Saturday, 9 April 2011

Metaphysics of Titus Burckhardt

One of the most lucid introductions to the Perennialist metaphysics mentioned in the previous post can be found in An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, by the late Titus Burckhardt. Here we find a doctrine of the degrees of reality very akin to that of the Neoplatonists, for whom the world of the Many exists in dependent relation to the One or the Good. The eide or logoi which are the archetypal forms of everything in the world have no reality apart from God, and the world has no reality apart from the eide in which they participate. As mental forms they are mere abstractions. But as “possibilities” inherent in the Intellect and (principially) in the divine nature, they constitute the meaning and content of reality, which without them would fall back into nothingness.

Inseparable from the ontology outlined in Burckhardt’s book is an epistemology and an anthropology – that is, a doctrine of knowledge (of how we know things and what we can know) and of man (what we are and what we can become). The doctrine of the degrees of reality, in both macrocosm and microcosm, leads Perennialists to reject any “dualistic” anthropology that might deprive the human subject of access to archetypal reality. The human subject, they insist, is tripartite not dual; not just body and soul, it consists of body, soul, and spirit, corresponding to the three main levels of reality. The faculty by which we know the divine Ideas, variously called Nous, Intellectus, or Buddhi, constitutes a ray of the divine Sun in the heart of man. It knows the logoi by “connaturality”; that is, by intuition. At the level of the soul, these intuitions are clothed in symbols by the imagination, which mediates between the intellect (supplier of the “form”) and the bodily senses (which provide the “matter”) for human cognition.

Though these ideas are today more closely associated with writers on Islamic than on Christian philosophy, it would not be hard to relate them (as Perennialists often do) to Scholastic thought in the West, which has survived in fragmentary fashion right up to the present time within the Catholic Church. The Christian Scholastics were well aware of the great Neoplatonic and Islamic philosophers, to whom in many cases they owed their knowledge of the texts of Classical philosophy, and they spent a great deal of time refuting or reworking their ideas in the light of the Christian revelation. Nevertheless, though the Christian, “Pagan”, Islamic, and Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages were in many respects opposed, they were very much closer to each other than they were to the Nominalists of the fourteenth or the Rationalists of the seventeenth centuries. Modernity marks a definite break from the thought-world of the Middle Ages. More on that another time.

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