Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.
An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.
Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.
How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?
For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.
The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:
« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline! O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance! Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove With memories sleeping in this hair, I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii
From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:
« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii
There is also the metaphor of the waves:
« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!
You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream
Of sails, rowers, flames and masts : A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.
Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.
Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.
Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.
Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.
Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.
« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme Occident of desires to deploy it, Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem) Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…
The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii
The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.
In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix
However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.
In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x
In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi
The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».
In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.
For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii
The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.
« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii
Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.
« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv
John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :
« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi
But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?
« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii
And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?
« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii
God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix
The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.
But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?
« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi
But the case is more complicated than it seems.
The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:
« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »
The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».
In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.
The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».
This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »
If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.
The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.
So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?
The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »
The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.
Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?
In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.
Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».
In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:
viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».
ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9
x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4
xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)
Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.
Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?
According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.
Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii
Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).
Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x
Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.
Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.
But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.
Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.
We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.
This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii
The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.
But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?
What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.
« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii
The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.
But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?
That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.
Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv
Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.
« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv
Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi
If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:
« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii
Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii
The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »
This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.
To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.
i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.
iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.
iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12
ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.
vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».
viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2
In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:
« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i
Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.
According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.
In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».
Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:
« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii
The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?
« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii
The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.
These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.
We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.
But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?
Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv
In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.
« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.
If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v
The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.
For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.
Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».
Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?
In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:
The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:
« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »
The Jerusalem Bible gives :
« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »
Rachi comments on this verse as follows:
« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).
DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».
AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.
For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.
A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »
We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.
It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.
And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.
In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.
If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.
But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.
If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.
Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii
He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».
Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii
Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix
Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.
From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.
This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.
Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .
Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?
This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.
The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?
The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.
The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.
« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.
The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi
Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».
The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».
iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »
iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451
And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii
Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv
This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».
« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v
Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?
Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».
And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.
In Heavens ? But which one?
Augustine indeed distinguishes three different Heavens.vi
First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.
Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).
Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii
How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?
One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:
« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii
Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix
This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.
Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.
Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.
« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x
Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi
This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.
Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.
Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.
« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii
It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.
He became conscious only when the angel left him.
iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.
iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?
Kant thought about this interesting question.
« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i
For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.
Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.
But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?
Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?
« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii
These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.
A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.
The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.
But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.
« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi
The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.
A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.
Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?
In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.
Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.
R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii
His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii
And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.
« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.
– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.
– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.
– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix
At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…
« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x
From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.
The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi
In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :
« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii
That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.
Or was it just a parable?
Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?
Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?
iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
They all claim to bring « revelation », but no religion has ever presented total transparency, assumed full disclosure. Much of their foundation is shrouded in secrecy, and « the further back we go in religious history, the greater the role of secrecy”i .
But this secrecy should not be confused with mystery.
The mystery is deep, immense, alive.
The secret is useful and human. It is maintained on purpose, by the pythies, the shamans, the magi, the priests, the haruspices. It is used for control, it facilitates the construction of dogma, reinforces rites and the rigor of laws.
The mystery belongs to no one. It is not given to everyone to sense it, and even less to grasp its essence and nature.
The secret is put forward, proclaimed publicly, not in its content, but as a principle. It is therefore imposed on all and benefits a few.
To a certain extent, the secret is based (a little bit) on the existence of the mystery. One is the appearance of the reality of the other.
This is why the secret, through its signs, can sometimes nourish the sense of mystery, give it a presence.
The secret can remain such for a long time, but one day it is discovered for what it is, and we see that it was not much, in view of the mystery. Or, quite simply, it is lost forever, in indifference, without much damage to anyone.
The mystery, on the other hand, always stands back, or very much in the front, really elsewhere, absolutely other. It’s never finished with it.
Of the mystery what can we know?
A divine truth comes to be « revealed », but it also comes « veiled ».
« Truth did not come naked into the world, but it came dressed in symbols and images. The world will not receive it in any other way.”ii
Truth never comes « naked » into the world.
At least, that is what sarcastic, wily common sense guarantees.
God cannot be « seen », and even less « naked »…
« How could I believe in a supreme god who would enter a woman’s womb through her sexual organs […] without necessity? How could I believe in a living God who was born of a woman, without knowledge or intelligence, without distinguishing His right from His left, who defecates and urinates, sucks His mother’s breasts with hunger and thirst, and who, if His mother did not feed Him, would die of hunger like the rest of men?”iii
Rigorous reasoning. Realism of the details.
Yehoshua, the Messiah? « It is impossible for me to believe in his being the Messiah, for the prophecy says of the Messiah, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8). But Jesus had no reign at all; on the contrary, he was persecuted by his enemies and had to hide from them: in the end he fell into their hands and could not even preserve his own life. How could he have saved Israel? Even after his death he had no kingdom… At present, the servants of Muhammad, your enemies, have a power greater than yours. Moreover, prophecy foretells that in the time of the Messiah … ‘the knowledge of YHVH will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). From the time of Jesus until today, there have been many wars and the world has been full of oppression and ruin. As for Christians, they have shed more blood than the rest of the nations.”iv
In this affair, it seems, common sense, reason, truth, are on the side of the doubters. Two millennia of Christianity have not changed their minds, quite the contrary…
What is striking in this whole affair is its paradoxical, incredible, implausible side.
Philosophically, one could tentatively argue that there are « naked » truths that are, by that very fact, even more veiled. They are hidden in the plain sight.
But history teaches us over and over again that there are no « naked » truths, in fact, but only veiled ones.
« The ancient theory of Egypt’s secret religion, as found in Plutarch and Diodorus, Philo, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, and in Porphyry and Iamblichus, is based on the premise that truth is a secret in itself, and that it can only be grasped in this world through images, myths, allegories, and riddles.”v
This ancient conception probably dates back to the pre-dynastic period, and one can think that it goes back well before pre-history itself .
Since these immensely remote times, it has not ceased to influence the « first » religions, then the « historical » religions. Nor has it ceased to proliferate in Pythagorism, Platonism, Hermeticism or Gnosis.
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts still retain the memory of it. One of them, found in 1945, the Gospel of Philip, affirms that the world cannot receive truth otherwise than veiled by words, myths and images.
Words and images do not have the function of hiding the truth from the eyes of the unbelievers, the hardened, the blasphemers.
Words and images are themselves the very expression of the secret, the symbols of mystery.
Goethe summed up the ambivalence of the secret, both as concealment and as the manifestation of truth, in three words:
Secrets always end up being revealed, but then they only reveal the ’emptiness’ of their time, their era.
The mystery, for its part, never ceases to stay hidden.
Jan Assmann concluding his beautiful study on « Moses the Egyptian » with a provocative thought:
« At its apogee, the pagan religion did not hide a void in the mysteries, but the truth of the One God.”vii
A good example of that is Abraham himself coming all the way to pay tribute to Melchisedech, a non-Hebrew « priest of the Most High ».
Augustine connected all the ages of belief in one stroke:
« What today is called the Christian religion existed in antiquity, and from the origin of the human race until Christ became incarnate, and it was from him that the true religion that already existed began to be called Christian.”viii
Basically the idea is very simple. And very stimulating, in a way.
Truth always has been ‘true’, and always will be. Truth was ‘true’ from the beginning of the world, and even before the beginning of the world. Truth will still be »true in a hundred million or a hundred billion years, and even after the end of this (fleeting) universe.
The various words that tell the Truth, and the men who believe in it, such as Akhnaton, Melchisedech, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Plato, Yehoshua, are only themselves quite fleeting, but they serve It, according to their rank, and wisdom.
Truth is as ancient as the Ancient of Days; Truth is also very young, and just beginning to live again, everyday, in hidden, mysterious cradles.
The « realist » philosophers analyze the world as it is, or at least how it looks, or what they believe it to be. But they have nothing to say about how being came to be, or about the genesis of reality. They are also very short about the ultimate ends, whether there are any or none.
They are in no way capable of conceptualizing the world in its full potency. They have no idea how the universe emerged from nothingness in indistinct times, when nothing and no one had yet attained being, when nothing was yet « in act ».
Nor do they have any representation of this world (the planet Earth) a few hundred million years from now, which is not a large space of time, from a cosmological point of view.
My point is: if one takes the full measure of the impotence and pusillanimity of the “realist” philosophy, then our mind is suddenly freed, – freed from all the past web of philosophical tatters studded with limited thoughts, turning short, local truths, fleeting views, closed syllogisms.
Our mind is freed from all inherited constraints. Everything is yet to be thought, and discovered.
We should then exercise the highest faculty, that of imagination, that of dreaming and vision.
It is an incentive to get out of reason itself, not to abandon it, but to observe it from an external, detached, non-rational point of view. “Pure reason” is ill-equipped to judge itself, no matter what Kant thinks.
What can we see, then?
Firstly, reason is truly unable to admit that it is closed on itself, let alone willing to admit that it necessarily has an outside, that there is something out there that is inconceivable to reason.
The purest, most penetrating reason is still quite blind to anything that is not reasonable.
Reason sees nothing of the oceanic immensity of non-reason which surrounds it, exceeds it infinitely, and in which however reason bathes, as an ignorant, fragile, ephemeral bubble.
Reason has always been in a strong relationship with language. But we know quite well that the language is a rudimentary tool, a kind of badly cut, flimsy flint, producing from time to time some rare sparks…
Let’s try to show this flimsiness with an example, based on a simple but foundational sentence, like « God is one ».
Grammatically, this sentence is a flimsy oxymoron. It oozes inconsistency. It links a subject (« God ») and a predicate (« one ») with the help of the copula (« is »). But in the same time it separates (grammatically) the subject and the predicate. In the same time, it separates them (semantically) and then reunites them (grammatically) by the sole virtue of a copulative verb (« is »), which, by the way, exists only in some human languages, but remains unknown to the majority of them…
If truly, I mean grammatically, ‘God is one’, then it should be impossible to really separate the words ‘God’, ‘is’, or ‘one’. They would be just the same reality.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, there would only be a need for the word ‘God’, or if one prefers only for the word ‘one’, or only for the word ‘is’. Those words or ‘names’ imply just the same, unique reality. Moreover, after having stated this ‘unique reality’, one would remain (logically) short. What else could be added, without immediately contravening the ‘unitary’ dogma? If anything else could be added, it should be immediately engulfed into the “oneness” of the “being”. Or, if not, that would imply that something could “be” outside the “One and Unique Being”. Which is (grammatically) illogical.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then one must already count three verbal instances of His nature: the ‘name’ (God), the ‘essence’ (Being), the ‘nature’ (Oneness).
Three instances are already a crowd, in the context of the Unique One…
And no reason to stop there. This is why there are at least ten names of God in the Torah, and 99 names of Allah in Islam….
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then how can language itself could dare to stand as overhanging, outside of the ‘oneness’ of God, outside of His essential ‘unity’?
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then shouldn’t the language itself necessarily be one with Him, and made of His pure substance?
Some theologians have seen this difficulty perfectly well. So they have proposed a slightly modified formula: « God is one, but not according to unity.”
This clever attempt doesn’t actually solve anything.
They are just words added to words. This proliferation, this multiplicity (of words) is not really a good omen of their supposed ability to capture the essence of the One… Language, definitely, has untimely bursts, uncontrolled (but revealing) inner contradictions… Language is a mystery that only really take flight, like the bird of Minerva (the Hegelian owl), at dusk, when all the weak, flashy and illusory lights of reason are put under the bushel.
Here is another example of reason overcome by the proper power of language.
The great and famous Maimonides, a specialist in halakha, and very little suspect of effrontery in regard to the Law, surprised more than one commentator by admitting that the reason for the use of wine in the liturgy, or the function of the breads on display in the Temple, were completely beyond his comprehension.
He underlined that he had tried for a long time to search for some « virtual reasons »i to use wine and bread for religious purpose, to no avail. This strange expression (« virtual reasons ») seems to vindicate that, for Maimonides, there are in the commandments of the Law « provisions of detail whose reason cannot be indicated », and « that he who thinks that these details can be motivated is as far from the truth as he who believes that the general precept is of no real use »ii.
Which leaves us with yet another bunch of mysteries to tackle with.
Maimonides, a renowned expert of halakha in the 11th century A.D., candidly admitted that he did not understand the reason for the presence of bread and wine in Jewish liturgy, and particularly their presence in the premises of the Temple of Jerusalem.
It is then perhaps up to the poet, or the dreamer, or the anthropologist, to try to guess by analogy, or by anagogy, some possible « virtual reasons » for this religious use of bread and wine?
Maybe the bread and wine do belong to the depths of the collective inconscious, and for that reason are loaded with numinous potency?
Or, maybe Maimonides just would not want to see the obvious link with what had happened, more that a millennium before his time, in Jerusalem, during the Last Supper?
Whatever the answer, the question remains: why bread and wine, if “God is One”?
iMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. The translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609, gives here : « raisons virtuelles ».
iiMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. Translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609 sq.
In ancient Greek dictionaries, just right after the name Orpheus, one may find the word orphne (ὄρφνη), « darkness ». From a semantic point of view, orphne can be applied to the underworld, the « dark » world. Orpheus, also descended into the Underworld, and was plunged into orphne.
Orpheus was « orphic » par excellence. He sought revelation. He ventured without hesitation into the lair of death, and he came out of it alive – not without the fundamental failure that we know well. But later, the shadows caught up with him. A screaming pack of Thracian women tore him apart, member to member.
Only his severed head escaped the furious melee, rolled ashore. The waves swept him across the sea, and Orpheus‘ head was still singing.
He had defeated death, and passed over the sea.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes the search for the true Life, the one that lies beyond the realm of Death.
The philosopher Empedocles testifies to the same dream: « For I was once a boy and a girl, and a plant and a bird and a fish that found its way out of the sea.”1
In tablets dating from the 6th century BC, found in Olbia, north of the Black Sea, several characteristic expressions of Orphism, such as bios-thanatos-bios, have been deciphered. This triad, bios-thanatos-bios, « life-death-life », is at the center of orphism.
Orpheus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, chose, contrary to the latter, to live outside of « politics ». He refused the « city » and its system of values. He turned towards the elsewhere, the beyond. « The Orphics are marginal, wanderers and especially ‘renouncers‘ », explains Marcel Detiennei.
Aristophanes stated that the teaching of Orpheus rested on two points: not making blood flow, and discovering »initiation ».
The Greek word for initiation to the Mysteries is teletè (τελετή). This word is related to telos, « completion, term, realization ». But teletè has a very precise meaning in the context of Orphism. Among the Orphic mysteries, perhaps the most important is that of the killing of the god-child, Dionysus, devoured by the Titans, – except for his heart, swallowed by Zeus, becoming the germ of his rebirth within the divine body.
Several interpretations circulate. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus entrusted Apollo with the task of collecting and burying the scattered pieces of Dionysus’ corpse on Mount Parnassus.
According to the neo-Platonic gnosis, the Mysteries refer to the recomposition, the reunification of the dismembered body of God.
The death of Orpheus is mysteriously analogous to the more original death of the god Dionysus, which probably derives from much older traditions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped Osiris, who was also torn to pieces, scattered throughout Egypt, and finally resurrected.
For the comparatist, it is difficult to resist yet another analogy, that of the sharing of Christ’s « body » and « blood, » which his disciples « ate » and « drank » at the Last Supper just before his death. A scene that has been repeated in every Mass since then, at the time of « communion ».
There is a significant difference, however, between the death of Christ and that of Osiris, Dionysus or Orpheus. Contrary to the custom that governed the fate of those condemned to death, the body of Christ on the cross was not « broken » or « dismembered, » but only pierced with a spear. The preservation of the unity of his body had been foretold by the Scriptures (« He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken », Psalm 34:20).
No physical dispersion of the body of Christ at his death, but a symbolic sharing at Communion, like that of the bread and wine, metaphors of flesh and blood, presented at the Last Supper, symbols of a unity, essentially indivisible, universally shareable.
This makes all the more salient the search for the divine unity apparently lost by Osiris or Dionysus, but found again thanks to the analogous care of Isis, Zeus, or Apollo.
Beyond the incommensurable divergences, a paradigm common to the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece and to Christianity emerges.
The God, one in essence, is dismembered, dispersed, really or symbolically, and then, by one means or another, finds Himself unified again.
One, divided, multiplied, dispersed, and again One.
Again One, after having been scattered throughout the worlds.
So many worlds: so many infinitesimal shards within the divine unity.
« Modern atheism is dying a beautiful death » and « modern nihilism » will soon, too, « lose the game », Philippe Nemoi wants to believe. The good news, he prophesies, is that as a consequence, a period of glory will open up for new ideals, with infinite possibilities for the development of the human adventure, on the way to the highest destinies…
Quite a radiant perspective…
But « modern atheism » and « modern nihilism » actually do resist very much. They have occupied the front stage in the West during the last two centuries.
Only two centuries, one may ask? …. Is atheism a « modern » specialty?
When it comes to anthropology, nothing beats the measure of millenia.
Traces of religious practices dating from 800,000 years ago have been found in the excavations at Chou-Kou-Tien (Zhoukoudian 周口店 ). Eight thousand centuries ago, then, so-called « Peking Man, » or « Sinanthrope, » painted red carefully prepared human skulls and placed them in a composed circle for ceremonial purposes. To evoke what? For what purpose? For what sort of Deity?
Almost a million years ago, hominids in the Beijing area could probably answer these questions in their own way, and not necessarily confusedly, but we actually know next to nothing of their understanding of the world.
We only can infer from the clues left behind that death was certainly a profound mystery to them.
Analogous questions will no doubt still arise for future anthropologists, who will analyze the few remains of our own “civilization”, that may still be accessible in a million years from now, preserved in a some deep geological layers… Future anthropology, assuming that such a discipline will then still make sense, will perhaps try to infer from the traces of many future, successively « modern » civilizations yet to appear, the role of « atheism », « nihilism » and religious « creeds », throughout millenia?
I find it is a stimulating thought experience. It is necessary to try to project oneself into the distant future, while at the same time connecting through a reflexive and memorial line to the still accessible depths of the paleontological past. In order to test our capacity to represent the ‘human phenomenon’, we can try to draw a perspective on the history of religious feeling (or absence thereof), to gauge its essence, to understand its nature and foundation.
Some provisional lessons can already be drawn. Let us listen to Benjamin Constant: « The time when religious feeling disappears from the souls of men is always close to that of their enslavement. Religious peoples may have been slaves; but no irreligious people remained free.”ii
Benjamin Constant was without illusion about human nature. « India, Ethiopia, Egypt, show us the humankind enslaved, decimated, and, so to speak, confined by priests.”iii The priests of antiquity were « condemned to imposture », by their very functions, which involved constant communication with the gods, with oracles to be rendered, – the correctness of which could be easily checked afterwards, not to mention the wonders, miracles and other revelations. Fraud must have been, one can imagine, a permanent temptation, if not a vital necessity.
Regardless of past and future (religious) frauds and impostures, the most significant question that men of all times have asked themselves and will ask themselves remains that of the meaning of life, for a man confronted with the mystery of an assured death, after a rather short life.
Hence this quite logical (and cynical) statement:
« To defend freedom, one must know how to immolate one’s life, and what is there more than life for those who see beyond it only nothingness? Also when despotism meets with the absence of religious sentiment, the human species prostrates itself in dust, wherever force is deployed.”iv
Absurd, useless, inessential lives and deaths, crushed by despotism, pose a question to which neither atheism nor nihilism can provide the slightest answer.
Perhaps « atheism » is already « dying its beautiful death », if we are to believe Nemo.
This does not mean that from this death will arise some « theism » ready to live a new life.
The mystery cannot be solved by such elementary, simplified qualifiers.
In a million years, it is a good bet that all our « philosophies », all our « religions », will appear only just as some sort of red skulls, arranged in forgotten circles.
iPhilippe Nemo. La belle mort de l’athéisme moderne. 2012
iiBenjamin Constant. De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. 1831
In India at the end of the 19th century, some Indian intellectuals wanted to better understand the culture of England, the country that had colonized them. For instance, D.K. Gokhale took it as a duty to memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walter Scott’s Rokeby, and the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright.
However, he was quite surprised by the spiritual emptiness of these texts, seemingly representative of the « culture » of the occupying power.
Perhaps he should have read Dante, Master Eckhart, Juan de la Cruz, or Pascal instead, to get a broader view of Europe’s capabilities in matters of spirituality?
In any case, Gokhale, tired of so much superficiality, decided to return to his Vedic roots. Striving to show the world what India had to offer, he translated Taittirīya-Upaniṣad into English with the famous commentary from Śaṃkara.
At the time of Śaṃkara, in the 8th century AD, the Veda was not yet preserved in written form. But for five thousand years already, it had been transmitted orally through the Indian souls, from age to age, with extraordinary fidelity.i
The Veda heritage had lived on in the brains of priests, during five millenia, generation after generation. Yet it was never communicated in public, except very partially, selectively, in the form of short fragments recited during sacrifices. The integral Veda existed only in oral form, kept in private memories.
Never before the (rather late) time of Śaṃkara had the Veda been presented in writing, and as a whole, in its entirety.
During the millenia when the Veda was only conserved orally, it would have been necessary to assemble many priests, of various origins, just to recite a complete version of it, because the whole Veda was divided into distinct parts, of which various families of Brahmins had the exclusive responsibility.
The complete recitation of the hymns would have taken days and days. Even then, their chanting would not have allowed a synoptic representation of the Veda.
Certainly, the Veda was not a « Book ». It was a living assembly of words.
At the time the Taittirīya-Upaniṣad was composed, the Indo-Gangetic region had cultural areas with a different approach to the sacred « word » of Veda.
In the Indus basin, the Vedic religion has always affirmed itself as a religion of the « Word ». Vāc (the Sanskrit word for « Word ») is a vedic Divinity. Vāc breathes its Breath into the Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is entirely, essentially, Vāc, — « Word ».
But in the eastern region, in Magadha and Bihar, south of the Ganges, the Deity remains ‘silent’.
Moreover, in northeast India, Buddhism, born in the 6th century B.C., is concerned only with meaning, and feels no need to divinize the « Word ».
These very different attitudes can be compared, it seems to me, to the way in which the so-called « religions of the Book » also deal with the « Word ».
The « word » of the Torah is swarming, bushy, contradictory. It requires, as history has shown, generations of rabbis, commentators and Talmudists to search for all its possible meanings, in the permanent feeling of the incompleteness of its ultimate understanding. Interpretation has no end, and cannot have an end.
The Christian Gospels also have their variations and their obscurities. They were composed some time after the events they recount, by four very different men, of different culture and origin: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As human works, the Gospels have not been « revealed » by God, but only « written » by men, who were also witnesses. In contrast, at least if we follow the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been (supposedly) directly revealed to Moses by God Himself.
For Christianity, the « Word » is then not « incarnated » in a « Book » (the Gospels). The « Word » is incarnated in Jesus.
Islam respects the very letter of the Qur’an, « uncreated », fully « descended » into the ear of the Prophet. Illiterate, Muhammad, however, was its faithful mediator, transmitting the words of the angel of God, spoken in Arabic, to those of his disciples who were able to note them down.
Let us summarize. For some, the « Word » is Silence, or Breath, or Sacrifice. For others, the « Word » is Law. For others, the « Word » is Christ. For others, the « Word » is a ‘Descent‘.
How can such variations be explained? National « Genius »? Historical and cultural circumstances? Chances of the times?
Perhaps one day, in a world where culture and « religion » will have become truly global, and where the mind will have reached a very high level of consciousness, in the majority of humans, the « Word » will present itself in still other forms, in still other appearances?
For the moment, let us jealously preserve the magic and power of the vast, rich and diverse religious heritage, coming from East and West.
Let us consider its fundamental elevation, its common aspiration, and let us really begin its churning.
i Cf. Lokamanya Bâl Gangâdhar Tilak, Orion ou Recherche sur l’antiquité des Védas, French translation by Claire et Jean Rémy, éditions Edidit & Archè, Milan et Paris, 1989
Five centuries after Luther, some followers of the Reformed religion were able to affirm without blinking an eye that it is the modern religion par excellence and that it even embodies the « legitimacy of modern times ».i As for other religions, according to them, they « flee » the world and reality. ii
These rather arrogant statements may be, in fact, symptoms of the changing world at work. If thousand-year-old religions seem to be « fleeing » modernity, with some level of credibility, how can we not see this as a sign of the coming catastrophe?
The era of the post-human has been announced. Everything is possible, once again, now that modernity has definitively freed itself from pre-modern thoughts. We must prepare ourselves for a new great leap forward.
In order to understand what kind of leap the Reformation implied, it is necessary to recall its foundations, laid when modernity emerged from the Middle Ages.
The Reformation suddenly and strongly called into question a world order that had prevailed until then. The effects were considerable. It changed the religious and political map. It encouraged the development of science and technology. It was even instrumental in the rise of capitalism – and the « disenchantment » of the world.
This legacy is appreciable.
Protestantism also has been generously credited with the liberation of consciousness and the birth of the rights of the individual. This is an interesting paradox for a religion whose fundamental dogma absolutely denies free will, and whose founders advocated the enslavement of men to a predestination decided from all eternity.
But, in a sense, this apparent contradiction sums up the essence of modernity, and the whole post-modern agenda.
The other principles of the Reformation seem to explain its historical success. They have the merit of simplicity: the sovereign authority of the Bible and salvation by grace.
Luther specified them in his famous sola.
–Sola Scriptura (« the Scriptures alone »): Canonical texts are the only infallible sources of faith and religious practice. There is no recognized authority for the interpretation of the texts. Exegesis is free, individual. The believer, with an unshakeable faith, is alone in front of the text. Extreme individualism is justified.
–Sola Fide (« Faith alone »): Faith is everything, and works are nothing. The Law can only bring about the Fall. By it, all are condemned. Only faith can save. Human merit can do nothing. Human reason is powerless to grasp an unintelligible God. Luther said it was the « bride of Satan », the « Prostitute ».
–Sola Gratia (« Grace alone »). God chooses a few souls, and to them alone He gives His grace. Luther and Calvin borrowed this idea from St. Paul. There are very few « chosen ones », and the « rest » of humanity is condemned from all eternity to its doom. This theory of Predestination is considered the essential doctrine of Protestantism. iii
The Scriptures alone: the individual is isolated from any communal tradition, and sent back to himself. Faith alone: it is separated from reason. Grace alone: everything, everyone is determined. There is no free will.
These inaugural cuts were later secularized and mundanized. Nowadays, the cult of the individual, the hatred of the common (or, in the speaking of running neo-liberal slogans, the hate of any sort of ‘socialist’ or ´communist’ ideals) , but also the nominalist passion, the deterministic yoke, all bear witness to this.
The sola have five centuries of existence. But they themselves take their sources from very ancient theological disputes. And they now deeply (and paradoxically) imbue a « modern » society that is more and more dechristianized, paganized and disenchanted. They sum up the modern agenda surprisingly well: individualism, nominalism, determinism. Post-modernity will no doubt take on the task of pushing this program ever further. And quite possibly to the extreme and perhaps to the absurd.
Paradoxes and contradictions abound. Predestination, a Pauline and Calvinist idea, analogous to the ancient and pagan fatum, is clearly opposed to the ideas of freedom, will and personal responsibility. It is therefore surprising that this idea of predestination (secularized as determinism) has been able to permeate all modernity. Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Einstein took it up and adapted it, each in his own way.
The rhetorical form of the « sola« , their sharpness, their brittleness, their bleeding edge, must be emphasized. They affirm the « absoluteness » of faith and grace and of the « manifest destiny » of the chosen one,. But as a direct consequence, humanity as a whole is also deemed a « mass of perdition », the (Catholic) Church is judged « satanic », reason seems « diabolical », and free will simply does not exist. All this is not very cheerful. But for those who believe they are on the right side, who will make it, what a triumph!
Max Weber famously explained the link between Protestantism and capitalism, hard work and accumulation. One should now go even further, and also consider its links with the deep economic, social and political decomposition of the « living together », the dissolution of the « glue of the world ».
The pre-eminence of the « chosen one » over the « rest » of humanity justifies everywhere the war of each one against each one, an exacerbated individualism, and propagates hatred of the common. What does the ideology of grace and election imply politically in an overpopulated, compressed planet dominated by structural, systemic injustices? Isn’t the image of the chosen few, hermetically sealing off the world ghetto, the prodrome of a possible final catastrophe?
The dissociation of faith and reason has favored nominalism and anti-rationalism. But after the humiliation of reason, its negation, what can we expect from faith deprived of reason, if not barbarism?
The negation of free will has led to the theological and philosophical justification of determinism, with its innumerable political, economic and social translations. Universal enslavement is on the march – for whose benefit?
It has been written that the doctrine of the Reformer was « childish » iv. The sola can easily be summed up: the individual is ‘separated’, reason is ‘discarded’, freedom is ‘alienated’. Only the « Chosen one », the Faith and the Law remain, — but « alone ».
From this initial base of beliefs, Protestantism developed several variations, not without contradictions.
For example, the Lutheran saint turns away from politics, abandons the kingdom of the earth. On the contrary, the Calvinist ‘chosen one’ seizes the world to transform it. v
Lutheran piety favors the purely interior feeling. Calvinist religiosity is opposed to this quietist flight from the world, and requires engagement, action. vi
Calvin believes that the ´works´ remain a sign of the election. Luther rejects them as a curse.
These differences explain divergent historical destinies: Lutheranism remained confined to Northern Europe, and Calvinism was to be « globalized ». vii
They also reflect the structural problem of Protestantism: how to reconcile the freedom of individual conscience with the demands of community life? How to build a community of belief if the interpretation of the texts is free?
This contradiction was underlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two fundamental points of the Reformation (the Bible, the only rule of belief, and the believer, the only interpreter of the meaning of the Bible), imply that the Reformed Church cannot have « any profession of faith that is precise, articulated, and common to all its members ». viii
Protestant culture, critical and individualistic, was defined from the outset by an ideal of autonomy and inner freedom, regardless of the weight of the dogma of predestination. Having abolished all authority imposed from outside, the culture of intimate conviction is based on the exercise of personal judgment. The argument of authority being rejected, one must turn to one’s own resources. The soul, alone, seeks its way with the help of its own lights.
This is a strong encouragement for critical exercise. Hence, also, the potential for social or political questioning.
The culture of individualism can lead to a general relativism. The moral segregation of the « chosen » and the « fallen », like all « apartheid », also carries the seeds of decomposition and social fragmentation.
Individualism is not a modern invention. But Protestantism added a radical, metaphysical dimension to it. Salvation depends on an incomprehensible God, who grants his grace without reason. Predestination, assigned from all eternity, is equivalent to establishing an absolute difference between people. Salvation has been given to the chosen few, and to the vast majority of the fallen, has been given the Fall. There is such a difference in destiny between them that it amounts to a difference in nature. Their common humanity itself radically separates them: for some it is a source of divine election and dilection, for others of eternal punishment and damnation.
This metaphysical apartheid is so despairing that it implies social, economic, political, cultural, psychological effects. In several countries of Protestant culture, poverty or social exclusion are considered as the consequence of a moral defect, or even as the visible punishment of an invisible degeneration, willed by God. For Calvin, poverty is a sin, damaging to the glory of God. He had forbidden begging, whereas the Middle Ages had tolerated it, and even exalted it with Francis of Assisi and the mendicant orders. The harshness of English legislation on assistance to the destitute was influenced by this asceticism indifferent to the misfortunes of the world. Michaël Walzerix notes in Calvin, as in English puritan literature, the frequency of warnings aboutmutual aid and human friendship. It is recommended not to trust anyone. The Puritan should only be concerned with his personal salvation. And he has only one possible confidant: God himself.
The certainty of the « chosen ones » to be saved, their metaphysical optimism, are powerful levers for action.
The « saints » believe that the planet, and the entire universe, are offered to them, that they are « manifestly » to be taken, for the greater glory of God, for example by means of force, in the service of highly militarized states. This state of mind also favors the development of capitalism, in its most inegalitarian forms.
A military-industrial economy, an encouragement to grow at all costs, at the expense of the rest of the world, are all assets in the confrontation of the « saints » with a fallen world.
There is no room for the idea of equality in this system. It is God who willed an ontological, metaphysical inequality between the « saints » and the « rest ».
The divine plan includes all individual and collective misfortunes. However unjustifiable they may be to human eyes, misfortunes are part of this divine plan, and they are somehow mysteriously necessary for the election of the few predestined.
Several remarkable psychological consequences can be deduced from this.
The « chosen ones » must believe without fail in their own predestination, they must display unshakeable trust and resolve.
There is no room for doubt. The constant dread of decay and doom provokes in return a need for external signs, for concrete proof of the election. One of the best possible proofs of this election is, for example, to be able to declare war on the rest of the world, and to win it. In such a disposition of mind, how can one avoid Manichaeism, arrogance, contempt?
The « chosen ones » may have a tactical advantage in overlooking the immense distance that separates them from the « fallen ». Hypocrisy and double talk are however recommended. The real thoughts of the « saints » and the opinion of the « chosen ones » about the « fallen » are not publicly avowable. They must hide their contempt and disgust from those whom they think are destined for damnation. What would happen if, crushed with contempt, and lost for lost, the « fallen » revolted?
It is very logical that a religion of election, individualistic and nominalist, propagates hatred of the universal, the general and the common, which are all negations of the gratuitous and inexplicable character of the singular, the particular and the unique. When God has « spoken », when He has « decided » and « chosen », who will dare to evoke reason, justice or equity, to dare contradict ´God´s will´? There is no room for universal salvation before singular grace.
To understand how such radical, astounding, incredible ideas actually arose in the Europe of Erasmus and the Renaissance, one must turn to one of its main ideologues, John Calvin.
For Calvinx, the human heart is completely wretched. Everything in man is unclean. His soul is an abyss, a cavern of garbage and « stench ». Human nature loves evil, and enjoys multiplying it. Man is perverse. Left to himself he is like a beast. All his desires are vicious, defiled, corrupt. Man is nothing but rottenness, and the devil reigns over the world.
There is no recourse to this rot and corruption. Man is lonely and powerless. The world and human society are of no help to him. Decline is irremediable. Whatever he does, whatever his actions, he is damnable. His fate is death and nothingness.
There is, however, a tiny hope. Strangely enough, God wants a few men, rare exceptions, to escape from nothingness.
But a fearsome enemy lies in wait: the devil, who tries to deceive man by imitating God. Hence a perpetual war. The life of the « saint » is a permanent, military combat. To counter the devil, he can resort to violence and war.
If the « saint » loses the battle, God’s punishment awaits: eternal fire and the swarming of worms that gnaw at his heart.
As for the Gnostics and Manicheans, the Calvinist « devil » also embodies the permanent, irremediable cut that separates man from God.
Calvin feels particularly this impenetrability of God, His absolute mystery, His infinite distance from mankind. He makes it a key element of his system. And if Calvin calls himself anti-Manichean like his master, Augustine, he, like him, displays deeply Manichean traits in the very structure of his thought.
Calvin denies Manichean dualism and reaffirms the unity and transcendence of God. But by lowering man and creation to nothingness and pleading the absolute decay of human nature, he recreates a kind of metaphysical dualism between the nature of the One, who is everything, and the nature of creatures, who are nothing. Man has absolutely nothing to do with God. There is no portion of divinity in him, not the slightest spark. The gulf between them is immeasurable. The anguish of such an annihilation is inextinguishable.
Calvin never dreamed of an impossible reconciliation with a « good » God. It is necessary to be content with humble and submissive obedience, to subdue the « vain swelling » of men, to bring down their arrogance.
Only in humility can man understand his nakedness and ignominy. It is necessary to renounce all presumption, however small it may be, and decisively lose all self-confidence. All men are useless. « Their gullet is like an open sepulchre » xi.
The thesis of man’s decay is central, massive. Fallen, man is always alone. He is cut off from God, and he is isolated on earth. After the Fall, he has become an essentially perverse, asocial being. There is nothing to expect from society. Particular vices invariably lead to public error. People are stupid. The whole human race is condemned.
The only exceptions are the few « saints » who have abolished everything in them that is of common nature. For if nature is ´common´, grace absolutely is not.
God separates those He has chosen. He uses the Law as a « wall ». He sets them apart from one another. Calvin reminds us that God did not hesitate to cut off from Israel a multitude of the fallen. This sharp and tough God can go to extremes. Elijah was left alone, after the entire people had been condemned.
The new Law separates « saints » from the fallen, just as the old Law separated Jews from Gentiles. For Calvin, this law is a law of general, absolute exclusion. It separates the chosen few from the rest of the world, but also the chosen ones from each other. All remain irremediably alone.
This general solitude implies a rigorous, assumed individualism. The righteous suffer alone, but it is for his/her own salvation.
The « saint », separated from men, remains a stranger in the world. He/she also remains separated from God. Without reference points, without support of any kind, he/she has no other sign than his/her faith alone.
There is no question of believing that the benefit of grace can be universal, under the pretext that God’s promises are addressed to all and that He is the common father of men. We must harshly castigate the error of those who, using the generality of the (biblical) promises as a pretext, would like to « level the whole human race« .
Yet, it is true that Luke affirmed that salvation is for the whole human race. Could it be possible that the new covenant concerns the whole world? No! The number of the chosen ones is very small, it is infinitesimal. It is God’s hidden treasure.
Decay has an absolute meaning, and it affects the vast majority of creatures. The reprobates are all destined for a total, abyssal nothingness.
God, a loving father, protects the interests of His only children, the « saints », and He is careful to rigorously exclude the « rest », the scum. To a few, all mercy, and grace, to all others all punishment, and doom. Calvin admits that it is « strange » that everything is given or taken away so absolutely. He recognizes the incomprehensible nature of this arbitrariness.
To those who object that the « cruelty » of exclusion is incompatible with God’s mercy, Calvin responds that it is not God who refuses forgiveness. It is sinners who do not ask for it – but he adds that they do not ask for it because God has blinded them .
Calvin has no problem with so few chosen ones in the face of so many fallen. But we must remain cautious. If the ontological fracture between the chosen ones and the fallen were to become known, assumed, claimed, it would obviously bring about atrocious, immense, irreconcilable violence. In such a case, the elected representatives would have to assume the monopoly of a just war and fight against the rest of the world. It is better to keep this burning issue under wraps as long as possible.
The chosen few are neither better nor worse than the fallen, – according to the judgment of men. But they are chosen for other, hidden reasons. It must be concluded that there can be no « common good ». In the face of such inequality of nature and grace, it makes no sense to speak of the good of society as a whole, let alone the good of humanity as a whole. There is no real good other than the good of the chosen ones. The only « common good » is the good of the chosen ones alone, and it consists in the union with God, reserved only for them. The demands of natural morality mean nothing in the face of God’s impenetrable designs. The whole of humanity is now only a kind of background, a setting, a passive figure in the global scene, unintelligible, directed by God.
The election of the presumed elected officials comes with a very high price for the fallen, at least according to common morality. The chosen one must get used to the idea that there is no universal mercy. Faced with the incomprehensibility of his own predestination, he must make the sacrifice of his reason, devalued, unable to provide the slightest explanatory argument.
He must accept the perspective of a fully determined world order, inhabited by creatures deprived of free will and free will. For « we are enslaved ».xii It is our very nature that is enslaved. God is an absolute master who assigns to us without recourse, and without justification, either eternal life or eternal damnation. In any case, the enslavement of men is radical.
The meaning of individual destinies is a mystery that is impossible to unravel. No one is entitled to glorify in one´s divine election, no one is entitled to complain about the decline into which God has thrown him. To apply the norms of earthly justice to divine decrees is completely devoid of meaning.
If by any chance the damned were to complain about an obviously undeserved fate, they would behave like animals who would lament not having been born human.
An important point of the Calvinist view is that the attainment of salvation does not depend in any way on the behavior of the creature. Only God’s will, not human works, is decisive for salvation.
Above all, one should not try to penetrate this « totally incomprehensible » mystery. God is accountable to no one. He can violate the laws of nature as he pleases. « No wind ever rises without God’s special commandment »xiii.
If one even tries to understand, this is a sure sign of corruption…
The chosen one must believe that he is always under the direct control of God. He sees the finger of God in the smallest details of his life. This constant presence strengthens and justifies him, and makes him all the more confident in his predestination.
Puritans never cease to gratify God for their election and their singular perfection. The unequal distribution of the goods of this world seems to them to respond to a special decree of Providence, pursuing its secret ends, and to which there is no need to return, and nothing to correct. Certainly we must not expect from the Puritans a revolt against Providence, or against the social order.
Thomas Adamsxiv believed that if God leaves so many people in poverty, it is probably because they cannot resist the temptations that wealth brings with it.
When material success happens to manifestly « damned » individuals, the Calvinist interprets it as a divine will to harden them in evil…
Calvin did not question his own state of grace and represented himself as a « vase of election » as opposed to the « vases of dejection » xv, the « mud pots ». The chosen ones form an oligarchy, separated from the rest of defiled and corrupt humanity. Their keen awareness of the grace that has fallen to them can incite them to contempt, even hatred, for those they consider enemies, marked with the seal of damnation.
Such awareness of the degradation of others facilitates the encouragement of social segregation. One thinks of these examples of protected areas, exclusive, indifferent to each other’s fate. Communities physically closed to the outside world (gated communities) are a contemporary illustration of elective, individualistic communitarianism.
The Calvinist thesis of the election and separation of « saints » is brutal, ruthless. It has always been highly controversial. Based on divine decrees beyond the reach of human intelligence and reason, it casts a definitive shadow on the capacity of reason to articulate any notion related to divine things. It has inspired disgust and revolt throughout the centuries in souls enamored of justice, provoking their instinctive repulsion.
From a political perspective, the doctrine of predestination points to an elitist, oligarchic, and certainly undemocratic system. It explains why the right to vote must be limited, since there is no reason to give voice and power to the « common », to the multitude of the « fallen ».
This oligarchic system is, however, compatible with the contractual election of political authorities, because the authority can be considered as « elected » by God to fulfill a mission inspired by Him.
We are far from the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The idea of a democracy based on the will of the people is completely foreign to Calvinism. The only thing that counts is the interest of the « saints » and their tightly knit, sacred, invisible community.
This doctrine never ceased to raise serious doubts, given its fantastic and desperate radicalism: « Such a God will never command respect, » said John Milton.
The problems raised are such that Melanchton deliberately avoided introducing this « dangerous and obscure » doctrine into the Augsburg Confession. Max Weber notes that Luther firmly believed that God’s « secret decrees » are the sole source, devoid of apparent meaning, of his own state of grace. The idea of predestination was never central to his concerns. For Lutherans, grace can be lost, but it can also be regained through humility, penance and trust.
For Calvin, on the other hand, the meaning of predestination has been steadily reinforced. The predestined sees himself as one of the masters of the world. He is on a mission on Earth. He is called to intervene for the glory of God in the world in order to transform it.
Thus, under the guise of total humility before divine decrees, Calvinism makes possible the boundless arrogance of the privileged, since the powerful and the rich are supposed to owe their fate to a divine decision. On the other hand, Calvinist ideas introduce the seeds of a certain political passivity towards the powers that be, for all those who find themselves in an inferior social position.
Election implies a radical break between the chosen few and the mass of the fallen; predestination adds to it the idea of the absolute determination of each individual’s destiny, even before the creation of the world.
In this conception, God completely determines all existences. The slightest event is under his control. He counts every hair on every head, and every drop of rain.
Why this integral and permanent control by an all-powerful and omniscient God? The reason for this order of things is hidden. The whole matter is incomprehensible to man. God governs everything, and it is He who dispenses good and evil. All misfortunes, poverty, prison, sickness, happen only by His will. Calvin says that God even goes so far as to marry men badly or give them ungrateful children to teach them humility.
The logical consequence of this universal determinism is irresponsibility. There is never any merit, since there is no free will. God wants His grace to have absolute power.
So what´s the purpose of all this?
One can wonder. What is the point of creating the creation and creatures, if from all eternity the dice of all destinies have already been thrown? Why the Law and the Prophets, if everything is already written, even before the creation of the world, and the works are useless? If neither man’s desire nor effort can do anything,xviwhat is the point of living?
And how can we explain the subjective feeling of freedom that everyone can experience in their lives? Is it just another illusion, sent by a God who is decidedly very manipulative?
Calvin repeats over and over again that there is no point in asking these types of questions: all these mysteries are incomprehensible. As for subjective freedom, it is only apparent. Man is truly stripped of all freedom, and he is necessarily subject to evil. xvii
Even if we have the subjective feeling that something is happening according to our will, we must in fact attribute all the responsibility to God.
For Origen, S. Augustin and S. Thomas Aquinas, reason could help to discern good from evil. The will can choose one or the other. Calvin denies both the power of reason and the power of will.
S. Bernard used to say that all good will is the work of God, but that man can desire this good will with his own heart.
Calvin refuses such compromises. The will is entirely chained, enslaved. Human nature itself has lost all freedom. The (absolutely false) feeling of ´free will´ can only lead to evil and death. It is equivalent to the poisonous fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which gives death.
That is why it is best to move away from these issues. To even mention them is dangerous. From the outset, Calvin invites the « saints » to be very careful. Above all, the doctrine of predestination, which is so pernicious in its implications, must not be divulged to the people. The people could revolt, indulge in laziness and despair, or else, lost for lost, go further and further into evil.
On the one hand, appalling prospects are opening up for the multitude. On the other hand, there is no point in trying to ward off fate, by trying to show good will, by acquiring merits, by means of works.
One cannot dream to be the equal and companion of God. Or even arrogate to oneself the right to be above His council. No! It is not a question of looking for signs of election, by exhibiting such and such a work or such and such an action. Calvin mercilessly hunts down every form of pelagianism. God’s grace gives everything. Man brings nothing, and cooperates in nothing. There is in him only a necessity to sin. It is not that man is devoid of all will. What man lacks is not will, but a healthy will. The will necessarily goes towards evil. In no way does it have the faculty to go towards good.
The so-called freedom of the human will is a trap. This freedom is in reality a servitude, because it leads inevitably, irresistibly, to evil. It enslaves all the more because it believes itself to be « free ».
The most ancient Christian source on all these matters is S. Paul. It was he who inspired the Augustinian and Calvinist theses. But St. Paul offers contradictory formulas. On the one hand, « it is God who makes all things in all » (1 Cor 12:6). On the other hand, « God creates and puts in us the will (Phil 2:13)« . What is will, if it is entirely determined by « a God who makes all things »? And if will is not determined, it is because God does not make « all things in all ».
Far from these subtleties! Calvin suffers no compromise: man is not free, period. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah: « I know, Lord, that the way of man is not free« (Jer. 10:23).
Pelagius was declared a heretic in the 4th century for having maintained that by free will one can abstain from sin, that nature is not bound, and that freedom of choice is always present. S. John Chrysostom admitted a cooperation of will and grace, a possibility to choose between good and evil. More pelagianism!
Calvin absolutely vomits pelagianism. Grace cannot cooperate with the will. It is always God who does all the work. His grace is indispensable at all stages, at all times. It alone makes one free. It is freedom that enslaves. It is grace that makes it possible to do good. It is grace that makes it possible to resist evil. And it is freedom that binds evil.
Calvin goes as far as possible in the direction of predestination and absolute determination. But he is also careful to affirm that his doctrine has no connection, despite appearances, with the fatum of the Stoics.
The fact remains that the two doctrines are similar. What does it matter whether the fate of men is due to fatum or to the hand of God? Being slaves to fate, or enslaved to predestination, is it not the same thing?
There is obviously a language problem. The words freedom and servitude are really only metaphors. « Freedom » is not freedom of choice, since free will is denied. This « freedom » is only the freedom to feel « safe ». It is only a word, or an image, to give confidence in one’s election. The only « freedom » is the freedom to choose to recognize oneself as chosen.
Freedom is in no way a freedom to act on the world. It gives no power. Freedom is only the freedom to free oneself entirely from the crushing yoke of the Mosaic Law. To be « free » for Calvin is to be free from this Law.
Calvinism is based on a fantastic thesis, that of God’s election of a few « saints » and the exclusion of all the rest of humanity. This thesis generates immense anguish among the « chosen ones » themselves. How can one recognize whether one is elected or fallen? How can one be assured of one’s election? In this life, the chosen ones are in no way distinguished, externally, from the reprobates. In fact, all the subjective experiences of the former are also within the reach of the latter, with the exception, however, of persevering and faithful trust.
The very fact of asking oneself this question (« Am I chosen? ») is already a sign that one is giving in to the devil. Calvin affirms it: it is impossible to find proof of election in man. Nor can they be found in God. So where then?
The only mirror of the election is Christ. To be elected implies reflecting Christ himself; which is certainly not within the reach of the first to come. Moreover, the chosen one must prove his election by leaving no room for doubt. Any kind of doubt is a symptom of degeneration.
The chosen one must be content to know that God has decided his destiny from all eternity. He must persevere in the unshakeable confidence that he is one of the fortunate chosen ones, this confidence being moreover the sign of his true faith.
God cannot be satisfied with anything man does. On the other hand, He can accuse him of a thousand crimes. The smallest defilement is enough to invalidate any work. There is no intermediary between perfection and nullity. It is all or nothing.
However, the works remain indispensable, not for their value, which is null, but as « signs of election ». It is less the works that signify this election than their absence, which testifies to the decline. The (good) works that one has not done give a bad signal. But the (good) works that one has done also give a bad signal, if by misfortune one should glorify in them. The only merit is to acknowledge that one has no merit at all.
In short, works are indispensable, but they are nothing in front of faith, in which everything is concentrated. It is faith alone that gives works their value, not the other way around.
Among the early apostles, this question had been the subject of debate. Against St. Paul, St. James affirmed that faith without works is « dead in itself » and that it is therefore « useless ». But for Calvin, this fundamental divergence between Paul and James is only a simple battle of words.
Faith does not need works, nor does it need reason. The mystery of God is totally beyond man and remains entirely elusive to the intellect. Reason is only capable of foolish daydreaming, and intelligence leads only to error and chimeras.
Thinkers and poets are like « barking dogs ». The doctrines of men are of straw, compared to the Spirit, which is of fire. Philosophers can teach us nothing about the soul. They are « sophists ». Calvin rains insults down on the Sorbonne. The Jesuits are « scum ». Clerics are « swine ».
All men decidedly are « of nothingness » and can only conceive « of nothingness ».
There are, obviously, some political and societal consequences to Calvinism…
God determines all societies. He is the cause of all political realities. He institutes the powerful.xviii No matter the qualities of the leaders, or their faults. They are put where they are by God.xix The power of princes is due to God, but the power of popes is due to the devil. The Church is a sham. It is the fantasy of men. The only true and only invisible Church is that of the « saints ».
The coexistence of the two kingdoms, the earthly and the spiritual, is a fact. There are like two worlds in man. They must be carefully distinguished, and the Christian must submit to the laws of one and the other. Above all, the existing order must not be called into question, because it is willed by God. xx
God established the social and political order for all men, including the « saints ». Moral discipline must strengthen the bonds between the members of their community, their « Church ». Calvin defines it as a political society and even as a republic of « princes ».
This republic has the vocation to extend to the whole State, if it happens fortunately that the « saints » occupy the power. Thus Calvin urged the pastors of Geneva to demand in 1537 that the entire city make a public profession of faith, following the model of the covenant pact between God and the Jews.
The « saint » is a militant, a soldier who carries « the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the spiritual sword ».xxi He must participate in the life of the community, and in the government of the Christian republic if it comes to power.
The republic of the « saints » must compel the godless and the unelected to submit to God’s law, including the use of force and war.
Calvin repeatedly insists on the need for restriction and social control because of man’s wickedness. Submission to the system and repression are necessary to counteract its effects. Tyranny is acceptable, from this perspective, because it serves to maintain society. xxii
Luther also preached obedience to superiors and submission to the prince. Every man is bound to accept his conditions of existence, since they are due to Providence. But unlike Calvin, Luther does not encourage the « saints » to take care of the earthly city, much less to direct it. The saints are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly city.
For Calvin, political reality is an embodiment of God’s will. Hence an extremely conservative vision of politics, strewn with serious contradictions, and also, in germ, a potentially devastating ambiguity for the powers that be.
When a political power is successfully overthrown, should we not also see in it the direct action of the divine will? If everything happens by God’s will, a victorious revolution can and must be considered part of the divine plan.
But then, the « saints » could be led to allow themselves all kinds of revolt against the established order, if they judge inwardly that they are called to do so. The success of their revolt will be the sign justifying seditious acts a posteriori. Are not the chosen few convinced that they are instruments of God? God has marked them, predestined them, « called » them. They carry in their conscience the assurance of the divine will. Their intimate conviction is their only order of mission. Can this mission not go as far as revolt against the tyrant?
Calvinism carries a strong political conservatism, but, if the opportunity arises, it can also open the door to forms of anarchy.
Calvin pushed his political ideas much further than Luther, with uncompromising radicalism that was not devoid of sharp ambiguities. He is a master of equivocation, a flowery and devious casuist. He cautiously seeks to hide from the common eye the inevitable consequences of his dogmatic extremism. He is aware that his harshest, most ruthless theses could not be revealed without danger to the immense crowd of the « damned » and the putative « fallen ».
How could the « fallen » live for a long time in a world that promises them nothing? In the interest of the « chosen ones » themselves, efforts must be made to preserve civil peace. The tragic and definitive nature of their destiny must be concealed from the « fallen ». That is why a rhetoric of ambiguity, « tolerance » and hypocrisy is necessary, in order to safeguard the political and social order for as long as possible.
This order has an implicit structure. It obeys a fundamental idea: men must be « separated » from one another, — not « reunited », as the Papists wish.
Calvin predicts the final « sacrifice » of men on the altar of God. Knowing this perspective, it is certainly not his priority to seek to « reconcile » men.
From this point of view, Calvinism anticipates Hobbes’ authoritarianism and political cynicism. Calvin’s tyranny of the divine is the implacable model of the necessary tyranny of Leviathan.
The Reformation occupies a special place in the history of the West. It called into question the entire classical, pre-modern tradition. It took the opposite side of the humanism of the Renaissance. It affirmed a principle of separation and exclusion, dividing the world into two irreducible camps. It proclaimed the election of a few « chosen ones » and the forfeiture of almost all humanity. It drew a definitive line of demarcation between a few « chosen ones » and the immense mass of the « fallen ».
The theological or philosophical questions stirred up by Luther and Calvin had ancient roots. The themes of freedom and necessity, of reason and faith, had been debated since the dawn of Christianity. But the Reformation suddenly gave them a singularly sharp solution through the addition of several negations (the sola), and through a metaphysics of the cut.
The Reformation articulated a triple « no », a « no » to humanity, a « no » to reason and a « no » to freedom. The individual, separated from every community and every tradition, faces alone the mystery of the Scriptures. Reason is rejected; faith alone is accepted. Freedom is nothing more than alienation before grace and predestination.
The impact of these radical ideas, apparently so far removed from contemporary modernity, was profound, matrix-like, as we shall see.
Harnack said that the essence of Christianity should be sought in its germs, not in what came out of it. The multiplicity of Churches, the diversity of spiritualities and sects must not lead us astray. What is important are the mother ideas.
Protestantism has undeniably multiplied the variations; there are myriads of them. But they share some original seed ideas.
Different moments in the history of religious ideas have contributed to this. The most significant influences come from Paulinism, Gnosticism, Augustinism.
A little less than 2000 years ago, Paul initiated the first controversy in the history of Christianity. The issue for Jewish Christians was whether certain aspects of the Jewish Law should be renounced in order to make faith in the Gospel more accessible to non-Jews. For example, should new converts to Christianity also be circumcised?
In other words, in a more abstract style, what has primacy, faith or Law?
At the conclusion of a debate between himself and Peter, Paul said: « We can agree: to you the Gospel of circumcision, to me the Gospel of the foreskin ».
He set out to preach the faith of Christ to the uncircumcised Gentiles around the Mediterranean. Peter remained in Jerusalem, among the Judeo-Christians, respectful of the Mosaic Law. Paul declared that he would be the apostle of the faith, and that Peter was the apostle of the Law.
This was basically the resurgence of a fundamental duality that existed within Judaism itself, that of the Law and that of the Prophets. On the one hand, the Law separates Israel from the rest of the world. On the other hand, Prophets like Isaiah dream of « gathering all the nations ».
Paul’s doctrine immediately appeared to be « folly to the Greeks and scandal to the Jews ». Emphasizing faith, he also affirmed the predestination of souls, and declined it in its ultimate consequences. Fates are decided even before the foundation of the world. He also claimed a strong conservatism, showing his detachment from politics. xxiii At the height of Nero’s reign, he advocated submission to the tyrant. xxiv
Luther and Calvin mimicked his tone and posture. They borrowed his pessimism, the idea of predestination, the separation of the fallen from the chosen ones, the antinomy of faith and reason from faith and works, and indifference to politics.
If the main themes of Calvinism have their origin in Paul’s thought, it is important to note that the latter remains more complex, diverse, and deeper and. Paul put faith in the pinnacle, but he also placed charity above faithxxv. He affirmed that faith has no use for works, without renouncing them. He was not a pelagian, but he spoke of « the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works »xxvi. He recognized the fortunate fate of the chosen ones, but he also implied that salvation must be universal, and that it must be for the whole world. God will have mercy on all. All men have a vocation to be saved. All barriers must be broken down.
Paul also took the side of the weak and the foolish, xxvii and he defended the general interest, putting particular gifts at the service of all. xxviii
In spite of his defiance of reason, Paul reconciled it with faith. xxix He believed in predestination, but defended the prospect of a moral metamorphosis of everyonexxx and he was a prophet of freedom. xxxi
It is difficult to lock all these elements into a coherent system.
Renan and Harnack considered Paul a crypto-gnostic thinker, and even a kind of « Simon the Magician ». He seemed to give in to dualistic forms of thought. And his ideas were pushed to the extreme by some of his followers. The Gnostics, who were flourishing in the dying days of Rome, seized them for their own use.
Gnosis, which appeared in the Greco-Roman world between the 1st and 3 rd centuries, tried to formulate the « philosophy » that was missing from the Gospel. It wanted to Hellenize Christianity, but it also wanted to do this without the Old Testament. It denigrated the God « creator » and « lawgiver » celebrated in the Torah as opposed to the figure of the God « savior » of the Gospel.
The early followers of Jesus were not preoccupied with philosophy. But the new converts, with a culture more Greco-Roman than Semitic, were asking questions, they needed explanations, systems. The Gnostics tried to superimpose on Christianity an outline of theology, a set of dogmas. They undertook to add metaphysics, theogony, cosmology and a philosophy of history.
The name « gnosis » (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge) testifies to their intentions: to attain absolute knowledge, the knowledge of God. Renan notes that the word gnostic (gnosticos) has the same meaning as the word Buddha, « he who knows ». Gnosticism claimed to be the path to the integral knowledge of God, the world and history.
The original Church immediately fought the Gnostic sects, considered « poisonous vegetation ». There was no shortage of points of profound disagreement.xxxii
The Judeo-Christians wanted to preserve the legacy of the Law and the Prophets, which Christ had said he had not come to « abolish » but to « fulfill ». They wanted to maintain their connection with the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Scriptures, because of certain contradictions with the message of Jesus, required at least new interpretations.
Interpretation is always possible, and one does not deprive oneself of it. But a Hellenization of the Jewish Bible, in the philosophical way, was obviously impossible. This is why the Gnostic schools, which in the 2nd century applied the ways of thinking of Greek philosophy, did not want to recognize the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Instead, they built a philosophical system mixing Greek reason and Eastern mysticism, and focusing on Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the world.
Some specialists agree on the name of Simon the Magician, as being at the origin of the Gnostic heresy. Who was this Simon? Ernest Renan, with his usual taste for provocation, supported by impeccable references, guesses that Simon the Magician could well be Paul himself. Adolf von Harnack, more cautious, also puts forward this hypothesis but does not settle the question.
Whether or not he was Simon the Magician, Paul divided the early Christians. He influenced the new converts with his anti-Judaism turned against the Law, and he alienated the Judeo-Christians who wanted to « save » the Old Testament. He inspired those who stood against Tradition to universalize the Gospel message. He wanted the « good news » to be proclaimed to all nations, not only to the people of the Old Covenant.
The Gnostic theorists (Menander, Saturnine, Basilides, Valentin the Egyptian, Marcion of Sinope, Carpocrates, Bardesanes) took up and transformed the Pauline ideas.
To salvation by faith or works, the Gnostics substituted salvation by knowledge, salvation by Gnosis. What kind of knowledge is this? Let us summarize. The divine Being is infinite, His nature is inconceivable, far above all human thought. From Him emanate « intermediate » beings (the Aeons). Among them, the Demiurge, creator of the Cosmos. He is an evil being, for Matter is the receptacle of Evil. The material world was created by evil powers, and the mere fact of existing is sinful, since the existence of the world is due to a fallen Spirit.
The God of the Old Testament, creator of the world and its imperfections, is none other than this Demiurge. The Gnostics thus reject the Jewish Bible since it deifies the creator of a « satanic » world.
To this Creator God, to this wicked Demiurge, they oppose the Savior God, the Good God.
It is He who sanctifies and delivers the chosen few, separating their spirit from matter and the world. The vulgar profane is excluded from salvation. Basilides has this characteristic formula: « We are men; the others are only pigs and dogs »xxxiii, and this other one: « I speak for one in a thousand ». xxxiv
Gnosticism is profoundly dualistic. God, the principle of Good, is separated from the world whose Matter is the principle of Evil. The Spirit of God can in no way take part in this material world, which is essentially evil. He could not incarnate himself in human flesh, doomed to evil. We must therefore distinguish the « two natures »: that of Jesus, simply a man, and that of Christ, a divine being. Christ is a pure spirit; his incarnation is only an illusion, a simple appearance (in Greek « dokèsis« , hence the name given to this doctrine: Docetism).
Many Gnostic ideas offer analogies with Calvinism: the domination of Evil over this world, a marked dualism between Good and Evil, the election of a few saints and the forfeiture of all, the impossibility of understanding anything about divine things through reason, revelation reserved for the chosen few.
On the other hand, some ideas of Gnosis are frankly incompatible with Christianity, reformed or not. Thus the idea that the God of the Bible is a « bad God ».
Gnosis was immediately refuted by the Church. Marcion was excommunicated in 144 in Rome. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon attacked the Gnostics in Against Heresies. To their dualism and pessimism, he opposed the unity of the Old and New Testaments and an optimistic vision of the fall of Adam and Eve, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ.
But in the 3rd century, Gnosticism resumed a second life with Mani, who preached throughout the Middle East. His ideas reached a vast area, from Gaul to China. Manichaeism, influenced by ancient Iranian Mazdeism and Indo-Iranian Zoroastrianism, and imbued with Buddhist elements, embodies an extreme version of Gnosis.
The universe is cut in two, on one side Good and light, on the other side Evil and darkness. Light and darkness have coexisted since the beginning, without mixing. Manichaeism postulates that a universal catastrophe took place at the beginning of the world, and that darkness then entered into the realm of light. The battle of light and darkness is that of good and evil. Satan, the « Prince of Darkness, » stands against God, the God of Light.
Participating in this struggle, the Manichean must help to restore order, to end the confusion. On one side must be the light, on the other the night. Since the soul of every man is woven of light and his body weighed down with matter, the primary objective is to separate one from the other. Once the break is complete, the soul will melt into the great divine light.
The Fathers of the Church endeavored to respond to the theses of the Gnostics and Manicheans.
Clement of Alexandria, a disciple of the Platonic School, argued that Christianity is reconcilable with a rational philosophy, and that faith can go with reason. Christ is the Logos, he embodies the rational law of the world, dispensed for the benefit of all humanity. Universal salvation, operating throughout the history of humanity, is guaranteed by the goodness of God and the responsibility of man.
Tertullian argued that the Gnostic conception of a God who was supposed to be sovereignly powerful, but who remained inactive, passive, « inert », « lethargic », was contradictory, contrary to common sense, and scandalous.
The good God must have an obligation to manifest Himself through His works. He cannot remain hidden, for that would be tantamount to making the good God a « perverse » God, complicit in the cruelty and barbarity of the Demiurge.
If the goodness of the good God does not apply to all, if it does not save men in general, it is because it is imperfect, « defective and small, » which is contradictory. Consequently, universal salvation is certain.
Origen reaffirmed the uniqueness of the divine principle, against the dualism of Marcion, Valentine and Basilides. God is the one power, both creator and savior of the world. All the diversity of the world will be brought back, at the end of time, to the unity of a perfect accord.
The good God is also the righteous God, since in the divine nature one cannot conceive of goodness without justice, nor justice without goodness.
God, good and just, uses no coercion; He preserves the freedom of each spirit, but He does so with such wisdom that all end up contributing to the world’s harmony.
Origen conceived of the universe as « an immense and huge animal », governed by God’s reason, as by a single soul. All spirits are equal. Souls can fail, but they can also grow and progress, and return to God. No soul can fail forever and irretrievably.
Origen emphasized the free will of the soul, and the kinship between human reason and divine nature. At the end of time, the inevitable inequalities and divergences caused by the diversity of intelligences, will be resorbed in a single agreement, in a « common » world.
Origen’s optimism offers an invigorating antidote to the pessimism of modern times. He was the forerunner of a political philosophy of globalization and a political theology of salvation for all.
Among those who attacked Gnosis, St. Augustine occupies a special place because he himself was a victim of the Manichean heresy, as he recounts in his Confessions. After his radical break with Manichaeism and his conversion to Christianity, he tackled the famous question of the existence of evil.
For Gnosis, the principle of evil was at the center. Evil is the Demiurge, the irreconcilable adversary of the God of Salvation.
Augustine purely and simply denied the existence of evil. Evil is nothing but the deprivation of good. Evil is a non-being. Whatever one may think of this assertion, it cannot be denied that it is fundamentally non-dualistic.
Augustine, however, did not remove from his thought any dualistic tendency. He affirmed the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, and emphasized the opposition between the evil which has dominated the world since original sin and the salvation which can come only from God alone.
The first Fathers of the Church therefore immediately rebelled against Gnostic dualism and pessimism, because they threatened the essential message of the Gospel. Harnack believes that the entire history of medieval thought can be interpreted as a « Catholic » attempt to protect oneself against the Gnostic syndrome.
But one could also interpret the end of the Middle Ages as in fact announcing the revenge of Gnosis on Catholicism, a revenge that was to be fully revealed through the successes of the Reformation.
Through it, Gnosis has succeeded in reintroducing acute forms of dualism and irremissible pessimism into Western thought and into modernity as a whole.
Dualism and pessimism, shared by the Reformation and Gnosis, also have a deep, structural relationship with modern times. Eric Voegelin puts it this way: Modern times are a failure of history, they represent a regression, a return to paganism and Gnosis. This is why he proposes to qualify the modern era as « Gnostic ».
Hans Blumenberg, while protesting against this radical thesis, nevertheless confirms it in partxxxv. Modern times are not a « new Gnosis », according to him. They represent « the overcoming of Gnosis, » he proposes. Midern times have assimilated Gnosis, they have dialecticized it and pushed it to its limits.
The pagan regression and the Gnostic temptation had already manifested themselves forcefully from the beginning of Christianity, but were apparently refuted. The Middle Ages had also tried to eradicate Gnosis, which was always resurgent.
If we follow Voegelin, the Reformation partially reintroduced certain Gnostic themes into the framework of reformed Christianity, such as the dualism of good and evil, the pessimism attached to an evil world, and « knowledge » (or « grace ») reserved for the « chosen ones ».
In the reading if Voegelin, the history of modern times would testify to the return in force of a new Gnosis, including in a secularized and mundanized form, — in the philosophies of the Enlightenment, in Hegelianism or in positivism.
But if we can really affirm that modern times are « Gnostic », then we must also recognize that they are in a head-on opposition to original Christianity.
Hans Blumenberg refuses to adopt this clear-cut thesis (of Voegelin). He still wants to « save » modernity, to « legitimize » it. Original Christianity still has a role to play in this legitimized modernity. What role? The answer depends on how one looks at the Reformation. Does the Reformation embody Christian modernity, or is it decidedly nothing more than a new Gnosis?
If the Reformation was influenced by Gnosis, as Voegelin thinks, if it even embodies a new Gnosis, then one could induce the « illegitimacy » of modern times.
Blumenberg refuses this fatal judgment. Modern times have been able to « overcome » Gnosis, he says. As a result, the Reformation and modernity can both be « saved », one with the other. In support of the thesis of « overcoming the Gnosis », Blumenberg asserts two things. On the one hand, modern times have overcome the dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God, and on the other hand, they have promoted a new « quality of consciousness ».
Let us analyze these two arguments.
The dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God was Marcion’s main thesis. For him, the idea of a single God, both creator and savior, was contradictory because if God is the sole creator and all-powerful of the world, He cannot really want the destruction of His own creation. That an « almighty » God needs to save His own creation is illogical. It was more logical that there was a creator God opposing the savior God, and that the latter had to defeat the former. The good God, a « stranger » to the world, could then annihilate a cosmos He had not created, and preach disobedience to a Law He had not given. Redemption was equivalent to enlightening man on the fundamental imposture of the Cosmos and the Law, both due to the evil God. And Gnosis represented and explained the « knowledge » of this imposture.
But the price of the break, the cost of the separation between the « foreign » God and the world, is the loss of metaphysical and cosmic unity, and the destruction of trust in the world, now the place of evil.
Men must then leave behind them the world, a foreign land, a land of evil. They are invited to emigrate to heaven, as in « a beautiful foreign land », by the grace of the good God.
Gnosis promised this salvation to its followers at the price of demonizing the world. It was necessary to radically reject this evil, demonic world.
But Christian thinkers have always denied the Gnostic thesis of the evil world. They still wanted to save the Cosmos, and to maintain a profound unity between the immanence of the world and divine transcendence. The world cannot be only the prison of evil. Evil cannot remain undefeated. Man can and must be responsible for the world. xxxvi
For them God can still be both creator and savior.
Blumenberg says that this solution represents in fact the « first overcoming » of Gnosis by the modern thinkers.
The « second overcoming » of Gnosis took place with the appearance of a new « quality of consciousness », with the awareness of human freedom.
The « chosen one » has the task of testifying to his or her election. He is responsible for the state of the world, he finds himself the bearer of a demand turned towards the future, seeking in action the proof of his grace. He can undertake to assert himself. This is how modernity began. The world can be « bad » or « indifferent », but the « chosen one » asserts himself as free, creative.
Copernicus had shown the true place of humanity, relegated to the confines of the universe. Lost on the margins of the world, men had to invent a role, a mission. Faced with the mute, silent cosmos, they were lost in infinity, their only territory was their own representations. All they had to do was define and express a will, — a will to represent, a will to build, a will to live.
Man was lost in the cosmos, but he could also assert himself without limits, and go beyond a universe that denied him.
The beginning of modern times corresponded to this moment: the individual was to be magnified, in an indifferent world. This was the « second overcoming » of Gnosis, according to Blumenberg.
Did these two « overcoming » really take place? Did the Augustinian moment and the Copernican moment really make it possible to « overcome » Gnosis?
This is doubtful.
By liquidating the Middle Ages, modern times have in fact revived, at a new cost, the old Gnostic dualism and pessimism. Gnosis is more modern than ever: evil is still there, and man is still not free.
It is extremely significant that from the beginning of the modern age the Reformation claimed the ideas of predestination, serfarbitrage, original sin, and condemned mankind to decay and doom, except for the chosen few.
Against Blumenberg’s arguments, it must be affirmed that the Reform does not « overcome » Gnosis. It only « transposes » it.
Augustine himself had not really « overcome » Gnosis. He fought against it vigorously at the end of the Roman Empire. But did he explain the evil? Was he able to convince the following generations, including the future « modern » ones, that evil is only a « non-being »? Luther was once an Augustinian monk. The immense work of Augustine was not enough, it seems, to persuade Luther and Calvin, these two « moderns », of the non-essence of evil.
Augustine had kept from the Manichean influence of dualistic inflections and a turn of thought favoring sharp cuts and absolute oppositions: the dualism of sin and grace, the separation between « men who live according to man » and « men who live according to God », the cut between « heaven from heaven » and earth, the abyss between God and nothingness.
Augustine had been in all the battles of his time, against Pelagius and against Mani, against the Donatists and against the Aryans. These struggles against heresies helped to ensure Catholic dogma. But these very successes could lead to slippery slopes. Some of Augustine’s ideas did not fail to pose serious problems from the point of view of dogma. The quarrels on the merit of works, between pelagians, semi-pelagians and anti-pelagians, or on the question of predestination, bear witness to this. Augustine continued to stir up a latent opposition within the official Church on these questions, because of the extremist conclusions that could be drawn from some of his positions. Harnack summed it up as follows: Over the centuries, « the Church has become more and more secretly opposed to Augustine ». xxxvii
Before Augustine, the Fathers of the Church advocated the morality of popular, stoic, pelagian Christianity, attached to the merit of works, not without rationalist accents. Augustine’s morality is completely at odds with this tradition. It is an anti-Pelagian, fidelistic, elitist morality, reserved for an elite of predestined chosen ones. Although far removed from common sense, this new conception of morality was to see its influence develop and extend to the present day, after having been taken up by the Reformation.
In the 5th century, in the face of Augustine’s doctrine, other trends of thought crossed Christianity, such as neo-Platonism or Stoicism, which could have imposed themselves then.
But Augustine favored the victory of a radical conception, highly improbable and very unpopular. It can be summed up in one sentence: only a few predestined chosen ones will be saved. As for the « mass », it is lost forever: massa perditionis.
Until then Christians had had a rather optimistic view of human nature and a reasonable hope for themselves. There was no reason to sink into despair. The word « gospel » is translated from the Greek as « Good News ».
Augustine quite accentuated the Pauline pessimism and made it more rigorous. Evil was the lever of all human action. Men had no enemies but themselves. Everything that was not God was sin. In God alone was good. It was necessary to surrender unconditionally to God, and to submit entirely to the Church.
Before Augustine, people oscillated between the fear of punishment and the unreasoned hope of salvation. People relied on free will and on their own merits to save their souls.
Augustine asserted that sin is inherent in man. The fall of Adam is the source of damnation for all. For the chosen few, there is the infinitesimal hope of grace.
The Church took up some of these conceptions. The Christian, convinced that he was a sinner, had to renounce his own strength for his salvation, and keep trust in the grace of the merciful God.
But on the questions of the merit of works, election and predestination, the Church was less assured. One could not deduce the idea of predestination from the words of Jesus. It was first of all a Pauline idea, not a Christic one. On this point Augustine had thus innovated in relation to the evangelical tradition, pushing Paul’s views to their extreme consequences. Hence the strong opposition within the Church, especially on the part of the monastic orders.
Departing from the Christianity of the « Good News », Augustine had inflected Catholic dogma in a generally pessimistic sense for the mass of sinners. He had never completely overcome the Manicheism of his youth. His doctrine of sin always contained a latent Gnostic element. The very structure of his thought was, as has been noted, dualistic, in the Manichean manner (God and the fall, sin and grace, the two « Cities »). Harnack sums up Augustine’s Gnosticism in a lapidary formula: « Augustine is a second Marcion ».
Clarifying this link between Augustine and Gnosis, Hans Blumenbergxxxviii compared the Augustinian dogma of universal fault to Marcion’s belief in the « wickedness » of the Old Testament legislator. The doctrine of absolute predestination and the few chosen ones is borrowed from St. Paul, and is perfectly compatible with the gnosis of the corruption of the world.
Augustine had criticized in his writings the Gnostic and Manichean dualism and supported the principle of the unity of all creation in God. But he introduced another form of dualism: the separation of the elect and the outcast, which implies a divine responsibility for evil. Predestination gives God an initial role in cosmic corruption.
This is why Blumenberg admits that Augustine did not « overcome » Gnosis, but only « transposed » it. He sketched the figure of an almighty and hidden God, with absolute and incomprehensible sovereignty. And Gnosis continued to appear in Augustinism, under the species of the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, in the abysmal darkness of the divine plan.
Augustinism did not contribute little to establishing in Christianity the « terror » of a divine order of Gnostic structure. The invention of purgatoryxxxix in the early Middle Ages was an attempt to calm the panic of uncertain, potentially damned souls. It was not until a certain return of reason, at the height of medieval scholasticism, that Gnosis was intellectually refuted. This refutation was, moreover, far from being definitive. Its multiple subsequent resurgences, in other forms, to the present day, bear witness to this. xl
The original fault, the eternal guilt of man, the resignation before the predestination to good or evil, affecting each individual, the annulment of all individual responsibility in the state of the world, the denial of reason, the renunciation of transforming by action a fundamentally fallen reality, these are all new heads constantly pushing back on the Gnostic Hydra, decidedly not defeated.
Paul and Augustine had one thing in common with Marcion and Mani: a taste for dualism.
Augustine, for his part, conceived a synthesis of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Paulinism intertwined with original Christianity. Through his own Gnosticism, « not outmoded » but « transposed », and through the affirmation of predestination, he was undoubtedly one of the precursors of the Reformation.
In fact, the Reformation could itself be considered as a modern « transposition » of Gnosis. Calvin’s work has been assimilated to a « Gnostic Koran » by E. Voegelin.xli Luther or Calvin were not second or third Marcion. But, just as Augustine « transposed » Gnostic ideas at the time of the crisis of the Roman Empire, Luther and Calvin ensured the « transposition » of Augustinism and Gnosticism into early modern times.
In conclusion, it is necessary to understand the depth of the influence of the mother ideas contained in the Lutheran sola. These ideas were then widely received by « modernity », under the species of nominalism, determinism and individualism.
(To be continued).
iCf. H. Blumenberg. The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 1999
iiSee E. Troeltsch. Protestantism and modernity. 1911
iii« The idea of predestination, the guiding axis of the only effective system produced by the Reformation ». Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinism and Lutheranism (1909)
ivQuoted by Lucien Febvre, in Martin Luther, un destin, 1928. Foreword to the 2nd edition, 1944
v« The Lutheran saint, in his quest for the invisible kingdom of heaven, turns away from politics and abandons the kingdom of the earth, in Luther’s own words, to whomever he takes it. Calvin’s secular commitment, his concern for organization, prompts him to « take » the kingdom of the earth and transform it. » Michael Walzer. The revolution of the saints. Paris, 1987
vi« Lutheranism tolerates the world through the cross, suffering and martyrdom; Calvinism masters this world for the glory of God through unremitting toil. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909
vii« Lutheranism remained confined to its country of origin, Germany, and Scandinavia. Calvinism has acquired a worldwide status. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909.
viii« If one wanted to have one, in that very thing one would hurt evangelical freedom, one would renounce the principle of the Reformation, one would violate the law of the State. J.J. Rousseau. Letters written from the mountains.
xviiThe Christian Institution, II,3,5. Chapter 2 of Book II has the title: « That man is now stripped of the free will of the freewill and miserably subject to all evil.
xviii« God puts the sword and the power in the hands of those whom it pleases Him to set over others. Lessons from the book of Daniel’s prophecies, Geneva, 1569
xix« It must be enough for us that they preside. For they have not ascended to this high degree by their own virtue: but they have been put there by the hand of the Lord. « Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, XIII, 1
xx« It is not for us to inquire into what right and title a prince has to rule… and whether he has that of rightful succession and inheritance. Sermons on the First Epistle to Timothy, Sermon 46, vol. LIII
xxxvi Five years after turning away from Manichaeism and a year after his baptism, Augustine wrote De libero arbitrio, Of free will. In it, freedom of will is described as a means for God to punish man with the evils of the world. God modifies the initially perfect world to make it an instrument of justice exercised over man, justice rightly exercised since man is free and responsible.
xxxviiiH. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 2nd part. Theological Absolutism and Man’s Self-affirmation.
xxxixCf. Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du purgatoire.
xlOne thinks of the manifestly Gnostic texts of C.G. Jung, Seven Sermons to the Dead in Symbolic Life, Psychology and Religious Life, and ofHenry Corbin, Heavenly Earth and Body of Resurrection: from Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Islam.
xliCf. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics. « The Reformation clearly marked a period in Western history: that of a successful invasion of Western institutions by the Gnostic movements. (…) Calvin’s work can be considered as the first Koran deliberately Gnostic. »
The Greek word logos means « reason » or « discourse, speech ».
In Plato’s philosophy, the Logos is the Principle and the Word. It is also the Whole of all the Intelligible, as well as the link between the divine powers, and what founds their unity. Finally, it is the « intermediary » between man and God.
For Philo of Alexandria, a Neo-Platonist Jew, the Logos takes two forms. In God, the Logos is the divine Intelligence, the Eternal Thought, the Thoughtful Thought. In its second form, the Logos resides in the world, it is the Thought in action, the Thought realized outside God.
Written shortly after Philo’s active years, the Gospel of John says that « in the beginning » there was the Logos who was God, and the Logos who was with God i. There was also the Logos who was made fleshii.
Does this mean that there are three instances of the Logos? The Logos who is God, the Logos who is with Him and the Logos who became flesh?
In Christian theology, there is only one Logos. Yet the three divine ‘instances’ of the Logos quoted by John have also been personified as Father, Son, Spirit.
For the structuralist philosopher, it is possible to sum up these difficult theses in a pragmatic way. The Logos comes in three forms or aspects: Being, Thinking, Speaking. That what is, that what thinks and that what speaks. These three forms are, moreover, fundamental states, from which everything derives, and with which anybody can find an analogy pointing to the fundamental human condition (existence, intelligence, expression).
Philo, who is both a Jew and a Neoplatonist, goes quite far with the theory of the Logos, despite the inherent difficulty of reconciling the unity of God and the multiplication of His ‘instances’ (that the Kabbalah, much later on, called ‘sefirot‘). For Philo, the Logos is the totality of God’s Ideas. These Ideas act “like seals, which when approached to the wax produce countless imprints without being affected in any way, always remaining the same.”iii
All things that exist in the universe derive from an Idea, a « seal ». The Logos is the general seal whose imprint is the entire universe.iv
Philo’s Logos is not « personified ». The Logos is the Organ of God (both His Reason and His Word) playing a role in the Creation. Philo multiplies metaphors, analogies, drawing from divine, human and natural images. The Logos is creation, engendering, speech, conception, or flow, radiation, dilatation. Using a political image, God « reigns », the Logos « governs ».
Philo’s thinking about the Logos is complex and confusing. A 19th century commentator judged that « a tremendous confusion is at the basis of Philo’s system »v. Allegedly, Philo seems to mix up Logos (Word), Pneuma (Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom) and Epistemus (Knowledge).
Wisdom seems to play the same role in relation to the Logos as the thinking Thought (Spirit) of God plays in relation to the world of the Intelligible. Wisdom is the deep source of this world of the Intelligible, and at the same time it is identical with it.
There is no logical quirk in this paradox. Everything comes from the nature of the divine Spirit, in which no distinction can be made between « container » and « content ».
The Logos is thus both the Author of the Law and the Law itself, the spirit and the letter of its content. The Logos is the Law, and the Logos is also its enunciator, its revelator.vi
The Logos is, in the universe, the Divine brought back to unity. He is also the intermediary between this unity and God. Everything which constitutes the Logos is divine, and everything which is divine, apart from the essence of God, is the Logos.
These ideas, as has been said, have been sometimes described as a « philosophical hodgepodge »; they seem to demonstrate a « lack of rigor »vii on the part of Philo, according to certain harsh judgments.
However, what strikes me is that Philo and John, at about the same historical period, the one immediately preceding the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and independently of each other, specified the contours of a theophany of the Logos, with clear differences but also deep common structures.
What is even more striking is that, over the centuries, the Logos of the Stoics, the Platonic Noos, the Biblical Angel of the Eternal, the Word of YHVH, the Judeo-Alexandrine Logos, or the ‘Word made flesh‘, the Messiah of the first Christian Church, have succeeded one another. All these figures offer their analogies and differences.
As already said, the main difficulty, however, for a thinker like Philo, was to reconcile the fundamental unity of God, the founding dogma of Judaism, and His multiple, divine emanations, such as the Law (the Torah), or His Wisdom (Hokhma).
On a more philosophical level, the difficulty was to think a Thought that exists as a Being, that also unfolds as a living, free, creative entity, and that finally ´reveals´ herself as the Word — in the world.
There would certainly be an easy (negative) solution to this problem, a solution that « modern » and « nominalist » thinkers, cut off from these philosophical roots, would willingly employ: it would be to simply send the Logos and the Noos, the Angel and the incarnate Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel back into the dustbin of empty abstractions, of idealistic chimera.
I do not opt for such an easy solution. It seems to me contrary to all the clues accumulated by History.
I believe that the Spirit, as it manifests itself at a very modest level in each one of us, does not come from biochemical mechanisms, from synaptic connections. I believe it is precisely the opposite.
Our brain multiplies cellular and neuronal networks, in order to try to grasp, to capture at our own level, what the Spirit can let us see of its true, inner nature, its fundamental essence.
The brain, the human body, the peoples of different nations and, as such, the whole of humanity are, in their own unique way, immense collective ´antennae´, whose primary mission is to capture the diffuse signs of a creative Intelligence, and build a consciousness out of it.
The greatest human geniuses do not find their founding ideas at the unexpected crossroads of a few synapses, or thanks to haphazard ionic exchanges. Rather, they are « inspired » by a web of thoughtful Thoughts, in which all living things have been immersed since the beginning.
As a clue, I propose this image : When I think, I think that I am; then I think that this thought is part of a Thought that lives, and endless becomes; and I think of this Thought, which never stops thinking, never ceases to think, eternally, the Thought that continues « to be », and that never stops being without thinking, and that never stops thinking without being.
Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).
As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.
One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).
This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».
Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii
Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv
Man is therefore only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow can evoke a dream, according to Philo. He quotes the verse: « God will make himself known to him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).
In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.
The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.
« Listen carefully to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my household. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? » v
God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (ba–halom בַּחֲלוֹם ).
But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).
Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.
How can this be explained?
Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».
Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.
Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »
If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.
It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…
Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.
Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.
Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?
The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.
1In Hebrew, tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »
Not only prophets have visions. Poets also are « seers ». Thus, Henri Michaux. He has gone up to the « silent theater of the heights (…) towards the beyond that appears, disappears and reappears.”i
But what did Michaux really « see »?
The afterlife is not within everyone’s reach. One needs calm eyes, gentle nerves. Rare are the direct witnesses, those who have seen the beyond of the world, the infinite, acute, nascent, initial abyss, rising straight up beyond the heavens, effortlessly eluding all known peaks.
The effort is above all in coming back. The memory is overwhelmed. Intelligence wavers in its doubt. Faith is blind. Returning, whoever has seen it recognizes it here and there, in obscure verses, heard silences, allusive sentences.
In the middle of a page, a word, an echo perhaps, an infinitesimal resonance.
« Perhaps the heavens are opening up.”ii This is not a hypothesis, it is an observation. « An Auguste Presence came to the destitute.” The following question is not formal:
Michaux, who knows the weight of words, finally gives up and multiplies the « suspension points », as many points as it takes to equal the last line.
Perhaps they are more suitable than ‘unzipping’?
The poet takes the risk of words. He tries to say what he may not have seen, what he may have sensed. He embarks on a narrow path, in the Paris of the avenues, the city of lights. He calls for his help, the skilful writer, words in capital letters:
Capital letters, again, this is a serious matter. Michaux found his mistress in vision, without mescaline, — and he asks questions:
« To whom does the supernatural appear?
Commonly to children, not at all brilliant, far from the cities, from the walls. Not very enviable, one would not distinguish them, neither too studious, nor very pious, without any special quality, from a modest environment, knowing especially the discomfort, in a small lost village. They are not liars.”viii
But the appearance does not stop there. The vision is only a step. There is the rest. The healing, which strikes the crowds, and even the devious clergymen:
« And who heals? In whom does the supernatural healing take place? »
We are no longer in the realm of convention. Already in their afterlife.
« In a multi-religious country, while many pious people pray in vain near the tomb of a Catholic monk, as they themselves are, a Shiite woman who knows nothing about the Christian religion is healed in the moment (but does not convert). She had confidence and a faith as one should have it, overwhelming, a rare, exceptional treasure.”ix
Michaux wonders: « In whom exactly did she have faith? Secret.”x
Can « modern » people help to see things clearly?
« What about scientists?
One day perhaps, taking the embarrassing problem from another angle, science will find in the brain, thanks to a more precise location of a point in the organism that controls a self-healing function (under the effect of intense emotion), and will in turn approach the miracle with its own means and will even want to produce it coldly, in some cases replacing in its own way the exaltation of faith. Spoiling here, improving there in the unexpected, opening the door to new mysteries.”xi
Miracle, exaltation, unexpected, mystery: all the words point to still other questions. There is never an end to it. It’s better this way. The victories (in this case putative) of science would be, in this matter, pyrrhic. Or a miracle point nested at the bottom of the pineal gland. What if it is? Why does this point activate? Under the effect of an « intense emotion »? But where does this emotion come from? What creates it, what gives it its energy? The body is not an island. The soul is linked to the body, a little, and to the beyond, even more so, if we believe the « daughter of the mountain ».
Not that she said anything later. She discouraged questions. She avoided declarations of faith. Her silence still speaks.
The most remote historical traces of the appearance of monotheistic feeling date back to the time of Amenophis IV, born around 1364 BC. This Egyptian pharaoh, worshipper of the unique God Aten, took the name of Akhenaten, as a sign of the religious revolution he initiated in the Nile valley. The abbreviated fate of his monotheistic « heresy » is known.
Around two centuries later, monotheism reappeared in history with the strange figure of Melchisedech (in Hebrew מַלְכֵּי־צֶדֶק ), high priest of El-Elyon (‘God the Most High’) and king of Salem. It was Melchisedech who gave his blessing to Abram (Abraham), when Abram came to pay him homage and tribute.i
Coming long after Akhenaten, neither Melchisedech nor Abraham obviously « invented » monotheism. The monotheistic idea had already penetrated the consciousness of peoples for several centuries. But they can be credited with having embodied the first « archived » trace of it in the biblical text.
The pure, hard, monotheistic idea has an austere beauty, a shimmering, icy or burning one, depending on the point of view. Taken philosophically, it is the intuition of the One mingled with the idea of the Whole. This simplicity of conception and abstraction reduced to the essential have something restful and consoling about them. Without doubt, the mineral lines of the deserts helped to overshadow the confused and abundant vegetal multiplicity of animism or polytheism, which had blossomed in less severe, greener, landscapes.
A simple idea, monotheism has a revolutionary power. The idea of a single God inevitably leads to the idea of a universal God, which can disturb acquired habits, hinder power interests. In principle, the idea of the « universal » may also have as an unintended consequence the crush of more « local » cultures and traditions.
But Abraham and Moses were able to combine the idea of a single, transcendent, « universal » God with the idea of a « tribal », « national » God, committed to a “chosen” people as « Lord of Hosts », Yahweh Tsabaoth.
The covenant of a “universal” God with a particular, « chosen » people may seem a priori an oxymoron. The election of Israel seems to contradict the universal vocation of a God who transcends human divisions. There is one possible explanation, however. This seemingly contradictory idea was, according to all appearances, the very condition for its deployment and epigenesis, as witnessed in history. It was necessary for a specific people – rather than any particular people – to embody and defend the idea, before it was finally accepted and defended in the rest of the nations.
The monotheistic idea also leads, by an almost natural derivation, to the idea of a personal God, a God to whom man may speak and say « you », a God who also speaks, hears and answers, who may appear or remain silent, present all His glory, or remain desperately absent. The idea of a “personal” God, through its anthropomorphism, is opposed to that of an abstract God, an inconceivable, perpendicular, inalienable principle, transcending everything that the human mind can conceive. What could be more anthropomorphic, in fact, than the concept of « person »? Isn’t this concept, therefore, fundamentally at odds with the essence of a God who is absolutely « Other »?
When, within Judaism, a young village carpenter and rabbi, a good orator and versed in the Scriptures, appeared in Galilee two thousand years ago, Abrahamic monotheism took a seemingly new direction. The One God could also, according to Rabbi Yehoshua of Nazareth, become incarnate freely, « otherwise », through a new understanding of His revelation, His Essence, His Spirit.
But to be fair, from ancient times, other people of different lore had already been thinking about the idea of a Deity with multiple manifestations – without contradiction.
The Indian grammarian Yāska reports in his Nirukta, which is the oldest treatise on the language of the Veda, that according to the original Vedic authors, the deity could be represented by three gods, Savitri, Agni and Vâyu. Savitri means « producer » or « Father ». His symbol is the Sun. Agni, his « Son », has the Fire as his symbol. Vâyu is the Spirit, with Wind as its symbol.
The oldest historically recorded form in which the idea of the divine trinity appears is therefore based on an analogy, term by term, between the material world (the Sun, Fire and Wind) and the metaphysical world (the Father, Son and Spirit).
The Sanskritist Émile Burnouf reports that when the Vedic priest pours clarified butter on Fire (Agni), “Agni” then takes the name of « Anointed One » (in Sanskrit: akta).
Note that « Anointed » is translated in Hebrew as mashia’h, meaning « messiah ».
Agni, the Fire who became the Anointed One, becomes, at the moment of the « anointing », the very mediator of the sacrifice, the one who embodies its ultimate meaning.
Burnouf noted the structural analogy of the Vedic sacrifice with the figure of the Christic sacrifice. « The center from which all the great religions of the earth have radiated is therefore the theory of Agni, of which Christ Jesus was the most perfect incarnation.”ii
Agni, – universal paradigm, « mother idea »? Agni is for the Aryas the principle of all life. All the movements of inanimate things proceed from heat, and heat proceeds from the Sun, which is the « Universal Engine », but also the « Celestial Traveller ». During the Vedic sacrifice, a sacred fire is lit which is the image of the universal agent of Life, and by extension, the image of Thought, the symbol of the Spirit.
Long after the first Vedic prayers had been chanted to Savitri, Agni, Vâyu, some (Judeo-)Christians believers said in their turn and in their own way, even before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem had occurred: « I believe in the Father, the Son and the Spirit ».
However this Trinitarian formula was admittedly not “Jewish”, since Judaism presented itself as fiercely monotheistic.
But from the point of view of its formal structure, we can say with some level of credibility that it was partly the result of Zoroastrian, Avestic and, more originally, Vedic influences.
In yet another cultural area, the Chinese, the ancient Trinitarian intuition of the divine is also proven. The highest gods of the Tao form a trinity, the « Three Pure Ones » (Sān Qīng , 三清 ).
The first member of the supreme triad is called the Celestial Venerable of the Original Beginning (元始天尊 Yuanshi Tianzun). This God has other names that it is interesting to list: Supreme God Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝 Yuhuang Shangdi), Great God Emperor of Jade (玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi), or Celestial Treasure (天寶 Tianbao) and finally God of Mystery (玄帝 Xuandi), which is an abbreviation of Supreme God Celestial Mystery (玄天上帝 Xuantian Shangdi).
From these various names it can be deduced that this God is at the « beginning », that He is at the « origin », that He is « supreme », that He is « mystery ».
By analogy with the Christian trinitarian system, this first God of the Taoist trinity could appear as the « Father » God.
The second member of the supreme triad, the Venerable Heavenly One of the Spiritual Treasure (靈寶天尊 Lingbao Tianzun), is also called Lord of the Way (道君 Daojun).
In Christianity, God the « Son » said of Himself that He is « the Way, the Truth, the Life ». The analogy of the « Son » with the « Lord of the Way » is obvious.
The third God of the supreme triad is the Venerated Heavenly One of the Divine Treasure (神寶天尊 Shenbao Tianzun). He is also called the Most High Patriarch Prince or the Old Lord of Supreme Height (太上老君 Taishang Laojun), better known as the Old Child (老子 Laozi).
In Christian symbolism, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, flying through the air. The analogy allows for a certain approximation of the Holy Spirit with the Lord of Supreme Height.
Vedism, Taoism and Christianity share, as can be seen, the intuition of a supreme and unique divine entity which diffracts into three representationsiii.
iii In my opinion, it may be possible to also find a possible equivalent to this trinitarian intuition in Judaism, with the Eternal (YHVH), the Torah and the Shekhinah. The Torah is « divine ». It is said that the Torah existed before the world was even created. And the Torah was also able to « incarnate » itself in some specific way. The Zohar ‘Hadach (Shir haShirim 74b) teaches that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. If we do an exact count, we find that the Torah actually contains 304,805 letters. In any case, it is certain that the divine Torah has allowed itself to « incarnate » in a « certain number » of Hebrew letters… The Shekhinah also incarnates the divine « presence ». A single divine entity, therefore, and three representations.
The fables that people tell each other, the myths they construct for themselves, the stories that clothe their memory, help them to build their supposed identity, and enable them to distinguish themselves from other peoples.
Through the magic of words, « barbarians », « idolaters », « savages » and « infidels » appear in the imaginations of some peoples.
But with the hindsight of history and anthropology, we sometimes find strange similarities, disturbing analogies, between peoples who are so diverse, so distant, separated from each other by a priori ostracisms.
Many peoples resemble each other in that they all believe that they only are « unique », « special ». They believe that they are the only people in the world who are who they are, who believe in what they believe, who think what they think.
We can apply this observation to the religious fact.
The « monotheistic » religion, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, a single people. If the primacy of monotheistic worship is often associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews, it is because we often forget that another form of monotheism was invented in Egypt by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), several centuries before Abraham. Moses himself, according to Freud, but also according to the recent conclusions of some of the best informed Egyptologists, would have been, in his first life, a defrocked priest of the God Aten, and would have taken advantage of the Exodus to claim the laws and symbols of what was to define Judaism.
The idea of monotheism, far from being reserved for the Nile valley or the foothills of the Sinai, appeared in other cultures, in Vedic India or in the Avesta of ancient Iran.
In Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religion (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, but also in Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), one finds curious and striking similarities between certain avestic formulas and biblical formulas.
In the Zend Avesta, we read that Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepted and gave him twenty of them.
The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».
The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the best purity ».
The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».
The eighth translates into « I am Knowledge ».
The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».
The twentieth is Mazdao, which means: « I am He who is ».
It is easy to see that these formulas are taken up as they are in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected meeting of great minds or a deliberate borrowing? The most notable equivalence of formulation is undoubtedly « I am He who is », taken up word for word in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).
Max Müller concludes: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”
It is also instructive to note the analogies between the conception of Genesis in the Bible and the ideas that prevailed among the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians or Indians about « Creation ».
Thus, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בָּרַא, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to draw out of nothing », but rather in the sense of « to cut, carve, sculpt, flatten, polish », from a pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.
Some proper nouns, too, evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the parsi, Eshem-dev , which is the demon of lust, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.
Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).
In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.
It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.
And the very names of these countries, if they mean so much to us, it is probably because, by contrast, the cultures of earlier, « pre-historic » ages have left precisely little trace. But it is easy to imagine that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic also had an intuition of the Whole and the One.
In Egypt, two Coptic churches suffered suicide attacks during Palm Sunday in April 2017. This Christian feast, a week before Easter, recalls the day when Jesus, riding on a donkey, entered Jerusalem, welcomed by jubilant inhabitants, brandishing branches and palms as a sign of enthusiasm. Jesus was arrested shortly afterwards and crucified.
Jihadists came to Tanta and Alexandria. They blew themselves up in the midst of the crowd of the faithful. The globalized jihad preferably chooses weak targets, and seeks to provoke hatred and rage, to inflame resentment between peoples, to set religions against each other.
The policies of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who had just been re-elected, undoubtedly had something to do with Daech’s radicalisation in that country. But many other, more distant, deeper causes contributed to this umpteenth attack.
The New York Times wrote an ambiguous and somewhat hypocritical editorial after the attack, an excerpt of which reads as follows: « The struggle against terrorism is not a ‘war’ that can be won if only the right strategy is found. It is an ongoing struggle against enormously complex and shifting forces that feed on despair, resentment and hatred, and have the means in a connected world to spread their venom far and wide.”i
For the columnist of the New York Times, « jihad » is not a « war » that could be won, for example, with a « good strategy ». It is not a « war », it is a continuous « struggle » against forces of « enormous complexity » that are constantly shifting and feeding on « despair, resentment and hatred ».
Not a word in the article, however, to attempt to shed light on this ‘complexity’ or to delve deeper into the origin of this ‘despair’, ‘resentment’ and ‘hatred’. The New York Times merely warns readers not to give in to despair, panic or hatred themselves. Not a word about the policies of the Western powers in this part of the world for more than a century. Not a word about the responsibility of countries like England or France for sharing the spoils of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
Not a word about decolonization, after the Second World War, or the consequences of the Cold War. The self-serving involvement of powers such as the United States and the USSR is not analyzed.
Nor, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The collapse of Libya, facilitated by a coalition of Western countries, does not lend itself to any analysis either.
The New York Times cannot give a history lesson, and recapitulate all the woes of the world in each of its editorials. But the focus of this particular article on the « despair », « hatred » and « resentment » of the jihadists deserves at least the beginnings of an explanation.
Writing about these subjects is difficult, but it is not « extraordinarily complex ». Even a Donald Trump, in the midst of an election campaign, and with known success, was able to address some aspects of it through tweets, and to point to the direct responsibility of the Bushes, father and son, in this never-ending « fight ».
The White House spokesman had to apologize publicly for stating that even Hitler did not use chemical weapons during the Second World War. This statement, both fanciful and outrageous, was supposed to underline the seriousness of Assad’s crimes and to justify an increase in the bombing of Syria by the United States, increasing the general confusion and making it even more difficult to perceive a possible political outcome in that part of the world.
In a few centuries, perhaps, the distant descendants of the Western voters in whose name these policies were implemented will analyze the responsibilities and judge the strategies deployed in the Middle East throughout the last century, after the launch of the « Great Game » deployed for the greater good of the British Empire.
Today, this Empire is no more. The few crumbs that remain, like Gibraltar, could prove embarrassing to the British ultra-nationalists who dream of Brexit, and who are trying to regain the glory of yesteryear in splendid independence.
Let us try a little utopia. Tomorrow, or in a few centuries’ time, people may decide to put an end to the « long » history and its heavy consequences. All we have to do is look back to the depths of the past, to see the layering of plans, the differentiation of ages. Tomorrow, the entire modern era will be nothing more than an outdated and abolished moment of a bygone past, and an exorbitant testimony to the folly of mankind.
Islam has only thirteen centuries of existence, Christianity twenty centuries and Mosaic Judaism about thirty-two centuries.
Egypt, by contrast, is not lacking in memory. From the top of the pyramids, well over forty centuries contemplate the suburbs of Cairo. Two thousand years before the appearance of Judaism, Ancient Egypt already possessed a very elaborate religion, in which the essential question was not that of « monotheism » and « polytheism », but rather the profound dialectic of the One (the Creator, the original God), and the Multiple (the myriad of His manifestations, of His names).
In the Texts of the sarcophagi, which are among the oldest written texts of humanity, we read that the Creator God declared: « I have not commanded (humanity) to do evil (jzft); their hearts have disobeyed my words.”ii
The Egyptologist Erik Hornung gives this interpretation: Human beings are responsible for this evil. They are also responsible for their birth, and for the darkness that allows evil to enter their hearts.
The gods of Egypt can be terrifying, unpredictable, but unlike men, they do not want evil. Even Set, the murderer of Osiris, was not the symbol of absolute evil, but only the necessary executor of the world order.
« The battle, the constant confrontation, the confusion, and the questioning of the established order, actions in which Set engaged, are necessary characteristics of the existing world and of the limited disorder that is essential to a living order. Gods and men must, however, see to it that disorder never comes to overthrow justice and order; this is the meaning of their common obligation towards Maat.»iii
The concept of Maat in ancient Egypt represents the order of the world, the right measure of things. It is the initial and final harmony, the fundamental state willed by the Creator God. « Like the wounded and perpetually healed ‘eye of Horus’, Maat symbolizes this primary state of the world.”iv
The Egyptians considered Maat to be a substance that makes the whole world « live », that makes the living and the dead, gods and men « live ». The Texts of the Sarcophagi say that the gods « live on Maat« .
The idea of Maat is symbolized by a seated goddess wearing the hieroglyph of an ostrich feather on her head. Pharaoh Ramses II is represented offering this symbolic image of Maat to the God Ptah.
Maat‘s offering has a strong charge of meaning. What the God Ptah wants is to be known in the hearts of men, because it is there that the divine work of creation can acquire its true meaning.
Maat emanated from the Creator God at the time of creation. But it is through men that Maat must return to God. In the Egyptian religion, Maat represents the original « link » or « covenant » between God and man. It is this « link », this « covenant », that must be made to live with Maat.
If men turn away from this « covenant », if men remain silent, if they show indifference towards Maat, then they fall into the « non-existent », – according to the ancient Egyptian religion. This silence, this indifference, only testifies to their nothingness.
The Coptic bodies horribly torn apart by the explosions in Alexandria and Tanta are like the dismembered body of Osiris.
By the strength of her spirit, by the power of her « magic », Isis allowed the resurrection of Osiris. Similarly, the Palms announce Easter and the resurrection of God.
What could be the current global metaphor that would be equivalent to the « resurrection » of Osiris or the « resurrection » celebrated at Easter?
What current word could fill the absence of meaning, the abysmal absurdity, the violence of hatred, in this world?
Egyptian blood flowed again in the Nile Delta, and bodies were violently dismembered.
Where is the Isis who will come to resurrect them?
The ancient Greeks were not content with their twelve principal gods and a host of minor gods. They also worshipped an « Unknown God » (Agnostos Theos, Ἄγνωστος Θεός ).
Paul of Tarsus, in his efforts to evangelise, was aware of this and decided to take advantage of it. He made a speech on the Agora of Athens:
« Athenians, in every respect you are, I see, the most religious of men. Walking through your city and considering your sacred monuments, I found an altar with the inscription: « To the unknown god ». Well, what you worship without knowing it, I have come to tell you. »i
He had little success, however, with the Athenians. Perhaps his rhetoric was not sufficiently sharp. The tradition of the « unknown God » was, it is true, already very old, and known far beyond Greece. For example, in India, in the texts of the Vedas, some two thousand years before Paul discovered it in Athens.
The Vedic priests prayed to a God whom they called « Which? », which was a very grammatical solution to signifying their ignorance, and a subtle way of opening wide the doors of the possible.
The God « Which » alone represented all the known and unknown gods with a single interrogative pronoun. Remarkable economy of means. Strong evocative power, subsuming all possible gods, real or imaginary, gods of all ages, peoples, cultures.
The Vedic priests used to repeat as a refrain: « To which God shall we offer the holocaust? », which may be in a way equivalent to saying: « To the God ‘Which’, we shall we offer the holocaust…”ii
The Vedas made of this « question » a repeated invocation, and a litany simultaneously addressed to the one God, the only Sovereign of the universe, the only life-giving God, the only God above all gods, and indeed « blessed » by them all.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
He alone was the sovereign-born of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He who gives life and strength,
him whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only its shadow!
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
There are several monotheistic religions that claim to know and state the name of the God they claim as their God. But if this God is indeed the one, supreme God, then is not His Name also essentially One? And this Name must be far above all the names given by men, it obviously transcends them. But many religions, too self-assured, do not hesitate to multiply the names « revealed », and to this unique God they give not one name, but three, ten, thirteen, ninety-nine or a thousand.
A God whose « reign », « power » and « glory » fill heaven and earth, no doubt the epithets and attributes can be multiplied, giving rise to the multiplicity of His putative names.
It seems to me that in the Veda, the idea of God, the idea of a God as being too elusive in the nets of language, perhaps comes closest to its essence when named as a question.
We will say again, no doubt, long into the distant future, and beyond the millennia, with the Vedas: Which God?
A French, self-styled “philosopher”, Michel Onfray, affirmed recently that « the Judeo-Christian civilisation is in a terminal phase.”i
His statement is ruthless, definitive, without appeal: « Judeo-Christianity has reigned for almost two millennia. An honourable length of time for a civilisation. The civilization that will replace it will also be replaced. A question of time. The ship is sinking: we still have to sink with elegance »ii.
Onfray uses the metaphor of « sinking ». The ship “sinks”. This is not, I think, a good image to depict « decadence ». The sinking is sudden, rapid, terminal. Decadence is long, soft, indecisive, and sometimes it even generates rebirths.
It is precisely the possible rebirth of our civilization that deserves reflection. History is teeming with « decadent » periods. Rebirths are rarer, but possible, and merit attention.
A century ago, Oswald Spengler famously glossed over The Decline of the West, a two-volume book published in 1918 and 1922.
In the previous century, Nietzsche had powerfully erupted against the « decadence » of Western culture. He had a piercing vision, and according to him, Euripides was the first to detect the premises of this, with the « decadence of the Greek tragedy », which was a sign of what was to follow.
The metaphor of decadence, as we can see, easily flourishes under the pen of « thinkers ».
But what seems more interesting to me, assuming that decadence is effective, is what may happen afterwards. After the darkening of the misleading suns, is a new dawn conceivable? After the general collapse, what renewal is possible? Where to find the forces, the energy, the resources, the ideas, to invent another world?
Onfray, a convinced atheist, and aggressively anti-Christian, thinks on this subject that Islam has a role to play. « Islam is strong with a planetary army made up of countless believers ready to die for their religion, for God and his Prophet.”iii
Alongside this strength, what Jesus represents is only « a fable for children », says Onfray.
In Moscow, when I lived there, on assignment for UNESCO, I sometimes met real tough Russians, of the kind FSB or ex-KGB, who spoke directly : » You Westerners, you are like children.”
Is Russia herself decadent? I don’t know. What is certain is that Russians are proud of their history and geography. They stopped the Mongol invasions, beat Napoleon, resisted at Stalingrad, and hunted Hitler down in his bunker. And their country covers eleven time zones, giving meaning to the political and philosophical utopia of a « Eurasia » of which Russia would be the soul.
The West, condemned by Mr. Onfray to its impending demise, also has some occasions for pride. It has a number of inventions, several masterpieces, and social and political institutions, which are apparently healthier and more « democratic » than elsewhere. And yet, decadence is on the horizon, says Mr. Onfray.
That may be possible. There are some worrying signs. But the world is changing fast, and it is shrinking rapidly, as we all know. The metaphor of decadence, because it is a metaphor, is not very original. What is most lacking today is not to shed crocodile tears over the past, but to propose new ideas, a new breath of fresh air, not for the benefit of the « West », but on a whole human scale. The world needs a « great narrative », a global vision, and a credible utopia, for urgent global issues, such as that of a world union of governments, and finances fair taxation, on a global scale. “Childish dreams” as would say FSB guys?
Planet Earth is overpopulated, in a state of accelerated compression. Massive urbanization, climate change, and the phenomenal impoverishment of the world’s fauna and flora deserve a reflection of planetary scope.
The challenges are also economic and social. The 4th industrial revolution has begun. Massive unemployment due to the ubiquitous applications of artificial intelligence, to large-scale robotization, to deficient or misguided policies based without shame on misinformation or systematic lies, to sidereal inequalities: all the components of a global civil war are there, in potency.
Unless an astounding, superior, unheard of idea emerges, bearing a common vision for Humankind as a whole.
Yesterday, socialism, communism, the idea of equality, fraternity or solidarity could make the « masses » dream for a few decades. On the other hand, conservatism, individualism, capitalism, entrepreneurial freedom, have played their cards in the world liar’s poker.
What does the future hold? More and more conservatism, capitalism and individualism? Or openly fascist forms of social control? We know today more than yesterday the limits, the deviations, the diversions and excesses of the old ideals.
Threats are rising on all sides. The old ideologies have failed. What can be done?
Humanity must become aware of its nature and its strength. It must become aware of its destiny. Humanity has a vocation for ultra-humanity, surpassing itself in a new synthesis, a new emergence, a mutation of world civilization.
General unemployment, for example, could be excellent news: it signals the assured end of the current model, the establishment of a universal income, and the end of predatory capitalism. Billions of unemployed and increasingly educated people cannot be ignored. They will not let themselves starve at the doors of banks and ultra-rich ghettos. There is bound to be a reaction.
The immense and global massa damnata, created by a lawless capitalism, will necessarily regain « common » control over the world’s wealth, which is immense but now monopolized by the 0.01%, and will find a way to distribute it equitably in order to provide a human income for all.
The enormous amounts of time freed up by the « end of work » will then be able to be mobilized to do everything that machines, algorithms and capital cannot do: better educate, care for people, freely invent, really create, humanely socialize, sustainably develop, obviously love.
The promiscuity of religions, races and peoples will impose – by force – a new ultra-human, meta-philosophical, meta-religious civilization.
Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, will have to move together to a higher level of understanding of their respective doctrines, to reach their essential and already common core, the unique core of what still stands as the “mystery” of the universe.
All this will happen in the coming decades. Let there be no doubt about it. Not that men will become wiser. But the osmotic pressure of necessity will make the eyes open, make the scales fall off, will circumcise the minds.
iMichel Onfray.Décadence. De Jésus au 11 septembre, vie et mort de l’Occident. Flammarion. 2017
Aristotle says that happiness lies in contemplationi. Contemplation is for man the highest possible activity. It allows him to reach an otherwise unreachable level of consciousness, by fully mobilizing the resources of his own « noos ».
Greek philosophy places the « noos » or “noûs” (νοῦς ) well above the « logos » (λόγος), just as it privileges intuition over reason.
The νοῦς represents the faculty of vision, contemplation, – of the mind.
The word contemplation comes from the Latin templum, which originally means « the square space delimited by the augur in the sky and on earth, within which he collects and interprets omens ».ii
By extension, the templum can mean the entire sky (templa caeli, literally: « the temples of the sky »), but also the infernal regions, or the plains of the sea.
« To contemplate » initially means, therefore, « to look at the sky », — in order to watch for signs of the divine will.
Christianity has not hesitated to value the idea of contemplation, even though it is borrowed from Greek and Latin « paganism ». S. Augustine proposed a classification of the degrees of growth and consciousness of the soul. In a scale of seven levels, he places contemplation at the pinnacleiii.
Degree 1: The soul « animates » (plants).
Degree 2 : The soul « feels and perceives » (animals).
Degree 3 : The soul produces « knowledge, reason and the arts » (men).
Degree 4: The soul gains access to the « Virtus » (virtue, moral sense).
Degree 5: The soul obtains « Tranquillitas » (a state of consciousness in which death is no longer feared).
Degree 6: The soul reaches the « Ingressio » (« the approach »).
Degree 7 : The soul surrenders to the « Contemplatio » (the final « vision »).
Ingressio implies an appetite for knowledge and understanding of higher realities. The soul directs its gaze upwards, and from then on, nothing agitates it or distracts it from this search. It is taken by an appetite to understand what is true and sublime (Appetitio intellegendi ea quae vere summeque sunt).
At the very top of this ladder of consciousness is « contemplation », that is, the « vision of the divine ».
Modern thought is rather incapable of accounting for this « contemplation » or « vision ». But this does not prevent some “modern” thinkers from being somewhat titillated by the general idea of contemplation.
For example, Gilles Deleuze said a few words about contemplation in one of his courses, -though in a rather clumsy style, which I am rendering here as faithfully as possible: « This is exactly what Plotinus tells us: everything rejoices, everything rejoices in itself, and it rejoices in itself because it contemplates the other. You see, – not because it rejoices in itself. Everything rejoices because it contemplates the other. Everything is a contemplation, and that is what makes everything happy. That is to say, joy is full contemplation. Joy rejoices in itself as its contemplation is filled. And of course it is not itself that joy contemplates. As joy contemplates the other thing, it fills itself up. The thing fills with itself as it contemplates the other thing. And he [Plotinus] says: and not only animals, not only souls, but you and I, we are self-filled contemplations. We are small joys.”iv
“Self-filled contemplations »? Small joys »? Is that it?
Deleuze is far more modest in his ambition than any past auguries, or Augustine! Quite shy of ever contemplating the divine!
From this, I infer that ´modernity´ is not well equipped, no doubt, to take up the thread of a meditation that has continuously obsessed seers since the dawn of humanity.
The shamans of the Palaeolithic, in the cave of the Pont d’Arc, known as the Chauvet cave, painted inspired metaphors by the glow of trembling torches. From which imagined vision, from which cervical lobe, did their inspiration come from?
The prophets of the Aurignacian « contemplated » under their fingers the appearance of « ideas » with a life of their own… They also saw the power that they had received, – to create worlds, and to share them, beyond tenths of millennia.
These ideas, these worlds, come now to move us, forty thousand years later.
How many “images” our own “modernity”, how many contemporary “ideas”, I ask, will still « move » humanity in forty thousand years from now?
There are five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether), and the human body has five parts that correspond to them. Between the feet and the knees is the level of the Earth. Between the knees and the anus is the level of Water. Between the anus and the heart, that of Fire. Between the heart and the eyebrows, that of Air. Between the eyebrows and the top of the skull, the Ether reigns.
That is not all. These five elements and these five parts of the body have divine correspondences.
Brahman rules the Earth, Viṣṇu Water, Rudra the Fire, Iṥvara Air and Ṥiva Ether.
What does this tight network of disparate relationships imply about the mutual relationships of these five Gods?
Iṥvara is the « Supreme Lord », but it is only one of Brahman‘s manifestations. If Brahman is the ultimate cosmic reality, why is it found between the feet and the knees, rather than at the top of the skull?
These questions are interesting, but they do not touch the essence of the problem. Symbolic systems have their own logic, which is an overall logic. It aims to grasp a Whole, to grasp a meaning of a higher order. What is important is to understand the general movement of symbolic thought, to catch its essential aim.
For example, let us consider the symbolism of the number 3 in the Vedic texts, – the symbolism of the triad.
« Three are the worlds, three are the Vedas, three are the functions of the Rite, all three are ‘three’. Three are the Fires of Sacrifice, three are the natural qualities. And all these triads are based on the three phonemes of the syllable AUṀ. Whoever knows this triad, to which we must add the nasal resonance, knows that on which the entire universe is woven. That which is truth and supreme reality.”i
The idea of the triad, which may appear a priori as nothing more than a systemic tic, refers in the Veda to a deeper idea, that of trinity.
The most apparent divine trinity in the Veda is that of Brahman, the Creator, Viṣṇu, the Protector and Ṥiva, the Destroyer.
Here is a brief theological-poetical interpretation, in which we will note the symphonic interpenetration of multiple levels of interpretation:
« Those who desire deliverance meditate on the Whole, the Brahman, the syllable AUṀ. In phoneme A, the first part of the syllable, Earth, Fire, Rig Veda, the exclamation « Bhūr » and Brahman, the creator, are born and will dissolve. In phoneme U, second part of the syllable, Space, Air, Yajur-Veda, the exclamation « Bhuvaḥ » and Viṣṇu, the Protector, are born and will dissolve. In the phoneme Ṁ are born and will dissolve Heaven, Light, Sama-Veda, the exclamation « Suvar » and Ṥiva, the Lord.”ii
In a unique, single syllable, the Word, the Vedas, the Worlds, the Gods are woven from the same knots, three times knotted.
Why three, and not two, four, five or six?
Two would be too simple, a metaphor for combat or the couple. Four forms two couples. Five is a false complexity and is only the addition of a couple and a triad. Six represents a couple of triads.
The idea of Three is the first simple idea, which comes after the idea of One, – the One from which everything comes, but about which nothing can be said. Three, in its complex simplicity, constitutes a kind of fundamental paradigm, combining the idea of unity and that of duality in a higher unity.
Long after the Vedas, Christianity also proposed a Trinity, that of the Creator God, the Word and the Spirit. It might be stimulating to try to see possible analogies between the Word and Viṣṇu, or between the Spirit and Ṥiva, but where would this ultimately lead us? To the conclusion that all religions come together?
It also seems very interesting to turn to the uncompromising monotheism(s), which apparently refuse any « association » with the idea of the One. Judaism, as we know, proclaims that God is One. But rabbinism and Kabbalah have not hesitated to multiply divine attributes or emanations.
The God of Genesis is a creator, in a way analogous to the Brahman. But the Bible also announces a God of Mercy, which recalls Viṣṇu, and it also proclaims the name of Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of Hosts, which could well correspond to Ṥiva, the Lord Destroyer.
One could multiply comparable examples and use them to make the hypothesis that rather recent religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, owe much to the experience of previous millennia. Anyone concerned with paleo-anthropology knows that the depths of humanity’s times possess even greater secrets.
But the important point I would like to stress here is not, as such, the symbol of the triad or the Trinitarian image.
They are, in the end, in the face of the mystery itself, only images, metaphors.
The important thing is not the metaphor, but what it leads us to seek.
Perhaps another triadic metaphor will help us to understand the very nature of this search:
« AUṀ is the bow, the mind is the arrow, and the Brahman is the target.”iii
More than two millennia B.C., in the middle of the Bronze Age, so-called « Indo-Aryan » peoples were settled in Bactria, between present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They left traces of a civilisation known as the Oxus civilisation (-2200, -1700). Then they migrated southwards, branching off to the left, towards the Indus plains, or to the right, towards the high plateau of Iran.
These migrant peoples, who had long shared a common culture, then began to differentiate themselves, linguistically and religiously, without losing their fundamental intuitions. This is evidenced by the analogies and differences between their respective languages, Sanskrit and Zend, and their religions, the religion of the Vedas and that of Zend-Avesta.
In the Vedic cult, the sacrifice of the Soma, composed of clarified butter, fermented juice and decoctions of hallucinogenic plants, plays an essential role. The Vedic Soma has its close equivalent in Haoma, in Zend-Avesta. The two words are in fact the same, if we take into account that the Zend language of the ancient Persians puts an aspirated h where the Sanskrit puts an s.
Soma and Haoma have a deep meaning. These liquids are transformed by fire during the sacrifice, and then rise towards the sky. Water, milk, clarified butter are symbols of the cosmic cycles. At the same time, the juice of hallucinogenic plants and their emanations contribute to ecstasy, trance and divination, revealing an intimate link between the chemistry of nature, the powers of the brain and the insight into divine realities.
The divine names are very close, in the Avesta and the Veda. For example, the solar God is called Mitra in Sanskrit and Mithra in Avesta. The symbolism linked to Mitra/Mithra is not limited to identification with the sun. It is the whole cosmic cycle that is targeted.
An Avestic prayer says: « In Mithra, in the rich pastures, I want to sacrifice through Haoma.”i
Mithra, the divine « Sun », reigns over the « pastures » that designate all the expanses of Heaven, and the entire Cosmos. In the celestial « pastures », the clouds are the « cows of the Sun ». They provide the milk of Heaven, the water that makes plants grow and that waters all life on earth. Water, milk and Soma, all liquid, have their common origin in the solar, celestial cows.
The Soma and Haoma cults are inspired by this cycle. The components of the sacred liquid (water, clarified butter, vegetable juices) are carefully mixed in a sacred vase, the samoudra. But the contents of the vase only take on their full meaning through the divine word, the sacred hymn.
« Mortar, vase, Haoma, as well as the words coming out of Ahura-Mazda‘s mouth, these are my best weapons.”ii
Soma and Haoma are destined for the Altar Fire. Fire gives a life of its own to everything it burns. It reveals the nature of things, illuminates them from within by its light, its incandescence.
« Listen to the soul of the earth; contemplate the rays of Fire with devotion.”iii
Fire originally comes from the earth, and its role is to make the link with Heaven, as says the Yaçna.iv
« The earth has won the victory, because it has lit the flame that repels evil.”v
Nothing naturalistic in these images. These ancient religions were not idolatrous, as they were made to believe, with a myopia mixed with profound ignorance. They were penetrated by a cosmic spirituality.
« In the midst of those who honor your flame, I will stand in the way of Truth « vi said the officiant during the sacrifice.
The Fire is stirred by the Wind (which is called Vāyou in Avestic as in Sanskrit). Vāyou is not a simple breath, a breeze, it is the Holy Spirit, the treasure of wisdom.
» Vāyou raises up pure light and directs it against the dark ones.”vii
Water, Fire, Wind are means of mediation, means to link up with the one God, the « Living » God that the Avesta calls Ahura Mazda.
« In the pure light of Heaven, Ahura Mazda exists. »viii
The name of Ahura (the « Living »), calls the supreme Lord. This name is identical to the Sanskrit Asura (we have already seen the equivalence h/s). The root of Asura is asu, “life”.
The Avestic word mazda means « wise ».
« It is you, Ahura Mazda (« the Living Wise One »), whom I have recognized as the primordial principle, the father of the Good Spirit, the source of truth, the author of existence, living eternally in your works.”ix
Clearly, the « Living » is infinitely above all its creatures.
« All luminous bodies, the stars and the Sun, messenger of the day, move in your honor, O Wise One, living and true. »x
I call attention to the alliance of the three words, « wise », « living » and « true », to define the supreme God.
The Vedic priest as well as the Avestic priest addressed God in this way more than four thousand years ago: « To you, O Living and True One, we consecrate this living flame, pure and powerful, the support of the world.”xi
I like to think that the use of these three attributes (« Wise », « Living » and « True »), already defining the essence of the supreme God more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest proven trace of an original theology of monotheism.
It is important to stress that this theology of Life, Wisdom and Truth of a supreme God, unique in His supremacy, precedes the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism by more than a thousand years.
Four millennia later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world landscape of religions offers us at least three monotheisms, particularly assertorical: Judaism, Christianity, Islam…
« Monotheisms! Monotheisms! », – I would wish wish to apostrophe them, – « A little modesty! Consider with attention and respect the depth of the times that preceded the late emergence of your own dogmas!”
The hidden roots and ancient visions of primeval and deep humanity still show to whoever will see them, our essential, unfailing unity and our unique origin…
The world would have been created about 6000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition. However, modern science estimates that the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago. These both claims seem contradictory. But it is easy to retort that the biblical years could just be metaphors. Moreover, the alleged age of the Big Bang is itself questionable. Our universe may have had earlier forms of existence, impossible to observe from our present position in space-time, because the cosmological horizon forms an impenetrable barrier.
Science has its own intrinsic limits. It can definitely not go beyond the walls of the small cosmological jar in which we are enclosed, apparently. What about the meta-cosmic oceans which undoubtedly exist beyond the horizons perceived by current science?
For those who nevertheless seek to contemplate the possibility of origins, there are other ways of meditation and reflection. Among these is the exploration of the depth of the human soul, which in a sense goes beyond the dimensions of the cosmological field.
When Abraham decided to emigrate from Ur in Chaldea, around the 12th century BC, it was already more than two thousand years that Egypt observed a religion turned towards the hope of life after death. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a unique God, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of the world, Guardian of all creation. Archaeological traces of funerary rites testify to this, which have been discovered in Upper Egypt, and which date from the 4th millennium BC.
But can we go even further back into the past of mankind?
Can we question the traces of prehistoric religions in order to excavate what is meta-historical, and even meta-cosmic?
In the caves of Chou-Kou-Tien, or Zhoukoudian according to the Pinyin transcription, 42km from Beijing, archaeologists (including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) discovered the remains of hominids in 1926. They were given the name Sinanthropus pekinensis, then Homo erectus pekinensis. Dating is estimated at 780,000 years. These hominids mastered hunting, tool making and fire. They managed to live for hundreds of thousands of years and to face successive periods of glaciation and warming. The successive geological strata that contain their remains and those of animals from those distant times bear witness to this.
The geological earth is like a memorial and trans-generational Noah’s Ark.
Skulls have been found at the Chou-Kou-Tien site, but none of the other bones of the human skeleton. According to some interpretations, these are therefore the remains of cannibal feasts, carried out for religious purposes.
“The bodies had been decapitated after death, buried until they had decomposed, and the heads were then carefully preserved for ritual purposes, doubtless, as in Borneo today, because in them it was supposed that soul’substance resided having the properties of a vitalizing agent. As the skulls show signs of injuries they may have been those of victims who had been killed and their crania broken open in order to extract the brain for sacramental consumption. If this were so, probably they represent the remains of cannibal feasts, organized cannibalism in that case having been an established feature of the cult of the dead in the Mid-Pleistocene in North China in which the cutting off and preservation of the head, skull or scalp was a prominent feature during or after the sacred meal, either to extract its soul substance or as a trophy.”i
This theory takes on more weight if we consider a number of other discoveries in other parts of the world.
In the caves of Ofnet in Bavaria, 33 prehistoric skulls have been discovered, arranged « like eggs in a basket », as one of the discoverers put it. Of these skulls, 27 of them were covered in red ochre and facing west. It has been established that the skulls were detached from the bodies with the help of carved flints.
The manner in which the skulls were detached from the skeleton and the traces of trepanation suggest that the brains were ritually extracted and probably consumed during funeral meals, as a sign of « communion » with the dead.
This cannibalism would therefore not be directed against enemy hordes. Moreover, on the same site, 20 children’s skeletons adorned with snail shells, 9 women’s skeletons with deer tooth necklaces, and 4 adult men’s skeletons were found. This reinforces the idea of funeral ceremonies.
In Jericho, 7 skulls were found whose features had been cast in plaster and then carefully decorated with shells (cowries and bivalves representing the eyelids, vertical slits simulating the pupil of the eye).ii
In Switzerland, in the Musterian Caves of Drachenloch, a set of bear heads looking to the east has been found, and in Styria, in Drachenhöhle, a Musterian pit with 50 bear femurs also looking to the east.
Similar traces of ritual burial have been found in Moustier (Dordogne), La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze) and La Ferrassie (Dordogne).iii
It can be deduced from these and many other similar facts, that in the Palaeolithic, for probably a million years, and perhaps more, the cult of the dead was observed according to ritual forms, involving forms of religious belief. Certain revealing details (presence of tools and food near the buried bodies) allow us to infer that hominids in the Palaeolithic believed in survival after death.
In these caves and caverns, in China or Europe, Palaeolithic men buried their dead with a mixture of veneration, respect, but also fear and anxiety for their passage into another world.
From this we can deduce that, for at least a million years, humanity has been addressing an essential question: what does death mean for the living? How can man live with the thought of death?
For a thousand times a thousand years these questions have been stirring the minds of men. Today’s religions, which appeared very late, what sort of answers do they bring ?
From a little distanced point of view, they bring among other things divisions and reciprocal hatreds, among peoples packed into the narrow anthropological space that constitutes our cosmic vessel.
None of today’s religions can reasonably claim the monopoly of truth, the unveiling of mystery. It is time to return to a deeper, more original intuition.
All religions should take as their sacred duty the will to ally themselves together, to face in common the mystery that surpasses them entirely, encompasses them, and transcends them.
iE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957, p.18
iiKinyar. Antiquity, vol 27, 1953, quoted by E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
iiiE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
The high antiquity of the Zend language, contemporary to the language of the Vedas, is well established. Eugène Burnoufi even considers that it presents certain characteristics of anteriority, which the vocal system testifies to. But this thesis remains controversial. Avestic science was still in its infancy in the 19th century. It was necessary to use conjectures. For example, Burnouf tried to explain the supposed meaning of the name Zarathustra, not without taking risks. According to him, zarath means « yellow » in zend, and uchtra, « camel ». The name of Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, would thus mean: « He who has yellow camels »?
Burnouf, with all his young science, thus contradicts Aristotle who, in his Treatise on Magic, says that the word Ζωροάστρην (Zoroaster) means « who sacrifices to the stars ».
It seems that Aristotle was right. Indeed, the old Persian word Uchtra can be related to the Indo-European word ashtar, which gave « astre » in French and « star » in English. And zarath can mean « golden ». Zarathustra would then mean « golden star », which is perhaps more appropriate to the founder of a thriving religion.
These questions of names are not so essential. Whether he is the happy owner of yellow camels, or the incarnation of a star shining like gold, Zoroaster is above all the mythical author of the Zend Avesta, of which the Vendidad and the Yaçna are part.
The name Vendidad is a contraction of Vîdaêvo dâta, « given against demons (dêvas) ».
The Yaçna (« sacrifice with prayers ») is a collection of Avestic prayers.
Here is an extract, quite significant.
« As a worshipper of Mazda [Wisdom], a sectarian of Zoroaster, an enemy of the devils [demons], an observer of the precepts of Ahura [the « Lord »], I pay homage to him who is given here, given against the devils, and to Zoroaster, pure, master of purity, and to the yazna [sacrifice], and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing of the masters, and to the days, and the hours, and the months, and the seasons, and the years, and to the yazna, and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing!”
This prayer is addressed to the Lord, Ahura. But it is also addressed to the prayer itself.
In a repetitive, self-referential way, it is a prayer to the yaçna, a ‘prayer praying the prayer’, an invocation to the invocation, a blessing of the blessing. A homage from mediation to mediation.
This stylistic formula, « prayer to prayer », is interesting to analyze.
Let us note from the outset that the Zend Avesta clearly recognises the existence of a supreme God, to whom every prayer is addressed.
« I pray and invoke the great Ormuzd [= Ahura Mazda, the « Lord of Wisdom »], brilliant, radiant with light, very perfect, very excellent, very pure, very strong, very intelligent, who is purest, above all that which is holy, who thinks only of the good, who is a source of pleasure, who gives gifts, who is strong and active, who nourishes, who is sovereignly absorbed in excellence.”ii
But Avestic prayer can also be addressed not only to the supreme God, but also to the mediation that make it possible to reach Him, like the sacred Book itself: « I pray and invoke the Vendidad given to Zoroaster, holy, pure and great.”iii
The prayer is addressed to God and all his manifestations, of which the Book (the Vendidad) is a part.
« I invoke and celebrate you Fire, son of Ormuzd, with all the fires.
I invoke and celebrate the excellent, pure and perfect Word that the Vendidad gave to Zoroaster, the sublime, pure and ancient Law of the Mazdeans.”
It is important to note that it is the Sacred Book (the Vendidad) that gives the divine Word to Zoroaster, and not the other way round. The Zend Avesta sees this Book as sacred and divine, and recognizes it as an actor of divine revelation.
It is tempting to compare this divine status of the Book in the Zend Avesta with the divine status of the Torah in Judaism and the Koran in Islam.
The divine status of sacred texts (Zend Avesta, Torah, Koran) in these monotheisms incites to consider a link between the affirmation of the absolute transcendence of a supreme God and the need for mediation between the divine and the human, – a mediation which must itself be « divine ».
It is interesting to underline, by contrast, the human origin of evangelical testimonies in Christianity. The Gospels were written by men, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospels are not divine emanations, but human testimonies. They are therefore not of the same essence as the Torah (« revealed » to Moses), or the Koran (« dictated » to Muhammad, who was otherwise illiterate) or the Zend Avesta (« given » to Zoroaster).
In Christianity, on the other hand, it is Christ himself who embodies divine mediation in his person. He, the Anointed One, Christ, the Messiah, incarnates the divine Word, the Verb.
Following this line of thought, one would have to conclude that Christianity is not a « religion of the Book », as the oversimplified formula that usually encompasses the three monotheisms under the same expression would suggest.
This formula certainly suits Judaism and Islam, as it does Zend Avesta. But Christianity is not a religion of the « Book », it is a religion of the « Word ».
iEugène Burnouf, Commentaire sur le Yaçna, l’un des livres religieux des Parses. Ouvrage contenant le texte zend. 1833
Quite early in history, the idea of a « universal religion » appeared in various civilisations – despite the usual obstacles posed by tradition and the vested interests of priests and princes.
This idea did not fit easily into the old frames of thought, nor into the representations of the world built by tribal, national religions, or, a fortiori, by exclusive, elitist sects, reserved for privileged initiates or a chosen few.
But, for example, five centuries before the Prophet Muhammad, the Persian prophet Mani already affirmed out of the blues that he was the « seal of the prophets ». It was therefore up to him to found and preach a new, universal religion. Manichaeism then had its hour of glory. Augustine, who embraced it for a time, testifies to its expansion and success in the territories controlled by Rome at the time, and to its lasting hold on the spirits.
Manichaeism promoted a dualist system of thought, centred on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil; it is not certain that these ideas have disappeared today.
Before Mani, the first Christians also saw themselves as bearers of a really universal message. They no longer saw themselves as Jews — or Gentiles. They thought of themselves as a third kind of man (« triton genos« , « tertium genus« ), « trans-humans » ahead of the times. They saw themselves as the promoters of a new wisdom, « barbaric » from the Greek point of view, « scandalous » for the Jews, – transcending the power of the Law and of Reason.
Christians were not to be a nation among nations, but « a nation built out of nations » according to the formula of Aphrahat, a Persian sage of the 4th century.
Contrary to the usual dichotomies, that of the Greeks against the Barbarians, or that of the Jews against the Goyim, the Christians thus thought that they embodied a new type of « nation », a « nation » that was not « national », but purely spiritual, a « nation » that would be like a soul in the body of the world (or according to another image, the « salt of the earth »i).
The idea of a really « universal » religion then rubbed shoulders, it is important to say, with positions that were absolutely contrary, exclusive, and even antagonistic to the last degree, like those of the Essenes.
A text found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, advocates hatred against all those who are not members of the sect, while insisting on the importance that this « hatred » must remain secret. The member of the Essene sect « must hide the teaching of the Law from men of falsity (anshei ha-‘arel), but must announce true knowledge and right judgment to those who have chosen the way. (…) Eternal hatred in a spirit of secrecy for men of perdition! (sin’at ‘olam ‘im anshei shahat be-ruah hasher!)ii « .
G. Stroumsa comments: « The peaceful conduct of the Essenes towards the surrounding world now appears to have been nothing more than a mask hiding a bellicose theology. »
This attitude is still found today in the « taqqiya » of the Shi’ites, for example.
It should be added that the idea of « holy war » was also part of Essene eschatology, as can be seen in the « War Scroll » (War Scroll, 1QM), preserved in Jerusalem, which is also known as the scroll of « The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness ».
Philo of Alexandria, steeped in Greek culture, considered that the Essenes had a « barbaric philosophy », and « that they were in a sense, the Brahmins of the Jews, an elite among the elite. »
Clearch of Soles, a peripatetic philosopher of the 4th century BC, a disciple of Aristotle, had also seriously considered that the Jews were descended from Brahmins, and that their wisdom was a « legitimate inheritance » from India. This idea spread widely, and was apparently accepted by the Jews of that time, as evidenced by the fact that Philo of Alexandriaiii and Flavius Josephusiv naturally referred to it.
The « barbaric philosophy » of the Essenes and the « barbaric wisdom » of the early Christians have one thing in common: they both point to ideas emanating from a more distant East, that of Persia, Oxus and even, ultimately, the Indus.
Among oriental ideas, one is particularly powerful. That of the double of the soul, or the double soul, depending on the point of view.
The text of the Rule of the Community, found in Qumran, gives an indication: « He created man to rule the world, and assigned to him two spirits with which he must walk until the time when He will return: the spirit of truth and the spirit of lie (ruah ha-emet ve ruah ha-avel).”v
There is broad agreement among researchers to detect an Iranian influence in this anthropology. Shaul Shaked writes: « It is conceivable that contacts between Jews and Iranians led to the formulation of a Jewish theology, which, while following traditional Jewish motifs, came to resemble closely the Iranian worldview. »
G. Stroumsa further notes that such duality in the soul is found in the rabbinic idea of the two basic instincts of good and evil present in the human soul (yetser ha-ra’, yetser ha-tov)vi.
This conception has been widely disseminated since ancient times. Far from being reserved for the Gnostics and Manicheans, who seem to have found their most ancient sources in ancient Persia, it had, as we can see, penetrated Jewish thought in several ways.
But it also aroused strong opposition. Christians, in particular, held different views.
Augustine asserts that there can be no « spirit of evil », since all souls come from God.vii In his Counter Faustus, he argues: « As they say that every living being has two souls, one from the light, the other from the darkness, is it not clear that the good soul leaves at the moment of death, while the evil soul remains?”viii
Origen has yet another interpretation: every soul is assisted by two angels, an angel of righteousness and an angel of iniquityix. There are not two opposing souls, but rather a higher soul and another in a lower position.
Manichaeism itself varied on this delicate issue. It presented two different conceptions of the dualism inherent in the soul. The horizontal conception put the two souls, one good and one bad, in conflict. The other conception, vertical, put the soul in relation to its celestial counterpart, its ‘guardian angel’. The guardian angel of Mani, the Paraclete (« the intercessor angel »), the Holy Spirit are all possible figures of this twin, divine soul.
This conception of a celestial Spirit forming a « couple » (suzugia) with each soul was theorised by Tatian the Syrian in the 2nd century AD, as Erik Peterson notes.
Stroumsa points out that « this conception, which was already widespread in Iran, clearly reflects shamanistic forms of thought, according to which the soul can come and go outside the individual under certain conditions.”x
The idea of the soul of Osiris or Horus floating above the body of the dead God, the angels of the Jewish tradition, the Greek « daimon », the split souls of the Gnostics, the Manicheans, or the Iranians, or, even more ancient, the experiences of the shamans, by their profound analogies, testify to the existence of « anthropological constants », of which the comparative study of ancient religions gives a glimpse.
All these traditions converge in this: the soul is not only a principle of life, attached to an earthly body, which would be destined to disappear after death.
It is also attached to a higher, spiritual principle that guards and guides it.
Science has recently taken a step in this direction, foreseen for several millennia, by demonstrating that man’s « spirit » is not only located in the brain itself, but that it is also « diffused » all around him, in the emotional, symbolic, imaginary and social spheres.
Perhaps one day we will be able to objectify in a tangible way this intuition, so ancient, and so « universal ». In the meantime, let us conclude that it is difficult to be satisfied with a narrowly materialistic, mechanical description of the world.
The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i
Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…
« I, who had come to the divine
from the human, from time to eternity,
and from Florence to the just and healthy people,
of what astonishment I should be filled with! »
Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.
« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».
But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:
« If you look at the third row
from the highest tier, you will see her again.
on the throne won by her merits. »
Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »
Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».
From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:
« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,
and who suffered for my salvation
to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,
of so many things I have seen
by your power and kindness,
I recognize grace and virtue.
You pulled me from bondage to freedom
by all these ways, by all these modes
that you had the power to use.
Preserve in me your magnificence,
that my soul, which thou hast healed,
is untied from my body by pleasing you. »
The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.
What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.
« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana
come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;
poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »
« I prayed like this, and so far away
that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;
then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »
Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.
Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. «
Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».
The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!
At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.
One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.
Dante had always loved her, but in vain.
And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.
Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.
Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »
But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».
The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.
I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.
For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.
Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.
Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.
Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».
O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.
O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!
In a short dialogue, Hermes addresses his son Tati to summarize some ancient, and quite essential ideas. We learn that man is made up of separate envelopes, body, mind, soul, reason, intelligence. As he gradually emerges from these envelopes, man is called upon to « know » better and better. His final vocation is « apotheosis », a word that must be taken literally i.e. to go « above the gods ».
– The energy of God is in His will. And God wants the universe to be. As Father, as Good, He wants the existence of that which is not yet. This existence of beings, there is God, there is the Father, there is the Good, it is no other thing. The world, the sun, the stars participate in the existence of beings. But they are not, however, for the living the cause of their life, or the origin of the Good. Their action is the necessary effect of the will of the Good, without which nothing could exist or become.
[My comment: Hermes does not believe in the immanence of the divine in the world. The divine is absolutely transcendent, and only His Will, whose effect can be observed through the existence of His creation, bears witness to this transcendent remoteness.]
It must be recognized that the vision of the Good is above our strength. The eyes of our intelligence cannot yet contemplate its incorruptible and incomprehensible beauty. You will see it a little, perhaps, when you at least know that you can say nothing about it. For true knowledge is found in the silence and rest of every sensation. Whoever achieves it can no longer think of anything else, nor look at anything, nor hear anything, nor even move his body. There is no more sensation or movement for him.
[My comment: There are two kinds of spirits. Those who have « seen » the Good, but cannot say anything about it, and those who have not « seen » it, but who will perhaps one day see it, under certain conditions. Hermes belongs to the first group. He can only express himself by allusion. He cannot say anything about it, which is already a lot …].
– The splendor that inundates all his thought and his soul tears man from the bonds of the body and transforms him entirely into divine essence. The human soul reaches the apotheosis when he has contemplated this beauty of Good.
– What do you mean by « apotheosis », Father?
[My comment: Tat’s question is not a lexicographical one. He is waiting for a full description of the phenomenon. The word « apotheosis » is not a neologism, a word invented by Hermes. The word was used, for example, previously by Strabo to describe the death of Diomedes, which he also describes as « apotheosis », but in a sense that seems to transcend the reality of his « death ». « Some authors add to the subject of Diomedes that here he had begun to dig a canal leading to the sea, but having been called back to his homeland he was surprised by death and left this and many other useful undertakings unfinished. This is a first version about his death; another makes him stay until the end and die in Daunie; a third, purely fabulous, and which I have already had occasion to recall, speaks of his mysterious disappearance in one of the islands that bear his name; finally, one can look at this claim of the Henetians to place in their country, if not death, at least the apotheosis of the hero, as a fourth version…. « (Strabo, Geogr. VI, 3,9)].
– Every unfulfilled soul, my son, is subject to successive changes. The blinded soul, knowing nothing of beings, neither their nature nor the Good, is enveloped in bodily passions. The unfortunate soul, unaware of herself, is enslaved to foreign and abject bodies. She carries the burden of the body. Instead of commanding, she obeys. This is the evil of the soul. On the contrary, the good of the soul is knowledge. He who knows is good, and already divine.
[My comment: The body is a veil whose envelope prevents access to knowledge. In the body, the soul is enslaved. Not only can she not ‘see’, but she cannot ‘know’. She can only know her slavery, her enslavement. Which is already a lot, because it is the beginning of her liberation].
– Beings have sensations because they cannot exist without them; but knowledge is very different from sensation. Sensation is an influence that one undergoes. Knowledge is the end of a search, and the desire to search is a divine gift. For all knowledge is incorporeal.
[My comment: The sensation is imposed from the outside. Knowledge is first and foremost a desire for knowledge. To know is first of all a desire to know. But where does this desire come from, if one has no knowledge of what one can desire? « The desire to seek is a divine gift ». But isn’t it unfair to those who are deprived of the grace of this desire? No, this desire is in everyone, in latent form. The desire to know only asks to be born. It only needs to be set in motion, and it grows stronger with every step].
– All knowledge is a form, which grasps the intelligence, just as the intelligence uses the body. Thus both use a body, either intellectual or material. Everything comes down to this combination of opposites, form and matter, and it cannot be otherwise.
[My comment: Form and matter can be considered, as Hermes does, as a « combination of opposites ». One could also say « alliance of opposites », to mean that their whole is more than the sum of their parts. There is also the idea that intellectual representations can be described as having a « body », which itself is endowed with a spirit and perhaps a soul. This leads us to imagine a whole ascending hierarchy, of souls and spirits, up to a supreme root, of all souls and spirits. Two thousand years after these ideas began to be formulated, the Jewish Kabbalah of the European Middle Ages took up exactly the same ideas ].
– What is this material God?
– The world is beautiful but it is not good, because it is material and passive. It is the first of the ‘passive’, but the second of the beings, and is not self-sufficient. It is born, though it is always, but it is in birth, and it becomes perpetual. Becoming is a change in quality and quantity – like any material movement.
[My comment: Here the influence of Gnosis is revealed. The world is beautiful, but it is not good. The assertions of Genesis are therefore contradicted head-on: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ (Cf. Gen. 1:4, Gen. 1:10, Gen. 1:12, Gen. 1:25). The first chapter of Genesis even concludes as follows: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen. 1:31). But this Gnosis can be interpreted. The world is not « good », admittedly, but it does not necessarily mean that it is « bad » either. If it is not « good » it is because it is always « becoming », it is always being « born ». Besides, one can argue that ‘Only God is good’, as Jesus said. This Gnosticism is therefore not incompatible with an interpretation of Creation as a living process, as an eschatological aim].
– The world is the first of the living. Man is second only to the world, and first among mortals. Not only is man not good, but he is evil, being mortal. Nor is the world not good, since it is mobile; but being immortal, it is not evil. Man, being both mobile and mortal, is evil. »
[My comment: Here, the vision of Gnosis becomes even more precise. The world is not evil, but Man is. The difference between the world and Man is that the world is always born, it is always alive and reborn, whereas Man is mortal. The only possibility, however, of escaping this fundamental evil is resurrection. If it is possible, then Man is also reborn, again, he escapes death, – and evil].
– It is necessary to understand how man’s soul is constituted: intelligence is in reason, reason in the soul, the soul in the mind, the mind in the body. The spirit, penetrating through veins, arteries and blood, moves the animal and carries it, so to speak. The soul infuses the spirit. Reason is at the bottom of the soul. And it is Intelligence that makes reason live.
[My comment: Man is a kind of metaphysical onion, containing deep down within him, in his inner core, a divine principle, – Intelligence, which is another name for Divine Wisdom.]
– God does not ignore man; on the contrary, He knows him and wants to be known by him. The only salvation of man is in the knowledge of God; this is the way of ascent to Olympus; only by this alone does the soul become good, not sometimes good, sometimes bad, but necessarily good.
[My comment: The ascent to Olympus is another metaphor for apotheosis].
“Contemplate, my son, the soul of the child; the separation is not yet complete; the body is small and has not yet received full development. It is beautiful to see the child, not yet sullied by the passions of the body, still almost attached to the soul of the world. But when the body has developed and holds her [the soul] in its mass, separation is accomplished, oblivion occurs in her, she ceases to participate in the beautiful and the good.”
[My comment: the loss of innocence of the soul begins from the first days of her apprenticeship in the body she has inherited. This loss of innocence can also be interpreted as the first steps in the long « ascent » that still awaits her].
« The same thing happens to those who come out of their body. The soul enters into herself, the spirit withdraws into the blood, the soul into the spirit. But the Intelligence, purified and freed from its envelopes, divine by nature, takes a body of fire and travels through space, abandoning the soul to its tribulations. »
[My comment: These words are a striking summary of the highest wisdom attained over tens of thousands of years by shamans, visionaries, prophets, poets, all over the world. They must be taken for what they are: a naked revelation, destined only to those souls predisposed, by their abysmal and primordial desire, to understand what it is all about].
– What do you mean, O Father? Does intelligence separate from the soul and the soul from the spirit, since you said that the soul is the envelope of intelligence and the spirit is the envelope of the soul?
[My comment: Tat listens to his father very well, and he remains faithful to logic itself. His question is a request for clarification. The difference between the spirit and the soul and the difference between the soul and the intelligence may need to be explained more clearly. But how to explain “intelligence” to those who cannot imagine the power of its infinite possibilities? Hermes knows this difficulty well. He will try another way of explanation].
– It is necessary, my son, that the listener follow the thought of the speaker and associate himself with it; the ear must be finer than the voice. This system of envelopes exists in the earthly body. The naked intelligence could not be established in a material body, and that body could not contain such immortality or carry such virtue. The intelligence takes the soul as its envelope; the soul, which is divine itself, is enveloped in spirit, and the spirit is poured into the animal. »
[My comment: The key expression here is « naked intelligence ». What is revealed in these words is that even intelligence, in its highest, most divine form, can still remain « veiled ». Nothing can be said about this here, for the moment. We are only alluding to the fact that the process of ascension, of apotheosis, is certainly not finished, but that it is itself susceptible to other, even more radical forms of spiritual nakedness, unclothing].
– When the intelligence leaves the earthly body, it immediately takes its tunic of fire, which it could not keep when it inhabited this earthly body; for the earth cannot withstand fire, of which a single spark would be enough to burn it. This is why water surrounds the earth and forms a rampart that protects it from the flame of fire. But intelligence, the most subtle of divine thoughts, has the most subtle of elements, fire, as its body. It takes it as an instrument of its creative action.
[My comment: One of the garments of intelligence, described here under the metaphor of the « tunic of fire », is a way of describing one of its essential attributes: creative ability. But there are certainly many others. Other metaphors, other « garments » would be needed to try to account for them].
– The universal intelligence uses all the elements, that of man only the earthly elements. Deprived of fire, it cannot build divine works, subject as it is to the conditions of humanity. Human souls, not all of them, but pious souls, are « demonic » and « divine ».
[My comment: The idea that the soul is « demonic » is an idea that Plato communicated to us through the speech of Diotima in the Symposium. There can be found also another fundamental idea, to which I have been attached all my life – the idea of metaxu].
– Once separated from the body, and after having sustained the struggle of piety, which consists in knowing God and harming no one, such a soul becomes all intelligence. But the unholy soul remains in its own essence and punishes herself by seeking to enter into an earthly body, a human body, for another body cannot receive a human soul, it cannot fall into the body of an animal without reason; a divine law preserves the human soul from such a fall.
[My comment: Here we find the idea of metempsychosis. Since ages, these ideas circulated from the Far East to Greece].
– The punishment of the soul is quite different. When the intelligence has become a « daimon », and by God’s command has taken on a body of fire, she [the intelligence] enters the ungodly soul and is scourged with the whip of its sins. The unholy soul then rushes into murder, insults, blasphemy, violence of all kinds and all human wickedness. But by entering the pious soul, the intelligence leads her to the light of knowledge. Such a soul is never satiated with hymns and blessings for all men.
[My comment: A distinction must therefore be made between light, knowledge and the « light of knowledge ». The latter form of consciousness is the possible source of a meta-apotheosis, – for the moment, this word is a neologism, which I propose, because here it is very necessary].
– This is the universal order, the consequence of unity. Intelligence penetrates all the elements. For nothing is more divine and more powerful than intelligence. She unites Gods with men and men with Gods. It is the intelligence that is the good « daimon« ; the blessed soul is full of her, the unhappy soul is empty of her.
[My comment: intelligence is the « metaxu » par excellence. The Hebrews gave it the name neshamah. But what a name is, it is its essence that we must try to understand].
– The soul without intelligence could neither speak nor act. Often intelligence leaves the soul, and in this state the soul sees nothing, hears nothing, and looks like an animal without reason. Such is the power of intelligence. But it does not support the vicious soul and leaves it attached to the body, which drags it down. Such a soul, my son, has no intelligence, and in this condition a man can no longer be called a man. For man is a divine animal which must be compared, not to other terrestrial animals, but to those in heaven, who are called Gods.
[My comment: Aristotle said that « man is an animal who has reason (logos) ». We can see that Hermes rises several notches above Aristotle in his intuition of what man is, in essence. Aristotle is the first of the moderns. Plato is the last of the Ancients. But in these difficult matters, the Ancients have infinitely more to teach us, with their million years of experience, than the Moderns, really out of their depths in these matters].
– Or rather, let’s not be afraid to tell the truth, the real man is above them, or at least equal to them. For none of the heavenly Gods leaves his sphere to come to earth, while man ascends into heaven and measures it. He knows what is above and what is below; he knows everything accurately, and what is better is that he does not need to leave the earth in order to ascend. Such is the greatness of his condition. Thus, dare we say that man is a mortal God and that a heavenly God is an immortal man. All things will be governed by the world and by man, and above all is the One.
My comment : There is a strikingly equivalent intuition in the Veda. In the Veda, Puruṣa, devanāgarī : पुरुष, means « man, person, hero, vital principle, spirit » but also and foremost : « the Soul of the Universe »…
Towards the end of the 15th century, Marsilius Ficinus summed up the whole of « ancient theology » in six emblematic names: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos, and Plato. In his mind, these characters formed one and the same ‘sect of initiates’, transmitting knowledge, wisdom and secrets to each other.
The first link in this long chain of initiation was Hermes Trismegistus, « three times very great », of whom Plato himself is only a distant disciple.
Well after Plato, in the 2nd century AD, the Corpus Hermeticum appeared, supposedly bringing back the essence of this ancient knowledge. The first Book of the Corpus is called after Poimandres, a Greek name meaning « the shepherd of man ».
In this Book, Hermes tells of his encounter with Poimandres:
« Who are you then?
– I am Poimandres (the « shepherd of man »), the Sovereign Intelligence. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere.”
Poimandres then enlightens the mind of Hermes, who expresses himself in the first person to recount his vision: « I am living an indefinable spectacle. Everything became a soft and pleasant light that charmed my sight. Soon afterwards, a frightful and horrible darkness descended in a sinuous form; it seemed to me as if this darkness was changing into some kind of damp and troubled nature, exhaling a smoke like fire and a kind of gloomy noise. Then there came out an inarticulate cry which seemed to be the voice of light.”
« Have you understood what this vision means? » asks Poimandres. « This light is me, the Intelligence, – your God, who precedes the wet nature out of darkness. The luminous Word that emanates from Intelligence is the Son of God.
– What do you mean, I replied.
– Learn this: what you see and hear in you is the Word, the word of the Lord; intelligence is the Father God. They are not separated from one another, for the union is their life.
– I thank you, I replied.
– Understand the light, he said, and know it. »
We can deduce from the words of Poimandres that « vision » is only a glimpse of the mystery, not its end. Understanding is not knowing, and knowing is not understanding. This is an essential principle of Gnosis.
At the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was composed, the Roman Empire reached its apogee. The Pax romana reigned from Brittany (England) to Egypt, from Tingitan Mauritania to Mesopotamia. The emperor was considered a god. Marcus Aurelius had to fight against the Barbarians on the Danube front, but the invasions and serious crises of the 3rd century had not begun.
Christianity was still only a ‘superstition’ (superstitio illicita) among many others. The cult of Mithra dominated in the Roman armies, and the influence of the Eastern and Gnostic cults was significant. Hermeticism took its place in this effervescence.
Hermetic formulas undoubtedly originated several centuries earlier, and thus well before the Gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century AD.
But as transcribed in the Poimandres, these formulas are striking in the simplicity and ease with which they seem to prefigure (or repeat?) some of the formulas of the Gospel of John. According to John, Christ is the Word of God, His Logos. Christ is the Son of God, and he is also « One » with Him. Would John have been sensitive to any hermetic influence? Or was it the opposite, the hermeticism of Poimandres mimicking Christian ideas?
Hermetic formulas do not copy the Johannine metaphors, nor do they duplicate them in any way. Under the apparent analogy, significant discrepancies emerge.
Hermeticism, however heraldable it may be to certain aspects of Christian theology, is certainly distinguished from it by other features, which belong only to it, and which clearly refer to Gnosis – from which Christianity very early wanted to distance itself, without, moreover, totally escaping its philosophical attraction.
Poïmandres says, for example, that the Sovereign of the world shows the image of his divinity to the « inferior nature ». Nature falls in love with this image, an image that is none other than man. Man too, seeing in the water the reflection of his own form, falls in love with his own nature (or with himself?) and wants to possess it. Nature and man are therefore closely united by mutual love.
Poïmandres explains: « This is why man, alone among all the beings living on earth, is double, mortal in body and immortal in essence. Immortal and sovereign of all things, he is subject to the destiny that governs what is mortal; superior to the harmony of the world, he is captive in his bonds; male and female like his father, and superior to sleep he is dominated by sleep.”
Then comes man’s ascent among the powers and towards God. By uniting with man, nature successively generates seven « men » (male and female), who receive their soul and intelligence from « life » and « light », in the form of air and fire.
This succession of « men » is an allegory of the necessary evolution of human nature. Various human natures must succeed one another through the historical ages.
Man must finally reach the stage where he/she strips him/herself of all the harmonies and beauties of the world. With only his/her own power left, he/she reaches an « eighth nature ».
In this eighth stage the « powers » reign, « ascending » towards God, to be reborn in Him.
Poimandres concluded his speech to Hermes with the following words: « This is the final good of those who possess Gnosis, – to become God. What are you waiting for now? You have learned everything, you only have to show the way to men, so that through you God may save the human race.”
Then began the mission of Hermes among Humankind: « And I began to preach to men the beauty of religion and Gnosis: peoples, men born of the earth, immersed in the drunkenness, sleep and ignorance of God, shake off your sensual torpor, wake up from your foolishness! Why, O men born of the earth, do you surrender yourselves to death, when you are allowed to obtain immortality? Come back to yourselves, you who walk in error, who languish in ignorance; depart from the dark light, take part in immortality by renouncing corruption ».
Who was Hermes Trismegistus really? A syncretic entity? A Ptolemaic myth? A pagan Christ? A Gnostic philosopher? A theological-political creation?
Through his ideas, Hermes Trismegistus embodied the fusion of two cultures, Greek and Egyptian. He is both the god Hermes of the Greeks, messenger of the gods and conductor of souls (psychopompos), and the god Thoth of ancient Egypt, who invented hieroglyphics and helped Isis to gather the scattered members of Osiris.
I stand by the interpretation of Marsilius Ficinus. Hermes is the first of the « ancient theologians ».
One lends only to the rich. In the 4th century B.C., Hecateus of Abatea had written that Thot-Hermes was the inventor of writing, astronomy and the lyre.
Artapan, in the 2nd century BC, even saw in him a figure of Moses.
Hermes in fact spoke, like Moses, with God. He too was given the mission of guiding mankind towards the Promised Land, the land that has a name: the knowledge of immortality.
The Song of songs, at the core of the Hebraic Bible, has accustomed the faithful, in Judaism and in Christianity, to the idea that the celebration of love, with human words and not without quite crude images, could also be a metaphor for the Love between the soul and God.
However, this very idea can also be found in the Veda, – with an anteriority of at least one thousand years over the Bible. This incites us to consider why, for so many millennia, persisted the metaphor of human love as applied to the union of the human soul with the Divinity.
The Veda is the oldest text, conserved for the benefit of mankind, that testifies to the idea of the Divinity’s love for the human soul, – as improbable as it may be thought, considering the nothingness of the latter.
« As the creeper holds the tree embraced through and through, so embrace me, be my lover, and do not depart from me! As the eagle strikes the ground with its two wings, so I strike your soul, be my lover and do not depart from me! As the sun on the same day surrounds heaven and earth, so do I surround your soul. Be my lover and do not depart from me! Desire my body, my feet, desire my thighs; let your eyes, your hair, in love, be consumed with passion for me!”i
A comparative anthropology of the depths is possible. Its main advantage is that it allows us to give some relativity to much later, idiosyncratic and ‘provincial’ assertions, and above all to confirm the fruitfulness of research into the very essence of common human intuition.
This research is one of the bases of the Future Dream, whose’ absence crushed, wounded modernity suffers so much from.