In a recently published paper1, Peter Samsel noted how Guénon’s mathematical way of exposing his metaphysics, specifically about manifestation and possibles, was close to the “naïve set theory” (p. 58). He also demonstrated how its extensive use could even clarify Guénon’s teaching (p. 60), or even leverage it up to “asserting general relationships [… although] nowhere developed” (p. 94).

Within Jean Borella’s recent book Problèmes de gnose (Series Théôria, L’Harmattan, 2007.), there is a Chapter VI, named ‘‘Gnose et gnosticisme chez René Guénon’’, which allows not only to perfect the distinction between Gnosis and gnosticism within Guénon’s work itself, but also to characterize Guénon’s doctrine of gnosis, leading to deal with the pure metaphysical notion of the possibles. Doing so, Borella notices what appears to be some Guénon’s excessive usage of the set theory, which interestingly echoes Peter Samsel’s paper.

Anyway, the difficult question of ‘Possibility’ and ‘Reality’ is worth made further explicit, which is the main purpose of this paper.2 After a first section confronting Guénon’s, some Schuon’s and St. Thomas Aquinus’ possibles, a second one shall deal, as announced, with the distinction between Gnosis and gnosticism within Guénon’s work itself.

Universal Possibility and Pure Possibles

Knowledge is a Function of Reality

Guénon’s doctrine aims to clarify the function of gnosis as knowledge. It is a function of reality. Thus, that of which man has effective knowledge is fully real; the rest is merely possible. Knowledge is therefore “realizing”, not in an idealistic way (it does not create the real), but because the real is correlative to the act of knowledge. Moreover, philosophical critics have never failed to point out that to posit a real in itself is to forget the act that posits it.

This is why the affirmation of the absolute and infinite Real sins by excess and by default: by excess, since, being relative, it says more than it is entitled to; by default, since the Absolute is reduced to an affirmation. This difficulty falls away when we realize that it is the Absolute itself that affirms itself in each individual (the Verbum illuminans). Guénon’s original response to the difficulty of a real in itself is found in Les états multiples de l’être (The Multiple States of Being).

Universal Possibility as Determinability of Principle.

Guénon begins by making the famous distinction between Infinity and Universal Possibility. But why? Universal Possibility is “the minimum of determination […] required to […] make the Infinite actually conceivable”3. The Infinite, which can be everything, is therefore non-contradiction (what is contradictory is im-possible) and goes beyond being (the first of all determinations)4. Universal Possibility is therefore not a determination, but “the universal determinability of Principle”5.

Possibility and Reality

Possibility is opposed to reality, in the sense that what is possible is what can be realized. However, Guénon asserts that “the distinction between the possible and the real […] has no metaphysical value, since every possible is real in its own way and according to the mode that its nature implies”6. This is in line with the teaching of Scholasticism: we leave what is possible (the adjective) in favor of the possible (the noun), as such, and can therefore leave aside its eventual realization.

Relative Possibility and Absolute Possibility

To continue this definition of the possible, let’s distinguish between relative and absolute possibilities. The possibility of flying is relative to the bird, the possibility of speaking relative to man. On the other hand, the possibility of a square or a circle depends on its definition, its essence: it is an absolute (or intrinsic, or logical, or metaphysical) possibility. The possible is thus the non-contradictory or the conceivable (a square circle is not conceivable). If you’re an atheist or a materialist, this is always the case: the possible is the conceivable. If we accept God the Creator, the possible are, moreover, the essences (or Ideas, or models, or archetypes) according to which the divine Word thinks all things. As theology puts it, the Word is the “locus of possibilities”.

Universal Possibility and Infinite Possibility

According to an expression borrowed from Father Sertillanges, for Thomas Aquinas, God is an infinite of possibility (in the singular): infinite possibility in God is God himself7. Following S. Thomas, that because “God knows his essence as imitable in such and such a way by such and such a creature, he knows it [therefore] as the proper reason and Idea of that creature”8. Possibilities in God are real from the very reality of God, and so Guénon is right to maintain that, metaphysically, the distinction between the real and the possible is invalid.” S. Thomas’s infinite possibility and Guénon’s universal possibility seem so similar that one might think Guénon had borrowed these elements from Thomasian doctrine (though he knew it only superficially).

Schuon’s Privative Possibilities

Turning now to the “possibilities of non-manifestation”, we may briefly mention Frithjof Schuon’s objections that they are, very empirically, merely “possibilities of absence”: such a basket may contain apples (possibility of manifestation) or be empty (possibility of non-manifestation). This “privative possibility” reveals the ontologizing (and cataphatic) tendency of Schuonism, whereas, for Guénon, the possibilities of non-manifestation infinitely exceed the level of being9.

The Possible is Not the Contingent

For Schuon, the possible is “that which can be and not be”10. While this is a possible definition in everyday language, it cannot be used in philosophy. Indeed, “is possible that which can be” is enough to define possibility (the “can” defines it); to add “or not to be” is to define something else: the “or” signifying eventuality, contingency, non-necessity. And indeed, Scholasticism (when it comes to the modalities of judgment) distinguishes between two pairs of opposites: possible or impossible (depending on whether an essence is conceivable or not), necessary or contingent (the “judgments of existence”: what cannot not be and what can not be).

Possibility of Non-Manifestation and Pure Possibilities

Guénon’s argument, too, is similar to that of St. Thomas: since God is an infinity of possibility, it is impossible for this infinity to be exhausted by its created manifestation11. There are therefore in God those “pure possibilities” which He “has decided never to realize”12. Thomas relies on Scripture: “[God] calls the non-existent as the existent (ta mè ontas ôs onta)”, which, in the Latin version Thomas reads, means: “God calls the things that are not, as well as those that are (Deus vocat ea quæ non sunt, tamquan ea quæ sunt)”. This means that “things that are not” “are nevertheless in God’s power”, since He “calls” them. “God knows everything […] even if these things do not exist in act”13. Devoid of created existence, these things are not devoid of being (unlike Schuonian privative possibilities).

Pure Possibilities are Not Uncreable

Nevertheless, we need to take a closer look at the similarities between possibilities of non-manifestation and pure possibles14. Literally, mere possibilia means “the purely possible” (mere is an adverb). The possibilia are the Ideas of everything that exists, has existed or will exist in creation, the mere possibilia are thus the Ideas that eternally have no other reality than that of being divine possibilities. They thus correspond to S. Thomas’s non entia, not the non-etants who have no present existence (but have existed or will exist), but those non-etants who never were, are or will be15. In other words, what Christian theology (a much-discussed issue in the Middle Ages) refers to as pure possibles are the possibilities of creations that will not be created. This means that they can no longer be fully identified with the Guénonian possibilities of non-manifestation.

Pure Possibles are Knowable, Whether they “Exist” or Not

Pure possibles are therefore creatable, otherwise what could the very idea of possibility possibly mean? Above all, if they were not, this would be to place an a priori limit on divine power, for it is not by virtue of their nature that they are uncreable, but by virtue of the decree of the divine will.

Thus, just as the craftsman knows what he has not yet created, “the knowledge [that God has of the thing] is indifferent to the existence or non-existence of the thing”16. Put another way, “the intelligible form in question [the purely possible] is the divine intellect itself, and thus it knows itself by itself”17.

Matter Prime” is therefore Not an Uncreable

Noële Maurice-Denis18 thought that some of S. Thomas’s pure possibles might be inherently unrealizable: “Some possibles respond to metaphysical principles that cannot be created […] (as in the case of prime matter), while others, which would be inherently creatable, are not in fact”19. These are the true possibilities of Guénonian non-manifestation, with Noële Maurice-Denis trying, under Guénon’s influence, to pull S. Thomas in this direction, even though he wrote explicit texts on the subject, and even an entire section of the Summa de Theologia, demonstrating that prime matter (materia prima) is created20. “What is true is that prime matter is not created as an independent and separate reality, since it cannot exist on its own, but only as that which is informed by form, as the condition of existence of form (for all beings composed of form and matter)”: “if matter is in any way something of being, it is caused by God, it is created, or rather co-created with form21. It therefore possesses in God an Idea or model, i.e. it is a certain mode of similitude of the divine essence22.

Eternally Uncreated Creatables!

Is an eternally uncreated creature an intelligible notion? In the case of natural beings, it doesn’t seem so, because it’s impossible for what can happen never to happen (given enough time)23. In the divine order, on the other hand, the consideration of divine infinity forces us to admit that no creation can exhaust the possibilities of similitude according to which God is participable (this is the primary reason for the existence of pure possibles). What’s more, since pure possibles are creatables (eternally uncreated), it is God’s free decision (his will) that decides between uncreated and created creatables (and not the nature of each possibility, since, a priori and in terms of creatability, there is nothing to distinguish one from the other). Only divine freedom, at the root of the being of the created, accounts for the contingency of the creature, which has no raison d’être in itself (in the nature of the possible it manifests). This is the only solution, even against Guénon24.

That Uncreables Cannot be Created is a Tautology

If this is true, the possibilities of non-manifestation are in themselves (and not by divine decision) impossibilities of manifestation. Thus, it is pointless to explain their principial reality by contrasting the infinity of universal Possibility with the finitude of manifestation. And yet this is what Guénon does, pointlessly, since the very nature of these possibilities explains their absence in manifestation. Otherwise, to say that the uncreable cannot belong to creation would be pure tautology. For the finitude of the created to exclude from itself a set of possibilities, these possibilities must be creatables!

Divine free will or Guénonian necessity?

To “appeal” to divine freedom may seem like a cop-out coupled with anthropomorphism. But is human discourse capable of saying more? Acknowledging the limits of our speculations [… will always remain] preferable to the pseudo-solutions of an overly formal metaphysics [and allows us to introduce] into doctrinal discourse the reserve and reverence that explicitly spare the inexpressible”. Guénon certainly does not forget this, but his discourse, “which aims to be supreme and unsurpassable, rather gives the impression of being able to say everything”. “The dependence of the created creable on the divine decree of existenciation […] expresses the radical contingency of all created existence”. Why is such a creable created and not such another, would be tantamount to asking: why is such a thing or such a being what it is?” There is no answer to this question: at the root of creation lies something unintelligible, a secret that belongs to God alone”25. In Guénon, on the other hand, everything is regulated by an iron logic, a kind of necessitarianism very close to Spinoza’s, at least in some respects. On the one hand, all possibilities are endowed with a determining nature that controls the destiny of each of them, and on the other, God has, as it were, nothing left to do: the manifestable manifests itself by virtue of its nature, and vice versa for the non-manifestable26.

Guénonian Metaphysics is too Ensemblistic

Is this Guénonian logic impeccable? If Guénonian metaphysics is not purely formal, it is at the very least “ensemblistic”. It defines sets according to a hierarchy of envelopments and a coherence that is difficult to grasp. We might also ask whether these sets correspond to realities (do they have an ontological meaning?), or whether they are merely nominal and specular, i.e. a matter of “point of view”.

A contradictory ensemblist logic. Guénon envisages two sets: the unmanifested and the manifested27. So be it! But this becomes obscured as soon as he speaks of Being.  Being is the “principle of manifestation” and, “at the same time”, includes “within itself all the possibilities of manifestation […], but only insofar as they manifest themselves. Outside Being, then, there is everything else, i.e. all the possibilities of non-manifestation, together with the possibilities of manifestation themselves insofar as they are in the non-manifested state; and Being itself is included in this”, since, as a principle, it cannot manifest itself28. So Being is somehow outside itself, excluded from its own possibility!

But that’s not all. We read further on that “manifestation obviously comprises only the totality of the possibilities of manifestation insofar as they manifest themselves”; which was said of Being earlier. Guénon’s ensemblist logic does seem to conceal contradictions.

[In naïve set theory language, as Peter Samsel could have put it, Guénon says that Being B includes the set of the possibilities of manifestation qua they manifest  Pmmanifested : B É Pmmanifested; that outside Being BC, there is all the rest including Being B: BC É B; and that manifestation M includes the set of the possibilities of manifestation qua they manifest Pmmanifested : M É Pmmanifested (which gives no indication about the relationship between Being B and the manifestation M), or M É M! (which could more clearly written as M = M, which however is a tautology] (This paragraph is not in Borella’s chapter).

A few Simple Tautologies

This leads us “to suppose that [Guénon’s] categories are rather points of view, […] ways of considering things without ontological scope, classificatory instances, in short that they belong to the specular mode29. This would explain why the same set of possibles can belong to two different classes, depending on how it is viewed from two different points of view. Thus, the manifestable, insofar as it does not manifest, belongs to the unmanifested and, insofar as it does manifest, belongs to manifestation. This is exactly what Guénon says, as we have just seen.

Two questions. Firstly, “What does it mean to say that the manifestable, as unmanifest, belongs to the unmanifest? Nothing, it’s pure tautology” (the unmanifest belongs to the unmanifest). Then, if this interpretation, in terms of point of view, is correct, doesn’t it follow that the same entities (the possibilities of manifestation) are envisaged either as manifest or as unmanifest, without the point of view changing anything about their nature? Now, if these two states of the manifestable (a state of manifestation and a state of non-manifestation) are different only according to the point of view from which they are considered, then this is not compatible with a possible belonging to the manifested or the non-manifested only according to its nature. With nature, in fact, we leave behind the specular or “perspectivist” interpretation and return to the ontological interpretation.

Many difficulties would have been avoided if Guénon had used a language that was more philosophical than mathematical (ensemblistic), if he had taken better account of the meaning of the concept of possibility, and if he had had a firm doctrine of creation. Quite simply, the possibilities of manifestation, as possibilities, are always unmanifested!

A Vicious Circle

And the same goes for Being (“at least as Guénon sees it: an onto-cosmological reduction of the Thomasian esse“). One solution would have been to simply posit Being as an intermediary or “isthmus” between the Uncreated and the created: “unmanifest as a principle, it confers its ontological mark on all existing which, in a certain way, remains understood within it”. In fact, “the Guénonian Being is rather the Being of manifestation” (the manifestable has become manifested). The transcendence of Being, certainly affirmed by Guénon, seems to disappear here, however, in favor of “the specular ideality of a point of view”.

Thus, Guénon indicates that the distinctions we make between Non-Being and Being (unmanifested and manifested), “far from being irreducible, exist only from the very relative point of view from which they are established, and […] they acquire this contingent existence, the only one of which they are susceptible, only insofar as we ourselves give it to them by our conception”30. But, to take this point of view, we must already have made the distinction between the unmanifested and manifested states of the human being, “and therefore already be subject to the illusion for which we are told that the human point of view is responsible. In short, it’s either a vicious circle, or a regressus ad indefinitum.

There is No Super Point of View

The real question is: where is Guénon when he describes the distinction between degrees of reality and their supreme non-distinction? Does he see both from the human point of view and from the point of view of Non-Being? The reader, surely, is convinced of this, who now also sees distinctions abolished (from Non-Being) and distinctions made (from the human relative). Here, the reader has simply forgotten that he himself is only a point of view. And he thinks he benefits from this panoptic point of view, even though Guénon, as a human being, forbids him to do so!

Is Guénonian “Descending Realization” the Solution?

Can we base this panoptic view on Guénonian “descending realization”?31 According to A. K. Coomaraswamy, quoted by Guénon, “the end of the path is not reached until Atma is known both as manifest and unmanifest”. Specifically, and this is the “descending realization”, we must realize “Atma embodied in the worlds”. “This teaching is all the more acceptable in principle, as it seems to us not unrelated to what Christ teaches in St. Matthew (6:33): ‘Seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness, and the rest will be added to you’ (or, metaphysically interpreted: ‘seek first the Absolute – and the relative will be added to you’)”.

But how can such a realization be reconciled with the nullity of the manifest? For, says Guénon, “we must never lose sight of the fact that, with regard to the Infinite, the entire manifestation is rigorously null”32. How, then, can we get to the end of the road, if the manifest has no truth of its own? Guénon, in fact, discovered this inconsistency and ended up declaring “that one cannot say, in the final analysis, that the manifested is strictly negligible”33.

Guénonian Metaphysics: Gnosis or Gnosticism?

The Non-Manifest is only Conceivable on the Basis of the Manifest

Despite the difficulties posed by the possibilities of non-manifestations, Guénonian doctrine asserts that we can conceive them: we “can conceive this possibility which is the void, or any other of the same order”, such as silence, darkness or the metaphysical zero (the four non-manifestables mentioned by Guénon); but we cannot conceive them “in a distinctive mode”34. Indeed, they are, as Guénon and the Vedânta teach, nirvishésha: “devoid of distinction”35. Despite this, the way Guénon speaks of them implies their distinction: they are, he says, so many “aspects” of Non-Being, “each one being one of the possibilities it contains”36.

A careful reading of the text reveals that “non-manifestables are only conceivable on the basis of manifestables”. In the case of silence, Guénon remarkably exposes the relationship between speech and silence, and concludes that this makes it possible to “conceive possibilities of non-manifestation which correspond, by analogical transposition, to certain possibilities of manifestation”37. Despite this unusual syntax (where “by analogical transposition” seems to mean that the unmanifested-silence corresponds to the manifested-speech), it seems that Guénon rather means that the manifested-speech, by analogical transposition, corresponds to the unmanifested-silence (from bottom to top). This seems to be confirmed by the texts: “speech is only affirmed silence” and silence “is also something more (and even infinitely more)”. It is not only “the unexpressed word”, but also “the inexpressible”38.

An “Inexpressible Possibility” is Not Expressed by a Manifest.

So what does Guénon mean? Is this necessary to understand the possibility of non-manifestation? For an inexpressible possibility not to be expressed by speech would again be tautological. Could it be that possibility-speech is expressed by manifested speech? Certainly not! “Every manifested word is but a distant and deficient image of the uncreated word” (the “word-essence”). “The proof is that this essential Word is the divine Word: the Word in the Principle which, as such, cannot be manifested (”God, no one has ever seen him”, John 1:18)”, but which, in the order of nature, is “the source of innumerable manifestations of itself, at the same time as, in the order of grace, it has ”pronounced itself”, indirectly ”many times and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1), and, directly, in the Christic form”.

God is an Infinity of Creatability.

Thus, it is possibility-speech – and this is true of all possibility – which, as such, is inexpressible. “The possibilities of manifestation, as possibilities, are as non-manifestable as the Guénonian non-manifestable39. What is manifested, what we see in our world, are not these possibilities, but the creatures of which they are the divine exemplar. We are entitled to conclude that all possibilities, whether pure possibilities or relative possibilities, are creatables, either forever uncreated or exemplary of creatures. Since God is an infinite of possibility, he is, by the same token, an infinite of creatability.

God is Not a Creatable, but a Participable

But if God is an infinite of creatability, he is by no means an infinite of creatables – and this without the need to return to Guénon’s radical uncreables. This is because the divine essence is infinitely participable; this is what enables it to remain infinitely transcendent to all participation, which, by definition, is always finite. “Absolute transcendence rigorously implies infinite immanence”. In other words, the infinite Good is self-diffusive (or “God is love”, as St. John puts it), i.e. it infinitely overflows all its outpourings of love.

So there’s no contradiction in Catholic theological doctrine, provided we follow it to the end: the divine essence is not the metaphysical “place” where all creation fades away, but the place where creation reaches its true reality40.

But what is Guénon talking about? Conversely, doesn’t the Guénonian conception, not in its intention but because of the way it is presented, lead “to a kind of effacement of the divine Principle”? Certainly, references to Indian doctrines may suggest that God is mentioned, but isn’t this due to our “religious mental habits”, since his book (Les états multiples…) hardly ever mentions the name of God? And, if he does, he apologizes for it41. To enter the Guénonian perspective, we need to stop interpreting the words Infinity, Universal Possibility, Non-Being, Being in theological terms. Guénon isn’t talking about Someone, who transcends all modes of expression and remains beyond all language, the Other par excellence; he’s talking about states of being without ever asking which being he’s talking about. His discourse is without referent, or rather: it is self-referential. Does he speak of man, of God, of another being? Indifferently of all of them; “man” is but one state of being in an indefinite number of others, “God” too. The Infinite, Universal Possibility, Non-Being are also nothing but states of being, hierarchical categories of an anonymous reality. They are merely points of view.

This, radically considered, is Guénon’s approach. It demands “a total uprooting of being” on the part of his reader; he must abandon all existential situs and plunge “into the indefinite immensity of a nameless and gravityless reality”.

Guénon: Religious Metaphysics or Radical Non-Theism?

There’s an ambiguity here that we need to be aware of. The terms infinity, possibility, non-being, being and existence are simply philosophical concepts, and if written with a lower-case initial, they would reveal more openly the speculative nature of Guénon’s discourse. To capitalize them, as Guénon does, is to turn them into metaphysical quasi-divinities with their own names or, at the very least, quasi-theological designations42. At the very least, like his invitation to free oneself from “religious” discourse, Guénon speaks of metaphysics in “religious” language! From then on, what was purely speculative takes on a “theic” aspect, and notions are endowed with a mysterious, transcendent background.

This “theic” sacralization of metaphysical concepts can be seen when Guénon states that Infinity and Possibility “are Brahma and his Shakti”43, or when he emphasizes the “subsumptive” capacities of the categories of Non-Being, Being, or universal Possibility. Indeed, these categories play a very active role: they “understand”, “exclude”, “determine”, etc., like veritable metaphysical deities – just like any syntactic constraint attributing the value of agent to the subject of an action verb (actiones sunt suppositorum, “actions are the property of supposits”, i.e. “personal beings”). All the more so since, although Guénon sometimes takes care to speak, not of Being, but of the “degree of pure Being”44, not only does he capitalize “Being”, but he also directly identifies it with “Ishwara”, the Lord Creator of Hindu tradition45, which can be “least inaccurately” translated as “God”46.

Thus, unless we are mistaken, the Guénonian exposition oscillates between a possibly “theistic” presentation and a purely metaphysical one, in which the various degrees have only a specular significance” (these are only points of view). In the final analysis, taking into account Guénon’s warnings that the theistic interpretation would be a “false interpretation, resulting in the substitution of ‘a being’ for pure Being”47, we would say that “it is metaphysical specularity that prevails”, and thus a radical non-theism, while conversely confirming the solidarity that unites the ontological with the theological.

Guénon: a Metaphysics of Knowledge.

What justifies such a perspective? Even if it is said to be self-founded, we can at least question its meaning. It seems to us that the Guénonian enterprise is not a metaphysics of being, but a metaphysics of knowledge, a gnosis. As degrees of being become points of view, scalar ontology becomes specular ontology (if we can still speak of ontology).

Insofar as knowledge is the common act of the knowing and the known, in this act the subject is no longer in itself, since, in a certain way, it becomes the object, and the object is no longer in itself, since, in a certain way, it is in the subject. And this miracle of knowledge, of all knowledge, is achieved by the miracle of intelligence. Intellection as such is “out of the world”, which is why it is universal. “Intelligence is the non-subject, the opening, the void, the gap that the Creator opens in the subject by blowing into its face the spiracle of life, the “window well” through which the world, leaving its existential situs, can enter the order of knowledge and be born to the intelligible”. It is no longer objective being that determines knowledge, but knowledge that turns possible being into determined being, and thus understands and transcends it. This is exactly what Guénon means when he speaks of ‘realization through knowledge'” and, even more, that what knowledge realizes is reality itself. In other words, the term “reality” only has true meaning in terms of knowledge. “Knowing” and “being” are two sides of the same reality”48.

The Guénonian “Objective Being” is, Strictly Speaking, only a Possibility

Significantly, it is at the end of The Multiple States of Being that Guénon writes that “this is the place to clarify a little, on the other hand, the way in which the metaphysical identity of the possible and the real is to be understood: since all possibility is realized by knowledge, this identity, taken universally, properly constitutes truth in itself, since truth can be conceived precisely as the perfect adequation of knowledge to total Possibility”49 “So, if we are really to embrace this doctrine, we must cease to consider objective being, the object of knowledge, as a real that precedes the act that takes cognizance of it. Objective being only gains access to the order of the real through the realizing ministry of knowledge. Prior to this awareness, objective being is, strictly speaking, no more than a possibility” – all the more so as this “objective being” also belongs to Non-Being.

Yet Knowledge is Mediate and Indirect

We have to recognize that any metaphysical discourse with ontological aims is a lie or an illusion, since we don’t actually experience it. But that doesn’t mean we’re condemned to agnosticism, since “the mere idea of God, eternal, infinite, all-powerful, communicates something of his reality to our minds”. This is because ordinary knowledge is mediate and indirect (“enigmatic and mirrored”, says St. Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12), which of itself “calls forth a higher knowledge, a sacred knowledge through which what was only glimpsed becomes effectively and fully real, and thereby confers its true meaning on the word ‘reality'”.

The Acceptable Meaning of “Possibilities of Non-Manifestation”

This dependence of reality on knowledge is not the stuff of classical idealism: knowledge has no creative power. The starting point is not a knowing subject, posed in solitude, as in Cartesianism (but was Descartes a Cartesian?), and its Kantian extension. It is neither the subject that is primary (as in subjective idealism), nor the object (as in realist objectivism), it is knowledge “in itself”: the very place where reality is held50. On the other hand, there is the ontological orientation of any cognitive aim, this intelligence which is the meaning of being (being only has meaning for intelligence), this fundamental ontotropism of any intellective act, and we have to account for it. This is what, according to Guénon, is accomplished in the advent of “reality” as the realization of being through knowledge (if, at least, we have understood his doctrine).

“This, we believe, is the justification for this doctrine. From this follows the right to speak of the possibility of non-manifestation, giving it an acceptable meaning. The reason why Guénon doesn’t call them realities, even though they belong to the principial Real, is that they are merely possibilities, in terms of their realization through knowledge. “In other words, in a perspective where knowledge is everything, everything is only possible, realizable through knowledge. It is therefore necessary to point them out to the reader as such, warding off the “objectivist chosism” of all discourse and introducing the requirement of realization. This, it seems to us, is the profound reason behind Guénon’s mode of expression.

It also explains why Guénon begins Les états multiples… by distinguishing “Universal Possibility” from the Infinite. Because the Whole is envisaged from the point of view of knowledge (its cognoscibility) and as realizable through knowledge. In so doing, Guénon institutes knowledge (or gnosis, or metaphysics) “as the mode without mode where integral Reality occurs”. In this way, the universalization of the cognitive intellect becomes one with the infinity of its “content”51.

Guénon’s Knowledge is that which God Knows!

Comparing Christian theology and Guénonian doctrine, we discover that what Guénon says about knowledge is exactly what S. Thomas says about divine knowledge, except of course that pure possibles are creatables. Indeed, these pure possibles are real in God’s knowledge of them (His “science of simple intelligence”) and, above all, do not pre-exist God’s knowledge of them, but are rigorously contemporary with the eternal act in which God knows them. “Finally – and we’ll leave it at that – the divine intellect, like Guénon’s universal intellect, is perfectly identical with its intelligible content, and cannot be distinguished from it.

Neither God, nor Man; and Buddhi and beyond Buddhi

The Guénonian path of gnosis thus “disregards any a priori distinction between the knowledge of a God and that of a man”. This knowledge, we repeat, “is posited in itself and first in relation to the multiplicity of states of anonymous being, which are so many realizing participations in its permanent actuality”, and through all its “degrees which change nothing of its essential nature”.

The fact remains, however, that this discourse is addressed to men, and we must therefore appeal to man’s experience of knowledge: an act of the intelligence. Guénon, then, will refer as much to buddhi, the intellect, as to his own transposition beyond buddhi, when it comes to universal and unconditioned knowledge, i.e. knowledge that is no longer subject to any condition, be it “divine”52!

Intelligence is Carried within the Human Being

If intelligence remains informal in its essence, it is always, in its actual manifestations, “clothed in a determinate form” and, above all, “borne into being by the human person” (subjectivized in a person). By reducing everything to modalities of intellection, Guénon virtually ignores the human being as such. And while he regularly speaks of the “human” state, the human state of being (a nature) cannot be equated with the being of man (an esse). De facto, this “being” is only summoned as the minimal ontological condition required to constitute a specular instance. And indeed, in these multiple states of being, “there is much more ‘state’ than ‘being'”. “To be human is not to assume a transitory, contingent form, while simultaneously existing in a multiplicity of other states. It is to be “made in the image of God”, and it is as such that man can access the hierarchical states of creation, all the modes of which are virtually comprehended in him: the microcosm sums up the macrocosm. Man is not just an individual form, transitory and contingent, since through his theo-morphism he transcends and gathers within himself the entire universe. “Man, says Pascal, infinitely passes man”.

The Human Being cannot be Reduced to the Intellect

In a word, the consideration of specular ontology rests on a reduction of the human being to the intellect. Only then can “a state of being be identified with a mode of knowing, and this mode of knowing can, where appropriate, be regarded as realizing the identity of the knowing being and the known object”. Otherwise – and this is the meaning of Aristotle’s doctrine, always inaccurately quoted by Guénon 53 – knowledge is the common act of the knowing and the known only if this common act is that of the intellect and the intelligible, and not that of the being that intelligentiates54 “It is because the intellect is not the being that intelligentiates (but only a faculty of this being) that it can, in its act, identify itself with what it intelligentiates.”.

Let’s recall this banal comparison: it’s not the eye that sees, it’s man endowed with sight; it’s in man that the act of vision, i.e. of visual knowledge, takes place, and thus that vision comes into existence. The same is true of the intellect, which has no being except as a faculty of a real, existing being55.

Knowledge is Divine in Essence, Human in its Mode

This is why being (esse) cannot be reduced to a degree of knowledge, even if we have to interpret scalar ontology in specular terms to understand the hierarchy of beings (the onto-cosmological situs of a being has its sufficient reason and corresponds to a certain state of knowledge). But, for all creatures, being (esse) is something more radically decisive, since, precisely, it is by their being (esse) that creatures are creatures, whereas by their mode of knowledge, on the contrary, we could almost say that they belong to the uncreated: all knowledge being revelation of essence as of a divine participable56.

Thus our knowledge is both principial and divine in its substance, and relative and indirect in its mode; “it is not therefore the mode of knowledge which, by itself, can account for the determination of the degrees of reality, it is the esse of each creature which founds its belonging to such and such a degree of reality, and, by consequence, determines its mode of knowledge”.

God can only be Known by Himself

Principial and divine, knowledge is possible insofar as, as Guénon puts it, it is an “aspect of the Infinite” 57, i.e. the aspect under which the Infinite knows itself. From this point of view, there is no knowledge other than that of which God knows Himself as infinite possibility, and, consequently, all knowledge, be it human or angelic, is in its essence eternal, or, if one prefers, timeless.

Moreover, in what sense could that which is pure act, and therefore unchanging, undergo the event constituted for Him by the fact of being known? This event cannot affect Him, but He cannot be a stranger to it (the act of knowledge would then not take place). This is why we have to admit that “God can only be known by Himself”, and therefore that the event of theognosy is not something that “happens to God”, but an eternal event. “The reality of the noetic event can only be the fulguration, in an intellective mirror, of the permanent actuality of the knowledge that God takes of Himself in His Word, that Word which is the locus of possibilities and in which every noetic event takes place. And it is because in Him knowledge, gnosis, is eternally accomplished that it can be realized at any moment in every intelligence open to its light”. Knowledge is the Father begetting His Word. As grace assists nature, the human intellect “becomes” what it was: light within the Light. Each time a “gnosis event” occurs, “which is nothing other than a possibility of the Infinite itself, each time the supreme Thearchy realizes the mystery of its new and eternal birth to Itself, each time the Father begets His Word, His unique and beloved Son, in the unity of His Spirit”.

For Man, Being Precedes Knowledge

Only the consideration of the created nature of the human being can account for knowledge, human in its mode. “Now, to consider the human being in his creaturely state […] is also to leave behind the speculative and enter reality at last” (our existential condition), breaking “with a certain illusion of metaphysical discourse”. For “it is precisely here that this illusion originates”: “all knowledge being in the spontaneity and immediacy of its act”, the time of reading and meditation, it “draws us out of the conditioned world, making us live with pure objects”. Hence, here more than in any other field, the need to “weigh down the flight of metaphysical speculation with the weight of being”. Knowledge must be linked “to the being of the knowing, which is here, on earth, and nowhere else, where God brought it into being, giving it the power to protrude out of nothing”.

Metaphysically Speaking, Creation goes Beyond the Point of View of Manifestation

To take into account the being of the creature is at the same time to take into account the divine Creator Being who brings being out of nothing. The doctrine of manifestation says nothing about this! Worse still, according to Guénon, the difference between “manifestation” and “creation” is the same as that between esotericism and exotericism, or between “the metaphysical point of view and the religious point of view”58. Vulgar creationism might in some respects suggest that the doctrine of creation is a reduction, for the use of the majority, of the doctrine of manifestation. But if we take the doctrine of creation at its most serious level, we realize that it “surpasses in speculative fecundity”, metaphysically and on at least one point, the doctrine of manifestation:

To speak of a “manifestation”, of what is manifested, is in fact to consider it from the point of view of the human being. Is this anthropocentrism any more metaphysical than creationist theocentrism? Above all, “the doctrine of manifestation sees the relationship between the Principle and its cosmic effects as one of continuity: what is revealed in the manifested is the essence (the possible or archetype) contained in the unmanifested”. Now, this is both a scriptural teaching (“Since the creation of the world,” says St. Paul, “that which was invisible about God has been made visible by his works to him who has understanding”, namely “his eternal power and divinity”: Rom. 1:20) and a formal theological teaching (God is an “infinite of possibility”, creatures have an “uncreated being”59.” The point of view of creation thus includes what is most metaphysical in that of manifestation”. But he explicitly adds something else: the consideration of being (esse) as such, of being as differential from nothing, as esse ex nihilo (no other way to reach the first intuition of being than to “grasp” it as non-existence, as “that which makes salience out of nothing”60. Thus, the consideration of degrees of being is relative and secondary to the intuition of esse, for even if manifestation in its totality is only an illusion, this illusion must still be.

God is not only the one who makes such and such a being manifest, “He is the one who ‘gives all being’ to the creature: being is the permanent gift of a salience-out-of-nothing; esse is, fundamentally, ex nihilo – which can also be said of divine Being, but then Nihil takes on an entirely different meaning61. As we can see, the doctrine of creation provides access to a truly metaphysical intuition of being”62.


  1. « The Set of the Real, Mathematical Implications of the Metaphysics of René Guénon », Sophia, Vol. 12, Number 2 (Fall / Winter 2006).[]
  2. Only looking for making explicit Jean Borella’s text, pending a proper translation into English (now just released in 2023), we have done our utmost not to alter anything from Jean Borella’ exposé. It is however a summary only, while this heavy chapter VI, including its two appendix, originally makes 75 pages.[]
  3. Les états multiples de l’être (The Multiple States of Being), Éd. Véga, Paris, 1947, pp. 19-20.[]
  4. What Guénon calls “Non-Being” and Schuon “Beyond Being”.[]
  5. The “quotations” without reference are, to the word, by Jean Borella.[]
  6. Les états multiples… (The Multiple States of Being), op. cit. p. 118.[]
  7. Jacques Chevalier, Histoire de la pensée, Flammarion, t. II, p. 777.[]
  8. Summa Theologiae I, q. 15, a. 2).[]
  9. Les états multiples… (The Multiple States of Being), pp. 31-38.[]
  10. From the divine to the human, p. 50.[]
  11. Cf. Contra Gentiles I, 66, § 4; also, Penser l’analogie, pp. 89-117.[]
  12. De la Vérité (On Truth), Q. 2, a. 8. Main text of S. Thomas on this subject.[]
  13. S. th. I, Q. 14, a. 9.[]
  14. Similarities, which we are not the first to discover; for example, see François Chenique’s study, “Possibilités de non-manifestations et purs possibles” in Sagesse chrétienne et mystique orientale, Dervy, 1996, ch. XVII.[]
  15. De la Vérité (On Truth), Q 2, a. 8; Bonino, p. 303.[]
  16. De la Vérité (On Truth), Q 2, a. 8; Bonino, p. 304.[]
  17. S. Th. I, Q. 14, a. 2.[]
  18. She met Guénon at the Sorbonne in November 1915 and, in her doctoral thesis in scholastic philosophy (L’Être en puissance d’après Aristote et saint Thomas d’Aquin / “The Being in power according to Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas”, published in 1922, Éd. Marcel Rivière) was already using Guénon’s vocabulary such as “possibilities of non-manifestation”, several years before Guénon explicitly expounded them in L’homme et son devenir selon le Védânta / Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, Cf. Xavier Accart, Guénon ou le renversement des clartés, Edidit, Paris, Archè, Milano, 2005, p. 62[]
  19. Being in Power According to Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas“, pp. 185-186.[]
  20. In section 2 of Question 44 (Part 1), he asks: “Is prime matter created by God?” Here’s his answer: God is the cause not only of the form of a being, of which matter is deprived, but also of being itself; yet matter is of being, however little; “it is therefore necessary to affirm that even prime matter is created by the universal cause of beings”. And similarly, in Question 46, article 1, to those who maintain that neither matter nor heaven could have been generated, he replies that “matter and heaven were brought into being by creation.”[]
  21. Serge Bonino, De la Vérité (On Truth), Q. 2, le Cerf, p. 234.[]
  22. Quæstio de Potentia, Q. 3, a. 1, ad 3m. “Although, by virtue of its potentiality, matter distances itself from resemblance to God, nevertheless, insofar as it has being by this very potentiality, it retains a certain resemblance to divine being”; S. th. I, Q. 14, a. 11, ad 3m.[]
  23. S. Th. I, Q. 48, a. 2. Same thesis in Aristotle: Du Ciel (On the Heavens) I, 12, 283a24; GF, p. 91. In a slightly different sense, cf. Leibniz, Discours de métaphysique et autres textes, GF, 2001, pp. 327-333[]
  24. “Any possibility of manifestation must necessarily manifest itself; […] conversely, any possibility that must not manifest itself is a possibility of non-manifestation”; Les états multiples… (The Multiple States of Being), p. 26.[]
  25. To enter this secret, we have to give up the why. A Platonic Christian, concerned with a creature’s raison d’être, finds it in the Ideas or divine possibilities. This is a good way to go back. But then what? Can we still ask: why the principial rose? An unanswerable question, which brings us face to face with an essential contingency. To renounce the why is to renounce thought, which always says “what” or “why”. To think something is to think its possibility. Having reached essences, thought closes its eyes and falls silent. Stupefied by the supreme ainsity of all things, it finds itself delivered from itself[]
  26. Guénon does affirm the contingency of manifestation in ch. XVII of his book, but it’s a contingency of principle that doesn’t affect the esse of the created.[]
  27. “The unmanifested comprises what we may call the unmanifestable, i.e. the possibilities of non-manifestation, and the manifestable, i.e. the possibilities of manifestation insofar as they do not manifest”; Les états multiples…, p. 33. The manifestable, in its unmanifested state, is what Guénon calls “pure possibilities”, carefully distinguished from the possibilities of non-manifestation: ibid., p. 124.[]
  28. Ibid., p. 31.[]
  29. Emphasis added.[]
  30. Ibid. p. 90-91.[]
  31. “Descending and ascending realization”, ch. XXXII of Initiation et réalisation spirituelle (Initiation and Spiritual Realization), Éditions Traditionnelles, 1952, pp. 215-229.[]
  32. Les états multiples…, p. 101.[]
  33. Initiation et réalisation spirituelle (Initiation and Spiritual Realization), p. 217.[]
  34. Les états multiples…, p. 34.[]
  35. L’homme et son devenir selon le Védânta (Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta), 1974, p. 26. Shankara, Prolegomènes au Védânta, I, 5th section, § 12, and 6th section, § 11; trans. Louis Renou, Adrien Maisonneuve, 1951, p. 55 and p. 69.[]
  36. Les états multiples…, p. 36.[]
  37. Ibid…, p. 37.[]
  38. Ibid., pp. 36-37.[]
  39. In this sense, the assimilation of Guénon’s possibilities of non-manifestation to the pure possibles of Scholasticism – Chenique’s thesis – is, basically, legitimate. But Guénon would undoubtedly have rejected it[]
  40. This major metaphysical point has been addressed in several of our books, notably Le sens du surnaturel (The Sense of the Supernatural), pp. 235-248, and Penser l’analogie, pp. 96-109.[]
  41. “He speaks in theological terms only to facilitate the comparison that can be made with the usual points of view of Western thought”![]
  42. Of course, this is no trickery, as Guénon is a straightforward thinker.[]
  43. Les états multiples…, p. 21, n. 1. The difficulty is, who interprets whom? And it’s not reversible: Brahma says something that Infinite doesn’t say, and that puts us more immediately in the presence of the divine mystery.[]
  44. Les états multiples…, p. 11. []
  45. L’homme et son devenir selon le Védânta, 1952, p. 76 et passim.[]
  46. Ibid., p. 25.[]
  47. Ibid., p. 30, n. 2.[]
  48. Ibid., p. 116.[]
  49. Ibid. This explanation was announced on p. 28, n. 1.[]
  50. We attempted to develop this point in an article, “Connaissance et réalisation”, published in Connaissance des Religions, vol. III, no. 2-3, September-December 1987, pp.13-26. Some of the analyses in this article no longer correspond to our current state of thinking.[]
  51. Les états multiples…, p.118.[]
  52. Ibid., p. 117 with note 1.[]
  53. Les états multiples…, pp.110-111.[]
  54. Aristotle says exactly this: “the (intellective) soul is, in a certain way (pôs), all beings”. And he adds: “it is not the stone (as known) that is in the (knowing) soul, but its form”; On the Soul, III, 8, 431b and 432a. Guénon quotes this text inaccurately (forgetting pôs) in Introduction à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, 1952, pp. 144-145. See also: Ésotérisme guénonien et mystère chrétien (Guénonian Esoterism and Christian Mystery), pp. 42-43[]
  55. “It would be better, indeed, not to say that it is the (intellective) soul that pities, learns or reflects, but that it is man who does so, through his soul”, On the Soul, I, 408b, 15.[]
  56. It is in this sense that St. Thomas can declare that the agent intellect is like a light derived from God (quasi lumen derivatum a Deo), as summarized by Étienne Gilson: “This intellectual light which is in us is nothing other than a participatory likeness of the uncreated light, and, since the uncreated light contains the eternal essences of all things, it can be said, in a certain sense, that we know everything in the divine exemplars”; Le Thomisme, 1942, p. 297 cf. St. Thomas, S. Th., 1, Q.84, a.5. Or that Meister Eckhart can state that there is “in the soul a power (the intellect) – and if the soul were all such, it would be uncreated and uncreable. But now it is not so”; Sermon 13; Traités et sermons, trans. A. de Libera, GF, pp. 304-305.[]
  57. Les états multiples…, p. 91.[]
  58. “Création et manifestation”, reprinted in Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme islamique (Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism), Gallimard, 1973, p. 93.[]
  59. S.Th., I, Q.18, a.4; cf. La charité profanée (Love and Truth), pp. 341-343.[]
  60. Penser l’analogie, pp. 76-80.[]
  61. Ibid., pp. 92 sq.[]
  62. And perhaps Aristotle would have encountered less difficulty in his search for a “science of being as being” if he had had the idea of creation ex nihilo at his disposal[]