Thursday, 6 April 2017

Henry Corbin - A Philosophy of the Imagination

A philosopher’s campaign must be led simultaneously on many fronts, so to speak, especially if the philosophy in question is not limited to the narrow rationalist definition that certain thinkers of our days have inherited from the philosophers of the “enlightenment”. Far from it! The philosopher’s investigations should encompass a wide enough field that the visionary philosophies of a Jacob Boehme, of an Ibn ‘Arabi, of a Swedenborg etc. can be set there together, in short that scriptural and visionary (imaginal) works may be accommodated as so many sources offered up to philosophical contemplation. Otherwise philosophia no longer has anything to do with Sophia. My education is originally philosophical, which is why, to all intents and purposes, I am neither a Germanist nor an Orientalist, but a Philosopher pursuing his Quest wherever the Spirit guides him. If it has guided me towards Freiburg, towards Teheran, towards Ispahan, for me the latter remain essentially “emblematic cities”, the symbols of a permanent voyage.

- Henry Corbin

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The author of these pages offered an introductory presentation on the life and work of Henry Corbin to the Bendigo Library 'Philosophy in the Library' series on Monday April 3rd. Being for the general public it was necessarily rudimentary and did not delve into the esoterica associated with Corbin's philosophy; with only an hour's speaking time and an audience entirely unfamiliar with the background to the subject it was only possible to present the basics. Hopefully, those in attendance might then go away and pursue the topic in greater depth for themselves. 

On this page - below - are the slides presented at the talk along with a few notes indicating what was covered.

First, a rudimentary account of the man himself; his birth in Paris, his education, the era in which he lived. 

Second, this revealing quote concerning his life's work. Massignon had given Corbin a copy of Suhrawadi's Philopsophy of Illumination and it made a profound impact upon him. Corbin determined to devote his life to the study and exposition of Suhrawadi. He recognized this as an aspect of Platonism. 

Further to the previous slide: Corbin as Platonist. This is the present writer's interest in Corbin. Others are drawn to Corbin for other reasons, but for the present writer Corbin is of great interest because he is a modern Platonist and opened a dimension of Platonism generally neglected in the West. 

At this point the talk concerned Corbin reconnecting Platonism with its ancient Persian roots. It was observed that the Persians had invaded the Greek world in the decades prior to the emergence of Plato. Indeed, Socrates himself had foiught against the Persians. We are all aware of the narrative that describes how brave little Athens took on and defeated the big bad Persian empire. And yet, throughout Plato, we have hints that there was more cross-fertilization between the Persians and the Greeks than we might otherwise think. Much of Plato's mathematics, for instance, has been traced to Persian origins. And here, in Corbin, we find that Platonism and many of its central tenets - the Theory of Forms, for instance - have a strong resemblance to aspects of ancient Persian theosophy. There is more Persian influence in Plato than we might have previously imagined. Corbin, the orientalist,  reconnected the Platonic tradition with its Persian roots, rediscovering, as it were, a "lost" branch of the Platonic tradition. This is one of the most important things about Monsieur Corbin. 

Next, we introduced Suhrawadi and the Illuminationist School. A brief account of the life of Suhrawadi.  A copy of the Philosophy of Illumination was passed around among the audience and it was observed that, rather than being a scintilating work of profound truths leaping from every page, it is largely an account of logical problems in philosophy and is a remarkably dry and unexciting text to most readers. 

Suhrawadi understood his mission as reviving the ancient (pre-Islamic) heritage of Persian theosophy.  He very consciously set out to revive ancient Persian philosophy. He understood Illuminationism to be a reworking of a pre-existing school of philosophy and not a new innovation. 

We can discern numerous threads to Suhrawadi's philosophy: Platonism, Zoroastrianism and, necessarily, Shi'ite Sufism. Living in a Shi'ite Islamic environment Suhrawadi was compelled to adapt his "renaissance of ancient Iranian wisdom" to Islamic orthodoxy. Even so, he was nevertheless executed as a heretic. 

The discussion then turned to a key aspect of Ishraqi metaphysics considered in Platonic terms. Ordinarily, Platonism is shaped in starkly dualist ways, particularly regarding FORMS and PARTICULARS. There is the idea of the chair, or chairness, and then there are particular instances of chair. Classically, Plato talks in terms of models and copies. In Ishraqi metaphysics, however, there is an intermediate realm between forms and particulars. Most of Corbin's work concerns this realm. It was noted that the nature and status of this intermediate or middle realm is a matter of controversy among Platonists and others. It is, though, the key to the "lost" branches of Persian Platonism Corbin discovered in Suhrawadi.

Expressed in religious terms, this intermediate realm is the realm of angels. Thus did Corbin's work concern Zoroastrian angelology. In Corbin's view, it is precisely this middle realm that has gone missing in modernity. A modern man might very well believe in God, but the same man will find it nearly impossible to believe in angels. The intermediate realm with which Ishraqi metaphysics is concerned is the angelic realm. Corbin is concerned to rediscover it. 

Traditional ontologies are heirarchial and typically describe extensive heirarchies of angelic beings and orders of angelic beings. This follows from an emanationist worldview. Again, Corbin believes that this is exactly what has gone missing in modernity. Our universe has shrunk, hardened and has become polarised into dualist metaphysical schemes. 

As well as the angelic orders, the intermediate realm also typically included a large array of other beings: fairies, elves, elementals, and so on. These are personifications of the intermediate realms of being. They have disappeared from the modern worldview, including modern spiritual worldviews. 

At this point in the talk we introduced Corbin's terminology for the intermediate realm - the IMAGINAL. He dubbed that realm the Mundus Imaginalis, the World of the Imaginal. 

As per Corbin himself, as soon as one mentions the term the 'imaginal' it becomes necessary to distinguish it from the imaginary. The imaginal is not the imaginary. This may be difficult for modern people to understand. Corbin insists that the imaginal is real - more real - than the physical realm. It is not in any sense merely 'subjective'. The distinction between the imaginal and the merely imaginary is very important. Corbin insists that there is an objective imaginal realm and that human beings have a corresponding faculty by which it can be known. This faculty is related to but not the same as what is commonly referred to as the 'imagination'. 

To understand the nature and status of the imaginal world - the intermediate realm - it is useful to consider the title of one of Monsieur Corbin's key works - Spiritual Body, Celestial Earth. This was discussed against typical Platonic categories. Ordinarily, the Platonist might say that "spiritual body" is a contradiction in terms. In the dialogue called the Phaedo, most famously, Socrates proposes that body and soul are utterly unalike. The body is finite, composite, unenduring, etc. The soul is quite the opposite. The Platonic tradition is replete with such dualities. The notion of 'spiritual body' defies such dualities. Similarly, the phrase 'celestial earth' defies the usual polarity of earth and heaven. How can there be a 'spiritual body'? How can there be a 'celestial earth'? In usual Platonic terms, it makes no sense. But again Corbin is intent on revealing a 'lost' branch of Platonic philosophy that acknowledges intermediate terms between such polarities. There are forms of bodies and bodies of forms. (The speaker noted here that classically trained Playonists of his acquaintance had been alarmed by this proposition and said, "It's interesting, but it's not Plato!")

The talk then disgressed to the question of whether this intermediate realm can be found in Plato's works. We noted that there is Socrates' account of the 'True Earth' in the Phaedo which seems to descibe such a realm. 

Furthermore, in Plato's cosmology as described in the Timaeus, there is an explicit account of how polar opposites must be bound together by middle terms. In this case, Plato talks about the four classical elements. All things, he says, consist of Fire and Earth (which are polar opposites), but Fire and Earth can only be bound together by means of Air and Water, the intermediate elements. This passage in the Timaeus could conceivably be interpreted as permitting the intermediate realms with which Corbin is concerned. 

And in fact, in traditional iconography, beings of the intermediate or imaginal realm - as Corbin describes it - are typically creatures of the Air and the Water. Such creatures very often have intermediate forms - the mermaid, for example, half human/half fish.  Such iconography depicts them as belonging to two realms at once - spiritual body/celestial earth. The imaginal realm is also often portrayed as having sunk into the waters (noting Plato's Atlantis myth). Or it is a world of the Air. Imaginal creatures typically sport wings, as do angels and fairies, or are creatures of the clouds. 

In Muhammadean mythology, the great imaginal event is the Night Journey of the Prophet. 

Similarly, imaginal or angelic texts are typically shown as encased in clouds. The symbolism of the element Air (and Water) are indicative of the imaginal. 

Pursuing this further, the talk then turned to the myth of the winged soul in Plato's dialogue the Phaedrus. The concern of the speaker here was to underline the fact that, despite the general tone of dualism in Plato, many passages in the Platonic corpus lend themselves to Corbinian interpretation. In the Phaedrus, for example, we have a famnous account of how the liberated soul grows wings. 

This account of the winged soul in Plato can then be matched to the symbol of the winged soul in Zoroastrianism. The so-called FARAVAHAR is emblematic of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. It refers to the notion of the Fravashi, the guardian angel. We pointed out that it was not that long ago that people had a notion of a 'Holy Guardian Angel' - an angelic being who is set over every incarnate soul. This is a key idea in Zoroastrian angelogy. Understood Platonically, the Guardian Angel is the Form of the soul. Is there a Form of Socrates?  The Form of Socrates is his 'Holy Guardian Angel' by other accounts.  The speaker drew attention to this order of ideas in the neo-Platonist Plotinus. 

At this point, after some discussion on the abnove matters, the speaker directed listeners to the work of Tom Cheetham as a useful introduction to Henry Corbin. Corbin's own writing is quite dry and scholarly. He is a painstaking textual scholar. For most people it is best to approach Corbin through a writer such as Tom Cheetham. A number of themes in Corbin will then open out from there: the monotheisms as an epic cycle, the twofold nature of revelation, the practices of the active imagination, amongst others. The talk then considered each of these themes briefly:

One of the distinguishing features of Corbin's work is that he sees the monotheist complex - Judaism/Christianity/Islam - as a single epic cycle (culminating in Shia esotericism!) Each revelation is twofold, having an inner and outer dimension. 

Turning to the Western tradition, one of the most interesting aspects of Corbin's work is his attention to the Grail cycle and the Arthurian romances, which he identifies as expressions of the imaginal in the Western Christian temperament. In the Corbinian perspective, the spiritual revival of the West depends upon renewed attention to the Grail legends. 

On the other hand, Corbin gave quite extraordinary attention to the life of work of Swedenborg and offered Swedenborg as an example of a proponent of the imaginal in the Western Tradition. (The speaker confessed that he did not share Corbin's enthusiasm for Swedenborg. One wonders why Corbin gave so much attention to Swedenborg and yet entirely neglected such thinkers as, say, William Blake, or, say, Rudolf Steiner.)

All the same, there are many examples of practices and techniques in the Western tradition - and others - that constitute a 'Via Imaginativa' - a path of the imaginal. There was a brief discussion of such methods. 

Finally, the speaker drew attention to the theme of the imaginal in European romanticism in general. There was, however, no time left to pursue this further. A brief question and answer session followed. Once again, it must be stressed that this was a very introductory account of Corbin, intended for the general public and for people with no background in the subject matter.



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