"...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, May 11, 2017

Politics of Time / Politics of Eternity

The following editorial will appear in Temenos Academy Review 20, due to be published in late 2017; it is reproduced here with the permission of John Carey and the Temenos Academy.


While Temenos has always been concerned with the nature of ‘the good society’, it has never been political in a partisan sense. Kathleen Raine used to say that Temenos has to do not with ‘the politics of time’ but with ‘the politics of eternity’. This year, as Britain and America grapple with daunting political changes, stemming from profound ideological divisions and boding momentous consequences, it may be appropriate to reflect on this stance afresh.
In thus distinguishing between two kinds of politics, Kathleen Raine was quoting the Irish poet, painter, activist and visionary ‘Æ’ (George Russell). The paired phrases run like a leitmotiv through his novel The Interpreters, among the epigraphs of which is a question posed by one of the characters: ‘What relation have the politics of time to the politics of eternity?’ It is this question which, without aspiring to any thoroughness or resolution, I shall consider in what follows.
What did Æ mean by ‘the politics of eternity’? What he did not mean, we may be sure, was a fastidious refusal to come to terms with the here and now, an unworldly non-politics. The Interpreters is a philosophical fantasy laid in the future, in which a group of imprisoned revolutionaries debate their varied conceptions of an ideal society. It was published in 1922, in the wake of the Irish war of independence: the ‘world empire’ and the ‘nation long restless under its rule’ of Æ’s story clearly stand respectively for Britain and Ireland. He wrote out of a crisis through which he himself had lived; and the standpoints advocated by his characters reflect various strands in the fabric of contemporary Irish nationalism.
But despite this topicality, Æ gave his narrative an imaginary setting; and he did so for a specific reason. As he stated: ‘The symposium has been laid in a future century so that ideals over which there is conflict to-day might be discussed divested of passion and apart from transient circumstance.’ Believing that immediate events can only be properly understood through an understanding of what lies behind them, he said of the struggle for Irish freedom that

the political images in imagination were but the psychic body of spiritual ideas. Behind the open argument lurked a spiritual mood which was the true decider of destiny.

Or, as he observed later in the same book: ‘Politic[s] is a profane science only because it has not yet discovered it has its roots in sacred or spiritual things and must deal with them.’
Seen in these terms, the relationship between the politics of time and the politics of eternity is not one of mutual exclusion. Rather, the latter are the transcendent Reality of which the former are the contingent expression. As long as we are in this world, we must exist in terms of time: the wisest means of doing so has been found, probably, by those who have looked to the harmonious workings of the cosmos for guidance in the governance of human affairs. But if we lack the perspective of eternity, of the mystery which sanctifies that cosmos, our experience of this temporal existence will be flattened and distorted; we may be left with what Charles Williams called ‘a fallacy of rational virtue’.
To impart the eternal perspective is the task of the prophet and of the artist – among artists, perhaps especially of the poet. In the words of Kathleen Raine:

When Shelley wrote that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ his words were not merely rhetorical, for he was himself deeply committed to that task of imaginative legislation – as had Blake been before him with the intent that his words would in due course affect the politics of history.

We can discern the same intent in Dante’s treatise on monarchy; in Plato’s picture of a just city; and indeed in the attempts of Plato and of Plotinus – and, for a time with greater success, of the Pythagoreans – to found philosophical communities.
The image of a heavenly order reflected here on earth, of the descent of the celestial Jerusalem, has been a source of inspiration down the ages. But it is a grievous truth that the attempt to realise such an order has again and again resulted in intolerance, hypocrisy, tyranny and evil. Examples could be given from throughout the world and from throughout history, and all too easily from our own times also. When human volition has acted in the name of the Absolute, when the bearers of spiritual authority have wielded material power, that power has been repeatedly abused. This should not be seen to discredit the beliefs which have served as the pretexts for such abuse; but that they have repeatedly so served is a fact which it would be immoral to ignore, or to condone.
It is against such oppression – ‘a dark yet mighty faith, a power as wide / as is the world it wasted’ – that Shelley’s ‘imaginative legislation’ was directed. He called for its fetters to be abolished, a liberation following which

the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man:
Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree: the king
Over himself....
(Prometheus Unbound)

Shelley was a votary of the Platonic tradition, but also of the ideals of revolution; and in these lines he is not speaking with the voice of Plato, who cherished freedom of enquiry but who also revered legitimate authority. Such reverence has, of course, likewise been a part of the age-old teachings of the wise: clearly, the wild beauty of Shelley’s poetry does not give us the whole of the truth. And what words can?
‘What relation have the politics of time to the politics of eternity?’ What are the politics of eternity? This is an enigma, some of the depth of which we can gauge from the words of Christ. For he seems to have spoken of something like the politics of eternity when he talked of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘the kingdom of God’. What is that kingdom?
For all its prominence in his preaching, what Christ meant by ‘the kingdom’ is obscure. In his parables, he likened it to small or hidden things: a seed, a pearl, a buried treasure. Challenged by Pilate, he said ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36); and when he advised that Caesar’s coins should be paid to Caesar, he seemed to resign all that is worldly to the worldly sphere. But when he prayed, he asked for the coming of his Father’s ‘kingdom’, so that God’s will should be done ‘as in heaven, [so] also upon earth’ (hōs en ouranō kai epi gēs; Matthew 6:10).
We will never exhaust the meaning of these words, but I would like to offer one way of understanding them here. I prefer not to think of the petition as being no more than a bald call for submission, for the naked imposition of God’s will on earth: the claim to be enforcing precisely this has been the age-old justification of the persecutors. May it not rather be a prayer that God’s will be done on earth in the same way that it is done in heaven – that it be performed with the joyous selflessness of the angels?
How can we distinguish the politics of eternity from their authoritarian perversion – from what could be called the politics of Antichrist? The test must be the test of compassion, which Christ articulated when he said that the Law and the prophets depend on the unstinting love of God, but also on the love of our neighbour as ourselves. The politics of eternity is a politics of love – a love which, in the same teaching, knows no boundaries, for we are told that everyone is our neighbour. When we close our eyes to compassion, we close them to the Infinite.
In the last few paragraphs I have dwelt upon the words of the Gospels, because these deal directly with the question which concerns me here, and also express the richness of that question’s paradoxicality. But I do not doubt that similar insights can be found in many other places.
We live in turbulent and contentious times; and any who seek to assist in realising the politics of eternity are faced with bitter struggle. In the midst of that struggle, we must try not to lose sight of the light that first summoned us. As Æ also wrote:

Every great conflict has been followed by an era of materialism in which the ideals for which the conflict ostensibly was waged were submerged. The gain if any was material. The loss was spiritual. That was so inevitably because warfare implies a descent of the soul to the plane where it is waged, and on that plane it cannot act in fulness, or bring with it love, pity, or forgiveness, or any of its diviner elements.... We might say with truth, those who hate open a door by which their enemies enter and make their own the secret places of the heart.

John Carey


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