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The Metaphysics of Indo-European Tripartition, Part 6
F. W. J. Schelling & Indo-European Triparition

4,492 words

Friedrich Schelling, 1775–1854

Friedrich Schelling, 1775–1854

Part 6 of 6

1. Schelling’s Influences: The Christian Trinity and Jacob Boehme

I turn, finally, to a different Indo-European tradition, that of German Idealism of the 19th century. I include this material so as to show the perennial character of Indo-European thought. One could argue that the entire history of Western (and Indian) philosophy is a long, unconscious attempt to recollect the wisdom known “directly” by our Indo-European ancestors. 

Remarkably, in the late philosophy of F. W. J. Schelling, who was an old school chum of Hoelderlin and Hegel, we find a doctrine that corresponds exactly to the ancient Aryan theory of the gunas. This is despite the fact that Schelling had, so far as we know, little knowledge of Indian philosophy. He wrote at a time when details of Indian thought were just becoming known to European intellectuals. The esoteric details of the gunas were almost certainly not known by Schelling, yet he writes as if he is translating them into the language of Idealist philosophy.

Specifically, I refer to Schelling’s Potenzlehre, or doctrine of Potencies, which he developed throughout his career, but which fully flowered only in his late, so-called “philosophy of mythology.” In order to fully understand this doctrine, one must explore its antecedents in the Western mystical tradition. First of all, Schelling, Hegel, and the German philosophers in general were fascinated by the mystery of the Christian Trinity. There is a case to be made that what we know as “the Trinity” is in large measure not an original, Near Eastern conception but actually a result of the “germanization” of Christianity, developed after our ancient heathen ancestors converted. The idea of three “persons” in one corresponds roughly to the Aryan notion of the oneness of the three gunas in Brahman. Without going into too much detail, I would suggest that the Father corresponds to the Indo-European first function, the Son to the third function, and the Holy Spirit to the second function. In this, I am influenced by Hegel, who treated the Father as the logos, or Absolute Idea, the Son as Nature, and the Holy Spirit as man, who is the unity of logos and nature, or God and animal.[1]

The immediate mystical influence on Schelling was the German Jacob Boehme, who conceived of all of reality as possessing a threefold structure. Consider the following quote from Boehme:

Now thus the eternal light, and the virtue of the light, or the heavenly paradise, moveth in the eternal darkness; and the darkness cannot comprehend the light; for they are two [separate] Principles; and the darkness longeth after the light, because the spirit beholdeth itself therein, and because the divine virtue is manifested in it. But though it hath not comprehended the divine virtue and light, yet it hath continually with great lust lifted up itself towards it, till it hath kindled the root of the fire in itself, from the beams of the light of God; and there arose the Third Principle, out of the dark matrix, by the speculating of the virtue [or potency] of God.[2]

There are thus three principles, one of light, one of darkness, and one that reconciles. Boehme conceives the three principles dwelling as one within what he calls the Ungrund: the transcendent, ungraspable ground of all being which is itself ungrounded, because there is nothing beyond it which could provide a further ground. Again, we have a correspondence to the indwelling of the gunas within Brahman. Boehme conceives of his three principles as pervading all of reality.[3] Man, he asserts, is the true actualization of the three principles. Because of the co-presence of the three principles in man, he has the potential for understanding the whole of creation.

2. The Three Potencies 

Turning now to Schelling, he writes of three Potencies, which he conceives as both principles or ideals, and as volitional agencies. Schelling has a peculiar, algebraical way of referring to the Potencies as -A or A1, +A or A2, and A3. I shall abandon this usage, and do further violence to Schelling’s terminology by referring to the first potency as the third, the second as the first, and the third as the second. This is so as to bring out the correlation to the Indo-European functions. My presentation will not, however, do violence to Schelling’s meaning.

Schelling conceives of a primordial time in which the three potencies existed by themselves, before they expressed themselves as a world of objects. He furthermore sees the potencies as aspects of the Absolute — the equivalent of Brahman in his philosophy.

The Third Potency Schelling conceives as a pure, indefinite possibility of being (das sein Koennende). It is a kind of primal “being-in-itself,” which is indefinite, unlimited, and negative. It possesses, he claims, a pure power of self-negation. It can cancel or throw off whatever it is and become anything else. It has no fixed identity. Philosophical parallels include the Heraclitan flux, and Anaximander’s apeiron. It corresponds roughly to the Chinese Yin, and is thus the feminine principle. Schelling also conceives this Potency as pure subjectivity. The Third Potency is obviously equivalent to Indian Tamas.

The First Potency is a principle of order and objectivity. It is the opposite of the Third Potency: specific, lawful, definite, distinct. It is the principle of identity, and of differentiation. The First Potency is pure being, as opposed to the pure possibility of being. Its function is to place “boundaries” around the chaos that is the Third Potency and to bring definite entities into existence. Whereas the Third Potency is das sein Koennende, “the possibly being,” the First Potency is das sein Muessende, “the must being.” The Third Potency is “being-in-itself,” but the First Potency is “being-outside-itself,” because the boundaries provided by the First Potency are outside of it, placed around another. It is thus a male principle, equivalent to Chinese Yang, and Indian Sattva. The reason for this is simple: it is the nature of the female to generate in herself, the nature of the male to generate in another (thus, “being-outside-itself”). Because the First Potency is pure objectivity and not subjectivity, it does not possess a will of its own, which is one of the facets of a subject.

These two Potencies cannot co-exist because they are total opposites. Without them, there can be no world. So something else must function to bring them together. Enter what I am calling the Second Potency, merely in order to identify it with the Indo-European second function. Again, whatever corresponds to the second function constitutes a kind of mean between the first and third functions. Thus, the Second Potency must possess objective being (like the First Potency), but with the possibility of change (like the Third Potency). To put this in a different way, the Second Potency must be something definite, but it must also be free.

The Third Potency is pure subjectivity, and the First Potency is pure objectivity, so somehow the Second Potency will unite subject and object. This fact is significant, for Schelling conceives the Absolute as the “indifference point” beyond subject and object. There is an exact correspondence here, again, to the Indian theory of the gunas. The vira is the man in whom Rajas predominates, and the personification of Rajas is Brahma. Thus, it is the vira who is in a unique position to reach Brahman itself through a transformation of his own nature. In Schelling, the Second Potency, which corresponds to Rajas, is the togetherness of subject and object, while the Absolute, which corresponds to Brahman, is the transcendence of subject and object. It is as if the Second Potency is the Absolute “turned inside out,” and vice versa. The implication seems to be that he who is identified with the Second Potency, or Rajas, can raise himself to the Absolute, or Brahman, through a kind of heroic Gestalt switch.

Whereas the First Potency is “being outside itself,” and the Third Potency is “being in itself,” the Second Potency is “being with itself.” This choice of words suggests that in the Second Potency there is a kind of wholeness, fulfillment, reconciliation, and self-sufficiency.[4] Schelling further notes that whereas the Third Potency is the Unlimited, and the First Potency is the Limiting, the Second Potency is the “purely self-limiting.” Here again, we see a metaphysical anticipation of the vira. I said earlier that the vira reaches a point where he becomes autonomous in the literal sense of giving a law unto himself. This is self-limitation in its highest form. The vira is autonomous, independent, self-sufficient, and whole, just as is the primal Second Potency. The Third Potency is “the possibly being,” the First Potency is “the must being,” and the Second Potency is das sein Sollende, “the should being.” Sollen means “should,” and thus in the Second Potency an ethical or idealistic dimension comes to presence. This is predictable, since the Second Potency manifests itself on the human level as the “spirited” man.

If we may speak of the Third Potency as matter or the material element, and the First Potency as form, then what is the Second Potency? Again, since it constitutes a kind of middle between the other two, in some sense the Second Potency must be a union of matter and form. I am reminded here of Hegel’s theory of the three types of art: symbolic, classical, and romantic. The symbolic is art that is overly formal, stylized, and constrained. He uses Egyptian art as an example. Romantic art is all about soaring emotions and heaving bosoms: art that has lost all restraint. Here, form is broken or exceeded by an excess of content; by unconstrained feeling. Classical art occupies a middle position, a perfect unity of form and material. And what does Hegel use as an example of classical art? The Greek sculptures of gods and athletes, of course. In other words, mesomorphs: second function bodies ruled by Rajas, or the Schellingian Second Potency. In whatever occupies the second function position, there is a near-perfect complement of form and matter, reason and emotion, centripetal and centrifugal forces, etc.

The Second Potency is thus the primal, perfect union of form and matter. It is the Platonic form of a god (and it bears repeating that the Greeks used the mesomorph, the perfect human union of form and matter, to represent their gods), whereas the First Potency and Second Potency are mere forces (like Empedocles’s “love” and “strife”). The Second Potency is the timeless union of the other two Potencies. When the three Potencies externalize themselves in creation, the timeless relationship between them expresses itself temporally. The world is simply the bringing together and separating of the First Potency and the Third Potency, Sattva and Tamas, extended in time. The ultimate agent of this process in the world is the vira, the second function man, who is both preserver and destroyer. Edward Allen Beach, writing of Schelling’s Potenzlehre, states that “[the Second Potency] is…the [Aristotelian] final cause or purpose toward which the whole ideal organism of the universe is striving.”[5]

3. The Anti-Potencies

Schelling calls the three Potencies taken together “the figure of being.” But the story does not end here, for Schelling says that the account so far is one of pure essences only. How, exactly, does a concrete, spatio-temporal world come into being out these Potencies? I spoke just a moment ago of the Potencies externalizing themselves in creation. But how does this take place? Schelling’s answer to this is very obscure.

He begins by noting that it seems like the natural order of things that the Third Potency should subordinate itself to the First Potency: that matter should allow itself to become informed. But this is not how it always happens. We can see this all around us. If the Third Potency, in all of its expressions, gave itself up to the First Potency continually and without resistance, then all material objects would be perfect expressions of their forms. There would be no ugliness, no defect, no deformity. But since this is not the case, the relationship between the Third Potency and the First Potency must be more complicated than we have let on.

Because the Third Potency is pure possibility of being, it can pretty much do as it pleases! Within this Potency is a duality: it is a potentiality to give birth to existence, to be fruitful, but it is also a potentiality to negate all potentialities, to say no to everything. It thus always has within it the possibility of rebelling against its role as the matrix, or mother, of all of creation. In doing so, it becomes resistant to the order, form, definiteness, reason, and rule of the First Potency. Its obscurity increases, and becomes impenetrable. Schelling calls this perverted form of the Third Potency “B.” I shall call it “the anti-Third.” Schelling’s anti-Third is exactly analogous to Jakob Boehme’s “sour”: a negating, inward-turning, egoistic power.

As a result of the transformation of the Third Potency into the anti-Third, the First Potency is made subordinate to it. This indicates the great power of the Third Potency: in simply closing itself to the First Potency or resisting it, it subverts the natural role of the First Potency and throws it into a state of disequilibrium. Recall that the Third Potency is subjectivity and the First Potency objectivity. In being rejected by the Third Potency, the First Potency is thrown back on itself, and thus develops subjectivity.[6] Whereas, like Ouranos, it had once enjoyed unconscious bliss in the arms of Gaea, it now comes to consciousness — but only when castrated. It turns inward. And when it conceives itself, it conceives itself solely as directed toward the bringing about the submission of the anti-Third.

To continue the masculine-feminine parallel, the anti-Third finds its human representative in modern, “liberated” woman (in the extreme, in the “man hater,” who may go so far as to entirely abjure the love of men, and to suppress the desire to be penetrated). What the First Potency becomes as a result of the anti-Third’s coming into being is the modern male, who is preoccupied with the physical conquest of woman, considering it the essence of manliness. He is, indeed, an entirely physical being.

A perfect illustration of this dynamic is to be found in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, which charts the course of two love affairs. The first, between Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin, illustrates the natural relationship between the Third Potency and the First Potency. Ursula is a “natural woman,” who longs to be possessed by Birkin. Birkin, for his part, is drawn to Ursula, but refuses to give himself to her completely, desiring an experience of something higher than carnal love. In short, he has something of the vira in him. The other couple are Gudrun Brangwen, Ursula’s sister, and Gerald Crich, Rupert’s best friend. Gudrun is the anti-Third incarnate. She yearns for something, but will not identify herself with anything. She drifts from interest to interest, place to place. She spurns Gerald’s desire, and humiliates him, saying at one point “You are so insistent, and there is so little grace in you, so little fineness. You are so crude. You break me — you only waste me — it is horrible to me.”[7] Naturally, Gerald is obsessed with her, and responds to these words by making violent love to her, and then later trying to strangle the life out of her. Gerald is the entirely physical being I spoke of; the perversion of the First Potency. He is a mine-owner who (like Clifford in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) totally immerses himself in the hard world of machines and production plans. He prides himself on his brutal physicality, and, unlike Rupert, is preoccupied by sex.

Now, note that the First Potency corresponds to the first function, which corresponds, in terms of human types, to the ecotomorph-cerebretonic. Thus, what is peculiar about the change produced in the First Potency by the anti-Third is that the First Potency becomes, in a way, its own opposite. In human terms, the cerebretonic, the man who “lives in his head,” comes to think that he ought to be his opposite: the physical man, the sensualist, the “stud.” What we are talking about is, in essence, a divya (or potential divya) who secretly yearns to be a pashu. But such a man, though he may think of nothing but the sexual possession of women, never succeeds in truly or totally possessing a woman, because his obsession is in fact unmasculine and, ultimately, repellent to women. It is the detached and aloof, spiritually virile male who proves most attractive. It is to him that woman wishes truly to surrender. Enter the vira, and the Second Potency.

We find the relationship between the Second Potency and the two anti-Potencies represented in the medieval Germanic Nibelungenlied. King Gunther of Burgundy sets his sights on the Amazon-like Brunhild, but to win her hand in marriage he must submit to trial by combat. If he loses, Brunhild takes his life. Brunhild represents the anti-Third, which has become actively hostile and even deadly to the First, or male, Potency. Gunther, who represents the emasculated First Potency, cannot defeat Brunhild, and so he enlists the aid of Siegfried. As a warrior hero, Siegfried represents, of course, the Second Potency. Rendering himself invisible, Siegfried secretly acts on Gunther’s behalf, and wins Brunhild’s hand for his king. Afterwards, however, Brunhild refuses to yield to Gunther in the marriage bed, and so Siegfried is called in again to pass himself off as Gunther and force her to submit. When he succeeds, she cries, “I shall no longer resist your noble love. I have discovered that you know how to master women.”[8]

One curious problem here has to do with what sex to assign to the Second Potency. If the First Potency is “male” and the Third Potency is “female,” what is the Second Potency? I have characterized it as mediating between the other two, so is it somehow androgynous? Given that I have identified the Second Potency with the Second Function, with the mesomorphic-somatotonic warrior figure, this seems an absurd suggestion — until one takes a look at Indo-European mythological representations of the warrior. There one finds abundant evidence that the warrior was regarded as having both masculine and feminine characteristics. For example, Thor appears in drag, as does Herakles. (From the sixteenth century on, artistic representations of Herakles have most often depicted him in women’s clothing.) The figure of Arjuna in the Mahabharata is also depicted as androgynous. Exactly why the warrior or vira should be seen in this way must have to do with his important metaphysical role, discussed earlier, as one who can pass between the opposites of subject and object, form and matter, masculine and feminine to achieve oneness with the Absolute or Brahman. The name Percival (or Parzival) means “pierce the valley.” He is the one who goes beyond opposites (between the “mountains”) to the One.

Unlike the First Potency and the Third Potency, according to Schelling the Second Potency does not undergo a change; it remains constant. But, Schelling contends, it cannot be fully realized unless the other two Potencies have completed their development. Thus, due to the inversion, or perversion of the First Potency and the Third Potency, the Second Potency is no longer the timeless balance of the Limited and the Unlimited. In Beach’s words, the Second Potency takes on the status of a “future condition” yet to be achieved.[9] In other words, the unity of Limited and Unlimited becomes a goal or an ideal endpoint. Schelling believes that this is the end toward which all of history is moving. But Schelling’s historical conception, like Hegel’s, is Christianized and linear. Beach notes that “Schelling sees the whole tendency of world history subsequent to the Creation as being precisely to bring the inverted first potency into submission, to change [the anti-Third] back into [the positive, Third Potency].”[10]

4. Implications of Schelling’s Theory

If we jettison Schelling’s linear view of history and replace it with a traditional Indo-European, cyclical model of historical change, what results is a conception of the anti-Third and the First Potency continually evolving toward unity, which is to say, continually giving rise to the realization of the Second Potency. After the zenith of the Second Potency is achieved, there is a period in which the other two Potencies normalize: when the anti-Third becomes the “natural” Third Potency, and the First Potency regains its status as the objective, informing agent. But then this is followed by a decline, in which the two Potencies become perverted again, and the Second Potency seemingly withdraws, only to arise again later, and so on.

From the conflict and gradual reconciliation of the First Potency and the Third Potency, a world comes into being. Schelling thinks that his account of the conflict of the anti-Potencies is not an account of abstract essences. When the Third Potency rebels against its nature as receiver of form, it becomes the material element itself, for matter is just precisely whatever has the nature of receiving and resisting form.

To put this in human terms, the world is perpetually giving birth to the vira, but the vira is born in conflict. The conditions necessary to give rise to the vira are conflict and disharmony. It is in the crucible of unrest, war, and disunity that the vira arises — and rises to the occasion. In challenging and overcoming these conditions, those who can be viras realize their vira nature, and impose order upon chaos. But this “golden age” cannot last, and disorder and disharmony eventually return — and so on, ad infinitum.

Such a view of history is pregnant with philosophical consequences. For example, the so-called “problem of evil” is solved. Evil — conflict, war, disorder, disharmony, etc. — exists simply in order to bring the vira, the embodiment of God in the world, into being.

We have also answered the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” The nothing that is the Ground of Being is Brahman. From Brahman a world constituted by the three gunas or Potencies comes into being. The highest actuality in this world is achieved by the highest living thing in the world, which is the human vira. He is the human expression of Brahma, and as such he may, through a transformation of himself, “turn creation back on itself” and achieve oneness with Brahman, the basis of existence as such. Thus, there is no “something rather than nothing,” for the something is the nothing unconscious of itself.

General Conclusion

As I announced at the beginning of this series, my procedure in this essay has been inductive. I began by laying out the tripartite structure of Indo-European society, and then argued that other parts of the natural world exhibit an analogous structure: the human soul itself, human body types, human anatomy, the anatomy of individual organs or systems, the human embryo, the mammals, the single cell, the macroscopic world, the microscopic world of the atom, and the structure of human thought and logic. I believe that these analogies are plausible. In some cases, particularly the analogies between human types and mammal types, the analogies are very precise and striking.

Having seen the same structures repeating themselves throughout different aspects of reality, I then asked if there was a way to lay bare the nature of these structures and speak of them in the abstract – to know them “in themselves and by themselves.” Rather than striking off on my own, I looked first to Tradition, and found exactly the account I was looking for in the Indian theory of the gunas. We can see there that the Indians noticed the same repetition of tripartite structure I have spoken of. In the course of explaining the gunas, I had occasion to return to the topic of human types, and I developed some suggestions for how we might make use of them in order to work out a theory of history, and an understanding of the purpose of existence itself.

I also gave an account of Schelling’s Potenzlehre. This served two functions. First, it showed how an even more abstract account of the three principles may be given. Second, its remarkable correspondence to the Indian theory of the gunas seems to indicate that consciousness of the three principles is perennial. I mean this in connection with the Hermetic idea of the “perennial philosophy.” If an idea keeps showing up in different philosophical or mystical systems, especially if there is little or no contact between the authors of those systems, I take this as prima facie evidence of its truth.

Now, it might be objected that I have simply “read” this tripartite scheme into different things, but that one could equally well find twoness and fourness and fiveness in things as well. This objection misses the point, for, as I said at the beginning, I am not looking for sheer threeness, but rather a specific type of threeness. Secondly, the objection seems disingenuous in light of what I believe are the truly remarkable analogies I have brought to light here. Ultimately, my argument for the truth of the principles, and the reliability of the principles as guides to understanding the world, is pragmatic. I believe I have shown that seeing the world in terms of these three structures works. It opens things up to us; it allows us to better organize, categorize, and analyze things, and to see their relationships. Furthermore, it leads to truly profound reflections upon the nature of existence as a whole.


[1] Hegel did not actually say that Spirit is a unity of logos and nature, or God and animal, but this is an implication of his ideas, and corresponds exactly to the Greek philosophical view, which strongly influenced Hegel.

[2] Jacob Boehme, Concerning the Three Principles of the Divine Essence, trans. John Sparrow, 1648 (London: John M. Watkins, 1910), VII: 25; p. 100.

[3] “And no place or position can be conceived or found where the spirit of the tri-unity is not present, and in every being . . . “, Boehme, Six Theosophic Points, trans. John Rolleston Earle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), I:21; pp. 18-19.

[4] A small application of this principle is to be found in the eating habits of the middle-position carnivores. Whereas the rodents subsist primarily on starches, fats, and oils, and the ungulates on cellulose, the carnivores subsist on protein; i.e., on food similar to their own bodily material. See Schad, Man and Mammals, 32.

[5] Edward Allen Beach, The Potencies of Gods (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 126.

[6] This is reminiscent of the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: subjugated by the master, the slave turns inward and gives birth to Geist.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 434.

[8] Nibelungenlied, trans. Helen M. Mustard, in Medieval Epics (New York: Modern Library, 1963), 282.

[9] Beach, 136.

[10] Ibid., 134.



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