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M Eliade: "Tradiție primordială" si "Philosophia perennis" la Ananda Coomaraswamy și Henri Corbin

Updated: Jul 5, 2022


Finally, about 1932, the third and the most creative period began, in which Coomaraswamy concentrated exclusively on the task of illustrating the different expressions of the philosophia perennis, the primordial and universal tradition present in every authentic nonacculturated civilization. Now, it is well known that there has been a long and important tradition of the philosophia perennis which enjoyed a certain prestige, especially from the Italian Renaissance to Leibniz. Further, beginning with Introduction generale a l'etude des doctrines hindoues (Paris, 1921), Rene Guenon wrote all his books from the perspective of the perennial tradition, and in 1932 he became the director of Etudes traditionnelles, to which Coomaraswamy contributed several articles. We will not discuss "perrenial philosophy" here, nor the problem of "Tradition." However, contrary to Rene Guenon or other contemporary "esotericists," Coomaraswamy developed his exegesis without surrendering the tools and methods of philology, archaeology, art history, ethnology, folklore, and history of religions. Like Henry Corbin, he approached spiritual documents - myths, symbols, divine figures, rituals, and theological systems - both as a scholar and as a philosopher. One can agree or disagree with his methodological presuppositions and hermeneutical investigation, as one can agree or disagree with other contemporary orientations: sociological, psychological, phenomenological, structuralist, or historicist. But, in the final analysis, Coomaraswamy as well as Henry Corbin and other authors (e.g., Gilbert Durand, S. H. Nasr, Jean Servier, Elemire Zolla, Antoine Faivre, etc.) belong to the same international community of scholars dedicated to the study and interpretation of all aspects of religious realities. "


It is significant that Coomaraswamy "never fabricated anything like an abstract of all traditional expressions of a given idea, which he believed could lead only to 'a mechanical and lifeless monstrosity... a sort of religious Esperanto.' Rather he progressed by a comparative method, collating the formulae of one tradition with another, which kept in view the likelihood that all religions have a common source." Coomaraswamy was never concerned "to prove any doctrine whatever dialectically, but only to exhibit its consistency and therewith intelligibility. The consistency of the Philosophia Perennis is indeed good ground for 'faith' (i.e., confidence, as distinguished from mere belief): but as this 'Philosophy' is neither a 'system' nor a 'philosophy,' it cannot be argued for or against."


One can easily multiply such quotations, illustrating the decisive importance of the "first principles" in Coomaraswamy's understanding and interpretation of religious realities. "There is a science of theology, of which Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim theology are only special applications. It is just as if we were to discuss mathematics with an Oriental scholar; we should not have in mind the mathematics of white or colored man as such, but only mathematics itself. In the same way, it is not about your God or his God that you must learn to talk with the Oriental theologian, but about God himself." One can decipher in such formulations the growing influence of Guenon's rigid rationalism. The comparison of theological constructions with mathematical thought is, to say the least, rather simplistic. The historian of religions is, on the contrary, fascinated by the multiplicity and variety of the ideas about God's unique mode of being, elaborated in the course of the millennia, for every theological structure represents a new spiritual creation, a fresh insight and a more adequate grasp of the ultimate reality. As we are not discussing the modern interpretations of tradition, we will not insist on the ambivalence of this term. It is well known that tradition was somehow incorrectly identified with reactionary political ideologies, antimodernism, depreciation of "history," exaltation of the past, pessimism, etc. One can recognize some of these traits in Coomaraswamy's life and writings. However, one is hesitant to consider him a "pessimist." In any case, pessimism no longer characterizes just adepts of the tradition. The last decades have been marked by rapidly growing pessimism and nihilism. One can almost say that, with the exception of Marxism and Teillard's theology, the "posthistoric era" is unfolding under the sign of pessimism. "


As Ananda Coomaraswamy reinterpreted and revalorized the Indian arts, Henri Corbin revealed to the scholarly world a little-known and insufficiently understood Islamic philosophical tradition: Ismaelism and the esoteric trends in ancient and medieval Iran. Like Coomaraswamy as well, Corbin progressively enlarged the area of his investigations: gnosis, hermetism, jewish theology and mysticism, prophetology, christian origins, medieval initiatory traditions, Swedenborg, etc. But the immense labor of deciphering, editing, translating, and interpreting a considerable number of manuscripts did not allow him the leisure to study other religious traditions. Unlike Coomaraswamy, Corbin did not include in his "recherche spirituelle comparee" documents from India, Tibet, China, Japan, "primitive religions," and folklore.

Like Coomaraswamy, Corbin continually criticized the reductionistic fallacy of many orientalists, sociologists, and historians of culture. But unlike Coomaraswamy, he thought that scholars and philosophers who do not share in this fallacy ought to abandon their eagerly accepted subaltern positions in contemporary academia and rebel against the academic and cultural dictatorship of "scientism," "historicism," and "sociologism." Accordingly, they should reassemble and constitute, not a new type of "Theosophical Society," but a new type of university, whose members-faculty, students, and auditors-ought to have a scholarly preparation comparable with that which, until recently, characterized the European universities. For this reason, and with the collaboration of some thirty university professors, most of them from France and Germany, Corbin founded, in 1974, the Centre International de Recherche Spirituelle Comparee. The annual conferences were held in Cambrai (Abbaye de Vaucelles) and, lately, Paris. Following the model of Eranos, the lectures were published annually under the title Cahiers de l' Universite Saint Jean de Jerusalem. So far four volumes have appeared: 1, Sciences traditionnelles et Sciences Profanes (1974); 2, Jerusalem la Cite Spirituelle (1975); 3, La Foi proph4tique et le Sacre (1976); and 4, Les Pelerins de l'Orient et les Vagabonds de l'Occident (1977). The goal of the university is the restoration and the revification of the study of traditional sciences in the West:

"Le caractere specifique de cette Association est marque dans sa designation meme: elle fait du concept de "chevalerie spirituelle" la norme de ses recherches et de ses activites, et elle fait de Jerusalem le "symbole" mystique des rencontres et des regroupements dont elle espere etre le lieu. Les autocritiques de l'Occident aussi bien que les accusations portees contre lui, ne tiennent en general jamais compte, parce qu'elles les ignorent, des traditions spirituelles de notre monde occidental. La cause premiere en est qu'a la difference des grands systemes theologiques entretenus par les Ordres religieux, ou a la difference des systemes philosophiques professes dans les Universites, le tresor des sciences spirituelles, que l'on peut grouper sous le terme plus ou moins heureux et adequat d' "esoterisme," s'est trouve livre a l'abandon. On pourrait tout aussi bien parler d'un etouffement par l'esprit canonique et juridique. Le resultat, c'est que ce tresor est reste enseveli dans les bibliotheques, objet parfois de la curiosite d'erudits bien intentionnes, mais le plus souvent la proie d'improvisateurs sans discernement. D'ou le foisonnement de pseudo-esoterismes. I1 importe donc de constituer enfin un foyer de ces hautes sciences dont l'abandon et l'oubli sont a la fois la cause et le symptome de la crise de notre civilisation. A cette fin nous ne pouvons separer histoire de la philosophie, histoire des sciences, histoire de la spiritualite. Mais il n'est possible de ne pas les separer que par une "renaissance" presupposant un plan de permanence transhistorique. Tel est le sens que nous donnons a une restauration des sciences et des etudes traditionnelles en Occident. Cette restauration presuppose la conjonction necessaire des exigences de la vie spirituelle et des rigueurs de l'investigation scientifique, telle que des universitaires sont habitues a la conduire"

In the inaugural lecture of the first meeting, "Science traditionnelle et renaissance spirituelle," Henry Corbin makes some precise statements regarding the scope of this International Center of Comparative Spiritual Researches. First, investigations are limited to the small group of the three "Religions of the Book." Such a delimitation is certainly comprehensible; nevertheless, one regrets the absence of Indian and other Asiatic religions. Second, Corbin states that the "spiritual meaning," which is the secret, esoteric meaning of the Sacred Word, is common to the three religions. "Confronter 'Histoire et Tradition,' c'est en premier lieu affronter le phenomene de la Parole devenue 'Livre Saint.' In the third place, he summarizes his views on history and spiritual traditions:

"L'Homme, Adam, l'Anthr6pos, a ete cree quelque part ailleurs, disons dans le Plerome, et est 'descendu' en ce monde-ci. Avec lui, la Parole, le Verbe, est descendu en ce monde. C'est avec cette descente que commence l'Histoire. L'Homme et la Parole ont ete faits captifs dans ou sous une enveloppe terrestre. Sinon, ils n'auraient pas ete manifestes en ce monde-ci et l'Histoire n'aurait jamais commence. Ils seraient restes a l'etat d'etincelles de lumiere non perceptibles. Cependant, sous l'enveloppe terrestre, grace a laquelle nous pouvons voir et entendre, grace a laquelle nous pouvons donner une forme a quelque chose comme l'Histoire, vit cette etincelle de lumiere qui appartient a un autre monde. A tel point qu'une histoire n'est vraiment comprise que si l'homme percoit la trace de cette etincelle et la reconnait [...]. Lorsqu'il l'a reconnue, lorsqu'il s'est ressouvenu (anamnesis) de cette etincelle, l'homme experimente l'etat de 'celui qui sait,' la gnosis du gnostique, au sens rigoureux du mot gnose [. .]. On dit alors que l'etincelle de lumiere, exilee sous l'enveloppe terrestre, est desormais sauvee. Et tel est le sens profond du mot gnose: une connaissance salvatrice parce qu'elle n'est pas une connaissance theorique, mais qu'elle opere une transmutation de l'homme interieur. Elle est la naissance de l'homme vrai, le Verus homo."

One recognizes in these lines the central gnostic myth which played an important role in Corbin's late writings along with his docetism as well as his reevaluation of Christos Angelos and his superbly articulated angeleology. Very likely he speaks exclusively for himself; there is no evidence that all his colleagues shared the same theology. Afterward, Corbin developed his understanding of "science traditionnelle," acknowledging a debt to his two Iranian masters.

In brief, there are three sources of knowledge:

(1) the intellectual activity (nous, intelectus);

(2) the corpus of traditions (hadith), transmitted from the time of Mohammad and the Imams and which constitutes the substance of positive theology;

(3) finally, the inner revelation, the visionary perception, the divination by "active imagination," whose content is the supersensible, the hidden, the esoteric.

All these sources of knowledge are valid, and they articulate the three disciplines of philosophy, theology, and theosophy.

In sum, for Corbin, theosophia perennis is primarily the visionary perception of the intermediary world "que l'on d6signe en arabe comme 'alam al-mithal", qu'il m'a fallu traduire par mundus imaginalis, le monde imaginal, pour bien le diff6rencier de l'imaginaire." In the "Spiritual Jerusalem" the three branches of the Abrahamic tradition live together, and Jerusalem is consequently "le lieu spirituel, esoterique, de l'oecumenisme abrahamique." Moreover, argues Corbin, certain Johannite traditions substitute a relation of friendship for the relation of servitude between man and God. "Desormais le rapport entre l'homme et son Dieu est celui d'un service chevaleresque. A la limite, ce rapport produit la metamorphose de la chevalerie guerriere Corbin concludes: "Je viens d'essayer de degager le type de savant qui, dans la mesure ou il correspond a l'idee de l'heritier legitime [i.e., of the esoteric abrahamic tradition], peut assumer la vocation de chevalier spirituel. Parce que celui-ci est a la fois homme de savoir et homme de desir, parce que pour lui la vie et la recherche intellectuelles ne sauraient jamais etre isolees de la vie et de la recherche spirituelle, il offre un puissant contraste avec le type d'homme chez qui l'intellectualite se developpe dans l'ignorance de toute spiritualite."

There is no space to discuss here the contributions of other authors, and of Corbin himself, in the four volumes of the Cahiers de l' Universite Saint Jean de Jerusalem. What interests the historian of religions the most is the resurgence of a certain esoteric tradition among a number of European scholars and thinkers who represent many illustrious universities.

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