Etymology goes back further to the dawn of thought, much further than archaeology or paleography.
The root of the oldest words is all that remains of time that no memory can imagine. These roots are the minute, ineffaceable traces of what was once pure intuition, radiant knowledge, sudden revelation, for singular men and moving crowds.
The ancient roots, still alive, like verbal souls, speak to us of a vanished world.
Among the most powerful roots are those that inform the names of the Gods.
In the Veda, Agni is said to be « Fire ».
But the truly original, etymological meaning of the word « agni » is not « fire », it is « alive », and « agile ».
The idea of « fire » is only a derivation from this primeval sense. The oldest intuitions associated with the word « agni » then are « life » and « movement », as opposed to « rest » and « death ».
The divine Agni, had indeed many other names, to tell of his other qualities: Atithi, Anala, Dahana, Vasu, Bharata, Mātariśvā, Vaiśvānara, Śoṣaṇa, Havyavah, Hutabhuk…
Agni’s names all have a distinct, specific meaning. Atithi is « Host », Anala is « Longevity », Dahana is « Burning », Tanūnapāt : « Self-Generated », Apāṃnapāt : « from the waters ».
So many attributes for such a hidden God!
« Two mothers of a different color and walking quickly, each giving birth to an infant. From the breast of one is born Hari [yet another name of Agni], honored by libations; from the breast of the other is born Soucra (the Sun), with a bright flame ». i
Agni is indeed « visible », He was born as a child, – but very clever, very wise is whoever can really « see » Him !
« Which of you has seen Him, when He is hiding? As an infant just now, there He is who, by the virtue of sacrifice, now gives birth to His own mothers. Thus Agni, great and wise, honored by our libations, generates the rain of the cloud, and is reborn in the bosom of deeds.» ii
Agni is everywhere. Agni is not only « alive », « agile », He is not only « Fire », not only « God ».
He is also the flickering glow, the sparkling lightning, the blazing forest, the fatal lightning, the evening sun, the pink dawn, the inflexible flint, the warmth of the body, the embers of love…
To understand the Veda, it helps to be a poet, to expand one´s mind to the universe, and even farther away.
« 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
To the sound of cymbals and flutes, to the light of torches, disheveled women dance. They are the bacchae. Dressed in fox skins, wearing horns on their heads, holding snakes in their hands, seized by a « sacred madness, » they rush on animals chosen for sacrifice, tear them to pieces, tear them to pieces, and devour the bloody flesh raw.
These bacchanals — or Dionysian feasts, have fascinated the ancients for centuries.
« The bacchanals celebrate the mystery of angry Dionysus, leading the sacred madness to the ingestion of raw flesh, and they perform the absorption of the flesh of the massacres, crowned with snakes, and crying out ‘Evoha !’»i.
What did it mean? The myth reports that Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, had taken the form of a young bull to try to escape his pursuers. But he was caught, torn and devoured by the Titans, enemies of Zeus.
In Thrace, this god is called Sabos or Sabazios, and in Phrygia it is called Cybele.
It is in Thrace that initially, between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, these cults of divine madness and ecstatic dancing, culminating in the dismemberment of living flesh, and its bloody devotion, arose.
Historians of religion are inclined to detect in them, not a local phenomenon, but the symptom of a more universal movement originating in human nature, in its desire to establish a relationship with the divine.
« This Thracian orgiastic cult was merely the manifestation of a religious impulse which is emerging at all times and in all places throughout the earth, at all levels of civilization, and which, therefore, must derive from a deep need of man’s physical and psychic nature (…) And in every part of the earth, There are peoples who consider these exaltations as the true religious process, as the only way to establish a relationship between man and the spirit world, and who, for this reason, base their worship above all on the uses that experience has shown them to be most suitable for producing ecstasies and visions.”ii
Many peoples, on all continents, have had similar practices aimed at achieving ecstasy. The Ostiaks, the Dakotas, the Winnebagos, in North America, the Angeloks in Greenland, the Butios in the West Indies, the Piajes in the Caribbean, and many other peoples followed shamanic rites.
In Islam, the Sufis and the Whirling Dervishes know the power of ecstatic dance. Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî testified: « He who knows the power of dance dwells in God, for he knows how Love kills. Allahu !”iii
The cult of « divine madness » and frenetic exaltation has also been recorded in « Christian bacchanals » in Russia, in the sect of « Christi », founded by a « holy man », named Philippoff, « in whose body God came one day to dwell and who from then on spoke and gave his laws as the living God.”iv
The Dionysian cult of drunkenness and divine ecstasy is closely related to the belief in the immortality of the soul, for many peoples, in all periods of short human history.
This belief is based not on dogmas or prophecies, but on an intimate experience, really and personally felt, by all those who actively participated in those nights of madness and ecstasy.
The link between the belief in the immortality of the soul and the devouring of pieces of the torn body probably appeared in the most ancient times.
As early as a remote era, going back more than eight hundred thousand years (if we take into account the dating of the remains found in the Chou-Kou-Tien caves), the cutting up of corpses was probably a way of definitively ensuring the death of the dead, a way of making them harmless forever, unable to return to earth to threaten the living.
But it was also, ipso facto, an indication of an ancient and diffuse belief in the survival of the soul, despite the evidence of the death of the body.
We will probably never know what Homo Sinanthropus thought of the spirit world. On the other hand, we do have myths of dismemberment attested throughout antiquity and throughout the world.
Orpheus, a divine hero, died torn apart and dismembered alive by mad Thracian women.
Agamemnon, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, complains in the other world of the atrocious outrages she inflicted on him after killing him: « After my shameful death, she subjected me, out of malice, to maschalism.”v
Maschalism consists in symbolically mimicking the treatment of animal victims during sacrifices. The priests would cut off or tear off the animal’s limbs and offer them as first-fruits to the gods in the form of raw flesh.
The astonishing thing is that the murderers used this method for their own purification, to inflect the anger of the victims, and especially to make the dead person powerless to punish the murderer.
Consequently, they cut up the corpse of the victims, amputating or tearing off the arms and legs at their joints, and then forming a chain that they hung around the shoulders and armpits of the corpse.
There is a certain logic at work here. The dead man’s arms and legs are amputated so that his soul cannot grasp the weapons placed in front of his grave and come back to fight.
In Egypt, Osiris is killed and then cut into fourteen pieces by his brother Set. The body parts are thrown into the Nile and scattered throughout the country.
Let us note that the Osirian myth is replayed for all the deceased, at the time of embalming.
It is in Egypt that the cutting up of corpses took the most ritualized and elaborate form, using a battery of surgical, chemical, and magical methods, including dismemberment, maceration, mummification, cremation, and exposure of various body parts. The embalming ritual lasts seventy days.
« The brain is extracted through the nose, the viscera are removed through an incision made in the side; only the heart, swaddled, is put back in its place, while the organs are placed in « canopies », vases with lids in the shape of human or animal heads. The remaining soft parts and body fluids are dissolved by a solution of natron and resin and evacuated from the body rectally. This first phase takes place under the sign of purification. Everything that is « bad » is removed from the body, in other words everything that is perishable and can compromise the form of eternity that is the goal.”vi
In the ancient Egyptian religion, all these violent interventions around the dead and dislocated body were intended to make the dead person die, as it were, permanently. But they also facilitate the passage from death to eternal life after the embalming of the body and mummification, which is an essentially « magical » operation.
« Then begins the drying phase (dehydration and salting), which lasts about forty days. Reduced to skin and bones, the corpse will then be put back in shape during the mummification ritual; It is then that the skin is anointed with balsamic oils to restore its suppleness, stuffed with resins, gum arabic, fabrics, sawdust, straw and other materials, inlaid with fake eyes, cosmetics and wigs, and finally swaddled with strips of fine linen, partly inscribed with magical formulas and between which amulets are slipped. The result of all these operations is the mummy. The mummy is much more than a corpse: it is the figure of the god Osiris and a hieroglyphic representation of the whole human being, « full of magic, » as the Egyptians say.”vii
Then comes the time for words, prayers and invocations. « In Egyptian, this mortuary therapy by speech is expressed by a word that is fundamentally untranslatable, but which it is customary in Egyptology to render by « glorification » or « transfiguration ». The dead person is invoked by an uninterrupted stream of words (…) The dead person thus becomes a spirit endowed with power capable of surviving in many forms (…) Through the recitation of glorifications, the scattered limbs of the body are somehow brought together in a text that describes them as a new unity. »
The « glorification » and the « transfiguration » of the dead are reminiscent of those of Osiris. « It is the rites, images and texts that awaken Osiris and bring him back to life; it is with the help of symbolic forms that the dislocated dead is recomposed and that the border separating life and death, here below and beyond, is crossed. The mystery of this connectivity capable of triumphing over death, however, lies not in the symbolic forms, but in the love that puts them to work. Who performs the rites, pronounces the words and appears in images is anything but indifferent. It is first and foremost the affair of the goddess Isis, wife and twin sister of Osiris. On this point, the myth of Osiris and Isis corresponds moreover to that of Orpheus and Eurydice (…) For Isis, it is love which confers on her magical rites and recitations a force of cohesion able to supplement the inertia of the heart of Osiris and to bring the god back to life. The combination of love and speech is the strongest cohesive force known to Egyptians and at the same time the most powerful elixir of life.”viii
« Death of the god ». « Glorification ». « Transfiguration ». « Resurrection ». « Power of love. » It is difficult not to find in these themes possible parallels with the death and resurrection of Christ, even in certain details.
Christ’s last moments are described as follows: « As it was the Preparation, the Jews, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross during the Sabbath – for that Sabbath was a great day – asked Pilate to break their legs and take them away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then of the other who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and immediately blood and water came out of him. He who has seen bears witness, – his witness is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth – so that you too may believe. For this happened so that the Scripture might be fulfilled:
This word of Scripture is indeed found in the text of Exodus :
« YHVH said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the Passover ritual: no stranger shall eat of it. But any slave who has been bought for money, when you have circumcised him, may eat it. The resident and the hired servant shall not eat it. It will be eaten in one house, and you will not take any piece of meat out of that house. You shall not break any bones.”x
It must be hypothesized that the precept given to Moses by YHVH « not to break any bones » is a radical reversal of the « idolatrous » practices that were to be entirely abandoned. If the « pagan » priests were tearing off the limbs of animals, breaking bones and joints, one can think that Moses considered it useful to advocate a practice strictly contrary to this, in order to differentiate himself from it.
In contrast to the Egyptian cutting up of bodies, Dionysian dismemberment, or Greek maschalism, the members of Jesus’ body were left intact, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
On the eve of his death, however, Jesus symbolically shared his body and blood with his disciples at the Last Supper.
« As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body. Then taking a cup, he gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the remission of sins.”xi
Pagan practices consist in breaking the limbs of the victims who have been sacrificed and drinking their blood. Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. This sacrifice is symbolic. But it is also a prefiguration of the real sacrifice that will take place, the very next day, on the cross.
The ancient shamanic sacrifices, the dismemberment of Osiris, the dilaceration of the body of Dionysus, the broken bread and the shared wine by Christ belong to very different cultures and spanning over several millennia.
But there is one thing in common: in all these cases, a God dies in sacrifice, and his remains are ‘shared’, ‘distributed’. Then the God is resurrected by the power of love and the word.
Given the striking analogy in these narrative patterns, we are led to make a hypothesis.
The hunting meal of the first hominids has been the beginning of religion since the dawn of time. It was during the chewing and eating of animal flesh that the idea of the permanence and transmission of the spirit attached to the bloody flesh insidiously came to haunt human consciences.
But then a conceptual leap, an incredible leap took place. It was imagined that the sacrificial victims were themselves only a distant image of the Supreme Sacrifice, that of God, the Lord of all creatures.
More than 6,000 years ago, in the great tradition of Veda, it was affirmed: « The Lord of creatures gives Himself to the gods as a sacrifice.”xii
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.
At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.
A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.
Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.
« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i
There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.
Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.
The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.
« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:
1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.
2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».
3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.
4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».
5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii
Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.
There is a general lesson here.
There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.
For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.
Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?
If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?
Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.
But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.
The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).
But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.
This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.
Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.
I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.
iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)
iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat, 1853 .
Rav Shmuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, rightly pointed out that in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed , there is not a single word on the question of the immortality of souls or that of the resurrection of the dead.
It is not that Maimonides was not interested in these delicate problems. In his great work, the Mishneh Torah, he asserted that the rational soul is immortal, and that she is conscious of her personal individuality, even in the world to comei.
Maimonides also said that the individual soul, which he also called the « intellect in act », joins after death the « agent intellect » that governs the sublunar sphere. At birth, the soul emanates from this sphere, and she comes to melt into it again at death.
The immortality of the soul does not take a personal form. Immersed in the bosom of the “agent intellect”, the soul possesses a kind of identity, without however having a separate existence.ii
Clearly, we are entering here into a highly speculative territory where the reference points are incomplete, even absent, and the indications of the rare daring ones who think they have some revelation to make on these subjects are scattered and contradictory.
The opportunities for getting lost are multiplying. No ‘guide’ seems to be able to lead us to a good port.
Perhaps that is why Maimonides did not see fit to include these ideas in his own Guide, despite the few insights he had into these matters.
Speculation about the afterlife, however fraught with pitfalls, offers an opportunity to dream of strange states of consciousness, to dream of unimaginable possibilities of being. There are more futile activities.
From the few elements provided by Maimonides, it is worth trying to freely imagine what the soul experiences after death, at the moment when she discovers herself, in a kind of subliminal awakening, plunged into another « world ». Arguably, she is fully conscious of herself, while feeling a kind of fusion with other sister souls, also immersed in the infinity of the « agent intellect ».
In this new « world », several levels of consciousness are superimposed and cross-fertilized, of which she hardly perceives the ultimate extensions or future implications.
The soul accessing the « sublunar sphere » is conscious of being (again) newly « born », but she is not completely devoid of reference points.
She has already experienced two previous « births », one at conception, the other at childbirth. She now knows confusedly that she has just experienced a kind of 3rd birth after death, opening a new phase of a life decidedly full of surprises, leaps, jumps.
Not long ago, on earth, she was a principle of life and consciousness, and now she swims in an ocean of life and intelligence, which absorbs her completely, without drowning her, nor blinding her, quite the contrary.
She was, a while ago, a “principle” (of life and consciousness, as I said) , and now she has become pure spiritual substance !
In this new state, she is probably waiting for an opportunity to manifest herself as a singular being, perhaps having taken a liking for it in her previous lives. Or, nourished by the thousand wounds of experience, she volunteers for yet other states of consciousness, or for yet other worlds, of a hopefully less cruel nature, and of which there is perhaps a profusion, beyond the sublunar sphere.
This kind of idea, I am well aware, seems perfectly inadmissible to an overwhelming majority of « modern » thinkers. Nihilists and other materialists give full meaning to « matter » and give nothing to the strength of the spirit, to its autonomy, to its capacity for survival, in an unsuspected way, after the vicissitudes of a life dominated by « matter ».
By contrast, Maimonides, in twelfth-century Spain, then a crossroads of thought, has attempted to unravel the mystery of what happens after death.
Maimonides was neither reactionary, nor an “illuminati”, nor a bigot, nor complacent. He flew high above innumerable dogmatic quarrels. There was in him an aspiration to pure reason, a nostalgia for the beyond of religious forms.
There was no question of renouncing the Law, however, or of abandoning memory of ancient cults. In his strange, aloof, ironic style, he says: « To ask for such a thing would have been as if a prophet in those times, exhorting the worship of God, came to us and said: ‘God forbids you to pray to Him, to fast, and to call on His help in times of trouble, but your worship will be a simple meditation, without any practice.”iii
This phrase that Maimonides put into the mouth of an imaginary prophet as if by play, can be taken today, a thousand years later, at face value. What seemed at the time a frank denial can now be interpreted as a rhetorical ruse, a posthumous warning from the man Maimonides, a master of double meaning.
The irony of the time fades away. The meaning is reversed, the intention is revealed.
His idea was radical. It is necessary to put an end to all cults, to idolatry, to hypocrisy, based on « prayers », « sacrifices », « fasts » and « invocations ».
Here comes the time for « simple » meditation!
I think that Maimonides was, very early on, one of the necessary prophets of new times, of those times which are always announced with delay, just as today these future times are late in coming, when ancient cults will no longer be respected for what they claim to embody, in their motionless repetitions.
In our times in parturition, naked meditation will surpass the practices of surface and appearance.
Is this idea subversive, scandalous?
Or is it a real vision, for the ultimate benefit of humankind?
Men have practiced, millennia after millennia, multiple sorts of religion. They have followed ordinances and laws, detailed or symbolic, or even freed themselves from them.
History is far from having said its last word.
There is no end to prophecy. There is no seal of the prophets.
Always, the search for a truer truth will animate the minds of men.
And in our wildest imagination, we are still very far from having tasted a small drop from this oceanic truth.
iCf. Gérard Bensussan. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie juive ? 2003
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.
« There are not many Jewish philosophers, » says Leo Straussi.
This statement, however provocative, should be put into perspective.
The first Jewish philosopher, historically speaking, Philo of Alexandria, attempted a synthesis between his Jewish faith and Greek philosophy. He had little influence on the Judaism of his time, but much more on the Fathers of the Church, who were inspired by him, and instrumental in conserving his works.
A millennium later, Moses Maimonides drew inspiration from Aristotelian philosophy in an attempt to reconcile faith and reason. He was the famous author of the Guide of the Perplexed, and of the Mishne Torah, a code of Jewish law, which caused long controversies among Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Another celebrity, Baruch Spinoza was « excommunicated » (the Hebrew term is חרם herem) and definitively « banished » from the Jewish community in 1656, but he was admired by Hegel, Nietzsche, and many Moderns…
In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn tried to apply the spirit of the Aufklärung to Judaism and became one of the main instigators of the « Jewish Enlightenment », the Haskalah (from the word השכלה , « wisdom », « erudition »).
We can also mention Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian of the 19th century, and « a very great German philosopher », in the words of Gérard Bensussanii.
Closer in time, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas .
That’s about it. These names don’t make a crowd, but we are far from the shortage that Leo Strauss wanted to point out. It seems that Leo Strauss really wished to emphasize, for reasons of his own, « the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things, » as he himself explicitly put it.iii
It is interesting to recall that Leo Strauss also clarified his point of view by analyzing the emblematic case of Maimonides: « Philosophers are men who try to account for the Whole on the basis of what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may use philosophy and Maimonides uses it in the widest possible way; but, as a Jew, he gives his assent where, as a philosopher, he would suspend his assent.”iv
Leo Strauss added, rather categorically, that Maimonides’ book, The Guide of the Perplexed, « is not a philosophical book – a book written by a philosopher for philosophers – but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.”v
The Guide of the Perplexed is in fact entirely devoted to the Torah and to the explanation of the « hidden meaning » of several passages. The most important of the « hidden secrets » that it tries to elucidate are the ‘Narrative of the Beginning’ (the Genesis) and the ‘Narrative of the Chariot’ (Ezekiel ch. 1 to 10). Of these « secrets », Maimonides says that « the Narrative of the Beginning” is the same as the science of nature and the “Narrative of the Chariot” is the same as the divine science (i.e. the science of incorporeal beings, or of God and angels).vi
The chapters of Ezekiel mentioned by Maimonides undoubtedly deserve the attention and study of the most subtle minds, the finest souls. But they are not to be put into all hands. Ezekiel recounts his « divine visions » in great detail. It is easy to imagine that skeptics, materialists, rationalists or sneers (whether Jewish or not) are not part of the intended readership.
Let us take a closer look at a revealing excerpt of Ezekiel’ vision.
« I looked, and behold, there came from the north a rushing wind, a great cloud, and a sheaf of fire, which spread a bright light on all sides, in the center of which shone like polished brass from the midst of the fire. Also in the center were four animals that looked like humans. Each of them had four faces, and each had four wings. Their feet were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like polished bronze. They had human hands under the wings on their four sides; and all four of them had their faces and wings. Their wings were joined together; they did not turn as they walked, but each walked straight ahead. As for the figures of their faces, all four had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right, all four had the face of an ox on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.”vii
The vision of Ezekiel then takes a stunning turn, with a description of an appearance of the « glory of the Lord ».
« I saw again as it were polished brass, fire, within which was this man, and which shone round about, from the form of his loins upward, and from the form of his loins downward, I saw as fire, and as bright light, about which he was surrounded. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of that bright light: it was an image of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”viii
The « man » in the midst of the fire speaks to Ezekiel as if he were an « image » of God.
But was this « man » really an « image » of God? What « philosopher » would dare to judge this statement ?
Perhaps this « man » surrounded by fire was some sort of « reality »? Or was he just an illusion?
Either way, it is clear that this text and its possible interpretations do not fit into the usual philosophical canons.
Should we therefore follow Leo Strauss, and consequently admit that Maimonides himself is not a « philosopher », but that he really wrote a « Jewish book » for the Jews, in order to respond to the need for clarification of the mysteries contained in the Texts?
Perhaps… But the modern reader of Ezekiel, whether Jewish or not, whether a philosopher or not, cannot fail to be interested in the parables one finds there, and in their symbolic implications.
The « man » in the midst of the fire asks Ezekiel to « swallow » a book, then to go « to the house of Israel », to this people which is not for him « a people with an obscure language, an unintelligible language », to bring back the words he is going to say to them.
The usual resources of philosophy seem little adapted to deal with this kind of request.
But the Guide for the Perplexed tackles it head on, in a both refined and robust style, mobilizing all the resources of reason and criticism, in order to shed some light on people of faith, who are already advanced in reflection, but who are seized with « perplexity » in the face of the mysteries of such « prophetic visions ».
The Guide for the Perplexed implies a great trust in the capacities of human reason.
It suggests that these human capacities are far greater, far more unbounded than anything that the most eminent philosophers or the most enlightened poets have glimpsed through the centuries.
And it is not all. Ages will come, no doubt, when the power of human penetration into divine secrets will be, dare we say it, without comparison with what Moses or Ezekiel themselves were able to bequeath to posterity.
In other words, and contrary to usual wisdom, I am saying that the age of the prophets, far from being over, has only just begun; and as well, the age of philosophers is barely emerging, considering the vast scale of the times yet to come.
Human history still is in its infancy, really.
Our entire epoch is still part of the dawn, and the great suns of the Spirit have not revealed anything but a tiny flash of their potential illuminating power.
From an anatomical and functional point of view, the human brain conceals much deeper mysteries, much more obscure, and powerful, than the rich and colorful metaphors of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s own brain was once, a few centuries ago, prey to a « vision ». So there was at that time a form of compatibility, of correspondence between the inherent structure of Ezekiel’s brain and the vision which he was able to give an account of.
The implication is that one day in the future, presumably, other brains of new prophets or visionaries may be able to transport themselves even further than Ezekiel.
It all winds down to this: either the prophetic « vision » is an illusion, or it has a reality of its own.
In the first case, Moses, Ezekiel and the long list of the « visionaries » of mankind are just misguided people who have led their followers down paths of error, with no return.
In the second case, one must admit that a “prophetic vision” implies the existence of another “world” subliminally enveloping the « seer ».
To every « seer » it is given to perceive to a certain extent the presence of the mystery, which surrounds the whole of humanity on all sides.
To take up William James’ intuition, human brains are analogous to « antennae », permanently connected to an immense, invisible worldix.
From age to age, many shamans, a few prophets and some poets have perceived the emanations, the pulsations of this other world.
We have to build the neuroscience and the metaphysics of otherworldly emanations.
Philo, in a short, dense passagei, describes the search of the ‘wise man’ who wants to know the secret of the universe, the origin of all things, the ultimate end – the Sovereign Mystery.
Let us reveal at once that this secret can never be reached.
Understanding this is the first step on the road of the ‘wise man’. It is necessary to know that the Mystery is too transcendent, too elusive, too unimaginable to ever be within reach. And yet it is worth continuing the search.
After a while, looking back over the road traveled so far, the walking ‘wise man’ surely knows that he knows almost nothing. At least he knows that, – which is not nothing, really, but indeed is really not much, and even one can say that it is almost absolutely nothing.
But the ‘wise man’ also knows that he has to get back on the road, and continue the search, without delay.
Looking at what still seems like a long way ahead to go before the next stop, he believes he can decipher the scattered signs in the distance. Some tracks. A few fragments.
Tending his ear, he may perceive confused clamors, rare echoes, silent sighs, indistinct words, tenuous, almost inaudible voices.
Raising his eyes, he may distinguish with some difficulty, very high in the nebula, kind of scintillating memories, and a background of faint glimmers, originally immensely distant, far beyond the forgotten ways, and lost nights.
The ‘wise man’ sets off again. He has no more time to lose. This last halt has lasted too long.
He walks with slow steps, eyes open, memory alive. From time to time he comes across thin, quickly outdated clues.
Peaceful, solitary, he reflects on the geometry of his unlimited, illogical walk. The more he advances, it seems, the less he arrives.
But he continues walking, however. In a sense, maybe doing so he does not go backwards, at last.
Towards the front, very far, in the distance, the horizon fades away.
The walker clearly sees only his slow steps, and what is just around him. He also sees that what seems quite close to him constantly slips away from him as he approaches, slowly moving away, into a blind spot.
Only the immeasurably distant, the absolutely separated, the utterly unapproachable, does not leave him, in his slow approach.
The ‘wise man’ in his walk rarely has his joy, his thirst: minute traces, celestial analects, pollens in the wind, inchoate echoes, iridescent sounds, allusive gleams, unearthed nitescences, …
But none of this is enough for him.
Walking again, continuing the search, that alone, in a sense, is enough for him.
In Platonic philosophy, the God Eros (Love) is always in search of fulfillment, always moving, eager to fill His own lack of being.
But how could a God lack of being? How could he fail to be ?
If Love signals a lack, as Plato says, how could Love be a God, whose essence is to be?
A God ‘Love’, in Plato’s way, is fully ‘God’ only through His loving relationship with what He loves. This relationship implies a ‘movement’ and a ‘dependence’ of the divine nature around the object of His ‘Love’.
How to understand such a ‘movement’ and such a ‘dependence’ in a transcendent God, a God whose essence is to ‘be’, and whose Being is a priori beyond any lack of being?
This is the reason why Aristotle harshly criticizes Plato. For Aristotle, Love is not an essence, but only a means. If God defines Himself as the Being par excellence, He is also ‘immobile’, says Aristotle. As the first immobile Motor, He only gives His movement to all creation.
« The Principle, the First of the beings is motionless: He is motionless by essence and by accident, and He imprints the first, eternal and one movement.”i
God, ‘immobile’, sets the world and all the beings it contains in motion, breathing love into them, and a desire for their ‘end’ (their goal). The world is set in motion because it desires this very ‘end’. The end of the world is in the love of the ‘end’, in the desire to reach the ultimate ‘end’ for which the world was set in motion.
« The final cause, in fact, is the Being for whom it is an end, and it is also the end itself. In the latter sense, the end can exist among immobile beings.”ii
For Aristotle, then, God cannot be ‘Love’, or Eros. The Platonic Eros is only an ‘intermediate’ god. It is through Eros that God sets all beings in motion. God sets the world in motion through the love He inspires. But He is not Love. Love is the intermediary through which He aims at the ‘final cause’, His ‘aim’.
« The final cause moves as the object of love.”iii.
Here we see that Aristotle’s conception of the God differs radically from the Christian conception of a God who is essentially “love”. « God so loved the world » (John 3:16).
Christ overturned the tables of Aristotelian law, that of a ‘still’ God, a God for whom love is only a means to an end, abstractly called the ‘final cause’.
The God of Christ is not ‘immobile’. Paradoxically, not withstanding all His putative power, He places Himself at the mercy of the love (or indifference, or ignorance) of His own creation.
For Aristotle, the divine immobile is always at work, everywhere, in all things, as the ‘First Motor’. The divine state represents the maximum possible being, the very Being. All other beings lackbeing. The lowest level in Jacob’s ladder of the aeons is that of being only in power to be, a pure potency, a purely virtual being.
The God of Christ, on the other hand, is not always ‘present’, He may be ’empty’, He may be ‘mocked’, ‘railed », ‘humiliated’. And He may ‘die’, and He may remain ‘absent’.
In a way, the Christian conception of divine kenosis is closer to the Platonic conception of a God-Love who suffers from a fundamental ‘lack’, than to the Aristotelian conception of God as ‘First Mover’ and ‘final cause’.
There is a real philosophical paradox in considering that the essence of God reveals in a lack or an ‘emptiness‘ in the heart of Being.
In this hypothesis, love would not only be a ‘lack’ of being, as Plato thinks, but would be part of the divine essence itself. This divine Lack would actually be the highest form of being.
What is the essence of a God whose lack is at its heart?
There is a name for it – a very old name, which gives a rough idea of it: ‘Sacrifice’.
This profoundly anti-intuitive idea appeared four thousand years before Christ. The Veda forged a name to describe it: Devayajña, the ‘Sacrifice of God’. A famous Vedic hymn describes Creation as the self-immolation of the Creator.iv Prajāpati totally sacrifices Himself, and in doing so He can give His Self entirely to the creation. He sacrifices himself but lives by this very sacrifice. He remains alive because the sacrifice gives Him a new Breath, a new Spirit.
« The supreme Lord said to His father, the Lord of all creatures: ‘I have found the sacrifice that fulfills desires: let me perform it for You’ – ‘So be it’, He replied. Then He fulfills it for Him. After the sacrifice, He wished, ‘May I be all here!’ He became Breath, and now Breath is everywhere here.”v
The analogy between the Veda and Christianity is deep. It includes the same, divine ’emptiness’.
« The Lord of creatures [Prajāpati], after having begotten living beings, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance.”vi
« After having generated everything that exists, He felt as if He was emptied and was afraid of death.”vii
The ’emptiness’ of the Lord of creatures is formally analogous to the ‘kenosis‘ of Christ (this word comes from the Greek kenosis and the verb kenoein, ‘to empty’).
There is also the Vedic metaphor of ‘dismemberment’, which anticipates the dismemberment of Osiris, Dionysus and Orpheus.
« When He had produced all the creatures, Prajāpati fell apart. His breath went away. When His breath was no longer active, the Gods abandoned Him”viii.
« Reduced to His heart, He cried out, ‘Alas, my life!’ The waters came to His aid and through the sacrifice of the Firstborn, He established His sovereignty.”ix
The Veda saw it. The Sacrifice of the Lord of Creation was at the origin of the universe. That is why, it is written: « the sacrifice is the navel of the universe »x.
Perhaps the most interesting thing, if we can get this far, is to allow to conclude that: « Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the Sacrifice » xi.
One chisel stroke, and the thread ends. The bobbin unwinds endlessly; but always, one day, there is a cut. The thread, however white it is, knows nothing of the cut to come.
The thread only knows that it is spinning, that it is following its thread. Cotton or chitin, it spins. For what? It does not know.
It spins, and as long as it spins, it is only thread.
What can a thread of wool or silk understand about a blade of steel ? Or to the soul of a knife? Or to the spirit of the razor?
Thread is thread. Infinitely thread. The length is on its side, he believes. What can an horizontal thread comprehend about a perpendicular blade?
Even a very long thread has an end. Comes the cut, the stroke. The end of the continuous, the condition of appearance.
Thought follows her thread; straight, sinuous, zigzagging, she follows this thread, or that other, she weaves her web. Does the blade think about the end? Made of various threads, how would she think what is not made of thread? Can the thread think about the thickness of the carpet, its surface, its pattern, or the cat that sleeps on it?
The thought following her thread is quite assured, from premises to inductions. She does not yet think about what is expecting her, maybe, what is beyond her, – the cut, or the knot.
The birth of the cut, at the end of the thread.
And the cut is also of a wire, of steel. Sharp wire, destined to cut, not to bind. Carrot, or carotid, the wire cuts. The blade cuts the soul’s core.
The Spinner, Clotho, weaves the thread of life. Lachesis unwinds it. Atropos cuts it. O fates cut short!
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
Ernst Haeckel was the biologist and philosopher who made Darwin known in Germany. He was one of the first to apply Darwinian ideas to human ‘races’. Nazi ideologues used his writings to support their racist theories and social Darwinism. Haeckel is also the author of the « recapitulation » theory, according to which ontogenesis « recapitulates » phylogenesis.
Haeckel had a monistic view of the world, an acute perception of divine immanence and proposed a quasi-deification of the « laws of nature ». « God is found in the law of nature itself. God’s will acts according to laws, both in the raindrop that falls and in the crystal that grows, as well as in the scent of the rose and in the minds of men. »i
This immanence can be found in the « cell memory » (« Zellgedächtnis ») and in the « soul of crystals » (« Kristallseelen »).
From such a interpenetration of « Nature » and « God », Haeckel deduced the end of « the belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul and in the freedom of human will.”
The whole metaphysics was to be called into question.
« Alongside the law of evolution and closely related to it, one can consider as the supreme triumph of modern science the almighty law of substance, the law of conservation of matter (Lavoisier, 1789) and of conservation of energy (Robert von Mayer, 1842). These two great laws are in manifest contradiction with the three great central dogmas of metaphysics, which most cultured people still today consider to be the most precious treasures: belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul, and in the freedom of the human will. (…) These three precious objects of faith will only be removed, as truths, from the realm of pure science. On the other hand they will remain, as a precious product of fantasy, in the realm of poetry. »ii
There are two points to consider, here. On the one hand the question of the validity of the « supreme laws » of modern science, the law of evolution and the law of conservation, and on the other hand the question of the « manifest contradiction » between these laws and the « three central dogmas of metaphysics ».
On the first point, it should be recalled that the purely scientific vision of the conservation and evolution of the world cannot alone account for singular phenomena such as the Big Bang. Where does the initial energy of the universe come from? « It has always been there, by the law of conservation », answer the believers in pure science.
But this very thesis is in itself undemonstrable, and therefore unscientific.
« Pure science » is apparently based on an unprovable axiom. Hence « pure science » does not seem quite scientific.
The second point is the question of the « manifest contradiction », according to Haeckel, between the two laws of conservation and the central dogmas of metaphysics such as freedom of the will or the immortality of the soul.
In 1907, only one year after the publication of Haeckel’s quoted work, the American physician Duncan MacDougall measured the weight of six patients just before and after their death. He found a decrease of 21 grams, which he deduced could be the weight of the soul escaping from the human bodyiii. A heated controversy ensued. The experiment was deemed to be flawed, for many commentators.
In any case, obviously, if an immaterial soul « exists », it cannot have mass. Or, if it has a « mass », then it is a SISO, a Soul In Name Only…
However, assuming the validity of D. MacDougall’s experimental results, one may infer that the 21-gram loss of mass, supposedly observed in some individuals after death, may come from causes other than the alleged soul’s exit from the body.
It would be possible to imagine, for example, a « sublimation », in the chemical sense, of certain components of the human body, which would thus pass directly from the solid state to the gaseous state, without passing through a liquid state. In fact, this « sublimation » would result in an exhalation or evaporation of the matter transformed into a gaseous mass.
The « last sigh » would thus not only consist of the air contained in the lungs of the dying body, but also of a mass of body matter « sublimated » by the metabolic transformations accompanying death itself. Among these transformations, those affecting the brain would be particularly crucial, considering that the brain consumes about a quarter of the body’s metabolic energy.
Death would have a physico-chemical effect on the brain in the form of a « sublimation » of part of its substance.
The « soul » may not have any mass and any weight. But the biological « structure » of a living brain, its « organization », this specific seal of a singular person, could prove to have a weight of several grams. At the time of death, this « structure » would rapidly decompose and « exhale » out of the body.
The « structure » of the brain, or its « systemic » organization, constitutes – from a materialistic point of view – the very essence of the individual. It can also be defined as the very condition of its « freedom », or « spirit », to use metaphysical concepts.
What is certain is that whether one has a materialistic point of view or not, death obviously produces a systemic loss, which also translates into a loss of matter.
How can the laws of « conservation » of substance and energy account for such a « loss »?
Just as every birth adds something to the unique and unheard of in this world, so every death subtracts something unique and unspeakable.
Whether we call this unique, unspeakable something: « soul », « breath », « structure » or « 21-gram mass », has no real importance, from the point of view that interests us here.
In any case, death results in a net, absolute loss, which the scientific laws of « conservation » cannot explain.
The soul, or freedom of the will for that matter, really have no « mass ». When they are « lost », the laws of conservation do not find them in their balance sheets.
It is an important lesson.
The « supreme triumph of modern science, the almighty law of substance » just cannot grasp a spiritual « essence ».
Not just any essence. Particularly the essence of our own personal soul. Once this is well understood, the implications are immense.
iii MacDougall, Duncan. “The Soul: Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of The Existence of Such Substance.” American Medicine. April 1907. Here is a significant excerpt : « The patient’s comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed. He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat. During all three hours and forty minutes I kept the beam end slightly above balance near the upper limiting bar in order to make the test more decisive if it should come. This loss of weight could not be due to evaporation of respiratory moisture and sweat, because that had already been determined to go on, in his case, at the rate of one sixtieth of an ounce per minute, whereas this loss was sudden and large, three-fourths of an ounce in a few seconds. The bowels did not move; if they had moved the weight would still have remained upon the bed except for a slow loss by the evaporation of moisture depending, of course, upon the fluidity of the feces. The bladder evacuated one or two drams of urine. This remained upon the bed and could only have influenced the weight by slow gradual evaporation and therefore in no way could account for the sudden loss. There remained but one more channel of loss to explore, the expiration of all but the residual air in the lungs. Getting upon the bed myself, my colleague put the beam at actual balance. Inspiration and expiration of air as forcibly as possible by me had no effect upon the beam. My colleague got upon the bed and I placed the beam at balance. Forcible inspiration and expiration of air on his part had no effect. In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it? »
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. »
La conscience, – accrochée au corps, comme à un clou aigu, perçant.
Tout comme la lumière atteint un jour l’horizon cosmologique, la conscience finit à la fin par se fatiguer d’elle-même. C’est la condition de son épigenèse.
Ne dure que ce qui se conçoit dans l’inconscience. La conscience a encore tout à apprendre.
Dès la conception, dans l’utérus, la conscience naît à elle-même, et quoique infime, minuscule, elle réalise alors un saut de l’ange, infini, un saltus indicible en proportion de son absolu néant un peu auparavant.
A la mort, un nouveau saltus métaphysique de la conscience est plus que probable. Mais vers quoi ? Le néant absolu ? L’abîme éternel ? Une lumière divine? Une vie nouvelle ? Personne n’en sait rien. Tout est possible. Y compris une plongée dans une forme d’être qui serait aussi éloignée de la vie terrestre que notre conscience actuelle l’est du néant originel dont elle a été brusquement tirée.
Systole. Diastole. De même, la conscience bat.
Entre sa nuit et son jour.
Pour irriguer de son sang lourd les éons vides.
Ce qu’on appelle l’« âme », et que raillent tant les matérialistes modernes, est absolument indestructible. Très fine pointe de l’être, diamant métaphysique, essence ultra-pure, quantum divin, elle sera appelée à franchir les sept premiers cieux, en quelques bonds précis, dès la nuit venue de l’être… Et alors… Accrochez vos ceintures… Personne n’a encore rien « vu ».
La naissance a projeté la conscience hors de l’abîme du néant. La mort projettera la conscience hors de l’abysse infini de l’inconscient, dans l’ultra-lumière. Exode saisissant pour elle, – qui fut poursuivie sans relâche toute la vie par les armées pharaonesques du réel, des sens, des illusions, des chimères et des fallaces.
Après la mort, projetée d’un seul coup dans ce nouveau monde, comme un bébé ébloui naît dans la lumière, la conscience nouvellement re-née à elle-même saura d’emblée trouver le sein palpitant, nourricier, nourrissant. Elle en saura alors, instantanément, bien plus que toutes les philosophies passées et à venir, tous les savoirs imaginés dans l’univers.
Elle en saura bien plus, c’est-à-dire bien peu…
« Naître c’est s’attacher ».i Mais l’essence de la conscience, c’est plutôt de se détacher toujours d’elle-même, un peu plus chaque jour. La mort alors sera comme la bride lâchée sur le cou d’un pur-sang, le mettant enfin au grand galop, dans les steppes, vastes et venteuses, de l’éternité.
Ce sont les maux, les malaises, les chutes, les rêves, les sommeils, les éveils et les silences qui façonnent peu à peu, ici-bas, la conscience. Vous avez aimé la saison 1 ?
A la demande générale, la saison 2 se prépare…
Conscience, – clinging to the body, like a sharp, piercing nail.
Just as light reaches the cosmological horizon one day, conscience eventually tires of herself. This is the condition of her epigenesis.
Only lasts what is conceived in the unconscious. Conscience still has everything to learn.
From the moment of conception, in the womb, conscience is born to herself, and even though it is tiny, minuscule, she then performs an angel’s leap, an infinite, unspeakable saltus, in proportion to her absolute nothingness a little earlier.
At death, a new metaphysical saltus of conscience is more than probable. But towards what? Absolute nothingness? The eternal abyss? A divine light? A new life? No one knows. Everything is possible. Including a plunge into a form of being that would be as distant from earthly life as our present conscience is from the original nothingness from which she was abruptly drawn.
Systole. Diastole. Likewise, conscience beats.
Between her night and her day.
To irrigate the empty eons with her heavy blood.
The so-called « soul, » which modern materialists mock so much, is absolutely indestructible. Very fine point of the being, metaphysical diamond, ultra-pure essence, divine quantum, she will be called to cross the first seven heavens, in a few precise jumps, as soon as the Death’s Night comes… And then… Hang up your belts… Nobody has yet « seen » anything.
Birth projected conscience out of the abyss of nothingness. Death will project conscience out of the infinite abyss of the unconscious into the ultra-light. A striking exodus for her, – which was relentlessly pursued all her terrestrial life by the pharaonic armies of the real, the senses, illusions, chimeras and fallacies.
After death, projected at once into this new world, like a dazzled baby born into the light, the newly born-again conscience will immediately know how to find the throbbing, nourishing breast. She will also instantly know more than all the past and future philosophies, all the knowledge imagined in the universe.
She will know much more, i.e. much less than there is yet to discover…
« To be born is to become attached. »(i) But the essence of conscience is rather to always detach herself from herself, a little more each day. Death then will be like the bridle dropped on the neck of a thoroughbred, finally putting him at full gallop, in the vast and windy steppes of eternity.
It is the evils, the uneasiness, the falls, the dreams, the sleeps, the awakenings and the silences that shape little by little, here below, the conscience. Did you like your life’s season 1?
By popular demand, season 2 is getting ready… Keep watching!
iCioran. De l’inconvénient d’être né. Œuvres. Éditions de la Pléiade. 2011, p. 746.
Prophetic projections or disenchanted salvos, the blows come from all sides. « Decadence » (Nietzsche). « Malaise in civilization » (Freud). « Decline of the West » (Spengler). « Mechanical petrifaction » (Max Weber). « Crisis of the mind » (Paul Valéry). « Spiritual sickness of humanity » (C.-G. Jung). « Absence of meaning » (Hannah Arendt). « Crisis of meaning » (John Paul II).
These judgments, recent on the scale of history, testify to the acceleration of a massive phenomenon, but we must go back further to understand its deepest sources.
One of the first signs of decomposition appeared more than a thousand years ago. The via moderna (the « modern way ») inaugurated the deconstruction of metaphysics in the Middle Ages. A few monks, tired of the scholastics, began to scatter to the wind the « chimeras » and « empty abstractions » of classical philosophies. « Truth » or the « universal » were now just empty words, fallacies. Only in facts was truth to be found. The only universals were now the singularities.
With nominalism was thus founded the first basis for modern ideas. It took several centuries to broaden and deepen it. Empiricism, relativism and positivism subsequently accompanied the progress of science and technology. At the same time, the nominalist lesson, coming out of philosophical circles, was adapted to politics, for the benefit of the Prince and the advantage of Leviathan.
We had finished with metaphysics, and with the classical age, but certainly not with religion. Shortly after the fall of Constantinople, the invention of printing, the discovery of America and the Copernican revolution, markers of the entry into « modern » times, a part of the West became religiously and lastingly infatuated with a core of ruthless and pessimistic ideas: universal reign of sin, absolute decay of man, assured perdition of the whole of humanity, – with the inexplicable exception of a few « saints ».
These singular, self-proclaimed « saints », imbued with an exceptional ethos, did not remain inert. Assuming their « manifest destiny, » they began to preach relentlessly, century after century, a corrosive despair, contempt for the weak, abandonment of the poor, while the « war of each against each » raged.
Nominalism and the Reformation had attacked, from two different angles, the old « Good News » that had once been offered to all. The Enlightenment came, also dominated by nominalism, in a resolutely more materialistic version. It was then possible to assert without detours that humanity is in reality only an « abstraction », and that there are only « concrete men » (Goethe). The idea made its mark, and just before the First World War it was declared that « natural law » and the idea of « humanity » had become « almost incomprehensible in Germany » (E. Troeltsch). The death of the word heralded the death of the thing. This misunderstood « abstraction » was soon to be given an appallingly concrete meaning.
After two world wars and several genocides, nominalism still occupies the top of the pavement. The philosophers who claim to be its advocates still seem incapable of defining the essence of « good, » « true » and « just ».
And now the end of the « great narratives » (les « grands récits »), announced by Foucault and Lyotard, adds a final touch to this millennial deconstruction.
From now on, the Dasein, alone and naked, without Idea and without Narrative, can be delivered to the games, without why and without hindrance, of the political and social forces, in the economic and technological immanence, and in the continuous confrontation with the resurgence, providential and reactionary, of tribalisms and identities.
Special groups, special interests, selfishness are exalted. The idea of a common world is moving further and further away.
The cleavages are getting worse and settling over time. Globalized capitalism produces an oligarchy of super-dominants and an infinite number of proletarians, enslaved in circles concentric to the Empire. On one side, a few masters of the world, on the other, all the « rest ». The future promises to be sectarian, oligarchic and mafia-like.
Clear, irrevocable signs of decay, poverty, weakness, servitude are, generation after generation, devolved to the immense mass of losers, condemned on earth and « reproved » in heaven.
In this planetary division of destinies, the faith of the « saints » of the day guides and energizes them beyond measure. Their religion is not opium for them, it is their cocaine.
They went to school. Metaphysical egoism and hatred of the common have been transposed far beyond the religious sphere, into a world that is already no longer common, but divided. Inclusion is reserved there to the few, general exclusion is for all the rest, and dissociation is universal.
The ancient battle of the Calvinist « saints » during the Wars of Religion and the Hobbesian War of All Against All in 17th century England has spread and extended beyond all expectations.
The Christian fundamentalists and the born again who today wage war on the « axis of evil » are the heirs of the Puritans who approached the shores of New England, to appropriate in blood a land that was « manifestly » intended for them.
Untouchable ideas (Manichaeism of good and evil, of the chosen and the fallen, of friend and foe) adapt to all times, all religions, all latitudes. Formerly Gnostic, yesterday Calvinistic, they can be summarized as follows: « After me, the Flood ».
In more formal style: God’s grace is reserved for the chosen few and nothingness is promised to the rest of the world.
These ideas have provoked countless wars over the centuries. Today, they serve as mantras in the worldwide « war of civilizations ». They are translated into all languages: « In God we trust », « Gott mit uns », « Dieu avec nous », « Allahu-akbar ».
It’s not that there is no alternative.
Famous thinkers have long been engaged in other or contrary utopias.
Leibniz proposed to build the « republic of the minds ». Rousseau believed in the expression of the « general will ». Kant philosophized about the « general interest of humanity ».
But have the peoples, crammed into the world’s jungle, heard them? The law of the powerful is always stronger than the law of the weak. What can « paper and words » do before « the sword and the hand of men »? i
The religion of global dissociation and disenchantment continues to grow. The once religious and moral schism has become secularized and trivialized. A ferocious schizophrenia gnaws at the global unconscious, psychically cracked, torn, mutilated.
It is necessary to analyze and anamnesis it, to understand the decomposition of the modern mind and the programmed end of the common. It is necessary to delve into the early days of the era, to find its Manichean and Gnostic preliminaries, to reveal its initial wounds, and their innumerable after-effects.
The ancient past also tells of a possible future. The « knowledge societies » take up the ancient Gnostic utopia in another way.
The new believers believe in other immanent gods: knowledge, technique, science, indefinite progress.
They love a new law, « convergence ».
They compose a neo-Genesis, where there is no longer evening or morning, no abyss or firmament, no divine wind, but the demiurgic fusion of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, neurosciences and artificial intelligence. Immanence emerges at the nanoscale, and universally spreads its Gospel, through the globalization of materials, materials and capital. Bits, atoms, neurons, and genes will be the unsuspecting heroes of the new Global Narrative.
A new Promised Land can be hoped for. Immense « free lands », with indefinite, putative borders, have already been appropriated by the pioneers of invention, the pilgrim fathers of appropriation.
A trans-humanity with « augmented » genes ii will tomorrow take exclusive possession of it. Homo Sapiens 2.0 will leave behind them an obsolete « remnant », humanity 1.0.
iiA report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed alarm about this in the following terms: « In the long term, nanomedicine could lead to a radical transformation of the human species. Humanity’s efforts to change itself as and when it wants to could lead to a situation where it would no longer be possible to speak of a « human being » at all « . Cf. Bert Gordjin, « Les questions éthiques en nanomédecine« , in Nanotechnologies, éthique et politique, UNESCO Editions, Paris, 2008.
What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?
« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i
Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …
The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».
But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?
In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:
John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):
« Marchant de sommet en sommet,
ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:
« Walking from summit to summit,
not to walk a path only to the end…”
Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:
« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,
et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v
« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,
and not following in my speech a single road…”
I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?
We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.
According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .
Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .
The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone,extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »
Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».
But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…
What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?
Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.
The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).
If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.
In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».
Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.
Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…
How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…
In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.
It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).
More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….
The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).
Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».
The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).
Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?
I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.
I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.
Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .
This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.
For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly otherways, not just a ‘single path’…
The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».
As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».
Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :
« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…
Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.
Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.
One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.
The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,
Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »
Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …
Milk is like the soul, says one Upaniṣad.i How come?
In milk, butter is hidden… As in potency… It must be churned and it appears.
In the soul, knowledge also is hidden… As in potency… When the spirit searches, it increases its strength, makes it grow, and knowledge comes.
Another metaphor: from two sticks rubbed together, fire springs forth. From the soul and the spirit rubbing together, comes the Brahman.
The word Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) is neutral. It designates a principle: « growth, increase, strengthening ». It comes from the verbal root BṚH- , to strengthen, to increase, to augment, to enlarge.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, the Lord defines Brahman as his own Self:
« The universe is entirely pervaded by Me, invisible, formless. All beings are in Me, but nothing that is created is in Me, and I am not in them. Behold My supernatural power! I sustain all beings. I am everywhere present. I remain the source of all creation. Just as in space the power of the wind is established, and everywhere its breath, in Me stand all beings. »ii
The Lord, transcendent, descends incognito to earth, and He does not mince His words:
« The fools denigrate Me when in human form I come down to this world. They know nothing of my spiritual, absolute nature, nor of my supremacy. Ignorant, they go astray. They believe in demons, not in Me. Vain are their hopes, vain are their interests, vain are their aspirations, vain is their knowledge. « iii
Neither fools nor vain, are the « great souls », the mahatmah.
« Those who are ignorant of ignorance, the mahatmah, are under the protection of the divine nature. Knowing Me as God, the Supreme, original, inexhaustible Person, they absorb themselves, they devote themselves. Unceasingly singing my glory, they prostrate themselves before Me. Determined in their effort, these spirits, these magnanimous souls love Me.” iv
What happens then?
« Those who know, look at me: I am the Unique Being. They see Me in the multitude of beings and things; My form is in the universe.”v
If the Self is the Whole, it is also in each one of the forms in it, in their infinite variety, their total sum, and their common nature.
« But it is I who am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Rig, the Sâma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the resting place and the eternal seed. I am heat, rain and drought, I am immortality and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna.”vi
But the Veda itself is not enough, nor the rites. The most important thing is yet to attain knowledge, the only necessary knowledge. Where is it hidden?
« It is indirectly that they worship Me, the men who study the Vedas and drink soma, looking for delicious heavens. They are reborn on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy the pleasures of the devas. When they have enjoyed these celestial pleasures, when their merits have been exhausted, they return to this mortal Earth. A fragile happiness, such is the only fruit they reap, after having followed the principles of the Vedas. But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My absolute Form, I fill their lacks and preserve what they are. Every oblation that man with faith sacrifices to the devas is destined for Me alone, O son of Kunti. For I am the sole beneficiary and the sole object of the sacrifice. Those who ignore My true, absolute nature, fall back. Those who worship the Devas will be reborn among the Devas, among the ghosts and other spirits those who live in their worship, among the ancestors the worshippers of the ancestors: likewise, those who are devoted to Me will live with Me.”vii
Following that logic, let’s wonder: from all the « whited sepulchres » of the world, what will really be reborn? New whited, sepulchral worlds? New whited, sepulchral galaxies?
The poet said: « the Milky Way, – luminous sister of the white streams of Chanaan, and of the white bodies of the lovers ».viii
But it seems to me that the Milky Way, with all its grandeur, has less milk and less light than one living soul… As for the streams of Chanaan and the bodies of the lovers, that’s still an open discussion, to compare their ´milk´ to the soul.
There are cultures that value prose, argument, dialectics, in the search for truth. Others praise the hymn, the psalm, the enigma. Some have pushed far the love of wisdom, or maieutic. Others have preferred prophecy or mystery.
The ways forward are multiple. Variations are legion.
Hard climates, short summers, open landscapes, undoubtedly influence the view, life, and everything else. Scattered archipelagos, high valleys, alluvial plains, tawny deserts, wet basins, all these eclectic places hardly resemble each other. They have had, in their time, in their turn, respective affinities, sudden impulses, for thoughts coming from elsewhere, or born within them. Greece has its light. On the Indus flows a heavy and sweet air. The Nile is not the Oxus. The Rhine is not the Tigris.
Each people has their own way of seeing the sea and the stars, of following the sun and the course of the mountains, of telling the fire and the milk, the cow and the night.
Their languages sometimes bear witness to this, beyond the centuries.
Images, which have become seemingly banal, yesterday founded grandiose metaphors, and for millennia have nourished original intuitions. The arid stone of the desert gave birth to a mineral monotheism. The laughing myriads of the sea waves are of a more pantheistic nature – they diffract the solar unit abundantly into billions of labile shards.
One people alone does not create the idea of the divine; the climate also exudes it, the landscape cherishes it, and the language welcomes it.
Besides, the One has too many names. Prajāpati, El, Adonaï, Eloh, Baal, Elion, El Shaddaï, YHVH, Deus, Allah.
The Elohim themselves testify that the One hides in the plural …
All these names are one. These so many names all say that the One is, but they are very many to proclaim it.
It is inferred that all these names and even the number “one” are but veils.
One, one, one, … One, only one, not two, not three, not a thousand or billions.
How could the One rub shoulders with the Two? Or engender the Three? Or breathe the Infinite?
No, no, no. One, One, One…
Only One, there is only the One!
One is one. The Divine is infinite. How to limit the infinite by the One? Idle question. The world is larger than all the deserts, deeper than all the cosmos: no matter the quarrels of hackneyed words…
There, for millennia, towards the Indus, beyond the Oxus, ancient peoples saw the Divine everywhere they looked. They drank it with their eyes, when the light set its dazzling wing, and offered this very light as a sacrifice.
Grammar, words, style, rhythm, liberty, criticism, were other wings for them, making other prisms glimmer in their unbounded intelligence.
The mind then became aware of its destiny, unique and colorful.
The north still lives in the south of itself. East and west close together at the ends of the day. The one and the infinite make two… and they open the way to the possible and to the unity of being.
Today, it is time to think about the unification of the human, after so much blood has been shed just to claim the “oneness” of the divine.
Renan provoked: « Who will dare to say that by revealing the divine unity and definitively suppressing the local religions, the Semitic race has not laid the foundation stone for the unity and progress of humanity?”i
The Semitic God is far from man, immensely distant. But occasionally He comes near. He chooses a Nabi, an Anointed One, a prophet, a chosen one, or a pure soul, and He reveals Himself, absolutely elevated, infinitely unspeakable, all “Other”.
Next door, close by, elsewhere, the multiple, the diverse, the lowly, the “Other”, are neither « one » nor « far ».
One day, the man of the future will link the One and the Multiple, the distant and the near, the earth and the sky.
Deserts, seas, mountains and valleys will blow various winds, unique and shadowy geniuses, inaudible wisdoms, thoughts yet to be born.
iErnest Renan. Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques. (1863)
All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
Man is an « intermediary being » between the mortal and the immortal, says Plato. This enigmatic phrase, rather inaudible to modern people, can be understood in several senses,.
One of these is the following. « Intermediary » means that man is in constant motion. He goes up and down, in the same breath. He ascends towards ideas that he does not really understand, and he descends towards matter that he does not understand at all. Inhaling, exhaling. Systole of the spirit, diastole of the soul.
Ancient words still testify to these outward movements of the soul. « Ecstasy », from the Greek ἒκστασις (ekstasis), means firstly « coming out of oneself ». The spirit comes out of the body, and then it is caught up in a movement that takes it beyond the world.
Ekstasis is the opposite of stasis, ‘contemplation’, — which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria). The meaning of θεωρία as ‘contemplation, consideration’ is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, this word took on the meaning of ‘theory, speculation’ as opposed to ‘practice’.
But originally, θεωρία meant ‘sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist’. The ‘theorist’ was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious festival. A ‘theory’ was a religious delegation going to a holy place.
The words ekstasis and theoria have something in common, a certain movement towards the divine. Ekstasis is an exit from the body. Theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi.
These are images of the free movement of the soul, in the vertical or horizontal direction. Unlike the theoria, which is a journey in the true sense of the word, ekstasis takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, crossed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which goes far beyond its capacities, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, few means of fixing it and sharing it on its return.
The word ekstasis seems to keep the trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. When the soul moves to higher lands, generally inaccessible, it encounters phenomena quite different from those of the usual life, life on earth. Above all, it runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is constantly ahead of it, that draws it ever further away, to an ever-changing elsewhere, which probably stands at an infinite distance.
Human life cannot know the end of this race. The soul, at least the one that is given the experience of ekstasis, can nevertheless intuitively grasp the possibility of a perpetual search, a striking race towards an elusive reality.
In his commentaries on the experience of ecstasyi, Philo considers that Moses, despite what his famous visionii, reported in the Bible, did not actually have access to a complete understanding of the divine powers.
But Jeremiah, on the other hand, would testify to a much greater penetration of these powers, according to Philo. However, despite all his talent, Philo has difficulty in consolidating this delicate thesis. The texts are difficult and resistant to interpretation.
Philo cautiously suggests extrapolating certain lines from Jeremiah’s text to make it an indication of what may have been an ecstasy. « This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iii. This is rather thin, admittedly. But another line allows us to guess God’s hold, God’s domination over Jeremiah: « Dominated by your power, I have lived in isolation »iv.
Other prophets have also declared to have lived in ecstasy, using other metaphors. Ezekiel, for example, says that « the hand of God came »v upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed »vi.
When the ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual: « And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sad, in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”vii
In a cynical, materialistic and disillusioned time, like our time, one cannot be content with just words, even prophetic ones, to interest the reader. Facts, experiments, science, rationality are needed.
Let’s start with a ‘technical’ definition of ecstasy according to the CNRTL :
« A particular state in which a person, finding herself as if transported out of herself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality. »
This definition evokes enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. This vocabulary is hardly less obscure than the biblical expressions ‘dominion by power’, or ‘hand of God’.
Moreover, this definition cautiously employs what appears to be a series of euphemisms: ‘to be as if transported’, ‘to be removed from the sensitive world’, ‘to discover a kind of enlightenment’, ‘to participate in an experience’.
If we return to the memories of ecstasy bequeathed to us by the prophets, the true ‘experience’ of ecstasy seems infinitely more dynamic, more overwhelming, ‘dominated’ by the immediate, irrefutable intuition of an infinite, transcendent ‘power’.
Bergson, a true modernist, if ever there was one, and philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static image of ecstasy: « The soul ceases to turn on itself (…). It stops, as if it were listening to a voice calling out to it. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which it is absorbed or a rapture it experiences: God is there, and it is in him. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”viii
Can ecstasy only be associated with a moment when the soul ‘stops’, when it ‘stops spinning’? Is it not rather carried away without recourse by a fiery power, which suddenly sweeps away all certainty, all security? Bergson certainly falls far short of any essential understanding of ecstasy, perhaps because he has never experienced one.
Who will report today in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite and gentle violence of ecstasy? Who will say in raw terms the light that invades the intelligence, as in love the whole body? Who will explain the narrow bank from which the pulse of death is measured? Who will tell us how to kiss the lips of infinity? Who will grasp in one stroke the face of which time is but a slice, and the world, but a shadow?
The first kind of nudity: the head uncovered, the face unveiled, or the body dressed in torn clothing.
Moses said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons: « Do not uncover your heads or tear your clothes, unless you want to die and bring divine wrath upon the whole community. « (Lev. 10:6)
In this episode, sadness and mourning take hold of Aaron and his sons because a divine fire has just fatally burned two other sons. But Moses does not allow them to express their sorrow in the agreed forms (uncovered head, torn clothes).
In another episode, it is the unveiled face of Abraham’s wife that poses a problem, not as such, but because it arouses the Pharaoh’s desire, and incites Abraham to lie to him about his wife whom he presents as his sister.
« When he was about to arrive in Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife: « I know that you are a woman with a gracious face. It will happen that when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’, and they will kill me and keep you alive. « (Gen. 12:11-12)
Second kind of nudity: that of the drunk man, who does not have his full conscience. Thus Noah: « He drank of his wine and became drunk, and laid himself bare in the midst of his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and went outside to tell his two brothers. « (Gen. 9:21-22)
Third kind of nudity, the proud nudity of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. « Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. « (Gen. 2:25).
The fourth kind of nakedness is that of the shameful body. « And the LORD God called the man and said to him, « Where are you? » He answered, « I heard your voice in the garden; I was afraid, because I am naked, and I hid myself. » Then he said, « Who told you that you were naked? » (Gen. 3:9-11)
These different sort of nakedness can be interpreted, it seems to me, as various allegories of the Mystery, as various ways of being confronted with it, partially or totally, seeing it without understanding it, or somewhat understanding it, but then being excluded from it.
Not everyone is allowed to “see” the mysteries of heaven and earth. There are several levels of unveiling, reserved for those who have the capacity to face them face to face, according to their own merits.
“Seeing” the nakedness of the mystery is in principle excluded. But there are cases where this is more or less possible, with certain consequences.
If the mystery is laid bare, if it is looked at without a veil, without precaution, this implies taking risks.
The first kind of nudity is an image of the risk taken. Uncovering one’s head or tearing off one’s clothes against time, like Aaron did, can arouse divine anger.
Noah’s nakedness is another parable. One is sometimes led to surreptitiously discover a hidden aspect of the Mystery. Ham accidentally saw his father’s nudity (nudity which is admittedly a figure, a metaphor, of the Mystery). Ham will be punished above all for having immediately ‘revealed’ it to his brothers Shem and Japheth instead of having taken the necessary measures (covering the nudity, protecting the nakedness of the Mystery). It was the latter brothers who then carefully covered it, walking backwards and turning their face, not taking any glance at the scene.
They were to be rewarded later on for having preserved the invisible aura of the Mystery.
The third nudity, the happy nudity of Adam and Eve, is that of the origin. One may see the entire Mystery, without any veil, but the paradox is that one is not aware of its real nature. The whole Mystery is fully disclosed, but everything happens as if there was no awareness of it, as if there was nothing special to see, to understand, as is there was nothing mysterious in fact. Trap of the visible. Laces of un-exercised intelligence. Adam and Eve do not “see” and even less understand the Mystery that surrounds them, and they are not even aware of their own mystery, the mystery of their existence, their own consciousness. The Mystery is present in them, around them, but they know nothing of it.
The fourth kind of nudity is shameful nudity. Adam finally knows and sees his own nakedness as it is. The mystery is revealed to the consciousness. The consciousness has knowledge of the existence of the Mystery, but to no avail. The presence of the Mystery is immediately covered, buried in the unconscious, by the consciousness.
Four kind of nudity, four ways of perceiving the Mystery, and four ways blinding oneself to its true nature.
The biblical nudity carries four lessons about the veil and its unveiling.
One has to make an effort to understand the true nature, the true nudity, the true essence of the Mystery.
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.
Under Tiberius, in the year 16, soothsayers, astrologers and magi were expelled from Italy. Divination had become a capital crime that one would pay with one’s life. A new millennium had begun, but no one suspected it. Times were changing faster than people’s minds. And the Roman religion had to defend itself foot to foot against barbaric ideas from elsewhere.
Long gone was then the time of Moses, who saw in the light what thought could not embrace. Long gone, the time of the prophets, who received dreams and visions, images and words.
Long gone also, was the time of the Chaldean magi and the Avestic and Vedic priests. Possessed of a divine madness, they could, it is said, predict the future by their power of enthusiasm, their capacity for ecstasy.
The words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstasy’ translate by means of Greek words and roots experiences of a probably universal nature. But do these words adequately reflect the variety of ‘visions’ and the diversity of ‘seers’ throughout the world and throughout history? How can this be ascertained? How can we organize the timeless archaeology of enthusiasm, launch the worldwide excavations of the ecstatic states?
When the divine penetrates the human, it overturns all that is known, all that is acquired, all that can be expressed, all that can be dictated. Everything is overturned, but it also seems that the mind receives, if we believe the testimonies, a capacity for understanding, comprehension and conviction, without any possible comparison. The prophet ‘hears’ or ‘sees’ in an instant thoughts which he considers ‘divine’ but which he makes his own, and to a certain extent he can communicate them to others and find attentive ears. This is where the true prophet is revealed.
After God breathed thoughts and laws into Moses’ mind, Moses in turn repeated them to Aaron. This double operation (first through divine breath, then through human speech) can be understood as an allegory. Moses is above all God’s interpreter. Firstly, he represents His Intelligence, then His Word. The Intelligence first grasps Moses entirely. What can be said of this? The texts are opaque, difficult to interpret. As for the Word that Moses repeated to Aaron, it represented the prophetic act itself, the decisive leap out of the sanctuary of ecstasy into freedom.
Free, the prophet is also bound, from above and below, – bound to heaven by Intelligence, bound to earth by the Word. Philo sums up: « The soul has an earthly base, but it has its summit in pure Intelligence.”i
For my part, I would add that the most important thing is not in fact to be found in Intelligence, which assails the soul entirely and subjugates it, nor in the Word, whose task is to give meaning to the unspeakable and then bring the worlds together.
What is really important, for the rest of the ages, and for its truly unspeakable implications, is the absolute freedom of the soul (here the soul of Moses) which has been able to free itself from ecstasy, then to transcend the innumerable constraints of the human word, and finally to launch a bridge over unfathomable chasms.
Emmanuel Lévinas, in a short autobiographyi, briefly recounts his childhood in Lithuania and Ukraine, his arrival in Strasbourg in 1923, his university career culminating in a professorship at the Sorbonne in 1973. This « disparate inventory » is dominated, he stresses, « by the presentiment and memory of Nazi horror ».
He then evokes, without any transition, the work of Husserl, whose method, he explains, consists of « respecting the intentions that animate the psyche », and seeing how it appears.
Surprising angel leap. Coagulation of extremes. From one line to the other, an unexpected change of subject – the passage from « Nazi horror » to « phenomenology ». Levinas links the pain of History, the praise of intention and the putting into perspective of what he calls « the unsuspected horizons where the real lies ».
Calm style of thought, through a succession of powerful jolts.
Time abounds in intimate fractures, in a thousand vacillations, constantly « presented » and « represented ». In each of them, the consciousness can decide to display its own will, a desire for rupture, or a refusal.1
From this capacity for rupture, from this refusal of abstraction, from this reflex of negation, from this scathing feeling of imminence, Levinas deduces the existence of beings of consciousness, who tear themselves away from the totality, who do not associate themselves with it, do not encompass it.
From these consciousnesses, from the pluralism of subjectivities and the myriad of experiences – he infers the necessity of the « other », the necessity of the relation of the being with other beings, and with the Other.
From the same premises, however, a much more pessimistic lesson could be drawn.
The rupture with the present, the gaping of the imminent, the uprooting from nature, the refusal of the principle, the execution of the impersonal and the negation of the totality do not necessarily lead to the apotheosis of the relation, the revelation of the being in front of the being.
Why would the refusal of the Whole certainly open the way to the Other?
The refusal of the Whole could rather imply a certain, absolute, assured solitude. The observation of Hegelian failure, the flight from totalizations, are not sufficient conditions for a new Exodus. Moreover, if there were a new Exodus, who would be its Moses, and to what Earth, with what people?
A Promised Land, where one could meet Angeli Novi, à la Klee? Or a wounded land, traversed in all directions by angels of Death, furious demons, incubi and succubi, — a land of Hell?
A disputed, bruised, bloodless land, where black clouds, funeral mounds, mass graves, and putrid smells spread out?
Which new prophet will tell us what the future Promised Lands still in the making will be?
For the addicts to phenomenology, the name of one of these putative prophets would be: Intention !…
Following this lesson, we should listen to the « intention » lurking in the depths, we should watch out for the « psyche » at work in ourselves. We must not stop being even more attentive to what could, coming unexpectedly, « appear » in the world, or in our consciousness, at any moment.
We must give consciousness this unique credit: to be able to sense in due time the imminence of disaster.
1« Le temps ne doit pas être vu comme »image » et approximation d’une éternité immobile, comme mode déficient de la plénitude ontologique. Il articule un mode d’existence où tout est toujours révocable, où rien n’est définitif, mais est à venir – où le présent même n’est pas une simple coïncidence avec soi, mais encore imminence. Ce qui est la situation de la conscience. Avoir conscience, c’est avoir du temps, c’est être en deçà de la nature, dans un certain sens ne pas être encore né. Un tel arrachement n’est pas un moindre être, mais la façon du sujet. Elle est pouvoir de rupture, refus de principes neutres et impersonnels, refus de la totalité hégélienne et de la politique, refus de rythmes ensorceleurs de l’art. » E. Lévinas. Difficile liberté, 1976, p.375
The sun was created on the fourth day of Genesis. Before the sun was created, what did the first « mornings » and « evenings » look like? In what sense was a “dawn” without a morning sunbeam? An “evening” without twilight?
Genesis speaks of « evenings » and « mornings »i, but not of « nights », except at the very beginning. « God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”ii
Why? Perhaps to suggest that the « Night » cannot be entirely given over to « Darkness ». Or because the Night, being absolutely devoid of any « light », cannot have an existence of its own. Nights = Darkness = Nothingness?
There is another possibility. The Night does exist, but the angels of light cannot have « knowledge » of it. Being made of light, they are incompatible with night. Therefore they cannot talk about it, let alone pass on its existence to posterity.
This is the reason why one passes, immediately, from evening to morning. « There was an evening, there was a morning”iii.
Another question arises, that of the nature of the « day ». Since the sun had not yet been created, perhaps we should imagine that « day » implied another source of light, for example an « intelligible light », or metaphorically, the presence of « angels of light », as opposed to « night », which would shelter the « angels of darkness »?
In any case, before the sun was born, there were three days – three mornings and three evenings – that benefited from a non-solar light and a quality of shadow that was intermediate and not at all nocturnal.
When the angels « knew » the creation (waters, heavens, lands, seas, trees, grasses…) in the first three days, they did not « see » it, nor did they get attached to it. They would have run the risk of sinking into the darkness of the night, which they did not « see », and for good reason.
In those evenings and mornings, they could also « know » the light of the spirit.
Only the “night angels” could remain in the night, this “night” which Genesis avoids naming six timesiv.
Nothing can be said about this night and this occultation of the spirit. Besides, the Bible does not even mention the word itself, as has already been said.
What is certain is that during the first three days there were no lights other than those of the spirit. Nor were there any nights other than those of the spirit.
During these three days and nights, creation received the original, founding memory of this pure light and this deep darkness.
We can also derive these words (mornings, evenings, days, nights) into other metaphors: the « mornings » of consciousness, the « nights » of the soul, – as S. Augustine who wrote about the « knowledge of the morning » and the « knowledge of the evening »v.
S. Thomas Aquinas also took up these expressions and applied them to the « knowledge of the angel »: « And as in a normal day morning is the beginning of the day, and evening is the end of the day, [St. Augustine] calls morning knowledge the knowledge of the primordial being of things, a knowledge which relates to things according to the way they are in the Word; whereas he calls evening knowledge the knowledge of the created being as existing in its own nature.” vi
Philosophically, according to Thomistic interpretation, ‘morning’ is a figurative way of designating the principle of things, their essential idea, their form. And the « evening » then represents what follows from this essence subjected to the vicissitudes of existence, which results from the interaction of the principle, the idea, the form, with the world, reality or matter.
“Morning knowledge” is a knowledge of the primordial being of things, a knowledge of their essence. “Evening knowledge” represents the knowledge of things as they exist in their own nature, in the consciousness of themselves.
Let us take an example. A tiger, an eagle or a tuna, live their own lives, in the forest, the sky or the sea. Perhaps one day we will be able to write about the unique experience of a particular tiger, a particular eagle or a particular tuna. We will have taken care to arm them with sensors from their birth, and to scrupulously record all the biological data and their encephalograms every millisecond of their existence. In a sense, we will be able to « know » their entire history with a luxury of detail. But what does « knowing » mean in this context? Over time, we will surely acquire the essence of their vision of the world, their grammars, their vocabularies, as a result of systematic, tedious and scholarly work. But will we ever discover the Dasein of a particular animal, the being of this tiger, this tuna or this eagle?
Since Plato, there has been this idea that the idea of the animal exists from all eternity, but also the idea of the lion, the idea of the dove or the idea of the oyster.
How can we effectively perceive and know the essence of the tiger, the tigerness? The life of a special tiger does not cover all the life possibilities of the animals of the genus Panthera of the Felidae family. In a sense, the special tiger represents a case in point. But in another sense, the individual remains enclosed in its singularity. It can never have lived the total sum of all the experiences of its congeners of all times past and future. It sums up the species, in one way, and it is overwhelmed on all sides by the infinity of possibilities, in another way.
To access the « morning knowledge », one must be able to penetrate the world of essences, of paradigms, of « Logos« . This is not given to everyone.
To access the « evening knowledge », one must be ready to dive into the deep night of creatures. It is not given to everyone either, because one cannot remain there without damage. This is why one must « immediately » arrive in the morning. S. Augustine comments: « But immediately there is a morning (as is true for each of the six days), for the knowledge of the angels does not remain in the ‘created’, but immediately brings it [the created] to the glory and love of the One in whom the creature is known, not as something done, but to be done.”vii
We can see that there are in fact three kinds of knowledge: diurnal knowledge, vesperal knowledge and morning knowledge.
The diurnal knowledge here is that of daylight, but one has yet to further distinguish between a daylight without the “sun” (like in the first three days of Creation), and a daylight bathing in sunlight.
As for the difference between vesperal and matutinal knowledge, it is the same as the difference between knowledge of things already done and knowledge of things yet to be accomplished.
iGn 1,5. Gn 1,8. Gn 1,13. Gn 1,19. Gn 1,23. Gn 1,31
According to Genesis, taken literally, man was created twice.
Genesis, in chapter 1, describes a first creation of « man » called ha-adam. The word ha-adam includes the definite article ha and literally means « the earth », metaphorically « the red » (for the earth is red), and by extension « man ».
In Chapter 2, Genesis describes a second creation of man (ish), accompanied by a creation of woman (isha). These two words are not preceded by the article ha.
The most immediately noticeable differences between the two creations are as follows.
First of all, the names given to the man differ, as we have just seen: ha-adam on the one hand, ish and isha on the other.
Secondly, the verbs used to describe the act of creation are not the same. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: « God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for ‘let us make’ is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה, ‘asah, to do, to act, to work. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: « And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden toward the east, and there he placed the man whom he had fashioned. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for ‘fashioning’ is יָצָר , yatsara, to make, to form, to create.
Thirdly, in Genesis 1, God created man « male and female » (zakhar and nqebah). Man is apparently united in a kind of bi-sexual indifferentiation or created with « two faces », according to Rashi.
In contrast, in Genesis 2, the creation of woman is clearly differentiated. She is created in a specific way and receives the name ‘isha‘, which is given to her by the man. The man, ‘ha-adam‘, then calls himself ‘ish‘, and he calls his wife ‘isha‘, « because she was taken from ‘ish‘ ».
Rashi comments on this verse: « She shall be called isha, because she was taken from ish. Isha (‘woman’) is derived from ish (‘man’). From here we learn that the world was created with the holy language, [since only the Hebrew language connects the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with a common root]. (Berechith raba 18, 4).”
I don’t know if it can be said with impunity that only the Hebrew language connects the words « man » and « woman » to a common root. English, for example, displays such a link with « man » and « woman ». In Latin, « femina » (woman) would be the feminine counterpart of « homo » (« hemna« ).
But this is a secondary issue. However, it shows that Rashi’s interest is certainly not exercised here on the problem of double creation and on the triple difference between the stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: two nouns (adam/ish), two verbs to describe creation (‘asah/yatsara), and two ways of evoking the difference between genders, in the form ‘male and female’ (zakhar/nqebah) and in the form ‘man and woman’ (ish/isha).
The double narrative of the creation of man and woman could be interpreted as the result of writing by independent authors at different times. These various versions were later collated to form the text of Genesis, which we have at our disposal, and which is traditionally attributed to Moses.
What is important here is not so much the identity of the writers as the possible interpretation of the differences between the two stories.
The two ‘ways’ of creating man are rendered, as has been said, by two Hebrew words, עֲשֶׂה ‘to make’ and יָצָר ‘to form’. What does this difference in vocabulary indicate?
The verb עֲשֶׂה ‘asah (to do) has a range of meanings that help to characterize it more precisely: to prepare, to arrange, to take care of, to establish, to institute, to accomplish, to practice, to observe. These verbs evoke a general idea of realization, accomplishment, with a nuance of perfection.
The verb יָצָר yatsara (to shape, to form) has a second, intransitive meaning: to be narrow, tight, embarrassed, afraid, tormented. It evokes an idea of constraint, that which could be imposed by a form applied to a malleable material.
By relying on lexicon and semantics, one can attempt a symbolic explanation. The first verb (עֲשֶׂה , to do) seems to translate God’s point of view when he created man. He « makes » man, as if he was in his mind a finished, perfect, accomplished idea. The second verb (יָצָר , to form) rather translates, by contrast, the point of view of man receiving the « form » given to him, with all that this implies in terms of constraints, constrictions and limits.
If we venture into a more philosophical terrain, chapter 1 of Genesis seems to present the creation of man as ‘essence’, or in a ‘latent’ form, still ‘hidden’ to some extent in the secret of nature.
Later, when the time came, man also appears to have been created as an existential, natural, visible, and clearly sexually differentiated reality, as chapter 2 reports.
S. Augustine devoted Part VI of his book, Genesisin the literal sense, to this difficult question. He proposes to consider that God first created all things ‘simultaneously’, as it is written: ‘He who lives for eternity created everything at the same time. « (Ecclesiasticus, 18,1) The Vulgate version says: « inaeternum, creavit omnia simul« . This word ‘simul‘ seems to mean a ‘simultaneous’ creation of all things.
It should be noted in passing that neither Jews nor Protestants consider this book of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) to belong to the biblical canon.
For its part, the Septuagint translates from Hebrew into Greek this verse from Ecclesiasticus: » o zon eis ton aiôna ektisen ta panta koinè « . (« He who lives for eternity has created everything together. »)
This is another interpretation.
So shall we retain ‘together’ (as the Greek koinè says) or ‘simultaneously’ (according to the Latin simul)? It could be said that it amounts to the same thing. However it follows from this difference that Augustine’s quotation from Sirach 18:1 is debatable, especially when it is used to distinguish between the creation of man in chapter 1 of Genesis and his second creation in chapter 2.
According to Augustine, God in the beginning created all things ‘in their causes’, or ‘in potency’. In other words, God in chapter 1 creates the idea, essence or principle of all things and everything in nature, including man. « If I say that man in that first creation where God created all things simultaneously, not only was he not a man in the perfection of adulthood, but was not even a child, – not only was he not a child, but was not even an embryo in his mother’s womb, but was not even the visible seed of man, it will be believed that he was nothing at all.”
Augustine then asks: what were Adam and Eve like at the time of the first creation? « I will answer: invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as future things are made that are not yet.”
Augustine takes the side of the thesis of the double creation of man, firstly in his ‘causal reason’, ‘in potency’, and secondly, ‘in act’, in an effective ‘existence’ which is prolonged throughout history.
This is also true of the soul of every man. The soul is not created before the body, but after it. It does not pre-exist it. When it is created, it is created as a ‘living soul’. It is only in a second stage that this ‘living soul’ may (or may not) become ‘life-giving spirit’.
Augustine quotes Paul on this subject: « If there is an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam, the ‘newest Adam’ (novissimusAdam), was a life-giving spirit. But it is not what is spiritual that was made first, it is what is animal; what is spiritual comes next. The first man, who came from the earth, is earthly; the second man, who came from heaven, is heavenly. Such is the earthly, such are also the earthly; and such is the heavenly, such are also the heavenly. And just as we have put on the image of the earthly, so shall we also put on the image of him who is of heaven.”
And Augustine adds: « What more can I say? We therefore bear the image of the heavenly man from now on by faith, sure that we will obtain in the resurrection what we believe: as for the image of the earthly man, we have clothed it from the origin of the human race. »
This basically amounts to suggesting the hypothesis of a third ‘creation’ that could affect man: after adam, ish or isha, there is the ‘last Adam‘, man as ‘life-giving spirit’.
From all of this, we will retain a real intuition of the possible metamorphoses of man, certainly not reduced to a fixed form, but called upon to considerably surpass himself.
It is interesting, at this point, to note that Philo of Alexandria offers a very different explanation of the double creation.
Philo explains that in the beginning God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) in the Garden of Eden a « fashioned » man (‘The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and placed the man he had fashioned in it’). Gen. 2:8). A little later he ‘established’ (וַיַּנִּח ) a man to be the worker and the guardian (‘The Eternal-God therefore took the man and established him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it’. Gen. 2:15).
According to Philo, the man who cultivates the garden and cares for it is not the « fashioned » man, but « the man [that God] has made« . And Philo says: « [God] receives this one, but drives out the other.”i
Philo had already made a distinction between the heavenly man and the earthly man, by the same verbal means. « The heavenly man was not fashioned, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being fashioned, but not begotten by the Maker.”ii
If we follow Philo, we must understand that God drove the ‘fashioned‘ man out of the garden, after having placed him there, and then established the ‘made‘ man there. The man whom God ‘fashioned‘ was ‘placed‘ in the garden, but it seems that he was not considered worthy to cultivate and keep it.
Moreover, in the text of Genesis there is no evidence to support Philo’s thesis of a cross between a ‘fashioned’ man and a ‘made’ man.
Philo specifies: « The man whom God made differs, as I have said, from the man who was fashioned: the fashioned man is the earthly intelligence; the made man is the immaterial intelligence.”iii
Philo’s interpretation, as we can see, is metaphorical. It must be understood that there are not two kinds of men, but that there are rather two kinds of intelligence in man.
« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man in the image is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own (…) The intelligence that is in each one of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself »iv.
The ‘earthly’ intelligence can think of all beings, but it cannot understand itself.
God has therefore also ‘made‘ a man of ‘heavenly’ intelligence, but he does not seem to have had a happier hand, since he disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
But was this tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ really in the Garden of Eden? Philo doubts it. For if God says, « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it », then « this tree was not in the garden »v.
« You shall not eat of it.” This should not be interpreted as a prohibition, but as a simple prediction of an all-knowing God.
This can be explained by the nature of things, Philo argues. The tree could have been present in « substance », but not in « potency »…
The man ‘in the image’ could have eaten the substance of a fruit of this tree. But he did not digest all its latent potency, and therefore he did not benefit from it in any real way.
There is yet another possible interpretation. Knowledge is not found in life. It is found only in potency, not in life, but in death.
The day in which one eats from the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day in which the prediction is fulfilled: « Thou shalt die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת (Gen. 2:17).
In this strange verse the word « death » is used twice. Why is this?
« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul is the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates and the superior, the soul, is dominated.”vi
Philo quotes fragment 62 of Heraclitus: « We live by their death, we are dead to their life.”vii He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this ». As a good Neoplatonist, Philo also takes up Plato’s famous thesis of the body as the ‘tomb of the soul’.
« That is to say that at present, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death, the soul lives from the life that is proper to it, and is delivered from evil and the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”viii
There is nevertheless a notable difference between the vision of Genesis and that of the Greek philosophers.
Genesis says: « You shall die of death! «
Heraclitus has a very different formula: « The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”
Paul Klee’s Angelus novus has an undeniably catchy title. « The new angel », – two simple words that sum up an entire programme. But does the painting live up to the expectation created by its title? A certain ‘angel’, with a figure like no other, seems to float graphically in the air of mystery, but what is he? What does he say? It is said that there are billions of angels on the head of a single pin. Each boson, each prion, has its angel, one might think, and each man too, say the scholastics. How, under these conditions, can we distinguish between new and old angels? Aren’t they all in service, in mission, mobilised for the duration of time? And if there are « old angels », are they not nevertheless, and above all, eternal, timeless, always new in some way?
Walter Benjamin has commented on this painting by Klee, which undoubtedly ensured its paper celebrity more than anything else.
« There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. Such is the aspect that the angel must necessarily have of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm is blowing from paradise, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is constantly pushing him towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins are piling up all the way to heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i
Striking is the distance between Benjamin’s dithyrambic commentary and Klee’s flatter, drier work. Klee’s angel actually appears static, even motionless. No sensation of movement emanates from him, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing. His ‘wings’ are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forwards. Its « fingers », or « feathers », are pointed upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose seems like another face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several of them are missing. Do angels’ teeth decay?
Klee’s angel is sickly, stunted, and has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher’s shop.
Reading Benjamin, one might think he’s talking about another figure, probably dreamt of. Benjamin has completely re-invented Klee’s painting. No accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seems to accompany this angelus novus, this young angel.
But let us move on to the question of substance. Why should history have only one ‘angel’? And why should this angel be ‘new’?
Angelology is a notoriously imperfect science. Doctors rarely seem to agree.
In Isaiah (33:7) we read: « The angels of peace will weep bitterly. » Do their renewed tears testify to their powerlessness?
In Daniel (10:13) it is said that an archangel appeared and said to Daniel: « The Prince of the Persians resisted me twenty-one days ». This archangel was Gabriel, it is said of him, and the Prince of Persia was the name of the angel in charge of the Persian kingdom.
So the two angels were fighting against each other?
It was not a fight like Jacob’s fight with the angel, but a metaphysical fight. S. Jerome explains that this angel, the Prince of the Persian kingdom, opposed the liberation of the Israelite people, for whom Daniel prayed, while the archangel Gabriel presented his prayers to God.
S. Thomas Aquinas also commented on this passage: « This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews who had been brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”ii
From all this we can learn that there are many angels and even demons in history, and that they are brought to fight each other, for the good of their respective causes.
According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels are divided into various orders and classes, such as Principalities (hence the name « Prince » which we have just met for some of them), Powers, Virtues, Dominations. Perhaps the best known are also the highest in the hierarchy: the Cherubim and the Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « shouting to one another ». Ezekiel (10:15) speaks of Cherubim.
The Kabbalists propose ten classes of angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.
Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, arranged in a different order, but which he groups into two large groups, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».
Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguishes between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time, for a certain duration.
Among the myriads of possible angels, where should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, the new angel whom Benjamin called the « angel of history » with authority? Subsidiary question: is a « new angel » fundamentally permanent or eminently perishable?
In other words: is History of an eternal essence or is it made up of a series of moments with no sequel?
Benjamin thinks, as we have seen, that History is represented, at every moment, at every turning point, by a « new Angel ». History exists only as a succession of phases, it is a wireless and random necklace of moments, without a sequel.
Anything is always possible, at any moment, anything can happen, such seems to be the lesson learned, in an age of absolute anguish, or in a serene sky.
But one can also, and without any real contradiction, think that History is one, that it builds its own meaning, that it is a human fabrication, and that the divine Himself must take into account this fundamental freedom, always new, always renewed, and yet so ancient, established since the origin of its foundation.
iWalter Benjamin, Thèses sur la philosophie de l’histoire. Œuvres III, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 434