fourteenth century. The teaching of the sect of the Brethren of the Free Spirit which had spread over Germany, of the Beghards and Beguines, was manifestly heretical. Twenty-eight propositions drawn from the works of Eckhart had been condemned by Pope John XXII in 1329 for being impregnated with Pantheism; the works of Suso and Tauler did not escape suspicion. The English author, whose thought in many ways closely resembles that of the German mystics, reiterates the warning with great emphasis that God ‘is þi being and þou not his’. This is the substance of chapter 67 of The Cloud, and the theme is developed at length in the beginning of Privy Counselling: ‘For þof it be so þat alle þinges ben in hym bi cause & bi beyng & he be in alle þinges here cause & here being, zit in himself only he is his owne cause & his owne being.’21

The discussion at disproportionate length of the nature and powers of the soul in chapters 63-6 of The Cloud sounds also polemic. Unlike the German mystics, and unlike a great number of his predecessors and contemporaries, who claim a higher faculty through which union with God takes place in the essence of the soul,22 the author of The Cloud recognizes no higher faculty than the reason and the will, and through the right working of these he taught that mystical union can take place.


The style of The Cloud and Book of Privy Counselling makes it difficult to trace the immediate sources of the sequence of thought. The young disciple for whom these treatises were written was not a scholar.23 The author having perfectly assimilated the teaching he wanted to communicate, and writing from very immediate personal experience, used simple everyday terms, deliberately avoiding all learned terminology; he would not confirm his statements by quotations from recognized authorities because such a display of learning was not necessary for his purpose, and was a habit ‘now … turnid into corioustee & schewyng of kunnyng’.24 It is possible, however, to estimate in part this author's indebtedness, and to discriminate between his different kinds of sources. What influenced his main theme of contemplative prayer is first in importance; but this main theme is set in a framework of the traditional teaching of the Church on contemplation, and is elucidated occasionally by direct borrowings, which serve to illustrate or define.


The author of The Cloud openly acknowledged the chief influence upon his thought when he referred to the works of the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:25

‘And trewly, who-so wil loke Denis bookes, he schal fynde þat his wordes wilen cleerly aferme al þat I haue seyde or schal sey, fro þe biginnyng of þis tretis to þe ende.’26

There is another reference, equally definite, in Privy Counselling:

‘þis same werk … is Denis deuinite … his lizty derknes & his vnknowyn kunnynges’.27

The treatise in mind here was De Mystica Theologia, which it seems certain he translated into English.28 His only direct quotation29 from Dionysius, however, is taken from De Divinis Nominibus, the treatise in which Dionysius expounded at length the metaphysical basis of his mystical teaching. It is significant that Privy Counselling, obviously written to expound and develop some of the difficult ideas of The Cloud, should be to a certain extent a paraphrase of De Divinis Nominibus.

The spiritual exercise, which was inspired by Dionysius, rests upon the belief in the absolute incomprehensibility of God. The English treatises contain the same argument,30 clearly stated in De Divinis Nominibus, that the natural faculties of intelligence are impotent to comprehend the being of God because God's nature is essentially different from the nature of man:

‘Si enim cognitiones omnes exsistentium sunt, et si exsistentia finem habent; qui est super omnem substantiam, et ab omni cognitione est segregatus.’31

Since their highest achievement must still fall short, any activity of the normal faculties is a hindrance in the prayer of contemplation; any idea of God they give must necessarily be tainted with error:

‘Sed juxta proprietatem nostram ea quae sunt super nos accipientes, et rationi connutritae sensibus infixi, et nostris divina comparantes, decipimur, secundum apparens divinam et ineffabilem rationem exsequentes.’32

Although they lay repeated stress on the transcendency of God, both Dionysius and the English writer are careful to show why man's soul is not irreconcilably separated from the being of God. God is immanent in all things as well as transcendent above them. God is the Unity embracing all things and sustaining all things in being:

‘omnia est, ut omnium causa, et in ipso omnia principia, omnes terminationes, omnium causa totorum, comprehendens et praehabens. Et super omnia est, sicut ante omnia supersubstantialiter superexsistens.’33

This is implied in The Cloud and expounded in Privy Counselling by a simple paraphrase of the Dionysian teaching.34

Since God is in all things, but is more than the summation of all things, both Dionysius and the English writer would take the via negativa of contemplation. The normal faculties of intelligence attain to a more complete truth in the statement of what God is not than of what He is, by rejecting every mental conception of Him and denying Him any attribute. The ‘nakid entent streching into God’ advocated in the English treatises is a blind act of faith, ‘not cloþid in any specyal þouzt of God in hymself, how he is in himself or in any of his werkes, bot only þat he is as he is’.35 The whole of the teaching on prayer in The Cloud and Privy Counselling is an exposition of the Dionysian doctrine that:

‘þe moste goodly knowyng of God is þat, þe whiche is knowyn bi vnknowyng.’36

The imagery in The Cloud describing the soul's progress in the contemplative life and the effect upon the mind is parallel to the description of Moses' ascent of the mount of contemplation in De Mystica Theologia.37 The stage that most concerned the English author was that in which the soul, by its own efforts assisted by grace, had attained ‘ad summitatem divinarum ascensionum’, ‘the which is the terms and the bounds of man's understanding’38; he would still be conscious that he was separated from God: the clouds and darkness described by the Psalmist39 would still hide from him the being of God. No further progress in knowledge could be made by the human intelligence: the soul must now be prepared to plunge into that darkness by renouncing all the discursive workings of the mind. This darkness is the ‘caligo ignorantiae’ described by Dionysius, wherein the contemplative, putting aside all the conceptions of his normal understanding, is united to God:

‘zif euer schalt þou fele him or see him, as it may be here, it behoueþ alweis be in þis cloude & in þis derknes.’40

The soul's effort must be to persevere in this darkness, which is really a state of complete concentration upon the unconditioned and incomprehensible being of God. To attain to union he must by successive stages purify his mind from every image, must still the working of the discursive reason, and lastly lose even the consciousness of his own separate existence. These different stages are often described in The Cloud and Privy Counselling.41 The practice is the same as that taught in De Mystica Theologia:

‘et sensus derelinque et intellectuales operationes, et omnia sensibilia et intelligibilia, et omnia non exsistentia et exsistentia; et sicut est possibile, ignote consurge ad ejus unitionem qui est super omnem substantiam et cognitionem. Etenim excessu tui ipsius et omnium irretentibili et absoluto, munde ad supersubstantialem divinarum tenebrarum radium, cuncta auferens et a cunctis absolutus, sursumageris.’42

The state of ignorance to which both Dionysius and the author of The Cloud would lead the contemplative is thus paradoxically one of transcendent knowledge: as a reward for the renunciation of all knowledge of natural things, the mind will be illumined with a supernatural and inexpressible intuition of Divine mysteries:

‘Þan wil he sumtyme parauenture seend oute a beme of goostly lizt, peersyng þis cloude of vnknowing þat is bitwix þee & hym, & schewe þee sum of his priuete, þe whiche man may not, ne kan not, speke.’43

The English author acknowledged only Dionysius as his master in The Cloud, but many modifications in the Middle English treatise reveal that he was influenced quite as much by other writers in the Dionysian tradition as by the actual works of Dionysius himself. The title of the Middle English treatise, for example, illustrates this. The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is adapted from the Dionysian conception of the ‘darkness of unknowing’. The Latin translations of the works of Dionysius have always ‘caligo’, which is exactly translated by ‘darkness’ in Deonise Hid Diuinite. In a passage of Benjamin Major,44 obviously influenced by the description of the ascent of Moses in De Mystica Theologia, Richard of St. Victor used exactly the same image as the Middle English writer: he described the ‘nubes ignorantiae’. It will be shown later45 that the image of the cloud is common, particularly in the works of St. Gregory, and that it was probably taken originally from the Scriptures. The use of another cloud image in the English treatise, however, supports the idea that the expression ‘cloud of unknowing’ was drawn from Richard of St. Victor.46 From one aspect, the ‘cloud of unknowing’ is also a ‘cloud of forgetting’, beneath which the knowledge of all created things lies buried.47 Richard of St. Victor also described the ‘nebula oblivionis’ in a similar context.48

In his introduction to the modernized version of The...

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E. Allison Peers (essay date 1947)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Peers, E. Allison. “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In Behind That Wall: An Introduction to Some Classics of the Interior Life, pp. 56-63. Toronto: SCM Press Ltd, 1947.

[In the following essay, Peers provides an overview of the major themes of The Cloud of Unknowing.]

This is a book written, late in the fourteenth century, by an Englishman, about whose identity no one knows anything whatsoever, or can even make much of a guess. He was undoubtedly a scholar, and almost certainly a priest; but, though he seems to have known a good deal about solitude and contemplation, he gives clear indications of having lived in the world. Whatever his state of life, he was...

(The entire section is 2248 words.)

Ira Progoff (essay date 1957)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Progoff, Ira. “Introductory Commentary.” In The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Ira Progoff, pp. 1-38. New York: The Julian Press Inc., 1957.

[In the following essay, Progoff contends that although The Cloud of Unknowing is a medieval text, its profound psychological insights can also benefit its modern readers.]

More than any other, the present period of history should have a humble and open-minded attitude toward all possible sources of knowledge. Modern man has lived to see the most productive discoveries drawn from previously rejected materials. Under the hand of science, fungi and molds have been found to be sources of healing substances. Again...

(The entire section is 10456 words.)

William Johnston (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnston, William. Introduction to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Book of Privy Counseling,” edited by William Johnston, pp. 7-32. Garden City: Image Books, 1973.

[In the following essay, Johnston explains why the author of The Cloud of Unknowing rejects conceptualization and thinking, particularly about one's self; describes the Dionysian aspects present in the work; and considers its historical background.]

Recent times have witnessed a revival of interest in Western mysticism. It is as though the West, long exposed to Zen and Yoga and the spiritual systems of the East, now searches for its own tradition and its own spiritual heritage....

(The entire section is 9193 words.)

William Johnston (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnston, William. “The Problem of Unknowing,” “The Cloud of Forgetting,” and “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In The Mysticism of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson explores the intellectual and philosophical climate that must have influenced the education and thinking of the Cloud-author.]


In East and West the language of the mystics is full of paradox. Concepts of “light” and “darkness,” “vision” and “blindness,” “all” and “nothing,” “knowledge” and “ignorance” keep recurring with a frequency that...

(The entire section is 18050 words.)

Denys Turner (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, Denys. “The Cloud of Unknowing and the Critique of Interiority.” In The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, pp. 186-210.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Turner analyzes some differences between The Cloud of Unknowing and the works that influenced it.]


This writyng that next foloweth is the Inglische of a book that Seynte Denys wrote unto Thimothe, the whiche is clepid [called] in Latyn tonge Mistica Theologia. Of the whiche book, forthi that it is mad minde [referred to] in the 70 chapter of a book wretin before (the whiche is clepid...

(The entire section is 10365 words.)