“Ta’wil, the archetypal act of hermeneutics, that primary human activity overseen by Hermes who carries messages between the gods and mortals, is life lived at its highest pitch of intensity. It is the archaic and primordial experience of enacting meaning in the world. It is life lived in the full blaze of reality.” Tom Cheetham
Philosopher, theologian and professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Henry Corbin was also an acquaintance of James Hillman and C.G. Jung. All three had lectured at the Eranos Foundation Conferences during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and were familiar with each other’s works. Their influence on each other can be seen particularly in their writings on myth, symbol and archetypes, and although I am familiar with Jung and Hillman, it has been more of a challenge to find Corbin’s works.
I did however, recently discover a book devoted to Corbin’s ideas written by Tom Cheetham titled, All the World an Icon, Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings. This book is perhaps the best book I have read this year, and will forever remain near and dear to my heart. I would still love to read Corbin’s works, but Cheetham nicely condenses his ideas, adding his own insights that in no way detract or interfere with the complexity and beauty of the ideas presented.
Corbin was a Parisian, fascinated by what he saw as an underlying ecumenical thread between the religions of the Book; Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was particularly interested in the similarity of the direct experience of the divine found in the mystical and contemplative traditions of all of these religions but particularly within the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Avicenna.
Underlying the religions of the west and perhaps in human nature itself, is a move toward finding or creating a bridge from the individual to the divine and back again. It is through our work and our devotion that we experience glimpses of the divine and move toward becoming our true nature. Corbin says that whether we are aware and attentive or not to the presence of the Divine, there’s an angelic function that connects us to a divine image of ourselves as a whole and true but individual being. Through the repeating themes and desires within our hearts we can sense this image, but it is always remembered and kept by our angel. Reading about this idea reminded me of Hillman’s Acorn Theory described in his book The Soul’s Code and spoken of here:
“It is a worldwide myth in which each person comes into the world with something to do and to be. The myth says we enter the world with a calling. Plato, in his Myth of Er, called this our paradeigma, meaning a basic form that encompasses our entire destinies. This accompanying image shadowing our lives is our bearer of fate and fortune.” James Hillman
We are then, as the title of Cheetham’s fourth chapter of his book says, “in search of the lost speech”, and the Ta’wil, as Corbin says, involves an ability to hear language as one hears music:
“The ta’wil, without question, is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.”
The prophet, Cheetham reminds us, is not one who foretells the future but a messenger just as angels are understood to be. So perhaps a prophet is one who hears their angel, and in the religions of the book, the Word is then the voice of the Divine which comes to us and speaks through us when we are able to perceive and understand this mode of language. Fragmentation, literalism and Fundamentalism hinder our ability to open up to receive the messages of the divine without which our experience suffers from the “lost speech” where hearing becomes reduced to that of one voice, one truth. In the drama of lost speech an ear for harmony, metaphor, symbolism and poetics is devalued, ignored, forbidden or forgotten. Says Corbin:
“from the instant that men fail to recognize or refuse this interior meaning, from that instant they mutilate the unity of the Word … and begin the drama of the ‘Lost Speech .’”
The symbol in particular carries a message for each of us as we privately experience the power that comes from its numinous quality. We know it’s important even before we can say anything about it as we sense interiority and depth from the way in which we are touched by it. Cheetham writes:
“The encounter with a symbol is essentially an individual experience. This is the kind of meaning that Corbin calls “interior.” It cannot be made public. You can describe it, but only someone who has had a similar experience will know what kind of event you are talking about.”
Inner meaning is perhaps fragile, elusive and susceptible to our doubt or inclination to ignore it because of the fact that it is unverifiably your experience alone. Cheetham, in the quote below, nicely states our apprehension and our struggles with these events, but also pleads for the importance of the understanding of a speech as containing the depth and richness that is transformative when we can hear it.
As this post is getting long and there is much more to the Ta ‘wil to ponder, I’ll end here with this wonderful quote:
“The interior meanings are necessarily plural and in perennial conflict with every social and political will to power and domination. But whether we refuse it out of fear or ignore it out of inattention, willfully suppress it in the interests of political power, or miss it for some other reason, the interior meaning is hidden under the public meaning, and it is easier to leave it there. And yet the literal meaning is only the shell of reality, and in the long run it is not enough. For with only that public meaning available, the world loses its depth and mystery.
We lose contact with our individuality and are prey to totalitarianisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds—intellectual, spiritual, and political. And once totalitarian domination— the reign of Terror, and the dominion of Death— has obliterated the inner meaning of the word , once access to the heart of language is well and truly lost, its recovery, its re-creation, lies at the very limits of human capacity. We are fated to be actors in the grand drama of the Lost Word, the lost speech.”
Except otherwise noted, all quotes from Cheetham, Tom (2012-07-03). All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
A link to Cheetham’s website dedicated to the works on Corbin:
And an interview here:
16 thoughts on “Ta’wil and the Ideas of Henry Corbin”
I was going to point out the exact passage that Michael chose to mirror back to you – access to only the public meaning, while sensing an inaccessible deeper thread, creates the sort of madness and disconnect that forces us within. I too am like Maren, where I rarely find such books anymore, and inside my own flowing life, with synchronistic reminders from spirit, the deep dig is within. Thank you for being one such synchronistic reminder(er) 🙂 Marga
You are very welcome Marga!
I was so struck by the reminder that the deeper personal self is where we truly need to connect to that thread which is vital to us all, yes? When we keep alive the vertical connection, then we can bring our gifts back out to others and to the world.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.
I really enjoyed this post, and all that I discover here. My reading on your blog feels like a case of that “harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.” There is so much you write that sparks recognition of related concepts that make appearances in my own reading, but seeing it come at me from an altogether different “place” is beautiful and refreshing.
This quote really struck me: “For with only that public meaning available, the world loses its depth and mystery.” When we lose that personal connection to mystery, that intimate and ineffable window to the Beyond that is our soul, we indeed wander around in a world that cannot be anything but images. We look for the meaning we have lost in this world of images, but cannot find it. Everything is flat. Reminded me of this post from Bert, http://whoisbert.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/discontented-with-the-ordinary/ and the response it invoked in me…
So many levels harmonizing… Thanks for the soul-provoking post. (Looking forward to more
Thank you Michael. I feel so much resonance between your posts and mine, even if as you say, there is a slightly different emphasis or character. Our angels must be friends 🙂
Thanks for the link!
The concept of “Lost Speech” takes one to a place where there is a recognition of the need to find it. A very good article which begins the journey of exploration to find and return such an important tool for transformation to where it belongs.
Thank you Jerry. Yes, language and communication, how we hear words, it changes us and adds another dimension to life.
In years gone by I was a ravenous reader. In recent times however, it is rarer and rarer to find books that chapter after chapter can keep my interest hight and can spark the flow of “a ha’s” gifting a don’t want to put it down feeling. So happy to find such generous shares from yours. We all benefit from your dives in. -x.M
Thanks M! I so much appreciate your words of encouragement here.
Yeah, I also go through periods of little or no reading to lots of digging. Some books, though interesting, are work, but like you say, this book sparks the flow, yes indeed!
“Underlying the religions of the west and perhaps in human nature itself, is a move toward finding or creating a bridge from the individual to the divine and back again. It is through our work and our devotion that we experience and become our true nature. Corbin says that whether we are aware and attentive or not to the presence of the Divine, there’s an angelic function that connects us to a divine image of ourselves as a whole and true but individual being.”
Debra,I think one of the sad things about the creating of this bridge in Western religious thought is the fact that a large measure of that thought has centred itself around the Divine as being out there somewhere, an objective reality apart from us, making excursions and interventions in to our reality. As you know the mystics never thought this way, the Divine was within and constantly addressing us, and this was one of the main difficulties the Church had with these men and women. One just needs to look at the traditional perceptions of the incarnation, particularly around this period of advent. It even resounds in the hymns that are sung and the the angelic function is literalised in to absurdities.. Much of it doesn’t come any where near to what Corbin describes in your post which I profoundly warm to. Thank you again for a marvellous post and I am certainly going to purchase that book by Cheetham.
I agree Don! So much confusion and misunderstanding around these very wonderful and human experiences. The nature of God, or divinity is and remains for me a mystery, but one that keeps calling me to explore, ponder and learn from.
Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments (as always)!
I cannot say enough goof things about the book!! Glad to hear you’re going to read it and would love to hear your thoughts on it too.
He was particularly interested in the similarity of the direct experience of the divine found in the mystical and contemplative traditions of all of these religions – this is my interest as well Debra. I want to understand how we are called and what does that ” call” look like, what form(s) does it take?
I think that is what our life’s work is about. What gives you the most joy, what sparks that “aha” moment, what do you love?
All of those things are calling us, and continue to call us as they are our personal ways into the depths, and the mystery, yes?
The cool thing about Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code, is that he uses the biography of others to show how that call shows up in the lives of some people, in the hopes of showing us all how to recognize the calling in our lives.
It may not be dramatitc, but it will be persistent. You may be already engaged in your calling, but I think what is important is to have the sense that what we are doing, the direction we feel ourselves to be moving in, fits and even if very small pieces of the puzzle continue to be found, we can know that we are hearing the voice of the Daimon, the Angel, who knows us better than we do.
“Corbin says that whether we are aware and attentive or not to the presence of the Divine, there’s an angelic function that connects us to a divine image of ourselves as a whole and true but individual being.”
This is so true Deb. In fact, thinking of Ta’wil I am made to infer that it is the individual soul (the angelic) in us that connects us to the transcendent Divine. In a branch of Hinduism (a tradition as old as the hills), there is a mention of Divine on 3 levels: individual Divine, Universal Divine and the Transcendent Divine. I am thinking Ta’wil as the link, or the mystic link, between the individual and the transcendent that can be mystic-personal too. This explains the ‘thread of ecumenical identity’ between all the Judeo-Chrisitian religions because mysticism in itself is a deeply personal affair. I have always believed that truth is a matter of individual experience and hence amounts to subjectivity so this concept appeals to me. By the way, in Vedantic tradition it is said that the soul in us is what makes us individual – not so much the body. And to know your true self, you have to first know this soul. This is why a primary identification with outer objects such as the body and mind is considered to be of false knowledge in this tradition, even though necessary. So Ta’wil seems to be the key. I will lay my hands on this book when I get a chance.
Thanks for the wonderful post Deb.
You’re welcome Rex!
Thank you for the insightful comment. I am not familiar with Vedantic tradition, but am curious now. The ecumenical aspect to the variety of traditions is very appealing to me.
“I have always believed that truth is a matter of individual experience and hence amounts to subjectivity so this concept appeals to me.”
Yes, this rings true for me to and the Ta ‘wil as a link or key is such a useful idea.
So beautiful. I will need to reread the post, with more time later. In my case, writing helps me to find my paradeigma and my lost speech.
Thank you so much for sharing.
Yes me too, writing is so vital, as is reading. There is so much going on in language I can sometimes barely stand it, lol!
I love this book Monika and have been beaming with delight at a slightly different focus on Jung, Hillman and the ideas they both embraced.
I see so much of Jung and Hillman in Corbin. Can you imagine their conversations?