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Vedanta, Meister Eckhart, Schelling

Friedrich Schelling, 1775–1854

Friedrich Schelling, 1775–1854

3,778 words

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following essay was originally published in English in East and West, vol. 9, nos. 2 & 3 (1960): 182–86. This is chapter 18 of Julius Evola, East and West: Comparative Studies in Pursuit of Tradition, ed. Greg Johnson, forthcoming from Counter-Currents in the summer of 2013.

In the previous chapter we thought it opportune to criticize the manner in which, from the factious defense of a unilaterally theistic-Christian point of view, a modern author, J. A. Cuttat, affronted the problem of the relationship between Western and Eastern spirituality. We are therefore all the more pleased to point out, now, a recent contribution in a completely opposed, positive, sense, devoted to the same problem by another scholar of religious history, Walter Heinrich. It is a work first issued in three small separate volumes in the collection “Problems of Time” (Fragen der Zeit) by the Stifter Bihliothek (Salzburg-Klosterneuhurg) and then united into a single volume by the same publisher, with the title Verklärung und Erlösung im Vedanta, Meister Eckhart und Schelling [Enlightenment and Salvation in Vedanta, Meister Eckhart, and Schelling]. Already the title indicates that it considers the latest problems of the spirit in an examination of three metaphysical systems particularly representative for East and West.

In an earlier volume of the same collection, On the Traditional Method (Über die traditionelle Methode), Professor Heinrich had already defined the method that he follows in these studies. It is a comparative method in a special, organic sense. For Heinrich, the problem is not one of an exterior comparison between detached parts, starting from which one arrives at a whole of correspondencies of ideas or of symbols; at the contrary, it is question of starting from the essential intuition of a content which ideally precedes the parts, and the comparative research must serve to illustrate this content with the contribution given by its various forms of expression, as they present themselves to us in diverse formulations and in diverse traditions. Also in the application of this method made in the new work, Heinrich underlines that the ascertained concordances of the essential ideas can he explained neither by transmission nor by exterior, empirical contacts: they have a profound root, of a metaphysical character. Aside from this epistemological premise, one may say that Heinrich follows in no less a measure the method of “phenomenology”: he wants the evidence to speak for itself, and tries to add nothing extraneous and personal. Thus a very large part of the hook is composed of direct quotations from opportunely chosen texts that take their own place in the over-all picture.

It is quite evident that Heinrich takes the principal points of reference of this overall picture from Hindu tradition, as that which has presented in the most complete and elaborate form the same contents that can be found as well in the two Occidental examples taken as terms of comparison, but in a less systematic and less conscious form and also on spiritual levels that are different, as we shall see. We have spoken of Hindu tradition in general because, in reality, it is not a question of Vedanta, either in the narrow sense which refers only to the system of Sankara, or of Vedanta of Ramanuja. Vallahha and other thinkers who diverge a good deal from the pure metaphysical and intellectual line of the major Upanishads. Here comes in question rather that which has been presented as Vedanta in terms of a synthesis of pure Hindu orthodoxy by René Guénon in his work Lhomme et son devenir selon le Vedanta [Man and his Becoming According to the Vedanta] (Paris, 1941). And Heinrich essentially follows the “traditional” interpretation on a high level of Guénon, who based himself less on the works of the orientalists than on direct contacts with qualified representatives of that tradition. Therefore Heinrich, like Guénon, has the merit of excluding from his exposition every naturalistic and mythological element: in myth, as well as in that which would seem to refer to phenomena and elements of nature, the internal content or pure intellectual, i.e., noetical character, is put into relief.

There is above all a meeting of Vedanta, Meister Eckhart, and Schelling in that which regards the fundamental metaphysical conception of the Supreme Unity, the Eternal One. Everything which is manifested in the finite world is but a “limitative” determination of a principle which is unique and of a power which embraces every possibility. However, it is very opportune to point out that it is illegitimate to apply to that doctrine the stale formula of “pantheism.” It concerns rather a synthesis between transcendence and immanency that is to be referred to a super-rational plane. As a matter of fact in all three cases it is affirmed in the clearest terms that the principle which is all, and is single and supreme, is at the same time absolutely transcendent to all. This doctrinal conception is confirmed by the very nature of the highest ideal of knowledge and liberation proposed to man, an ideal which is of an absolute transcendency. In particular, and as a consequence, the three systems agree in rejecting theism as the supreme point of reference. Beyond Isvara and Brahma as creator god, beyond Saguna-Brahman for Vedanta there is Brahman, neuter, impersonal and superpersonal and that which metaphysically corresponds to the so-called “fourth state” to the “turiya.” In Eckhart it is the distinction between Gott (the personal God) and Gottheit (divinity, neuter, impersonal) which is superior to being and is unnameable naked simplicity. In Schelling, besides corresponding ideas, Heinrich would perhaps have done better to give greater importance to those views of his last philosophy (the doctrine of the divine powers) where the Absolute is conceived as the opposite of being, as the non-being that realizes itself by detaching itself from its “nature” and affirming itself as pure domination.

A second consequence of the doctrine of identity, common to all three examples, is the rejection of the conception of man as a “Creature” separated by an unbridgeable ontological distance from his Creator. To the Hindu doctrine of the Atma as the metaphysical ground of the Ego, identical with Brahman, agrees Eckhart’s conception of the Funklein “not touched either by space or by time,” the idea that the soul exists eternally in God and as God, and his bold affirmation that “if I did not exist, not even God would exist.” Schelling speaks of the “intellectual intuition”—intellekuelle Anschauung—as of the act through which one “perceives the pure absolute eternity in us, for which it may be said to be nothing else but the self-perception of the Absolute in us.”

It is evident that by this metaphysical background the religious doctrine of grace is surpassed, and that the way of liberation presents itself as that of knowledge, maintaining itself pure from every emotional, sentimental, and devotional element. Schelling and Eckhart agree with the Vedanta in recognizing that the root of the human condition as such, and of every finished being in general, is “ignorance” (the Hindu avidya). Schelling tries to explain even the religious concept of “sin” as “ignorance.” Eckhart, in a famous passage, affirms that even a stone is God, only it does not know it, and only this not-knowing determines it for what is it, a stone. Naturally, the Christian background of Eckhart does not always permit him to express himself in a rigorous way. However, the overcoming of religious conception is very clear in his doctrine of detachment, of Abge-schiedenheit, of separatio, which is developed to the point of saying that the “noble soul” must detach itself not only from exterior and material things, and, in general, from everything which is form and image, but also from spiritual things and from God itself if it is to become aware of its more profound nature, that is, of that which is not nature in it, and proceed not toward God (Gott) but into the “desert” of the divinity (Gottheit), where it is alone with itself in an eternal transformation. Schelling speaks of the point at which “it is necessary to abandon God.”

The principle of detachment, of interiorization, of that which, as opposed to ecstasy, has been felicitously called “enstasy,” is another common trait of the three examples (Eckhart: “I say that no one can know God if first he does not know himself”). But here one must recognize that the concordance regards only the general orientation. Especially in Schelling one may only speak of a postulate, of a theoretical formulation. In Eckhart an effectively lived experience may have played a part: but this experience cannot he compared with all that which Hindu tradition presents in fact of techniques of high asceticism, of high contemplation, and of yoga.

It is because of this that the concordances that Heinrich tries to establish appear rather incomplete when it is question of the doctrine of the deep layers of being, of the Tiefenschichtenlehre: they are the strata—and the states—which extend beyond the normal awakened consciousness of man and by which he is ontologically connected with the powers of reality, down to the utter root, down to the point of Supreme Identity. In Eckhart and in Schelling only vague hints are to be found on this matter, whereas Hindu tradition knows a well-articulated and tested doctrine, with a tradition of centuries, or rather of millennia.

Heinrich emphasizes the similarities existing between eschatology, the doctrines on the post mortem state and the doctrine of the metaphysical realization of the Self. As content, there is an identity between the states that eschatology, in more or less mythical form, considers for the “end of time” and for all of humanity, the states into which the soul would pass after death, and finally, the states that may exceptionally be reached by those who follow the way of liberation.

As far as the first two formulations are concerned, that is, eschatology and the doctrine of the post mortem state, as it is known, Hindu doctrine speaks of the survival of the soul. To which first is presented the alternative between the “way of the fathers,” pitr-yana, as a negative solution to which is associated the myth of reincarnation, and the “way of the gods,” deva-yana, which involves the existence of a prolongation of the personality in the luminous state of Hiranyagarbha, or Brahma-loka. A further alternative is that of passing directly beyond that stage in such a way as to achieve absolute liberation, a deconditionalization without residue, or overcoming it in a way, so to speak, passive, in the moment of that general crisis of manifestation to which the cosmological concept of pralaya is reported. Heinrich finds elements of the same conception in Eckhart and Schelling. In Eckhart one must interpret in an adequate way that which is conceived as purgatory and as Last Judgment. From a metaphysical point of view and not a religious one, one may see in “purgatory” the intermediate state which necessarily includes the “celestial” states (distinct from the ultimate and absolute state): in the “Last Judgment,” the decision relative to the two alternatives of which we have just spoken. The Brahma-loka as the intermediate state of a partial liberation (where he who has followed only the way of the religious cults stops) finds its correspondence in that which Schelling has called the Geisterwelt, the “world of spirits.” Again in Schelling, the concept of “essentialization” is interesting—Essentifikation, reductio ad essentiam: death is merely a crisis which has as effect the destruction of the exterior and accessory and the “essentialization” (the “reduction to essence,” of that which man had been in life, often only uncertainly, without having had a clear knowledge of it, without maintaining himself one and faithful to himself. Here too one has an alternative and a “judgment” because essentialization extends itself to both the positive and negative qualities. Evil (that is, “ignorance,” the wish of the finite, the identification with the finite) which is essentialized in the post mortem, acquiring an absolute quality, is the profound sense of “damnation” (it is the “nothing” that burns in hell—Eckhart). When Schelling speaks, on this matter, of the soul descending “lower than nature,” instead of elevating itself above nature and dominating it, he is hinting at an idea which according to Heinrich, may find a correspondence in that of the “third place” of Hindu doctrine: that which is indicated in a symbolical form as a rebirth in forms of existence (in beings) that are lower than man.

In the case of positive essentialization, both in Eckhart and in Schelling, one finds a metaphysical interpretation of the religious and eschatological myth of the “resurrection of the flesh.” It is a “transfiguration” of the body itself, by means of which it unites itself with the soul, the corporeal making itself spiritual and the spiritual making itself corporeal in an indivisible unity. (Eckhart: “the essence of the body will be one with the essence of the soul in the divine essentiality”). This is the concept of the spiritual body, or glorious body, which we find also in St. Paul, who took it from the traditions of the ancient Mysteries. One knows that the Hindu parallel is the idea of siddha-kaya, of the perfect body or magical body (maya-kaya). Here we have again the parallelism between eschatology and initiatic doctrine, in that according to Hindu teaching this “resurrection of the body” is not necessarily to be placed at “the end of time,” but can even he actuated during life by means of a special yoga (one can find corresponding ideas in Chinese Taoism as well). In Eckhart and Schelling one does not meet any theory of this kind. In the first, one can find only the correspondence with the jivan-mukti, that is, with an absolute liberation that can be achieved in life (on the base of the saying: here, now, it is the principle of eternal life—Jezunt ist des evigen lebens anevanc). However, this is a perspective which already goes beyond the exoteric-religious view. In fact, Christianity at large has denied a similar possibility because it has moved eventual divinization to the post mortem: not to mention the “resurrection of the flesh,” which it knows only in its mythical-eschatological form.

Along these lofty lines the problem arises as to the measure in which one may conceive of a personal immortality according to the need often manifested in the Western world, a need to which theism seems to cater. Heinrich justly notes how difficult it is to produce precise conceptual formulations when one is dealing with states and experiences where all the usual logical categories and discursive concepts cease to count (because of this, and with reason, Buddha refused categorically to speak in positive terms of nirvana). He states that in the same way that the supreme state, the turiya, is conceived of in the Vedanta as superior to both being and non-being, one must equally surpass here the antithesis between personal and impersonal. In this case, perhaps the best solution is given by the concept of “possibility” or of “power.” At the terminal point of the way of liberation and transfiguration there is no longer the “person” but the possibility, or power, of being a person: that is, not undergoing the restrictive condition of the person, one is not person, one has a person as the form in which a principle that, in itself, is superpersonal and free may occasionally manifest itself, without undergoing conditions of any kind. Schelling too speaks of that, in general terms, when he refers to an ultimate state in which “the infinite can become completely finite without damaging its infinity”; of which he likes to see a symbol in the Christological myth, in the incarnation of God, of the Father, in Christ. In more concrete terms, this idea is already contained in the concept of the “perfect body” or “body of resurrection,” of which we have spoken.

There is lacking in Western examples a correspondence to the Hindu doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. Heinrich notes that in Schelling the practical content of this doctrine is present in the idea of “transcendental character” anterior to manifestation in space and time, and as such might have the same role as the samskara, understood as that component of being which derives from an extra-biological heredity.

We will dwell no longer on the concordance of ideas in Vedanta, Eckhart, and Schelling, illustrated with clarity and acuteness by Heinrich, because this would lead to endless developments. The reader who is interested would do well to refer directly to the book. As we have said, one of its greatest virtues is the great wealth of direct quotations from the texts (in those of Eckhart, a translation from Middle High to modern German is given in the notes). To conclude, let us here make some considerations on the plane to which such concordances refer.

This plane is essentially that of formal doctrinal correspondences, now more and now less complete. These correspondences must not hide the profound differences that exist from the existential point of view, because with Vedanta, with Eckhart, and with Schelling we find ourselves on three very different levels. The level of Vedanta is that of a metaphysical and esoteric tradition (one might even say initiatory), in every way superpersonal. Eckhart’s level is, on the other hand, that of mysticism, in metaphysical culminations owed to the exceptional personality of the master, which do not occur in the frame of a tradition, on the contrary, almost in opposition to the tradition which has served as a background (Christianity): whence the condemnation as “heresy” of some of Eckhart’s most significant theses. It is true that in his writings mention is often made of “masters” (“a master says . . .”); but one must exclude (here, as in general in the case of mystics) a regular transmission of doctrine, of techniques, and of spiritual influences, such as is the case in Hinduism. We are referred to ecstasies that Eckhart had, in a stale of apparent death, as in certain forms of yogic samadhi. There is nothing similar in the case of Schelling. By which we find ourselves on the plane of a philosophy of religion, that is, of simple speculation. The influence of Jakob Boehme may have played a certain part in Schelling, and he knew also the very first, imperfect translations of Oriental texts. But it appears clear that the antecedent here was essentially constituted by post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, which, even though in him it does not reduce itself to a “philosophy for professors of professors of philosophy” (according to the malignant but pregnant designation of Schopenhauer), remains nevertheless merely “philosophy.” We find little more than simple conceptual formulations, in which the similarities with doctrines of traditional and esoteric character are only formal, owed to intuitions and not to an existential base. In some works that we wrote many years ago about “magical idealism,” we ourselves showed that the whole current of critical idealism or, as it is also called, absolute idealism, having Kant as its starting point, if it truly wishes to resolve its most essential problems, finds itself facing the necessity of taking a “qualitative leap”: it must transcend the plane of philosophical speculation and the limits of discursive thought, which is as much as to say, the plane of modern profane thinking as a whole. One cannot deny that Schelling himself felt this when, in speaking of Boehme, he distinguished the “negative philosophy,” which is that which is rational, speculative, and dialectical, from “positive philosophy,” which is that which bases itself on experience, and, in part, on a superior experience. The second—he says—is “a kind of empiricism” in which “the supersensible becomes the object of a real experience” (rather than of abstract thought). Further, the aforementioned doctrine of “intellectual intuition.” But all that, we repeat, reduces itself to a simple formulation, and in the West we have had no development of it in this direction, on the plane of practical realization. Idealistic philosophy in particular has completely ignored these positions of Schelling, and has finished in post-Hegelian historicism.

As another case, in the phenomenology of Husserl has reappeared the need to make the center fall on a direct experience: the “phenomenological reduction” should liberate experience from everything with which, speculation, tradition, current ideas have covered it in order to realize the phenomenon as a revelation of essence, starting from the center of light constituted by the “transcendental ego.” But just in this school one sees all the distance existing between theoretical outlooks, that again form a parallel with Oriental and traditional “experimental metaphysics” and practice, which in “phenomenology” is once more that of abstract, logical, psychological, etc., researches, researches for professional writers on philosophy and university teachers.

Heinrich concludes his excellent work with some rather optimistic phrases, with which we cannot entirely agree. He does not evaluate the correspondences ascertained from a merely doctrinal point of view, and thinks that they should not only regard the problem of Orient and Occident. They should also be the proof of the existence of a catena aurea, that is, of a continuity that does not concern only personal and philosophical speculations, but a sacred tradition that did not end in the late Middle Ages (Meister Eckhart), which is witnessed also in much more recent periods (Schelling) and which “even in the dark days with which the cruel history of humanity is filled” in the West, should he for us “the source of an indestructible certainty.” We, however, believe that the continuity here spoken of has already ceased to exist in the West for a long time, and that, except for some rare subterranean veins not easy to define, in the Occident one may only speak of some isolated and almost casual culmination, while today even the Orient seems to find itself far from the path of its most ancient and lofty traditions. For that which regards the treasure of a transcendental wisdom, superior to that which is simply religion or philosophy, and the corresponding practical ways on the existential and practical plane, we believe that the idea of the catena aurea is of little help; we believe that for the situation of modern man there may rather be applied the image used by us in one of our books: that of lost men who find themselves in a deserted and devastated region, and with their efforts, aided only by an old torn map, incomplete and hardly readable, must try to join the bulk of an army that has already moved on.

East and West, vol. 9, nos. 2 & 3 (1960): 182–86.


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