Morning Hours on Theophany

PAF, Summer University, August 2016, circa 6.AM

Let us start with a story, a philosophical what if ? : let us say that being is a gift. Free and unmotivated, profoundly unjust, it is the product of pure generosity, albeit a strange one, to say the least, one that gives only what it does not have. Being cannot, then, be a property ; freely given, it cannot be taken away, only extinguished ; moreover it cannot be owned, it is at most a loan whose grace, in its sheer absurdity, might, perhaps, be partially shared.

We could also tell this story differently. What if all being was a transgression, a sin of cosmic proportions ; every thing, every individual, coming into form by tearing itself from the Whole, the Indefinite, committing thus a fundamental injustice, which can only be repaid by a necessary dissolution.

There is another story, as well. It is the story of a benevolent god, who could only make the World come into being by emptying Itself into Its Creation, entrusting it with all the power It would forsake, leaving Itself vulnerable, frail ; a pure benevolence without action, leaving the world to its own devices, its inhabitants, to an abyss of freedom.

These three stories are three ways to look at the subject I would like to talk about this morning, that of theophany. The first is an amalgamation of various thinkers, mostly partaking in a thread of thought known as Neo-Platonism, which appeared in the end times of Pagan philosophy ; the second is fashioned from the Pre-Socratic thinker Anaximander, of which we only have fragments and second-hand reports. The third paraphrases Hans Jonas’ beautiful opening to The Concept of God after Auschwitz, where he attempts to think, in one of the most striking examples of a modern myth, what a God who would have let such an event happen would have to look like.

« Theophany » means godly manifestation, divine appearance. It can be found in tales of Greek mythologies for discussing the episodes, not infrequent, where a deity would clothe itself in sensible form, to act upon the world and meet mortals in various ways, for instance in several moments of Homer’s Iliad, or in the tales of Zeus’ various extra-marital affairs with women (such as Semele, a story on which I will dwell on in a bit). I will differentiate it from the more common cases of inspiration, or enthusiasm, in which an earthly individual is endowed with qualities pertaining to a certain god (such as love, or courage), and from the Christian concept of the Incarnation, which has developed its own specific conceptualization, which we may term epiphany for the sake of clarity.

So theophany, originally, can be used for any instance of divine presence within the world ; I am, however, going to approach it in a more general fashion, as is typical with philosophers, to deal with a two-fold problem, that of the presence of the Principle through the principled, and of the unity of things. To transition from its mythological use to the formal and conceptual use which I will discuss, we can tell two other stories, which I think highlight what we could call a pagan sensibility when it comes to the relationship between the divine and the earthly. The first is from Homer’s Odysseus, which I heard Barbara Cassin tell in one occasion : Ulysses, reaching the shores of Phæacia, is met by the princess Nausicaa (literally, « burner of ships »), who alone dares to approach the nude and shipwrecked hero ; upon seeing her, he wonders aloud what kind of being she is, if she is human or a goddess. This, Cassin says, is the crux of the pagan mentality, where any being you meet might be divine.

The other is a tale about Heraclitus, as recounted by Aristotle in his biological treatise De partibus animalium

« So one must not be childishly repelled by the examination of the humbler animals. For in all things of nature there is something wonderful. And just as Heraclitus is said to have spoken to the visitors who wanted to meet him and who stopped as they were approaching when they saw him warming himself by the oven : he urged them to come in without fear, for here too the gods are present —so one must approach the inquiry about each animal without aversion, since in all of them there is something natural and beautiful ». (PA I,5 645a 15-23, emphasis mine)

If we take this notion of a divine presence within things at heart, we can see how it points towards the problem of the constitution of things as products, as individuals ; if their being is welcoming of the divinity, if the gap between them is porose in such a way, it is because things cannot be merely themselves, because in them lingers a trace, a common origin, which is precisely what we call divine presence : they are not what they seem, or never simply that.

Such a position on the nature of things is what I am trying to approach through the notion of theophany. If we followed the entomological impetus of philosophers, which tirelessly work at classifying ways of thinking, we might find a variety of names for such a standpoint, each with subtle differences : call it kathenotheism, pantheism (cosmic or even « dark »), radical monism, acosmicism, or panentheism. We should not, however, pay them much mind right now, but focus on the common gesture of thought, on the conceptual and above all formal conception that these terms mobilize, one which rests on the idea of an super- or infra-essential presence, or actuality, of the Principle at the heart of the principled, of the movement of creation within the creatural realm.

This P-p relationship can be seen either (1) according to a notion of access through (a) production (P=>p), or (b) unitive contemplation (p=>P) ; or (2), as a dependency relationship, of (c) belonging, participation [P℗], or (d) of manifestation [p℗]. Theophany, as we understand it today, seems to oscillate between the latter two, not, therefore, as a movement, but as a result, a state of being. Indeed, it is unclear at this point how, through which means, these two facets of the relationship, participation and manifestation, are to be properly delineated, and maybe it is better to look at them as in tension, with Theophany as a name for such a tension. 

What we have is a dramatization, a radicalization, of the usual problematic of participation, where participation is simply a special case of the cosubsistence of the One, of the Principle, in all things. The conundrum, with which theophany confronts us, could be expressed this way : there is (there might be) a way either to or from the Absolute (1 a-b), but once taken, this way back becomes enigmatic, and even unintelligible : we can think of the production of things (1a) through divine activity, or conceive of a mystical access to the Principle through contemplation (1b). But we poor philosophers, which are neither Gods nor (usually) mystics, how are we to understand the combined affirmation of the Absolute and the conditional, of the Principle and the principled, as equally partaking in a same sense of being ?

(this question is famously known as the question of the meaning of being construed as alternatively univocal, equivocal, or analogical ; Deleuze’s case for the univocity of Being, harking back to Duns Scotus and Spinoza, has done much to put it on the forefront of contemporary thinking ; as we shall see, theophanic thinking shows that the distinction between these three positions on being is far from clear, and indeed can easily coexist or alternate within a single framework)

Rephrased, it may be formulated this way : how is God to be understood, apart from the world ? Or, in more secular terms : how is there any kind of intelligibility beyond historical framings ? (insofar as an intelligibility constructed from reason entails a commonality of existence that is precisely the one posited by theophany, that is, of appearings as signs of being)

We are here dealing with an intensification of phenomenology to its breaking point, as inherently self-sublating, since « visibility is granted to the divine in the purely sensible » (Jambet). As effects of the divine, appearances become truthful, they enclose the truth of appearance itself, a truth deeper than any given representation. Here, the reality of appearance requires us to fully express of the status of appearance as such, of the unification of appearing under a principle of unity that is itself beyond visibility : apparition of what is non-apparent, manifesting of what is being hidden. Here the immediate visible and the ordinary invisible commune in a shared appeal, on a metaphysical level, towards the inapparent as such, towards an ineffable principle which denies for its own sake these distinctions, and seemingly undermines them for its products, turning their specific being into a contingent and gratuitous property : everything that is, is both itself, and a sign pointing to a primordial act of signifying, of expression, all appearance becoming thus an inexhaustible system of signs, an universal repository of divine traces.

(No wonder, then, that phenomenology, as a task, is inherently aporetic, and can only end up in poetry, psychology, or mysticism, since the instability of appearance, the impossibility of their self-disclosure, is entailed by the very concept of analyzing appearances. Things are never themselves, to go back to them (zur sache !), therefore, is only to reveal their oscillation.)

What we are dealing with is not, then, a specifically mythological, religious, theological, or metaphysical problem, one that a new form of thinking, free of conceptual dogmas, might easily shake off ; as we have reframed it, it is a problem of the truth of thinking, of the very possibility of discussing the status of what is, as it relates, both to what appears, and to what causes its appearance. It is a problem with the intelligibility of things as such, with the possibility, and even desirability, of a principle, of the search for such a principle in thinking as such. It is a meta-ontological problem, one that runs from Parmenides through classical theology, to modern philosophy, up to Deleuze, Schürmann, and contemporary theological enquiries.

Let us focus a bit more, and consider how theophany came into form as a philosophical question, historically. Indeed, it is the very trajectory that we have so far taken, from mythology to the most abstract forms of philosophical speculation, which Greek thought has espoused.

Theophany finds its origins in a moment of tension and anguish within the pagan world, whose rather conventional and practical-oriented form of religion finds itself gradually superseded by the radical messianic promise of a new form of life offered by christianity (on this climate, and the difference of intensity between paganism and christianity, see for instance Paul Veyne’s When our World became Christian : 312-394). 

Within the philosophical domain, this results in a crisis of the then-dominant paradigm of Stoicism, which, along with its ethics of endurance, proposed a holistic form of naturalism (i.e., the World as a self-regulating organism) which was deemed overly materialistic, lacking in metaphysical cohesion, and incapable of answering the spiritual demands of the time. Here, the legacy of Plato, which had managed to survive, in a somewhat diminished form, over the course of eight hundred years, starts to appear as a promising option, with its dynamic appeal to a transcendent spiritual-ideal form of being. A philosopher known as Plotinus, hailing from Alexandria (where he studied under a certain Ammonios, who left no written works), moves to Rome to set up a new platonic school, attracting many students around him, engaging in polemics with rival pagan, christian, and gnostic schools. With him begins what is now known as Neoplatonism.

(It is worth noting that the term « neoplatonism » is a modern name given to this school of thought, which defined itself rather as a synthesis of the whole of Greek philosophy (with epicureanism excluded from the canon) under the dominion of a renewed interpretation of Plato. This interpretation, which was in many important respects a complete overhaul of Plato’s literal doctrine in order to salvage what was seen as its spirit, was so successful, that by most accounts it was not until Schleiermacher, in the late XVIIIth century, that the historical Plato was separated from the “neoplatonic Plato”)

Neoplatonism has for itself a double task, which turns out to be, in an important sense, one and the same : to unify the multiple, to show the inner cohesion within the variety of appearances, both on a theological level, and on a doctrinal level. In the latter case, it embarks upon a complex synthesis of Stoïc, Aristotelian, and Platonic ontologies. On the theological level, the problem is to affirm both the reality of the multiple Gods as active within the world, and the preeminence of an absolute reality, known as the principle, the Good, or the One (sometimes called « the God » as well). 

Let me quote from the treatise known as “Against the Gnostics”, where one finds Plotinus’ ardent defense of polytheism :

« Not only statues of the gods, but also the gods themselves are found here, watchers from above, who (as we read) easily rebut human reproaches, since they lead all things in order from a beginning to an end, allotting to each human being, as life follows life, a fortune shaped to all that has preceded -the destiny which, to those that do not penetrate it, becomes the matter of boorish insolence upon things divine. A man’s one task is to strive towards making himself perfect, though not in the idea, really fatal to perfection, that to be perfect is possible to himself alone.

We must recognize that other men have attained the heights of goodness, as have also the benevolent demons, and above all of the gods, those whose presence is here and their contemplation There, and loftiest of them, the lord of this All, the most blessed Soul. Following its example, we must sing a hymn to the intelligible divinities, and, above all these, to the mighty king of that dominion, whose majesty is made patent in the very multitude of the gods. It is not by reducing the divine unto a unity but by displaying it in as multiple a fashion as the god himself has displayed it, that we show knowledge of the might of god, who, abidingly what he is, yet creates that multitude, all dependent on him, existing by him and from him. 

This Universe, too, exists by him and looks to him -the universe as a whole and every god within it- and tells of his decrees to men through oracles, all alike revealing the plan and will of the Supreme. » 

(Plotinus, « Against the Gnostics » [Enneads II, 9/Treatise 33, section 9, tr. modified, emphasis mine] 

This tension, between the plurality which pagan polytheism is committed to, and a monist tendency inherent to their metaphysical thinking, is crucial, as it is what leads the Neoplatonists to theophanic thought. That is, in order to solve or at least to address as fully as possible this issue, Plotinus is driven to introduce some profound ontological innovations within his otherwise syncretic framework. I am going to introduce these briefly.

The guiding principle of Plotinus’ thought is a shared basic axiom of Greek philosophy, which he interprets in quite a radical fashion : that the multiple and complex is dependant on a higher, simpler term, from which it is derived. This principle of the priority of the simple allows us to posit, from our corporeal existence, the independent existence of a purely spiritual form of being, known as the Soul. The Soul itself, is dependent on the Intellect, which is closer to unity as it is not endowed with individuality. The Intellect (which fuses together the system of platonic Forms with the aristotelian Intellect or Unmoved mover), is in turn derived from a pure principle, which is only unity, the One that is  only one. 

From the height of the One, we can understand a series of levels of being, which are all infused with a growing level of complexity : (2) the Intellect is one-multiple (as it is a systematic unity of the plurality of forms) ; (3) the Soul, one and multiple, (all alike in constitution yet individually formed) ; (4) the World, our reign of bodily existence, a multiplicity inhabited by a lingering unity (since without unity nothing would even have enough cohesion to exist). We can then posit the next step in our ontological descent, that is, Matter (5), or the Multiple as such, the pure multiple, what is below existence itself, lacking any form, yet necessary for corporeality to even be. I will come back on this strange status conferred to matter in this ontological scheme. 

These series of levels are known as Hypostases (“substances, beings”, litt. “realities” ; matter, not being a consistent reality, cannot be properly called a hypostasis), and are the first innovation of Neoplatonism : a masterful, if rather formal, architectonic synthesis of the whole of Greek ontology, according to a pattern of hierarchical progression. From the One, things are generated, according to a principle of contemplative production : the One, unbounded and autonomous, generates the Intellect through a superabundance of its power, and the Intellect constitutes itself by reproducing the perfection of the One at a lower level. The Soul does the same, reproducing the systematic unity of the Intellect, and so on (there are also sub-gradients, which include the Gods and the World-Soul, but we only need the basic mechanism here). From the vantage point of our individuated experience, we can also take the reverse route, through a process of unitive contemplation, wherein looking for the principle of unity within things enable one to correctly understand the dependence of the World upon the Soul, then to grasp the Intellect as such, until finally the One is reached, the highest reality, which is also the most intimate, where the individual is reunited with the source of its being. 

This union is the driving force of Plotinus’ philosophical project ; he is very much a mystic, in the strictest sense, and it is important to keep in mind that all this metaphysical apparatus is best understood as his attempt to articulate, in the most rigorous manner available, the ontological conditions that make possible this radical experience of illumination from the One, which he describes in ontological and poetic fashion (for instance see En. VI, 9/Treatise 9, esp. sec.11).

With this in mind, both in terms of framework and of the dynamics of the system of hypostases, we can move to a more crucial innovation : the Good, or the One, is defined as being beyond Being itself. The One, being radically transcendent, being the source of all being, cannot itself be ; it must be something other, something higher than being. Everything partakes from it, but it partakes in nothing ; everything is an effect of the One, but the One, strictly speaking, causes nothing, it is nothing, in a sense. This full transcendence of the Principle excludes it from participating in what is produced from it, and cuts at the root the central objection to classical platonism known the Third man paradox. It also means that the neoplatonic One cannot be thought in terms of aristotelian Substance, of theological Creator, or as any kind of constituted being ; this is why some philosophers would say that we are not dealing here with a ontology in the traditional sense, but with an henology, where the innermost truth is not defined in terms of being, but of simplicity.

This henological conception is allied to a very clever innovation by Plotinus, that of retroactive nomination, which manages to keep both the activityof the principle, and its pure simplicity, its autarchical character : we cannot say what the Principle, the One, is, only what it does to us, how it affects us. It is called Good, because what goodness we experience is derived from it. It is not cause of things, but we relate to it as being caused by it. No name is appropriate to it, at best metaphorically or through negation (apophasis) can we speak of the One (and we must speak of it, to attest in our thinking its presence within things). In the history of thought this apophatic approach to the Absolute has deeply structured the language of the mystics (Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross…), but for our immediate purposes the importance of this move is that it introduces a dose of instability, one might even say, with a bit of bombast, of subversion, of chaos, within the ontological framework : the Highest is except to the rule it gives, the Sovereign ignores the law. It is not indifferent, for the theologically-politically minded among us, that the One is also conceived, by opposition with aristotelian actuality, in terms of power, of a power beyond being of making come into being ; this thesis, coupled with the strict hierarchy of the hypostases, results in a very “imperial” metaphysical system, with a supreme term as locus of power ordering the great chain of beings. 

The copresence of an internal subversion of order at the highest level with a strict hierarchy of beings is indeed a fascinating aspect of Neoplatonism, which we can find again and again as the central aporia of theophanic thinking. It is a major innovation, indeed, to inscribe, as definition of the first Principle, an ontological separation that implies a reversal of “onto-theological” properties : power rather than actuality, nothingness rather than being, freedom rather than order. It is in Plotinus, for instance, that we find the first instance of the concept of self-causation, which encapsulates the vitality and the paradoxical nature of such thinking.

To come back to the problem of theophany, we can then phrase it in its most perplexing form, that “the One is all things, and it is none of them” (En. V,2/Treatise 11). This is because the « configuration », the configuring, or taking-form, of the One, is already one step removed from the One as such, yet a necessary step for anything to be caused by the One.  Theophany, then, posits a principle of estrangement internal to the One, a self-sundering between the Absolute one and a Manifest one. But this in turn generates an endless recursivity of splits and divisions internal to the principality of the principle. We are then led to both affirm the immanent presence of the One, or the Principle, in all things, and to conserve its purity by conceiving of this presence as a trace, a sign, rather than a full actuality. The manifestation, the phanein, of the One is only done indirectly, yet universally, through a series of mediations, potentially infinite.

So far we have waded into the original school of theophanic thought with neoplatonism, in order to gain a basic grasp of the motivations that would drive such a thought. Before we try to assess it further, it might be worthwhile to linger one last time within history, to trace the specific appearances of theophany. Historically, Greek thought is the first of three major instances where theophany is deployed explicitly in theological discussions, the other two being Christianity and Islam. The specifics are markedly different for each, even though one could say that, as theologies, they are grappling with a similar problem, that of the unity of faith and reason, of mythology with philosophy, within revelation : roughly, this takes the form of the question of the Pantheon, of Incarnation, and of the Word of God.

We have seen how Greek thought used theophany as a way of reconciling the belief in the polytheistic immanence of the divine with a drive towards monism generating the paradoxical apophatism of the One beyond Being. I will simply add an interesting illustration of this situation, through the story of Zeus and Semele as told, in painting, by Gustave Moreau. Semele was one of Zeus’ mortal lovers, who was spurred by the ever jealous Hera to ask of Zeus to show himself in all his glory ; forced to do so by a promise made to Semele, Zeus had to comply, and Semele was killed instantly, with Zeus saving her child (Dionysos) by hiding it in his own thigh until its birth.

There are two versions of this episode in the Gustave Moreau museum in Paris. The first one is rather conventional, and depicts a naked and dying Semele on the knees of a stern, patriarchal Zeus on his throne. The second, quite fascinating, takes the same setup, but instead of a bearded Zeus, we have a strange, androgynous figure, and below, a full host of figures, men, women, angels, all with their attributes and symbols, bursting on all sides in what looks like a temple, all religious traditions meshed and cohabiting in the space of the frame. 

This latter figuration (, I think, captures something of theophany : the manifesting of a god implying the unfolding of the entire pantheon, all divinities partaking in a single principial essence.

Christianity, by contrast, is concerned with the retraction of the Principle, of God, from the world ; it has to come to grips with the drama of the Incarnation, epiphany as we have called it, which entails, rather than a blossoming of God into the world, the notion of kenosis,of the self-emptying of God into Man. This void-oriented alteration of God, through its own death, into the world, and the ultimate Redemption it promises, is, at best, a mitigated version of theophany, one which justifies a peculiarly moral view of the universe. Insofar as Christianity, in its reappropriation of judaic, hellenic, and gnostic forms of thought, under the yoke of messianism, tries to find a precarious balance between its sources, one can say that theophany is one of its limits : any affirmation of the perfection of the world as manifestation of God carries with it the peculiarly pagan implication of the latent eternity of the world, and the unabashed naturalism this seems to entail. We should remember the Michelet’s lament on the death of the great Pan at the opening of La Sorcière (translated as Satanism and Witchcraft) here. Hegel provides us with the strongest example of what we could call the negative theophany that characterizes kenosis : Spirit, Geist, in order to effectuate itself, has to become something other than itself, that is, nature, bodily existence, pure exteriority. This step is necessary, in order for Spirit to gradually conquer itself in concrete form, the natural world being the husk, the cadaver of Spirit, the lower means by which it is able to gain full actuality in Self-consciousness, culminating in the Absolute spirit. Here we have a rearranging of the dualism found in neoplatonic thought, in a temporal manner : what was an oscillation between presence and absence, between illumination and darkness, is now a process, by which the world, disgraced by the Fall, might be finally redeemed, through History.

Nonetheless, within the barriers it has set for itself, Christian thought has provided us with some truly powerful reflections on the theophanic nature of the world, through the inquiries into the relationship between Creator and creature, into the solidarity that binds these two aspects of being, most notably with a thinker like Scot Eriugena. Much of the debates on the univocal, analogical, or equivocal nature of this primordial relationship, between Thomas Aquinas, Ockham, and Eriugena, deal with the possibility of looking at the creatures of God as theophanies. But, it should be kept in mind, that this theophany, even when affirmed, has to be latent, potential, if it is not to relapse into idolatry : the beauty of Creation is a reflection of the Creator, but it is marked by a profound ambiguity, being also a mark of the distance from God. What was an object of nostalgia for the Origin, in paganism, here, under the impetus of the promise of Christ to redeem the world, becomes a melancholic sigh in front of a fallen world.

Judaism reveals even more clearly a refusal of the more pagan aspects of theophany : « adorators of the Stars » is what Maïmonides calls the all-too-worldly Philosophers, ignorant of divine wisdom, foolishly believing in a divinity of the natural world. In modern times, Levinas, with his God defined by radical transcendence towards the ontic, with his priority given to ethics over ontology, embodies a contemporary version of this position. In the most cosmological tendencies of judaism, namely Kabbalah, jewish mysticism comes the closest to elaborating a wonderful system of the resonances of the divine, where each sefira embodies a certain stage of God’s self-disclosure in harmonic fashion. Even then, however, the catastrophe known as the « breaking of the vases », the more distant contraction (tsimtsum) of God, and the horizon of redemption (tiqqun), spin this story in a different direction, away from theophany, according to the drama of the Fall of Adam. 

Within Islam, according to my limited knowledge, theophanic thinking has been present, through the strong influence of neoplatonism, in a more radically hierarchical fashion, with the Word of God being the prime focus for the self-disclosure of God, according to the specific status of the Quran as Holy Word in Islam. I will simply point to Souad Ayada’s work on theophany in Islam, which was one of the inspirations for this presentation, for a better account. She argues that islam has constructed, not only the abstract, rigorous and faceless monotheism which is characteristic of its usual depictions in western philosophy, but also a specific doctrine of manifestation within the figures such as the Quran, the divine names, or the figure of the ideal man, culminating into a theological aesthetics, where the modes of representation are seen as modes of appropriately manifesting the divinity. This is, in her account, how Islam attempted to mediate the tension between revelation and the hidden nature of God.

Similarly, I will content myself with quoting Alain Corbin, in order to evoke what is maybe the strongest version of theophany within Islam, that is, the work of Suhrawardi, XIIth Century Persian philosopher and mystic, in his thought of Ishraq (illumination), geared towards God as universal light :

We can understand it as the wisdom —the theosophy—of which the Ishraq is the source, being both the illumination and the reflection (zuhur) of being, and the act of awareness which, by unveiling it (kashf), is the cause of its appearance (makes it a phainomenon). Thus, just as in the sensible world the term signifies the splendour of the morning, the first radiance of the star, in the intelligible Heaven of the soul it signifies the epiphanic moment of knowledge. Consequently, by Oriental philosophy or theosophy we must understand a doctrine founded on the Presence of the philosopher at the matutinal appearance of the intelligible Lights, at the outpouring of their dawn on the souls who are in a state of estrangement from their bodies. (The History of Islamic Philosophy)

This brief historical overview enables us to see that theophany, as a theme or as a limit, has attached itself deeply in the various intellectual and theological traditions ; we should now turn to see what sort of problems arise, given what we have established, and what sort of conceptualization they require of us.

I have tried here to describe the workings of some theophanic aspects within philosophy, but at this point I feel like this amounts to little more than giving theophanic examples without getting us any closer to understanding what theophany is, or what it means. In some respect, this is very much the point, or at least the position I find myself currently in, of merely exposing the mechanisms that give rise to something like theophany, and the paradoxes that arise therefrom. In some sense, this is very purposeful, since theophany does not seem to be strictly speaking reducible to one limited set of propositions. This is apparent if we examine the question of the meanings of being to which I alluded to earlier. This question can be phrased in the following manner, in what sense do our predicates apply to the Principle, to God ? What does it mean, for instance to call God good, or to call it Father ? Equivocity posits a strict demarcation between creatures and creator, such that God cannot be Father except in a metaphoric manner (but this also means that it might not be “good”) ; univocity posits that there is but one meaning for both, which might commit us to say that God is literally father of all human beings, which would be a somewhat mysterious statement ; analogy, as a moderate position, posits a relationship of proportionality, given the gap between creator and creatures, so that God is to its creation as a father is to his children.

In that context, then, it would seem that theophany is, by definition, on the side of univocity : if the world is the manifestation of God, then the ubiquity of God, its immanence within the world, seems to imply that the world is God, that all things are in God and by God, to quote from Spinoza. This seems straightforward enough, until we remember that the notion of the world as manifestation of God entails the non-appearance of God as such, its retraction from visibility, which takes us back to equivocity, as in the identification of the One with a non-being beyond being in neoplatonism. This is already problematic, but then it does not seem arbitrary that the systems we have alluded to are deeply hierarchical : this is because the notion of manifestation, understood as imitation or reproduction of the Principle, admits a variety of gradients, or levels of being, which takes us back to analogical thinking.

At this stage, it might be tempting to leave theophany to its ambiguities, and conclude that it is a hopelessly confused notion, or at least one that does not admit of a clear-cut definition, and can be variously used of deployed (sometimes within the same philosophical system). It might be said, indeed, that the position of theophany is inherently unstable, and does not resolve itself nicely into any one characterization, as it embraces and shifts between ontological categories, remaining a problem, an enigma, for philosophical thinking, tracing its limits, which are that of the appropriation of the ineffable through conceptual thinking.

This might certainly be a valid conclusion, and indeed it contains an important insight, to wit, that philosophy does not generate all of its materials from itself, but, in an important sense, inherits from and depends on certain kinds of practices and experiences (notably, here, that of mysticism) to fashion its ornate systems. But even with this in mind, I think there are some meaningful observations to be made.

The first, is that, as multiple and pliable as theophany seems, its various instances share a certain radicality, which we could phrase in terms of austerity, of a refusal to compromise with extraneous categories or modes of thought. This is a little vague, so maybe it might be more useful to note that theophany tends towards affirming, either explicitly or implicitly, a principle of beauty and harmony towards the world, which relies on an æstheticization of all things. The world is affirmed as kosmos, as spectacle or mirror of God. This æsthetic aspect is crucial, as it outlines a definite resistance of theophanic thinking to properly theological or religious appropriations : in theophanic thinking, there is no place for punishment, redemption, or, indeed, for the problem of evil, to be posed in any way. That does not mean, I think, that the illuminative standpoint on which theophany rests implies a denial of the reality of evil, but that evil and suffering, as phenomena, become enfolded into the fuller reality of the Absolute principle, which becomes a being of radical indifference to human concerns, a monstrous and inhuman Totality which implies in it not only the ecstasis of illumination, but as well the “night of the world”, the terror before an ontological abyss, as its constituents. Even if this is the case, it is quite apparent that theophany offers no consolation, no salvation outside of this world, and little in the way of hope in the usual religious sense, that it pushes us, I would not say towards fatalism, but towards a certain form of quietism (one that does not entails subjective indifference to human concerns of justice, as the example of Spinoza shows).

This question of evil leads us to the second point I would like to make, which is to note a strange affinity, in the neoplatonic schema I outlined earlier, between the two extreme terms of the ontological “line”, between the supra-essential One, and the infra-essential matter, which is described by Plotinus as the source of evil (as opposed to the sole absence of good posited by the estrangement from the One that the process of ontological degradation necessitates) : they are both extra-ontological, both identified in terms of formlessness, of lack of limitation, and so on. It becomes extremely tempting, then, to collapse both of these into one another, to identify the “highest” with the “lowest”, as a dual-aspect, a dualistic reification on the nature of the Principle as principle. In this sense, traditional theophanic thought has relied upon a conflation between the contemplative perspective (a-b), with the dependency perspective (c-d) ; insofar as we turn ourselves towards the light, towards the purity of the principle as source, we are going to miss the quasi-subordination of the principle towards its products, its own internal inconsistency. From then it is possible to articulate a view of theophany where, so to speak, the extremes are joined, above as below, not in a micro-macrocosmic manner, but rather, in a fundamental way, as the impossibility, for the principle, of estranging itself from its consequent, as a realization of itself.

While not necessarily explicit, it seems to me that this has been, in substance, the underlying thread of modern philosophy as it originates in Averroes and Avicenna ; to come up with a non-hierarchical concept of the Principle, so as to progressively eliminate all notions of gradients, of participation as mimesis, of mediations between the Absolute and its World ; this is what we see, most clearly, in the work of Spinoza, in Deleuze’s analysis of spinozean expression as opposed to mimesis, for instance.

Another story, to conclude : in a collection of essays on neoplatonism, Pierre Hadot analyses in detail the role of the myth of Narcissus as a metaphor for the generation of individual souls : like Narcissus, the human souls became trapped in a specular trap, turning their gaze from the One, to the formless mirror of matter, and fell in love with their own reflection, until they plunged into the dark waters of material existence. This anthropogenic myth, used to account for the worldly being of things in matter, can be also used, in a reverse fashion, to think about the dualistic trap that gave rise to what I have tried to outline as the hierarchical, regressive version of theophany : the confusion between the order of thinking, the necessary abstraction of levels necessary to intuit, from our situated existence, the immanent order of progression to the principle as such, and the obscure, impersonal, inapparent generation from the principle as productive force, as Nature, one could say, this confusion between the order of thinking and the order of generation, may be the conceptual origin of the crystallisation of the theophanic insight into Being, to a rigid, hypostatic metaphysics. It may be that this sundering between abstraction as a necessary order of contemplation, and the activity of the principle as such, which does not mean an ontological but a perspectival dualism of internal refractions of being, engendering a parallax of models, is what necessitates tending to, in order to maintain the theophanic perspective in a renewed light.

But even this interpretation, it has to be said, does not let us off the hook ; if theophany was evidenced as, in a sense, untenable, unsustainable, as a pure affirmation, it is because this affirmation has to be supplemented with a principle of order, a indexation of Being towards its principle, once the principle itself has been recognized. This is the origin of the hierarchical interpretations of theophany :  in order to ground nature of the forms of being, matter and form, human and animal, spirit and flesh, they were conceived as necessary orderings. Below the fascinating interplay between God and the World, the hierarchy of beings is affirmed, everything established in its righteous place. Order restored through the exhaustion of chaos in the divine. 

But this is not the sole property of analogical or onto-theological thinking, one that we would have fully extracted ourselves from : Spinoza’s radical distribution of theophany within divine immanence is still infused with a hierarchical ordering ; one that is not of imitation or contemplation towards the principle, but one according to the actualization of the principle, what is termed intensity. This is what so-called « flat ontologies » must struggle as well : how to understand the structure of the world, once it has been defined in terms of an anarchical distribution of beings ?

This issue is still with us, then. It is not an accident, I think, that the neoplatonic school of Athens ended (in Justinian’s edict banning pagan philosophers from the Empire), in the sixth Century, with Damascius, whose masterwork, Aporias and Resolutions, constitutes a formidable, extremely sophisticated almost to the point of absurdity, inquiry into the myriad paradoxes generated by theophanic thinking. The acknowledgment of the apparent absurdity of the task, to say that God is both manifest within things, and absent from them, is not a reason for abandoning it, since it is in wrestling with this primordial enigma that thought is forced to become creative, generative, to make itself in the image of its principle, however obscure it may remain.

Mikkel : Since you have yourself prevented many objections from being raised by addressing them in some form, the best response would be to ask what an additional “turn” would be on the logic of principiality you have presented : does not thinking, in articulating itself towards the notion of a principle, become a theory of thought, for instance, of transcendental subjectivity ?

This is very much the case ; as Schelling says of Plato, that he objectivates what is in truth the nature of subjectivity, it may certainly be raised that kantism and post-kantian idealism have taken this supplementary turn, in inquiring into the constitution of subjectivity as the locus of generation of what the neoplatonist thought was an ontological order. The best answer I can formulate at present is that even the transcendental subject must be thought as coming about in some manner, and that this is precisely where the logic of principiality becomes again active.

Haydn : I thought the notion of the manifestation of particular Gods quite interesting, in that it introduces a sort of hesitation in appearances, in what one encounters. Does that mean that we are at risk of mis-identifying the divine manifestations, so that someone would mistake itself on the apparition of the Gods, or pretend to be a God ?

As far as I know, that is not literally the case ; I am not however particularly knowledgeable on Classical mythology and religion, so this might just be a reflection of my ignorance, but this ignorance itself is an indication in a sense : some myths talk of Gods cloaking themselves as mortals, and not being properly recognized by the mortals they encounter, but there are no famous tales of the reverse case that I can think of, although they might exist. There is story of Zeus and Hermes disguising themselves as beggars and being mistreated by a town, only to be greeted with benevolence by some elderly couple, which they save from the destruction of the rest of the city. 

One interesting book on Ancient mentality to look at would be Veyne’s Did the Greek believe in their Myths ? The locus for the question of falsification, I think, is that the oracles, or the invocation of the will of the Gods, which are often susceptible to error. There is, however, an interesting case, told by Lucian, of Glycon, which was a snake god that was being used to speak oracles, and turned out to be only a puppet. It has become famous in recent years since Alan Moore converted to hermeticism and became a magician, and took as his god Glycon, arguing that since he identifies magic and the imagination, the best possible God to worship is an imaginary one…


Stanislas Breton, Du principe. L’organisation contemporaine du pensable (an impressive problematic analysis on the notion of the Principle as a driving force within philosophy and theology)

Christian Jambet, « Theophany and the Stranger »

Souâd Ayada, L’islam des théophanies. Une religion à l’épreuve de l’art

Eugene Thacker, After Life (contains an extensive discussion on the problem of the meaning of being in Medieval philosophy, and its repercussions on contemporary thought)

Peter Hallward, Out of this World. Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (a critical discussion of Deleuze’s thought as the latest embodiment of the theophanic approach)

Plotinus : Treatises 9 (VI, 9), 12 (II, 4), 24, (V,6) 30 (III, 8), 38 (VI, 7), 39 (VI, 8), 49 (V, 3) (with 9 and 38 as the central works) ; a good introduction his Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus, or the Simplicity of Vision

Damascius, Aporias and Resolutions concerning First Principles

Citer ce billet
Louis Morelle (2023, 18 juin). Morning Hours on Theophany. Marginalia. Consulté le 26 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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