The following text is the first installment of a monograph I wrote on Henry Corbin’s work on the soul, the subtle body, and the subtle dimension of Being. I will continue to put sections of the monograph on the blog consecutively over time.
Henry Corbin, Eastern Platonism, and the Subtle World of the Mundus Imaginalis
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a French scholar who dedicated his life to synthesizing and interpreting the Eastern Platonists, a group of Islamic philosophers he referred to as the “Platonists of Persia.” Because of Corbin’s tendency to transform these works in translation, his contribution to Western philosophy is original in its own right. Three of Corbin’s primary sources are the focus of this study, Suhrawardi (1155-1191), Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), and Avicenna (980-1037). These three Platonists contribute largely to Corbin’s philosophy of the Mundus Imaginalis, a world that is kindred to the ancient tradition of soul. It is a philosophy that concerns a mode of being that is also an intermediate realm of subtle bodies, and it is this realm and mode of being I will be exploring.
Corbin taught many series of lectures in France and Iran, and published several volumes compiled around specific themes, such as The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. He also published a textbook on the history of Islamic philosophy. Over many decades, Corbin spread his particular interpretation of Islamic Platonism among countless people both his students and those outside his academic world. He is still a vital but controversial force in Islamic studies.
Scholarly critique of Corbin’s work includes evidence of his tendency to transform the Persian Platonists’ texts into something beyond their original form. One author called it “revisioning philosophy according to his own proclivities”(Marcotte, 1995, p. 62). Corbin has incurred criticism for “integrating his own spiritual concerns into the body of his work”(p. 62), or worse, conducting an enterprise that was “spiritual colonialism” (Algar, 1980, p. 91). Corbin digested and analyzed the mystical philosophy of his writers and expressed it again through his own being. His hermeneutics (or method) have harmonized (brought together in a single “chord”), amplified (made larger, given more space and attention), and even magnetized (charged with new meaning) the esoteric Platonists for our modern needs. It is his own personal magnetism that has made Corbin’s scholarship a “transformation of Islamic philosophy” (p. 91) in the positive sense. The transformation is a mirror of Corbin’s own soul and supports the idea that rigor can exist alongside the live transmission of knowledge.
The magnitude of Corbin’s achievements and his erudition are recognized in academia in spite of those who find his phenomenological method lacking in objectivity (Marcotte, 1995, p. 94), something Jung was accused of as well. Corbin’s particular insistence on the “religious fact” or soul experience rather than a reduction of such found in analysis, works of criticism, or rational empiricism, makes Corbin stand out as a phenomenologist and philosopher. Jung, as a phenomenologist, mirrored Corbin’s adherence to the “religious fact” in his insistence on the “psychic fact,” meaning psychic experience. Jung had a unique and innovative relationship to the psychoanalysis of his time, bringing transcendent realities into the drive-oriented theories of his contemporaries. Corbin in his field of philosophy also “brought far more than the customary philological training and apparatus of the Orientalist” (Algar, 1980, p. 86) to his translations. His inspired work brought back to the somewhat hostile environment of modern and postmodern Western philosophy the knowledge of an intermediate spiritual world of living beings, subtle bodies, and space-time that interpenetrates our world and higher realms.
Corbin’s work reflects key elements of Eastern or Islamic Platonism. These elements are described by Dr. Leonard Lewisohn (2000, p. 5) as symbolic correspondence, hierarchical degrees of knowledge, the concept of the imagination, and mystical experience or gnosis. Together these elements express what Corbin refers to as “batin,” or esoteric knowledge, meaning the interior understanding of the Koran rather than the exoteric, or outer interpretation according to the literal word. Lewisohn identifies in his unpublished text The Esoteric Platonists of Persia and Florence (2000) the basic notion of esoteric knowledge:
[It is] knowledge of ways to train the soul, being a psychic discipline attainable by anybody through the mystic’s own mental efforts . . . . Apprehended subjectively . . . not comprehended objectively…. Knowledge as interior wisdom . . . enables the mystic to interpret the Koran and Sunna from within himself. (p. 6)
From Corbin’s Platonist perspective, esoteric knowledge is both an internal living reality and a process of development. Esoteric knowledge as a process of individual development is reinforced by the definition of esotericism found in Faivres’ Access to Western Esotericism (1994), which is “accessing understanding of a symbol, myth, or reality only by a personal effort of progressive elucidation, through several successive levels” (p. 5).
Corbin’s philosophy of subtle body is founded on the esoteric knowledge of the Islamic mystics he translated and the Neoplatonism that informed their experience. Peters quotes in Lewisohn (2000, p. 30) that all Muslim Platonism to some extent operated within a general Platonic tradition that was heavily influenced by the Neoplatonism of Proclus and Plotinus. Neoplatonism was founded in Alexandria by Plotinus around 300 AD and continued vigorously into a Middle and Late period through the Middle Ages. It is a complex philosophy in its own right, and features specific additions to Plato.
Other complex background influences contributed to Corbin’s Muslim Platonism as well, such as the pre-Islamic religions of Mazdeanism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and Manicheism. Each represented a variation of the Greek cosmology of the hierarchical Intelligences and the dualism of contrary forces. Mazdaism and Manicheism are sects that split off from the parent religion of Zoroaster, which started around 1000 BC and was the national religion of Persia until the Mohammedan invasion of 636.
The dualism of dark/light and the function of transformation are hallmarks of these pre-Islamic religions as well as in Plato’s philosophy. Corbin also emphasizes the arrangement of dualistic forces held together in human consciousness. Polar forces are ultimately transformed into the unity of divine perfection in all of these systems.
Corbin’s polar or dualistic forces consist of darkness and light that are specific modes of subtle being. Subtle planes of dark forms exist next to and on, earth. Dark forms are associated with dense matter and distance from the subtlest degree of light, and therefore represent different degrees of evil. Mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of human life approach pure light, goodness, and glory the more they approximate the “Pole,” or the highest level of subtlety. The idea of the intermediate world of soul as a task and mode of being between dark and light relates to the human ordeal of initiation, a work of personal transformation from dark to light. This work begins with the individual and ends with the collective transformation of the whole earth. Soul is therefore instrumental in integrating higher subtle levels of being with the darker, dense lower realms of physical manifestation. Integration of light and dark resolves the tension of opposites that originally organized concrete consciousness.
The coming together or integration of the dark and light in Corbin’s “provisional self,” or ego, creates subtle body. When consciousness ascends to the subtle world, individual progression continues in battling another kind of darkness, that which veils the shattering nature of pure light. Working one’s way through these veils means absorption of more and more light substance into the subtle body. This process is essentially a progressive integration of higher levels of light-being into individual consciousness. Corbin’s theory of subtle body, through this process of integration, ultimately denies ontological dualism.
Like the dualism of light and dark, angelology plays an influential role in the pre-Islamic religions. The term angel is not used in the Greek philosophical tradition. Instead, angelic forces are considered “intelligences,” “forms,” or “beings,” and function in much the same way, linking pure light with darker realms. Angels as intelligence, image, and being are also central to Corbin’s ontology of soul.
The Mundus Imaginalis is the center of Corbin’s Islamic Platonism. As mentioned before, it is an intermediate realm of soul. As soul, it is a spiritual domain of concrete yet immaterial images that are beings. These beings are angels born from the emanation of the pure light-being of the divine One or God. As this light cascades into creation it manifests in a spectrum of subtle immaterial matter. This spectrum spans the purest transparent light all the way to dim and dark modes. Many degrees of immaterial matter form subtle bodies as well as subtle space in the Mundus Imaginalis.
The Mundus Imaginalis is what Jung would call a “psychic fact,” which he refers to frequently in his Collected Works. It is the phenomenological truth of psychic experience. As psychic fact, the Mundus Imaginalis is both an internal subjective experience and an objective realm mirrored in and discovered through, the degree of subtlety achieved by the subject. This subtle realm is instrumental in the divine teleology of human existence because it interpenetrates two worlds. It unites the human subject with the object of higher being. It creates a third consciousness between absolute being and the constant becoming of the earthly sphere.
The latent power of the soul is the point of light essence that cascaded into creation and belongs to each living being. It develops its subtle, immaterial substance when consciousness moves from the physical lower center into the in between ontology of soul, through psychological integration of dark and light. Transformation of soul brings the Mundus Imaginalis alive and it is than reflected into the lower plane of mortal life. Through this integration and the power of soul, all levels of divine life are realized and brought to unity and perfection.
As mentioned earlier, angels are primary in Corbin’s Mundus Imaginalis. These figures were also primary in Zoroastrianism and its split off sects. In Corbin’s philosophy of the subtle, the angel exists independently, yet is also identical to the human pilgrim. Angels are inherent in the nature of human soul, its creative life and function.
Corbin’s angelology is analogous to the Greek ontology of hierarchical intelligences. An angel is a metaphysical reality, a light essence that is a being and spiritual individuality. The angel is the perfect state of the species related to it and the species is its image. The angel is, in turn, the image or the archetype of the species. In this vein, the angel is related to Jung’s idea of the archetype. In both Jung and Corbin, this figure (as either archetype or angel) provides intermediary ground between the unknowable and transcendent God and the human experience of created divinity.
The angel appears to each member of the species and is part of the light-essence of that member of the species, yet also different. Therefore, the angel is every person’s higher spiritual self, as well as a separate, individual being. Angels serve the ontological necessity of potential contact and knowledge of the ultimate ineffable mystery throughout the entire hierarchy between organic life and the highest divine intelligence.
One can identify the earthly levels of this hierarchy of being in mineral, vegetative, animal, and human life, each world inhering in the next. The mineral world is in our bones, vegetative life in our cellular metabolism, and animal life in our passions and desires. Our own human life rises above in the intelligent consciousness that in its individuated state organizes and rules over the lower kingdoms within.10 Angelic life exists in a subtle body made of light, a luminous, immaterial substance, and has an intelligence and being that encompasses ours and goes beyond it in a further evolution. The person of the angel is a spiritual guide for all humans called to a direct relationship with the divine through mystical love.
As archetype and individual, the angel guides each member of the human species to his own eternal individuality. This occurs through the essence of human intelligence and its identity with the essence of the angel. Waking to the call of the angel means transformation, or gnosis into the specific form of one’s own being, one’s own “inner heaven.” Without this guide, all people fall into a uniform relationship to God, caught in the collective, or the species-wide norms of political and social law. The angel orchestrates what Corbin (1997) calls “mystical kathenotheism” (p. 371), where each heart gives individual form to divine experience according to exact capacity and aptitude. The unconscious as individuating agent is not a void of isolation rooted in personal experience (Freud) or identical with the Collective Self (Jung). It is the seat of individuality where the being of the angel is brought into conscious presence through the challenges of individuation.
Archangels are the Intelligence that is the first emanation from the Divine Essence. Angels are celestial souls created from the Intelligence. The creation of these celestial Souls occurs when Intelligence reflects upon itself. The whole plurality of creation or being proceeds from a series of acts of this same reflection, also called contemplation. The cosmology, being defined by acts of contemplation, is therefore a phenomenology of angelic consciousness. The essential act that is repeated through the hierarchy is the following:
The first Intelligence contemplates its principle . . . . From its first contemplation proceeds the Second Intelligence; from the second contemplation proceeds the moving soul of the first Heaven . . . from the third contemplation proceeds the etheric, supra-elemental body of this first Heaven . . . . This triple contemplation which is the origination of being, is repeated from Intelligence to Intelligence. (Corbin, 1993, p. 171)
The realm of the angelic, celestial soul is the second intelligence and represents the spiritual individual. It does this by defining a structure for human being that is a spirit-soul polarity. This polarity is found in Plato as the bipartite or double soul where there is a lower soul incarnated and the rational, intelligible celestial counterpart remaining invisible to the senses. Each degree of being therefore has an “upper and lower face” (Corbin, 1990, p. 228; 1980, p. 234n). The lower face of a degree is the upper face of the next, in the sense that it belongs to them both.
Each human soul is independent of yet connected to a distinct and permanent relationship to its upper face, which is the spirit of the angel above. This is true whether the individual is conscious of it or not. The structure of the spiritual essence of the angel above, reflected within one’s own soul, defines the soteriological, or salvational meaning of the cosmos. It holds the promise of the potential transfiguration of human consciousness to full angelic existence through awakening to the spirit of the angel. It is a private, sacred, and autonomous journey in every case.
When this metamorphosis occurs, the awakened human soul has become “a monad that is an entire universe” (Corbin, 1980, p. 239), meaning the individual becomes the whole universe when awakened to relationship with the angel. For Corbin, the cosmos “lives in him” unlike a traditional philosopher who “lives in” his cosmos (p. 15). The difference is in the condition of being. In one condition a world lives in the soul and in the other the soul is “cast as a prisoner [into a world] because it has not acquired consciousness of itself” (p. 15).
This idea that the human soul becomes an entire universe is connected to the cosmological significance of essence or light as the Absolute Divine, which is also hidden in the heart of each consciousness. Essential light establishes the imperishable nature of individual existence and its teleological journey towards the All. It is the emergent, participatory force forming unique being at all levels of manifestation. Therefore matter is rejected as the individuating agent in human life. It is the angel, or light-essence that performs this function in human development through its capacity to become present to lower levels of manifestation.
Theophany is the divine manifestation at the base of all existence, an appearance rather then an incarnation. Its action describes the higher appearing in the lower. The symbol of the mirror is central in theophany, in that material bodies are the place where the divine is epiphanized, or brought to life. Fundamental to this act are the Platonic forms, which generate autonomous images made of immaterial, celestial, subtle matter. Analogous to the Platonic forms are the phenomena of archangels, which are figures and beings emanating from the uncreated light of God. Archangels or forms are a theophany of absolute divine light, and the images and angels of the Mundus Imaginalis are a theophany of these higher beings. The concrete human form, in turn, is the mirror where the soul of the Mundus Imaginalis appears. As human evolution proceeds, consciousness expands up the theophanic hierarchy eventually including the All.
Corbin emphasizes correspondence as the basic principle governing theophanic manifestations. Things on a lower plane serve as symbols of higher planes in such a way that all degrees of being constitute an organic system of correspondences. Through this process the divine becomes the object of its own knowledge. This relationship is the foundation for the merged quality of subject and object that allows the essence of one to be realized in the other, and at the same time still be experienced as separate. The pair, created and creator, are interdependent and cannot exist alone. There is a syzygy between the Divine and the individual soul, a celestial conjunction.
The image of soul that Corbin uses to express the unity yet differentiation of the angel and the human individual in theophany is “two friends with beautiful wings, closely entwined, embracing one and the same tree, one eats its sweet fruits; the other does not eat but looks on” (Corbin, 1994, p. 35). The friend who does not eat the fruit of the tree represents the higher, unrealized aspect of the individual. A subtle, autonomous, and self-subsistent angel, this figure has an ever-increasing theophanic relationship to the concrete knowing human subject, who eats the fruit of sensual life. The tree both cling to is the “tree of knowledge,” the symbol of presential knowledge, which is how they come to “know” one another in the soul of the Mundus Imaginalis.
Algar, Hamid (1980). The Study of Islam, the work of Henry Corbin. Religious Studies Review 6(2), 85-91.
Corbin, H. (1980). Avicenna and the visionary recital (W.Trask, Trans.). Londone, England: Kegan Paul International.
Corbin, H. (1993). History of Islamic Philosophy (R. Manaheim, Trans.). London, England: Kegan Paul International.
Corbin, H. (1994). The man of light in Iranian Sufism (N. Pearson, Trans.). New Lebanon, New York: Omega Publications.
Corbin, H. (1997). Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the sufism of Ibn Arabi (R. Manaheim,Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Corbin, H. (1990). Spiritual Body and Celesital Earth (N.Pearson, Trans.). London, England: I. B. Tauris and Co.
Faivre, A. (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Lewisohn, L. (2000). The esoteric platonists of Persia and Florence, Unpublished manuscript, Institute of Islamic Studies, London, England.
Marcotte, R. (1995, Jan-June). Phenonemology through the eyes of an Iranologist: Henry Corbin 1903-1978. The Bulletin of the Herny Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies 14, 55-70.
10 From Annie Besant, a radical early feminist and freethinker of the 19th century who became a leader in the Theosophical movement. Of her many works published by the Theosophical Publishing House, The Spiritual Life (1991), Esoteric Christianity (1987), and Ancient Wisdom (1986) discuss these ideas.