Apophatic Theology as Antidote to Nihilism
translate by Matthew Evans-Cockle
Paper presented in Teheran 20th October 1977 During a conference organized by the Iranian Centre for the Study of Civilizations Entitled: “Does the Impact of Western Thought Allow for the Possibility of Real Dialogue between Civilizations.”
The following paper is here reproduced with the generous permission of Berg International who published a complete synopsis of the conference in 1979.
I. Where, how and when does dialogue occur?
To begin with we need to explain how our topic fits in with the general theme of this conference, that is, whether the global impact of western thought allows for “real” dialogue between civilizations. This preliminary explanation calls for a threefold approach: where, how and when does dialogue occur?
1. To begin with: have there been precedents to a dialogue between civilizations? In fact, « civilization » is an abstract term. « Civilizations » themselves (as « universals ») cannot enter into dialogue. It is only the messengers, speaking in the name of their civilizations, who can be the real partners in a dialogue. And it is in this sense that I understand the adjective « real » appended to the word dialogue in the stated topic of our conference.
Considering the question in this manner we must keep in mind, as precedents, the great translation projects that have been undertaken over the centuries. In particular we should retain the following, in chronological order :
a) The translations from Sanskrit into Chinese (in the 2nd century two Arsacide princes translate the Sukhavati, the founding text of the Pure Land school of Buddhism.)
b) The translations from Greek into Pehlevi towards the end of the Sassanid period in Iran.
c) The translations from Arabic into Latin during the first centuries of Islam, with the
interference of Hebrew and Arabic philosophical texts.
d) The translations from Sanskrit into Persian during the 16th century stimulated by the
generous reforms of Shah Akbar.
In light of these examples, we may find reason for optimism in the increase in translations being undertaken today. But to what extent would such optimism be legitimate? Let us begin by properly acknowledging the passionate interest that the Western world has shown for archeological explorations ever since the 19th century, for the resurrection of dead cities, for the updating of manuscript collections containing the secrets of philosophical and religious systems. The Western mind has obeyed a certain research oriented imperative which can by no means be considered an obstacle to dialogue, and which betrays the presence of entirely other preoccupations than those of the materialism with which it is somewhat too summarily imputed. This ongoing research, or “quest”, entails an aptitude for questioning accepted fact upon contact with newly discovered modes of thought. But to what extent has this activity been reciprocal? Has there been, in the Eastern world, a similar interest in the great spiritual traditions of the West? I can’t claim that there has, and that is why, in the absence of any « real » dialogue, we have remained at the stage of monologue.
Certainly, it is a question of shared responsibilities. But since a dialogue is an exchange between « persons », for there to be dialogue the respective status of the persons involved must have something in common. A dialogue takes place between « you » and « me ». «You » and « I » both need to have assumed a like responsibility, each for his or her own personal fate. Simply by putting the question of the person in this way, we have already taken a great step towards understanding the subject that I am proposing.
2) For there to be « real » dialogue, everything depends upon the situation of the partners concerned. What is implied by our conference’s topic proposal is the practical fait-accompli of the disappearance of « traditional civilizations » under the impact of what we broadly refer to as nihilism. It is essentially a question of metaphysical nihilism, proceeding from radical agnosticism, from the refusal to « recognize » any reality beyond the horizon of empiricism and rational certitudes. And so we are asking: can there be « real » dialogue between partners when one party has succumbed to this nihilism, while the other party has effectively and efficiently resisted it?
There are frequent meetings these days among specialists in the applied sciences, frequent conferences on technology. Immediately the question arises: is technology sufficient in itself to fulfill and account for the concept of civilization? Does this concept not imply a secret, invisible force which must be called spiritual, that determines the content and the finality of the concept, and thus transcends the premises laid down by technology as such? If the concept does not imply such a driving force, then we may simply adapt ourselves to the general leveling of persons and even to their absence; ultimately well-regulated computers would suffice. But, if the concept implies something else, it is then the status of the partners’ persons that is in question, meaning that which and that for which only the human person, in his or her inalienable spiritual individuality, may reply. In the absence of this, in the absence of this, the very thing that renders primacy possible [the primacy of that One for whom one might speak or second, as a messenger], we find ourselves faced with agnostic nihilism: there is noone left to speak of.
3. This is where my topic fits in. I am not the first to have made the observation that the socio-political systems spilling out from the West across the whole planet, are the secularization of earlier theological systems. To say as much already implies acknowledging that the plenary concept of the West cannot be purely and simply identified with this secularization alone. It also involves acknowledging that this process is not a particularly Western phenomenon, for now the Eastern world has itself fallen prey to what we call « Westernization ». This is why, more than ever before, the contrast between « East » and « West » can have no real meaning elsewhere than at the metaphysical level, the very same level at which it has been situated by Iranian philosophers ever since Avicenna and Suhravardi.
At this level the contrast is no longer of the order of ethnicity nor is it geographical, historical or juridical. The essential contrast appears as that between sacralization and secularization. By « sacralization » we mean the [heraldic] sign, recognized by a subtle interior sense, announcing the presence of a sacrosanct and transcendent world (’âlam al-qods) within the phenomena and appearances of this world. And so let us be on our guard: the secularization in question is a secularization aiming at the destruction of the metaphysical plane. Its contrary, therefore, is in no way the sacralization of social and political institutions, for, quite precisely, the sacralization of those institutions can involve the profanation of the sacred (its materialization). Reciprocally, the secularization of institutions can lead quite simply, as the result of a fatal mix-up, to their pseudo-sacralization. I would hope that our young Eastern colleagues always remain perfectly conscious of this paradox. There was, for example, the phenomenon that characterizes the history of Western religion: the phenomenon of the Church. The separation of Church and State, where it happens, clearly consummates the desacralization and the secularization of public life. But to the very extent that this desacralization proceeds from the negation of any and all metaphysical perspective — of any « other world » — to this same extent the secularized human institutions can henceforth be reinvested with a new pseudo-sacrality. The successor to the Church phenomenon is quite simply the Totalitarian State.
Sacralization and secularization are phenomena that take place and have their place not primarily in the world of external forms, but first and foremost in the internal world of the human soul. The human being projects the modalities of its inner being outwards to constitute the phenomenal world in which it works out its liberty or servitude. Nihilism arises when human beings lose the conscious awareness of their personal responsibility for this bond [this connection between the modalities of the inner self and the appearance of the outer world] and proclaim (be it with desperation or with cynicism) those ways closed that they themselves have barred.
The crossing over from the theological to the sociological occurs when the social takes the place of the theos. Horrified of being qualified as catering to theology, philosophy has made itself the harried servant of sociology. Unfortunately, sociology is [a dead end] incapable of offering philosophy the outcome reserved for it by the double modality of theology. By double modality of theology we mean apophatic or negative theology (tanzîh in Arabic and Persian) and affirmative or cataphatic theology. (We will come back to an elucidation of these two concepts shortly.) What is at issue with respect to the nihil of nihilism depends upon one’s decisions as to the relationship between these two [theological] modalities: what one decides in terms of the precedence of one or the other, and whether one accepts the absence of one or the other. Cultural nihilism is no more than the socialized aspect of an unfortunate or failed resolution of this dialectic in which the primacy of apophatic theology is abolished. This leaves the dogmas, purported absolute by positive or affirmative theology, vacillating as though deprived of both foundation and justification.
What’s more, this outcome drags along with it the fate of the person, a destiny that is postulated by the idea of the real existence of the human person, and thereby the destinies of persons in general, of the eventual partners of a dialogue that is neither unreal nor unrealistic but true. It is for this reason that I am here proposing “negative theology as an antidote to nihilism”.
Here, I believe, we are at the very heart of the question as I understand it. To properly come to grips with this question we must begin by examining the two notions of “personalism” and “nihilism”. I will do this in the margins, so to speak, of a recent article that was written by one of our eminent French colleagues –an Indianist Philosoper– denouncing Western personalism as the very cause of nihilism.
I’m afraid that the misunderstanding couldn’t be more complete. Because, altogether on the contrary, we see in impersonalism, –in the failure, in the cancelling out, in the alienation of the person — both the cause and end result of nihilism. The question is all the more serious in that, ultimately, the concept at stake is fundamental to all three of the Abrahamic religions.
Consequently we need to examine the following :
1). Which concept of the person is one professing when one denounces it as the cause of nihilism ? In other words, what do we mean when we speak of personalism and of nihilism?
2). It seems to me that the reason for this accusation being levelled against personalism is the fact of one’s having lost sight of what the Abrahamic tradition, in its ensemble (and therefore not only in the West), has conceived of as negative or apophatic theology. In other words, what do we mean when we speak of apophatic theology and personalism? Having once sketched out this opposition we shall be able to discern just where the nihilism truly lies.
3). Subsequently we will be able to oppose a rival reality principle to the scientific conceptualism that is bound up with nihilism. On this subject our traditional Iranian philosophers, and chiefly among these Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzî (1050/1640), will have a lot to tell us.
II. Personalism and Nihilism
The article to which we are referring –which is well written and offers a great deal of food for thought, even and especially if we are regrettably in disagreement with its diagnostic– was written by our colleague and friend, the eminent comparative philosopher Professor George Vallin. If he were to find that I have missed his point, together we should have no trouble clearing up the misunderstanding. The article’s title is The Tragic and the West Considered in the Light of Asian Non-Dualism. The paradox is as follows: whereas for ourselves metaphysical nihilism and moral nihilism are concomitant with the dissolution of the person, for our colleague the source of nihilism would, on the contrary, lie in the very notion of the person, and essentially therefore in the notion of spiritual individuality. Our colleague’s argument proceeds from anthropology to theology, establishing a connection between the idea of the personal self and the idea of a personal God in order to denounce them both as the very rise of nihilism. As stated a moment ago: the gravity of this position is that it puts on trial the anthropology and theology of the three great Abrahamic religions and along with them the Greek and Iranian spiritual worlds, each of these being a citadel to the personhood of the gods and human beings. The contrast between East and West has largely become a thing of the past, but not so the fate of those “persons” who are the partners of a dialogue. The latter problem remains and demands all the more urgently to be addressed. To this end, we propose the following analysis.
1. Anthropology. – The leitmotiv which serves as starting point for the article in question (and which is announced in its title) is an argument we find formulated in a book written some dozen years ago by J.M. Domenach: The return of the Tragic. Therein we read: “It is significant that the tragic, this essential category of human existence, marks European culture and none other (2)”. The author of our article sets to justifying this affirmation by showing that wherever the fundamental presuppositions of Western culture are lacking, the apparition of the tragic is “properly inconceivable”. As far as we can see, however, this amounts to saying that one cannot properly speak of the tragic as an “essential category of human existence”. We learn that, if the idea of the tragic is one of the defining traits of our Western philosophy this is because it is essentially a philosophy that postulates the individual. The following passages are both the most dense and the most trenchant. According to G. Vallin:“That which appears to constitute the permanent ideology of Western man, is the belief in the reality of the individual, or the identification of reality with individuality, in opposition to the fundamental ideology of traditional Asia, such as it may be observed in the doctrines of the non-dualist Vedanta, Taoism or Mahayanna Buddhism. (3)”.
We are being asked to consider that for Oriental humanity the “real” is identified with the “Universal” or the “Supraformal”. But we must then ask ourselves: how can human thought express itself with regards to a “Supraformal” other than in negative terms? We are given the well known phrase tat tvam asi, as signifiying, “the suprapersonal Absolute, you, (the ego) you are this as well”. Which leaves intact the question of just how the ego referred to is still an ego when it is equated with the Suprapersonal. In other words, how is it “I” who have the power to say “I am identical to that, to the suprapersonal Absolute”, when the idea of the real human being is given as opposed to that of the ego? Is it the real human being, or is it the illusory ego that declares: “I am that”? Does it suffice to say: “I am that”, for the ego to cease to be illusory?
Our colleague explains that, on this point, the negativity implied by ego in the common or exoteric sense of ego is not original but derivative. Derivative to the extent that this negativity has as its origin the [Self’s] belief in the reality of this ego, a belief which is the very “obnubilation [or clouding over] of the essential identity of the Self and of the suprapersonal Absolute”. And for this, the Self is itself responsible. The text reads as follows: “The individual is in one sense responsible for his or her own individuation, for etched in the heart of his or her being is the permanent possibility of rediscovering the “universal” or “infinite” dimension of Being, from which, in reality, he or she has never been separated”(4). In other words: the individual is guilty of existing, guilty of his or her own existence. This is, quite frankly, an extremely disturbing proposition and it allows one to foresee the moment when the individual will be forced to “rid him or herself of this guilt”, but no longer with the aim of recuperating the “universal or infinite” dimension. The torn state of separation of all existence, culminating in the tearing asunder of death would, we are told, only be experienced as such if we [mistakenly] identify the real human being with the ego. In Buddhist terms, “the existence of the ego is identical to suffering, and the Being of the ego is identical to the void”. But a Westerner, without having to be a philosopher or a gnostic either, would ask him or herself: what if the opposite were true? What if the origin of suffering was the mutilation of spiritual individuality? And what if it was this mutilation alone that justified considering the ego as an illusion? What if the most essential thing was not, in fact, the restoration of the ego to its original plenitude? Confronted by the tragedy of the mutilation of the person, we would by no means respond by an acceptance of emptiness, but rather join in combat with the sons of Light against the powers of darkness, finding our answer in the entire Zoroastrian ethos of ancient Iran.
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 centred 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,(5) 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 fulfilment. To confound the order of Being with the order of existents [or existent being(s)] 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 don’t believe one may simply say that this principle of individuation dominates all of Western thought from Aristotle to Sartre (6), for this principle has been interpreted in two manners so different from each other that each interpretation entails irreducible consequences. Formulated in terms of heliomorphism, the question is as follows: is the principle of individuation matter, or is it form? If it is matter, then the spiritual individuality, the form, the idea of a being, is perhaps merely illusory. If it is the form, then the form is the spiritual individuality itself, and is imperishable and inalienable. It may be called Fravarti (Persian forûhar) in the Avesta, Neshama in the Jewish Kabala, ‘ayn thâbita (eternal hexeity) for Ibn ‘Arabi, and Perfect Nature (al-tibâ’ al-tâmm) for both Suhravardi and those in the Hermetic tradition of Islamic theosophy, etc.
Thus, when our colleague writes that for him nihilism « seems to originate in the enthroning of the principle of individuation or the metaphysical sanctification of the ego ». That « the tragic fate of the West seems to us to consist in the progressive discovery of the consequences of this sanctification coinciding with the fundamental Prometheanism of Western humanity. That the Westerner is essentially tragic because his or her negativity is original and not derivative. » (7) Then, truth be told, what springs spontaneously to mind is a radically antithetical position. The tragic is not particular to Western humanity, because the tragic, indeed tragedy, is the human being itself. There is a Promethean tragic, but there is also an Ohrmazdean tragic (the invasion of Ahrimân), each one differing from the other in both their [underlying] nature and in the signs [they reveal].(8) The tragic does not consist in an individuation professed as initial to, and thereafter the governing principle of, all existents — whether in the spiritual or in the material world — but in the fall or the catastrophe that drew the spiritual individualities pre-existent to this world into the mêlée of its dramatic consequences. And it is this that is described by the dramatic cosmogonies common to all the Abrahamic gnoses as well as to Iranian gnosis (Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism) and to the “Platonic mysteries”.
Individuation in this case is therefore not a secondary derivation. It is effectively initial or primary, arising with the ontogenesis of Being. It is not the principle of individuation that is the tragic. The tragic is that which mutilates this principle: that which paralyses it, betrays it, caricatures it. If it is the principle of individuation that differentiates Western from traditional Asiatic humanity, we must say that we do not quite understand how our colleague Georges Vallin can denounce the Far-East of today as participating in the cultural arena of our now globalized Western civilization. For, as far as we can tell, the cultural milieu of the Far-East today does not particularly distinguish itself by the recognition of the rights of the individual ego (9). Or perhaps this same recognition is not the characteristic sign of Western humanity, nor of the Western culture that has come to have a worldwide impact. If this worldwide Western influence is accompanied by the downfall of the rights of the individual, how can one characterize the West as “sanctifying the individual”? Or perhaps, it is a question of something else in addition to the Western influence. Or perhaps, Western thought is not what we have been told that it is. We are thus placed at the heart of the theme of our conference. For how can we conceive of a dialogue without first being in agreement upon its fundamental premises? In such a case, there would only be confrontation or a dialogue between deaf parties. I am trying to bring us towards the requisite conditions of a dialogue between partners who are partners of a dialogue because partners of a like destiny.
The principle of individuation is so essential that, supposing this principle constitutive of the tragic itself, the tragic would not only be a marking characteristic of the West, but of all the spiritual universes whose fiery-eyed gnoses have attempted to penetrate the mystery preceding the “descent” of humanity into this world. In fact, the meaning of the principle of individuation is such that our philosopher colleague –pursuing the thrust of the argument that led him to denounce the identification of the real with the individual as being the source of nihilism– by passing from anthropology to theology, will equally denounce the Judeo-Christian conception of a personal God as responsible for the theological nihilism that has proclaimed the “death of God”. But again, –and above all given that the earlier denunciation of the principle of individuation seemed to entail losing sight of that which the narrative gnoseological cosmogonies have described — it seems to us in this instance that that which in the ensemble of gnoses and Abrahamic theosophies is called negative theology, is being deliberately passed by in silence. It would, however, be grave in the extreme to lose sight of it.
2. Theology – Here in fact we detect the tacit presupposition which allows one to affirm the essential connection between the idea of the personal God and the negativity of the self conceived of as original. Conceived of as inherent to the very idea of the self which would be the “ultimate form of the activity of negation”. Therefore, this negativity would be the primordial source of primordial nihilism (to a certain extent an Urnihilismus). Altogether on the contrary, we hold that this negativity is in no way original, in no way inherent to the self. We hold that the tragic is such that is should be understood in connection with the advent of a negativity which is the present condition of the ego: the condition that is that of the ego’s existence in this world and the result of a catastrophe. This has been expressed by all gnoseological narrative anthropogonies and psychogonies. It is not the ego that is the tragedy, but its mutilation compensated by a sickly inflation, in brief by its “descent” into this world. We see the same idea expressed in the sentiment of exile so strongly felt in Jewish and Muslim theosophy. The “disproportion” lies between what the soul, or ego, is at present, and that which, intimating its own pre-existential origin, it feels itself called to be. This protestation, this sense of disproportion, comes through the mystical epics even better than through the philosophical systems. (For there is no common measure when it comes to comparing one’s actual state to that which one is called to be.) It is always the same tragedy that the mystical epics and theosophies have told. But this adventure, this tragedy of the soul, that takes place in the world of the Soul, would be inconceivable if it was not also a divine adventure, or rather intra-divine, one that takes place and has its place in divinity. It is precisely this that is the aim and “theatre of operations” of apophatic theology, and the reason for which the personal God still holds us in regard, which is to say still concerns us, now and forever.
What this means is that the divine person, the personal form of the personal God, is not itself the original Absolute; it is rather the eternal result of an eternal process within the divine. But as it results eternally from an eternal process, it is both derivative and original. If one meditates upon this secret, one may come to understand that personalism is in no way the source of nihilism. It is on the contrary the loss of this personalism, the failure and aborting of the person that nihilates the person’s ontogenesis. Eo ipso, the transpersonal cannot be conceived of by human thought as being ontologically superior to the personal form of the divinity and the human self.
If such were the case, however, then when confronted by the question of the origin of Evil, it would appear sufficient to reduce the problem to a simple choice: either the myth of Greek tragedy inclined towards exonerating an innocent humanity; or Judeo-Christian monotheism inclined towards exonerating an innocent God –to the extent that it would be “the free will of humanity alone, created by God, that would be at the origin of Evil.” (10) Perhaps things present themselves in this manner in a purely exoteric monotheism. But it is precisely apophatic theology, developing into theosophy, which outstrips and displaces the problem posed in such exoteric terms. It all seems, unfortunately, as though the representative [that G. Villon offers us] speaking on behalf of traditional Asiatic humanity had envisaged confronting nothing more than the position held by affirmative exoteric theology. Such a theology, because deprived of the safeguard of negative or apophatic theology, is incapable of even an inkling of the fundamental idea that makes of the personal God and his/her follower partners in battle; heroes confronting one and the same tragedy together, a tragedy of which the origin and the stakes involved do not consist in their respective person being negativities to resolve and resorb, but on the contrary constitute a positivity to be conquered.
It seems therefore that to the thesis of the culpability of the ego as such, — that the “ego is “guilty” of existing and that individuation appears as a “wrong” to the extent that we are referred to the suprapersonal dimension of the Self of which the ego would ultimately be distinct only in an illusory mode (11)– we have no choice but to oppose a double antithesis: the culpability does not lie in the existence of the ego ; it is in the failure that mutilates and paralyses it. The culpability lies therefore in that which is in reality the loss of the ego, loss that translates itself most often by an avid and monstrous inflation. The illusion is not in the “illusory” differentiation of the ego with respect to the transpersonal Absolute, but in the ego’s being cancelled out by being equated with this Absolute. And to the argument suggesting that “the tragic is only possible for the human being who remains faithful to the famous Greek “measure” –that is to say the vision of the human being locked within his or her finitude, the human who identifies him or herself with the limits that constitute their humanity, which is to say [who identifies] with the ego”– (12) we must, to the contrary, declare that it is the crossing of this threshold which appears, in the gnoseological epics, to have unleashed the anterior catastrophe that determined the existence of this world. A catastrophe resulting in the limits of a self mutilated and paralysed in, and by its existence in, this world. These limits are those of its captivity and its exile, and not the limits that eternally determine its being in itself, its monadic unity. The fall and [subsequent] liberation are the grand acts of this tragedy. But liberation does not mean abolition. To free the individual being, is to restore his or her individuality to its full and authentic monadicity. It is to restore its truth, not at all to denounce this individuality as illusory.
We are now in a position to be [re]oriented in a direction altogether different from that which, envisaging the person and personalism from the point of view of an “Asiatic non-dualism”, denounced them as entailing a form of nihilism. We are stating, on the contrary, that it is incumbent upon the very concept of the person to “counter” nihilism, so that the partners of a dialogue may be real persons, and not the shadows of a suprapersonal Self, whose individuality would be no more than an illusion.
The little that we have just said should put us on the road to developing and deepening our understanding of apophatic theology. It should also allow us to reject the argument that would make of Abrahamic monotheism –that is to say Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism– another form of the tragic inherent in the culture of the West that “sanctifies” the ego and the individual. We have just countered certain “nihilizing” arguments that have their prolongation in another [of Villon’s] theses, to the effect that the ultimate stage of this tragedy is the enthroning of a personal Absolute in place of the suprapersonal Absolute. Apophatic theology has precisely the virtue of preserving us from any and all confusion between the Absolute and the personal God, between the indetermination of the former and the necessity of the latter. Consequently, there where our colleague –presenting himself as spokesperson for “Asiatic non-dualism”– denounced the living personal God of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism as “the first step in the death of God” (13), one must invert the sense of this nihilitude, putting it right side up. We are being told that this first death of God would have been brought about by the confusion consisting of the equation of the Absolute and the Personal God. Granted, this closely resembles the work of an affirmative dogmatic theology of the Church, entirely exoteric, deprived of –or depriving itself of– the safeguard of apophatic theology. Perhaps it is precisely this aspect of the “official” theology that our friend Georges Vallin is envisaging. In that case, we would agree with him. However, what about that theosophical theology that is founded by an apophatic theology establishing precisely the differentiation between the Absolute and the Personal God? In fact, it is a theology deprived of theosophy that deliberates upon an “absent God”, “the object of a sort of impotent nostalgia belonging to a troubled conscience”.,as our philosopher colleague rightly says (14) referring specifically to Pascal, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth. But we would have liked him to have envisaged – and it seems impossible to us that, secretly at least, he did not so envisage – that which we are envisaging here, and which would have permitted him to refer, along with us, to a Jean Scot Erigène, a Jacob Boehme an ‘Ibn Arabî an Isaac Louria etc.
In fact, the absolute is not the primary and primordial aspect we habitually refer to by that term. It is a past participle that presupposes a nomen agentis, the absolvens that absolves it and makes of it the absolutum. If the absolvens absolves the absolute of all determination, there still remains to absolve the absolute of this very same indetermination. This remark could well prevent many a misunderstanding. Contrary to the thesis that the advent of the personal God of the “religions of the Book” –of the three Abrahamic groups– constitutes the “first death of God”, I would declare that the act of exorcising this “death of God” does not consist in erasing the personal God before the suprapersonal Absolute. It consists rather in understanding that the auto-generation of the personal God –engendering itself from the Absolute, absolving itself of the indetermination of this Absolute– is not the “death” but the eternal birth of God. A reversal, without any doubt, of the phenomenological analysis. For Georges Vallin “modernity” would be the “second death of God” or at least “the event following upon the second death of God”. It would consist in the human ego, having forever lost sight of its own fundamental negativity, entering “into an active process of totalization”, a totalization that would lead to the “hegemony of the principle of individuation”. And so, he says, “history is divinised and the human being collectivised”.
We are sure that our friend Georges Vallin will understand when we admit to having a certain amount of difficulty in following his proposed analysis. It seems to us that for humanity to be collectivized, this must necessarily involve a crumbling at all levels of the ramparts of the person and of the individual monad. It is precisely when the ego as such is denounced as an illusion, that we have difficulty seeing how it might resist “collectivization”, even if this illusion is defined for us in reference to a suprapersonal Self! And for history to be “divinized”, the agents that make this history and the events that compose this history must be seen within a unique dimension. They must be seen within a uni-dimensionality, passing by way of the nihilism that rejects the transcendental dimension of the person (of each and every respective person), because this nihilism perceives this transcendent dimension as the manifestation of a rival reality principle.
In what respect is apophatic theology the safeguard of the person against nihilism? How does it safeguard both the human person and the divine person? Corollary to this point, how does apophatic theology make of the safeguarded person the very safeguard against nihilism? What difference is there, henceforth, between the epiphany of the person eternally born from the Urgrund, and the dogmatic affirmation of the divine person, an affirmation that has not undergone its apophatic trial and/or verification?
III. Apophatic Theology and Personalism
When we speak of affirmative or cataphatic theology we mean thereby a theology that, deliberating upon the concept of God, affirms all the attributes (of essence, operation and of perfection) that seem appropriate to the concept of divinity. Any and all human attributes are sublimated to the utmost limit. This is what we call the via eminentiae. This path, however, does no more than sublimate creatural attributes in order to confer them upon the divinity. Monotheism is in danger of succumbing to the very idolatry that it elsewhere denounces. Negative or apophatic theology, in order to radically avoid this danger of assimilation (tashbîh) of the divine to the creatural, denies any attribute to the divinity and expresses itself with respect to the latter only in negative terms: this is the tanzîh, the via negationis. It is, ‘par excellence’ the path chosen in Shiite Islam, as much by the Ismailis (15) as by the Duodeciman Shiites. I am thinking of the prone pronounced in Merv by the eighth Imam, Alî-Reza, and admirably commented by Qâzî Sa’îd Qommî, I am thinking of the School of Rajab ‘Ali Tabrîzî, of the Shaykhi school of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsâ’î (16) etc. In our Western tradition, it is Jacob Boehme who, it seems to me, is most representative. I will therefore refer essentially to Boehme in order to simplify the explanation of just what this is all about.
Any metaphysical doctrine that attempts a total explanation of the universe, will find itself confronted by the necessity of making something out of nothing, or rather of making everything come out of nothing (17). The initial principle from which the world emerges –a principle that must also explain this world– cannot be anything contained within the world. Yet it must simultaneously possess everything needed to explain both the essence and existence of the world and that which it contains. This principle, therefore, cannot be identical to Being nor a part of Being, since it is Being that it must explain. In this light, it is the negation of Being; in relation to the things of this world and to thought, therefore, it is absolutely indeterminate. This Absolute is a nihility. But on the other hand it must possess a relation to the things that flow forth from it, it must possess a certain similitude with those things for which it is the source. This initial principle, as Alexander Koyré well analyzed, must therefore be, at the same time, “everything” and “nothing”. It is with this stage as their starting point that the two theologies constitute themselves: the negative (apophatic) and the affirmative (cataphatic), the via negationis (tanzîh) and the via emnientiae.
There is thus initially a double nihility, a double nihil, and subsequently a double aspect of nihilism: the one being to a certain extent positive, the other pure negativity. There is a nihil a quo omnia fiunt, a nihility from which all things come. This is the nihility of the divine Absolute, superior to being and to thought. And there is a nihil a quo nihil fit, a nihility from which nothing comes and into which everything tends to fall back in abysm, a nihility therefore inferior to being and to thought. I am afraid that when we speak of nihilism we too often lose sight of the difference between the two nihil
The Neo-Platonist tradition in the three branches of the Abrahamic tradition, as well as in the Greek world, would tend to give priority to the apophatic path, subordinating the affirmative cataphatic path to the latter: just as Being finds itself subordinated to the Absolute. We alluded to this very fact a moment ago. Without this priority being accorded to the apophatic (to that nihil from which everything proceeds) one does nothing but pile creatural attributes upon the divinity (and this is nihil from which nothing proceeds). And so monotheism perishes in its triumph, degenerates into the idolatry that it fiercely wished to avoid. This was the fate of affirmative theologies when they cut themselves off and isolated themselves from the strong-hold of apophatic theology, and it is their fate which seemed to us legitimately targeted by George Vallin’s critique. But negative theology is not instating an Absolute into which everything must be made to go and be swallowed up (that is nihilism), but an Absolute from which, on the contrary, one must make everything emerge and which maintains in being all that it makes exist. In short, exoteric monotheism understands this constitutivity of the Being that is unique as though it were the unity of existents; we have already drawn attention to this fatal confusion. But the relation between existence and existents [between Being and existent beings], between the undetermined Absolute and the personal God, is not to be characterized by a nihility to be resorbed into the Absolute, of a multiplicity of beings to be confounded with and lost in the unity of being, but rather by the very positivity of which the Absolute is the principle and the source (18). It is in this sense that the esoteric theosophies in Islam, and particularly that of Ibn ‘Arabi, have understood the famous hadith “I was a hidden Treasure. I loved to be known. I created the world in order to become known.” The nihilism that degrades the positive value of the personal God amounts to forbidding that the Hidden Treasure (the undetermined Absolute) manifest itself through [a process of] self-determination, to forbidding that being exist in the plurality of existents.
I have just quoted Ibn ‘Arabi whose mystical theosophy is centred upon this differentiation between the undetermined and unknowable Absolute, the Absconditum, and the Rabb, the personal Lord, the Deus revelatus, the only God of whom the human being can speak, because he or she is the latter’s correlative term. It is the same in Ismaili theosophy, for which the name Al-Lah is ascribed to the First Intellect of the pleroma. We are reminded here of the relation between En-Sof and the ten Sephiroth, of Metatron and of the Cherubim on the Throne of Jewish gnosis, as well as of all the great protestant mystics: Sebastian Franck, Valentin Weigel (19), etc. since for one and all it is only in relation to us, to the creature, that the deity appears as force, power, will, action, etc.
The Absolutely undetermined does not become the determined Deus revelatus, demanded by the via positionis, except in relation to the creature: except in that this Deus revelatus is its creator. The Absolute must therefore emerge from its “absoluity” [or state of absolute absolvency], to instate a creature for whom it is the personal God, such that the personal God is not at all the original [and originating] negativity which we heard denounced earlier as “the first death of God”. It is, altogether on the contrary, the divine birth, arising in this passage from the Absolute to the person. If one asks: why this emergence? Why the choice of this correlation of the Creator with the created-being? The best answer is still to be found in the exemplary work of Jacob Boehme: because it contains the secret of his Quest, his immense oeuvre is the personal response to this question — and there can be nothing other than a personal answer.
In effect, Boehme’s entire theology is « an analysis of the conditions of the possibility of the absolute person », which is to say absolved of the indetermination of the original Absolute, of the Absconditum. As we said above: the Absolute, being absolved of all determination, there remains ultimately to absolve it of this indetermination. Koyré’s great merit was in being one of the rare individuals to understand the aspect that differentiates Boehme from so many of his forerunners whose pitfalls he spares us –an essential quality, because his exemplary case helps us to perceive what is at issue in the theme that I have proposed [ie. apophatic theology as antidote to nihilism], and through this theme the conditions of a [true] dialogue.
“ What Boehme believes before all doctrine, what he is searching for, that which all his [own] doctrine is meant to justify, is that God is a personal Being, and much more, that he is a person, a living person, conscious of himself, a person possessing agency, a perfect person” (20). Let us take proper note of the words: “what he is searching for”. The personal God is not [simply] given to begin with. He is met at the end of a Quest (like that of the Quest for the Holy Grail). There is therefore no confusion between the Absolute and the personal God, a confusion that [it was suggested] would have been committed by Western personalism and which was denounced as we have seen, as the source of nihilism and abettor of the “death of God”. This Quest is in contrast with two symmetrical nihilisms: that of an affirmative (cataphatic) theology immediately erecting its dogma as absolute in itself, beyond which there would be nothing to search for; and that of negative apophatic theology that would aspire only to the indetermination of the Absolute thereby losing sight of the fact that the latter is the nihil a quo omnia procedunt (the Hidden Treasure of the hadith cited above). In both instances we have theology without theophany.
And it is from this very point that we can discern two permanent attitudes –present over the centuries and right up to our days– that are typified respectively in the mystical doctrine of Meister Eckhardt (14th century) and in the mystical theosophy of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) (21) To observe these two exemplary cases is to put ourselves in a position to overcome the pitfalls of nihilism.
With the one as with the other, there is, certainly, the profound sense of the mystical Divinity as undetermined Absolute, immobile and unchanging in its eternity. But, from that point on, the two masters diverge. For a Meister Eckhardt, the Deitas (Gottheit) transcends the personal God and it is the latter that one must pass beyond, because it is correlative to the human soul of the world, to the creature. The personal God is thus but a step upon the mystical path, because this personal God is affected by limitation and by negativity, by non-being and by becoming. “It becomes and un-becomes “(22). (Er wird und entwird) The “Eckhardtian soul” thus attempts to liberate itself in order to escape from the very limits of being, from the nihil of finitude, from everything and anything that could fix it in place or time. It needs therefore, to escape from itself in order to plunge into the abyss of divinity, an Abgrund of which, by definition, it could never attain [or sound] the bottom (Grund). The conception and attitude of Jacob Boehme are something else entirely. Boehme searches for liberation within the affirmation of the self, in the realization of the true Self of his eternal “idea”. It is this that is designated by the very concept of ‘ayn thâbita by Ibn ‘Arabi and all those that he inspired in the domain of Islamic theosophy.
So, we find that everything is inverted: it is not the personal God who is a step towards the Deitas, that is, towards the undetermined Absolute. It is on the contrary this Absolute that is a step towards the generation, the eternal birth [and birthing] of the personal God. Jacob Boehme also declares: “Er wird und entwird”, but by this he does not mean the nihilating nihil, voiding the personal God. On the contrary, he is designating the nihil of the Absolute differentiating itself in its aspiration to reveal itself, to determine itself (the hidden Treasure!) in a single Nunc aeternitatis (ewiges Nu). There is thus an intra-divine history –not a History in the ordinary sense of the word, but an a-temporal History– eternally accomplished and eternally beginning, thus simultaneously and eternally whole (simul tota) in all forms and at all stages of its auto-generation as personal God. The latter “contains in itself all difference (…) He is in movement and movement is in him”. The determination that the person entails is thus not “original” in this instance; [the person] is no longer struck with nihilitude, but is a conquest of and by the nihil of the original indetermination. It was this original indetermination that, as we have seen, was the initially fundamental yet paradoxical determination of the Absolute.
What we must understand and take advantage of is as follows. In describing the conditions that make it possible for the absolute person to be the triumph and conquest of the primordial nihil (conditions that form the entire structure of the divine organism), Boehme describes eo ipso “the route by which God has passed and passes eternally in order to engender himself and constitute himself…[A movement of] eternally successive phases since eternally simultaneous with the divine life: stages of his interior development (23)”. This eternal intra-divine history of the eternal generation of the personal God is then the archetype that the human soul exemplifies in order to accede to the rank of person. For the personal form of being is “the highest, because it accomplishes the realization that is self revelation. Indeed, being does not realize [or discover] itself nor manifest [or appear to] itself except by determining itself and by manifesting itself [which is to say, by accepting the limitation constitutive of aspects or qualities through which to appear and be known] (24)”. And it is these same relations that are expressed within the vocabulary of our Iranian philosophers by terms such as zohûr (manifestation), tajallî elâhî (theophany), mazhar (theophanic form), tashakhkhos (individuation). We are setting forth an entire program of comparative philosophy simply by pronouncing these terms.
[This program of comparative philosophy] also provides us with the strategy necessary to confront the nihil a quo nihil fit –which is to say nihilism plain and simple– which presents itself these days under the laicized form of agnosticism or totalitarian collectivism. Personalism is not only the vocation of the West; it is not only the Greek world, it is also the Iranian world, and it is the entire spiritual universe of the “religions of the Book”. It is the rampart against all negative and “nihilating” forces. To search for the origins and the causes of the failures and the shortcomings of this personalism, however, would take us too far afield in the present context.
To sum up, I cited the example of our Jacob Boehme as exemplary of those for whom the supreme goal of the human Quest in this world is not the Ens nullo modo determinatum (even if this « entirely undetermined being » is presented as the ideal of traditional Asia). On the contrary, it is the Ens determinatum omni modo (the entirely determined being) that is the goal of this Quest. Outside of this “there is noone left to speak of”. Dialogue will only take place between “shadows”. That is the very meaning of the topic I have proposed here: of negative theology as antidote to nihilism, because this negative theology authenticates the eternal birth of the person. The essential for the human being does not lie in self-annihilation through fusion in the divine, or in the collectivity that is its illusory laicization, it does not lie in abandoning that which defines one as a person and instates one in being. On the contrary, it is in the realization of that which is the most profound and the most personal that the human being fulfils his or her essential function, a theophanic function: to express God, to be the theophore, the God-bearer.
The contrast that puts us in the position to choose may be expressed by the two Latin formulas that we owe to Boehme’s great interpreter, Franz von Baader: “To the thesis: Omnis determination est negatio (all determination is negation, this is the thesis that sees personalism as the source of nihilism), Boehme implicitly opposes the belief: Omnis determinatio est positio (all determination is position that is, simultaneously positing and situating (25).” Everything that we have tried to show here today is recapitulated in the contrast between these two perspectives. So, whether we assume responsibility for the past or for the future, either way we are capable of confronting the question: where is nihilism?
IV. Where is Nihilism?
To this question we can now answer that nihilism is not to be found in the principle of individuation denounced earlier. This principle is, on the contrary, the rampart against nihilism, on condition that it directs itself towards the integral ego, not the ego that our “bad habits” qualify as normal. In other words: nihilism appears to us in the very alienation of the principle of individuation. This, because all determination, far from being negativity, is positive; because the personal form of Being is the latter’s supreme determination, and because it is the latter’s supreme revelation. Thus everything that tends to abolish this [personal form of Being], constitutes either a threat of or a symptom of nihilism. And this menace can conceal itself behind forms that seem different while being fundamentally identical. I mean to say that the character that Dostoïevsky named the “Grand Inquisitor” disposes of a great number of uniforms to choose from. On the other hand, we are warned to be on our guard, for example, in the following lines of a psychologist cited by Theodore Roszack, telling us that integrity or real mental health “entails, one way or another, the dissolution of the normal ego, of the false self cunningly adapted to our socially alienated reality; the emergence of “internal” archetypes, [that are the] mediators of divine power, the end or full term of this death consisting in a rebirth and a recreation of a new functioning of the ego, wherein the self no longer betrays but rather serves the divine.(26)”.
Let us accord their proper weight to each of these very dense lines. They have the character of an initiatic instruction, inviting us first of all to die with respect to an ego mutilated by an alienated social reality, and then conducting us to the new birth of a regenerated self, invested with a divine function that henceforth it has the power to withstand and fulfil. From this point on we are justified in posing the capital question: “What is the person?” This question is implicit these days in much research that appears disordinate, because desperate, but which is in fact ordinated upon [or built upon and organized around] the presentiment that the decisive secret, which is the hidden value of personal consciousness, is not to be found, for example, in some kind of class consciousness, but in a consciousness of the consciousness revealing the latter’s secret. [Or, put in more visual and traditional terms, the hidden value of personal consciousness is to be found in the Hidden Treasure’s relationship to and knowledge of the creature that it has created and by whom it is known.]
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 (27). 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.
And it is precisely there that we must strike at the Western drama of our day, a West that encompasses vast Oriental regions, precisely at the point marked by the theme of our conference.
We must call an assembly and rally around this ancient concept from Zoroastrian Iran, for, under different names, we find the equivalent just about everywhere, as much in the Abrahamic world as in the Greek world. I can only supply a few simple indicative reminders in the present context (28) We find the functional equivalent in the Hermetic Perfect Nature (al-tibâ al-tâmm) so essential in the philosophy of Suhravardî and admirably explained by Abû’l Barakât Baghdâdî. It is also the notion of the “Witness in the Heavens”, of the “Shaykh al-ghayb”, secret personal guide, that we find in Najmoddîn Kobrâ, Semmnânî, Aziz Nasafî. It is the form of light that, during initiation, conjoins itself to the adept in Ismailism, a precise reminiscence of Manicheanism (cf. the Paraclete or Angel of the prophet Mani). The idea may also be represented by the image of the subtle body, or the aetherial spiritual body, or by the image of the celestial garment (“the song of the Pearl” from the Acts of Thomas), or by that of the Tselem (form) in the Jewish Kabalah that recapitulates the rest. It is the celestial Self that is implied in the formula “to see one’s self”, “to know one’s self”. Because the form is the primordial Form of the human being, the supreme archetypal Image according to which the human being was created. It is the mirror in which God or rather the Angel of God, the “Angel of the Face” (29) appears to visionaries. The answer given to the prophet of Islam was: “you will not see me”, lan tarânî (Quran 7/139), and yet we have his testimony: “I saw my lord (ra’ito rabbi) in the most beautiful of forms (30)”.
The integral Ego, the integral person, is this unusambo, is this “dualitude”. The monadological conception of each human monad as mundus concentratus presupposes this double accommodation of “the Angel and the Human”, for in order to be integral it must contain both a pole in the celestial world and a pole in the terrestrial world. This is what, still to this day, the Iranian philosophers of the Avicennian tradition designate by the term ‘alam ‘aqli, a term that was translated into latin as saeculum intelligibile. With spiritual individuality at its summit, the saeculum intelligibile is a “spiritual world” in itself, an Aiôn, the Avicennian term significantly reviving the Gnostic designation of Eons (Aiôns), [that are the] spiritual entities of gnosis (31). Thus then, the integral Ego tends progressively towards being an Ens omni modo determinatum, a radical inversion of the step-by-step process seeking identification with the undetermined Absolute. This simple reminder of Boehme’s position suffices to indicate where the threat of nihilism may be seen to arise.
Clearly, this menace arises precisely there where the spiritual, transcendent, angelic dimension of the person disappears. With the disappearance of the Fravarti who gives the person, without any institutional intermediary, his or her dimension beyond the confines of this world. It is when this dimension, which is the supreme principle of individuation, disappears, that the invasion of nihilism begins. Now is not the time nor is this the place to embark on a history of this situation. It started a long time ago. It is the history of the “human being deprived of fravarti”. And without any doubt –because the Zoroastrians are the ones who had the force to look the principle of active nihilitude, the horrible Ahrîman right in the face– it is of this same menace of that they had had the intimation while meditating upon the invasion of the luminous Ohrmazdian creation by the negativity of Ahrîman. Ohrmazd summoned all the fravartis to his aid; without their help he could not have defended the ramparts of the Heavens. This is a significant and telling characteristic of ancient Zoroastrian Iranian thought: the menace is so terrifying that the God of Light needs the help of all of his own. Henceforth a pact of chivalric solidarity binds together the Lord of Wisdom (Mazda) and all the celestial chivalry. They are partners in one and the same battle. We find the idea of this same chivalric pact in the mystical solidarity of the Rabb and the marbûb, of the Lord and his vassal, in Ibn ‘Arabi, and wherever else the idea of the fotovvat, in Persian javânmardî (spiritual chivalry), appears.
So then, what happens when the celestial dimension of the person –that dimension that constitutes the very being and supreme individuation of the person– disappears?
What happens is the rupture of the pact of reciprocal engagement. Subsequently, the entire relation between God and the human being is altered. Their solidarity is broken. They no longer answer for one another, in the same battle. They draw themselves up in confrontation as master and slave. One of the two must disappear. Prometheanism would have stolen the sacred Fire by force, whereas in Mazdeism humans were the guardians of this sacred Fire that the celestial powers had given into their keeping. And this Prometheanism, to So long as it serves its ends, this Prometheanism will adopt every form possible of the Grand Inquisitor. To think by one’s self, to work properly one’s self according to one’s own initiative, to freely dare the Promethean adventure, is a task that many humans would prefer to avoid. And so the Grand Inquisitor takes it in charge in their stead, on condition that they renounce being themselves. It shall not be allowed to the human being to comport anything innate. Everything that it is, it would have received and acquired from its environment, from the all-powerful pedagogy that takes it in charge (32). How to be one’s self when the self is annihilated (33)? And so it is that nihilitude swallows itself up in a desacralized world. How can the human being, in the absence of his or her own proper [singular] –and henceforth annihilated– person, possibly encounter [and countenance] a God personalizing itself for him or for her? Nothing is left but to pray to this God of the [undetermined unmodulated] exister to exist.
All the forms of imperious agnosticism and of the agnostic imperative will then mark the triumph of nihilism: the “reality of being” limited uniquely to the empirical world, the truth of knowledge limited to sense perception and to the abstract laws of the understanding. In short, all that the notion of “the world” entails reduced to the so-called scientific and objective plane, and consequently the reality of events limited to the events of empirical History, in such a way that there is no longer any way out of the « myth or history » dilemma, because we are no longer capable of intimating the existence of “events in the Heavens”. We were saying earlier that all our reigning ideologies are the laicizing of theological systems having perished in their triumph. We mean thereby that the divine Incarnation has transformed itself into social or socio-political Incarnation. Subsequently, it is the very idea of this Incarnation that manifests the gravity of its consequences. The official dogma could not stabilize the paradoxical equilibrium between human and divine nature. There needed, either for the human element to abolish the divine, or for the divine to volatilize the human. Monophysitism accomplished the latter and we may say that the phenomenon of socialization and the totalitarianism that it leads to are naught but Monophysitism running against the grain (34).
These are all consequences of the failure or the disappearance of personalism – of that personalism that we have heard denounced as fomenter of nihilism. Quite the opposite. Indeed, we must reestablish or reactivateAnd so we must draw up, or simply set back upon its feet, which is to say reactivate, a rival reality principle to this “nihilizing” reality, which is to say a rival to nihilism plain and simple.
Up to here
V. Towards a Reality Principle Rival to Nihilism
We will find this principle precisely by starting from the dialogue that the double dimension of the integral person both presupposes and instates between its celestial and terrestrial poles, or, in Iranian terms, between the Fravarti (or Angel) and the Soul. Since it is the rupture of this bipolarity that allows the nihilitude of the nihil to return on the offensive, we must instate or restore a reality principle that renders this reversal impossible, a reversal that is just as fatal when the personal God is confounded with and lost in the undetermined Absolute, as when the latter is secularized at the level of social Incarnation.
The « mystery of mysteries » (ghayb al-ghoyûb in Ismailism and in Islamic gnosis) is manifestativum sui. As we have already seen (in the writings of Boehme and Ibn ‘Arabi) by its very essence the latter tends towards its own auto-manifestation. The idea of this manifestation presupposes eo ipso the second term: the one to whom it manifests itself. There is therefore eo ipso correlation between this auto-generation leading the divine Absolute to manifest itself as personal God, this intra-divine History and the History of the soul tearing itself away from exterior oppression and pressures so that its eternal “Idea” –which is the very secret of its unique personhood– may finally emerge. There is correlation between divine birth and the birth of the soul for whom the divine birth occurs. This correlation thus connects the two terms in an interdependence, a reciprocal solidarity, such that neither one can continue to exist without the other… For one of the terms to disappear entails the other falling prey to the nihil. There is correlation between the “death of God” and the death of the human person. We have spoken of a pact of chivalric solidarity, the original idea of which comes from the celestial chivalry of ancient Zoroastrian Iran. But then what order of truth and what order of reality, that is to say what form of knowledge, does the perception of this bipolarity presuppose, and in which region of the world of Being does it take place and have its place?
The propositions dictated by a cataphatic theology that have not passed through the trial of apophatic theology, as well as those dictated by sociology having substituted itself for theology, (philosophy remaining the servant of sociology after having passed as the servant of theology) have the form we designate as dogmas. This means that they are proven propositions, that are established once and for all and that, consequently, impose themselves with authority uniformly upon each and every one. The dogmatists leave no place for real dialogue, but only for confrontation.
On the other hand, because the truths perceived as constitutive of this connection (between the God manifesting itself as a person (biblically : the Angel of the Face) and the person that the personal God promotes to the rank of a person by virtue of this revelation) are unique in each instance, this connection is in no way dogmatic but fundamentally existential. It cannot express itself as a dogma , but only as a dokêma. The two terms derive from the same Greek verb dokéo, signifiying both “to appear”, or “to show as”, and “to believe”, “to admit”. The dokêma marks the link of interdependence between the form of that which manifests itself and the one for whom it manifests. It is this correlation that is the very meaning of the term dokêsis. Unfortunately, it is from this term that the routine accumulated by centuries of the history of Western dogmas has drawn the term docetism, synonym of phantasmatic, unreal, appearance. Consequently, the original primary meaning must be restored: what we mean by docetism is in fact the theological critique, or rather theosophical critique, of religious knowledge. A critique which, reflecting upon that which is visible for the believer but invisible for the non-believer, examines and investigates the very nature and causes of this visibility. Nature and causes that necessarily entail the [revelatory] event taking place neither in the world of sense perception nor in the abstract world of the understanding. This event occurs within and consists of the correlation between the form and the experience of manifestation. We are therefore in need of another world to safeguard the ontological standing of this relation which is neither a logical, nor a conceptual, nor a dogmatic relation. It is a theophanic relation that constitutes a visionary realism wherein appearance becomes apparition.
It is this same intermediary world that has, for centuries now, preoccupied so many of our Iranian philosophers, from Suhravardi (who died in 1191) to Mollâ Sadrâ Shârâzî (who died in 1640) and right up to the present days (Sayyed Jalâloddîn Ashtîyânî). It is the intermediary world between the world of the ‘Aql (the world of the pure Intelligences) and the world of sense perception, and which is designated as alâm al-mithâl, the “world of the Image” –not the image perceived by the senses, but the metaphysical image. This is why, in my books, I have translated this term, ‘alâm al-mithâl, after the Latin mundus imaginalis, by the term imaginal world, in order to properly differentiate it from the imaginary that we identify with the unreal. Without such a differentiation we would fall back into the abyss of agnosticism from which the imaginal world, on the contrary, must preserve us. This world “where bodies become spiritualized and where the Spirits take body” is essentially the world of subtle bodies, a spiritually aetherial world, freed from the laws of corruptible matter that apply to this world, but not from those of the spatial dimension (that of mathematical solids). For [the imaginal world is] in eminent possession of all the qualitative richness of the sensible world, but in an incorruptible state. This intermediary world is where visionary events, the visions of the prophets and the mystics (the eschatological events) take place. Without this intermediary world, these events no longer have their place. The mundus imaginalis is the path by which we may free ourselves from the literalism to which the “religions of the Book” have always been inclined to succumb. It is the ontological level at which the spiritual meaning of the revelations becomes the literal meaning, because it is at this level that we attain a sacramental perception or a sacramental consciousness of beings and of things. By this I mean a consciousness of their theophanic function, because [the mundus imaginalis] preserves us from confusing an icon, precisely a metaphysical image, with an idol. In the absence of this intermediary world we remain sentenced to incarceration in the uni-dimensional history of empirical events. The “events in the Heavens” (divine birth and birth of the soul, for example) no longer “regard” us, for we have turned our [inner] eyes away from them.
Thus, I would tend to see all the regions of thought and of conscience that have succumbed to a Cartesian dualism (opposing the world of thought to the world of quantifiable space) from which they can no longer free themselves as the most glaring symptoms of the nihilism to which we have fallen prey in this day and age. The hold that this perspective may take on us renders the conception of a spiritual body, of spiritual matter, so difficult, if not impossible, that the timid attempts made some time ago by William James, and more vigorously later by Bergson, provoked in their time a considerable degree of agitation (35). At the very most the ethnologists spoke of such conceptions as “primitive”. In fact it is not a question of a conception that is “primitive” in the ethnological sense, but rather ontologically primordial. I believe that much has changed since then. In addition to the increase in research in this frontier science that we call the psy domain, philosophy has for its part increased its attempts to escape from the Cartesian dilemma.
The hour has thus come when, better than simply comparing, we can combine the convergent efforts of a Jacob Boehme and a Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzî, by instoring a metaphysics of the active Imagination as organ of the intermediary world of subtle bodies and spiritual matter, quarta dimensio. The intensification of the acts of the exister, as professed in the metaphysic of Sadrâ Shîrâzî, raises the status of the body to the state of a spiritual body, or even a divine body (jism ilâhî). The organ of this transmutation, of this generation of the spiritual body is, in the writings of Boehme as in those of Mollâ Sadrâ, the power of the “imaginatrix” [or the power of the creative imagination], which is the magical faculty par excellence (Imago-Magia) because it is the soul itself “animated” by its “Perfect Nature”, its celestial pole. And so, while the “disenchantment” (Entzauberung) of a world reduced to a utilitarian positivity, without an end term in the beyond, appears to us as one of the destructive aspects of nihilism, we can still see where the ramparts may be raised to counter this nihilism.
I have spoken at such great length, in my books, about the metaphysics of the Imaginal and of the intermediary world, which appears to me to be an essential element of the current message of Iranian philosophy, that I cannot add anything here. (36). I would have to give a whole other lecture. In summing up then, I do not wish to recapitulate my entire presentation, but simply to recall the following points.
The theme of our conference called into question the consequences of the impact of the West upon the possibility of dialogue with the so-called traditional civilizations. In my analysis I attempted to draw out the primary phenomenon, such that it would permit us to displace the culpability that is imputed to the West: accused of being responsible for a “materialism” to which the “spiritualism” of the East would be opposed. I meant to suggest that this culpability does not spring forth from the very essence of the Western identity, but from a betrayal with respect to precisely that which constitutes this essence. Today the opposition between East and West, in the geographical or ethnic sense of the words has been left behind. For neither that which we call “spiritualism” nor that which we call “materialism” is an inalienable monopoly. Otherwise, how would what we call the “westernization of the East” even be possible? Is it a certainty that the West is responsible for this “westernization”? Or is it not rather the East itself that is responsible? In brief, here we are, Easterners and Westerners, faced with the same problems. Henceforth the words “East” and “West” will have to take on a whole other meaning than their geographical, political or ethnic meanings – for if a pamphleteer of our day and age could write “Rome is no longer in Rome”, it may well be that the East is no longer in the East. We are speaking here of the “East” or “Orient” in the metaphysical sense of the word, as it is understood by the Iranian philosophers in the tradition of Avicenna and Suhravardî. Their “Orient” is the spiritual world (alam-qodsî) the celestial pole upon which, as we said, the integrality of the human person depends. Those who lose [and lose track of] this pole are the vagabonds of a [Western or] Occidental world which is the very opposite of the metaphysical “Orient”, regardless of whether, geographically, they are Oriental or Occidental.
It is the question of the very possibility of dialogue that is at issue here: do we want to make our way together to the rediscovery of that celestial pole that gives the human person his or her integral dimension? A dialogue, in the real sense of the word, is only possible between persons having the same aspiration towards the same spiritual dimension (which is altogether different from belonging to the same generation, for example). Teachings like those of Jacob Boehme show us this integral dimension of the human person. “The same aspiration”, because, in fact, this integral dimension of the human being does not yet exist. It can only come to term at the end of a long process which, far from redirecting us towards an illusory identification with a suprapersonal Absolute, accomplishes in itself the process by which the Absolute, the Absconditum, engendered itself as divine Person. For the Absolute has no Face; only the Person has a Face permitting the “face to face” encounter, and it is in this “face to face” that the pact of chivalric solidarity is made.
It is an aberration to drag that which we call the Absolute into the vicissitudes of human destiny. On the other hand, the personal God and his devoted follower have appeared to us as partners in one and the same destiny. Thus, the personal God, that could not die except through the betrayal of its (co-)respondant, gives its true meaning to the human adventure. And this is the profound truth contained in a notion that is common currency amongst those (the adherents of an intrepid spiritualism found in the West) known as the Mormons: “That which you are, God was. That which God is, you will be”. In this sense, we would not only be the partners of a dialogue. We would be the dialogue itself.
1) Article written by Georges Vallin (Professor at the University of Nancy) in « Revue philosophique », 277-288, Paris, July-September 1975, as well as his more recent article : Pourquoi le non dualisme asiatique ? (Eléments pour une théorie de la philosophie comparée) Ibid. n.2, pp. 157-175, 1978.
3)Ibid, p. 276. The italics are the author’s own.
5)Notably Sayyed Ahmad ‘Alavî Ispahânî and Hosayn Tonkâbonî. See S.J. Ashtîyânî and H. Corbin, Anthologie des philosophes iranienne depuis le XVIIe siècle jusqu’à nos jours, tome II (Bibliothèque Iranienne, vol. 19). Teheran-Paris, 1975, p. 7-31 and 77-90 of the French language section see also our study of [the paradox of monotheism] Le paradoxe du monothéisme, in « Eranos-Jahrbuch » 45-1976.
8)For the believer who profoundly lives the Iranian conception of Light, the Prometheus myth is felt to be a grotesque perversion of the reality of things. See our study: Réalisme et symbolisme des couleurs en cosmologie shî’ite, in « Eranos-Jahrbuch », p. 170 sq, 41-1972. See also Jean Brun, Sisyphe, enfant de Prométhée, in « Eranos-Jahrbuch » 46-1977.
15)See in particular the (Persian) treaty by Abû Ya’qûb Sejestânî, Kashf al-Mahjûb (Le Dévoilement des choses caches) an Ismaili text of the IVth century Hegire. Edited by Henry Corbin (Bibliothèque Iranienne, vol. 1) Teheran-Paris, 1949. The author pursues a rigorous dialectic of double negativity: non-being and non non-being. God is not-in-time and not-not-in-time; not-in-space and not-not-in-space, etc. See also, by the same author Le Livre des Sources (Kitâb al Yanâbî), Arabic text edited and translated in our Trilogie Ismaélienne (Bibliothèque Iranienne, vol.9), Teheran-Paris 1961. See the index s.v. tawhîd.
16)See H. Corbin, En Islam iranien: aspects spirituals et philosophiques, Paris, Gallimard, 1971-1972, tome IV index on Qâzî Sa’îd Qommî, several chapters deal with the the Shaykhie School in this same volume. On Rajab ‘Alî Tabrîzi, see our Anthologie des philosophes iraniens (supra note 5) tome I, p.98-116 of the French section, as well as our Philosophie iranienne et philosophie comparée, Teheran, Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1977, Paris, Buchet/Chastel.
17) Cf. Alexandre Koyré, La philosophie de Jacob Boehme, Paris 1929, a monumental study as valuable today as when it was first written and which we follow closely here. See pages 303-305 sq.
18)See our study of [the paradox of monotheism] Le paradoxe du monothéisme, previously cited (note 5) a more ample development of which is to be found in our study of the [necessity of angelology] Nécessité de l’angélologie (Conference at the Tours Institute of Philosophy, May 1977), in Les Cahiers de l’hermétisme.
21)Koyré distinctly highlights the contrast in a brief analysis, ibid., p.316, note 2.
22)After Koyré’s apt translation.
25)It is to Koyré that we owe this welcome interposition of the Latin formulas of Fr. Von Baader which recapitulate the entire question.
27)See our two studies previously cited in note 18.
28)See the index at the back of our Avicenne et le Récit visionnaire, Terre céleste et corps de resurrection, En Islam iranien…, L’Archange empourpré, etc. See also Gershom Scholem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit, Frankfurt am M., 1973, p. 249…
29)On the « Angel of the Face », see the final section of our study Nécéssité de l’angélologie (previously cited note 18).
30)See our L’Imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabî, 2nd ed., Paris, Flammarion, 1977, the entire chapter (together with the texts that are to be found translated in the footnotes) on the « Form of God” (sûrat al-Haqq) [the Sourat of Truth].
31)See our Philosophie iranienne et philosophie comparée (previously cited, note 16) index s.v. ‘âlam ‘aqlî.
32)Have certain people not already gone so far as to claim that chromosomes are a fascist invention!
33)See Alexandre Zinoviev, Les hauteurs béantes, Lausanne, L’Age d’homme, 1977.
34)See our Nécessité de l’angélologie (previously cited, note 18), the entire chapter on the Christos Angelos.
35)Of which A. Koyré reminds us. Op. cit., p.113, note 3.
36) See En Islam iranien… tome IV index s.v. ; L’Archange empourpré, recueil de quinze traités et récits mystiques de Sohravardî, traduits du persan et de l’arabe et commentés par H. Corbin, [The Crimson Archangel, a collection of fifteen treaties and mystical tales translated from Persian and Arabic and with commentary by H. Corbin] Paris, Fayard, 1976, index s.v., as well as the index of our work on Ibn ‘Arabi (previously cited, note 30).