In the Hebrew Bible, the word חָכְמָה, ḥokhmah, refers to a stealthy and mysterious entity, sometimes defined by the article (the ḥokhmah)i but more often undefined, usually as a singular and sometimes as a pluralii. She may ‘dwell’ in the minds of men or among peoples. We do not know where she comes from.iii She is said to have helped the Most High in his work of Creation.iv
Here is a brief anthology of her furtive appearances:
She brings life.v She makes the face glow.vi She is a torrent or a spring.vii She can be from the East or from Egypt.viii She can fill Joshuaix or Solomonx. She may be found in the humblexi and the oldxii, in the simple manxiii or in the righteousxiv.
She may come with knowledgexv or with powerxvi, or with intelligencexvii. But she is far better than strength.xviii
She may hide in a whisperxix, in a cryxx, or in secrecyxxi.
She can be called ‘friend’xxii, ‘sister’xxiii or ‘mother’ or ‘wife’. She makes one happy.xxiv She leads to royalty.xxv
She is ‘spirit’.xxvi She is bright, and she does not fade.xxvii Faster than any movement, she is infinitely mobile.xxviii She dwells in her own house, and he who dwells with her, is the only one God loves.xxix
She accompanies the angel of « Elohim », and also the Lord called « Adonai « xxxii.. She is in Thôtxxxiii, but it is YHVH who gives herxxxiv.. She shares the throne of the Lord.xxxv She is with Him, and she knows His works.xxxvi She was created before all things.xxxvii
It is through her that men were formed.xxxviii And it is she who saves them.xxxix
These snippets, these flashes, are only a tiny part of her infinite essence. But a simple letter, the smallest in the Hebrew alphabet, י, Yod, can understand and embody her (symbolically) in her entirety.
Yod is the first letter of the Tetragrammaton: יהוה. In the Jewish kabbalah, and perhaps for this reason, the Yod corresponds primarily to the sefira Ḥokhmahxl, ‘Wisdom’, which brings us to the heart of the matter.
The Tetragrammaton יהוה, an admittedly unspeakable name, can at least, in principle, be transcribed in Latin letters: YHVH. Y for י, H for ה, V for ו, H for ה. This name, YHVH, as we know, is the unpronounceable name of God. But if we write it with an interstitial blank YH VH, it is also the name of the primordial Man, – according to the Zohar which we will now recall here.
The commentary on the Book of Ruth in the Zohar does not bother with detours. From the outset, served by an immensely dense style, it plunges into the mystery, it leaps into the abyss, it confronts the primordial night, it explores the depths of the Obscure, it seeks the forgotten origin of the worlds.
The Zohar on Ruth, – a powerful wine, a learned nectar, with aromas of myrrh and incense. To be savored slowly.
« The Holy One blessed be He created in man YH VH, which is His holy name, the breath of the breath which is called Adam. And lights spread out in nine flashes, which are linked from the Yod. They constitute the one light without separation; therefore the body of man is called Adam’s garment. The He is called breath, and it mates with the Yod, it spreads into many lights that are one. YodHe are without separation, so ‘Elohim created man in his own image, in the image of Elohim he created him, male and female he created them… and he called them Adam’ (Gen 1:27 and 5:2). Vav is called spirit, and he is called son of Yod He; He [final] is called soul and he is called daughter. Thus there is Father and Mother, Son and Daughter. And the secret of the word Yod He Vav He is called Adam. His light spreads in forty-five flashes and this is the number of Adamxxli, mahxlii, ‘what is it?’ « xliii.
Cabalistic logic. Sacredness of the letter, of the number. Unity of the meaning, but multiplicity of its powers. Any idea germinates, and generates drifts, new shadows, nascent suns, moons alone. Thought never ceases its dream, it aspires to breath, to song, to hymn.
The letter connects heaven and earth. Literally: יה → יהוה and וה . By reading יה, the kabbalist guesses the inchoative, seminal and sexual role of י, – from which the lights of the sefirot will emanate. Let us summarize what the Zohar says: YHVH → YH VH → Adam → the Yod, י, the ‘breath of breath’ → Ḥokhmah , the ‘one light’ → from which the other ‘lights’ or sefirot emanate.
YHVH ‘creates in man YH VH’, that is, He creates in man two pairs יה and וה, respectively YH and VH, which will also be, symbolically, the name of the primordial Man, Adam, ‘YH VH’. These two pairs of letters can be interpreted symbolically, as metaphors of union and filiation: YH = Father-Mother, and VH = Son-Daughter.
It is indeed an ancient interpretation of the Kabbalah that the Yod, י, represents the male principle, and that the letter He, ה, represents the female principle. The Vav, ו, symbolizes the filial fruit of the union of י and ה. The second ה of the Tetragrammaton is then interpreted as the « Daughter », when associated with the Vav ו…
Human, carnal images, hiding another idea, a wisdom, divine, spiritual… A second set of metaphors is invoked here by the cabal, which explains: YH = Wisdom-Intelligence (Ḥokhmah-Binah) and VH = Beauty-Royalty (Tiferet-Malkhut). From Ḥokhmah, other sefirot emanate.
The Zohar further teaches us that Ḥokhmah, associated with י , the 1st letter of the Tetragrammaton, means the « breath of the breath », and is also called « Adam »…
Is this « Adam » the same as « the Adam » (הָאָדָם ha-‘adam), who was created after the creation of Heaven and Earth (Gen 2:7)? And what difference, if any, is there between « Adam », breath of breath, and « the Adam » of Genesis?
The Zohar asked this very question and answered it, in an opaque, concise, condensed style:
« What is the difference between Adam and Adam? Here is the difference: YHVH is called Adam, and the body is called Adam, what difference is there between the one and the other? Indeed, where it is said: ‘Elohim created Adam in his own image’, he is YHVH; and where it is not said ‘in his own image’, he is body. After it is said: ‘YHVH Elohim formed’ (Gen 2:7), that is, he formed Adam, he ‘made him’, as it is written: ‘YHVH Elohim made for Adam and his wife a robe of skin and clothed them with it’ (Gen 3:21). In the beginning there is a robe of light, in the likeness of the one above, after they stumbled, there is a robe of skin.xliv In this connection it is said: ‘All those who are called by my name, whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, and even whom I have made’ (Is 43:7)xlv. ‘I have created’ is Yod He Vav He, ‘I have formed’ is the robe of light, ‘and I have made’ is the robe of skin. »xlvi
The clues left by Scripture are thin, to be sure. But Isaiah, with a single sentence, illuminates the intelligence of the creation of Man. And he opens up infinite perspectives to our own understanding of the text which relates it.
Charles Mopsik commented on this key passage as follows: « The verse of Isaiah as read in the Zohar presents a progression of the constitution of man according to three verbs: the verb to create refers to Adam’s constitution as a divine name (the aforementioned four souls [breath of breath, breath, spirit, soul]), the verb to form refers to the constitution of his primordial body, which is a robe of light, and finally the verb to make refers to his constitution after the fall, where his body becomes a material envelope, a tunic of skin, which ‘wrath’, i.e., the Other side, the realm of impurity, borders in the form of the inclination to evil. « xlvii
The creation of Man, in Genesis, is described with three Hebrew, essential words: nechamah, ruaḥ and nefech. These words have several meanings. But to keep it simple, they may be translated respectively as « breath », « spirit » and « soul ».
So we learned that there were also, in the very first place, before anything was created, a « breath of breath ».
And the « breath of breath » was wisdom, י.
i‘Ha–ḥokhmah’, like in וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תִּמָּצֵא ,Vé-ha-ḥokhmah, méïn timmatsa’, Job 28,12
ii It can be used as a feminine plural noun חָכְמוֹת, ḥokhmot, meaning then, depending on the translation, « wise women », or « wisdoms », or « Wisdom », as in חָכְמוֹת, בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ , « The wise women – or wisdoms – built his house » (Pv 9:1) or as חָכְמוֹת, בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָּה , « The wise women – or Wisdom – shouted through the streets » (Pv 1,20)
iii וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תִּמָּצֵא Vé-ha-ḥokhmah, méïn timmatsa’ ? Job 28,12
iv« YHVH with Wisdom founded the earth, with understanding he established the heavens. » Pv 3,19
v« It is that wisdom gives life to those who possess it ». Qo 7,12
vi« The wisdom of man makes his face shine and gives his face a double ascendancy » Qo 8,1
vii« An overflowing stream, a source of wisdom » Pv 18,4
viii« The wisdom of Solomon was greater than the wisdom of all the children of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt » 1 Kings 5:10
ix« Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom » Dt 34,9
xThe Proverbs are attributed to him, as is the Qohelet.
xlZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.83, note 136.
xliThe numerical value of the Tetragrammaton YHVH is 45, as is the numerical value of the word Adam.
xliiThe expression « What? » or « What? » (mah) also has 45 as a numerical value.
xliiiZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.82-83. (Ch. Mopsik translates nechama as ‘breath’ and nechama [of the] nechama as ‘breath of the breath’, which is a bit artificial. I prefer to translate nechama, more classically, by ‘breath’, and in its redoubling, by ‘breath of the breath’).
xlivZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.84
xlv כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי, וְלִכְבוֹדִי בְּרָאתִיו: יְצַרְתִּיו, אַף-עֲשִׂיתִיו. The three verbs used here by Isaiah imply a progression of God’s ever-increasing involvement with man; bara’, yatsar, ‘assa, mean respectively: « to create » (to bring out of nothing), « to shape/form », and « to make/complete ».
xlviZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.84
A ‘white mule’ (śvata aśvatara) gave its name to the famous Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad. Apart from the alliteration, why such a name?
Was Śvetāśvatara the putative name of the author, thus defined as alover of equine beauty, or of horseback riding?
Siddheswar Varma and Gambhīrānanda both prefer to understand this name as a metaphor for ‘One whose organs of sense are very pure’i.
Indeed, purity was probably needed to tackle the issues addressed by this Upaniṣad:
« Is Brahman thecauseii? Where did we come from? What do we live by? What do we rely on?» iii
The answer to all these questions may be found by considering the One.
The One, – i.e. the Brahman, manifests itself in the world through its attributes and powers (guṇa), which have been given divine names (Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva). These three names symbolize respectively Consciousness (sattva, purity, truth, intelligence), Passion (rájas, strength, desire, action) and Darkness (támas, darkness, ignorance, inertia, or limitation).
The ‘Great Wheel of Brahman‘ iv gives life to the Whole, in the endless flow of rebirths (saṃsāra).
The individual soul ‘wanders here and there’ in the great Whole. She is like a ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)v. In search of deliverance, this drifting fowl goes astray when she flies separate from the Self. But when she attaches herself to it, when she tastes its ‘joy’, she attains immortality.
The Whole is a great mixture, of mortals and immortals, of realities and appearances. The goose that flies free in it, without knowing where she is going, is in reality bound, garroted. She thinks she is a conscious subject, but she is a mere self, deaf and blind, unaware of joy, of the Self of the Brahman.
To get on her path, she must find within herself a Trinitarian image of the One, an inner triad, composed of her soul (jīva), her personal lord (Īśvara) and her nature (prakṛti). This triad is both ‘three’ and ‘one’, which is also a familiar image in Christianity, – appearing in John, more than two thousand years after the Veda.
This triadic soul is not just an image, she is already Brahman, she is in Brahman, she is with Brahman. She is the One.
The One governs the Whole, the perishable, the imperishable and the Self. It is by meditating on the One, and uniting with it, that the Self can deliver itself from the famous māyā, the ‘power of measure’ that rules the world.
Māyā originally and etymologically means ‘divine omnipotence’, – a power of creation, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom.
The meaning of māyā as ‘illusion’ is only derived. It takes on this (paradoxically) antonymous meaning of ‘deception’, of ‘mere appearance’, when the self does not recognize the immanent presence of power. When knowledge, intelligence and wisdom are absent, illusion takes their place and occupies the whole field.
Thus māyā can be (truly) understood as power, measure and wisdom, when one sees it at work, or (falsely) as an illusion, when one is blind to her.
It is not the māyā as such that is ‘illusion’. Illusion about the world only comes when the creative power of the māyā is not recognized as such, but one gets caught by the result of her operation.
By her dual nature, by her power of occultation and manifestation, the māyā hides but also reveals the divine principle, the Brahman who is her master and source.
To know the essence of māyā istoknow this principle, – Brahman. In order to reach her, it is necessary to untie oneself from all bonds, to leave the path of birth and death, to unite with the supreme and secret Lord, to fulfill His desire, and to dwell in the Self (Ātman).
The māyā may be compared to a netvi. It wraps everything. You can’t escape it. It is the cosmic power of the Lord, in act in the Whole. It is the All.
To finally escape māyā, you have to see her at work, understand her in her essence, make her a companion.
He presents a double face, therefore, a duality of truth and illusion. It is through māyā that one can get to know māyā, and her creator, the Brahman.
This is why it is said that there are two kinds of māyā, one that leads to the divine (vidhyā-māyā) and the other that leads away from it (avidhyā-māyā).
Everything, even the name of the Brahman, is doubly māyā, both illusion and wisdom.
« It is only through māyā that one can conquer the supreme Wisdom, the bliss. How could we have imagined these things without māyā? From it alone come duality and relativity.”vii
The māyā has also been compared to the countless colors produced by the One who is « colorless », as light diffracts in the rainbow.
« The One, the colourless One, by the way of its power produces multiple colors for a hidden purpose.”viii
Nature bears witness, with blue, green, yellow, the brilliance of lightning, the color of the seasons or the oceans. Red, white and black are the color of fire, water and earthix.
« You are the blue-night bee, the green [bird] with yellow eyes, [the clouds] bearing lightning, the seasons, the seas.”x
To see the māyā it is necessary to consider her under both her two aspects, inseparable at the same time.
One day Nārada said to the Lord of the universe: « Lord, show me Your māyā, which makes the impossible possible ».
The Lord agreed and asked him to fetch water. On his way to the river, he met a beautiful young girl by the shore and forgot all about his quest. He fell in love and lost track of time. And he spent his life in a dream, in ‘illusion’, without realizing that he had before his eyes what he had asked the Lord to ‘see’. He saw the māyā at work, but he was not aware of it, without being conscious of it. Only at the end of his days, perhaps he woke up from his dream.
To call māyā « illusion » is to see only the veil, and not what that veil covers.
A completely different line of understanding of the meaning of māyā emerges when one chooses to return it to its original, etymological meaning of « power (yā) of measurement (mā)« .
Everything is māyā, the world, time, wisdom, dreams, action and sacrifice. The divine is also māyā, in its essence, in its power, in its ‘measure’.
« The hymns, sacrifices, rites, observances, past and future, and what the Veda proclaims – out of him, the master of measure has created this All, and in him, the other is enclosed by this power of measure (māyā).
Let it be known that the primordial nature is power of measure (māyā), that the Great Lord is master of measure (māyin). All this world is thus penetrated by the beings that form His members.»xi
In these two essential verses from Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad (4.9 and 4.10) one may note important Sanskrit words :
माया māyā, « the power of measurement » or « illusion »,
महेश्वरम् maheśvaram, « the Great Lord »,
मायिनं māyin, « the master of measurement » or « of illusion »,
प्रकृति prakṛti, « the material or primordial nature ».
There is a real difference in interpretation between the translators who give māyā the meaning of « power of measurement », such as Alyette Degrâces, and those who give it the meaning of « illusion », as Michel Hulin does:
« Understand the material nature (प्रकृति prakṛti) as illusion (माया māyā) and the Great Lord (महेश्वरम् maheśvaram) as illusionist (मायिनं māyin).”xii
The famous Sanskritist Max Müller has chosen not to translate māyā, proposing only in brackets the word ‘Art’ :
« That from which the maker (māyin) sends forth all this – the sacred verses, the offerings, the sacrifice, the panaceas, the past, the future, and all that the Vedas declare – in that the other is bound up through that māyā.
Know then Prakṛiti (nature) is Māyā (Art), and the great Lord the Māyin (maker); the whole world is filled with what are his members.»xiii
In note, Müller comments :
« It’s impossible to find terms that match māyā and māyin. Māyā means ‘fabrication’ or ‘art’, but since any fabrication or creation is only a phenomenon or illusion, as far as the Supreme Self is concerned, māyā also carries the meaning of illusion. Similarly, māyin is the maker, the artist, but also the magician, the juggler. What seems to be meant by this verse is that everything, everything that exists or seems to exist, proceeds from akṣara [the immortal], which corresponds to Brahman, but that the actual creator, or author of all emanations is Īśa, the Lord, who, as creator, acts through māyā or devātmaśakti. It is possible, moreover, that anya, ‘the other’, is used to mean the individual puruṣa.» xiv
Following Max Müller, Alyette Degrâces refuses to use the words ‘illusion’ and ‘illusionist’. About the word māyin she explains, obviously inspired by the position of the German Sanskritist established in Oxford:
« This term is impossible to translate, and especially not as ‘illusionist’ as it is found in many translations (but not Max Müller or the Indian translators). The māyā, witha root MĀ « measure » means « a power of measurement », where measure means knowledge. If the measurement is bad, then we will speak of illusion, but not before. Brahman is here māyin « master of measurement, of this power of measurement », through which the world manifests itself. When the Brahman takes on a relative aspect and creates the world, maintains it or resorbs it, it is defined by attributes, it is said saguṇa, aparaṃ Brahman or the master of measure (māyin) by which the world is deployed and in relation to which the human being must actualize his power of measure in order not to superimpose or confuse the two levels of Brahman, one of which is the support of everything. » xv
Aparaṃ Brahman is the « inferior » (non supreme) Brahman, endowed with « qualities », « virtues » (saguṇa). He is the creative Brahman of theUniverse and is distinguished from the supreme Brahman, who is nameless, without quality, without desire.
By consulting Monier-Williams’ dictionary at māyā, one can see that the oldest meanings of the word have nothing to do with the notion of illusion, but refer to the meanings of « wisdom », « supernatural or extraordinary power ».
It is only in the Ṛg Veda, therefore later on, that the other notions appear, that Monier-Williams enumerates in this way : « Illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic. An unreal or illusory image, phantom, apparition. »
These later meanings are all frankly pejorative, and contrast sharply with the original meanings of the word, « wisdom », « power », based on the etymology of « measure » (MĀ-).
One can consider that there was, before the age of Ṛg Veda, itself already very old (more than a millennium before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), an almost complete reversal of the meaning of the word māyā, going from « wisdom » to « deception, fraud, illusion ».
These considerations may help to answer a recurring question: « Why was this Creation created at all?”
Why did the Brahman ‘paraṃ’, thesupreme Brahman, the supreme ’cause’, delegate to the Brahman ‘aparaṃ’ (the non-supreme Brahman) thecare of creating a universe so full of evils and “illusions”?
In fact, māyā originally did not mean “illusion” but « Wisdom » and « Power ».
Then undertanding the universe as full of evils and illusions is still an illusion.
Brahman, as the master of Māyā, is really the master of Wisdom, Power, Measure.
And all Creation, – the Whole, has also vocation to appropriate this Wisdom, this Power, this Measure, this Māyā.
A millennium later, the (Hebrew) Scriptures took up the idea again.
Firstly, Wisdom is at the foundation and origin of the Whole.
« This God who does not manifest his own intelligence – in Him I, who desire deliverance, take refuge.”xviii
Then, the (Hebrew) Scriptures staged a kind of delegation of power comparable to the one we have just seen between the paraṃ brahman (the supreme brahman) and the aparaṃ brahman (the non supremebrahman).
In the Scriptures, YHVH plays a role analogous to that of the Brahman and delegates to Wisdom (ḥokhmah) thecare of founding the earth:
Job had understood the essence of Māyā, distinguishing it even hiddden under the cover of a swamp bird with black and white plumage. It was certainly not a ‘wild goose’, but the ibis could be advantageously compared to it on the banks of the Nile (or the Jordan River).
Citing the Ibis as an image of wisdom, Job was certainly not unaware that this bird was the symbol of the Egyptian God Thoth, God of Wisdom.
The God Thoth is a strange Egyptian prefiguration of the Creator Word, of which a text found in Edfu relates the birth and announces the mission:
« In the heart of the primordial ocean appeared the emerged land. On it, the Eight came into existence. They made a lotus appear from which Ra, assimilated to Shu, came out. Then came a lotus bud from which emerged a dwarf, a necessary woman, whom Ra saw and desired. From their union was born Thoth who created the world through the Word. » xxi
After this short detour through the ḥokhmah ofthe Scriptures, and through the Ibis and the Thoth God, figures of wisdom in ancient Egypt, let us return to Vedic wisdom, and its curious and paradoxical alliance with the notion of ignorance, in Brahman itself.
In the Veda, it is the Brahman aparaṃ that creates Wisdom. On the other hand, in the Brahman paraṃ, in Supreme Brahman, thereis not only Knowledge, there is also Ignorance.
« In the imperishable (akṣara), in the supreme Brahmanxxii, infinite, where both, knowledge and ignorance, stand hidden, ignorance is perishablexxiii, while knowledge is immortalxxiv. And He who rules over both, knowledge and ignorance, is another.”xxv
How is it that within the Supreme Brahman, can ‘ignorance’ be hidden?
Moreover, how could there be something ‘perishable’ in the very bosom of the ‘imperishable’ (akṣara), in the bosom of the ‘immortal’?
If one wishes to respect the letter and spirit of the Veda, one must resolve to imagine that even the Brahman is not and cannot be ‘omniscient’.
And also that there is something ‘perishable’ in the Brahman.
How to explain it?
One may assume that the Brahman does not yet know ‘at present’ the infinity of which It is the ‘potential’ bearer.
Let us imagine that the Brahman is symbolized by an infinity of points, each of them being charged with an another infinity of points, themselves in potency of infinite potentialities, and so on, let us repeat these recurrences infinitely. And let us imagine that this infinity with the infinitely repeated power of infinite potentialities is moreover not simply arithmetic or geometrical, but that it is very much alive, each ‘point’ being in fact a symbol for a ‘soul’, constantly developing a life of her own.
One can then perhaps conceive that the Brahman, although knowing Itself in potency, does not know Itself absolutely ‘in act’. The Brahman is unconscious of the extent of Its potency.
Its power, its Māyā, is so ‘infinitely infinite’ that even its knowledge, certainly already infinite, has not yet been able to encompass all that there is still to be known, because all that is yet to be and to become simply does not yet exist, and still sleeps in non-knowledge, and in ignorance of what is yet to be born, one day, possibly.
The ‘infinitely infinite’ wisdom of the Brahman, therefore, has not yet been able to take the full measure of the height, depth and breadth of wisdom that the Brahman can possibly attain.
There are infinites that go beyond infinity itself.
One could call these kinds of infinitely infinite, « transfinity », to adapt a word invented by Georg Cantor. Conscious of the theological implications of his work in mathematics, Cantor had even compared the « absolute infinite » to God , the infinity of a class like that of all cardinals or ordinals.
Identifying a set of “transfinite” Brahman should therefore not be too inconceivable a priori.
But it is the consequence of the metaphysical interpretation of these stacks of transfinite entities that is potentially the most controversial.
It invites us to consider the existence of a kind of ignorance ‘in act’ at the heart of Brahman.
Another verse accumulates clues in this sense.
It speaks of the Brahman, ‘benevolent’, who ‘makes non-existence’.
« Known by the mind, called incorporeal, He the benevolent one who makes existence and non-existence, He the God who makes creation with His parts – those who know Him have left their bodies.”xxvi
How can a supreme and benevolent God ‘make’ the ‘non-existent’?
What this God ‘makes’ is only done because He amputates certain ‘parts’ of Himself.
It is with this sacrifice, this separation of the divine from the divine, that what would have remained in non-existence can come into existence.
It is because God consents to a certain form of non-existence, in Himself, that the existing can come into existence.
It is interesting to compare the version of A. Degraces with Max Müller’s translation, which brings additional clarity to these obscure lines.
« Those who know him who is to be grasped by the mind, who is not to be called the nest (the body), who makes existence and non-existence, the happy one (Śiva), who also creates the elements, they have left the body.» xxvii
A few comments:
‘The nest (the body)‘. The Sanskrit word comes from the verb: nīdhā, नीधा, « to deposit, to pose, to place; to hide, to entrust to ». Hence the ideas of ‘nest’, ‘hiding place’, ‘treasure’, implicitly associated with that of ‘body’.
However, Müller notes that Śaṅkara prefers to read here the word anilākhyam, ‘that which is called the wind’, which is prāṇasya prāṇa, the ‘breath of the breath’.
The image is beautiful: it is through the breath, which comes and then leaves the body, that life continues.
‘Who also creates the elements’. Kalāsargakaram, ‘He who creates the elements. Müller mentions several possible interpretations of this expression.
That of Śaṅkara, which includes: ‘He who creates the sixteen kalās mentioned by the Âtharvaṇikas, beginning with the breath (prāṇa) and ending with the name (nāman). The list of these kalās is, according to Śaṅkarānanda: prāṇa,śraddhā, kha, vāyu, jyotih, ap, pṛthivī, indriya, manaḥ, anna, vīrya, tapah, mantra, karman, kalā, nāman.
Vigñānātman suggests two other explanations, ‘He who creates by means of kalā, [his own power]’, or ‘He who creates the Vedas and other sciences’.
The general idea is that in order to ‘know’ the Immortal, the Brahman, theBenevolent, the creator of existence and non-existence, one must leave the ‘nest’.
We must go into exile.
Abraham and Moses also went into exile.
The last part of Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad refers to the ‘Supreme Lord of Lords’, the ‘Supreme Divinity of Deities’, expressions that are, formally at least, analogous to the names YHVH Elohim and YHVH Tsabaoth, – which appeared among Hebrews more than a thousand years after the Veda was composed.
« He, the supreme Lord of lords, He the supreme God of deities, the supreme Master of masters, He who is beyond, let us find Him as the God, the Lord of the world who is to be praised.” xxviii
Once again, let’s compare with the version of Max Müller :
« Let us know that highest great Lord of lords, the highest deity of deities, the master of masters, the highest above, as God, the Lord of the world, the adorable.» xxix
The first verse can be read:
तमीश्वराणां परमं महेश्वरं
Tam īśvarāṇām paramam Maheśvaram.
‘He, of the lords, – the supreme Lord’.
Who are the ‘lords’ (īśvarāṇām)? Śaṅkara, in its commentary, quotes Death, the Son of the Sun and others (Cf. SUb 6.7).
And above all, who is this ‘He’ (tam)?
A series of qualifiers are listed:
He, the supreme God of gods (devatānām paramam Daivatam).
He, the Master (patīnām) of the Masters, the Master of Prajāpatis, – which are ten in number: Marīci, Atri, Aṅgiras, Pulastya, Pulaka, Kratu, Vasiṣṭa, Pracetas, Bhṛgu, Nārata.
He, who is ‘Higher’ (paramam) ‘than the High’ (parastāt)
He, the One God (ekaḥ devaḥ), hidden (gūḍhaḥ) in all beings (sarva-bhūteṣu), the All-pervading One (sarva-vyāpī), He is the inner self of all beings (sarva-bhūta-antarātmā), He is the Watcher of all acts (karma-adhyakṣaḥ), He resides in all beings (sarva-bhūta-adhivāsaḥ), He is the Witness or Seer (in Sanskrit sākṣī), the Knower, the one who gives intelligence (cetā), the unique Absolute (kevalaḥ), the one who is beyond qualities (nirguṇaḥ).
« He is the Eternal among the eternal, the Intelligent among the intelligent, the One who fulfills the desires of many”. xxxi
Once again, we must turn to Max Müller, to detect here another level of meaning, which deserves to be deepened.
Müller: « I have formerly translated this verse, according to the reading nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts. This would be a true description of the Highest Self, who, though himself eternal and passive, has to think (jivātman) non-eternal thoughts. I took the first cetanah in the sens of cettā, the second in the sense of cetanam xxxii. The commentators, however, take a different, and it may be, from their point, a more correct view. Śaṅkara says : ‘He is the eternal of the eternals, i.e. as he possesses eternity among living souls (jīvas), these living souls also may claim eternity. Or the eternals may be meant for earth, water, &c. And in the same way, he is the thinker among thinkers.’
Śaṅkarānanda says: ‘He is eternal, imperishable, among eternal, imperishable things, such as the ether, &c. He is thinking among thinkers.’
Vigñānātman says : ‘The Highest Lord is the cause of eternity in eternal things on earth, and the cause of thought in the thinkers on earth.’ But he allows another construction, namely, that he is the eternal thinker of those who on earth are endowed with eternity and thought. In the end all these interpretations come to the same, viz. that there is only one eternal, and only one thinker, from whom all that is (or seems to be) eternal and all that is thought on earth is derived.» xxxiii
One reads in the commentary by Śaṅkara of this verses, translated by Gambhirananda :
« Nityaḥ, ‘the eternal’, nityānām, ‘among the eternal, among the individual souls’ – the idea being that the eternality of these is derived from His eternality; so also, cetanaḥ, the consciousness, cetanānām, among the conscious, the knowers. (…) How is the consciousness of the conscious ? » xxxiv
To this last question, – ‘How is the consciousness of the conscious?’ –, Śaṅkara answers with the following stanza from the Upaniṣad:
“There the sun does not shine, neither do the moon and the stars ; nor do these flashes of lightning shine. How can this fire ? He shining, all these shine; through His lustre all these are variously illumined.”xxxv
The meaning is that Brahman is the light that illuminates all other lights. Their brilliance is caused by the inner light of the Brahman’s self-consciousness, according to Śaṅkaraxxxvi.
Brahman illuminates and shines through all kinds of lights that manifest themselves in the world. From them it is inferred that the ‘consciousness of the conscious’, the consciousness of the Brahman is in essence ‘fulguration’, Brahman isthe ‘effulgent’ Self.
Max Müller initially decided to translate the verse SU 6.13 by reading it literally: nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, which he understands as follows: “the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts”.
It is indeed a paradoxical idea, opening at once a metaphysical reflection on the very nature of thought and on that of eternity…
However, given the almost unanimous agreement of various historical commentators, which he quotes contrary to his own intuition, Müller seems to renounce, not without some regret, this stimulating translation, and he finally translates, taking over the version from Śaṅkarānanda :
« He is the eternal among the eternals, the thinker among thinkers, who, though one, fulfills the desire of many.»xxxvii
However, I think that Müller’s first intuition is more promising. There is a lot to dig into in the idea of an ‘eternal thinker’ who would think ‘non-eternal thoughts’.
The literally staggering implication of this idea is that non-eternal thoughts of the Eternal would be constitutive of the existence of time itself (by nature non-eternal). They would also be, moreover, the condition of the possibility of the existence of (non-eternal) creations.
These ‘non-eternal’ thoughts and creations would be intrinsically growing, metamorphic, evolutionary, always in genesis, in potency.
Perhaps this would also be the beginning of an intuition of a metaphysics of pity and mercy, a recognition of the grace that God could feel for his Creation, considering its weakness, its fall and its eventual redemption?
In other words, the very fact that the God, the Brahman, could have non-eternal thoughts would be the necessary condition so that, by his renunciation of the absoluteness and eternity of hisjudgments, non-eternal creatures would be allowed to pass from non-eternity to eternity.
For if the Brahman‘s thoughts were to be eternal in nature, then there would be no way to change a closed world, predetermined from all eternity, and consequently totally lacking in meaning, – and mercy.
We may have an indication to support this view when we read :
« He, who first created Brahmā, who in truth presented him with the Veda, that God who manifests Himself by His own intelligencexxxviii – in Him I, who desire deliverance, seek refuge.” xxxix
‘This God who manifests Himself through His own intelligence.’
Śaṅkara gives several other interpretations of the original text.
Some read here in Sanskrit ātma-buddhi-prasādam, ‘He who makes the knowledge of the Self favorable’. For, when the Supreme Lord sometimes makes grace of it, the intelligence of the creature acquires valid knowledge about Him, then frees itself from its relative existence, and continues to identify itself with the Brahman.
Others read here ātma-buddhi-prakāśam, ‘He who reveals the knowledge of the Self’.
Yet another interpretation: ātmā(the Self) is Himself the buddhi (Wisdom, Knowledge). The one who reveals Himself as knowledge of the Self is ātma-buddhi-prakāśam. xl
“In Him, desiring deliverance (mumukṣuḥ) I seek (prapadye) refuge (śaraṇam)”: is this not the proven Vedic intuition of the Brahman‘s mercy towards his creature?
As we can see, the Veda was penetrated by the explosive power of several directions of research on the nature of Brahman. But history shows that the explicit development of these researches towards the idea of ‘divine mercy’ was to be more specifically part of the subsequent contribution of other religions, which were still to come, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
However, the Veda was already affirming, as the first witness, its own genius. The Brahman: He is the ‘wild goose’. He is the Self, He is the ‘fire that has entered the ocean’, He is the ‘matrix’ and the ‘all-pervading’.
« He is He, the wild goose, the One in the middle of this universe. He is truly the fire that entered the ocean. And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there.”xli
At the beginning of Upaniṣad we already encountered the image of the ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)xlii, which applied to the individual soul, ‘wandering here and there’ in the great Whole. Now this goose is more than the soul, more than the Whole, it is the Brahman himself.
‘And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there’.
Śaṅkara breaks down each word of the verse, which then reveals its rhythm 3-3 4-3 4 4-3 :
Viditvā, knowing; tam eva, He alone; atiyety, one goes beyond; mṛtyum, fromdeath; na vidyate, there is no; anyaḥ panthāḥ, another way; ayanā, where to go. xliii
The images of the ‘Matrix’ and ‘All-penetrating’ appear in the next two stanzas (SU 6.16 and 6.17):
« He is the creator of All, the connoisseur of All, He is the Self and the matrix, the connoisseur, the creator of time.”xliv
‘He is the Self and the Matrix‘, ātma-yoniḥ’.
Śaṅkara offers three interpretations of this curious expression: He is its own cause – He is the Self and the matrix (yoni) – He is the matrix (source), ofall things.
The Brahman is Yoni, and He is also the All-pervading One.
« He who becomes that [light]xlv, immortal, established as the Lord, the knower, the all-pervading, the protector of this universe, it is He who governs this world forever. There is no other cause for sovereignty.”xlvi
At the beginning and the end of the Upaniṣad of the ‘white mule’, we find thus repeated this image, white and black, of the goose – of the Self – flying in the sky.
The goose flies in a sky that veils.
What does this sky veil? – The end of suffering.
This is what one of the final verses says:
“When men have rolled up the sky like a skin, only then will the suffering end, in case God would not have been recognized.”xlvii
‘When men have rolled up the sky.‘
Further to the West, at about the same time, the prophet Isaiah used a metaphor similar to the one chosen by Śvetāśvatara :
There is indeed a common point between these two intuitions, the Vedic and the Jewish.
In a completely unorthodox way, I will use Hebrew to explain Sanskrit, and vice versa.
To say ‘to roll up’ the heavens, the Hebrew uses as a metaphor the verb גָּלָה galah, « to discover oneself, to appear; to emigrate, to be exiled”; and in the niphal form, “tobe discovered, to be naked, to manifest, to reveal oneself ».
When the heavens are ‘rolled up’, then God can ‘manifest, reveal Himself’. Or on the contrary, He can ‘exile Himself, go away’.
This ambiguity and double meaning of the word, can also be found in this other verse of Isaiah: « The (golden) time [of my life] is broken and departs from me.”xlix
The Jewish man rolls up the scrolls of Torah when he has finished reading it.
The Vedic man winds the scrolls of the heaven when he has finished his life of flying and wandering. That is to say, he rolls up his life, like a shepherd’s ‘tent’, when they decamp.
But this tent can also be ‘ripped off’ (נִסַּע nessa‘), and thrown away (וְנִגְלָה vé-niglah).l
These metaphors were spun by Isaiah:
“I used to say, ‘In the middle of my days I’m leaving, at the gates of Sheol I’ll be kept for the rest of my years’.
I said: ‘I will not see YHVH in the land of the living, I will no longer have a look for anyone among the inhabitants of the world’.
My time [of life] is plucked up, and cast away from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life.” li
The Vedic sky, like man’s life, may be compared to a kind of tent.
And the wild goose shows the way.
At the end, one has to roll up the sky and your life, and go on an infinite transhumance.
iŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, p. v
iiHere I slightly adapt Alyette Degrâces’ translation of the word karāṇa by adding the article “the”, based on Max Müller’s translation: « Is Brahman the cause? « which, according to Müller, is itself based on the preferences of Śaṅkara. See Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.1.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.231, note 1. The Huet dictionary gives for karāṇa: ‘reason, cause, motive; origin; principle’. Gambhirananda translates as ‘source’: ‘What is the nature of Brahman, the source? »
xxiiBrahman param is what is beyond (para) Brahmā.
xxiiiPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).
xxivPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).
xxvŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.1. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 411
xxviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.14. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 413
xxviiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9-10.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.258-259
xxviiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 415
xxixMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.263
xxxŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.9.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416
xxxiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416
xxxiiThese nuances correspond to two declined cases of the noun cetana, respectively, the first to the nominative (thinker) and the second to the genitive plural (of thoughts). The Sanskrit-English Dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams gives for cetana: ‘conscious, intelligent, feeling; an intelligent being; soul, mind; consciousness, understanding, sense, intelligence’. For cetas: ‘splendour; consciousness, intelligence, thinking soul, heart, mind’. In addition, the Sanskrit-French Dictionary of Huet gives for cetana: ‘intelligence, soul; consciousness, sensitivity; understanding, sense, intelligence’. The root is this, ‘to think, reflect, understand; to know, know. The root is this-, ‘thinking, thinking, thinking, understanding; knowing, knowing.’ For cetas: ‘consciousness, mind, heart, wisdom, thinking’.
xxxiiiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.264, note 4
xxxivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.13, p.193
xxxvŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.14, p.193. See almost identical stanzas in MuU 2.2.11, KaU 2.2.15, BhG 15.6
xliiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.15, p.195
xlivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.16.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417
xlvŚaṅkara includes here the word tanmayaḥ (‘made of it’) as actually meaning jyotirmaya, ‘made of light’, cf. Sub 6:17.
xlviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.17.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417
xlvii« Only when men shall roll up the sky like a hide, will there be an end of misery, unless God has first been known. ». Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.20.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.266
« Wisdom is separate from everything »i said Heraclitus in his concise style.
For a start, I adopt here the translation of G.S. Kirkii. But the quote in the original Greekiii ,’Sophon esti pantôn kekhorismenon’, preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology, allows several very significant variations, depending on how one understands the word sophon, – which is, grammatically, an adjective, with the neutral meaning: ‘wise’.
Here are two representative examples of quite alternative translations:
« What is wise is separate from all things. »
« To be wise is to be separated from all things. »
Both these interpretations lose the abstract idea of ‘wisdom’, and personalize the word sophon, in a more concrete way, by attributing it to an entity (‘what is wise’), seen as ‘separated from everything’, and therefore outside this world. Another way to personalize is to attribute it to a (wise) ‘being’, which could possibly belong to this world, therefore not separated, – but whose ‘being wise’ would separate it, somehow virtually.
Clémence Ramnoux, for her part, proposes: « Wise things are separated from everything. »
The spectrum of the meanings of sophon is thus very broad:
Wisdom. That which is wise. The Wise Being. The Wise Thing.
The word sophon has no definite article in this fragment, but it has it in other Heraclite fragments. Then, if one adds the definite article to the adjective sophon, it acquires an abstract meaning, and leads to other interpretations, including the idea of ‘Transcendence’, and even the idea of the ‘One’:
« Let us put the article in front of something wise, by identifying it with the One-Thing-Wise, then the formula touches the goal of knowing… a Transcendence! Let it be heard only in the sense of human wisdom, then the formula says that: for men, the way to be wise consists in keeping oneself separate from all or everything. It would be wise to live away from the crowds and their madness. It would be wise to live apart from the vain science of many things. The two are surely not incompatible. Put together, they would reform the ideal meaning of a vita contemplativa: retreat and meditation of the One. « iv
To justify these interpretations, Clémence Ramnoux studies the other occurrences of the word sophon, in fragments 32, 50 and 41 of Heraclitus.
From these comparisons, she draws the assurance that with sophon, Heraclitus wanted to « designate the divine with the words of fragment 32 », and « if not the divine, even better, Something in dignity to refuse thisvery name. »v
Fragment 32 uses the expression to sophon (‘the Wise One’, or ‘the Wise Being’, which C. Ramnoux renders as ‘the Wise Thing’):
« The Wise Thing (to sophon) alone is one: it wants and does not want to be said with the name of Zeus. »vi
In Greek, one reads : ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.
Hen to sophon mounon legesthai ouk ethelei kai ethelei Zènos onoma.
By translating word for word: « One, the Wise One, alone, be said: He does not want, and He wants the name of Zeus ».
Ouk émou, alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.
Word for word: « Not me, but the Logos, listening, saying the same, wise is one, all, being. »
Five words follow each other here: sophon estin hen panta einai. Wise, is, one, all, being. There are many ways to link them.
The most direct way of translating would be, using capital letters for emphasis:
« Wise is One, All, Being ».
The German edition by W. Kranz and the English edition by G.S. Kirk translate :
« Listening, not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise (sophon estin) to agree (homologein)vii: everything is One (hen panta eïnaï). »
In another interpretation, that of H. Gomperz :
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is fair to agree that The One-The Wise One knows everything. »
Clémence Ramnoux suggests yet another interpretation:
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, agreeing to confess the same lesson (everything is one?) is the Wise Thing. « viii
However, she adds a question mark to the expression ‘everything is one’, which shows indeed that a certain doubt is at work here.
In spite of the significant differences of interpretation that we have just seen, what stands out is the idea that to sophon undeniably possesses a magnified status, and that it can be qualified as ‘unique’ and even, implicitly, ‘divine’.
Fragment 41 reinforces the hypothesis of associating the idea of unity with to sophon:
« The wise thing is one thing (hen to sophon): topossess the meaning (epistasthai gnômèn), by virtue of which everything is led through everything. »
By linking the semantic fields of the four fragments, 32, 41, 50, 108, Ramnoux draws two possible interpretations of the essential message that Heraclitus is supposed to transmit: « A simple meaning would be: Wise Thing is One, and she alone. Another meaning would be: Wise Thingisseparate from everything. « ix
These fragments, put together, carry a vision, aiming to grasp the ‘Wise Thing’, from different angles.
« That one gathers the fragments thus, and one will believe to reconstitute a recitative on the topic of the Wise Thing. Here is what should be recited all together while learning the same lesson! »x
The real difficulty is to avoid reading Heraclitus with much later, anachronistic representations of the world, starting with those of Plato and Aristotle.
In spite of the pitfalls, it is necessary to try to reconstruct the spirit of the philosophical community in the pre-Socratic era, the nature of its research :
« It is permissible to conjecturalize the way of being: it would consist in separating and reuniting. To separate from whom? Probably: the crowd and its bad masters. To reunite with whom? Probably: the best and the master of the best lesson. Separate from what? The vain science of many things. To find what again? The right way of saying things. It’s a two-way street! The Heracletian ethos does not alienate man from the present thing: on the contrary, it makes him better present, and as in conversation or cohabitation with the thing. (…) A master of discourse puts into words the meaning of things (…) But the authentically archaic way of thinking was probably still different. For a good master, (…) it is appropriate that discourse shows itself with an ambiguous face, hidden meanings, and two-way effects. »xi
According to Ramnoux, Heraclitus’ fundamental intention is to teach man « to stand far and near at the same time: close enough to men and things so as not to alienate himself in the present, far enough so as not to be rolled and tossed around in traffic. With the word as a weapon to defend oneself against the fascination of things, and things as a reference to better feel the full of words. Like a being between two, aiming through the crack at something untraceable, whose quest guarantees, without his knowledge, his freedom! « xii
Ambiguity? Darkness ? Double meaning ? Hidden sense ?
No doubt, but for my part I would like to put the spotlight on the only unambiguous word in fragment 108: kekhorismenon, ‘separate’, applying to a mysterious entity, named « Wise », whose attributes are unity, being and totality.
How can one be ‘separated’ if one has ‘unity’, and ‘totality’?
What does the idea of ‘separation’ really imply in a thought that claims to be thinking about the ‘origins’?
It is with these questions in mind that I set out to search for occurrences of the word ‘separate’ in a very different corpus, that of the biblical text.
The idea of ‘being separate’ is rendered in Biblical Hebrew by three verbs with very different connotations: בָּדַל badal, חָלַק ḥalaq, and פָּרַד pharad.
בָּדַל badal is used in two verbal forms, niphal and hiphil.
The niphal form is used with a passive or reflexive nuance:
1° ‘to separate, to move away’: « Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land » (Esdr 10,11).
2° ‘to be separated, distinguished, chosen’: « Aaron was chosen » (1 Chr. 23:13); ‘to be excluded’: « He shall be excluded from the congregation of those who returned from captivity » ( Esdr. 10:8 ).
The hiphil form has a causative, active nuance:
1° ‘To separate, tear off’: « The veil will separate you » (Ex 26:33); « Let it serve as a separation between the waters and the waters » (Gen 1:6).
2° ‘To know, to distinguish, to discern’: « To be able to distinguish between what is impure and what is pure » (Lev 11:47).
3° ‘To separate, choose; exclude’: « I have separated you from the other peoples » (Lev 20:26); « The Lord has chosen the tribe of Levi. « (Deut 10:8); « The Lord has excluded me from his people » (Is 56:3).
In this sense, ‘to separate’ means ‘to choose’, ‘to distinguish’, ‘to discern’, ‘to elect’ (or ‘to exclude’).
חָלַק ḥalaq brings another range of meanings, around the notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘division’:
1° ‘To share, to give, to give’: « They divided the land » (Jos 14:5); ‘To be divided’: « Their hearts are divided, or have separated from God » (Hosea 10:2).
2° ‘To divide and distribute’: « And at even he divided the prey » (Gen 49:27); « And he distributed to all the people » (2 Sam 6:19); ‘To scatter’: « I will divide them in Jacob » (Gen 49:7), « The face of YHVH has scattered them » (Lam 4:16).
As for the verb פָּרַד pharad, it is used in an intensive or reflexive sense.
1° (Niphal) ‘To separate’: « Separate yourself, I pray you, from me » (Gen 13:9), « He who separates himself (from God) seeks his desires » (Prov 18:1).
2° ‘To spread, to be scattered’: « These spread throughout the islands » (Gen 10:5).
3° ‘To separate’ with intensive or causative nuances (piel): « They separated from their wives » (Hosea 4:14), « A people that remains separated among the nations » (East 3:8); (hiphil) « Jacob separated the lambs » (Gen 30:40); and (hithpael): « all my bones were separated » (Ps 22:15).
To sum up, the biblical meanings attached to the verbs whose sense is ‘to separate’ include the following nuances: ‘to distance, choose, exclude’ but also ‘to know, distinguish, discern’, or ‘to share, distribute’, and ‘to be scattered’ or ‘to spread’.
One can quite easily apply all these nuances to an entity that would be (divine) Wisdom.
Wisdom, in fact, distinguishes, discerns, knows; she can be shared, spread, distributed;
she can distance herself, elect or exclude.
But yet, what is the truly original meaning that applies to Wisdom?
In an attempt to answer, I have consulted all the Bible verses that contain the word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokhma). There are several hundred of them.
I have selected those that are most ‘open’ – containing an implicit invitation to further research – and grouped them into four categories:
Wisdom as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’;
Wisdom as ‘companion of the Creator’;
Wisdom as ‘person to dialogue with’;
and Wisdom as ‘faculty of the mind’.
For example, here are some verses assimilating wisdom (or Wisdom, with a capital letter) to mystery or secrecy:
« If he would reveal to you the secrets of Wisdom » (Job 11:6).
« But Wisdom, where does she come from? « (Job 28,12)
Do not say, « We have found wisdom » (Job 32:13).
« Be silent and I will teach you wisdom » (Job 33:33).
« In secret you teach me wisdom » (Ps 51:8).
« Then I began to reflect on wisdom » (Qo 2:12).
There are also verses in which Wisdom seems to accompany the Creator in his task:
« He made the heavens with wisdom » (Ps 136:6).
« Spirit of wisdom and understanding » (Is 11:2)
« Establish the world by his wisdom » (Jer 10:12).
« It is that you abandoned the Source of Wisdom! « (Bar 3,12)
« YHVH by wisdom founded the earth » (Pr 3:19).
There are also verses where Wisdom is presented as a person, capable of interacting with men:
« Tell wisdom: you are my sister! « (Pr 7,4)
« Wisdom cries out through the streets » (Pr 1,20)
« Doesn’t Wisdom call? « (Pr 8,1)
Finally, there are the verses where wisdom is considered a faculty of the mind:
« Give me now wisdom and knowledge » (2 Chr 1:10).
« Who gives wisdom to the wise » (Dan 2:21).
« Intelligence and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods » (Dan 5:11).
For good measure I add here some verses from biblical texts, which are not recognized by the Masoretes as part of the Canon of the Scriptures of Judaism, but which belong to the texts recognized by Catholicism – in this case the Book of Wisdom and the text of Sirach (Ben Sirach):
« Wisdom is a spirit friendly to men » (Wis 1:6) [Person].
« What Wisdom is and how he was born, I will reveal it; I will not hide the mysteries from you, but I will follow his footsteps from the beginning of his origin, I will bring his knowledge to light, without departing from the truth. « (Wis 6:22) [Mystery, Secret].
« For more than any movement, wisdom is mobile » (Wis 7:24) [Mystery, Secret].
« With you is Wisdom who knows your works » (Wis 9:9) [Companion of the Creator].
« But first of all wisdom was created » (Sir 1:4) [Companion of the Creator].
« The root of wisdom to whom was it revealed? « (Sir 1:6) [Mystery, Secret].
« Wisdom brings up her children » (Sir 4:11) [Person].
And finally, here are some excerpts from the New Testament, – especially from Paul’s texts:
« And Wisdom was justified by all his children » (Luke 7:35) [Companion of the Creator].
« It is of a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden » (1 Cor 2:7) [Mystery, Secret].
« To give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation » (Eph 1:17) [Faculty of the Spirit].
« All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge » (Col 2:3) [Faculty of Spirit].
« Filled with the Spirit and with wisdom » (Act 6:3) [Faculty of the Spirit].
If we return to the intuition of « separate wisdom » as imagined by Heraclitus, we see that it is perfectly compatible with the representations of Wisdom as belonging to the Mystery, as a Companion of the Creator and as a Person]
But where Judaism plays with the idea of a kind of doubling of the divine between the function of the Creator and the role of Wisdom (which is, let us recall, one of the Sefiroth of theJewish Kabbalah), the metaphysical mysticism of Heraclitus sees only divine Unity and Totality.
It is not the least result of this research, to find in one of the most eminent Greek pre-Socratic thinkers, such an extreme intuition of the transcendence of Wisdom, and of its Unity with the Divine.
Wisdom is par excellence ‘separate’, and is also that which is most ‘one’.…
Let’s begin with this verse from the Psalmist: « The foundation of your word is truth »i. In the original Hebrew: רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת, roch devar-ka emét.
Another translation gives: « Truth, the principle of your word! » ii
In yet another translation, the word רֹאשׁ, roch, is translated as « essence »: « Truth is the essence of your word. »iii
The words used here, « foundation », « principle », « essence » are quite abstract. They belong to the philosophical language, and they seem somewhat removed from the spirit of ancient Hebrew, an eminently concrete, realistic language.
Originally, the word רֹאשׁ, rochmeans: 1) head, person, man. Then, by derivation, metonymy or metaphor: 2) head, top, point, main thing; 3) sum, number, troop; 4) beginning, the first; 5) a poisonous plant (the hemlock, or poppy), poison, venom, gall.
It is from the 4th meaning of roch thatthe word reshit, « beginning », derives, this word which one finds precisely at the very beginning of the Torah: Be-rechit, « in the beginning ».
If one wanted to render exactly all the connotations of the word רֹאשׁ, rosh in the verse of Psalm 119, one would have to resolve to translate it into a sum of formulations, – a swarm of meanings:
-At the head of your word, the truth.
-The tip of your word is truth.
-The sum of your word is truth.
-Truth is the beginning of your word.
-The truth is the venom of your word.
Each of these formulas is clearly unsatisfactory, but as a whole they open up new questions and new perspectives.
For example, if truth is « at the head » of the word, or in its « tip », or in its « beginning », does this mean that in all the « rest » of the word there is something other than truth?
If it is the « sum » of the word that is the « truth », does this imply that each of the parts of the « word » does not really contain it?
How can we understand that the word (of God) can contain a « venom »?
The more modern translations that have been cited (« foundation, principle, essence ») seem to escape these difficulties of interpretation. They immediately give the verse a veneer of depth and a kind of philosophical allure.
But this « abstract » veneer and this « philosophical » appearance are undoubtedly the indications of a real deviation from the original meaning, intended by the Psalmist, which was to be much more « concrete ».
If one wants to remain faithful to the genius of ancient Hebrew, the essence of the word roch must rather be sought in one of its main derivative, the word rechit (« beginning »).
This word is indeed part of the description of a key moment of Creation, the « Beginning », and it derives a special prestige from it.
This eminent moment is described by Zohar 1:15a in a surprisingly vivid way, in a passage full of dark light, particularly delicate to « translate », even for the best specialists and the most learned rabbis who have worked on it.
One may judge the difficulty from four very different translations of this strange text which will now be presented.
Gershom Scholem offers :
« In the beginning, when the King’s will began to act, he drew signs in the divine aura. A dark flame gushes forth from the most intimate depths of the mystery of the Infinite, the En-Sof; like a mist that gives form to what has no form, it is enclosed in the ring of this aura, it appears neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, without any color. But when it began to grow in height and spread, it produced radiant colors. For in the innermost center of this flame, a spring gushes forth, whose flames spill over everything below, hidden in the mysterious secrets of the En-Sof. The source gushes forth, and yet it does not gush forth completely, through the ethereal aura that surrounds it. It was absolutely unrecognizable until, under the shock of this spurt, a higher point then hidden would have shone. Beyond this point, nothing can be known or understood and that is why it is called Rechit, meaning « beginning », the first word of creation. » iv
What is this « point » called Rechit? Gershom Scholem indicates that for the Zohar (whose paternity he attributes to Moses de León) and for the majority of Kabbalist writers, this primordial « point », this « beginning » is identified with the divine « Wisdom », Hokhmah.
Before proposing his own translation-interpretation of this difficult passage of the Zohar, Charles Mopsikv cites two other translation-interpretations, that of R. Siméon Labi of Tripoli and that of R. Moses Cordovero, both dating from the 16th century:
R. Simeon Labi :
« In the head, the King’s word carved signs in the highest transparency. A spark of darkness came out of the middle of the enclosure, from the head of the Ein-Sof; attached to the Golem (or initial formless matter), planted in the ring (…) This source is enclosed in the middle of the enclosure until, thanks to the jostling force of its breakthrough, a point, the supreme enclosure, is illuminated. After this point one knows nothing more, that is why it is called Rechit (beginning), first word. » vi
R. Moses Cordovero :
« At the moment before the King said, in his supreme zenith, he engraved a sign. An obscure (or eminent) flame gushes out inside the most enclosed, which started from the confines of the Infinite, forms in the Golem planted in the center of the ring (…) In the center of the Flame a spring gushes out from which the colors took their hue when it reached the bottom. The enclosure of the Enigma of the Infinite tried to pierce, but did not pierce its surrounding air and remained unknown until, by the power of its breakthrough, a point was illuminated, the supreme enclosure. Above this point nothing is knowable, so it is called Rechit, beginning, first of all words. » vii
Having thus prepared the ground with three different versions, and benefiting from their respective contributions, Charles Mopsik proposes his own translation, which is also jargonous and amphigorous, but which is not without opening up new reflexive possibilities:
« From the outset, the King’s resolution left the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency. An obscure flame springs from the quivering of the Infinite in its confinement. Like a form in the formless, inscribed on the seal. Neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, nor of any color. When he then set the commensurable, he brought out colors that illuminated the confinement. And from the flame a spring gushed forth, downstream from which the hues of these colors appeared. Enclosure in the Confinement, quivering of the Infinite, the source pierces and does not pierce the air that surrounds it and it remains unknowable. Until by the insistence of its piercing, it brings to light a tenuous point, supreme confinement. From there this point is the unknown, so it is called the ‘beginning’, the first of all. » viii
It should be noted at the outset that Mopsik clearly distinguishes himself from other translators, from the very first sentence, by proposing that the King « leave the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency », rather than « engrave or carve signs ».
He justifies this bold choice in this way:
« What led us to prefer the expression ‘to leave the trace of its withdrawal’ to ‘to inscribe signs’ comes from the fact that the verb galaf or galif is rarely found in the Midrach, and when it appears, it is associated with the idea of inscribing in hollow, of opening the matrix. Thus it is this term that is used when God visited Sarah and then Rikvah who were barren (see Gen 47.2 , Gen 53.5 and Gen 63.5).
It is therefore likely that Zohar uses these connotations of generation and fertilization. Moreover, the passage in question was later interpreted by the school of Louria as an evocation of the Tsimtsum, or withdrawal of the divine.»ix
In Mopsik’s interpretation, therefore, in the beginning, God « opens the matrix », then withdraws from it, but nevertheless « leaves a trace of his withdrawal ».
Which « matrix » is it?
According to the Zohar, this ‘matrix’ is Wisdom (Hokhmah).
Indeed, a little further on, the Zohar gives these relatively cryptic, yet enlightening explanations:
« Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’ (Berechit bara Elohim). Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » x
Let’s summarize what we just learned:
Wisdom (Hokmah) is also called ‘Beginning’ (Rechit).
The « matrix » that God « opens » at the « Beginning », before « withdrawing » from it, is that of Wisdom. According to Charles Mopsik, the metaphors that the Zohar uses to describe this moment evoke « generation » and « fecundation ».
The Zohar, decidedly well-informed, still delivers these precisions:
« With this Beginning, the Hidden and Unknown One created the Temple (or Palace), and this Temple is called by the name ‘Elohim’. This is the secret of the words: ‘In the beginning created Elohim. xi
The great secret, unspeakable, spreads out clearly in the Zohar:
The One unites himself with Wisdom (whose other name is ‘Beginning’), then withdraws from it, while leaving his trace. From this union of the One and the Beginning is born the Temple (also called ‘Elohim’).
According to the Zohar, the first verse of the Torah ‘Be-rechit bara Elohim’ should be understood as follows: « With the Beginning, [the One, the Hidden One] created the Elohim (Lords).
Jewish ‘monotheism’ is definitely full of surprises…
From the Beginning, the Trinity of the One, Wisdom and Elohim is revealed.
The Elohim are generated by Wisdom, impregnated by the One…
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.
In a short dialogue, Hermes addresses his son Tati to summarize some ancient, and quite essential ideas. We learn that man is made up of separate envelopes, body, mind, soul, reason, intelligence. As he gradually emerges from these envelopes, man is called upon to « know » better and better. His final vocation is « apotheosis », a word that must be taken literally i.e. to go « above the gods ».
– The energy of God is in His will. And God wants the universe to be. As Father, as Good, He wants the existence of that which is not yet. This existence of beings, there is God, there is the Father, there is the Good, it is no other thing. The world, the sun, the stars participate in the existence of beings. But they are not, however, for the living the cause of their life, or the origin of the Good. Their action is the necessary effect of the will of the Good, without which nothing could exist or become.
[My comment: Hermes does not believe in the immanence of the divine in the world. The divine is absolutely transcendent, and only His Will, whose effect can be observed through the existence of His creation, bears witness to this transcendent remoteness.]
It must be recognized that the vision of the Good is above our strength. The eyes of our intelligence cannot yet contemplate its incorruptible and incomprehensible beauty. You will see it a little, perhaps, when you at least know that you can say nothing about it. For true knowledge is found in the silence and rest of every sensation. Whoever achieves it can no longer think of anything else, nor look at anything, nor hear anything, nor even move his body. There is no more sensation or movement for him.
[My comment: There are two kinds of spirits. Those who have « seen » the Good, but cannot say anything about it, and those who have not « seen » it, but who will perhaps one day see it, under certain conditions. Hermes belongs to the first group. He can only express himself by allusion. He cannot say anything about it, which is already a lot …].
– The splendor that inundates all his thought and his soul tears man from the bonds of the body and transforms him entirely into divine essence. The human soul reaches the apotheosis when he has contemplated this beauty of Good.
– What do you mean by « apotheosis », Father?
[My comment: Tat’s question is not a lexicographical one. He is waiting for a full description of the phenomenon. The word « apotheosis » is not a neologism, a word invented by Hermes. The word was used, for example, previously by Strabo to describe the death of Diomedes, which he also describes as « apotheosis », but in a sense that seems to transcend the reality of his « death ». « Some authors add to the subject of Diomedes that here he had begun to dig a canal leading to the sea, but having been called back to his homeland he was surprised by death and left this and many other useful undertakings unfinished. This is a first version about his death; another makes him stay until the end and die in Daunie; a third, purely fabulous, and which I have already had occasion to recall, speaks of his mysterious disappearance in one of the islands that bear his name; finally, one can look at this claim of the Henetians to place in their country, if not death, at least the apotheosis of the hero, as a fourth version…. « (Strabo, Geogr. VI, 3,9)].
– Every unfulfilled soul, my son, is subject to successive changes. The blinded soul, knowing nothing of beings, neither their nature nor the Good, is enveloped in bodily passions. The unfortunate soul, unaware of herself, is enslaved to foreign and abject bodies. She carries the burden of the body. Instead of commanding, she obeys. This is the evil of the soul. On the contrary, the good of the soul is knowledge. He who knows is good, and already divine.
[My comment: The body is a veil whose envelope prevents access to knowledge. In the body, the soul is enslaved. Not only can she not ‘see’, but she cannot ‘know’. She can only know her slavery, her enslavement. Which is already a lot, because it is the beginning of her liberation].
– Beings have sensations because they cannot exist without them; but knowledge is very different from sensation. Sensation is an influence that one undergoes. Knowledge is the end of a search, and the desire to search is a divine gift. For all knowledge is incorporeal.
[My comment: The sensation is imposed from the outside. Knowledge is first and foremost a desire for knowledge. To know is first of all a desire to know. But where does this desire come from, if one has no knowledge of what one can desire? « The desire to seek is a divine gift ». But isn’t it unfair to those who are deprived of the grace of this desire? No, this desire is in everyone, in latent form. The desire to know only asks to be born. It only needs to be set in motion, and it grows stronger with every step].
– All knowledge is a form, which grasps the intelligence, just as the intelligence uses the body. Thus both use a body, either intellectual or material. Everything comes down to this combination of opposites, form and matter, and it cannot be otherwise.
[My comment: Form and matter can be considered, as Hermes does, as a « combination of opposites ». One could also say « alliance of opposites », to mean that their whole is more than the sum of their parts. There is also the idea that intellectual representations can be described as having a « body », which itself is endowed with a spirit and perhaps a soul. This leads us to imagine a whole ascending hierarchy, of souls and spirits, up to a supreme root, of all souls and spirits. Two thousand years after these ideas began to be formulated, the Jewish Kabbalah of the European Middle Ages took up exactly the same ideas ].
– What is this material God?
– The world is beautiful but it is not good, because it is material and passive. It is the first of the ‘passive’, but the second of the beings, and is not self-sufficient. It is born, though it is always, but it is in birth, and it becomes perpetual. Becoming is a change in quality and quantity – like any material movement.
[My comment: Here the influence of Gnosis is revealed. The world is beautiful, but it is not good. The assertions of Genesis are therefore contradicted head-on: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ (Cf. Gen. 1:4, Gen. 1:10, Gen. 1:12, Gen. 1:25). The first chapter of Genesis even concludes as follows: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen. 1:31). But this Gnosis can be interpreted. The world is not « good », admittedly, but it does not necessarily mean that it is « bad » either. If it is not « good » it is because it is always « becoming », it is always being « born ». Besides, one can argue that ‘Only God is good’, as Jesus said. This Gnosticism is therefore not incompatible with an interpretation of Creation as a living process, as an eschatological aim].
– The world is the first of the living. Man is second only to the world, and first among mortals. Not only is man not good, but he is evil, being mortal. Nor is the world not good, since it is mobile; but being immortal, it is not evil. Man, being both mobile and mortal, is evil. »
[My comment: Here, the vision of Gnosis becomes even more precise. The world is not evil, but Man is. The difference between the world and Man is that the world is always born, it is always alive and reborn, whereas Man is mortal. The only possibility, however, of escaping this fundamental evil is resurrection. If it is possible, then Man is also reborn, again, he escapes death, – and evil].
– It is necessary to understand how man’s soul is constituted: intelligence is in reason, reason in the soul, the soul in the mind, the mind in the body. The spirit, penetrating through veins, arteries and blood, moves the animal and carries it, so to speak. The soul infuses the spirit. Reason is at the bottom of the soul. And it is Intelligence that makes reason live.
[My comment: Man is a kind of metaphysical onion, containing deep down within him, in his inner core, a divine principle, – Intelligence, which is another name for Divine Wisdom.]
– God does not ignore man; on the contrary, He knows him and wants to be known by him. The only salvation of man is in the knowledge of God; this is the way of ascent to Olympus; only by this alone does the soul become good, not sometimes good, sometimes bad, but necessarily good.
[My comment: The ascent to Olympus is another metaphor for apotheosis].
“Contemplate, my son, the soul of the child; the separation is not yet complete; the body is small and has not yet received full development. It is beautiful to see the child, not yet sullied by the passions of the body, still almost attached to the soul of the world. But when the body has developed and holds her [the soul] in its mass, separation is accomplished, oblivion occurs in her, she ceases to participate in the beautiful and the good.”
[My comment: the loss of innocence of the soul begins from the first days of her apprenticeship in the body she has inherited. This loss of innocence can also be interpreted as the first steps in the long « ascent » that still awaits her].
« The same thing happens to those who come out of their body. The soul enters into herself, the spirit withdraws into the blood, the soul into the spirit. But the Intelligence, purified and freed from its envelopes, divine by nature, takes a body of fire and travels through space, abandoning the soul to its tribulations. »
[My comment: These words are a striking summary of the highest wisdom attained over tens of thousands of years by shamans, visionaries, prophets, poets, all over the world. They must be taken for what they are: a naked revelation, destined only to those souls predisposed, by their abysmal and primordial desire, to understand what it is all about].
– What do you mean, O Father? Does intelligence separate from the soul and the soul from the spirit, since you said that the soul is the envelope of intelligence and the spirit is the envelope of the soul?
[My comment: Tat listens to his father very well, and he remains faithful to logic itself. His question is a request for clarification. The difference between the spirit and the soul and the difference between the soul and the intelligence may need to be explained more clearly. But how to explain “intelligence” to those who cannot imagine the power of its infinite possibilities? Hermes knows this difficulty well. He will try another way of explanation].
– It is necessary, my son, that the listener follow the thought of the speaker and associate himself with it; the ear must be finer than the voice. This system of envelopes exists in the earthly body. The naked intelligence could not be established in a material body, and that body could not contain such immortality or carry such virtue. The intelligence takes the soul as its envelope; the soul, which is divine itself, is enveloped in spirit, and the spirit is poured into the animal. »
[My comment: The key expression here is « naked intelligence ». What is revealed in these words is that even intelligence, in its highest, most divine form, can still remain « veiled ». Nothing can be said about this here, for the moment. We are only alluding to the fact that the process of ascension, of apotheosis, is certainly not finished, but that it is itself susceptible to other, even more radical forms of spiritual nakedness, unclothing].
– When the intelligence leaves the earthly body, it immediately takes its tunic of fire, which it could not keep when it inhabited this earthly body; for the earth cannot withstand fire, of which a single spark would be enough to burn it. This is why water surrounds the earth and forms a rampart that protects it from the flame of fire. But intelligence, the most subtle of divine thoughts, has the most subtle of elements, fire, as its body. It takes it as an instrument of its creative action.
[My comment: One of the garments of intelligence, described here under the metaphor of the « tunic of fire », is a way of describing one of its essential attributes: creative ability. But there are certainly many others. Other metaphors, other « garments » would be needed to try to account for them].
– The universal intelligence uses all the elements, that of man only the earthly elements. Deprived of fire, it cannot build divine works, subject as it is to the conditions of humanity. Human souls, not all of them, but pious souls, are « demonic » and « divine ».
[My comment: The idea that the soul is « demonic » is an idea that Plato communicated to us through the speech of Diotima in the Symposium. There can be found also another fundamental idea, to which I have been attached all my life – the idea of metaxu].
– Once separated from the body, and after having sustained the struggle of piety, which consists in knowing God and harming no one, such a soul becomes all intelligence. But the unholy soul remains in its own essence and punishes herself by seeking to enter into an earthly body, a human body, for another body cannot receive a human soul, it cannot fall into the body of an animal without reason; a divine law preserves the human soul from such a fall.
[My comment: Here we find the idea of metempsychosis. Since ages, these ideas circulated from the Far East to Greece].
– The punishment of the soul is quite different. When the intelligence has become a « daimon », and by God’s command has taken on a body of fire, she [the intelligence] enters the ungodly soul and is scourged with the whip of its sins. The unholy soul then rushes into murder, insults, blasphemy, violence of all kinds and all human wickedness. But by entering the pious soul, the intelligence leads her to the light of knowledge. Such a soul is never satiated with hymns and blessings for all men.
[My comment: A distinction must therefore be made between light, knowledge and the « light of knowledge ». The latter form of consciousness is the possible source of a meta-apotheosis, – for the moment, this word is a neologism, which I propose, because here it is very necessary].
– This is the universal order, the consequence of unity. Intelligence penetrates all the elements. For nothing is more divine and more powerful than intelligence. She unites Gods with men and men with Gods. It is the intelligence that is the good « daimon« ; the blessed soul is full of her, the unhappy soul is empty of her.
[My comment: intelligence is the « metaxu » par excellence. The Hebrews gave it the name neshamah. But what a name is, it is its essence that we must try to understand].
– The soul without intelligence could neither speak nor act. Often intelligence leaves the soul, and in this state the soul sees nothing, hears nothing, and looks like an animal without reason. Such is the power of intelligence. But it does not support the vicious soul and leaves it attached to the body, which drags it down. Such a soul, my son, has no intelligence, and in this condition a man can no longer be called a man. For man is a divine animal which must be compared, not to other terrestrial animals, but to those in heaven, who are called Gods.
[My comment: Aristotle said that « man is an animal who has reason (logos) ». We can see that Hermes rises several notches above Aristotle in his intuition of what man is, in essence. Aristotle is the first of the moderns. Plato is the last of the Ancients. But in these difficult matters, the Ancients have infinitely more to teach us, with their million years of experience, than the Moderns, really out of their depths in these matters].
– Or rather, let’s not be afraid to tell the truth, the real man is above them, or at least equal to them. For none of the heavenly Gods leaves his sphere to come to earth, while man ascends into heaven and measures it. He knows what is above and what is below; he knows everything accurately, and what is better is that he does not need to leave the earth in order to ascend. Such is the greatness of his condition. Thus, dare we say that man is a mortal God and that a heavenly God is an immortal man. All things will be governed by the world and by man, and above all is the One.
My comment : There is a strikingly equivalent intuition in the Veda. In the Veda, Puruṣa, devanāgarī : पुरुष, means « man, person, hero, vital principle, spirit » but also and foremost : « the Soul of the Universe »…
How is it to be understood that a God who is essentially One may also be endowed, as his various Names testify, with multiple attributes?
If God is unique, where does the multiplicity of His attributes come from? How can His essential Unity be so ‘diverse’, from a phenomenological point of view?
Christians think that the Unity of God can also be understood as a « Trinity » (uniting the Creator, the Verb, the Spirit). The Jews absolutely refute that any « trinity » may be “seen” in an essentially One God. Muslims, too, are particularly sensitive to this question of the essential unity of God. They call Christians « associationists », and some verses of the Qu’ran affirm that they deserve death for this reason.
The “unity” of God raises difficult questions, when confronted to the multiplicity of God’s appearances.
A biblical image may help to understand the issue.
Abraham received three guests under the tree of Mamre. He then distinguished three representations of one single phenomenon, which he knew was of divine essence.
According to some, these three guests were “angels”. According to others, they were “Elohim” (“Gods” or « Lords »). According to yet other interpretations, Abraham’s vision was the vision of the One as a unique being, but accompanied by two of his “shadows”, which represented two degrees of divine “knowledge”, which some called, in Greek, the doxa (opinion) and the aletheia (truth).
For Philo, it was indeed the One God, but escorted by two divine Powers, the power of Creation and the power of Royalty.
The « power of Creation » is the power of God as the Creator. This power may also be called « goodness », because God « creates » through His goodness, and it is “good” that the Creator created the world. The power of Creation emanates from God, it derives from Him. One can also say that He « generates » it, like a Father a Son.
The « power of Royalty » is the power of the Lord as a ruler. It is the power of the Law, because the Lord is the one who punishes.
The « power of Royalty » is embodied in the Law. The power of the Law, the power of the Torah, is also the power of the Spirit, and it prevails in the intelligible world. “Listen, listen, and you will understand!”
The power of the Spirit is distinct from God, but it emanates from Him. Likewise, the scrolls of the Torah are not God, yet they emanate from Him, having been revealed to Moses.
God, His Goodness, His Spirit. One and Three.
Much later, the Jewish Kabbalah came out with yet another metaphor, the first three sefirot: Keter, Ḥokhmah, Binah.
Crown, Wisdom, Intelligence.
From a structural point of view, no real difference between the Christian Trinity and the Kabbalist one…
Adam « knew » Eve, and she conceived Cain, then Abel and Seth. But the Bible never says that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses « knew » their wives, notes Philo of Alexandria. Why not? Was it out of prudishness?
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were wise men. But, according to Philo, the « woman » can be understood as an image that represents the senses, the sensations. For a wise man, « knowing the woman » may be interpreted, counter-intuitively, as the capacity to put sensations at a distance. Lovers of wisdom and those who seek true knowledge must “repudiate” their senses, not to succumb to their seductions. To truly « know », one must « know » the senses, not to be satisfied with them, but to question them, to put them at a distance.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses have their « virtues » for « wife ». Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is « princess and guide », Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, embodies « perseverance », according to Philo. Jacob’s wife, Leah, represents « the virtue of endurance » and Sipporah, Moses’ wife, is the image of « the virtue that ascends from earth to heaven ».
Let’s take the reasoning a little further. Can we then say that these wise men « knew » their « virtue »?
Can the metaphor of intimate, conjugal union be spun in this context? Philo considers this point and warns that he can only address himself to true initiates on this subject, because the mysteries in question are the « most sacred ».i
The union of a man and a woman obeys the laws of nature, and tends to the generation of children. But it is not in accordance with the order of things that the “virtue”, which can give rise to so many perfections, can be united to a human husband, a mere mortal. Then who can unite with Virtue, in order to impregnate her? – Only the Father of the universe, the uncreated God, says Philo, can give her His seed. Only God conceives and begets with Virtue. Virtue receives the divine seed of the Cause of all things, and begets a child that she presents to the one of her lovers who deserves it most.
Another analogy can be used, says Philo. Thus the most wise Isaac addressed his prayers to God, and Rebekah, who is « perseverance », was made pregnant by the one who received this prayer. On the other hand, Moses who had received Sipporah, « winged and sublime virtue », found that she had conceived from no mortal, without the need of any prior prayer.
Here we reach difficult terrain. These « mysteries », Philo insists again, can only be received by purified, initiated souls. They cannot be shared with the uninitiated. Philo himself was initiated into these higher mysteries by the teachings of Moses and Jeremiah, he reveals.
Philo quotes a verse from Jeremiah, to whom God spoke in these terms: « Did you not call me ‘father’ and ‘husband of your virginity’? ». In fact, nowhere in Jeremiah is this expression found literally. But in Jeremiah 3:4 there is something similar, though much less direct and much less metaphorical: « You cry out to me, ‘O my father, you are the guide of my youth’. «
Philo seems to have transformed the original expression of Jeremiah (« the guide of my youth ») into a more elevated formula (« the husband of my virginity »). For Philo, Jeremiah thus shows that « God is the incorporeal abode of Ideas, the Father of all things, inasmuch as He created them, and the Bridegroom of Wisdom, inseminating the seed of happiness in good and virgin land for the benefit of the human race ».ii
God can converse only with a good and virgin nature. Hence this reversal: « Men, with the intention of procreating, make a virgin a woman. But God, when He associates with a soul, because she was a woman, He makes her a virgin again. »iii
There are some things it is better to keep quiet about. Whatever we may say, we risk approximation, error, provocation, offense, – or even, more bitingly, the silent smile of the wise men, if there are any.
The psalmist says, addressing Elohim:
לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה lekha doumiâ tehilâ. » For you, silence is praise »i.
In order to think, it is better to remain silent: « Think in your heart, on your bed make silence.»ii
Silence must be kept, but one can still write. About the highest mysteries, writing is in the same time compass and bearing, mast and mainsail. A wind of inspiration will then come, maybe.
Maimonides himself did not hesitate to face, in writing, the ocean of mysteries. In writing, he even tried to define the essence of true wisdom, and thus that of God.
« The word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has four meanings »iii, he wrote. ‘Hokhma refers to the understanding of philosophical truths that have as their goal the perception of God. It can also be said of the possession of any art or industry. It applies to the acquisition of moral virtues. Finally, it is applied in the sense of finesse and cunning.
Vast spectrum of possible meanings, then. Or structural ambiguity?
« It may be that the word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has (originally) the meaning of ‘finesse’ and ‘application of thought’, so that this finesse or sagacity will have as its object sometimes the acquisition of intellectual qualities, sometimes that of moral qualities, sometimes that of a practical art, sometimes malice and wickedness.”iv
Who can be said to be « wise » then?
« He who is instructed in the whole Law, and who knows its true meaning, is called ‘hakham in two respects, because it embraces both intellectual and moral qualities.”
Maimonides then quotes on Aristotlev and the ancient philosophers to define « four species of perfections ».
The first kind of ‘perfection’ is particularly prized by most men but is really of little value. It is material possession. Mountains of gold and silver are to be possessed, they offer only a passing enjoyment, and at the bottom of the imagination.
The second is the perfection of the body, the physical constitution, beauty, health. This is certainly not nothing, but has little impact on the health of the soul itself.
The third kind of perfection consists in moral qualities. This is a definite advantage from the point of view of the essence of the soul. But moral qualities are not an end in themselves. They serve only as a preparation for some other, higher purpose.
The fourth sort of perfection is true human perfection. It consists in being able to conceive ideas about the great metaphysical questions. This is the true end of man. « It is through it that he obtains immortality, »vi Maimonides said.
Jeremiah had also expressed himself on this subject, in his own style: « Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the strong man glory in his strength, nor the rich man glory in his riches; but whoever wishes to glory, let him find glory in this: to have understanding and to know me, for I am YHVH.”vii
Wisdom is knowledge, – the knowledge of the Lord.
But how to get to know that specific knowledge?
Jeremiah has an answer:
« I am YHVH, who exercises goodness, justice and righteousness in the earth. Yes, this is what I delight in, says YHVH!” viii
This means that the essence of God is known by His actions, which should be taken as a model. There are three fundamental ones: חֶסֶד , hesed (goodness), מִשְׁפָּט, michpat (law), and ָּצְדָקָה, tsedaka (justice).
Maimonides comments: « He [Jeremiah] then adds another essential idea, saying – ‘on earth’ –, and this idea is the pillar of religion”ix.
Since this idea comes at the very end of the Guide for the Perplexed, it can probably be thought to be its final conclusion.
That simple, conclusive, remark leaves open an immense field of new research. What would be the essence of God, not just on earth, but elsewhere?
And would the answer to that question, if we knew it, be possibly the pillar of another kind of religion?
« Light, intelligence and wisdom ». These three words are used together several times in the Book of Daniel. The queen, wife of King Balthazar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, praises Daniel’s « extraordinary spirit » as follows: « There is a man in your kingdom in whom dwells the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father there was in him light and understanding and wisdom like that of the gods. « (Dan. 5:11).
Then Balthazar called him and said: « Are you Daniel, of the people of the deportation of Judah, brought from Judah by my father the king? I have heard that the spirit of the gods resides in you and that in you is light, intelligence and extraordinary wisdom. « (Dan. 5:13-14)
Daniel had already experienced a glorious hour in Babylon when he had explained the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and revealed their « secret », their « mystery ».
The Hebrew word for « secret » and « mystery » is רָז (raz). This word is of Persian origin, and it is only found in the Bible in the Book of Daniel alone. It is also found later in the Qumran texts. Itmay be used in various contextsi.
Nebuchadnezzar had defeated the kingdom of Judah and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in ~587. However Daniel brought him to resignation by revealing “the mystery”.
The mystery takes on its full value, its true meaning, only when it is brought to light, when it is « revealed », as in the verse: « It is he who reveals the deep and hidden things. »(Dan. 2:22).
The Hebrew verb used for « reveal » is גָלָה (galah) which means: « To discover, to appear, to reveal, to make known ». But in a derived sense, it means: « To emigrate, to be taken into captivity, to be exiled, to be banished. » In theniphal form, “To be uncovered, to be naked; to reveal oneself, to be announced.”
For example, « Have the gates of death been opened to you? « (Job 38:17), « There God revealed himself to him. « (Gen. 35:7), « The glory of God will be manifested. « (Is. 40:5).
It is the « revelation » that constitutes the deep substance of the secret, its inner fabric, much more than the secret itself, which is only the external appearance. A secret forever buried in the depths of time would be like a seed that would never germinate.
And, in Hebrew, “to reveal” evokes another series of meanings, revolving around emigration, exile, banishment. A penetration of the secret, an entry into the mystery, evokes a departure to a foreign land, or even a deportation, like an exile to Babylon…
A child of exile, a deportee from Judah, « reveals » his own « secret » to the king who « exiled » his people, – and by doing so, who « discovered » Judah, who made it « appear ».
Irony and depth of words, which say more than they are meant to say.
The word גָלָה (galah), which means « to reveal » and « to emigrate », also reaches a sublime form of mystery. By linking « revelation » and « emigration », it deepens a mystery whose meaning it does not reveal.
i« Then the mystery (רָז ) was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. « (Dan. 2:19)
« He who reveals depths and secrets (רָז ) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. » (Dan. 2:22)
« The mystery (רָז ) that the king pursues, wise men, soothsayers, magicians and exorcists have not been able to discover it to the king. « (Dan. 2:27)
« But there is a God in heaven who reveals the mysteries (רָז ) and who has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what is to happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head on your bed, here they are. « (Dan. 2:28)
« This mystery (רָז ) has been revealed to me, and I have no more wisdom than anyone else, for the sole purpose of letting the king know its meaning. « (Dan. 2:30)
« And the king said to Daniel: « Truly your god is the God of gods, and the master of kings, the revelator of mysteries (רָז ), since you were able to reveal the mystery (רָז ). » (Dan. 2:47)
There is the idea that there are no more ideas, no more « great narratives« .
There is the idea that everything is rigged, that a conspiracy has been hatched by a few people against all.
There is the idea that progress is doomed.
There is the idea that the coming catastrophe is just ‘fake news’, or just part ofan ideology.
There is the idea that anything can happen, and there is the ideathat there is no hope, that the void is opening up, just ahead.
Every age harboursthe new prophets that it deserves. Günther Anders has famously proclaimed the « obsolescence of man », – and that the absence of a future has already begun.
We must go way beyond that sort of ideas and that sort of prophecies.
Where to find the spirit, the courage, the vision, the inspiration?
Immense the total treasure of values, ideas, beliefs, faiths, symbols, paradigms, this ocean bequeathed by humanity to the generations of the day.
The oldest religions, the philosophies of the past, are not museums, fragmented dreams, now lost. Within them lies the memory of a common world, a dream of the future.
The Divine is in that which was born; the Divine is in that which is born; the Divine is in that which will be born.
A few chosen words from beyond the ages, and the spirit may be set ablaze. The soul may be filled with fulgurations, with assailing prescience.
Power is in the air, in the mother, the father, the son, the daughter.
It is in the Gods, and in all men. In all that is born, in all that will be born.
One thousand years before Moses’ times, the poets of the Rig Veda claimed:
“The God who does not grow old stands in the bush. Driven by the wind, He clings to the bushes with tongues of fire, with a thunder.”i
Was then Moses in his own way a Vedic seer? Probably.
The greatest minds always meet at the very top. Andwhen they do, the greatest of the greatest do come down from up there, they do go back down, among us, to continue to go further on.
“Go for yourself (לֶךְ–לְךָlekh lekha), out of your country, out of your birthplace and your father’s house, to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name glorious, and you will be blessed. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who reproach you, and through you will be blessed all the families of the earth.”ii
Rashi commented this famous text. When you’re always on the road, from one camp to another, you run three risks: you have fewer children, you have less money, you have less fame. That’s why Abram received three blessings: the promise of children, confidence in prosperity, and the assurance of fame.
The figure of Abram leaving Haran is a metaphor for what lies ahead. It is also a prophecy. We too must leave Haran.
The word haranoriginally means « the hollow ».
We too are in « the hollow », that is, a void of ideas, a lack of hope.
It is time, like Abram once did, to get out of this hollow, to hit the road, to seek new paths for new generations, yet to come.
The word haran can be interpreted in different ways. Philo wrote thatharan means « the cavities of the soul and the sensations of the body ». It is these « cavities » that one must leave. “Adopt an alien mentality with regard to these realities, let none of them imprison you, stand above all. Look after yourself.”iii
Philo adds: « But also leave the expired word, what we have called the dwelling of the father, so as not to be seduced by the beauties of words and terms, and find yourself finally separated from the authentic beauty that lies in the things that the words meant. (…) He who tends toward being rather than appearing will have to cling to these realities, and leave the dwelling of words.”iv
Abram-Abraham has left Haran. On the way, he separated from his traveling companion, Lot: « Separate yourself from me! » he said to himv.
Philo comments: « You must emigrate, in search of your father’s land, that of the sacred Logos, who is also in a sense the father of the ascetics; this land is Wisdom.”vi
Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, wrote in Greek. He used the word Logosas an equivalent for “Wisdom”, – andhe notes: « The Logos stands the highest, close besides God, and is called Samuel(‘who hears God’). »
‘Migration’ is indeed a very old human metaphor, with deepphilosophical and mysticalundertones.
Onemaystill have to dig up one or two things about it.
“Go, for yourself (לֶךְ–לְךָlekh lekha)”. Leave the ‘hollow’. Stand above all, that is. Lookafter theLogos.
TheLogos.Or the‘Word’, as they say.
A ‘migrant’ isalways in quest of good metaphorsfora world yet to come. Always in questof truemetaphors yet to be spoken.
‘Metaphor’. A Greek word, meaning: “displacement”.
Hence the stinging and deep irony of Philo’s metaphor:
The prophet Daniel speaks as a seer: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. » (Dan. 12,2-3)
This saying refers to the « wise » and to the “righteous”. It is not just a question of knowledge, but of justice, of a wisdom that is less human than divine. How to reach it? How to access these high places?
Many are those who doubt their own divinity, those who have never turned their eyes to the splendour of intelligence, of wisdom. There are even more who prefer the mist of the senses, the thickness of the bodies, to the thin acuity of the soul.
would they achieve the wisdom
and justice that Daniel is talking about?
who was not a prophet, but no less a seer, advises us to meditate
unceasingly on death.
in no way can we ever acquire
knowledge, or it is for us only once
we have passed away.”i
to be as close to divine knowledge as possible is to have as little
trade as possible with the body. Going to the limit, we deduce that
death only is the kingdom of true knowledge. This is the « immense
hope » that Socrates joyfully shares with his afflicted friends,
shortly before drinking the hemlock.
is this hope based on? It is based on
an idea as anti-modern
as possible: « We
are divine beings ». How can such a statement be made? “Because,
momentarily deprived of our heavenly abode and homeland, that is, as
long as we are on earth God’s substitutes, we are constantly
tormented by the desire of this heavenly homeland and no earthly
pleasure can console in the present exile the human intelligence
desiring a better condition.”ii
immense hope, without reason, is based – it is a paradox – on the
sole activity of reason.
Ficino gives this explanation:
hope of immortality results from a surge of reason, since the soul
hopes not only without the help of the senses, but despite their
opposition. That is why I find nothing more admirable than this hope,
because, while we live incessantly among ephemeral beings, we do not
cease to hope.”iii
These unreasonable ideas have been shared by thinkers as diverse as Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaopheme, Pythagoras, Plato… They have created schools of thought, their disciples have proliferated: Xenocrat, Arcesilas, Carneade, Ammonius, Plotinus, Proclus…
philosophical level, Socrates’ argument seems to have a certain
scope. Reason says that there are only two hypotheses: either
knowledge is not possible at all, or it is only possible after death.
decide to ignore the Socratic, resolutely optimistic point of view,
absolute horror would therefore resemble this: to see clearly with
the eyes of pure reason the absurdity and inanity of a human
condition, capable of reason, and capable of drawing from it the most
crazy, most absurd hypotheses.
As its name
suggests, surrealism wanted to transcend a little bit
the reality, but not too much. That is, surrealism
wanted to establish itself, modestly, just a little « above »
the common reality.
André Breton, who
coined the word, had considered for a moment the word
« supernaturalism« , but it was too close to the
adjective « supernatural », and its metaphysical
connotations: then it was not okay at all. The Surrealists weren’t
going to let us think that they were interested to deal with the back
worlds and supernatural entities…
In this temporary
elevation above reality, the surrealist poet only seeks to occupy
unexpected points of view, to produce symbols, to collect images —
not falling from above, but spontaneously rising from below:
surrealism really is a materialism.
Arcane 17 by
André Breton gives some indications on the surrealist way to
penetrate the « great secret »:
« This was for
me the very key to this revelation I spoke of and that I could only
owe to you alone, on the threshold of this last winter. In the icy
street, I see you moulded on a shiver, your eyes alone exposed. With
the collar high up, the scarf tightened with your hand over your
mouth, you were the very image of the secret, one of nature’s great
secrets when it was revealed, and in your eyes at the end of a storm
you could see a very pale rainbow rising. »
We cannot believe
for a moment that this so-called ‘revelation’ belongs to the
anecdote, the banal memory, the autobiographical emotion. This would
not be worthy of a ‘pope’ like Breton (even if he were to be a
« The very image
of the secret », it is obvious, cannot just be the figure of a
beloved woman, – such as a Jacqueline Lamba, so revealed, so nude in
her nautical dance, or an Elisa Claro, so naked in her mystery.
« The very image
of the secret » is really a figure of ‘revelation’, of the « great
secrets of nature at the moment when it is revealed ».
What is this « great
secret »? What is this image « molded on a shiver »?
In a letter dated
March 8, 1944, Breton confided: « I am thinking of writing a book
around Arcanum 17 (the Star, Eternal Youth, Isis, the myth of
the Resurrection, etc.) taking as a model a lady I love and who,
unfortunately, is currently in Santiago. »
The « great
secret » is therefore that of Arcanum 17, the metaphor of
the Star, the (surreal) vision of the resurrection, the intuition of
Isis, a dream of dawn and rainbow.
No woman of
remembrance, no spectre of the future, no « godmother of God »,
no « ambassador of saltpetre » or « of the white curve on
a black background that we call thought » …
Then who is this
Who is this Isis?
Isis is here, as
already in ancient Egypt, a metaphor (‘surreal’ or ‘supernatural’?)
of Wisdom, even if Breton, an automatic poet, a Marxist and a
Freudian, was probably voluntarily overtaken by his writing process.
Only the eyes of the
« revelation » are exposed. Everything else is wrapped,
hidden – like Wisdom, all of it « vision ».
The scarf is
tightened from hand to mouth, – like Wisdom, with a rare speech.
His gaze is between
the storm and the dawn. Wisdom remains between the past and the
The « icy »
street is a world without warmth, slippery, without foundation; only
Wisdom announces the end of the storm, a saving sign (the very pale
Three quarters of a
century earlier, Verlaine had already used the adjective « icy ».
« In the old
lonely and icy park
Two forms have just
Their eyes are dead
and their lips are soft,
And you can barely
hear their words. »
Two past shapes,
dead-eyed. Two indistinct spectra – unreal.
The « icy
street », the revelation « molded on a shiver » – as for
When will the « last
winter » end?
When will appear the
miracle of heat and light that « pale eyes » provide?
The poet recognized
the sign of mystery, he goes back to the source.
mysterious sign, which I knew only to you, presides over a kind of
exciting questioning that gives at the same time its answer and
brings me to the very source of the spiritual life. (…) This key
radiates such a light that one begins to worship the very fire in
which it was forged. »
and materialistic, thus brought to « the very source of the
spiritual life »!
Breton, immersed in
the light of the mind!
Breton, a Zoroaster
from the left bank!
the Zend, in a bistro in the Vieux Portof
The church of Saint
Germain des Prés was built on the site of an old temple of Isis,
just like in Marseilles, the Cathedral of the Major.
Always the poet must
conclude – with precise words.
« The virtue
among all singular that emerges from your being and that, without
hesitation, I found myself referred to by these words: « Eternal
youth », before having recognized their scope. »
Breton spoke too
quickly. He concedes it a posteriori. « Eternal youth »,
the « virtue among all singular » is still a metaphor,
imperfect and surreal.
Carried away by the automatic momentum, Breton finally recognized its scope, and its essence.
The « Eternal youth », this Isis, shouts loudly: Breton is only an automatic prophet of Wisdom.
In Hebrew, the word « humble » derives from the verb צָנַע, to hide, to humiliate oneself. A more literal translation might then be possible: « But among those who hide is wisdom. »
humble are hiding. So is wisdom, hiding.
idea of hidden wisdom is old. It is found in many religious, exoteric
or esoteric traditions.
speak to you, O Nacitekas, heavenly Agni, who knows how to obtain the
endless worlds and the sojourn. O thou, know it, [this wisdom] is
deposited in a secret place. » ii
secret is first and foremost a “place”. And wisdom also is a
to this secret “place” is akin to a “revelation”. To
penetrate the divine secret is to penetrate this divine place, and to
plunge into the abyss. When you enter it, you lose all balance, all
connection, you leave everything to go beyond the human.
he meditated, applying himself, on the union with the supreme soul,
on the God who is difficult to perceive, who has penetrated into the
secret, who has settled in the hiding place, who resides in the
abyss, – the wise leaves aside joy and sorrow. » iii
everyone can imitate the wise man. The Holy of Holies is a very
empty, solitary, place.
revelation reveals anything, it is that nothing sheds light on the
mystery. It only deepens it without measure, always more so.
Mosaic or Christian “revelations” are in a way an “unveiling”.
But this unveiling brings in reality many new veils, many questions,
throwing inconceivable, unexpected perspectives.
them: any divine revelation threatens the state of things and life
itself. How many prophets stoned or crucified for sharing their
vision? Death is the companion of their truth.
Isaac of Acra comments: « When Moses our master said: « Show
me your glory » (Ex. 33:18), it is death that he asked for, so
that his soul may break the light of his palace, which separates him
from the wonderful divine light, which she was eager to contemplate ».
union with the Divine presents an extraordinary challenge: death.
in other traditions, it is called dissolution. It is compared to a
drop of water in the sea. « As pure water poured into pure water
becomes like it, the soul of the discerning wise man becomes like
same image can be found in the Jewish Kabbalah: « The soul will
cling to the divine Intellect and the intellect will cling to the
soul (…) And the soul and the Intellect become the same thing, as
when a jug of water is poured into a gushing spring. This is
therefore the secret of the verse: ‘A fire that devours
fire’. » (R. Isaac of Acra).
of water in the spring. A fire that devours the fire. Wisdom is well
hidden. Why is she concealing herself, shying away from glory, from
passage from Paul can put us on the track. « Should we boast?
It’s not worth anything, though. (…) For me, I will only boast of
my weaknesses.» v
« angel of Satan » is in charge of blowing Paul so that he
does not take pride. If Paul asks God to remove this satanic angel
from him, God answers: « My grace is enough for you; for power
unfolds in weakness.» So the blows continue.
Paul concludes: « That is why I take pleasure in weaknesses, in
outrages, in distress, in persecutions and anguish endured for
Christ: for when I am weak, it is then that I am strong ».vi
strange (and maybe inaudible) in our modern times, to hear that
weakness, distress, persecution,, may be a « strength ».
and power in effect veil and muffle everything. In the noisy storm,
in the midst of the devastating hurricane, only the humble, the wise,
have a little chance of hearing the zephyr, which will follow, in a
word « testicle », כליות
appears in the Kabbalah
by Joannis Davidis Zunnerii.
Its Latin equivalents are renes
The word renes,
« kidneys », also
the meaning of « testicles » in some contexts. As
an example, Zunneri
cites Job’s book: « Quis posuis in renibus (testiculis)
sapientiam? ». « Who put wisdom in the kidneys (testicles)?
the word כליות
does not actually appear in this verse. In its place is the word
which has a rather similar, though different meaning: « The
bottom of being, what is covered, what is hidden, what is hidden,
lumps, kidneys ».
are many occurrences of khiliot and tuhôt in the
Bible, and in almost all cases these two words have a similar
example: « Yea,
« You are near in
mouths and far from their khiliot« iv.
« Probing the khiliot
and hearts »v.
we find it, for example, in: « Behold,
Thou desirest truth in the inward parts (tuhôt);
make me, therefore, to know wisdom in mine inmost heart.
explains the word khiliot as follows: « Sunt Nezah and
Hod », (the khiliots are Nezah and Hod).
means « to gush, to splash », and Hod means: « what
is obscure ».vii
khiliot may aggregate therefore the meaning of « something
obscure », and which « gushes and splashes ».
continues: « Ubi indicatur quod הי
Binah and Chochmah influxum derivet in renes. »
it is stated that הי,
i. e. Intelligence (Binah) and Wisdom (Hokhmah), cause
their influx to drift into the kidneys (testicles). »
have already seen that the Yod י
a symbol of the masculine and that the Hé ה
a symbol of the feminine.
is an allusion here to the fact that the intimate union of
Intelligence and Wisdom is realized in the khiliot. The
meaning of « testicles » then takes on all its flavour, its
is now possible to understand Teresa of Avila, when she says, « From
my Beloved I have drunk, » to give an idea of what she receives
from God in this divine cellar of union.
she drinks from her Beloved is His intelligence and wisdom, and their
Davidis Zunneri. Kabbala
Denudata. Liber Sohar restitutus, Francfort,1684
has revolutionized the notion of mathematical space, as Einstein did
in physics. He invented a new geometry, in which « the arithmetic
world and the world of continuous quantities are now one ».
combine the discontinuous and the continuous, the numbers and the
quantities, to make them unite intimately, Grothendieck conceived the
metaphor of their « marriages ». This marriage of paper had
to be followed by proper consumption, in order to ensure the
generation of new mathematical beings.
the expected ‘brides’,’of numbers and greatness’, it was like a
decidedly narrow bed, where only one of the future spouses (i.e., the
bride) could at least find a place to nestle as best as they could,
but never both at the same time! The « new principle » that
remained to be found, to consume the marriage promised by favourable
fairies, was also that this spacious « bed » that the future
spouses were missing, without anyone having only noticed it until
then. This « double bed » appeared (as if by a magic wand…)
with the idea of topos. » i
the greatest mathematical thinker of the 20th century, explained a
revolutionary breakthrough using a matrimonial metaphor, and all that
the metaphor of « marriage » has always been used to
translate difficult ideas into philosophical contexts.
thousand years ago, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used
this same metaphor to present the « mystery of the divine
generation ». To translate the idea of « divine generation »
into Greek, Philo uses the word τελετή (‘telete’).
mystery is composed of three elements. There are the two initial
« causes » of the generation and their final product.
causes are God and Wisdom (who is « the bride of God », –
remaining « virgin »)ii.
is Virginity itself. Philo relies on the authority of the prophet
Isaiah, who affirms that God unites himself with Virginity in
specifies elsewhere: « God and Wisdom are the father and mother
of the world ».iv
Christian tradition, there are similar metaphors, derived from Jewish
ideas, but transposed into the « union » of Christ and the
century Christian cabalist, Guillaume Postel, uses the metaphor of
the love of the male and female to describe this union:
as there is love of the male to the female, by which she is bound, so
there is love and bond of the female to the male by which she is
bound. This is the mystery of the most wonderful secret of the
Church’s authority over God and Heaven, as well as over God and
Heaven on Church by which Jesus meant it: Whatever you bind on earth
will be bound to Heaven. »v
of Avila, a contemporary of Guillaume Postel, speaks through
experience of « perfect union with God, called spiritual
and the soul are one, like crystal and the ray of sunlight that
penetrates it, like coal and fire, like the light of the stars and
the light of the sun (…) To give an idea of what it receives from
God in this divine cellar of union, the soul is content to say these
words (and I do not see that it could better say to express something
my Beloved I drank.
the wine that we drink spreads and penetrates into all the limbs and
veins of the body, so this communication of God spreads to the whole
soul (…) The Bride speaks of it in these terms in the book of
Songs: ‘My soul has become liquefied as soon as the Bridegroom has
of Avila speaks of the Bride « burning with the desire to finally
reach the kiss of union with the Bridegroom », quoting the Song
of Songs: « There you shall teach me ».
Song of Songs has incestuous resonances:
what a brother to me, breastfed in my mother’s womb! Meeting you
outside, I could kiss you, without people despising me. I’ll drive
you, I’ll introduce you to my mother’s house, you’ll teach me! I’ll
make you drink a fragrant wine, my pomegranate liqueur. »vii
spicy passage was strangely interpreted by S. François de Sales:
these are the tastes that will come, these are the ecstasies, these
are the summits of the powers; so that the sacred wife asks for
pillows to sleep. »viii
Metaphors! Where do you lead us to?
et Semailles, §2.13
Les topos — ou le lit à deux places
Guillaume Postel (1510-1581). Interprétation
du Candélabre de Moïse
(Venise 1548).« Car comme il y a amour du masle à la
femelle, par laquelle elle est liée, aussi y a-t-il amour et lien
de la femelle au masle par lequel il est lyé. Cecy est le mistère
du très merveilleux secret de l’authorité de l’Eglise sur Dieu et
sur le Ciel, comme de Dieu et du Ciel sur icelle par lequel Jésus
l’a voulu dire : Ce que vous lierez sur la terre sera lyé au
could an Almighty God, creator of the worlds, let himself be put to
death by his own creatures? Mystery. To designate this lowering, this
humiliation, this annihilation of the divine, Christianity uses the
word kenosis, from the Greek verb kenoô, « to
empty oneself, to strip oneself, to annihilate oneself ». This
word was first used by the Epistle of Paul to the Philippiansi.
the idea of God’s death is much older. It can be found in the
centuries preceding Christianity in quite different forms, it is
true, for example among the Greeks with the death of Dionysus killed
by the Titans, but also among the Egyptians with the murder of Osiris
and his dismemberment by Seth, his own brother.
Jews, with the concept of tsimtsum (from the Hebrew צמצום,
contraction), there is also this idea of a « God who empties
himself ». It is a concept of late appearance since it is due to
Isaac Louria in Ari Zal (Safed, 16th century), who uses it to
explain a point of Kabbalah :
the creation of the worlds, God was everything, everywhere, and
nothing was without Him. But when God decided to create the worlds,
he had to give them a place so that they could be. God withdrew his
original light, or qadoum. In the void thus created,
called reshimou (« imprint », from the verb rashama,
« write ») a light emanated from God, or néetsal.
This emanated light constitutes the olam ha-Atziluth, the
world of Emanation. Then are generated the olam haBeryah or
world of Creation, the olam haYetzirah or world of Formation
and the olam haAssiya or world of Action, – which contains our
world. The light emanating from it therefore undergoes several
contractions, compressions, or « dissimulations », which are
This word comes from the verb צָמַם tsamam, which has a wide spectrum of meaning: « to put an end to, exterminate, silence, annihilate, compress, contract, squeeze, veil, hide, observe closely, define exactly, certify », which is described in Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1926). From this rich range, the word tsimtsum probably brings out the harmonics.
are some of them, taken from a Kabbalah lesson by Baruch Shalom Alevi
Ashlag. The reason why the emanated Light cascades through the four
created worlds, Atziluth, Beryah, Yatzirah and Assiya, is that the
« desire to receive » must at each step be increased
accordingly. For there can be no divine creation without an equally
divine desire to « receive » this creation.
the beginning, there is an abundance of Light created, emanating from
the divine essence. Correlatively there must be an abundance of
desire to receive this light. But this desire to receive cannot
appear in the world ex nihilo. Desire is itself created. It is called
a word whose primary meaning is: « thing done, thing made ».
It is also called, less metaphorically, Guf (« the body »).
The Kli must « receive », « lock », « hold »
the light in him (as the root verb כָּלַא
a little aside. The Kli can be said to be a piece of
furniture, a vase, a garment, a suit, a ship, an instrument or a
weapon. Here again, all the harmonics of these various senses can
undoubtedly be applied to make the Kli resonate in its role as
a receptacle of light, – in its role as a soul, therefore. Sander and
Trenel’s dictionary says that Kli comes from the root verb
a close word to ֶכָּלַא
already mentioned. The verb kalah offers an interesting
spectrum of meaning: to be made, completed, ready; to be resolved; to
disappear, to miss, to be consumed, to perish, to languish; to
finish; to consume, to exterminate.
that words serve as a memorial to millenary experiences, I would
think that all these meanings apply in one way or another to kli
in its possible relationship with light.
light, falling into the different worlds, spreads and at the same
time contracts, folds, or veils itself, to let the desire to be
received by the Kli grow, by this receptacle, this desire,
this soul or this « body », this Kli which is at the
root of the created creature. The Kli, who was previously part
of the Light, must now distinguish himself from it in order to
receive it better; he must separate himself from it in order to
desire it better. He desires it as Or Hokhma (the Light of
Wisdom) or Or Haya (the Light of Life), or Or Hassadim
(the Light of Mercy). The Kli is therefore determined
according to the degree of expansion of the Light and also according
to its degree of exit from it.
men commented on these questions as follows: « There is crying in
inner dwellings ».
means that when the Light arrives in the lower worlds, and it does
not find a Kli wishing to receive it, it remains « interior »,
unrevealed, and then « there is crying ». But when she finds
a Kli who desires her, she can reveal herself on the outside,
and then « vigour and joy are in His place », and everything
i Ph. 2, 6-9 « Lui, de condition divine, ne retint pas jalousement le rang qui l’égalait à Dieu. Mais il s’anéantit (εκένωσεν) lui-même, prenant condition d’esclave, et devenant semblable aux hommes. S’étant comporté comme un homme, il s’humilia plus encore, obéissant jusqu’à la mort, et à la mort sur une croix ! Aussi Dieu l’a-t-il exalté et lui a-t-il donné le Nom qui est au-dessus de tout nom. »
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