A Latin Avicennist Mystical Group
In the late 12th century, Avicennist philosophy was certainly being welcomed by certain Latin Christian scholars. Apart from the few bold experimenters who were interested in the religious teachings of alchemy, is there any other evidence that a living illuminist tradition, – which was such a small but remarkable feature of contemporary Islam, – was passed to the West, at the same time as the philosophical ideas that underpinned it?
At the end of the twelfth century, any individuals in Latin Europe, interested in a more mystical and open-minded religious tradition based on personal experience, would have made sure that it was promoted only among trusted and careful friends. Finding evidence for such clandestine aspirations is not very likely, in lands where the rulers, feeling constantly insecure and threatened by their power-hungry neighbours, maintained their position by sheer brutality. It would surely have been too dangerous to publish ideas about personal religious experience and inner spiritual authority, in a society whose leaders were determined to protect an acquiescent church, which promoted hierarchical values, docile conformity and unchallenged obedience.
The Journey of the Soul (Peregrinatio Animae)
Nevertheless, a little-known, anonymous religious work, written in Latin and clearly influenced by Islamic and Jewish Avicennism, has been found: it has been edited by the historian, Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny. She called it the The Journey of the Soul (Peregrinatio Animae), although the historian, M.D.Chenu, gave it a more accurate title: The States of the Inner Man. It is found in a manuscript written in a late 12th-century hand from Italy or Spain. It sometimes uses Arabic doxologies after mentioning God by name, such as:
“from our God (whose reputation is sublime),”
which is typical of the works of the Spanish translators. It employs the same neologisms as do the Latin Avicennists working in Spain, Gundissalinus in particular. It also derives much of its material from the same sources that they used, Avicenna, Ibn Gabirol and the Book of Causes (or Book of First Principles). For all these reasons, and because its iconography seems to be Catalan, M.T. d’Alverny suggested that it came from Catalonia. An earlier historian, E.Cerulli, however, had assumed that it derived from Sicily, since it belonged to the monastery of San Pietro di Vecchio Lodi in Italy at the end of the 13th century.
It is a fascinating work, because its background is Avicennist, and its teaching is mystical: how to attain personal mystical union with God in this life (which the author usually calls felicity), and permanent union with God for eternity (which he usually calls beatitude).
The threefold nature of man
The book begins by stating that the nature of man is threefold:
“the inner man, the outer man and, the two put together, the whole or composite man.”
The ‘inner man’ is the soul, and the ‘outer man’ is the body. This twofold division is a commonplace of Christian writing from Augustine to the Cistercians. The threefold division, however, is closer to what is found in the opening words of one of the treatises of the Rasā’il of the Ikhwān al-Safā (the Brethren of Purity):
“Know, O brother, that the knowledge of one’s own self is the key to every science, and this is threefold; first, man ought to be acquainted with the component part and economy of his own body, and with all those qualities which are independent of the influences of the soul; secondly, he ought to study the soul and its qualities independent of the body; and thirdly, he ought to understand their joint action.”
It should not be too surprising that the author seems to have been familiar with some of the writings of the Brethren of Purity. It is known that their work was still valued, because another of their treatises (on logic) had recently been translated into Latin.
The Journey of the Soul will not be concerned with the body, which is left to the physicians, nor with the composite man, which is left to the rulers and law-makers, but with
“the inner man alone, which could be called hidden and divine. […] We need to find what states our souls may come to, when they are drawn out of the body, according to what can be read in the writings of the prophets, the most expert philosophers, the doctors of law and the teachers of the Church, although nothing will be definitively proved, just by reading these descriptions.”
What does the curious phrase about the soul being ‘drawn out’ mean? Why does the author not simply talk of the moment of death? Is he trying to find an expression, which could refer to the liberation of the soul at death, but which could also refer to ecstatic moments of liberation before that? The suspicion that not everything is being openly stated is reinforced by the final clause, that the reading of this book will not be sufficient on its own. The author seems to be suggesting that, to go with his book, there is a religious practice that has to be learned, or experienced, through personal contact.
Spiritual health and sickness
The book goes on to draw upon the medical distinction, as used by Avicenna, of health, sickness and indifference. Just as the body can be in health, in sickness or in neither (in a state of indifference), so the soul has three states, right, left and centre, and it can change from one to the other. The Brethren of Purity also talked of the two poles of health and sickness for the soul as for the body: right and wrong conduct, balance and distortion, bliss and misery. Like the Brethren, the author of this little book is mainly concerned with the two poles, the way to the right and the way to the left, spiritual health and spiritual sickness, the sheep and the goats:
“The ‘right-hand’ disposition of the soul is called by many names in the books of divine knowledge. Those on the right can be called sheep, while those on the left are called goats. […] The right-hand condition can be called felicity, and the left-hand one misery. Also the right one can be called beatitude and paradise, and the left one torture and hell.”
For the distinction between the sheep and the goats, he quotes from Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgement, in which a shepherd sorts his flocks into sheep (on the right) and goats (on the left). In his reference to “books of divine knowledge” in the plural, he is probably aware that the Qur’ān also makes a distinction between the everlasting pleasure of the Companions of the Right and the everlasting pain of the Companions of the Left.
Patterns of tens
The book will go on to describe two parallel series of 10 steps on the path to the right. The way to the right is first prescribed as a course, in 10 stages, of progressive spiritual enlightenment: how to attain felicity (i.e. spiritual fulfilment and mystical union in this life). It is then described again, in terms of the eternal rewards at the end of the path to the right (i.e. the 10 degrees of beatitude), which will be spent in the upper, spiritual circles of heaven near to the throne of God. The way to the left is then described, in terms of the 10 degrees of eternal punishment for the damned, in the lower and more material circles of the universe. There is then a list of 10 negative and 10 positive instructions, to help people to avoid the way to the left.
The book is wholly patterned in tens and is very reminiscent of the Neopythagoreanism of the Brethren of Purity and of later Avicennists like Ibn al-Sīd. The Brethren had a similar conception altogether: that man is placed midway between the terrestrial and celestial worlds, and can climb by degrees down into the world of matter, which is hell, or by degrees up into the world of spirit, towards God. There is a gap between those in paradise and those in hell, and in the gap there is a wall. On the wall stand those who are in neither, but can see both. Such a soul is described in The Journey of the Soul as
“the soul which reaches a state midway between the two, and can be said to be neutral.”
10 steps on the ascent to felicity
The part of this little book, which is of particular interest in the search for any trace of a mystical tradition being passed from the Maghrib to the Latin West, is the first list of 10 steps, the 10 grades of felicity for the ‘denuded’ soul (as the soul that can liberate itself from corporeal concerns is described).
The first step is for the soul to realise that it is part of the world-soul, – which is very high up in the chain of being, – for then it will see the need to take control, not just of its own body and its own life, but of anything in this material world. The urges and appetites of the body have to be checked and made to serve the perfection of the soul. For this, knowledge is vital. The second step is, therefore, to gain knowledge of the world, so that the soul can put itself in control of what is beneath it. The third step is to cultivate all the virtues appropriate for the soul, which will bring it great joy. Self-discipline will lead to self-esteem.
The soul now wishes to raise itself up.
“The fourth is for the soul to be filled with light, of such clarity that it can see into the depths of its self.”
This leads to the fifth felicity, a state of sufficiency and quietude, because the soul now understands itself and knows that it has everything that it needs.
The sixth felicity is for the soul to desire only what it possesses, to want to be what it is, and so to attain complete integrity in itself. In the seventh, the soul basks in
“the flow of light from the divine Being.”
It delights in being in God, as God delights in being in the soul:
“The mind and intention of God and the illumination of his light descend upon the righteous soul, rest on it and remain with it. In this way God is in the soul and the soul in God.”
In the eighth felicity, the soul becomes one with all things and feels
“the impress and image of Being on itself,”
and is set on fire with love for God. The ninth is a state of utter blessedness, when the soul is at one with the whole hierarchy of being.
The tenth and final state of felicity is perfect union with God, described as the Trinity:
“These three are said to be one: they are that Being; it is them. When the soul has fully comprehended that Being, it will attach itself to it and unite with it. From this attachment and union, the soul will become filled with light, satiated with the coming of all it could wish for, sanctified and strengthened by the one who is the greatest strength of all. […] God will become all in all.”
These steps to felicity are very close to the stages of the mystical ascent of the Sufi, as described by Avicenna and dramatised in the poetry of Ibn al-‘Arīf of Almería: effort of will; purification by the purging of sin and the practice of virtue; illumination; quietude; understanding the oneness of being in all things; feeling very close to God; the perfection and abandonment of the self in union with God.
The 10 degrees of unified being
The Journey of the Soul then describes the second ascending scale, that of the 10 degrees of unified being. These are attached to the 10 circles of intelligence and the 9 choirs of the angelic hierarchy. Avicenna’s Agent Intelligence shares the bottom circle with the Angels, and the first created substance is in the topmost angelic circle with the Cherubim. The tenth and topmost circle is that of God,
“filling, with his being and his light, whatever is below him down to the centre of the earth, which is the abyss. […] Nothing is empty of his being or hidden from his power. He is the first cause, the power of powers, the first creator, the primal light, […] one to the limits of unity, the unlighted light of illumination, necessary to the highest degree of necessity” etc.
Awareness of other revealed religions
The author goes on to mention that some Jewish philosophers think that Moses attained this tenth rank of beatitude; but he can only find evidence that Christ reached that final and perfect grade. Next, he lists the 10 grades of misery, eternal punishments that take place in the 10 lowest spheres of the universe.
He then remarks that these ladders of felicity and misery were known to the three wise lawgivers, Moses, Muhammad and Christ:
“these ten states of felicity and misery, which I have outlined in general terms, […] have been acknowledged by all the just lawgivers and all those extremely wise men who have worked for the salvation of others. In them has shone the light and knowledge of God. They have had his word on their tongues. This was the case for Moses, Mahomet and particularly for Christ, who was greater than the other two, and whose teachings were even more powerful.”
All three therefore instituted 10 negative prohibitions (to save souls from hell) and 10 positive commands (to lead souls to blessedness), which are listed. Most are taken from the Bible.
The three founders and their revelations seem to be put on the same level. Christ’s revelation is only seen to differ in degree, and not in kind, from the others. As so often, a philosophical and mystical interpretation of religion, based on personal experience, leads to the rejection of any claims for the exclusive truth of one’s own religious dogma. At the time, this could certainly have made the Church suspicious that the book was heterodox.
Not only is the book itself radical, mystical and dependent on Arabic mystical writings, but there is an accompanying illustration that suggests that it emanated from an organised group of practising mystics.
The accompanying illustration
In the manuscript that contains The Journey of the Soul, there are two illustrations, which seem to be related to that work. The first is an incomplete draft of the second, and so only the second illustration will be reproduced below, in tabular form, in English. It has 32 arcs, representing 32 concentric circles, plus 2 divisions which are above the circles. These symbolise all the spheres that make up the cosmos, making a ladder from the centre of the earth to God.
God is pictured above the topmost sphere, as Christ enthroned in majesty, next to the words “God, Creator of all, First Cause,” and underneath are the words “the Divine Will.” Below that, in 32 circles, are written the names of the links in the great chain of being, which the illustrator believes must separate the Creator, the One, from the multiplicity of his creation. This could be read downwards as stages in the development of the universe, or upwards as stages on the spiritual journey of the creature back to God:
God, Creator of all, First Cause
The First Caused, the first created being, principle of all creatures, containing all creatures within itself
Angels – First Intelligence
Archangels – Second Intelligence
Thrones – Third Intelligence
Dominions – Fourth Intelligence
Virtues – Fifth Intelligence
Principalities – Sixth Intelligence
Powers – Seventh Intelligence
Cherubim – Eighth Intelligence
Seraphim – Ninth Intelligence
Order of Elders – Tenth Intelligence
Nature, the principle of body
Tenth sphere, the principle of the movement of the universe from east to west
Ninth sphere, which determines the precession of the equinoxes: north/south
Eighth sphere – Sphere of the [Fixed] Stars
Sphere of Saturn
Sphere of Jupiter
Sphere of Mars
Sphere of the Sun
Sphere of Venus
Sphere of Mercury
Sphere of the Moon
Earth – Centre of the world.
The topmost part of the scheme, with its hierarchy of Creator, Divine Will, potential form and matter, is very reminiscent of Ibn Gabirol’s Fountain of Life:
“Form encloses matter […] the will encloses form […] and God, the highest and holiest, encloses the will and all that is in it of matter and form.”
The 10 circles of intelligence are related to the 9 ranks of pseudo-Dionysius’ celestial hierarchy (the 9 choirs of angels), with an order of elders to make the number up to 10. However, the illustrator has surely made a mistake: he has written them in order 1-9, with the angels at the top and the seraphim at the bottom. He has forgotten that his circles are in descending order, and so they should have been written from 9 to 1. He has then put the circles of the soul, the planetary spheres and the 4 elements in the correct descending order.
It is immediately apparent that, although there may be general similarities between the cosmos of the sketch and the cosmos of The Journey of the Soul, the sketch was not produced to illustrate the book. There are too many differences: small ones, such as the use of the more common Christian order of cherubim and seraphim in the illustration; and big ones, such as the addition of another 14 ranks (five for the Creator; one for Nature; four for the soul; and four for the elements) to complicate the simple pattern of 10s of The Journey of the Soul.
The total number of grades in the hierarchy of the illustration is 34 which, as 17 x 2, would have been very acceptable to the Brethren of Purity, as well as to certain Islamic alchemists. The result is indeed very close to the scheme of the Brethren of Purity, who taught that there were 15 circles of paradise above the soul and 15 of hell below it. In the long list copied above, there are 15 divisions above the 4 circles of the soul and 15 below them.
The 10 figures climbing the ladder
The illustration seems to be an independent work, which was probably produced by the same group, or movement, that used the book. What is most fascinating about the illustration is what I have so far omitted to describe: the climbing figures, which are placed on the circles as on a ladder. Here at last is Ibn al-Sīd’s ‘ladder of ascension’, a personal and mystical interpretation of the hierarchy of the cosmos, which he mentioned, but which he deliberately left out of his work. There are 10 human figures, which gradually increase in size and age as they ascend, from the smallest boy sitting on the globe of the world, and being pulled up by his hair by the figure above him, to the three older men at the top, who are bearded. This use of the progress from youth to age, as a symbol for describing the gradual perfection of the individual in the mystical ascent, is reminiscent of the four grades of the Brethren of Purity.
The figures in the illustration are also divided into four grades. Beside the highest figures is written “o my master”. These are presumably the mystics who act as spiritual directors to the novices; they would be called sheikhs in Sufi terminology. By the next group is written “young men”, – presumably to be interpreted allegorically in terms of wisdom rather than age. They are probably undergoing initiation and hoping for illumination. It may be noteworthy that one of the men near the top has an oriental moustache and wears a hat with a tassel, and may represent a Jew.
Below them are “all the associates”, who must be the supporters. The words “all the associates” are written along the circle of the sphere of Nature which, in the terms of the text of The Journey of the Soul, is neither in the grades of felicity nor in the grades of misery. This would put the supporters in the state of indifference, which is neither to the right nor to the left. The supporters have probably decided to reject a life of sin and worldly concerns, but have yet to commit themselves to the rigours of mystical experience. By the lowest group is written: “the rest of the crowd”. These are the unregenerate masses. Their description is written along the circle of the tenth planetary sphere which, in The Journey of the Soul, would correspond to the first grade of misery.
The upper figures each hold in their hand what looks like a scroll, which may be indicative of the wisdom that is now in their possession and on which their progress is based. All the figures are noticeably arranged in a chain, – from the topmost, who touches the left foot of God, to the lowest, who sits solidly upon the earth – each one handing something down to the next (as much wisdom as the one beneath is ready to accept?). The fact that there are 10 figures reinforces the importance of the decad, on which the whole structure of the accompanying text, The Journey of the Soul, is based.
The ladder of ascension
Together, the text and the illustration seem to belong to the Neopythagorean tradition of the Book of Circles and the Sufi tradition of the personal mystical ascent to God. Their mixture of Avicennist, Sufi and Christian ideas is quite remarkable. The most important point about the Avicennist group involved here is that they were passing on, not just mystical ideas, but mystical practice, a living example of illuminist and pantheist religious experience. That is why I have attempted to make an English translation of the Journey of the Soul, which I have appended to the final section.
It is astonishing just how close the late 12th-century Latin Christian Journey of the Soul is to the religious teaching of the 10th-century Arabic and Islamic Rasā’il of the Ikhwān al-Safā. The line of influence, leading from the Islamic mystics of the 9th to the 12th centuries, to their Jewish counterparts in the 11th -12th centuries, and finally to Latin Europe in the late 12th century, is remarkable for its unswerving adherence to the same mathematical and emanationist approach to cosmogony, and the same acceptance of personal mystical experience as the highest reward for any believer. If the tenets of their particular faith community were taken away, there would not be a great deal of difference in the fundamental religious belief of any of those who subscribed to what could be called the Avicennist consensus. There is little fundamental difference between Bāyazīd in the 9th century and Abū Madyan in the 12th, or between Ibn Gabirol the Jew in the far West and his contemporary, Ibn Sīnā, the Muslim far away in the East.
This Neopythagorean openness and this similarity of attitude between religious scholars of three faiths were not to last. Already, the Jews were losing what little freedom and status they had enjoyed, in both Islamic and Christian countries. Islam, increasingly under the control of different Turkish conquerors, was beginning to close in upon itself, and to take refuge in a very conservative literalism (although the really heavy blows which would hammer down upon it, from the Mongols, were still in the future). By the beginning of the 13th century, Latin Western Europe, which had seemed, in the 12th century, to be getting ready to take over the baton of intellectual development, lost its nerve and started to retreat into repression.
One of the repressive actions, which may now be considered as emblematic of the change in attitude of the Latin Church in the 13th century, was the treatment of the Amalricians. Were they the last Latin champions of that open, affirmative Platonist, then Hermeticist, and finally Avicennist attitude of the 12th century? It is time to consider to what extent the Amalricians could have been affected by the Avicennist consensus, by turning to the section entitled CONCLUSION.