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Henry Corbin: About The Chivalric Service Of The Philosopher

‘Space and Time’,

a painting

by Bo Yin Ra


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an excerpt from Henri Corbin’s ‘Man & his Angel’, Fayard_1983 from which we shared already with: ‘Some Convergences Between The Johannite Tradition & The Isma’ili Tradition‘ and with ‘An invocation to Hermes’, The Idris/Henoch Of The Islamic Tradition‘. It is from the chapter, ‘Juvenility and Chivalry in Iranian Islam’, from page 247 to page 254. Our working English translation from the professor’s original French. Most of the important themes developed throughout his many works are here in this exemplary kernel of his idiosyncratic style and thought.


‘…In the first rank of these knights, those who are ‘the eyes through whom God still glances at the world‘, we will put, in harmony with our beloved authors, the ‘philosophers’. Let’s put aside the status of the philosopher in our contemporary universities! It is rather more about the ‘theosophos’, in the etymological sense of the word, ‘God’s wise-man’; it is him who participates in the very first row to this struggle. A great question was discussed throughout the centuries by scholastic philosophy, ‘how must we comprehend the union of the soul with acting Intelligence?’ It may very well be that this question appears to the ‘modern’ mind as an abstract problem, technical, remote. In fact, our philosophers identify acting Intelligence-notion they inherited from the Greek philosophers- with the Holy Ghost (in French: l’Esprit Saint), which means Angel Gabriel, who is at the same time the angel of knowledge & the angel of revelation. This identification heralds a common element between the vocation of the philosopher and the vocation of the prophet-element that places precisely both at the very first row of spiritual chivalry. In whatever manner we explain or we represent the ‘unio mystica‘ that happens between the human soul of the philosopher and acting Intelligence, it is thanks to this very acting Intelligence that the communication between the superior world of Malakut-the world of the Angel-and our world is maintained, and that Humanity still thrives in being, because whether it is conscious of it or not, it cannot survive without this communication. Hence it is this ‘unio mystica’ which defines the chivalric service of the philosopher as ‘God’s wise-man’, as ‘theosophos’; it is this service that makes him, the ‘javanmard‘, an exemplary spiritual knight. Such is the philosopher conceived by the ‘Ishraqiyun’, the theosophers of the Light, disciples of Suhrawardi, and with them all Shi’a theosophers.

And it seems that this topic is also in harmony with the deep thought of  the Jewish Qabbalists, that teach that ‘God needs that his presence (the Shekhina) dwells in the temple.’ It is this whole pathetic theme developed by our Jewish colleagues: the theme of the exile of the Shekhina. This theme, is it not resonating with the motive of the exile, of the expatriation, as a form of resistance to Ahriman? Let’s recall a famous hadith from Imam Ja’far that says: ‘Islam was initiated through expatriation and will come back expatriated, as in its beginning. Blessed be the expatriated!‘ Let’s recall also Suhrawardi’s ‘Recital of the Occidental Exile’. In order for God’s exile to cease, Man must exile himself from the world God is being exiled from. Which leads us to the extraordinary translation that one of the Qabbalist gave to Isaiah 63:9: ‘In all of their afflictions, it was Him (their God) who has been afflicted‘. I believe that everything that can suggest the concept or idea of the ‘javanmardi‘(the chivalric spirit) is found in this translation, even though it still gives some hard time to the philologists!

I will eagerly summon as relevant witness the direction followed by Iranian Philosophy for about four centuries. At its origin, one of its greatest master, Mulla Sadra, a.k.a. Ṣadr ad-Dīn Muḥammad Shīrāzī, (d.1640) from whom we owe a true metaphysical revolution: a metaphysic of being that scatters the age-old metaphysics of the essence to replace it with a metaphysics of ‘existing‘. It is the action and the degrees of existence that determine what is a being, its ‘quiddity‘ (Via-HYGEIA note: In scholastic philosophy, that which distinguishes a thing from other things, and makes it what it is, and not another; substantial form; nature), rather than adding to an immutable essence, once and for all  defined and indifferent to the act of existing or not. This metaphysics of being postulates the principle of intra-substancial movement; it introduces the idea of movement way-up into the very categories of substance itself. Mulla Sadra is the philosopher of metamorphosis, of transubstantiation & palingenesis. This metaphysics is also in solidarity to a whole metaphysics of Imagination, as active Imagination. Up until Mulla Sadra, almost everybody conceived imagination as an organic faculty bound to the physical body; but for him, active Imagination is a transcendental faculty, a spiritual faculty, which is not bound in any ways to the physical body, because it is in some way the ‘subtile body’, the vehicle of the soul. The soul does not even need the senses to manage the perceptions that are called ‘sensible’. It is, in fact, the Active Imagination that achieves them.

Briefly, there are three modes of existence at the respective level of three worlds. 1.There is the mode and the world of sensible existence, physical. 2.Then there is the mode and the world of the intelligible existence. 3. In between them, there is this world that we have already lost the trace in our western world, this intermediary world that i had to call ‘imaginal‘ to differentiate it from the ‘imaginary’. To the un-reality of the imaginary, the plenary reality of the imaginal substitute itself fully, the ‘mundus imaginalis’ or ‘alam al-mithal’. It is the ‘eight climate‘, the world of visions (familiar to Emanuel Swedenborg) and resurrections, where all flesh is ‘caro spiritualis‘, spiritual flesh. It is the challenge and the field of the struggle of the ‘javanmardan‘. An imaginal body, the ‘jism mithali’, is not an imaginary body; a subtile body is also not an un-real body. The body is not the antagonist, the antithesis of the spirit. The body can exist at the level of the sensible world, at the imaginal level, at the spiritual level, intelligible, and there is-pushing it a bit further-a possible divine body. Therefore, we see all the spiritualistic and materialistic dilemmas vanish away, spirit and body, in this metaphysics of transubstantiation and  metamorphosis. The idea is essentially linked to the idea of the Parousia (Via-HYGEIA note: the time of the Second Coming) of the XII th Imam and of the re-juvenation of the world. Because the possibility of this re-juvenation exactly presupposes a metaphysics such as Mulla Sadra’s.

We then see in what sense the philosopher, more exactly the ‘theosopher’, is truly the person who accomplishes by excellence the service of spiritual chivalry, the service of the ‘javanmard’. The philosopher-theosopher fulfils this service, because he is the one thanks to whom the spiritual universes are still relevant, which mean that are still prone to the ‘concern’ of humanity. Likewise, each prophet is called a ‘fata‘, a knight of faith and his struggle is a struggle of a knight of faith, likewise, without the prophetic philosophy of the philosophers, humanity would have definitively become death and blind, without the memory of its pre-existing being and would then be nothing but an amnesiac humanity. The loss of this inner vision and of the memory, is the achievement, the inversed ‘service’-satanical in nature-of our desecrated and secularized contemporary philosophy.

Being alien from contemporary philosophy, prophetic philosophy offers a common vocation to the philosopher and to the prophet, because it is the same ‘intellectus sanctus’ (Via-HYGEIA note: Sacred intellect), the same sacred intellect for both that the illumination of the angel of knowledge & revelation dispenses so fully that the philosopher finds himself at home in this imaginal world, this ‘mundus imaginalis’ that i mentioned earlier, which is the world of singular and concrete spiritual realities where the visions of the prophets unfold. What is truly sad in our western philosophy since Descartes, is that we have been left helpless in front of the dilemma of the ‘res extensa‘ (Wikipedia Note: ‘Res extensa’ is one of the two substances described by René Descartes in his Cartesian ontology, alongside res cogitans. Translated from Latin, “res extensa” means “extended and unthinking thing” while the latter is described as “a thinking and un-extended thing”.) and the ‘res cogitans‘(Wikipedia Note:  A thinking thing (as the mind or soul), and that we have therefore lost the sense of the concrete metaphysical level, of the world where are written the secrets of the worlds and the worlds-in-between, continuously present. If the philosophe of the prophetic philosophy does have access to it, together with the prophet, it is because in him the intellective and ima-ginative faculties are in communication through the same sacred intellect, the same ‘intellectus sanctus’. Then, the theosophical experience of the philosopher does note express itself only in a doctrinal manner. The doctrine becomes ‘event’ of the soul, a real event. The theosopher becomes the ‘javanmard’, the knight of the mystical epic, and with him metaphysics are transformed into a mystical epic. This is the very secret of the Persian mystical literature, this is exactly how we can understand the works of Suhrawardi whose mystical narrations are inscribed between vast epics, alike the works of Hakim Sana’i and those of Fariduddin Attar, master-pieces of universal literature, sadly little known until now in the West.


Shihab al-Din Abu al-Futuh Ahmad bin Habbash (Ya’ish) bin Amirak al-Suhrawardi al-Maqtuli (d. 1191-92); ‘Hikmat al-Ishraq’, copied by Shams bin Jamal al-Hatani, post-Seljuq Iran.

When Suhrawardi ‘brings home‘ the Hellenized magus in Islamic Persia, and inducts the ‘Greek prophets’, the Neoplatonists, into the ‘Alcove of Lights’ of prophecy, it is surely a knight’s service, worthy of a ‘javanmard’. Such was the plan he followed in a deliberate manner during the XII th century. The theosopher, therefore, has become the knight of a mystical epic, which is an assomption for Humanity, progressing towards its absolving origin, leaving like Abraham his birth place into the world of exile and expatriating-himself-out-of-exile. It is this very epic that a whole spiritual chivalry was summoned to, a chivalry of faith partaking into the Abrahamic tradition. There is a solidarity, a bound, between the path of the prophetical philosophy and the path of this mystical epic. From all of their inter-connections a spiritual knighthood is being born, rising to all the horizons of the ‘phenomenon of the holy Book’, and of which the divine service-thanks to it Humanity still strives in the realm of being-that can only be told through visionary narrations and epics of the soul, and not with general theories, even less with abstract ideologies!

This is why prophetic vision and mystical epics call for the very same hermeneutics than the hermeneutics of the traditions of the Book. It is in this manner we ought to read the whole Middle-Age Western mystical epic, which is the whole cycle of the Holy Grail, because it is only in this reading that our Grail epic will unlock its secret of spiritual chivalry. This is why also, this chivalry, whose realm has the Round Table as symbol, is an universal elite, that recruits as much within the ‘heathen‘ (word used by our old writers to designate Islam) world than within the Christian world. The realm that it typifies is a perfect realm, a ‘pleroma’. One enters it only by stripping oneself of all the attachements & ambitions of the profane world, and such is the meaning of the word ‘tajrid‘ in Sufi spirituality. The fraternal bonds that unites the companions elects them into a brotherhood that embodies the elite of Humanity, and in its hierarchy, as in its discriminations of its heroes, it recognizes itself through spiritual qualifications.

BNF Richelieu Manuscrits Français 116 Lancelot du Lac, France, Ahun, XVe siècle, Évrard d’Espinques et collaborateurs Quête du saint Graal, France, Ahun, XVe siècle.

When Wolfram von Eschenbach greets and hosts Islamic Chivalry, i believe that his inner path is symmetrical to the path of the mystical epic that allowed Suhrawardi to bring home and host in Islamic Persia the Hellenized Magus of Zoroastrian Persia and the heroes of the Avesta. In the whole range of the works of Wolfram the theme of the ‘Heathen’ chivalry-in clear: the Islamic Chivalry- is developed, equal in brightness and valor to the Christian chivalry, baptism aside. The best representative of this oriental chivalry, are also worthy of a seat at the Round Table. There are developments in Wolfram’s works that seem to have been neglected for far too long by the medievalists, and it is up to me-an orientalist-to regret it! I think also about Albrecht von Schafenberg’s lengthy epic, the new ‘Titurel’ (of which we owe a new version by Werner Wolf) as another similar example. In this epic the service of the knight is enhanced at the level of a sacramental action, alike the ‘javanmardi’, who in the trade guilds, enhance all of the actions of a trade at the level of liturgical actions-actions having a sacramental meaning, the ethics of the ‘javanmard’ leading to a sacralisation of all the actions and activities of life. This transfiguration, it is precisely the ‘javanmardi’, the chivalric spirit, that operates the re-juvanation of beings and things.’

‘The Green Knight’, by Dave McDonough, a.k.a. jackskelyton at Deviant Art.







More about Henry Corbin:🌿About Suhrawardi: 🌿More about Bo Yin Ra:
Henry Corbin: About The Chivalric Service Of The Philosopher

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