"...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, September 23, 2009

Corbin on Monotheism & Polytheism

The following is the Prefatory Letter to The New Polytheism by David L. Miller, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1981.

A Letter by Henry Corbin

February 9, 1978

Dear Colleague and Friend,

On returning from Tehran two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of finding the copy of your book The New Polytheism with its friendly dedication. Not only do I thank you for it with all my heart, but I can assure you that I immediately began to read it and that it was a passionate and enthusiastic reading.

I cannot say everything in a letter. We shall have to speak more at our leisure at Eranos, and that could take us far. Nonetheless, I do want to tell you right now how I am struck by the convergence of our research, even though we do not express ourselves altogether in the same vocabulary. This is just, however, since our points of departure were different, even though our points of arrival are remarkably near to each other....

What I mean is that I have been guided by the way in which the great theosophist Ibn 'Arabi and his School meditated on tawhid ("the Attestation of the One") to staggering heights. There is a theological tawhid which is the profession of exoteric monotheistic faith, i.e., "There is no God but God." And there is an esoteric ontological tawhid which states: "There is no Being but God." The catastrophe results (already long ago) from confusing Being [Etre] (Latin esse, Arabic wojud) with a being [Etant] (Latin ens, Arabic mawjud).

If, in effect, God is solely Being [Etre], then he could not himself properly be a being or an ens [Etant], not even a "Supreme Being" (ens supremum). By confusing Being with a supreme being (ens supremum), that is, by making of Esse an ens supremum, monotheism perishes in its triumph. It elevates an idol just at the point where it denounces such in a polytheism it poorly understands.

Only a negative theology (apophatic) is able to encompass by indirection the mystery of Being (Esse). But official monotheism never had much love for negative theology. In so far as Being [Etre] brings each existent [etant] into being, it must itself be beyond all existence [Etant]. It is impossible to express this mystery of Being which brings each being into being, that is, this mystery of the One which brings each being into being as an existent [etant]. Its unity (unitude) is 1 x 1 x 1 x 1, etc., while the multiple unity of beings [etants] is represented by 1+1+1+1, etc. To confuse Being with a being is the metaphysical catastrophe. It is the "death of Being" to confuse the unity of Being (Esse) with a pseudo-unity of beings (ens) which is essentially multiple.

It is precisely this confusion that monotheism has committed, a confusion between the Theotes (Divinity) and the theoi (gods). A unique Theotes is not to be confused with a unique theos, any more than unique Being is to be confused with a unique being. There can be only one Theotes just as Being (Esse) is unique. Were this not the case, we would not be able even to speak of the gods in the plural. The predicate precedes the subject, which is why Being is antecedent to being [etant], and why Divinity [Theotes] precedes both God [theos] and the gods [theoi]. A unique God as a supreme being (ens supremum) will always follow upon the Divinity which one attributes to it.

By confusing the uniqueness of Divinity (Theotes) with a singular God (theos) which excludes all other gods (theoi), unique Being with a singular being, monotheistic theology has itself prepared the way for precisely what your book shows so well, "the death of God," just as the confusion between Being and beings entails the "death of Being," leaving a place only for a totalitarian sense of the existent [etant].

In return, the unity of Theotes entails, conditions, and guarantees the plurality of the theoi (gods) Just as the unity of Being entails and conditions the plurality of beings. The Non Deus nisi Deus ["There is no God but God"] becomes Non Deus nisi Dii ["There is no God without gods"]. (The expression Ilah al-Aliha, "God of Gods," occurs frequently in Sohrawardi.) It is in the very nature of the Theotes (deitas abscondita) to be revealed and made manifest by the plurality of its theophanies, in an unlimited number of theophanic forms. Theomonism bears within itself the rebirth of the gods as theophanies of the Theotes, and this renaissance conditions the rebirth of religious individuality, about which each can say, and can say nothing other than: Talent cum vidi qualem capere potui ["I am able to grasp such as I have seen"]. This is the gnostic formulation par excellence. You said it in your book: "God has died of a long disease called 'monotheism.'" But the God of the gnostics can never die because he is himself [the place of] the renaissance of Gods and Goddesses.

This is why, dear friend, my vocabulary differs a bit from yours. The theogony and theology of our Greek masters has been degraded into frivolity by secular art (e.g., Renaissance paintings). But since my research has proceeded from the Iranian Sohrawardi and from Ibn 'Arabi of Andalusia, I speak always of the multitude of theophanies and of theophanic forms. The uniquely Divine (Theotes) aspires to be revealed and can only be revealed in multiple theophanies. Each one is autonomous, different from the other, each quite close to being a hypostasis, yet at the same time the totality of Theotes is in each theophanic form.

Moreover, rather than polytheism, I have spoken often of mystical kathenotheism. The kath'hena seems to me to be the category that is essential for the pluralism of theophanic forms. These are like the Dii-Angeli of Proclus, and I believe that my theophanic kathenotheism is allied with your "polytheism" in the sense that it is like a monadology which frees us from the totalitarian block of monotheism and from its secular forms.

I believe that our guide par excellence on this road remains the great and so long misunderstood Proclus. His work speaks of the henad or henads, and the henads monadizing the monads are on a level with Ibn 'Arabi's cosmology of Divine Names. The theophanic and cosmogonic function of the twelve great gods in Proclus, the twelve Imams in Shi'ite neoplatonism, the ten Sephiroth in the Kabbala - it is the One [l'Unique] himself who attests to these multiplicities of ones [uniques]. Compare also the hypercosmic and intracosmic gods and the Dii-Angeli of Proclus. But few know of this, often only the esotericists of the Religions of the Book.

Israel was able to serve only "its" God, and could proclaim the unity of only "its" God (which theophanically is the sixth Sephiroth according to the Kabbalists). Each of us, as well, has to recognize "his" God, the one to which he [is able to] respond. I believe our researches open the way, of necessity, to angelology (that of a Proclus, that of the Kabbala) which will be reborn with increasing potency. The Angel is the Face that our God takes for us, and each of us finds his God only when he recognizes that Face. The service which we can render others is to help them encounter that Face about which they will be able to say: Talem eum vidi qualem capere potui ["I am able to grasp such as I have seen"].

I am troubled, dear friend, by the proportions this letter is taking. But I believe it is useful and necessary that I recapitulate for you my way of seeing and that I explain to you why I experience its convergence with your perspective. But let us understand clearly that for yet some time we shall be few in number and that we shall have to take refuge behind the veil of a certain esotericism.

You said very well that this work is a matter neither of allegorism nor of historicism. I agree completely. That is why, guided by my Iranian philosophers, I have for many years endeavored to restore both logically and gnoseologically a mediating and intermediary world which I call mundus imaginalis (Arabic 'alam al-mithal). This is an imaginal world not to be confused with the imaginary. Such has been my great meeting-ground with our friend, James Hillman, and I congratulate you for having shown so well in your book the originality and courage of his position. If Iranian philosophers have considered the mundus imaginalis indispensible for placing the visions of prophets and mystics, this is because it is there that they "take place," and deprived of this imaginal world they no longer "take place." I believe that this imaginal world is the locus of the "rebirth of the Gods," those of Greek theogony, as well as of Celtic theogony, which with those of the Greeks and Iranians, are the closest to our consciousness.

This is why I attentively read and re-read the statement of your theses in Chapter Four. Above all, these two: (1) "A polytheistic theology will be gnostic, but in the manner of the secret knowledge of Hermes"; (2) "It will be a theology of spirit (with reference to Berdyaev), but in the manner of the multi-colored butterfly, released from the cocoon that is the dwelling of the worm." Agreed, agreed! We shall come back to all this at Eranos.

Some of my latest works relate especially to your book: (1) "Le Paradoxe du monotheism," Eranos 1976 (but I have not yet received the proofs); (2) "Necessite de 1'angelologie," about seventy pages which will appear very soon in one of the Cahiers de I'Hermetisme, and I will send it to you right away; (3) "De la theologie apophatique comme antidote du nihilisme," a long lecture given in Tehran on the occasion of a colloquium in October, 1977, the publication of which has not yet appeared. [These three essays appeared in 1981 as Le paradoxe du monotheisme, Paris: Herne]

Does Syracuse University have my books? If not, I must find some copies for you. I call your attention to my work on Ibn 'Arabi translated into English: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi (Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series). It contains numerous references to kathenotheism, but these are not noted in the English index. In the event that this interests you, I could get you a copy of the second French edition.

We have formed a small group of free academics (Gilbert Durand, Jean Brun, Jean Servier, and others) under the name of The University of St. John of Jerusalem. We investigate these sorts of questions concerning the Religions of the Book. There is one meeting a year, and we publish the proceedings in a monograph. You must come. And if you could give a lecture in French, that would be even better! I believe one of our books (La foi prophetique et le sacre) was given to you at Eranos last August. I would be extremely interested to have your impression of it. [See the review of this book by David Miller in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVI, 1 (March, 1978), 94-95.]

Don't take the trouble to respond in detail to this letter. Just tell me, if you have a free moment, whether you feel the connection between our theologies. If you share my feeling, I will be delighted. If something remains obscure, let me know about that, too.

I await news from you (a good letter in English!). And I wish you good work and good health. I am looking forward to our meeting again at Eranos (though I had to turn down speaking this year since I am swamped with books to finish), and I send you once again, dear colleague and friend, my warm greetings and most sincere affection.

Henry Corbin

[It is noteworthy I think that Karen Armstrong recently made some similar points about the Being of God in her interview with Terri Gross on FreshAir (listen to the podcast here) while discussing her new book The Case For God (reviewed here in The Guardian). Her interpretation of the history of the ideas would differ considerably from Corbin's. In any case it is good to see the idea of "apophatic theology" and what Corbin calls the "paradox of monotheism" so much in the public view. - TC]

Two Demons Attacked by Four Flying Angels. ca. 1580-1590. Possibly Qazvin, Iran. S1986.250a-b. Freer & Sackler Galleries


  1. Superlative.

    Thank you so much for this, Tom.

  2. Charles I begin to connect the dots:
    so you know Miller. Email me the regular way sometime. Glad you like the post.

  3. Hooray! Sitting making food on a Friday night at a kitchen table in Cyprus, we (the one a pagan/shamanic practitioner and the other a goddess-devoted Muslim), salute Henry Corbin for taking his letter to such generous proportions. And Tom Cheetham for posting.

  4. I think that HC would be delighted with your "syzygy." & many thanks for your comment.