The Subtle Realm: Corbin, Sufism, Swedenborg

~Roberts Avens

Western Dualism and Reality of the Soul

The Contemporary French Philosopher Gilbert Durand has stated that classical spirituality is a"pseudo spirituality": by separating spirit from matter—and thereby mind from body—it denies concrete reality to the soul.


The archetypal psychologist James Hillman has appropriately called this Cartesian dualistic attitude the "double curse of our Western myth—the spirit's vision of perfection and matter's fundamental limitation, two archetypal fictions."

In this view there is no third way between the unlimited and the limited, the eternal and the temporal, spirit and matter. It is always the case of either matter tending to absorb spirit or spirit swallowing up matter. In its final formulation, matter (res externa) and spirit (res cogitans) are conceived as two completely separate realities, which, thanks to divine ordination, come together at only one point—the human brain. The final outcome of the Cartesian dualistic fantasy is that the material world is automatically deprived of any spiritual content,while the spirit, for its part, is reduced to the status of an abstract counterpart of the material reality.

Swedenborg, together with the Islamic scholar and mystic Henry Corbin (d. 1978), belongs to the tradition of sophia perennis (perennial wisdom), whose proponents have undertaken the difficult and unpopular task of resuscitating the soul as the third realm between matter and spirit. For these "protectors" of the soul, the third realm is the proper "place" of all spiritual or visionary events, which,in turn, must be seen as events of the soul.

In Swedenborg and Corbin (as well as in Jung and Hillman), the soul is real; it represents the coming together and resolution of the polarities of the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human, the universal and the concrete. What is meant here by the word soul is far removed from some vaporous, ghostly substance (refined matter) inside the body. For these thinkers, the soul is not something purely spiritual standing in opposition to matter, but a microcosmic reality, a compendium of nature reflecting the macrocosm. Clearly, in such a perspective the question of "inner" and "outer," subjective and objective, spirit and matter, simply does not arise. All events whatsoever take place in the soul, or rather they are transfigured in the light of the soul, which is the same as saying that they are first imagined then perceived. Imagination and perception are two gnoseologically and ontologically distinct "faculties" or powers.

Swedenborg possessed what in mystical literature is known as "dual vision"—the ability to perceive things in at least two ways simultaneously. In Paul Valery's words, he was capable of "an effortless coming and going between two worlds."

There was no confusion in his mind between ordinary reality(the world of precepts) and the world of visions or images. Swedenborg could imagine and perceive concurrently.

Psychic Reality and Archetypal Images

For Swedenborg, "spirit" (the soul) is quite real in its own right. In this sense, his system is consonant with Jung's idea of psychic reality. Jung describes the status that must be ascribed to the psyche as follows:

"It is characteristic of the Western man that he has split apart the physical and the spiritual for epistemological purposes. But these opposites exist together in the psyche. . . . "Psychic" means physical and spiritual. . . . This "indeterminate" world seems unclear and confused because the concept of psychic reality is not yet current among us, although it expresses life as it actually is. Without soul, spirit is as dead as matter, because both are artificial abstractions; whereas man originally regarded spirit as a volatile body, and matter as not lacking in soul."

Jungian psychology has experienced an important creative development in the form of archetypal psychology, founded by James Hillman.

Hillman's work constitutes a daring attempt to restore the soul to its central place not only in psychology, but in human and cosmic life as a whole—to "re-soul" the world. In archetypal psychology the Jungian archetypes, the patterns of the psyche, are no longer noumenal (unknowable), but always phenomenal. Archetypes are simply images, infinitely ambiguous in character, multivalent, and polysemous (capable of having a variety of meanings). Our psychic essence is "imaginal," and, as such, fully accessible to imaginative exploration. Psyche is image and imagination.

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