The Treachery of Images and the Unity of Existence

The Treachery of Images and the Unity of Existence
Icon of the Ascension, 2nd half of the 15th c. by an unknown Cretan. The Hellenic Institute, Venice
In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only word that is prohibited?

—Jorge Luis Borges, “the Garden of the Forking Paths” [1]

The Japanese philosopher and professor of Islamic studies Toshihiko Izutsu delivered a riveting public lecture at the Fifth East-West Philosophers’ Conference in Hawaii in June of 1969 [2] on a school in Eastern and Islamic metaphysics that he refers to as “the unity of existence” school. [3] In the lecture, Izutsu suggests that whereas philosophy in the East has flourished into a cornucopia of different philosophical and religious schools, the West, “broadly speaking, presents a fairly conspicuous uniformity of historical development from its pre-Socratic origin down to its contemporary forms.”[4] All of the other merits of Izutsu’s lecture aside, this is, by all accounts, a tendentious reading of Western thought and I hope, in some respect at least, and to the extent of my ability, to remedy it in the following essay. Moreover, I hope to show how the sublime teaching on “the unity of existence” that he presents, which is traditionally reserved for “the privileged of all privileged people,” [5] is perhaps most abundantly manifest not among any of the philosophical and religious outlooks that Izutsu appeals to, or even any that he does not, but rather most definitively conveyed in the very scenes of the Gospels themselves and the words of the New Testament.

Izutsu begins the lecture by characterizing the “unity of existence” school in terms that demonstrate his mastery of the teaching and which betray not only an academic, but also an experiential, comprehension of the transformations in question. He begins by laying the groundwork necessary to grasp the essential thesis of this view with a brief excursus into grammatical predication and the relationship that the medieval philosophers established between essence or substance, and accident or property:

We constantly use in our daily conversation propositions whose subject is a noun and whose predicate is an adjective: for example: “The flower is white,” “This table is brown” etc. On the same model we can easily transform an existential proposition like: “The table is” or “The table exists” into “The table is existent.” [6] Thus transformed, “existence” is just an adjective denoting a quality of the table. And the proposition “The table is existent” stands quite on a par with the proposition “The table is brown,” for in both cases the subject is a noun denoting a substance called “table,” while the predicate is an adjective indicating grammatically a property or accident of the substance. [7]

With the somewhat ironic assumption of vicariousness characteristic of many Eastern masters, the speaker observes that:

The philosophers belonging to the school of thought which I am going to talk about, chose to take a position which might look at first sight very daring or very strange. They asserted that, in the sphere of external reality, the proposition: “The table is existent” as understood in the sense of substance accident relationship turns out to be meaningless. For in the realm of external reality there is, to begin with, no self-subsistent substance called “table,” nor is there a real accident called “existence” to come to inhere in the substance. [8]

This mode of thinking is, according to “the unity of existence” school, something like an inversion of the proper order of things; truth seen “through a glass, darkly.” Indeed, Izutsu’s description alludes to the argument embodied in Plato’s iconic Allegory of the Cave

The whole phenomenon of a table being qualified by “existence” turns into something like a shadow-picture, something which is not wholly illusory but which approaches the nature of an illusion. In this perspective, both the table and “existence” as its accident begin to look like things seen in a dream. [9]

Indeed he explicitly references the famous scene from Book VII of the Republic later in the talk:

Like the men sitting in the cave in the celebrated Platonic myth, they remain satisfied with looking at the shadows cast by the sun [10]

Let it be observed that it is not, directly, the sun which casts these shadows in Plato’s allegory, but rather “a fire is blazing at a distance.” [11] Still, the point remains that a substantiality is attributed to phenomena that they cannot really bear. The argument, in both instances, then, amounts to the assertion that the objects and phenomena of ordinary perception do not exist in the way they are supposed.

Of course, the moment the camel of doubt pokes its head into the tent of epistemic realism, it is difficult to avoid the outcome that the rest of it will follow, and that to the ultimate demise of both the shelter itself and anyone couched inside. While Descartes and Kant claimed to have prevailed against these incursions, it is not clear that the capacious interior they have to show for it is the same one that they were pressured to vacate. To call into question the fidelity of ordinarily perception, no matter how legitimate the grounds, is to risk initiating a sort of abnegation or leave-taking of everything connected to the world that ordinary perception discloses and a withdrawal into the hills of scepticism or gnosticism—a tendency observed among certain schools in the East and the West alike.

But Izutsu is quick to differentiate “the unity of existence” approach from either of these attitudes:

These philosophers do not mean to say simply that the world of reality as we perceive it in our waking experience is in itself unreal or a dream. Nor do they want to assert that the proposition: “The table is existent” does not refer to any kind of external reality. There certainly is a corresponding piece of reality. The only point they want to make is that the structure of external reality which corresponds to this proposition is totally different from what is normally suggested by the form of the proposition.

Again, the student of Western metaphysics will at once hearken to Plato’s Cave, in which the shadows are manifestly real, as shadows, and, a fortiori, were a self-styled “philosopher” to deny the existence of shadows, he would reveal himself at once to be nothing of the sort because only gnostics and sophists and pseudo-intellectuals insist on the denial of what is self-evident. But it is needful to distinguish another error to avoid demise on the horns of Scylla after seeking to skirt the treachery of Charybdis with too wide a berth. [12] Hence, we must observe the distinction between (a) affirming the reality of shadows, which is the path of “the real mystic-philosopher,” [13] and (b) believing the shadows to be the causal and incident phenomena themselves, which is the path of the sorcerers and scientists and idolaters, who sustain, as Plato describes it,

the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions and predict the future. [14]

Izutsu is unequivocal in his position that the approach taken in “the unity of existence” school is not this one.

On the contrary, participation in “the unity of existence” school is vouchsafed to the real mystic-philosopher, who neither repudiates the shadows nor clings to them. The shadows, in this view, are manifest but, as it were, “in the background”:

For in the eyes of the ordinary man representing the common-sense view of things, the phenomena are the visible and manifest while the Absolute is the hidden. But in the unconditioned consciousness of a real mystic-philosopher, it is always and everywhere the Absolute that is manifest while the phenomena remain in the background. [15]

As Plato also argues, phenomena, as we ordinarily perceive and conceive of them, are not what we presume them to be. Rather, as shadows are to the phenomena that cast them, so phenomena are to True Being. [16] “In this domain,” Izutsu asserts, “‘existence’ is the sole reality.” [17] Analogously, in the Allegory of the Cave, Being is the sole reality and what may be variously termed “becoming,” “appearance,” or “the many,” is, as it were, its moving image.

Izutsu elaborates on the nature of this distinction:

“Table” is but an inner modification of this reality, one of its self-determinations. Thus in the realm of external reality, the subject and the predicate must exchange their places. The “table” which is the logical or grammatical subject of the proposition: “The table is existent,” is in this domain not a subject; rather, it is a predicate. The real subject is “existence,” while “table” is but an “accident” determining the subject into a particular thing. In fact all the so-called “essences,” like being-a-table, being-a-flower, etc. are in external reality nothing but accidents that modify and delimit the one single reality called “existence” into innumerable things. 

In other words, only Being really exists, and when we ascribe existence to various phenomena or beings or entities, we are predicating being of them whereas, realistically, we should predicate them of Being. Their existence is vicarious, lent to them by Existence as such.

Interestingly, and pace Izutsu, who suggested that Aquinas was led on a wild goose-chase in respect to the concept and reality of existence through a misreading of Avicenna, which the former inherited from Averroes, [18] the conclusion above does not differ substantially from the Thomistic notion of “the real distinction” (distinctio realis) present in creatures but not present in the Creator, suggesting that, even if he was, to begin with, misled, if we were to imagine that the Angelic Doctor was not a member of this select school, the boot would be on the other leg and it would be us, and not Aquinas, who was mistaken.

Aquinas’ metaphysical vision can be encapsulated in the phrase ipsum esse subsistens, which is, being interpreted, “Being itself subsisting.” Informed by Aristotelianism and the famous line in the Book of Exodus:

And God said unto Moses, “I Am That I Am” [19]

among other sources, Aquinas set forth ipsum esse subsistens as the distincitve characteristic of God. In Aquinas’ conception, all created beings (ens) are composites of their essence (essentia) and existence (esse). In the Thomistic account, the difference between esse and essentia is referred to as “the real distinction” (distinctio realis). [20] This means that what creatures are and that they are—which is, the fact that they exist—are not identical in them. In God, however, what he is and that he is are truly identical. God’s existence is his own act, his own doing. Thus, God can be described as ipsum esse subsistens. Whereas creatures could be said to “have being” or “have existence,” God is these things and does these things. [21] Put another way, beings exist through a finite participation in God’s infinite act of Being. In the extraordinary phrase of Aquinas scholar Timothy McDermott,

God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing. [22]

In other words, being could be conceived not as a gerund but as a present participle, an act, of which God is the aeviternal agent.

That the Thomistic outlook does not differ substantially from that of “the unity of existence” school must serve to call into question Izutsu’s indication that “Western philosophy…broadly speaking, presents a fairly conspicuous uniformity of historical development from its pre-Socratic origin down to its contemporary forms” and the concomitant assertion that the non-dualism of “the unity of existence” school is largely absent from the Western cannon, which Aquinas cannot credibly be excluded from. It does not, however, indicate that there do not simultaneously exist myriad schools of thought in Western philosophy that fail to apprehend the unity of existence, but the same could, in all certainty, be said of schools East of the Ural Mountains, or along whichever meridian the cultural equator is arbitrarily placed.

So much for the theoretical postulates of “the unity of existence” school and its situation in the history of ideas: how is application to be made? The difficulty is a subtle one:

It is evident that such “unification of the knower and the known” cannot be realized at the level of everyday human experience where the subject stands eternally opposed to the object. The subject in such a state grasps “existence” only as an object. It objectifies “existence” as it objectifies all other things, while “existence” in its reality as actus essendi definitely and persistently refuses to be an “object.” [23]

In other words, the very structure of ordinary perception preempts our realization of the unity of Existence. And the situation is, perhaps, even more dire, since a structure of perception is not something that can be easily put off. On the contrary, “what philosophy a man has… is animated by the soul of the man who has it.” As Fichte elaborates, “for a philosophical system is not a piece of dead household furniture, which you may use or not use.” [24]

Izutsu arrives at a similar view, despite his penchant for implicating an exceptionality to the views that are his academic specialty:

It is to be remarked in this connection that, in this variety of Islamic philosophy, as well as in other major philosophies of the East, metaphysics or ontology is inseparably connected with the subjective state of man, so that the selfsame Reality is said to be perceived differently in accordance with the different degrees of consciousness. 

Izutsu’s expands on the implication of this difficulty vis-à-vis the obstacle to realization outlined above:

it will be evident in any case that such an experience of Reality is not actualizable as long as there remains the subject of cognition as a “subject,” that is to say, as long as there remains in man the ego-consciousness. The empirical ego is the most serious hindrance in the way of the experience of “seeing by self-realization.” For the subsistence of the individual ego places of necessity an epistemological distance between man and the reality of Existence [in precisely the form of] his own “existence.” The Reality of Existence is immediately grasped only when the empirical selfhood is annihilated, when the ego-consciousness is completely dissolved into the consciousness of Reality, or rather, Consciousness which is Reality. Hence the supreme importance attached in this type of philosophy to the experience called fana, meaning literally “annihilation,” that is, the total nullification of the ego-consciousness. [25]

Hence, the subject-object structure of perception cannot be discarded while still retaining one of its terms any more than the North pole of a magnet can be sliced off and only the other pole remain. It is impossible directly on behalf of subjective agency to transcend or halt the objectification inherent in the process of ordinary perception that conceals real Being to it because the subject is itself constituted by the very opposite action to what is here proposed. What I am, as a subject, a Dasein, is, as Heidegger says, “forgetfulness of Being.”[26] Hence, the unity of Existence can only be attained through what Izutsu, invoking the Arabic term for this mutual extinction, calls fana. Only when I cease to appropriate perception to myself as subject will it cease to appear to me as object and rather show itself in itself: Being beholds itself. Plotinus, whom Izutsu would, it is to be trusted, regard as one of the “real mystic-philosophers” despite his lack of Eastern pedigree, describes a similar movement:

And this is the soul’s true end: to touch that light and see by itself, not by another light, but by the light which is also its means of seeing. It must see that light by which it is enlightened: for we do not see the sun by another light than its own. How can this happen? Take away everything! (πάρτε τα πάντα!) [27]

Once everything is taken away, what remains is only Being. In Izutsu’s words:

The immediate experience of Reality through “self-realization” consists precisely in the immediate cognition of absolute Reality before it is articulated into different things. In order to see Reality in its absolute indetermination, the ego also must go beyond its own essential determination. [28]

But Iztusu is quick to preempt a misunderstanding that is wont to arise whenever there is talk of “extinction,” “annihilation,” “total nullification of the ego-consciousness,” or “blowing out the candle” in association with spiritual attainment[29]:

Fana is certainly a human experience. It is man who actually experiences it. But it is not solely a human experience. For when he does experience it, he is no longer himself. In this sense man is not the subject of experience. The subject is rather the metaphysical Reality itself. In other words, the human experience of fana is itself the self-actualization of Reality.

Indeed, he observes that the ego-annihilation of fana alone is a preliminary stage on the path to the unity of Existence, but not its terminus:

This experience would correspond to a spiritual event which is known in Zen Buddhism as “the mind-and-body-dropping-off” (shin jin daisu raku), i.e., the whole unity of “mind-body,” which is no other than the so-called “ego” or “self,” losing its seemingly solid ground and falling off into the bottom of metaphysico-epistemological nothingness.

Hence, the Zen Buddhist experience indicated above correlates with what Izutsu before, in the terminology of the Islamic mystic-philosophers, referred to as fana and which the Gospels portray as the Death of the Perfect Man. “However, neither in Zen Buddhism nor in Islam does this represent the ultimate height of metaphysical experience,”[30] Izutsu declares, and neither, let it here be set down, is the Easter mystery concluded with the silence of Holy Saturday. Izutsu continues:

After having passed through this crucial stage, the philosopher is supposed to ascend to a still higher stage which is known in Zen as “the dropped-off-mind-and-body” (datsu raku shin jin) and in Islam as the experience of baqd or “survival,” i.e., eternal remaining in absolute Reality with absolute Reality. At the stage of fana the pseudo-ego or the relative self has completely dissolved into nothingness. At the next stage man is resuscitated out of the nothingness, completely transformed into an absolute Self. What is resuscitated is outwardly the same old man, but he is a man who has once transcended his own determination. He regains his normal, daily consciousness and accordingly the normal, daily, phenomenal world of multiplicity again begins to spread itself out before his eyes. The world of multiplicity appears again with all its infinitely rich colors. [31]

Of course, in the language of the Gospels and Church Fathers, this can be conceived as Anastasis (ανάσταση), which is, “Resurrection”—a connection that is perhaps conspicuous in its absence from Izutsu’s description, especially in light of Saint Paul’s famous declaration in his Epistle to the Galatians:

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me [32]

“But wait,” it may be objected, “Izutsu is describing a path of spiritual realization while the Gospels merely tell a story.” Can it really be considered an accident, however, that the language of the New Testament was the same language out of which the dramatic arts were born and in which Aristotle described the function of tragedy as “represent[ing] men in action…and through pity and fear it effects catharsis (κάθαρσις) to these and similar emotions”? [33] Jesus himself says “I am the Way” [34] …“take up your cross and follow me.” [35] In other words, the dichotomy between “story,” “myth,” or “history,” and “a path of spiritual realization” is false; an argument that was not lost, as we have already had occasion to observe, on Plato, for instance. Or do some people imagine that the Allegory of the Cave is a sort of diversion or interlude in which the general argument of the dialogue is suspended to resume on the conclusion of the entertainment? On the contrary, if anything the Allegory of the Cave is the very heart of the dialogue. Insofar as it can be participated with the mind and will, it cannot be feasibly set up in disjunction with other paths of spiritual realization.

And moreoever, the very word Greek tragōidia (τραγῳδία) stems from the Greek word for “goat”—an etymology that is infinitely suggestive when read in concert with the Jewish scriptures, and particularly, the well-known passage in Leviticus that describes the “scapegoat” and which has been seen by many to prefigure the deed of Christ:

21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

If we ask, with Tertullian, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” we can only do that by averting our eyes and looking away from that ostentatious point on Calvary where they intersect.

Indeed, in this as in so many ways, the Gospels reveal the manner by which divers lines of Creation are drawn together in the Cross and then “carried over,” meta-phora, into the New Creation! “Behold, I make all things new,” says Christ. [36] Indeed, Izutsu even observes that the highest attainment of the unity of Existence school is referred to in Arabic as jam, which is to say, “gathering.” [37] Even if jam is not really a cognate with “I am,” it cannot be denied that “gathering” is the original meaning of the Greek word Logos (Λόγος), which plays such a crucial role in the Gospel narrative as such and with which Christ is declared to be identical. [38] If anything, the iconographic path is better equipped than the conceptual one to serve the very function the latter is explicitly tailored to accomplish for at least two reasons. To begin with, to convey spiritual teaching through images will organically defend against the temptation to establish a disjunction between phenomena and Existence and hence deliver one from the peril of being arrested at the penultimate stage, seeing fana as the final realization rather than a stage on the way toward it. On top of this, the highest truths may at times simply defy literal expression and therefore necessitate an analogical or iconographic approach. [39]

Indeed, Izutsu says the same thing himself later in the talk better than I can:

I would take this opportunity to point out that Muslim philosophers tend to use metaphors and similes in metaphysics, particularly in the explanation of the seemingly self-contradictory relation between Unity and Multiplicity, or absolute Reality and the phenomenal things. The frequent use of metaphors in metaphysics is one of the characteristic marks of Islamic philosophy, or indeed we might say of Oriental philosophy in general. It must not be taken as a poetic ornament. [40]

It is all the more striking, then, that the name of Christ does not appear on one single occasion in the entire address. Or is it perhaps an omission by design? “In a riddle whose answer is chess,” as Borges wrote, “what is the only word that is prohibited?” Speculations aside, I hope, in any that with the little essay I have at least managed to indicate the connections that obtain between “the unity of existence” school, reserved for “the privileged of all privileged people,” [41] which Izutsu so masterfully described in the talk in question, and the “mystical facts” [42] of the Gospels available to all “that hath ears to hear.” [43]

[1] El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), which was republished in its entirety in Ficciones (Fictions) in 1944

[2] convened under the theme of The Alienation of Modern Man

[3] full text here All subsequent footnotes with stand alone numerals refer to this document.

[4] 1

[5] 12

[6] Arguably, these are not equivalent since in the first statement, the predicate is also the verb of the sentence and hence denotes a sustained activity while in the second, the verb has been retained in the copula and the predicate then is somewhat redundant. In other words, in the second case, the signification of the copula is more or less identical with the statement’s predicate. But the merit of this lecture is too much to risk derailing it with a quibble like this.

[7] 2

[8] 2

[9] 3

[10] 5

[11] Though in an extended sense of the conceit: where do we imagine the wood to fuel the fire in question had its origin if not in captured sunlight?

[12] Cf. Homer, Odyssey, Book VII: “Is there no way,’ said I, ‘of escaping Charybdis, and at the same time keeping Scylla off when she is trying to harm my men?”

[13] 12

[14] Plato, Republic, Book VII (516c)

[15] 15

[16] Cf. Plato’s Republic, Book VII (517a-b):

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the Sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the Intellectual World according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the World of Knowledge the Idea of Good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of Light and of the Lord of Light (i.e. the sun) in this visible world, and the immediate source of Reason and Truth in the Intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

[17] 3

[18] 2

[19] Exodus 3:14

[20] Cf. Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3, Article 4

[21] Aquinas does not say this but John Duns Scotus does: creatures habet esse, while God, in contrast est suum esse. Cf. Ordinatio Fratris Ioannis Duns Scoti.


The proof that there is a God is only the beginning of what we might call the demonstration of God. We would like to go on to say what kind of god God is. At first sight Thomas’s answer to this is pessimistic. Any effect of a cause demonstrates that its cause exists, he says. God’s effects then are enough to prove that he exists, but they are not enough to help us comprehend what he is. As Thomas will show, in [Question 2], affirmations saying what God is can’t in themselves distinguish him from other things: we can only say, rather emptily, that when God is such-and-such he is more such-and-such than anything else. Thomas believes that we can distinguish God from other things with the help of eliminations (Thomas’s version of what the tradition called negative theology), but these tell us what God is not rather than declaring what he is. Negations are, so to speak, the shadows cast in our language by the affirmations we would like to make: God’s simpleness, for example, his lack of parts, is a shadow thrown onto our expectation of what perfection is—richness of complexity—by God’s all-embracing concentration of perfection in one entity, a perfection that sums every variety of created perfection that imitates it. In similar ways, Thomas will show that God is-and-isn’t in space: not existing in space as himself located, but present as the active doing of all spatial location and locatedness; and even more mysteriously, that God is-and-isn’t in time: not himself measured by time but present in all temporal measuring and measuredness. The principle appealed to throughout is the same principle that led to God’s existence in the first place: God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing.

(Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, pp. xxxi-xxxii)

[23] 4

[24] Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Vocation of Man

[25] 6

[26] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

[27] Plotinus, Enneads V.3.17

[28] 6

[29] Cf. “Just as a fire is extinguished when its fuel is exhausted, so the mind is freed from craving when ignorance is extinguished.” (Samyutta Nikaya 35.28)

[30] 8

[31] 8

[32] Galatians 2:20

[33] Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b

[34] “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 14:6

[35] Matthew 16:24

[36] Revelation 21:5

[37] 9

[38] Cf. John 1:1, and Matthew 16:19:

When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.

“word,” here translated, is, as might be expected, logon

[39] As Dante wrote:

From this point on
Whatever human language can convey
must yield to vision

Paradiso XXXIII.54-57

[40] 12

[41] 12

[42] Rudolf Steiner’s phrase to describe the publication and performance on the stage of history of the most esoteric secrets of initiation, which he conceived as the essence of Christianity. Christ is now the ultimate hierophant. Cf. Christianity as Mystical Fact, 1961.

[43] Matthew 11:15