"...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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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Corbin - Goethe - Islam

An even minimally adequate discussion of Corbin's relation to Goethe would require an extended treatment. Here I merely point in that direction in the hope that someone may someday take up the task.

Corbin was a sophisticated and erudite student of the entire German intellectual and spiritual tradition and his references to Goethe should be viewed in that context.

There is an effectively infinite literature on Goethe. Here is a nice short piece which suggests some of the many reasons that Corbin was drawn to his work: Exiling the Esoteric: Goethe and the Literary Canon by Douglas Miller.

Of special relevance for Corbin, Goethe was among the first Europeans of his era to take Eastern and "Oriental" philosophies and religions seriously. His interest in the Islamic world was profound and influential. For an introduction into this literature see the excellent article on Goethe's West-Oestlicher Divan by Jeffrey Einboden, The Genesis of Weltliteratur: Goethe's West-östlicher Divan and Kerygmatic Pluralism (pdf file access). (This work is available in English as: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and John Whaley. Poems of the West and the East: West-Eastern Divan = West-Oestlicher Divan : Bi-Lingual Edition of the Complete Poems. With an Introduction by Katharina Mommsen, Germanic studies in America, no. 68. Bern: P. Lang, 1998). The primary source for the relation between Goethe and Islam is the work of Katharina Mommsen. See the short article here and Dr. Mommsen's webpage here. Her book Goethe und der Islam has not yet been translated from the German. (Image of the Divan on the right from wikimedia - click on the photo to enlarge and view the arabic script.)

There are a variety of short references to Goethe's Faust and alchemy thoughout Corbin's work (on Faust & alchemy see here and here; also see "Goethe's Faust as Opus Alchymicum" by Jack Herbert in Inward Lies the Way: German Thought and the Nature of Mind, Stephen Cross and Jack Herbert, Temenos Academy Papers no. 26, London: Temenos Academy). But there are two main places in Corbin's work where Goethe figures prominently. First there is an extended discussion of the spiritual physiology of colors in The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (pp. 139-144. The same themes are treated also in "Realism and Symbolism of Color in Shi'ite Cosmology" in Temple and Contemplation). Here Corbin compares Goethe's Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) (also here) with the physiology of the man of light as presented by Najm Kobra and Semnani. He quotes Goethe:

"The eye owes its existence to light. From an auxiliary, sensory apparatus, animal and neutral, light has called forth, produced fro itself, an organ like unto itself: thus the eye was formed by light, of light and for light, so that the inner light might come into contact with the outer light. At this very point we are reminded of the ancient Ionian school, which never ceased to repeat, giving it capital importance, that like is only known by like. And thus we shall remember also the words of an ancient mystics that I would paraphrase as follows:

If the eye were not by nature solar,
How should we be able to look at the light?
If God's own power did not live in us,
How would the divine be able to carry us off in ecstasy?"
(Goethe quoted in Man of Light, 139-40).

Corbin comments, "... the words of the anonymous mystic adopted by Goethe are what enable us to foresee the total convergence between Goethe's doctrine of colors and the physics of light of our Iranian mystics on whose side it represents a tradition going back to ancient pre-Islamic Persia." (Man of Light, 143).

The second extended treatment of Goethe is in Book VII of En Islam Iranien (volume IV, 390-410) in the opening section of his chapter on spiritual chivalry, entitled "From the Green Isle of the Johannites to an Unfinished Poem by Goethe." Here Corbin draws parallels among the ideas of spiritual chivalry in Medieval Europe as expressed in the mysticism of Tauler, Rulman Merswin, the Friends of God and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the mystical poems and epics of Goethe, and similar themes in Shi'ite Islam. Of Goethe's late, unfinished poem Die Geheimnisse (The Mysteries) Corbin writes

"the meaning given by Goethe to the pleroma of the twelve Knights corresponds to the meaning of the pleroma of the twelve Imams in a most striking manner, significant for the religious history of humanity. It is in the field of consciousness thus delimited by the assembly of the Twelve united around the Friend of God of the Oberland and by the assembly of the Twelve Knights that Goethe unites around the summit of an ideal Mont-Serrat, that we may observe at work the lines of force that blossom in the heart of Shi'ism in the idea of a spiritual chivalry common to the entire Abrahamic tradition, which also opens out in the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach in the idea of a chivalry common to the knights of both Christianity and the Orient, that is to say, in Islam." (En Islam Iranien IV, 393).

(Goethe's Poem can be found in English in only one place that I am aware of. It is translated in this rare volume by Rudolf Steiner: The Mysteries: A Christmas and Easter Poem by Goethe = Die Geheimnisse. Spring Valley, N.Y.: Mercury Press, 1987.)


  1. Absolutely excellent ! Goethe and Corbin will live in our hearts!

  2. Absolutely excellent! Goethe and Corbin will live in our hearts always!