Gnṓthi seautón, in search of our veritable identity.




Verily, O Maitreyi, it is the Self that should be seen,

Heard, reflected on and deeply pondered.

Verily by seeing the Self and hearing it,

By thinking of it and knowing it, all is known!


Brihadâranyaka Upanishad



Γνῶθι σεαυτόν – Know thyself! Thus the Delphic mahâvâkya resounding through the centuries. A saying often quoted, perhaps not less often misunderstood. For what is it really the solar Pythian asks of us?  Certainly not a mere ‘psychological self-exploration’, finding out ‘who we really are’ in the most profane and individualistic sense, as it has quite frequently been understood in the West ever since the days of humanist classicism.[1] Instead, what the “far-darting Apollo” invites us to is nothing less than realizing our ‘veritable identity’, a quest for the lost Eden one might say, which in reality is quite the opposite of the Goethean ideal of ‘creating oneself’, namely, a contrario, a ‘decreation’, for as all saints and sages have affirmed, ‘becoming who you are’ necessarily entails an ‘de-becoming’ (entwerden), a nirvanic ‘blowing out’; al-fâna, as the Sufi says.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν; this means at the most fundamental level a discernment between the ‘self’ and the ‘Self’, the true and the false, mâyâ and âtman; a discernment which is not as easy as it is often thought. The Delphic oracle proves in fact to be an almost unsolvable riddle; indeed it has been described by some as nothing less than the ‘supreme koân’, meaning there can never be found an adequate answer by way of rational inquiry alone, but only by the immediate ‘realization’ of enlightenment (bodhi) which might also be described as the sudden ‘awakening to the Self’, transcending the merely discursive realm of language and thought.

“The eye (the ‘I’) cannot see itself”, says the Vedantin, for the ‘true self’ can never appear as an object of consciousness, being that by which all is known. It proves thus a musterion in the most literal sense; something to better ‘keep silent’ (muein, mutus, mute) about, for “whoever speaks of the Self is already lying”.   

Indeed anyone who has spent some time pondering this question and is somewhat aware of all the confusions and Promethean aberrations that misguided attempts to resolve it have led to in the past, not only in the West but since time immemorial (one might even say since the very ‘beginning’, for is not the false promise of the Edenic serpent precisely one of ‘knowing thyself’?) cannot help but grow in appreciation for the Buddhist doctrine of anattâ/anâtman (‘no self’), which is not so much a metaphysical denial of ‘Self’ (Âtman) per se but, as with most of the Buddha’s dharma (who did not seek to introduce a new philosophical system but merely a method for spiritual realization), an upâya, a ‘means’ to achieve enlightenment by ridding oneself of all satkâyadrsti, the ‘false views of the self’ (as one Buddhist saying has it: “everything that leads to bodhi is true, everything that does not lead to bodhi is but superstition”). It stems thus from the wise intuition that “the self that can be named is not the Self”.

Whereas the tendency in the West has always been to identify one’s self with its psychic ‘accidents’ (with one’s ‘individuality’ one might say), the ascetic spirit of the East has always had the more true intuition of the ‘vanity’ of things (“all is hevel”, says the Ecclesiast) what one might call a natural affinity for ‘self-naughting’[2]; certainly a noble inclination, but one that has also at times led to the opposite extreme, namely that of denying not only all ‘accidents’ but also any ‘substantiality’ whatsoever in the process, thus throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath-water.[3]

 If there is one thing all Traditions agree upon it is that the ‘ego’ (ahamkara), the ‘false self’, is ultimately an illusion (“à la fois l’illusionné et l’illusion”, as has rightly been said) and that in order to find one’s ‘true self’ one has to stop identifying with any element of the ‘psychic flux’, ever changing, yet so alluring to most men; to subdue the Protean ego until it finally yields its true form, the ‘gold’ that lies hidden in the ‘Saturnal lead’; a transmutation that always has to ‘pass through fire’ (per ignem ad lucem), for “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent carry it away” (Matt. 12:14).

Denying all selfhood whatsoever might indeed prove a powerful upâya in the fight against that ‘old serpent’ that is the ego (which truly is “more subtle than any beast of the field” and quick to use any opening to sneak back in again) and to cut of this Hydra’s head once and for all. Nevertheless the more radical expressions of this attitude, have not seldom resorted either to a complete nihilism or to viewing all forms of ‘personality’ as merely a kind of ‘dissociative state’ of the Universal Spirit (divine schizophrenia), a mere ‘mask’ (persona) loosely fitted on some unqualifiable Absolute (a Sabellianism in humanis) which seems no less questionable and in some of its most ugly manifestations has even devolved into a downright Luciferian iconoclasm against the human form (imago Dei).  

Besides, wouldn’t this view logically imply, as some sceptics have ironically remarked, that, the Upanishadic ‘knot of the heart’ (hrdaya granthi) once untied, the ‘delivered’ being would immediately vanish into thin air? would not the Buddhas and jivanmuktis of this earth immediately be ‘taken up to heaven’ like Enoch (or rather ‘sucked into the void’) upon realizing their ‘true Self’? – “It is not I who live, but Christ in me” – supreme koân indeed, one that cannot be solved by a simple reductionism to either side (‘Paul’ or ‘Christ’, jiva – Âtman etc.); such is the mystery of the Divine Fire, which “burneth but consumeth not” and which ‘enlightens’ without destroying, the ‘refining fire’ of the Divine Alchemist.[4]

 Certainly, deification, ‘becoming uncreated’ by removing all the ‘garments of skin’ (the upâdhis or koshas, as the easterner might say) and “putting on Christ” (Rom. 13:14), is, as all of the Holy Fathers affirm, at the same time ‘becoming fully human’ (True and Universal Man), Christ being the eikon tou Theou (Col 1:15) after which mankind was originally modelled. [5] It is certain too that, in the last consequence, there is only ever one ‘I’, “one eye looking out through all things” (Schopenhauer), the Supreme Witness qui videt in abscondito, for as Meister Eckhart points out, God is the only One, who can say “sum – I am”, so that ‘That’ (tadtathâta) which one ‘awakens’ to, the One True ‘Self’, could be said to be nothing else than Reality itself, Al-Haqq (and “when this is known, all is known”, according to the Vedic adage).  Yet there remains the question; what is it that ‘puts on Christ’, what that is ‘witnessed’ by that Self, what is that ‘no-thing’ that ‘awakens’ to its own nothingness (ânatta), its own ‘objectivity’ one might say. 

To briefly illustrate some of the different viewpoints that have been expounded concerning the question of the ‘self’ throughout the centuries one might have recourse to the perennial image of the chariot, an image which has also been used by the Buddhist sage Nagasena to elucidate the doctrine of anattâ

What is a chariot? Nagasena asks. Is it the wheels, or the axles, or the reigns, or the frame, or the seat, or the draught pole? Is it a combination of those elements? Or is it found outside those elements? Upon having denied all this, he finally concludes that indeed there is no chariot, for ‘chariot’ is but a name, corresponding to no ‘substantial’ reality, so that it is truly the name that is the “mother of the ten thousand things” (Tao te Ching, I). In the same way, he goes on to argue, ‘Nagasena’ (or any other name) is but a designation, “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Our (false) self, or any ‘selfhood’ for that matter, has thus been exposed as merely a lose compound of ‘karmic’ accidents (upâdhis), a “walking shadow”, nothing more than a kind of psycho-corporal tumbleweed caught up in the samsaric flux of becoming to be eventually dissolved into nothingness.

A vastly different conception of the ‘self as chariot’ imagery has famously been given by Plato in his Phaedrus allegory. Here it is the ‘rational’ (logistikon) soul that keeps the winged soul-steeds of the ‘thymetic’ (irascible) and ‘epithymetic’ (concupisible) souls on its course through the cycles of metempsychosis. Although Plato is affirming a certain ‘harmonic unity’ of the soul here, in other loci (cf. Timaeus, Phaedo) he seems to be venturing into a more explicit trichotomism (or dichotomism). The allegory might then be interpreted as the ‘immortal’ or ‘pneumatic’ soul (nous) holding the reins of the ‘animalistic’ (animaanimal) psycho-somatic compound (the archetypical symbolism of ‘rider and horse’), an imagery which has often garnered criticism by his opponents (starting in a sense with Aristotle) for introducing a nigh Manichean dualism of the noetic and the aesthetic/somatic, i.e. the ‘immortal spirit’ and the ‘prison of the body’ (somasema).

We do not want to concern ourselves here with the question whether this criticism is justified (a more attentive reader of Plato will indeed find a much more subtle picture)[6], nevertheless it seems undeniable that this rather ‘dualistic’ imagery has at least contributed to many of the modern aberrations such as the Cartesian notion of the soul as a kind of ‘ghost in the machine’ that has implicitly dominated most western philosophical discourse ever since.

Maybe not surprisingly, the question of the soul went on to become one of the most contested points among his disciples; Plotinus speaking of a soul that was ‘not fully descended’, thus reinforcing the notion of the fundamental illusiveness of the manifested (the anima-corpus being nothing more than a ‘shadow’). Contrary to this rather ‘de-essentialized’ vision (which came to be view by some as all too ‘dualistic’), the post-Iamblicheans maintained a view of the soul as one simple ousia possessing a multiplicity of dynameis and participating in different ontological levels[7]; a clear affirmation of animic ‘substantiality’ that prefigures in many ways certain scholastic ideas about the soul. For contrary to the (apparently) ‘dualistic’ imagery of certain Platonists [8], the Christian outlook has always to insist on the indivisible unity of the soul, hence why the (in some respects rather limited) Aristotelean notion of the anima unica forma corporis became so popular among medieval schoolmen. This unity of the integral person is deeply connected with the doctrine of Resurrection and revealed to us most strikingly in the mystery of the empty grave. Here the spirit doesn’t flee the ‘prison of the body’ to make off to its noetic homeland while leaving it behind as a mere larva; rather it transforms or ‘transfigures’ the corrupted flesh into the integrity of the body and in the unity of the corpus gloriosum even the anima-corpus is eventually redeemed and reintegrated (or ‘absorbed’) back into its principle.

Now similar to the Upanishadic Rishis and the Alchemists of old, the Platonic theurgists claimed that the soul possessed correspondences (upanishads) to the entire cosmos, being endowed, like the macrocosm, with a principle of unity that preceded all multiplicity, i.e. the ‘one of the soul’ (to hen tes psyches), which they identified with the ‘helmsman’ (kybernetes) of the Phaedric allegory and which united the soul with the intelligibles in its celestial circuit.

The Vedic Rishis in turn give us yet another picture. Thus we read in the Katha Upanisad:


Know ye then this âtman as the passenger
The body (anna) as its chariot
And the charioteer as intellect (buddhi)
The mind (manas), lo!, is the rein
The senses (indriya) are called ‘horses’
‘Objects’ that what they run towards.


The Bhagavad Gîtâ famously provides us with the similar image of Arjuna and Krishna standing together in the war-chariot (ratha), which has been (i.a.) interpreted as jiva and Ishvara respectively, or jivâtman and paramâtman (cf. also the two ‘soul-birds’ spoken of in the Gîtâ, an image which could be said to correspond to the Christian notion of God as “the Soul of the soul”) [9]; an apparent duality which Shankara in his commentary tries his hardest to dissolve (to the great chagrin of many of his opponents, who maintain that this distinction is never fully commensurable and which has earned him the epithet of pracchana-bauddha).


What are we supposed to take away from all of this? Who now is the ‘veritable helmsman’? And who is that âtman riding as a silent passenger at the back of the chariot? Is it simply the ‘immortal soul’ presiding over its psycho-corporeal vehicle? Is it the Supreme Brahman Himself at the negation of all ‘other’? Is it somehow ‘both’ of them, as the Gîtâ seems to affirm, the ‘soul’ and the ‘Soul of the soul’? And if that’d be the case, how do we have to envisage the relation of these two ‘soul-birds’ exactly? Or should we better stop worrying about such trivial questions in the first place and focus instead on the deconstruction of that karmic chariot ever galloping round the samsaric wheel of death and generation, as the Buddhist maintains? 

It seems to us that one cannot even begin to approach this musterion without having recourse to one of the most central tenets of Christian revelation, namely the notion of the ‘person’ (hypostasis). For is it not this elusive quality of ‘personhood’ which constitutes the “image and likeness of God” in which man was created in principio?, the imago Dei which could be said, at least in some way, to constitute our ‘veritable identity’.

Now let it be remembered that this ‘personhood’ is in no way convertible with ‘individuality’ (this being the great sin of western thought ever since renaissance humanism that manifests even today in phenomena such as ‘identity politics’ which is merely the final culmination of this false identification with the illusory accidents of ‘self’). Far from being synonymous, these terms actually become opposites in the Christian paradigm, the personhood being that which unifies (to hen tes psyches) and ‘individuality’ that which ‘separates’. The individual is, as it were, an ‘atomistic’ pseudo-monad (in-dividuum), the ‘person’ however in no way ‘delimiting’ or ‘cutting up’ nature (which would imply a Tritheism in divinis, God being a triad of Persons in one indivisible Nature, which obviously doesn’t limit His infinitude).[10] 

Taking our ‘divine analogy’ further (albeit be it remembered that all transpositions from the created to the uncreated can only ever be this: strictly analogous) one might say that the person is that ‘something’ which in some way distinguishes from ‘nature’ (“la personne est la nature humaine plus quelque chose de réel qui est l’existence en soi et par soi”, as Francois Chenique put it). The Father is not the Son, is not the Holy Spirit, yet they are One God, indivisible and incomposite. In a similar way it might be said that Peter is not Paul yet they are both, in a way “faces of the same transpersonal mystery, because they are made in the image and likeness of God” and “as an icon of Christ is not Christ Himself but a window opening onto His Reality … so you and I are ‘icons’ of Universal Humanity” (Upton, On Vedantic Non-Dualism).

One might further say, following Leontius of Byzantium, that it is the person that ‘gives existence’ to essence, which or what ‘enhypostatizes’ (enhypostaton) nature.


According to Leontius all nature is found in a hypostasis, such being the nature of a hypostasis which cannot otherwise exist. But on the lower degrees of being, hypostases are only individuals, individual beings: they only receive the character of persons when it becomes a question of spiritual beings [i.e. carrying the imago Dei], man, the angels or God. In so far as it is person and not individual, the hypostasis does not divide the nature, giving place to many distinct natures (Lossky, Mystical Theology, VI).[11]


Now the Fall caused a rupture of these two (nature/hypostasis); in Maximilian terms: the logos of human nature does not correspond to the tropos of individual existence anymore, and it is this rapture which causes the feeling affirmed in all Traditions that duo sunt in homine (“Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach!, in meiner Brust” – Faust).[12] As Lossky goes on to say:


After original sin human nature became divided, split up, broken into many individuals. Man now has a double character: as an individual nature, he is a part of a whole, one of the elements which make up the universe; but as a person, he is in no sense a part: he contains all in himself. The nature is the content of the person, the person the existence of the nature. A person who asserts himself as an individual, and shuts himself up in the limits of his particular nature, far from realizing himself fully becomes impoverished. It is only in renouncing its own possession and giving itself freely, in ceasing to exist for itself that the person finds full expression in the one nature common to all. In giving up its own special good, it expands infinitely, and is enriched by everything which belongs to all. The person becomes the perfect image of God by acquiring that likeness which is the perfection of the nature common to all men. The distinction between persons and nature reproduces the order of the Divine Life expressed by the doctrine of the Trinity, in mankind (ibid).


The person is thus neither an ‘individual’ nor in any way a ‘part’ of man’s being (just as the Persons in divinis are not ‘parts’ of God) but eminently contains all parts of the ‘natural composition’, from which we likewise see that the person is not merely that ‘something’ that distinguishes from nature but also that in us which ultimately transcends it, which goes ‘beyond’ the manifested order as such. [13]  To approach it one has thus to proceed by a veritable apophaticism (which already points to the close correspondence of the ‘true self’ and the Divine Essence), an approach which Borella has termed an ‘negative egology’ and which finds it archetypical expressions already in the Buddhist adage “na me so âtmâ” (‘this is not my self’).

For the person is not any ‘thing’ (‘this’ or ‘that’, neti neti) that one could point to (“La personne n’est personne”) and this is why, in order to approach this ‘true self’ one has to proceed by progressively shedding all koshas (‘sheaths’) that cover it.

Thus for example the Taittriya Upanisad tells us, that this âtman is neither anna, nor prana, nor manas, nor vijnana nor ânanda, and applied to the threefold anthropology common to western thought, one might say that the person is neither the body, nor the soul nor even (exclusively) the intellect, which, according to St. Thomas (De Verit. XI.3) is a “light illuminated by God” (lumen derivatum a Deo) and thus without a doubt the most elevated of all human faculties, “the light of Thy countenance upon us” (Ps. 4:7). [14]

Not being identifiable with any of the three ‘parts’, the person points in a way to that ineffable ‘fourth’ (skr. turîya), which defies all conceptions; a mystery for which Biblical revelation has given us the image of the Tetramorph; ox, lion, and eagle corresponding to the traditional tripartition of nous, psyche, soma (or intellectus, mens, anima, there being in fact an indefinite number of possible divisions). [15] Whereas the ‘man’ denotes the principle of unity[16] (i.e. the ‘person’), remaining always ‘beyond’, the point where all three interpenetrating circles converge and in which they all are contained (analogous to how, in the macrocosm, the ‘fourth’, unmanifested realm contains the entirety of the triloka).[17]

It is this central point (speaking of course merely analogical here, considering the ‘person’ has obviously no Cartesian locus) located in the heart, the very center (cor) of the being, of which one could say (echoing the celebrated passage of the Chândogya Upanisad) that it is “smaller than a grain of rice, smaller than a grain of barley, smaller than a grain of mustard, smaller than a grain of millet, smaller than the germ which is in the grain of millet”, but “this Âtmâ (Self), which dwells in the heart, is also greater than the earth greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than all the worlds together”.

Kabbalistically speaking, it is the ‘kernel of immortality’ (lûz) or the ‘pearl of the celestial Virgin Sophia’ (Böhme), the ‘fine upper point’ of the created being, which always remains au-delà in the ‘seventh heaven’ (Plotinus’ undescended soul, Eckhart’s vünkelîn), while at the same time extending downwards like an irradiation of the Divine Sun (the ‘radiant Face of Yâh’) hovering over the surface of the waters like over an immense mirror (the mirror of Wisdom in which He contemplates the pleroma of His innumerable archetypes).[18]

The image of the self conceived of as a ‘mirror’ is in fact frequently met with in all Traditions (“The âtman is like unto a mirror”, Katha Upan. VI.5). Picturing the person as a mirror is indeed a fitting manner to express at once the utter dependence of the ‘reflection’ (Abbild) vis-à-vis the reflected Urbild (and vice versa the absolute independence of the Principle to its reflection), as well as the non-duality of both (“The reflection of the mirror in the Sun is, in the Sun: Sun” – Eckhart). [19] It is precisely because of this ‘mirroring’ quality that the person stays ever elusive.


It is a pure mirror, invisible in itself and only made visible by the image it reflects. However, at the same time that the image ‘proves’ the existence of the mirror, it hides and completely covers it. The mirror is veiled by its own revelation (Borella, Amour et Vérité, XV.1.3).


Indeed the mirror stands revealed in the gift of self, in its submissive surrendering (Demut) to the reflected image, and from this also arises the paradoxical (but doubtlessly true) conclusion that to fully ‘reveal’ one’s own ‘true self’ one has to mirror God, the ‘Self of the self‘.[20]


To ‘become oneself’, to attain to one’s spiritual identity, one has to renounce everything that one is not, all possessive and alienating identifications … This is the final paradox, and the most fundamental of all; in this quest for the ‘I’, it is not this ‘I’ which one must aim for, but God Himself; not the human person but the Divine Person, which solely knows our veritable ‘I’, because our ‘I’ is nothing other than this knowledge itself. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and the rest will be added unto you’, this ‘rest’ meaning the ‘inner person’, because ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’. It is solely God who can ‘give us to ourselves’, because there is no other identity but Him [“I am hidden from ‘me’, it’s on the side of God, it is in God, it is God”, says Simone Weil]. Only God is identical to Himself; God alone is the Centre, such that every identity, every centrality, is participation in the Supreme Identity in which each being realizes its own identity. The Kingdom of Heaven integrates all possible identities synthetically in its own pure Identity, which is not the ‘identity of someone’, but Identity pure and simple, Identity in Itself.

To put it in anthropological terms: to pass from the individual ‘me’ to the personal ‘I’, it is first necessary to gain access to the Divine ‘Me’ and through this, penetrate to the ineffable secret which God has reserved for my immortal soul from all eternity; the face of God which only I get to see, this face of God unknown to all other creatures, uniquely visible for my spiritual being, or rather: which is this being itself (and, this reality being at the same time ‘being’ and ‘vision’, one understands how it is solely in the ‘person’ in which this unity of being and knowing is realized); this is the veritable person, that secret which establishes the person in being (Borella, Op cit. VII.4).


The ‘true self’ conceived as the knowledge of ourselves in divinis (“each uncreated archetype is like the unique face which God turns to each unique creature” – Borella) seems to us to touch on the most fundamental mystery, namely that persona est relatio (for, as St. Thomas teaches, the reality of the created being is nothing else than its relation to God).

This notion of relation is of course, in the Christian paradigm [21], always inextricably linked with all notions of ‘personhood’ (the Divine Persons themselves being conceived by the scholastics as ‘subsistent relations’, i.e. ‘essentially relational’, in opposition to the mere ‘accidental relationality’ of the created being), so that in the final count we could answer Nagasena’s question by stating that our ‘true self’ is nothing but our relation to the Supreme Brahman, and it is this aspect of personhood which bestows unto man his highest dignity as imago Dei, namely the ability to enter into ‘personal relation’ in the truest sense:


It may be said the image is a divine seal, stamped on the nature and placing it into a personal relation with God, a perfectly unique relationship for every human being (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, Postscript).


This brings us to the final point in our inquiry, namely that the infinitesimal ‘kernel’ of the person is not merely a static ‘point’ but rather a vertical axis which traverses all states of the being (hence also the effectiveness of relics as ‘channels of grace’ or ‘loci of communication’ with the departed Saint); the dynamic relationship (or ‘relational bond’) that connects us to God as well as the ‘way’ (via salutis) on which we travel towards Him (and as such also a ‘task’ to be realized).[22]


The person is the uppermost limit of the created, where it touches God by humbling itself into an infinitesimal point which is also identically the ‘door of the heart’ at the centre of the created being, by which God opens Himself to man for his realization: the person, the unutterable secret between the relative and the Absolute, where God communicates to each one of us a Name unknown to the whole of creation.

One could envisage these two infinitesimal points as being synthetically one. But it is also useful to consider them as the upper and lower limits of the vertical perpendicular which unites them; the superior centre corresponds thus to the divine root of the person (the immortal soul in God), the inferior centre to the meeting point with the horizontal plane of the natural individuality (God in the soul) [which brings to mind the Upanishadic adage that “the Purusha in the Heart is the Purusha in the Sun”].

Being the unity of all the states which the being traverses on its way to God, it (the person) is at all times ‘beyond’, up until the moment in which it is fulfilled in the Divine Person, which, being the personality par excellence, the very essence of each person, confers to it its veritable identity. Admirable mystery! For here the maximum of distinction of all the souls from God is at the same time the maximum of distinction from each other (Borella, Op cit. VII.3.12).


Only in “the Truth of the Supreme Deity, which is beyond all duality as well all as all unity” in which all is eternally contained in an immaculate manner “the relative and the created are what they are meant to be” (ibid. XXII.3.2). Only here, at the end of all our journeys, can we find our ‘true self’ that has eternally stood in the mysterium magnum of the Divine Wisdom, witnessed by the Absolute Witness.[23]

In short: Only God can give us to our-selves; our veritable identity is thus a gift, a gift which can only be received by self-giving. And this is why St. Gregory of Nyssa says that “Christianity is the imitation of the nature of God”, a statement which could hardly be more accurate.

For the Mystery of personhood is essentially the mystery of the Divine Life, God ever emptying Himself in the eternal kenosis of Divine Love (Al-fâna in divinis) and finding Himself in His Image (“Chaque Personne se trouve en se perdant”); and so too we have to lose our-selves to find it (Matt. 10:39).

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (T.S. Eliot) – endless indeed, truly ‘infinite’ in fact, it being participation in the Divine Humility itself, a Humility that goes even unto the Cross and (as Simone Weil says) for the creature to be humble means nothing less than to refuse ‘existing’ (ex-sistere) outside of God. He has given us being, so that we may give it back to Him (“render unto God what is God’s”), and this ‘decreation’ of ourselves, the sacrificial immolation of ‘me’, is in fact the only truly free act possible.

This then truly is the “imitation of God’s nature”, vacare Deo, self-emptying, self-effacement; this is the ineffable mystery of Trinitarian agape, eternal Liebesspiel, eternal circumincession of Poverty and Charity, voidness and plenitude, infinite Fullness of supreme Emptiness: “Trinité trois fois pauvre, Trinité trois fois riche!” – Indeed we can only keep our humble silence before this musterion, for whoever speaks of God is a liar (omnis homo mendax).

So let us pray to the Almighty One that we may thus go down to self-annihilation and Eternal Death, lest Judgement come and find us unannihilate. Amen. 

[1] As Spengler has rightly pointed out, the West was never able to truly understand the Geist of Greek antiquity an-sich but merely für-sich and more often than not projected its own decadent mental habits onto it – a judgement that ironically applies to Spengler as much as to, say, Goethe.

[2] “I am no one”, says the Buddhist, “I am Thou”, the Advaitin when he reaches the Delphic Sun Door (effectively the same answer corresponding to their respective viewpoint), and they enter. “I am such-and-such”, says the Westerner – “Away from me, I never knew thee!”.

[3] All modern views of the ‘self’ are based on one of these errors; one might only point to Hume’s denial of all soul/selfhood for precisely the reason that it cannot be identified with any ‘accident’ as well as (inversely) to Descartes’ identification of the ‘self’ with one of its ‘accidents’ (i.e. ‘thinking’) that also lead to his confusion of ‘reason’ and ‘intellect’ (“Sum igitur res cogitans, id est mens, sive intellectus, sive ratio”) which has been nothing less than disastrous for the course of western philosophy.

[4] “Though this fire is so vehement and so consuming, though it can destroy a thousand worlds with more ease than the material fire can destroy a single straw, it consumes not the spirit wherein it burns, but rather delights and deifies it … O, great is the glory of the souls who are worthy of this supreme fire that, having infinite power to consume and annihilate you, consumes you not, but makes you infinitely perfect in glory!” (St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love).

[5] “What is the image of God other than our Lord, who is the firstborn of all creatures?”, asks Origen; a formulation that is taken up almost verbatim by St. Hilary (cf. Patrologia Graeca, XII.156), and Gregory the Theologian states: “Jesus Christ represents the archetype of what we are” (Orat. I.7).

[6] It seems to us that, contrary to the ‘anti-Platonic affect’ that is haunting much of modern theology (and which marks a clear movement away from the ‘metaphysical’and towards a shallow sentimentalism), the anthropological doctrine expounded by Plato is in no way opposed to Christian truth. Rather than constituting a ‘trichotomism’ in the proper sense (a ‘cutting into three’), the tripartition common Platonic anthropology does  not at all challenge the unicity of the soul, the three ‘parts’ (soma, psyche, nous) being but different modalities of one integral reality (what we want to call the ‘person’ in the following). We might also note that, contrary to the opinion of many Bible scholars, this traditional tripartition is also affirmed already in the Old Testament (nefesh, ruach, neshamah): “Thou shalt love the Lord with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:5). St. Paul (whose whole teaching is firmly rooted in Jewish tradition) likewise affirms it in several loci, for example when he says that “our whole spirit (pneuma) and soul (psyche) and body (soma) should be kept blameless for the coming of the Lord” (1. Cor. 15:47).

[7] “It participates first in a vegetative life, then in sensation, next in an appetitive life, then it participates in the rational soul, and finally in the intellectual soul”, says Iamblichus (cf. also his De anima). Now the Plotinian view has been described as ‘analytic’, the Iamblichean as ‘synthetic’, however it seems that these two views are not as irreconcilable as often thought, the former corresponding to a more ‘gnostic’ perspective (knowledge in patria) and the latter to the more ‘theurgic’ standpoint of the post-Iamblicheans (knowledge in via).

[8] This dualistic imagery is of course not absent from the Christian tradition as well (especially in the ascetic literature); just like Plato knows the soma also as sema, so too we read in St. Paul of the “body of death” (7:24). However this doesn’t imply (neither for Paul nor for Plato) a kind of ontological ‘dichotomism’ (or dualism) but is merely spoken from the perspective of spiritual realization here in via (the struggle against the ‘flesh’). We should thus distinguish between the ‘fallen body’ (i.e. the flesh) and the integral body as such (there are also ‘pneumatic bodies’, as Paul tells us). The body is both a temple and a sepulcher, a temple that lies in ruins and that has to be ‘edified’ through prayer and fasting.

[9] This is exact same symbolism is also depicted on the seal of the Knights Templar, which shows two riders sitting on one horse.

[10] This may also serve as a reminder to the hasty critics of the ‘personal’ view of God defended by monotheism. Modern theists and atheists alike are often too quick to think of God as an ‘individual’, which is manifestly absurd; the Trinitarian God is neither an ‘individual’ nor even ‘unipersonal’ but ‘transpersonal’, if you will, transcending even the personal-apersonal dichotomy (and it is precisely His Trinitarian nature the saves God from limitation, what allows Him to be ‘infinite Person’ in the truest sense).

[11] An observation that seems to us almost ‘phenomenologically’ true, for is not each ‘particular’ animal at the same time most eminently a representation of the universal ‘nature’ it instantiates?

[12] Le péché en moi dit ‘je’” (Weil); For “the me is the lie of I”, as Borella says, “and to say ‘myself’ is to deny God and others”.

[13] This ‘transcendent’ dimension, the vertical ‘warp’ of essence, is precisely what Nagasena forgets in his denial of all unchanging identity, for “whatever exists in the samsaric vortex, must needs have its corresponding place in the still waters of nirvanic consciousness”.

[14] Thomas also speaks of a “participation in the divine Light” (ipsa participatio divini luminis): “Lumen intellectuale … nihil aliud quam quaedam participata similtudo luminis increate in quo continentur rationes aeternae” (S.Th. I.84.5). According to St. Augustine “there is in our soul something which is called intellect or spirit and this part of the soul is itself illuminated with a higher light. Now this light by which the spirit is illuminated is God” (In Ioan. XV). Without going to deep into the nitty-gritty of theological anthropology let us say simply say that ‘reason’ (ratio or dianoia, the ‘reflective/reflexive’ faculty) could be described as the broken, fragmented light of intellect (intellectus or nous). As such Aquinas tells us that “it is distinctive of reason to disperse itself” and that “reason differs from intellect as multitude does from unity” (In Boet. VI.1).

[15] In fact Plato himself gives us an almost identical image when he calls man the ‘chimerical anima’ (Rep. 588), with its belly (the seat of the ‘appetitive’ soul) formed by a Hydra, the chest (the seat of thymos) by a lion and the head by a human (designating intellect or logos), and which are yet all contained in one single body as the principle of unity (the integral person or to hen tes psyches). This imagery also corresponds nicely to that of the ‘lion torn apart by the Spirit of God’ from whose carcass a honey comb sprouts forth (cf. Judges 14:6-8). This honey (which, as a solar synthema, is also linked to the ‘alchemical gold’) is the ‘nectar of immortality’ (madhu) flowing from the ‘carcass’ of the old man (already the Chândogya Upanishad talks about the entering of the âtman into Brahman in terms of the ‘transmutation’ of pollen into honey). This transformation is effected by the ‘bee’ (hebr. deborah), which is not only a traditional symbol for the resurrection (cf. the Paschal bee-wax candles), but also the ‘Word’ (dabar) that “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit” (Hebr. 4:12), hence why the Logos is not only the ‘Mediator’, transmitter of the ‘honey’ of heavenly wisdom, but also the supreme Judge (for every bee has a sting: “sharper than any double-edged sword”).

[16] Similarly the Kabbalists speak to us of the yehida, the ‘unique soul’ or the ‘one soul’, which pertains to the ‘fourth world’ (olam atziluth) and is absolutely one with the Unique One (blessed be He!), integrally containing the triplicity of neschamah, ruach, nefesh.

[17] Another way to visualize the Tetramorph would be the image of a triangle; the ‘lunar’ ox being the (passive/feminine) left point, the ‘solar’ lion the (masculine/active) right one and the eagle marking the singular upper point; the man finally (the ‘pan-animal’) correspond to a point in the centre, which virtually contains the whole figure and is in the sense its ‘recapitulation’. 

[18] Man being the (mirror-)image or ‘reflection’ of God is also what endows him with his ‘principal identity’.  For, as Eckhart says: “An image derives its being directly from that whose reflection it is, having one being with it and is (in principle) the same being”. This is the ‘spark in the soul’ or vünkelîn, which has been understood by many commentators as being ‘substantially’ divine, thus decrying the Meister as some kind of belated ‘gnostic’. This is however a distortion. The ‘spark’ is not a substantial ‘part’ of the soul, rather it is the reflection of the Divine Light shining into the obscure nothingness of the creature: “The reflection of the mirror in the sun is, in the sun itself: Sun; yet the mirror is what it is. Thus it is with God. God is in the soul with His nature, with His being, and with His Godhead, and yet He is not the soul. The soul’s reflection is, in God: God, and yet the soul is what it is” (Sermon 109); an analogy likewise found in St. Gregory of Nyssa who tell us that “the images of those ineffable qualities of the Deity shine forth in the slightness of our nature like the image of the sun seen in a small fragment of glass” (De Anima, II.42). 

[19] Likewise the image of the ‘cloud of mâyâ’ (the ego) separating the Divine Sun and the ‘mirror of the soul’ – the ‘me’ that stands between God and ‘I’ – is commonly met with in many Tradition: “In contemplating the ray of the interior Sun, the cloud of our corruption interposes itself and the unchangeable Light does not burst forth such as it is to the weak eyes of our mind” (St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob, V), but “when Ignorance is destroyed, the one Self reveals itself, like the sun when the clouds are removed” (Shankrasa, Âtma-Bodha, IV).

[20] “Know thyself and thou shalt know the Lord”, says one famous hadîth, however the opposite is also the case; only upon knowing God, knowing ‘in God’, can we know who we truly are: “In Your Light we see light” (Ps. 36:9) and “In knowing Thee, I will know myself” (St. Augustine, Solil. II).

[21] Although of course not limited to it; one might compare the relation of prakâra-prakârin in Ramanuja’s Visista-advaita or Ibn Arabi’s notion of the relationality (ta’alluq) or ‘sympathetic bi-unity’ of the Rabb and His marbûb.

[22] The Greek Fathers distinguish between the merely horizontal aspect of the person (what they called prósôpon) and the ‘vertical’, ‘relational’ aspect (the “hypostasis” properly speaking) and thus we could say (paraphrasing St. Maximus) that “man is an individual that is called to become a person”.

[23] The individual form-bound self can never become pure Spirit (it is Luciferian to believe it can) – except as witnessed by pure Spirit, Who, while remaining totally aware of all form-and-time-bound particulars, in essence (and paradoxically) sees nothing but Itself. The created, form-bound self remains a servant to its Creator. What happens, however – if it happens – is that the Absolute Witness is unveiled, after which point it is not I who witness myself, but He who witnesses me. I am objectified before the face of God, Who Alone knows me perfectly, precisely as I am. Before this metanoia, my contingent self is ‘me’ and God is ‘He’. After it, my contingent self is ‘he’ while God is ‘I’ – again in Eckhart’s words: ‘My truest ‘I’ is God’. In this state our individuality [viz. personhood] remains; it is not merged or blotted out in the Formless. Rather, it is witnessed by the Formless, which (paradoxically as it may seem) by Its witnessing both reveals my formbound, witnessed self to be totally contingent upon the Formless, and at the same time sees it as being, in all its synthetic complexity, transparent to It. By becoming fully objective to the Absolute Witness, that self becomes most fully itself, and at the same time is revealed as fully ‘void of (contigent) self-nature’. Its uniqueness is known as a unique instance of the Absolute Uniqueness of God” (Upton, On Vedantic Non-Dualism). 

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