"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

An Emblematic City

Corbin held in high regard a figure nearly forgotten in Western philosophy except among specialists. The Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus, born in Constantinople in 412 C.E., had an enormous influence on Platonist thought both East and West. Nicolas of Cusa and Hegel may be counted among his admirers. In his Commentary on Plato's Parmenides he discusses the symbolic meaning of the dramatic setting of that dialogue. Corbin condenses this as follows:

"On the one hand there are the philosophers of the school of Ionia; [they] have studied every aspect of Nature, but they have scarcely given thought to spiritual matters... And there are, on the other hand, philosophers of the Italian school, represented above all by Parmenides and Zeno. These are exclusively concerned with things of the intelligible order. Between the two is the Attic school, which holds a middle position, because, under the stimulus of Socrates and Plato, a synthesis has been made between the findings of the other two schools... [T]he middle ground is symbolized by Athens, by whose mediation awakened souls ascend from the world of Nature to that of nous, intellect...
"These [Ionians] are types of those souls who have descended into this world who are really in need of the aid of the daimons... This is why they abandon their house, the body: they emigrate to Athens..., they set out on the way from ignorance to knowledge, from agnosis to gnosis... They come for the Goddess, whose sacred peplum is carried in the theoria, or procession of the Panatheneia in celebration of victory over the Titans who unloose chaos. The aim of the Parmenides is precisely to unite everything to the One, and to demonstrate how all things proceed from the One. To come [to Athens] is, for them, to know that it is within the soul that the battle of the giants takes place, in which [Athene] is victorious. Athens is an Emblematic City."

The quotation from Corbin is from "Emblematic Cities: A Response to the Images of Henri Steirlin," trans. Kathleen Raine, in Temenos Journal 10: 11-2. Originally in Steirlin, Henri, Ispahan: Image du Paradis, Geneva: Editions SIGMA, 1976. The sculpture is from the east frieze of the Parthenon (East V, 31-35): The presentation of the peplos of Athena. British Museum. Image from Institut für Klassische Archäologie. (Adapted from The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism by the author.)