This is an excerpt from my latest book, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, published by Floris Books. In it I explore the idea of the imagination as a  ‘cognitive’ faculty, that is, a means of knowing the world, rather than, as is more often the case, a way of escaping from it into some more congenial fantasy world. The title comes from the poet, essayist and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine, who for many years guided the Temenos Academy, a modern school dedicated to rediscovering this knowledge and keeping it alive.

How did we lose this knowledge? It began to slip away in the early seventeenth century, at the start of our modern age, although the roots of that process reached backed millennia earlier. But this knowledge was known for centuries before its eclipse and continues to be known and pursued well into our own postmodern times. In my book I look at different teachers of this lost knowledge. One is Kathleen Raine herself; another, as in this excerpt, is the French philosopher and Iranologist Henry Corbin, who famously coined the term imaginal to differentiate it from the imaginary, so to avoid the pejorative connotations this has in our culture. Here I look at how Corbin came to this idea through the work of the tenth century Persia philosopher Suhrawardi.


The need for a change of being in order to receive certain kinds of knowledge is at the heart of the ‘angelized Platonism’ that the French philosopher and scholar of Persian mysticism Henry Corbin found in the tenth century gnostic master Suhrawardi. Suhrawardi was born in 1155 near the present-day towns of Zanjan and Bijar Garrus in northwest Iran; he is named after his birthplace, Suhraward. After studying Aristotle and Avicenna in Maragheh and then logic in Isfahan, Suhrawardi embarked on a ‘knowledge quest’ or ‘initiatory journey’, a not unfamiliar activity for esoteric scholars. This took him through Anatolia, where he came into contact with Sufi schools and masters, including Fakhr al-Din al-Mardini. Like Suhrawardi himself, Fakhr al-Din al-Mardini combined mysticism with rigorous logic, a union that Suhrawardi looked for in other seekers of truth. Suhrawardi adopted the Sufic way of life, embracing an ascetic practice, wearing the rough suf wool, from which the Sufis get their name and surrendering himself to the ecstasies of sama, the Sufi music. But he also maintained a strict philosophical discipline, subjecting his ecstasies to severe criticism and analysis. His work was ‘addressed precisely to those who aspire at once to both mystical experience and philosophical knowledge’ and should, he said, be transmitted only to ‘him who is worthy, chosen from among those who have given evidence of a solid knowledge of the peripaticians’ philosophy [Aristotle]  while their hearts are nevertheless captured by love for the divine Light.’ It was clear to Suhrawardi, as it was to other ‘imaginative knowers’, that what was needed in order to arrive at real ‘truth’, was thought and feeling working together in a creative polarity, not in opposition.

Suhrawardi reached Aleppo in 1183 and he soon became friends with the city’s governor, al-Malik al-Zahir, the son of the great Salah ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, known to the west as Saladin. Suhrawardi became al-Mailk’s tutor, a position envied by the local scholars, who already scorned Suhrawardi because of his heretical beliefs and skill in dialectics, which he displayed to their regret in their debates with him. He was obviously influenced by the words of  the ‘philosophers’, which for devout Muslims was a term of abuse. Soon the scholars’ enmity toward Suhrawardi would prove fatal.

The philosophers who influenced Suhrawardi came from pre-Islamic Persia, ancient Greece, and Egypt. Together their ideas formed a potent blend of Zoroastrianism, Plato, and the wisdom traditions of Alexandria, what Suhrawardi called a ‘philosophy of Light’, a tradition of esoteric metaphysics that was handed down from sage to sage, Suhrawardi believed, through the ages.  In 1186 Suhrawardi tried to capture its essence in Hikmat al-Ishraq, translated as Oriental Philosophy and also as The Philosophy of Illumination, the book that sent Corbin on his hermeneutical quest. Suhrawardi wrote of an initiatic chain, a school of adepts reaching back into the dim past, and which included the fabled Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus and others. All were informed by the same primal revelation, the prisca theologia or ‘primal theology’, which it was his task to resurrect.

These ideas did not go down well with the orthodox jurists, ulama, and mullahs of Aleppo. They accused Suhrawardi of practicing magic and prophecy, and said he would lead the people and their governor, Saladin’s son, astray. They petitioned Saladin for Suhrawardi’s execution saying he was corrupting the young, the same charge as the council of Athens had brought against Socrates. Saladin accepted their petition and ordered Suhrawardi’s death. Suhrawardi voiced a spirited defence and al-Malik al-Zahir at first refused to carry out his father’s command, but eventually he had to concede. It remains unclear exactly how Suhrawardi met his death; some accounts say he was starved to death, others say he was strangled, still others say he was beheaded or crucified. But sometime in 1191 – some accounts put the date further on – Suhrawardi died. Henceforth he was known, not only as the Shaikh al-Ishraq, the ‘Master of Illumination’, but also as the Shaikh al-Maqtl,  the ‘murdered Master’.

If Suhrawardi’s mission was to resurrect the ancient philosophy of Light, we can see Corbin’s own mission as carrying on Suhrawardi’s work in the modern world. Through his many writings Corbin has introduced modern readers to an idea that runs throughout esoteric thought, although articulated in different ways, and which we’ve already touched on a few times in this book. This is what is known as the ‘âlam al-mithâl, or, as Corbin calls it, the Mundus Imaginalis, or ‘Imaginal World’. As Corbin writes, this is ‘a very precise order of reality, which corresponds to a precise mode of perception’. This ‘order of reality’ and ‘mode of perception’ is based on a ‘visionary spiritual experience’ that Suhrawardi believed was ‘as fully relevant as the observations of Hipparchus and Ptolemy are considered to be relevant to astronomy.’

Hipparchus and Ptolemy may no longer be so relevant to contemporary astronomy, but Suhrawardi’s point is clear. The ‘visionary spiritual experience’ he speaks of, which involves his ‘inner firmament’, is, for the gnostic philosopher, the equivalent of the meticulous observations and charts the astronomers of his time made of the stars, our ‘outer firmament’. But while Hipparchus, Ptolemy, and today’s astronomers use their eyes to make their observations, Suhrawardi’s account of his experience is based on the use of his organs of inner sight. What these inner organs perceive is just as ‘real’ as the stars that Hipparchus charted, but like the inhabitants of C. G. Jung’s ‘objective psyche’, or those of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Mind at Large’, it exists in an interior dimension that we can gain access to through our subjective worlds.

Corbin coined the term ‘Imaginal’ for this realm, in order to differentiate it from our usual ideas of the ‘imaginary’, and he placed it in an intermediate sphere between the realm of pure ideas – Plato’s Forms – and that of sensory reality, solid matter. He affirmed that the Imaginal is ‘ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect.’ This means that the Imaginal has its own mode of being, and that it can’t be reduced to the status of ‘just an idea’  or some reflection of physical reality. We can think of the idea of  ‘tree’ and know what we mean by it. And we can also see an actual, physical tree, standing in the garden. But we can also imagine a tree and form an image of it in our minds. This image occupies a kind of middle ground between the bare notion of ‘tree’ and the physical thing rising up from the lawn, rather as an artist’s image of what he wants to express occupies a middle ground between the idea behind his work and the finished, physical product . The ‘tabula rasa’ school of psychology – based on the ideas of the philosopher John Locke –  says that our image of a tree is merely the mental residue of our seeing a physical tree. Corbin would disagree. He would say that our image of a tree is an expression of what the German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the Urpflanze, or ‘Primal Plant’, a kind of ‘archetype’ which has a reality of its own, not dependent upon information about trees given by the senses collecting in my mind. As Goethe said, without this prior image, how would I know what was a tree and what wasn’t?

We usually think of the imaginary as unreal, false –  in general in some way less than the physical, sensory world. Or we see it as leading to ‘novelty’ or the ‘cutting edge’ in some process – this means technology most often today. But Corbin and Jung and others contend that for them – and potentially for all of us – the ‘Imaginal’ constitutes an entire world of its own, that is just as objective as the sensory world, with its own geography, history, laws, and, as Jung discovered, its own inhabitants.

Suhrawardi discovered some inhabitants of the Mundus Imaginalis himself. His need for a ‘precise mode of perception’ arose from the kinds of initiatory experiences he underwent and which led to his ‘philosophy of illumination’. Through a series of meditations, Suhrawardi charted the way within. His inner voyage led to what he called Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd, ‘the country of no-where’. Unlike Utopia, this did not mean a place that does not exist – a distinction Corbin is at pains to make. Rather it indicates an interior location, a place that cannot be found on any map, or any physical terrain, but which occupies a position in Suhrawardi’s ‘hierarchy of light’. This is the chain of being reaching from the highest spiritual realms to our own mundane world, versions of which appear in Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and other traditions of western esotericism. This descent marks an increasing solidification or materialization of what is in essence spiritual; that is, non-manifest, non-physical.

For Suhrawardi, borrowing from Neoplatonic ontology, light is the closest we come in the physical world to the non-manifest spiritual essence. From a Supreme Light of Lights, beyond our physical world, emanations radiate out, gradually ‘hardening,’ and becoming dense – an idea that modern science seems to have picked up on – and in the process eventually arriving at our universe.

Suhrawardi sees this ‘ladder of lights’ as an angelic hierarchy, a theme he borrows from Zoroastrianism. In this arrangement, each rung on the ladder is an angel, while the angel itself is the state of consciousness proper to this level of being. As in Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah, in Suhrawardi’s ‘philosophy of light,’ the philosopher’s task is to journey back up the ladder, to ascend it to its source. This was accomplished through a series of meditations and visualizations in which, as Jung did, the philosopher would encounter some of the inhabitants of this strange realm.

Suhrawardi wrote what we can call ‘visionary tales’ in which the states of consciousness – or levels of being – that he reached would be symbolized in a narrative, with the characters and setting embodying the spiritual realities he encountered. That is, he used his imagination to transmute his ‘inner spiritual states’ into ‘vision events’, creating a kind of story symbolizing his level of consciousness. We can say he engaged in what we can call a kind of ‘waking dream’, precisely the kind of conscious fantasy that enabled Jung to pass out of his everyday world and into the ‘objective psyche.’ Jung called his method of doing this ‘active imagination’, a means of reaching a creative dialogue between the conscious and unconscious mind which he often used in his practice. That Corbin would agree with the idea that the Imaginal can be reached via a ‘ waking dream’ is clear. He urged his readers that we needed ‘to be clear in our minds as to the real meaning and impact of the mass of information about the typographies explored in the visionary state, i.e., the intermediary state between sleeping and waking.’

This liminal condition is known as the ‘hypnagogic state’, a transitional mode of consciousness that we experience at least twice a day: when we fall asleep and when we wake up. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Jung was an experienced hypnagogue, as was the Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was apparently able to maintain the liminal state between sleeping and waking for extended periods and it was during these that he undertook his journeys to heaven and hell. Swedenborg’s visits to heaven, hell, and an intermediary sphere he called the ‘spirit world’ were undertaken by him in the same way as Suhrawardi undertook his journey to Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd. He would relax into a condition he called ‘passive potency’, a state of observant receptivity, a kind of calm alertness, in which his conscious mind could watch the operations of the unconscious – or, as Swedenborg would have said it, the spiritual worlds. Swedenborg would then be taken on a tour of heaven, hell, or the spirit world by an angel, rather as Jung was shown around the collective unconscious by Philemon. What made this different from a dream is that Swedenborg remained conscious throughout it; he ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ in the same way that he did in waking life, but what he observed took place within him.


A video of a talk I gave at Watkins Bookshop in London about Lost Knowledge of the Imagination:

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