"...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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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Corbin & Platonism

Henry Corbin's relation to Platonism and Neoplatonism is too varied and complex to be simply surveyed. But in the intellectual autobiography that Corbin provides in his late interview with Phillipe Nemo he describes something of the place that Platonism occupies in his spiritual and philosophical universe:

"Thus it was that one day, and I believe it was in the course of the year 1927-1928, I spoke with [Louis] Massignon of the reasons that had drawn me, as a philosopher, to the study of Arabic, and the questions I had with regards to the connections between the philosophy and mysticism of a certain Suhravardi (or at least of what I then knew of him by way of a rather meagre German resume)… That day Massignon received an inspiration from the Heavens. He had brought back with him, following a voyage in Iran, a lithographed edition of the principal work of Suhravardi, Hikmat al-Ishrâq: “The Oriental Theosophy”. With the commentaries it was a large volume of more than five hundred pages. “Here, he said to me, I believe that there is something in this book for you”. That “something” was the presence and company of the young Shaykh al-Ishraq and it is something that has not left me over the course of my lifetime. I have always been a Platonist (in the broadest sense of the term, of course). I believe one is born a Platonist, just as one can be born an atheist, a materialist, etc. It is a question of the impenetrable mystery of pre-existential choices. In any case, the young Platonist that I was could not help but burn at the very contact of he who had been the “Imam of the Persian Platonists”.

By my encounter with Suhravardi, my spiritual destiny in my passage through this world was sealed. This Platonism of his expressed itself in terms belonging to the Zoroastrian angelology of Ancient Persia and in so doing illuminated the path I had been searching for. Having made this discovery there was no more need to remain torn between Sanskrit and Arabic. Persia was right there in the centre, as median and mediating world. For Persia, the old Iran, is not only a nation or an empire, it is an entire spiritual universe, a hearth and meeting place in the history of religions. Moreover this world was ready to receive and welcome me. Henceforth the philosopher that I was passed into the rank and file of the Orientalists. Later on, after a long period of instructive experience, I was to explain why it seemed to me that in future it would be the Philosophers and not the Orientalists who would be the only ones capable of assuming responsibility for the “oriental philosophy.” - From the Interview with Phillipe Nemo

On Corbin's view, much of the enormous philosophical merit of Suhrawardi lies in the fact that he was the first to attempt to provide an ontological foundation for the reality of the mundus imaginalis, or the imaginal world. To provide such a foundation there must be available a cosmology which disappeared from mainstream Western experience with the triumph of the Aristotelianism of Averroes and the demise of the Neoplatonic cosmology of Avicenna, which Corbin dates to the 12th century. (On this see Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Alone with the Alone, and The History of Islamic Philosophy).

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 Proclus 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." [Corbin, Emblematic Cities, 13-14]

Corbin draws on Proclus again, in passages where he describes the movements of the flower, the Heliotrope, as it keeps its face turned towards the sun. Proclus writes,

"For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praise of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual, or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope...[produces] a hymn to its king such as it is within the power of a plant to sing." [Alone with the Alone, 106].

Proclus saw clearly "the essential community between visible and invisible things." Corbin writes,

"This common essence...is the perception of a sympathy, of a reciprocal and simultaneous attraction between the manifest being and his celestial prince... Taken as a phenomenon of sympathy, this tropism in the plant is at once action and passion: its action...is perceived as the action...of the Angel...whose name for that very reason it bears... And this passion...is disclosed in a prayer, which is the act of this passion through which the invisible angel draws the flower toward him... But since sympathy here is also a condition and mode of perception...we must also speak of the poetic or cognitive function of sympathy..." [Alone with the Alone, 106-7]

(The above is excerpted from The World Turned Inside Out).

In an essay presented at the Eranos Conference in 1976, Corbin described the Angel Holy Spirit as the figure who shatters monolithic monotheism.This is because our only access to the One God is by means of our own individual Lord - we are destined to angelomorphosis as partners with our Angel. Each of us has a Lord as there are uncountable stars in the heavens. Corbin quotes with approval from the novel Erewhon Revisited, by the nineteenth century Anglican, Samuel Butler. The narrator tells us that the Erewhonians had been told about astronomy, and that

"all the fixed stars were suns like our own, with planets revolving round them, which were probably tenanted by intelligent living beings... From this they evolved the theory that the sun was the ruler of this planetary system, and that he must be personified, as they personified the air-god, the gods of time and space, hope, justice, and the other deities... They retain their old belief in the actual existence of these gods but they now make them all subordinate to the sun. The nearest approach that they make to our own conception of God is to say that He is the ruler over all the suns throughout the universe - the suns being to Him much as our planets and their denizens are to our own sun. They deny that He takes more interest in one sun and its system than another. All the suns with their attendant planets are supposed to be equally His children, and He deputes to each sun the supervision and protection of its own system. Hence they say that though we may pray to the air-god & etc, and even to the sun, we must not pray to God. We may be thankful to Him for watching over the suns, but we must not go further."

This "pluralist cosmic theism" sketched by Butler is foreshadowed, according to Corbin, by the late Neo-Platonist Syrianus, who was Proclus' master. Syrianus wrote,

"If one reaches a grasp of the Sun and the Moon, each of the properties that this definition will have attributed to each of these beings, will belong to all the suns (and all the moons), even where there would be ten thousand suns, for in their Idea they would all be identical one with the others."

This grand cosmology explains why every encounter with the Angel, as Corbin says,

"puts us in the presence of a known and limited God (known because limited, and vice versa): Angel-Holy-Spirit, Angel-Adam, Sun of our world, - and of a God unknown and unknowable, God of Gods, of which all the universes and all the galaxies are the sensorium."

(The above is excerpted from After Prophecy).

In Apophatic Theology as Antidote to Nihilism Corbin writes in more detail about the connections between Proclus and the pluralist metaphysics he is describing:

"Clearly, we can now see that what is at issue here is what has traditionally been referred to in philosophy as the « principle of individuation ». Once more citing our article: « We know that the dominant ontology and anthropology of Western humanity are centered quite precisely upon the invincible affirmation of the reality of the ego (in all its forms) and of the reality of individual forms in general. This belief seems to us to be correlative to a mutilation of being », because it has its origin and essence in « negativity or the principle of individuation identified with the reality principle ». Here again, the adoption of such a position appears to us a very serious matter. Such a decision is marked, indeed stained, by the same confusion denounced by our Iranian metaphysicians of the Avicennian tradition, to whit, the confusing of the transcendental unity of Being or Existence (wahdat al wojud) with an impossible, contradictory and illusory unity of existents or existent being(s) (mawjud, Latin ens). These Avicennian metaphysicians vigorously denounced this same confusion committed by the practitioners of a particular brand of Sufism, one that would occupy precisely the position defined by Georges Vallin as belonging to Oriental humanity. On the other hand, on this point our Iranian philosophers are in agreement with the metaphysics of Being professed by the great neoplatonist, Proclus : [I am referring to] the connection or relationship between the Henad of Henads and the Henads that lend their unicity to the multiplicity of singular existents that they pose in the act of being by making each in its turn one being, [or, by investing each in turn with its own singularity]. For Being can only be existent within the multiplicity of individual beings. To affirm the reality of individual forms is therefore in no way a mutilation of Being, but is on the contrary its revelation and fulfillment. To confound the order of Being with the order of beings is a fatal confusion. The principle of individuation is a positioning and positing of the existent. If one sees in this nothing but negativity then one has set one's course towards metaphysical catastrophe.
I had the privilege, last May, of participating in a conference at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Tours, which had as its theme "The Human and the Angel". Simply pronouncing such a theme these days sounds like a challenge directed towards common opinion and received ideas. Indeed, it is because it is a challenge that such a theme contains and conceals precisely that secret path upon which one may find the answer to the question I am now posing: "What is the person?" On this path, it is to our Iranian philosophers --to whom I have long owed a great deal-- that I will appeal in showing how the answer to this question appears to me, and finally how I see the message of Iranian philosophy as it applies to our present conference.

I find this answer by referring to a concept that is fundamental to the anthropology of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran, that of the Fravarti (the correct pronunciation of that which is written fravashi ; and in Persian forûhar). In Zoroastrianism the word designates the celestial archetype of each being of light --their superior Self, their guardian Angel. This celestial archetype belongs to their very being because it is each one's singular celestial counter-part. The concept is so fundamental to Zoroastrian personalism --as the very law of being-- that Ohrmazd himself, his Archangels (Amahraspandân) and all the Angel-Gods (Izad, cf. the Dii-Angeli that we find in Proclus) also have their respective fravartis. It is this fravarti that gives the person his or her true dimension. A human person is a person only by virtue of this celestial, archetypal, angelic dimension. This angelic dimension is the celestial pole without which the terrestrial pole of its human dimension is completely depolarised, reduced to vagabondage and perdition. The drama then, would be the loss of this pole, the loss of this celestial dimension, because the entire fate or destiny of the person is engaged in this drama."

In The Paradox of Monotheism Corbin expands again on negative theology and the "polytheism" of Proclus:

"The Parmenides for Proclus is the Theogony that his very own "Platonic Theology" was to elaborate upon further. Plato's Parmenides is in some ways the Bible, the Sacred Scripture of the eminently Neoplatonic, negative, apophatic theology. Negative theology, via negationis (tanzih in Arabic) rejects the cause beyond all causes, the absolute One beyond all the Ones; being beyond all existent beings etc. Negative theology is presumed precisely by the investment of being in all existent beings of the One in the Many etc. All the while appearing to destroy affirmative theology of the dogmatic consciousness, it is negative theology that in effect safeguards the truth it bears; and this is the second instance of the "paradox of monotheism". The term is well known to both Greek and Arab Neoplatonists. In both cases it is resolved by simultaneity, the at once present [comprésent] One-God and the many divine Figures. Comparison of the process in these two cases has yet to be attempted.

Let us say that in the system envisioned by Proclus, there are the One and Many Gods. The One-God is the henad of henads. The word One does not name what it is but is the symbol of the absolutely Ineffable. The one is not One. It does not possess the attribute One. It is essentially unificent [unifique], unifying, constitutive of all the Ones, of all the beings that can only be existents by being each time an existent, i.e. unified [made one], constituted in unities precisely by the unifying One. This sense of unifying of the One is what Proclus meant by the word henad [principal of unity]. When this word is used in the plural form, it does not denote productions of the One but manifestations of the One, "henophanies". Those in addition to Unity, are the divine Names and these Names govern the diversity of beings. It is from beings that are their partners that it is possible to know the divine substances, that is to say the Gods that are themselves inconceivable. We have already compared the theory of the divine Names and celestial hierarchies in Proclus and in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

There is much to be learned from an in-depth comparison of the theory of divine Names and theophanies that are the divine Lords -- I mean to say the parallelism between Ibn Arabi -- the ineffability of God who is the Lord of Lords and the multiple theophanies that constitute the hierarchy of the divine Names -- and Proclus: the hierarchy originating in the henad of henads manifested by these henads themeselves, and permeating all levels of the hierarchies of being: there are the transcendant Gods; the intelligible Gods (at the level of being); the intellective-intelligible-Gods (at the level of life); the intellective Gods (at the level of intellect); the hypercosmic Gods (leaders and assimilators); the intracosmic Gods (celestial and sub-lunar); there are the superior beings: archangels, angels, heroes, daimons. However, these multiple hierarchies presuppose the One-Unique that transcends the Ones, because it unifies them; the being that transcends existents because it essentiates them; life that transcends the living because it vivifies them. In Proclus, harmony results from the encounter in Athens between philosophers of the Ionian School from Clazomenea and those of the Eleatic School, namely Parmenides and Zeno of Elea - all gathered for the Panathenian Festival. In Ibn Arabi's school of thought, harmony is achieved by the confrontation between monotheism of the naïve or dogmatic consciousness and theomonism of the esoteric consciousness; in short the acceptance of the exoteric or theological tawhid (tawhid wojudi). This is precisely the form that the paradox of the One and the Many takes in Islamic theosophy." - Henry Corbin

In the mystical theology that Corbin describes for us, the vision of the Angel is a revelation of divine Love and Beauty. The beauty of the Divine can only manifest in the form of creatures. Whenever we encounter a being of beauty we are seeing the Beauty of the transcendent Lord. Human and divine beauty are not opposed. Corbin wants to avoid any hint of an ascetical Christian moralism that would deny divine meaning to human love or to the sensuous beauties of creation. The experience of love is profoundly sacramental. It is the sacred occasion where Flesh is made holy and the means by which the opposition between Spirit and Matter is abolished. He says,

"In place of the negative connection that we habitually understand between Christian asceticism and the Greek consciousness of beauty, it is necessary to speak here of a valorization that confers a prophetic function on beauty."

Beauty is the essential divine attribute and human love leads to the vision of the unique Lord who is the Angel. Such a love is purified of all merely carnal, possessive instincts, all utilitarian ends, all obsessions and neurotic "needs." Such a chaste love is an ecstasy before the revelation of divine beauty in a being of beauty, a theophany. At the limit of this experience of love is the experience of Divine Unity: The Divine being is simultaneously the Loved, the Lover and the Love itself.

Selected Bibliography and Internet Resources

* The central text in Corbin's work is En Islam Iranien Vol 2: Suhrawardi and the Platonists of Persia (English translation). Available in the original French from amazon.fr here.
* On Suhrawardi see this excellent summary review with a link to this superb Bibliography by Dr. Stephen Lambden, including many of Corbin's critical editions and works.
* Parviz Morewedge, Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought, SUNY Press, 1992.
* On Avicenna: this excellent website.
* On NeoPlatonism.: Introductory Article by Edward Moore of the St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology.
* Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism, University of California Press.
* International Society for Neoplatonic Studies
* On Plotinus
* Pierre Hadot, Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision, 1994.
* Margaret Miles, Plotinus on Body and Beauty, 1999.
* On Proclus, see this excellent bibliography


1 Bust of Plato.
2 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.
3 Cluster of Galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Faravahar (Fravarti) from Persepolis.
5 Archangel Michael, Folio from Aja'ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini; Archangel Michael (Mikayyil); early 15th century. Iraq or Eastern Turkey. Al-Qazwini's Wonders of Creation is an encyclopedic work on the cosmology and geography of the world. The text was composed in thirteenth-century Iraq, and is divided into two main sections that discuss heavenly and earthly bodies. According to al-Qazwini, the angel stands on the overflowing sea of the seventh heaven and is in charge of humans and the presence of wisdom and knowledge in souls. His attendants rule over the entire world and have power over resurrection and generation. The representation of the archangel, dressed according to fourteenth-century norms, also implies a certain humility and gentleness, thus adding to our understanding of this powerful, heavenly creature.
Two Lovers, Safavid period (1501-1722), Attributed to Iran, court of Shah `Abbas the Great (r. 1588-1629)
7 Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 1647-52.
8 Auguste Rodin, Cupid & Psyche, 1905

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