Biographical post-scriptum to a philosophical interview


by Henry Corbin

translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle

See also

From Heidegger to Suhravardî


Rereading the text of my interview with Philippe Nemo, I have the impression that it has addressed, or at least alluded to, the majority of essential questions that have kept me occupied over the course of a lifetime’s research. That said, there are indeed gaps into which many a prolongation and worthwhile explanation might have been inserted. This being the case, perhaps the interview may be extended…

These gaps included certain more or less essential precisions that could have --or should have-- been added to the presentation of the stages of my spiritual itinerary, the phases of which have been drawn out over the « arc of a life-time ». I alluded to my original education as a philosopher. That a young philosophy student should encounter German philosophy is nothing unusual. That he embark upon the path of Islamic philosophy, in Arabic and in Persian, on the other hand, is much less to be expected. That he should combine these two paths, this is a rare case indeed. But how did these encounters and convergences come about?
It should come as no surprise to anyone that a philosophy student, having conscientiously made the rounds of the authors included in the undergraduate curriculum, might be eager to explore new continents, ones that do not appear on the charts of an undergraduate philosophy program. Among these was the little explored continent of medieval philosophy, the study of which was to be completely renewed by the research and publications of Etienne Gilson. A bright new dawn was lifting upon this forgotten continent the mere glow of which sufficed to draw the attention of a student eager to further his philosophical adventures. It was in the year 1923-1924, if memory serves, that Etienne Gilson began his incomparable teaching in the Religious Science Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. In any case, it was in that year that I began attending his classes.
I would like to capture, once and for all, the dazzling impression made upon me by the classes I followed for several years with Etienne Gilson. It was not his way to begin by having several lines of text translated by a student, then to ask the opinion of the others, before giving one or another run of the mill commentary. Far from it! This was an era when the students came to listen to the Professor, and not to their classmates. For indeed, they didn’t question the likelihood that the Professor knew a little more on the subject than they themselves. Gilson read the Latin texts, translated them himself and then brought out their contents, both latent and explicit, in a magisterial commentary that penetrated to the very heart of things. My admiration was such that I resolved to take him as my model, and much later I attempted to give classes, for Islamic philosophy and theology, that I would have wished to hear in that same era, but which no-one was then giving. Among the texts taken up by Etienne Gilson, during those most fecund years, there were translations (from Arabic into Latin) produced by the Toledo School in the 12th century. First among these texts, perhaps, was the famous book by Avicenna: Liber sextus Naturalium, the remarkable depth of which was brought out by Gilson’s commentary. That was my first contact with Islamic philosophy. I detected therein a certain connivance between cosmology and angelology, (I believe that this interest in and consideration for angelology is something that has stayed with me ever since) which led me to wonder whether it would not be possible to explore this correspondence at greater length and from other angles.
In the meantime however, if I was to proceed in this direction, there was one task in particular that could not be avoided. To go further meant to delve into the texts themselves, and see for myself firsthand. I had, therefore, to learn Arabic. I was, for that matter, encouraged to do so by Gilson himself. That is why, beginning in the fall semester of the year 1926-1927, turning my back upon the agrégation [a year of general study in one’s field followed by competitive exams to determine one’s eligibility to teach in French Secondary Schools and Universities], I chose to enter the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales [the National Oriental Language School]. Back then it was not the immense “machine” that it has now become. The dimensions of the little building on the Rue de Lille were a perfect illustration of the intimate conditions of the school. It was in fact, still much the same as it had been upon the departure of Silvestre de Sacy. For each language we were only a handful of students, and with my colleague and friend Georges Vajda we were pretty much the only errant philosophers in that venerable establishment. It was this entrance into the Oriental Language School that prepared me for my subsequent entry into the National Library, where I was assigned to work with the Oriental collections from November 1928 onwards. Paradoxically, it was this passage via the [French] National Library that led to my definitive escape Eastwards.
In that very same time period, however, there was yet another teaching capable of diverting a young and ardent philosopher from the common run of programs he had known thus far. This was the teaching of Emile Bréhier. Even now, fifty years later, I have the impression that merely attempting to bring the names of those two masters into proximity is enough to produce sparks. As far as Emile Bréhier was concerned, there was no such thing as Christian philosophy. On this point he was more or less heir to the philosophical conceptions of the Aufklärung. And yet all of Etienne Gilson’s work went counter to this position. Indeed, it was difficult coming out of a class on Duns Scot, Doctor subtilis, to accept that there was no such thing as Christian philosophy. But how can you convert a perfect rationalist to the idea that the contents of the Holy Books could be the basis and medium for philosophical meditation and investigations? To refuse this concession is to deny both Jewish and Islamic philosophy. Nor can one be sure, having once denied this possibility, that Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme could continue to be considered as belonging to the German philosophical tradition. The paradox is somewhat exaggerated, but it merely translates one of those intractable “modes of being” which, as we said in the previous interview, no external human force can hope to alter.
In any event, Emile Bréhier was at that time ensconced in translating and establishing the critical edition of Plotinus’ Enneads. In 1922-1923 he had given a lecture series on Plotinus and the Upanishads, the windfalls of which continued to be enjoyed by classes in the years that followed. Let us repeat the question: how could a young philosopher, eager for metaphysical adventure, resist the call to investigate the influence and trace elements of Indian philosophy to be found in the works of the founder of Neo-Platonism? Only, to do that, I had to “do” Sanskrit. But I had already decided to “do” Arabic. How to reconcile the two? A choice had to be made. It absolutely had to be one or the other, or at least that was the advice of every philologist and linguist whom I consulted. The philosopher, however, has his own particular rhyme and reason that the philologist does not always understand. Philosopher that I was, it was necessary to opt, in secrecy of course, for the heroic solution. In other words, I began studying both Arabic and Sanskrit. I assure you, it was a great period of mental asceticism, but it was a course of studies that was not to extend beyond two years time. I still draw profit from this period in that, if I happen to read a book of Indian or Buddhist philosophy, the technical Sanskrit terms interpolated within the text are not entirely unfamiliar. Ultimately, however, at the end of the second year of Oriental language study I was to come to a “significant milestone” that would indicate to me a decisive direction from which there was to be no return: from then on, my path was to go by way of Arabic and Persian texts.
I must admit, being the philosopher that I was; become a student of the Arabic language astray among the linguists; I thought I might surely perish for lack of nourishment having nothing but grammar books and dictionaries with which to sustain myself. More than once, at the thought of the substantial nourishment to be had from philosophy, I asked myself: what am I doing here? What have I gotten myself into? There was, however, one final and remarkable refuge left to me. That refuge was Louis Massignon whose teachings made available the very finest substance of Islamic Spirituality. From 1928 onwards Massignon combined his teaching at the Collège de France with the direction of Islamic studies in the Religious Science Section of our Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Little did I then know that I would one day be called upon to succeed him in this office. But the contrast between the methodical and rigorous classes given by an Etienne Gilson and those of a Louis Massignon was “extraordinary” to say the least. Of course, at the beginning of the year the Professor distributed a program with an overview of the general theme of the class in question divided up into a certain number of lessons. But of what use such programs! On occasion lessons took as their starting point a number of the fulgurating intuitions that --great mystic that he was-- Massignon was especially prodigious in. Then a parenthesis would open up, and then another, and then another… Finally the listener would find him or herself exhausted and lost smack in the middle of the Professor’s grappling with the problems of British politics in Palestine…
But one had to recognize, and not everyone did, that this was simply a necessary aspect of the passion burning inside of Massignon. It was, ultimately, impossible to escape his influence. His fiery soul, his intrepid penetration into the arcane regions of mystical life in Islam, into hitherto unexplored regions and depths, the nobility of his indignations before the shortcomings of this world, all of this inevitably left its impression upon the spirit of his young auditors. It is true that over the course of the years it was impossible not to perceive certain vulnerable sides to his thinking, certain breaches. Indeed, towards the end he was disappointed when his friends were unable to share his political views. But that in no way alters the veneration with which I evoke the memory of Massignon. One thing is certain: he held many surprises in store for the philosopher, for his original education had nothing philosophical about it. Hence the occasional wavering in his vocabulary and even on occasion in his formally stated positions. I have known, on certain occasions, an ultra-Shiite Massignon and I have been greatly indebted to him for it. His studies of Salmân Pâk, of the Mobâhala, of Fâtima, are still veritable mines of intuitions. What remains is to explore and compare and integrate them with the results that have been turned up by the research that has been carried out since then. On other days, however, I found him vituperating Shiism and the Shiites, the great texts of which were sill foreign to him. I took their defense, contesting that their conception of the Imamat was in no way “carnal” but that the earthly familial link between the Imams was only an image of their eternal pleromatic connection. It was then Massignon’s turn to be astonished by “my” ultra-Shiism. Was I not undertaking a vast study of Ismaili Gnostic texts? Nevertheless, to his credit he did courageously affirm that Iranian Islam had precisely delivered Islam from any and all racial, ethnic or national attachment, even if, he confessed to me, he had never felt himself quite “at home” therein. Another difficulty: when I did little more than take into consideration the stated intention guiding the project and life’s work of Suhravardi, “resurrector of the Illuminationist Theosophy of the ancient Persian sages”, there again Massignon was alarmed. Not to “over Mazdeanize” was his recommendation. What to do? Firstly one had to be sure not to choose the wrong day when it came to a subject one wished to discuss. Next, one had better not forget why one had come to see him, but keep a firm hold upon the reigns of the discussion. Having once met these prerequisite conditions, however, one was altogether likely to emerge fully satisfied.
Thus it was that one day, and I believe it was in the course of the 1927-1928 year, I spoke with Massignon of the reasons that had drawn me, as a philosopher, to the study of Arabic, and the questions I had with regards to the connections between the philosophy and mysticism of a certain Suhravardi (or at least of what I then knew of him by way of a rather meagre German resume)… That day Massignon received an inspiration from the Heavens. He had brought back with him, following a voyage in Iran, a lithographed edition of the principal work of Suhravardi, Hikmat al-Ishrâq: “The Oriental Theosophy”. With the commentaries it was a large volume of more than five hundred pages. “Here, he said to me, I believe that there is something in this book for you”. That “something” was the presence and company of the young Shaykh al-Ishraq and it is something that has not left me over the course of my lifetime. I have always been a Platonist (in the broadest sense of the term, of course). I believe one is born a Platonist, just as one can be born an atheist, a materialist, etc. It is a question of the impenetrable mystery of pre-existential choices. In any case, the young Platonist that I was could not help but burn at the very contact of he who had been the “Imam of the Persian Platonists”. I have spoken so often of him in my books, or in publishing and translating his works, that I shall add nothing here, except as need be to bring out the essential character.
By my encounter with Suhravardi, my spiritual destiny in my passage through this world was sealed. This Platonism of his expressed itself in terms belonging to the Zoroastrian angelology of Ancient Persia and in so doing illuminated the path I had been searching for. Having made this discovery there was no more need to remain torn between Sanskrit and Arabic. Persia was right there in the centre, as median and mediating world. For Persia, the old Iran, is not only a nation or an empire, it is an entire spiritual universe, a hearth and meeting place in the history of religions. Moreover this world was ready to receive and welcome me. Henceforth the philosopher that I was passed into the rank and file of the Orientalists. Later on, after a long period of instructive experience, I was to explain why it seemed to me that in future it would be the Philosophers and not the Orientalists who would be the only ones capable of assuming responsibility for the “oriental philosophy”.
The great adventure was beginning. Normally, after the License [the French undergraduate diploma] and the graduate diploma in philosophy one registered in classes for the agrégation. It was the wise path, well travelled and with no surprises. It was a path so normal and self evident that a venerable Sorbonne professor (whom I would meet from time to time at friends’ gatherings), when once I informed him of my decisions, asked me paternally: “Are you in possession of a personal fortune, or do you simply have time to waste?” I had, thank God, neither one nor the other. But how could one suffer through the classes and the perspectives of the agrégation with this great project in mind: to do for this Iranian philosophical tradition (the great names of which could already be gleaned from the writings of the commentators of Suhravardi) that which Etienne Gilson had done to “resuscitate” Western medieval philosophy? It was perhaps, a wager against the very hazards of Destiny. But I believe that in the long run the Heavens above have granted me their favour and have allowed me to hold true and win that wager.
That then is a brief overview of the « career » of the Orientalist Philosopher, and his decisive encounter with that Iranian land said to be the « color of sky », and « homeland to philosophers and poets ». The interview with Philippe Némo dealt foremost with the coincidence in one and the same person of an Iranologist-Philosopher and a translator of Heidegger. This post-scriptum has as its task to describe another encounter; this time with the old Germany that was also once “homeland to philosophers and poets”. The two encounters are essentially complementary. Now just how did the latter come about?
There are perhaps only a few of us left from among the friends of the astonishing and inimitable Baruzi brothers. The elder brother, Joseph, author of La Volonté de métamorphose[The Will or Drive to Metamorphosis], and of Rêve d’un siècle[Dream of a Century], was a musicologist whose articles, bearing the fruit of a profound musical thinking, appeared regularly in the review Le Ménestrel [The Minstrel]. Jean, the youngest, took twenty years to produce his enormous thesis on Saint John of the Cross --a work that had both its admirers and detractors—and assisted Alfred Loisy at the Collège de France, before becoming chair of Religious History there. There were a pleiad of students who followed his classes with fidelity and fervour, and among them a good number of students from the Faculty of Protestant Theology of the day. It was Jean Baruzi who revealed to us the theology of the young Luther; a fashionable subject within the world of theological research in Germany at that time. Following upon the young Luther, his classes went on to the great protestant spirituals: Sebastian Franck, Caspar Schwenkfeld, Valentin Weigel, Johann Arndt, etc. Nor did the professor dissimulate any of the difficulties he encountered first hand in his investigations as well as in his presentation of this material, but a veritable surge of spiritual life bore them on. It was all new and captivating. I began to perceive a certain consonance, like the pealing call of far off bells, inviting me to explore the regions of what I was later to call the “phenomenon of the Holy Book”. It was none other than the hermeneutic path already unfurling in the morning fog. If I had resolved, upon hearing the interpretation of Avicenna given by Etienne Gilson, to apply myself to the study of Arabic so that I might go to the original texts and see for myself, it was equally impossible to hear the call of the Spirituals interpreted by Jean Baruzi without taking the decision to enter into that world as well. It was Jean Baruzi who revealed to me and set me upon the path towards a Germany that was home to the philosophers and the “great individuals” of mystical spirituality. My first step was Marburg.
Iran and Germany were thus the geographical reference points of a Quest that, in point of fact, pursued its course in spiritual regions that do not appear upon our maps. I recall them here, to stress what I said at the beginning of my interview with Philippe Némo. The philosopher pursues his Quest –in perfect liberty-- in answer to and following upon the inspiration of the Spirit. My Iranian friends are well aware that I am unable to isolate my friendship for Suhravardi and his followers from my friendship for a Jacob Boehme and his School. I believe it is this convergence, the very union of what they symbolize, that has made me what I am today.
The circle of friends that had formed around the inseparable Baruzi brothers was already in itself an invitation to dare the adventures of the Spirit. Immensely cultivated, with their sense of the most delicate and subtle values of art and of life, the two brothers were like testaments of another century, eminently representative of a Europe and of a European society that had disappeared with the first and second world wars. I am speaking of a world that we have not succeeded in rebuilding, nor even come close, so obstinate and profound is the grip that the very same demons and possessed individuals prophesied by Dostoïevsky have upon the present era. There were frequent meetings at the Baruzi home on the Place Victor Hugo, meetings and « seminary » sessions led by Jean Baruzi himself that went on late into the evening. One met among the participants all kinds of unexpected European personalities, and there was always among our companions a strong German contingent. Jean Baruzi gave the discussions an air they might have had had they been conducted in the Weimar of Goethe. He was one of those professors who abolished all official distance between teacher and student. Of that initial formal relationship only a deferential friendship subsisted, and it was a friendship that grew year after year. Those who, like myself, have had the privilege of experiencing this type of relationship –one that allows the professor to communicate his or her knowledge infinitely better than in any classroom-- are stupefied these days when they hear students complaining of the inaccessibility of their professors. It is, perhaps, yet another indication of the sad mutation of time.
Marburg an der Lahn! Jean Baruzi was well aware of what he was doing in guiding me to this great place. Indeed, he had himself preceded me there and at which time he had established bonds of friendship with Rudolf Otto and Friedrich Heiler. How can I describe the overwhelming impression made upon the young philosopher that I was arriving in Marburg at the beginning of July 1930 ? The enchantment of the place, of that “inspired hill” living by and for the University, the magnificent forests surrounding it… I stayed there for over a month. My first visit was with Rudolf Otto, already at that time professor emeritus. Otto was such an important figure in the Liberal Protestant Germany of the day that [despite his semi-retired status] he was engaged in a constant hum of activity. His books on “the Sacred” on “Oriental and Occidental Mysticism”, his profound knowledge of the philosophical and religious schools of India were all so impressive, and more impressive still was the simplicity with which this eminent savant conversed in an admirably classical French. He spoke with me --novice that I was-- as with a young colleague, and this precisely due to my study of Arabic.
Two coincidences worth noting: the first being that, during my stay in Marburg, Rabindranath Tagore happened to arrive as well. I will never forget the diaphanous beauty of the venerable faces of those two Ancients, Rabindranath Tagore and Rudolf Otto, sitting side by side upon the dais of the Aula Magna of the University of Marburg. The second coincidence being that it was exactly in this period that Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn came to Marburg where she held lengthy discussions with Rudolf Otto regarding a project she was considering and to which ultimately Rudolf Otto would lend both the definitive form and meaning. This project having once taken its rightful shape the Ascona Eranos circle was born (I will return to dwell upon this circle and the role it was to have in my life as a researcher a little later). On more than one occasion Olga and I have recalled our respective emotions pressing the buzzer at the entrance of Rudolf Otto’s home.
The students I knew back in those days in Marburg led a remarkably intense theological and philosophical life. There are certain particulars that I do not wish to go into but I should mention the agitation that Rudolf Bultmann’s theology was then beginning to provoke. Additionally, however, there was Friedrich Heiler, (whom we have already mentioned) then Professor in the Faculty of Theology. He was a painful figure, the author of an important book on prayer, aspiring towards the development of a Christianity freed of confessional attachment. There was also my dear departed friend Ambert-Marie Schmidt, who was then working as a French lecteur. Strangely enough, it was he who presented me with my first copy of one of Swedenborg’s works: an edition of the French translation Du Ciel et de l’Enfer (Of Heaven and Hell). Ultimately Swedenborg somewhat frightened my pious Calvinist friend, and he no doubt considered that the book was better off in my hands than his own. One way or another, it was at Marburg that I began the marvellous reading of Swedenborg’s work. Having once taken the plunge, his immense oeuvre was to accompany me my entire life. Moreover, this first encounter with and growing interest in Swedenborg was the starting point and basis for my later friendship with Ernst Benz, an eminent specialist in Swedenborgian studies. Benz was later to become Professor at the Faculty of Theology of Marburg, but it was at Eranos, and not Marburg, that we came to know each other, some twenty-eight years ago. Indeed, it is almost as though there existed a permanent path leading from Marburg to Eranos..
Yet another paradox. It was through Professor Theodor Siegfried, who had passed his habilitation with Rudolf Otto, that I first came to hear of Karl Barth. Professor Siegfried even gave me a copy of Barth’s dense commentary upon the Epistle to the Romans. Although Siegfried had alerted me as to the pure formalism to which dialectical theology condemned itself, I nevertheless plunged with passion into the reading of this book; a book that was to impart to me a first presentiment of a great number of things that I had yet to formulate for myself. Indeed, the consequences continued to play themselves out over several years. Heidegger had already left the University of Marburg for that of Freiburg, but there were still two eminent privatdozent in the philosophy department there: Karl Lowith, with whom I had wonderful conversations on the subject of Hamann and the currents connected to his work, and Gerhard Kruger, an expert phenomenologist, at whose seminars I was given a taste of all the problems then fashionable in Germany. When I left Marburg (on pilgrimage to Weimar, and then Eisenach and then Wartburg) I had the impression that I would have to begin my philosophical education all over again. It was at one and the same time an enthusing and a crushing revelation.
This first contact with German philosophy led me to repeated stays in Germany between the years 1931 and 1936. I would like to recall, and not without emotion as I think of all those who have since disappeared (among whom Landsberg and so many others), my stay in Bonn in the springtime of 1932. Karl Barth was there at that time of course, along with the powerful cohort of his students and adepts. The theological discussions went ahead full steam, all the more so as we shared a presentiment of the approaching catastrophe. It was in this era that I translated one of Karl Barth’s opuscules: Die Not der evangelischen Kirche which translates as La détresse de l’Eglise protestante [The Distress of the Protestant Church], although, following the advice of Pierre Maury we finally gave it the title: Misère et Grandeur de l’Eglise évangélique [Grandeur and Misery of the Evangelical Church]. Among Karl Barth’s colleagues, there was Fritz Lieb, a touching figure by dint of his mystical love for Orthodox Russia, a love so unlimited that he seemed never to have noticed that the Holy Orthodox Russia had for the moment… passed on Heavenwards. Our connection lay in our common friendship with Nicolas Berdiaev, and I have spoken of the spiritual debt I owe to him elsewhere. I remember we found ourselves together, Fritz Lieb and myself and Nicolas Berdiaev, at the latter’s home, discussing eschatology one rather dramatic evening in the spring of 1939. I have cited Fritz Lieb here as a representative case: he was at one and the same time an adept of Karl Barth, in love with Weigel, with Paracelsius, and with the Sophiology of P. Serge Boulgakov. More than once I asked him: “My dear Lieb, how can you reconcile this and the other?” – “Oh! It’s difficult, it’s difficult”, he answered, and there were tears in his eyes.
I must also evoke two of my stays in Hamburg where Ernst Cassirer was teaching. Cassirer was a philosopher specializing in the study of symbolic forms. He had a very thorough knowledge of the Cambridge Platonists and was consequently able to reveal to me yet another branch of my spiritual family thereby broadening my path as well as the scope of what I was ultimately searching for; for I still had but an obscure presentiment of what that latter was. What I was looking for was precisely that which was later to become all my philosophy of the mundus imaginalis, whose name, as it happens, I owe to our Persian Platonists. Hamburg, as it happens, was also then home to the Warburg Institute with all the resources of its library. It was in the Spring of 1934 that I made my first visit to Heidegger in Freiburg. On that same occasion we drew up a plan for the collection of opuscules and excerpts that I was to translate under the title “Qu’est ce que la métaphysique?” [What is metaphysics?] One had, after all, to begin by a limited project. Then the generosity of Julien Cain, the National Library Administrator, accorded me a sabbatical leave allowing me to pass the university year of 1935-1936 in Berlin at our Franzosiches Akademikerhaus. The director there was my friend Henri Jourdan, whom I had known as a lecteur at the University of Bonn. In July 1936 my wife and I visited Freiburg, where I was able to submit to our author several of the translation difficulties that I was having. Heidegger, however, had every confidence in me, approved all of my French neologisms and in so doing left me a rather heavy responsibility(I have evoked this visit to Freiburg in the previous interview).
Upon my return, I found that my Germanic experiences had widened my circle of friends back in Paris. I would like to tell how much my friendship with Alexandre Koyré meant to me. His was one of the most beautiful minds I have known. Originally renowned for his monumental work on Jacob Boehme, he was later known for a whole range of eminent publications on the history of the sciences, and the astronomical revolution. Because of his work on Boehme and other publications concerning those Spirituals that, as it happened, Jean Baruzi also studied, many imagined that Alexandre Koyré was himself a great mystical theosopher. He was, however, a man of tremendous modesty and discretion concerning his intimate convictions. Often a sudden tirade gave the impression of agnosticism, or even of a hopeless nihilism. In fact, my friend Koyré took his secret with him. I say it, not without emotion, for I was the last of his colleagues from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes to take his hand at the clinic, on the eve of his death.
What I wish to say in hommage to his memory, is that… to begin with, he was certainly different from Jean Baruzi, the friend and companion of his students and listeners at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes. Most of Koyrés classes finished at the Harcourt, the historic, comfortable café on the corner of the place de la Sorbonne and the boulevard Saint Michel. It is now long gone, our Café d’Harcourt. Shortly after the war I discovered it had been transformed into an edifying bookstore and then still later I saw that it had become a shoe and clothing store! It was there, at the Café Harcourt that a significant part of the French philosophy of the time was elaborated. Hegel and the renewal of Hegelian studies in particular were of central concern. Around Koyré there were Alexandre Kojève (Kojevnikov), Raymond Queneau, myself, philosophers like Fritz Heinemann, indeed many of our Israelite colleagues had chosen to live in exile and their heart-rending accounts informed us of the sad train of events in Germany. Discussion sometimes became very heated. Kojève and Heinemann were in complete disaccord upon the interpretation of the phenomenology of Spirit. There were frequent clashes between the phenomenology of Husserl and that of Heidegger. On other occasions we would provoke Queneau: “just how did he go about writing a novel? Did he draw up a plan? Did he just let things flow?” While I can’t make mention here of all the names of those I hold in my memory, I also can’t omit to mention my old friend Bernard Groethuysen, our incomparable Socrates, a central and unforgettable figure in the soirées held by Alexandre Koyré and his wife in their little apartment on the rue de Navarre. Groethuysen’s humour seemed to prevail upon the vicissitudes of the times as well as our worries. It was he who inaugurated “philosophical anthropology” (his great work carrying this title remains unfinished) and it was ultimately thanks to his tenacity that my translation of Heidegger appeared on the shelves, for at that time this “unknown” philosopher was of only mediocre interest to the publishers.
The program for the next volume of the review Recherches philosophiques [Studies in Philosophy] always occupied a central position in the course of those soirées on the Rue de Navarre. We have nothing like it today. The courageous publisher Boivin shouldered the entire weight of the six large annual volumes of some five hundred pages. For a large number of us these volumes represented a kind of precious laboratory. If the student, research-worker or specialist of today should happen to consult them, he or she will find that rarely has such a pleiad of philosophers been assembled, nor such a number and variety of new subjects been addressed. It goes without saying that among these new subjects, phenomenology held a most significant place.
Phenomenology was also most often the centre of debate during the long soirées held by Gabriel Marcel. Among those present were the philosophers Le Senne, Louis Lavelle (as pleasing to listen to as annoying to read), and then just as in Koyré’s circle, many Israelite colleagues having fled Germany. “Jaspers and Heidegger”was another conflictual subject the contingencies of which led to our dear Gabriel Marcel’s frequent and ever identical high-pitched exclamation. “In my opinion this is a very serious problem… very serious indeed”. And the accumulated grievousness weighed heavier and heavier upon our cogitations.
There was also the group of New Protestant Theologians, who had established their headquarters in the locals of the Publishing House “Editions « Je sers »”, which at that time had its seat on the rue du Four. Of course, in a country like ours, the attendance was necessarily limited, but we were in the end answering an imperative dictated by our most intimate convictions. At that time we had every hope that Karl Barth might bring about a renewal of Protestant theology. In the year 1931-1932 we founded (Denis de Rougemont, Roland de Pury, Albert-Marie Schmidt, Roger Jezequel and myself) a small review entitled Hic et Nunc, and advanced with the kind of juvenile brutality that causes consternation not only among one’s elders, but ultimately in the young themselves; after life has taught them a thing or two and they in turn are elders. We shared Keyserling’s conviction that “Karl Barth and his friends hold in their hands the future of Protestantism.” Alas! Our illusions were to come tumbling down from great heights, and if dear Rudolf Otto had still been with us, he could have taken me by the hand, led me back to Schleiermacher and said:“Didn’t I tell you this would happen?”
I quickly became uncomfortable with « barthism » and dialectical theology. Subsequently we adopted Kierkegaard and Dostoïevsky as spiritual forefathers. That was good, but it was not enough to jar philosophy in the way that my friends intended to. On the other hand Suhravardi had already shown me a sign, warning me that since this « jarring » operated at the expense of a philosophy that no longer merited the name, it was necessary to rediscover the Sophia of another philosophy. It is very difficult to measure the responsibility of a man and of his work with respect to the work he produces thereafter. But ultimately, it is impossible not to see the distance separating the commentary of the Römerbrief[Epistle to the Romans], with its prophetic sparks, and the heavy, colossal Dogmatic, composed by Karl Barth in later years. A new “dogmatic”? No, truthfully, it was not at all what we had been waiting for; and so it was that we seemed to lag behind the “Barthiens” of the final hour. I had communicated to Karl Barth my first Oriental publication: a formal with an accompanying translation of Suhravardi’s Bruissement des ailes de Gabriel [The Rustling of Gabriel’s Wings]. He read it and spoke with me about it later with a sort of well meaning smile, pronouncing the words « natural theology ». And it went no further than that. I was quite taken aback and in fact wrote him on this subject (perhaps it is my letter of 1936 that is conserved in the “Barth-Archive” in Basel). In the interim there was his memorable visit to Paris in 1934. I had the opportunity to speak with him of my interest fof the “speculative theologians” of the beginning of the 19th century, those that we called the Hegelians of the Right and who read Hegel in the same manner that they read Meister Eckhart. In particular I mentioned Philipe Marheineke, in whom I had been especially interested. I can still see Barth’s astonished wonderment and hear his voice asking me: “You have read Marheineke, Mr. Corbin ?”. I discerned in him a discrete sympathy for this « speculative » theologian that has remained difficult for me to explain. Marheineke has, in fact, been quite completely if unjustly forgotten, though one day he could conceivably become of renewed and topical interest. This sympathy, hovever, remained Karl Barth’s secret, ultimately creating a gulf between his “dialectical theology” and this Hegelian theology of the Right. It is important to remember that this Hegelianism was vigorously opposed to rationalism, something easily forgotten when the grand majority of our translations mistakenly give “reason” as the equivalent of Vernunft, even though this word refers to the Greek word Noos. The entire Hegelian and Post-Hegelian climate would change if we kept this reference in mind.
For the moment, I had come to a first rather disastrous realization. “Religious science” had been in large part the work of Protestant theologians. And yet the theology of Karl Barth professed the most profound disdain for both religious science and the study of religious history. It naively opposed other religions as the products of human effort, while Christianity had been the descent and initiative of God towards humanity, going so far as to maintain that for this reason Christianity should not even be understood as a “religion”. This, of course, is nothing very original, indeed something along the same lines had been said in Islam, well before Karl Barth. To this, as to the legal theologians of Islam, I have a single identical response: it is the answer provided by Ibn ‘Arabi and his school. Barthian dialectical theology deliberately opted for complete ignorance of the res religiosa, averring itself incapable of envisioning the task of a “general theology of religions” the urgency of which is becoming more and more evident. It is just such a general theology that serves as background to the vast horizon of the cycle of prophetic religion, as the latter is represented in Shiite gnosis, and more specifically by Haydar Amoli in the 14th century. There where, along with Keyserling, we had seemed to see the promise of a new future, we beheld rather the emergence of a “theology of the death of God”, followed by a “theology of revolution”, and then another “theology of the death of God”, and then a “theology of revolution” and then a “theology of class struggle” identifying the latter with the evangelical message. Even in the darkest hours that preceded the Second World War, noone would have dared imagine such a spectacle.
I myself might well have been dragged into that same mess if between times there hadn’t arisen one of those decrees issued in the Invisible by the Invisible; if I had not been drawn aside, into a complete philosophical and theological solitude, which allowed an altogether different philosophy and theology to take root in me. There is something that has been systematically ignored throughout the centuries of our dogmas and confessions of faith. I am referring to an intimate and secret solidarity between the “esoteric” core of all the “Religions of the Book”. If a devastated Christianity has succumbed to the perils of History and historicism, a lengthy pilgrimage through the domains of another of the “Religions of the Book”, namely the world Shiite gnosis in its two forms (Duoceciman Imamism, and Ismailism) will lead one to Christianity’s rediscovery. One will discover a Christianity having its permanent place in the cycle of prophetic religion and yet differing so extensively from the official forms of Historic Christianity that one will have difficulty explaining it to the profane. That said, I may now begin telling the tale of the long years of pilgrimage that kept me far from Europe over the course of its historical tragedy.
Clearly, it is not the external developments of this history, parading across the stage that was Istanbul in those dark years, to which I am referring here but rather to the history of the Malakut. In the springtime of 1939, I was sent on assignment to collect photocopies of all the manuscripts of Suhravardi that could be found dispersed amongst the libraries of Istanbul, in view of a critical edition of his works in Arabic and Persian. The assignment was officially meant to begin on the 1st of September 1939. On that date, however, the project and its objective appeared very fragile amidst all the unbridled events then taking place. Nevertheless, after much discussion and accompanied by the paternal anxieties of Julien Cain, my wife and I left for Istanbul on the 30th of October 1939. The assignment was officially meant to last three months. In fact it lasted six years, right up until September 1945. In the course of those years (during which time I served as caretaker and custodian to our little French Institute of Archeology the operations of which were then more or less suspended), I learned the inestimable virtues of Silence: of that which initiates call the « discipline of the arcane », (in Persian ketmân). One of the virtues of this Silence was to place me, one on one as it were, in the company of my invisible Sheikh, Shihâboddîn Yahyâ Suhravardî, martyred in 1191, at the age of thirty-six, which was, as it happened, my own age at the time. I translated his Arabic texts day in and day out, guided only by Suhravardi’s own commentators and followers, and consequently escaping the exterior influence of the theological and philosophical schools of our days. At the end of those years of retreat, I had become an Ishrâqî, and the printing of the first tome of the works of Suhravardî was almost ready. I didn’t have much opportunity to speak of such matters with most of those around me, although there were a few people, such as my Turkish friends of Bektashi origin, with whom (thankfully) such discussions were possible. Indeed for just such conversation Yahya Kemal has been indelibly etched in my memory.
But Istanbul was Byzantium! It was Constantinople! In the same way that the Temple of Solomon was the centre of Jerusalem, the temple of Saint Sophia was the centre of the second Roman Empire. Over the course of the previous years the American expert Whitemore had dedicated himself assiduously to the restoration of the mosaics. To visit Saint Sophia in the company of Whitemore was at one and the same time a privilege, an adventure and a pilgrimage. He was at home there --the guardian of the Temple-- and would give one the royal tour, stationing himself there with you (the time flowing by unchecked), before the marvellously liberated splendour of the interior light of the mosaics. One had to be in his company for him to draw your attention to a late drawing, high up on the interior western wall, serving as cipher to the secret of the Temple of Sophia. The drawing presented a little cupola that one acceded to in seven stages: an evocation of the seven pillared Temple of Wisdom (Prov. 9/1). “Say to Sophia, that you are my sister, and call the Intelligence your friend” (Prov. 7/4). An Ishrâqî is, by definition, a spontaneous Sophiologist. The Temple of Saint Sophia was itself the Temple of the Holy Grail for me, or at least an exemplification of the archetype of that Temple which has been intuited by so many of those on the path of gnosis. In the vast chamber that would have once been the sacristy, there was a precious collection of Arabic and Persian manuscripts. I often went to work there, and while crossing through the Temple I would gently hum the themes of the Grail and of the mystical Last Supper of Wagner’s Parsifal. The subtle presence of this invisible Sophianic chivalry (a chivalry that was also known to the Persian Platonists) has never left me, and indeed, one will find an indication of that which it has inspired in me in my most recent projects and research.
I could not return to France, however, without first setting foot in my country of choice, in my chosen hearth, homeland as it was to my invisible Sheykh, Suhravardi. In August of 1944 I received a mission order for Persia from what was then still the “Government of Algiers”. Unfortunately, because I needed someone to stand in for me at our Institute of Archeology in Istanbul while I was gone on assignment I was forced to wait until 1945 before I could carry it out. Once again the project was meant to last three months, but here we are and it has been underway for over thirty years now. Back then the trip from Istanbul to Teheran was an adventure. There was the “strategic” railway to Baghdad: no platform at the terminal, you simply stepped off the train onto the track. Then one went by car from Baghdad to Teheran across the Zagreus Mountain Chain. It was an exhausting but exalting trip. The Teheran that welcomed us, on the 14th of September 1945, had little in common with the Teheran of today. The city’s dimensions were those of one of our prefectures with somewhere around eight hundred thousand inhabitants. Today the surface of the city has increased upwards of tenfold. That which used to be the north has become the south. That which was then still desert is now an immense city in quadrants of magnificent treed boulevards, and the population has risen upwards of three million inhabitants. Back then the little doroshki (one horse carriages) could still manage in the midst of the traffic. Now, however, with more than a million vehicles the traffic is infernal and defies all chronological forecasts. All of this, together with the creation and growth of a middle class that was then non-existent, is symptomatic of the prodigious mutation that Iran has undergone in the course of a single generation. It has been amazing to witness, but here again these are only external facts that I am evoking.
I have given an account of my Iranian mission goal, and of how I set about working through all those long projects and vast arenas of thought, in a little text entitled De la Bibliothèque Nationale à la Bibliothèque Iranienne [From the National Library to the Iranian Library] and which you will find reproduced within this same volume [the Cahier de l’Herne]. I therefore needn’t repeat myself here. I do however still need to evoke the warm welcome my projects received among my Iranian friends. It was a welcome that had considerable influence upon the French authorities’ decision to create a “Department of Iranology”as annex to the new “French Institute” that had been founded by the ministry of French Cultural Relations and inaugurated in Teheran at the beginning of the Fall semester of 1947.
The moment had finally come: I was to carry out the project that had been germinating in my spirit ever since my attendance, all those many years ago, in the classes taught by Etienne Gilson. The tasks at hand: collect the materials, create a working office and begin publishing. The working conditions in Teheran at that time were not those of today. One did not then find huge collections of catalogued manuscripts. There were libraries at the time of course, but catalogues were rare or nonexistent. In a way this was a stroke of good luck, for indeed it is true that lucky chance has a habit of favouring the obstinate researcher. It was then that I began the publication of the Bibliothèque Iranienne [the Iranian Library], and I have since been able to carry it through (over the course of twenty five years and with the help of several collaborators), to its twenty-second volume. Each volume, made entirely on site, demanded a small tour de force. Essentially, the collection consisted of texts that had remained hitherto unpublished, both in Persian and in Arabic. Each volume was accompanied either by an integral translation or at the very least by an ample introduction, thereby permitting the non-Orientalist philosopher to draw the greatest profit possible from each volume. I believe that this collection, the volumes of which are almost all currently out of print, has succeeded in setting a trend of sorts. At that time, the only people with whom I could carry on a discussion about Suhravardi, or Molla Sadra or many, many others, were venerable Sheikhs. Today there is an entire pleiad of young researchers who have heartily taken up the cause of this traditional philosophy. I do not wish to dissimulate the difficulties involved. To create or recreate a philosophical tradition; to put at its disposition all the conceptual and lexicographical armature needed… For such a project, clearly, many generations are required. That said, it is worth mentioning another symptom of the present day, of a whole other order this time: In modern Teheran there are large, central avenues bearing the names of our philosophers! One of the most beautiful is “Suhravardi Avenue”. One wouldn’t have dared imagine it thirty years ago. Within the same time period, back in the “Western world” concessions had had to be made before overwhelming evidence: Islamic philosophy had not stopped in the 12th century with Averroës, on the contrary, Iranian Islamic Philosophy formed a veritable continent the exploration of which had been completely neglected. Today, I know of young philosophers who have begun to assimilate these new domains. Indeed, the names of Suhravardi and others, appear in their student’s dissertations, and that is something truly new!
It was in Teheran, in the spring of 1954, that I received news that the Section of Religious Sciences was calling me to succeed Louis Massignon as Head of Islamic studies. Dear Massignon was aware of the decision, and I, for my part, was aware of his concerns over our differences of opinion. He nevertheless considered me to be the candidate closest to himself with regards to prolonging the direction of his research at the school, if not by its specific content, then at least with regards to its meaning and spirit. In the meantime (in the spring of 1949 to be exact), I had received yet another invitation the consequences of which can be felt, in the rhythm and in the program of my research, to this day.
I am alluding to the invitation sent to me by Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, inviting me to participate in the Eranos circle that she had founded in 1932, in Ascona (in Ticino on the shore of Lago Majoro). I have already mentioned the part that Rudolph Otto had in inspiring this project. My participation was to consist of two lectures of one hour each, in the month of August 1949. I had no idea at that time that this participation was to be repeated on a regular basis over more than a quarter of a century. I have described the concept of Eranos, that which renders the spirit and ultimate aim of Eranos unique, as I see it, in a little text that is reproduced in the present Cahier de L’Herne. Certainly what the Eranos circle was able to bring to each of the some one hundred and fifty participants whose lectures have succeeded each other over almost half a century now, varies a great deal. There are those who merely passed through, over the course of one or two years, no more. In these cases some mysterious indefinable sign warned that neither their nature nor their demeanour were in harmony with the aim underlying the Eranos circle: an aim that was itself difficult to define. On the other hand, as the years went by and without any kind of premeditation, there was a small group of participants who became the very cornerstones and primary support of the concept of Eranos. As for the decisive role that Eranos played in relation to each of these individuals, it consisted firstly in demanding that they master the area of their specialty. In this way, Eranos was to draw them on towards an integral spiritual liberty. The gradual discoveries each one of us thereby made ultimately allowed us to speak from the very depths of ourselves. All ecclesiastical and academic orthodoxies, of whatever confessional caste, were and are completely foreign to the Eranos circle. The “training” that we acquired there, towards becoming frankly and integrally one’s self, evolved into a habit that one never lost, even if this in itself could be somewhat of a perilous attribute due to the rarity of it. Each session’s conferences have been published in a compact volume in three languages. In 1978 the collection attained its 45th volume, and now constitutes a veritable encyclopedia for the use of researchers in the “symbolic sciences”. For the participants themselves, each of these volumes represented something like a laboratory, where we attempted the trial-efforts of a new branch of research. For almost all of us, these initial essays were later to become books.
The underlying spirit of the Eranos circle was nourrished and reinforced by the constant exchange of opinions and perspectives among its members. Symbolic of the this circle was our Round-Table beneath the Cedar tree, and the friendships that were created there. Rudolf Otto, who had in the very beginning helped Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn define the concept of Eranos, never actually participated in the sessions themselves. On the other hand, Carl-Gustav Jung was for many years something like their tutelary genius. Many listeners were drawn from Zurich to hear his lectures, and the latter were often, in fact, the preliminary draughts and outlines of the books he was then in the process of writing. My encounters with C-G Jung were unforgettable. We had long conversations in Ascona and in Küssnacht, as well as in Jung’s castle stronghold in Bollingen, where I was led one day by my friend Carl-Alfred Meier. But how can I properly describe those conversations so as not to leave even the slightest ambiguity? I was a metaphysician, not a psychologist. Jung was a psychologist and not a metaphysician, (although one might say he often mixed with metaphysics). Our educations and our respective aims were altogether different. Nevertheless, we understood each other and so had the pleasure of engaging in lengthy and profitable dialogues. When it first appeared, Jung’s “Answer to Job” was ferociously torn apart by critics from a whole variety of confessional faiths. Subsequently, I decided to give what I felt to be a faithful interpretation in a long article that, as it turned out, was to win me his lasting friendship. This article made of him, in some manner, an interpreter of the Sophia and of Sophiology. I am altogether prepared to say that Jung’s teaching and conversation could be an inappreciable gift to any metaphysician and to any theologian, upon condition that they dissociate themselves at the moment needed. Indeed, this is something that reminds me of one of André Gide’s precepts: “Now Nathanaël, throw away your book…” On the comic side, Jung vigorously defended himself against charges of his being a “Jungian”. For my part, I was friends with Jung, but I was never a « Jungian ». I clarify this point, because for many superficial or naïve readers, it suffices that one refer several times to a given author to be considered one of his or her adepts.
What was immediately striking about Jung (and I mean about Jung as a psychologist), was the rigour with which he spoke of the soul and the reality of the soul; in short, his rebellion against the dissolution of the soul to which Freud’s analysis, the laboratories of psychology and so many other inventions in which our agnostic world is so fertile, joyously conducted. Is it not symptomatic of some underlying ailment that from among the technical terms employed by Jung such as “collective unconscious” or “process of individuation”, here in France we seem to have retained only the first, and in so doing have put the accent upon the word “collective”? It is to be feared that the misunderstanding involved (whether still at a partial stage or in fact already at the point of complete and utter confusion), is bound to continue. With this reserve plainly stated and kept in mind, however, we wish to point out and to properly valorize what Jung was the first to discern and to express by the concepts of Animus and Anima (even if unfortunately the use that was later made of these terms bears little resemblance to the original, but instead makes of these concepts something like a little automatic device that one applies come what may to whatever case). In fact, with these concepts and with his work in general, the path upon which Jung placed us was that which leads to the discovery of the internal Imago. To recognize upon the face the lines and the brilliance of this Imago, is not to agitate oneself in vain in an external quest for the inaccessible, but rather to understand that this Imago is first present in myself and that it is this internal presence that allows me to recognize it in the external world. Later I was to become absorbed in the metaphysics of the active Imagination (“Imagination agente”) and by what my Iranian philosophers led me to call the “imaginal world” in order to differentiate it from the purely imaginary. In actual fact, the imaginal world, (world of imaginal Forms, or mundus imaginalis this being the literal equivalent of the Arabic alam a-mithal) remains one of my central preoccupations. But I was forced to take note of the following. All that the psychologist says of the Imago, acquires a metaphysical meaning for the metaphysician. In turn, all that the metaphysician says will be interpreted by the psychologist in psychological terms. From whence the possible misunderstandings. This is why, as I said above, having once shared the information at each other’s disposal, one has to accept the inevitable separation when the time comes.
And this stands true for all of C.G. Jung’s admirable research. His works on alchemy are founded upon immense documentation, and anyone doing research in alchemy needs to read and sound their depths. In the course of his research, Jung seized upon the idea of a “world of spiritual bodies”. His intuition was profoundly accurate. This world of subtle bodies has been rigorously defined and situated by traditional Islamic theosophers: it is the median world where the spirit takes body and where bodies are spiritualized. More precisely, it is the mundus imaginalis, the world of the Soul, the Malakut, first world of the Angel. Unfortunately, regardless of his or her interest in the restorative will and capacity of the Soul and the world of the Soul, the Western psychologist still lacks the seat or metaphysical framework that ontologically assures the functioning of this mediating world. Such a framework is essential because it preserves the imaginal from the derailings and divagations of the imaginary, of hallucination and of madness. It is because of this that I have had to radically differentiate the imaginal and the imaginary. But because this radical and decisive differentiation is seldom admitted, I prefer to avoid speaking of the Angel and of angelology in the company of psychologists, despite the significant place the latter hold in my research. Simply compare the interpretation of the visions of the prophets given by a Kabbalist or that offered through the ta’wîl of Shiite gnosis, with the analysis that a psychologist will give them. There is a tremendous gulf between the two. The loss of the imaginal in the West is symptomatic of the entire current issued from Descartes and P. Mersenne opposing the Cambridge Platonists, and all that Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, and Oetinger represent. We, on the other hand, must wage a “combat for the Soul of the world”. Jungian psychology may serve to prepare the battleground, but a victorious issue shall depend upon other arms than those of psychology.
I have insisted upon the example and the considerable work of C.-G. Jung partly because the sympathy that exists between us is no secret, but also because I feel it necessary to dispel any ambiguity that might make of me the psychologist that I am not, or cast upon me the suspicion of a “psychologism” that I have always actively opposed. That said, the Eranos sessions were the occasion for many memorable encounters and the starting point of many friendships. Adolf Portmann, expert in the domain of the Natural Sciences (in the spirit of Goethe), Gerhard van der Leuuw, the great Netherlandish phenomenologist of the res religiosa; D.T. Suzuki, the expert in Zen Buddhism; Victor Zuckerkandl, an incomparable phenomenologist of musical discourse; Ernst Benz, to whom no religious movement is foreign either past or present; my friends Mircea Eliade, Gilbert Durand, James Hillman… how to name them all? I must, however, rank among the very first of these my friend Gerschom Scholem, to whom Kabbalistic studies owe their complete renewal. His monumental work is for us, not only an unlimited resource but one that carries with it an imperative message we cannot ignore: we must no longer consider the “esoterisms” of the three great “Religions of the Book” as isolated phenomena.
It was in Teheran, in the springtime of 1954, that I received the news that following a vote held by the counsel for the Religious Sciences Section of the Ecole Pratique des Haute Etudes’ I was being called upon to succeed Louis Massignon. On the one hand of course I felt an immense joy at the prospect, but on the other hand I was faced with a troubling anxiety. At that time my research and publications in Teheran were beginning to meet with success. Our little department of Iranology had begun to make its vitality felt, but it was not yet ready to change hands. What would become of it if my return to Paris necessitated its abandonment? Then a convenient administrative solution was found. Combining the holiday time with a regular leave of absence, it was possible for me to retain practically all of the Fall semester to continue my work in Teheran. Thus, year in and year out I would fly to Teheran in September and remain in residence there until December. This perennial perpetuation of my Iranian life was a decisive factor in both the orientation and the content of my teaching at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, which certainly wouldn’t have been what it was had I not thus kept in contact with my Iranian friends and colleagues. I was thus led to stay abreast of my Iranian friend’s publications, to follow through with my own ongoing publications in the Bibliothèque Iranienne [Iranian Library] series, and to continue to add to and enrich my collection of photocopied manuscripts. The majority of my classes at the Hautes Etudes concentrated on unpublished manuscripts. Each year I gave a long resumé of the work carried out in these classes in the Annuaire or Journal of our Religious Science Section. The progression of my research is thus easy to follow.
From time to time I would hear of rumours deploring that I had transformed the section placed under my direction into a Chair of Shiite studies. If this critique was ever actually stated as such, it could only have been formulated on the basis of an entirely faulty perspective. Our Religious Science Section is not a Faculty of Theology with a program divvying up the teaching of dogmas. On the contrary, it is a centre for research that I believe to be unique in the world with regards to the “religious sciences”. Each of us [faculty members] freely chooses the orientation we wish our individual research and teaching to take, choosing the direction that appears to us to be of the most urgent necessity: either because this direction has previously been particularly disregarded, or because the apparition of new documents necessitates a modification of all previously acquired positions. I believe that at that time the study of Duodeciman Shiism, Ismailism and Sufi metaphysics was indeed of urgent necessity and that from both points of view.
Nor was I surprised if my publications provoked a certain degree of astonishment (when it was not outright sceptical resistance). No one had ever heard that there was a specific and original Shiite philosophy. Similarly unknown or simply unheard of were the new Ismaili treaties (only recently published at that time), let alone the few ancient manuscripts that had become providentially accessible over the years. Ignoring what was really at stake, noone had taken this domain seriously. The western world had remained unaware of Suhravardi’s great project to “resuscitate the theosophy of the ancient Persian sages”. In actual fact, this project had had a significant impact, leaving its impression upon much of later Iranian thought. All of this was, at that time, systematically ignored. We were familiar with the pious ascetics of Mesopotamia in the first centuries of the Hegira but we had barely given any attention to the diversity of what must properly be referred to as the “metaphysics of Sufism”; that of an Ibn Arabi, of a Najmoddin Kobra, a Semnani, of a Haydar Amoli, etc. On the one hand we had identified Islamic mysticism with Sufism. On the other hand we had made Shiism into an adversary of mysticism, because of its sometime severity with respect to a certain Sufism. What we didn’t then know was that Islamic mysticism and tasawwof are not entirely convergent. In fact, there is an entire Shiite mysticism and theosophy (‘erfan-e shii) outside of Sufism and even outside of the specifically Shiite Sufi tara’iq (congregations) … and this because the peculiar situation of the Shiite believer, contrary to that of the Sunnite believer, places him or her, by definition, upon the mystical path (tariqa). In all fairness, of course, it should be remembered that the great Shiite orafa or mystical theosophers --such as Molla sadra Shirazi and many others-- were the subject of much meddlesome interference on the part of their colleagues whom one must paradoxically refer to as a kind of Shiite clergy. But this only serves to bring them closer, by virtue of a common fate, to their Gnostic compatriots of all times and all places.
These lines merely evoke a few aspects of the immense task facing me if I was to carry out the project that had been germinating in my spirit ever since those days when I had been a young student in Etienne Gilson’s classes. I made myself, not a five year, but a twenty year plan. I must say that that plan and those twenty years were pretty much full up in terms of scheduling, and I can only thank Heaven that I am still being permitted to pursue the realization of my projects, even now in emeritis annis. I have told how I conceived of my task in a collective volume published by my colleagues at the Religious Science Section. It was, at one and the same time, “a program and a testament” (the text is reproduced under the latter title in the present Cahier de L’Herne). I need not attempt yet another overview of this program here, just as I am unable, in such a post-scriptum, to resume the central thesis of my various.
What I still need to say is as follows : one does not live for over thirty years in contact with the very best of what the philosophy and spirituality of a culture has produced, namely those of a spiritual universe such as the Iranian world, without acquiring its coloration. Of course, I am and will remain a Westerner (in the terrestrial sense of this word) because it is perhaps specifically as a Westerner that I have succeeded in accomplishing that which I was given to accomplish. On the other hand, and this is something that every philosopher well knows: one cannot succeed in producing a book on Plato, for example, except on condition of being a Platonist, at least while one is writing. This is something that the Historians of Religion have much more difficulty understanding. I recall once, in the course of an international conference, some twenty years ago, a colleague from a distant country, hearing me express myself upon Shiism in the terms I ordinarily use, whispered to his neighbor : « How can one speak of a religion in such terms, when it is not one’s own ? » But then, in precisely what does the « adoption » of a religion or a philosophy consist? Unfortunately, there are those who can only think in terms of « conversion » ; that is, in terms of a process that would permit them to assign you a collective label. No. To speak of « conversion » is to have understood nothing of « esotericism ». A philosopher knows very well that to be a Platonist is not to register one’s self in some Platonic Church, and even less to prohibit one’s self from also being anything else besides a Platonist. Each and every ‘Orafa, whether from the East or from the West, cannot but think and weigh things in terms of interiority and interiorization, which means making in one’s self a permanent accommodation and abode for the philosophies and the religions towards which one’s Quest conducts one. And such a one must keep his or her secret: Secretum meum mihi. A secret that belongs to the Castle of the Soul. It is not through some external sociological choice that he will outwardly manifest this profound internal reality. It is in the “personal” work that he produces, the exteriorization of which results from the concordance of all of his or her “modes of being”. The “community”, the omma of the esotericists, found in all places and in all times, is the “inner Church”, and there is no confessional act of adherence required for one to be a part of it.
But it is precisely this inner connection that is the true connection because it is not such as can be prescribed and is moreover invulnerable, and because it is in this sole case that one may truly say that the mouth speaks of the abundance of the heart ». And that is, I believe, what put my Iranian friends perfectly at ease in tendering to me, in return for those long years of labour dedicated to a shared love, a friendship free of all calculation, a friendship that was and continues to be, and here I am reminded of all those who have already departed, the treasure of a long life. This friendship manifested itself in a most moving way when, in 1973, I reached what we call the “age limit”. This time, it seemed like I would really have to say my goodbyes to Iran. But no. For at that precise moment, quite providentially, the “Iranian Academy of Philosophy” came into being and welcomed me as a member. This institution proposed at one and the same time to train young Iranian researchers in Philosophy and to enable philosophers from all other countries to undertake studies in Iran. It was a double task, both urgent and far reaching in its perspective. Books are published, classes and conferences given. Thus, having left my Department of Iranology at the French Institute to its own destiny, I was able to continue to spend the fall session of each year in Teheran where I continued teaching at the “Academy of Philosophy”. I have already alluded to the privilege that was accorded me at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes --allowing me to continue giving lectures, even in emeritus annis, to the last breath if I so wished. And so it is that I continue to divide my activities between Paris and Teheran; ongoing activities that I hope will permit me to carry several large projects through to their completion.
Among these large unfinished tasks, priority and pride of place must be given to a project mentioned in this Cahier de l’Herne in the article written by my eminent colleague and friend Sayyed Jalâloddîn Ashtiyânî, professor at the Faculty of theology of the University of Mashhad. In the Iran of today Professor Ashtiyânî is certainly the one man most representative of the philosophical lineage of Mollâ Sadrâ. The extent and magnitude of the material he has collected is prodigious. Devoted day in and day out to his task he is a sort of Mollâ Sadrâ redivivus as well as being a prolific ‘erfânî philosopher. Our project was first elaborated in 1964-1965. In response to those who, ever since Ernest Renan, had considered that the destiny of Islamic philosophy went no further than the 12th century and the death of Averroës, as we recalled above, our project consisted in producing a vast Anthology of Iranian philosophers from the 17th century to our day. Mr. Ashtiyânî was to take care of the collection and presentation of the texts; I for my part was to give the quintessence in French, in such a way that the non-Orientalist Western philosophers could at last be informed. Some of these texts had been previously published in lithographed copies, but the great majority were still unpublished manuscripts.
We foresaw five large in-octavo tomes. We now believe there will be seven. The first two tomes have already appeared. The printing of the Arabic and Persian sectian of the third is now complete (some 800 pages), and that of tome four is in the works. I am currently in the process of gathering the French sections together in independent volumes that will thus present the Iranian Islamic Philosophy within the perspective of its continuity. We are bringing to light and making available the works of some forty philosophers. As vast as the dimensions of this edifice may be however, the collection is still far from complete. Indeed, due to the magnitude of their philosophical production, certain independent Schools had to be left out. This is why we have persuaded our Shaykhi friends themselves to produce an Anthology of their great mashâyekh. The successors of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsâ’î (1826), whom we can group under the denomination of the “Kermani School”, have been highly prolific, and have more than a thousand titles to their name. These joint efforts should finally make possible an appreciation of the depth, originality and diversity of the philosophy and mystical theosophy that has come to flourish in the Shiite Islam of Iran, or ,if one prefers, the particular form with which Iran has come to illustrate Shiite Islam.
What we may rightly find amazing is that we in the West are only now beginning to speak of all this. Certainly, due to the translations (of Arabic treatises) produced in the 12th centuries, specialists in medieval philosophy have long interested themselves in those Islamic philosophers whom (following the example of our Scolastics) they persisted in qualifying as “arab philosophers” thereby creating a dangerous confusion between the notions of “Islamism” and “Arabism”. On the other shore of the Iranian World, there has been a longstanding interest in Indian mystics and philosophers, soliciting not only a great deal of scientific research, but also the hopes of those errant souls straying about in search of the “Way”. And that is where Iran has stayed, unexplored between the Arab and Indian worlds. We, in the West, have contented ourselves (and continue to do so) in simply repeating the same monumental ineptitudes concerning the Shiite world. And yet it is not, after all, pure chance if it was in Iran that the various mystical and philosophical spiritualities have found natural shelters and refuges. Our anthology is an introduction to the best and most profound productions of spiritual Islam. There is, for example, a Shiite concept of the “First Emanated Being” that is linked to Neo-Platonism in a way that at one and the same time presupposes and opens the perspectives of a “prophetic philosophy” proper to Shiism. There is the insistance upon the median and mediating world, the mundus imaginalis (alam al-mithal) to which I alluded above and of which I have so often spoken in my books that I needn’t insist any further here. Without the mediating function of this world that assures the articulation between the purely intelligible and the sensible world, we are deprived of the clavis hermeneutica that unlocks the real meaning --real and concrete-- that is to say, the real “ground” of prophetic and mystical visions. As proof: so many of our Western psychologies are incapable of considering these visions in any other way than as hallucinations, or as a doubling of the personality etc. This same mundus imaginalis is the “ground” for real events happening in the Malakut, in the world of the Angel who is so important to Suhravardi as well as to his French interpreter. Without the mundus imaginalis it is impossible to properly account for and do justice to the reality of the events surrounding the glorious return of the 12th Imâm, to the resurrections and the palingenesis to come. A most significant point of fact, since it is due to this mysterious figure, identified by many Shiite thinkers with the Johannite Paraclete that the “esoteric frameworks” of the gnoses belonging to the Religions of the Book are able to communicate with one another.
In the same breath this point serves as introduction to the theme upon which I would like to end this post-scriptum, that is, the emergence of a project that has been for me the spiritual blossoming of all my scientific work, as well as the ultimate accomplishment of a life-long dream. I’ve already recalled making my way within the Temple of the Saint-Sophia likening the latter to the Temple of the Holy Grail. But I have yet to mention the founding (in collaboration with several friends and university colleagues) of a “center of comparative spiritual research”. Since we were all university academics, we gave it the name of the “University of Saint-John-of-Jerusalem”. Its spirit : that of a spiritual chivalry best defined in the 14th century by Rulman Mershwin, when he gave the Green Island outpost to the Johannite Knights (those of the grand-priory of Brandenburg of the sovereign order of Saint-John-of-Jerusalem). For Rulman Merswin, as for the « Friends of God » of the era, spiritual chivalry designated a particular spiritual state that was « neither that of a cleric nor that of a layman ». As to the ultimate intention behind our centre? To create, in the spiritual city of Jerusalem, a common hearth (something that has not yet ever existed) for the study and the spiritual fructification of the gnoses common to all three great Abrahamic religions. In short, it is the idea of an Abrahamic oecumenism founded upon a sharing of the hidden treasures of the esoteric traditions, and not at all upon any diplomacy with regards to official relations between the external Orders.
To explain the inception of this enterprise, upon which I cannot hope to say all that is to be said here, I would need to evoke all the research, all the thinking and all the traditions that have finally converged in our concept of the University of Saint John of Jerusalem (juridically and conceptually independant of any and all Orders of the same name). I referred earlier to the case of Suhravardi: he did not content himself to deliberate upon the possible remnants of Iran’s Zoroastrian past, but took this past resolutely in charge, and in the same gesture opened its future before it. And this will or drive towards resurrection is in perfect harmony with Suhravardi’s thinking and with that of his followers. To whit, a philosophical quest that does not end in personal spiritual realization is a vain waste of time, and the search for mystical experience without first going by way of a serious and extensive philosophical education, has every chance of ending with the seeker lost in aberrations, illusions and errancies. This is essentially (at least for the life of the philosopher) the form taken by the idea we designate in Persian as javan Mardi and in Arabic as fotowwat, two terms that can be precisely translated as “spiritual chivalry” (see the French section of the Treaties of the Knight-Compagnons, Bibl. Iran. Vol 20, 1973). Indeed, I understand this term,“spiritual chivalry” (and all that it entails), as the very ground and origin of the powerful convergences that have imposed themselves upon me [thereby dictating the direction of the path I have chosen to follow over the course of a lifetime].
To map out the itinerary of these convergences would be essentially to show, within the esoteric horizons of the Religions of the Book, the passage from the heroic to the mystical epic ; the passage from military chivalry to mystical chivalry, or that which Islamic spirituality calls the passage from the minor jihad, (a combat with weapons in the external world), to the major jihad (a spiritual combat taking place in ther internal domain of each human being, but also in a supernatural domain of cosmic dimensions).
We can see this same passage being accomplished by Suhravardi and his followers, the inheritors of that Zoroastrian ethic of which it has been justly said (by Eugenio d’Ors) that it has its necessary end in the constitution of an Order of Chivalry. This passage is realized in Shiite Islam in the very concept of the “Friends of God” (in Arabic, Awliya Allah, in Persian Dustan-e Khoda). Furthermore we may draw a parallel between the idea of the companions of the Zoroastrian Saoshyant and that of the companions of the twelfth Shiite Imam. In short, we find expressed therein (in the terms of javanmardi and fotowwat) a manner of living proposed to each according to his or her state, for each state comports a “chivalry” appropriate to itself. We see this passage over to mystical chivalry accomplished in the 14th century in the West (I just mentioned it above), when Rulman Merswin (+1382) gave his outpost in the Green Isle into the keeping of the Johannite Knights thereby opening the spiritual path before them; a path, as it happens, profoundly connected to the mystic Johann Tauler. We even see the term “Friends of God” (Gottesfreunde) reappear. The idea of spiritual chivalry has also propagated itself through Rhenanian mysticism. The same passage occurs when the military order of the Knights Templars, then taking part in the crusades, become the mystical Order of Templars, Knights of the Holy Grail, in the Parsifal cycle of Wwolfram Von Eschenbach of the New Titurel. Finally, if those individuals who were gathered about the Prince Zorobabel and who were responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple were in fact the first Knights of the Temple, it is as a service of mystical chivalry that the Kabbalist cosmogony of Isaac Luria summons the “Sons of Light”, as they were summoned by the Essenian community in Qumrân, to a spiritual combat the idea of which has a clear and evident affinity with the cosmogony and ethic of Zoroastrianism, and does so even independently of any external filiation or influence, demonstrable or not.
That then, in broad strokes, is the sum of what we wished to signify by our concept of the University of Saint-John of Jerusalem (I have also sketched out an overview of this project at the end of tome IV of my work En Islam iranien, In Iranian Islam). Of course, we should not expect this Order of “spiritual chivalry” to be recognized alongside those Orders, both honorific and historical, that have been created over the course of the centuries by the great powers of this world. The very idea of such recognition would be derisory, for the state of spiritual chivalry is ordained in regions beyond those of this world, whereas the finality of worldly Orders inheres in the discourses pronounced at funerals. The Templars officially disappeared in an atrocious tragedy orchestrated by their enemies. But the idea behind the Order of the Knights Templars; as axis to an esoteric tradition prior even to the historical Order of the same name and perpetuating itself after the latter’s disappearance; this idea has never disappeared. No earthly power can stop a soul from acquiring for itself the spiritual ascendancy it chooses, and legitimating this ascendancy through the fidelity it entails. As Unamuno wrote, it is important to recognize “that the past is no more and that nothing exists in truth except that which acts. That a legend, as we call them, when it pushes human beings to veridical action, by firing their hearts or by consoling them with life, is a thousand times more real than the relation of some random act festering in the archives”.
That is why the only authentic orientation is that which takes the « inner Church » as its reference in the manner of such Christian theosophers as Eckhartshausen, in the 18th century. They themselves have used the same term that I myself have just pronounced, for it is nothing other than another name for that spirituality of the Temple common to the mystical theosophers of all three of the Abrahamic religions. This “inner Church” alone is the true abode of the spiritual chivalry ordained in the mystical Temple. It is the only “Church” that can fully provide the answers needed in our day. It is a “Church” that the esoteric code (ketmân) must preserve from profane variants and accommodations. It is only within the “inner Church” that we may envisage the strangely profound and incredible task imposed upon us in our day: in some manner to rediscover our God over and against God. But what does that mean?
Centuries of theological certitudes, dogmatic and peremptory, have confounded the universal Cause (the Supreme Principle, unknowable to human beings in their present condition) with the personal and personalized God. Laicized, these concepts have been converted into totalitarian ideologies. More than ever before the Grand Inquisitor reigns supreme. One of the reasons for this is that these theological concepts have gone hand in hand acting in concert with the scientific concepts of their times, whether it be with the certitudes of rational Logic or whether it be, when these certitudes have vacillated, with what we now call the human or social sciences. In this way the exoteric monotheistic religions have prepared that great Void in which the clamor “God is dead” now resonates. But which God ? Gnosis, whether it be that of a Valentine, or that of an Ibn ‘Arabi, or that of an Isaac Luria, has always guarded itself against this confusion between the supreme Cause and the personal God, for true Gnosis has never transgressed against the imperative of apophatic theology, nor has it ever lost track of the meaning of theophanies nor forgotten their necessity. To rediscover our God against God, is to rediscover that God whom you are answer for, it is to liberate our God from the functions that are not His; functions that (having once been mistakenly imputed to the concept of God) have permitted positive science to officially declare the latter’s death. The positive sciences, however, have no cure to offer. There can be no liberation for us if we do not ourselves liberate the God who is our companion in battle. To rediscover our God over and against the God of all the systems, all the dogmatics and the sociologists, is to experience the relationship whereby if our personal God makes us exist for him, He, for his part, can not exist without us. Our responsibility with respect to our own life and our own death makes us at one and the same time responsible with regard to the life and the death of our God. That He live or that He die postulates our own life or death; a life and a death that must not be understood here in their biological sense but in the Gnostic sense of the first Life, originating in the world of Light.
How better to suggest the incredibly profound engagement of the « spiritual knight » in search of his God, companion to those other companions on the same Quest ? In search of a God that is neither the Omnipotent nor the Final Judge, but the eternal Lover, tormented, anguished and disappointed, whose intimate presence is perceived by the Jewish mystics in the person of Yahveh. The personal God is not the “One” of arithmetic unity, but is the Unique of each unique (1x1x1…) He is the All in each. Each unique of which he is the Unique liberates him from solitude, in making him “one’s” own God. This is the profound meaning of the mystery of the “God of Gods” (Ilâh al-âliha), if I may be permitted to reiterate that originally Hermetic expression, of common usage among theosophers like Suhravardî. And it is the secret that all gnoses have approached, and perhaps above all, that of an Ibn ‘Arabi and of Ismailism.
This lends every urgency to a task that has hitherto barely been formulated let alone undertaken, since it postulates the existence of a « centre for comparative spiritual research ». The latter phrase, as it happens, is the formula by which we define the U.S.J.J. The urgent task I am referring to is the comparative study of the ta’wîl, that is to say the esoteric hermeneutic of the Book, professed and practiced within the “Religions of the Book”. The subtle convergent connection of the Image and the interior Idea, attested to by the esoteric hermeneuts of the Bible and the Koran, can often lead to the most strikingly dazzling of parallels. Admittedly, I am speaking here of an immense task necessitating the concourse of multiple competencies, and all the more so since we are referring to a hermeneutic not only professed as an article of belief but actively practiced. It is not a question of simple theoretical examination, but of lived consequences in each and every instance. That is why the University of Saint John of Jerusalem is not a simple “Philosophical Society”; nor is it, and even less so, a Faculty of Theology, elaborating and setting forth a program in the service of a dogmatic. Furthermore, to better indicate the difference involved here, each conference is to be followed by some measure of music, a citation intended to draw the listener into an immediate interiorization, seemingly much more appropriate to the underlying intentions of such a centre than applause might ever be. I have just indicated the guiding idea, but that said, each of the members of the fraternal group of the U.S.J.J. maintains his or her complete spiritual liberty. There are many nuanced distinctions between us, coming as we do from diverse origins by way of diverse itineraries. The deep bond that exists between us, however, is one of a common will and a common responsibility with regard to that which we have referred to above as the «inner Church».
Up to this point, five Volumes, counting some thousand pages, have collected the work of our annual sessions. Sciences both Traditional and Profane (1974). Jerusalem, the Spiritual City (1975). Prophetic Faith and the Sacred (1976). “Oriental” Pilgrims and “Occidental” Vagabonds (1977). Eyes of Flesh and Eyes of Fire, or Science and Gnosis (1978).
This last session has been particularly fruitful. It has permitted the dissipation of many an ambiguity concerning the concept of gnosis, either on the part of philosophers and historians --who by prejudice or for lack of information, make of gnosis that which it is not-- or on the part of self-proclaimed neo-Gnostic modern cosmogonies. Gnosis is neither an ideology, nor a branch of theoretical knowledge in contrast with faith. Salvific or salutary knowledge in and of itself, its very content addresses itself to a faith. It is wisdom as well as faith, Pistis Sophia. Nor is it limited to the Gnosticism of the first centuries: there is a Jewish gnosis, a Christian gnosis that has persisted down through the centuries, an Islamic gnosis, a Buddhist gnosis. Above all, Gnosis in no way merits the accusation of “nihilism”. A philosophy, however, that were to refuse both this world and the perspective of other worlds, would indeed be an instance of nihilism. But what does Gnosis have in common with such a philosophy?
I believe that what we have accomplished, through the devotion of a few friends to the same end, represents something rare in our country. It remains for the one who was this project’s originator to thank the Heavens for having sufficiently prolonged his days, so that this work could ripen to fruition and finally take its place inscribed here at the end of this post-scriptum. I have been the editor and translator of the incomparable mystic cantor of the high path of human love, Rûzbehân Baqlî of Shîrâz,. I can honestly say that without the presence and cooperation of my partner and companion upon this same high path, a companion who has preserved me from solitude and from discouragement, none of the work that I have here described would have been possible. And because this work was thus made possible, it in turn has made possible --after the desert-crossing of youth—the fulfilment of my wishes as a researcher and professor: for I find myself surrounded by young people, young philosophers (many of whom, particularly dear to me are present in this Cahier de l’Herne), whom I know will continue, in their own way, the work that I must perforce leave unfinished. I know that they will advance still further upon this path the fraying and opening of which has been my lifelong task. At the time of the summons, he who is thus fulfilled may say together with Simeon: Now, Lord, you allow your servant to go in peace” (Luke 2/29). Until then, “so long as day remains” (Gospel of John 9/4), stay at their side, upon the battlement where Destiny has placed you.

Henry Corbin
June 1978