Notes on the More Than Human Saying: “Unless you know yourself you cannot know God”
Dom Sylvester Houédard
Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924–1992) was an extraordinary British monk, scholar, translator and concrete poet. He was deeply committed to what has become known as “the wider ecumenism”, that is, finding common ground between the different spiritual traditions. As well as his grounding within his own Christian tradition, he had a profound understanding of both Islamic mysticism and Buddhism.
Articles by Dom Sylvester Houédard
Variants of this saying, as cited by Ibn ‘Arabi, include:
- He who knows himself (or his-self, his soul, his mind) knows his Lord (FM II 308.22; C.312)
- When we know our souls we know our Lord (FM III 314.22; C.359)
- He who knows himself has known his Lord (FM III 404.28; C.344)
- He who has no knowledge of himself has no knowledge of his Lord (FM III 552.12; C.154)
The Shaykh includes the hadith with those not established (thabit) by transmission (naql) but considered sound (sahih) on the basis of unveiling (FM II 399.28; C.250).
The following notes look (i) at some pre-Islamic instances of the saying and (ii) at 16 contexts where Ibn ‘Arabi introduces the hadith in ways that indicate the importance of its theology for understanding the double paradox of continuous creation and of epectasy (of the perpetual advance or taraqqi of mind to God through God’s perpetual advance to us).
Knowledge of God established on this basis of unveiling conforms neither to the (non-abrahamic) gnosis of Plato nor to the (anti-abrahamic) gnosis of those sects called ‘pseudo-gnostics’ by Irenaeus (C.120-190).
I. The authentically Semitic act of gnosis (daath, yada ‘to know’) is always the fruitful experience of the one living God as Lord and so as obliging us; e.g. knowledge of God’s goodness to us imposing on us goodness to others. It is the certitude of faith fruitful in deeds; the knowledge that produces likeness and makes us like what we know, that deifies and makes us deiform. The Greek concept reversing this makes likeness a necessary condition for knowledge. True gnosis allows the perpetual dhikr of Philo at state banquets and of Ibn ‘Arabi in the market place, maintained abroad and in via (on the road) as in deuteronomy and the Rule of S.Benedict. An energetic gnosis always in fieri, a progressive knowledge by epectasy as in the Qur’an ‘Increase me in my knowledge’. A pilgrimage or hajj on the endless road or via eterna. A knowledge of God as continuously creating ‘by breaths’ through his self-gift by which the eternal, immutable possibles (al-mumkinat) are actualised. Never a platonic divorce from the conditions of time and place and createdness. The heart of mind (qalb) or apex mentis, aware that future becomes present in the very instant the present is annihilated into past, is aware that zero-time intervenes between future and past and that God or luminous being, giving himself continuously, alone is and alone can say I am. We who receive being, and retain it for zero-time, can say only I become. ‘We are advancing perpetually towards God only because he advances towards us.’ (S.Basil.) Ibn ‘Arabi, prior to 1209 (Book of Theophanies, cf A153), had to teach this to the dead sufis when he found it eliminated asharite confusion and demolished the fantasy constructions of some emanationist muslims who tried to correct the Qur’an by pagan philosophy.
II. The knowledge of self, by circumcision of heart, that leads to this knowledge of God has only a passing affinity with the Delphic maxim ‘know yourself; gnothi sauton; scito (nosce) teipsum, recorded by Xenophon (430-350) Memorabilia 4.2.21 in the dialogue of Socrates (469-399) with Euthydemus, the meaning of which was taken as: ‘know you are not a god’; or ‘know your ignorance, that is wisdom’; or ‘know you are not immortal’. (See concluding note.) This maxim was later attributed variously to three of the ‘Seven Sages’: Solon (fl. 600), Thales (fl. 585) and Chilon (fl. 556), who had lived two centuries earlier, contemporary with Jeremiah (circumcise your heart 4.4… all shall know me, for all shall be taught by me when I write the new testament on the heart of their mind 31.33… an everlasting testament 32.39) and with Ezechiel (I will put a new spirit within them, a new heart not of stone but of flesh 11.19) and with Second Isaiah (all shall be taught by the Lord 59.13). All three, before and during the exile (587) were proclaiming the inner meaning of the gnosis of God revealed through the Shema (Dt 6.4): “YHWH our God YHWH is one, love him with all your heart, soul, strength, write this on your heart… speak it on the road.” Jesus cited this prophesy at Capernaum (Jn 6.45), instituted the new covenant at the Last Supper and in his death, and promised the Spirit who would ‘teach you everything’ (Jn 14.26).
This is the knowledge no longer written by ourselves on the heart of our mind but unveiled and found, through circumcision of that heart, to be written there in spirit by God so that all might, by the coming of the Spirit, as Moses, Joel and Peter proclaim, be prophets and prophetesses (ac 2.17). Gnosis is knowledge of God as revealing himself to us in scripture written with letters through prophets only because already written in spirit on the prophets’ circumcised hearts where its meaning, unveiled and rediscovered, is not just that we are not a god, but that we are made according to God’s image and likeness, created ‘upon his form’.
The best known variants in English:
Full wise is he that can himselven know (Chaucer, The Monkes Tale)
All our knowledge is ourselves to know (Pope, An Essay on Man),
may seem to strike only a delphic note yet could have been intended to hint at the contemplative theology of deification, of recovering our likeness to God when unlikeness is cut away. The root (pit) for prayer in hebrew, cognate with the arabic for sharp point or edge, and generally taken as ‘to judge oneself’ might well refer, not to the pagan rite of ‘cutting the flesh’, but to the circumcision of heart, the sacrifice of a pure heart, the word of God being a (sacrificial) two-edged knife penetrating between soul and spirit (Heb 4.12).
The earliest succinct form of the hadith (to which my attention is drawn by Bishop Kallistos Ware) is in Clement of Alexandria (15d-217) The Pedagogue 3.1 ‘Of True Beauty’:
The most beautiful learning and the greatest is
to know yourself, for whoever knows himself knows God
and whoever knows God becomes like Him.
Even the akbarian emphasis on ‘his’ Lord is implied here but its substance goes back over a century to Philo of Alexandria (c20BC-50AD: the contemporary of Christ) On God sent Dreams 1.10, dealing with our need to start from Harran where we must go to study the pits, holes and caves of that house of wisdom which is our body, and understand what we mean by seeing, hearing, tasting, etc. since it is folly to study our cosmic dwelling and environment before gaining knowledge of our private dwelling though even this we can never comprehend let alone ever being able to make acquaintance with our soul and mind. Such a disposition ‘to become acquainted with yourself hebrews call Terah and greeks Socrates though the latter is only one individual man while the former is taken as ‘the whole principle according to which each man should know himself. In Harran we only reconnoitre the place that wisdom inhabits, quite other are those athletes who, like Abraham, quit Harran and everything to do with body-holes and who practise in their migration the exercise of wisdom and on their journey ‘attain to progress in complete knowledge… for the more he knew himself the more he renounced himself to attain accurate knowledge of the true living God’.
This ‘turning-inward’ to ask: what is hearing? who is hearing? who is asking this? is exactly the meaning of hua t’ou, a ‘turning-inward to contemplate self-mind, self-nature, head-of-thought or fundamental-face’ i.e. apex mentis, heart of mind, or qalb (Dr Hsu-yun cited in Charles Luk, Secrets of Chinese Meditation, 1964). Only self-knowledge that reaches the instant of zero-time, the interface of future with past, can attain to this knowledge of God in epectasy.
Gregory of Nyssa (333-395?)
in The Life of Moses, based his whole theology of epectasy, as does Ibn ‘Arabi, on abrahamic self-knowledge: Leaving (1) what senses perceive and (2) what intelligence sees he enters into (3) the invisible and unknowable (i.e. apex mentis) and there sees God…by seeing that he is invisible…the more mind advances inward the more it sees that the divine nature is invisible…the darkness in which Moses sees God is gnosis that gnosis of God transcends all gnosis…what mind attains is never the living and life-giving God who is ever beyond, ever inaccessible to epignosis.
using the pre-vulgate Latin read (cant 1.8) ‘Nisi cognoscas te…’ (for Si ignoras te…) and (dt 15.9) ‘Attende tibi…’ (for Cave ne fiat…) comments e.g.: To know oneself is to recognise the divine image and likeness in oneself (e.g. Sermo 2.13-14 on ps 118 PL 15.1214; Lib de Isaac 4.11-16 PL 14.509)
Know yourself, o beautiful mind, for you are the image of God (Hexaemeron 8.50). William of S. Thierry (1095-1148), who died just before Ibn ‘Arabi was born (1165), having compiled an anthology of texts from Ambrose on the saying, wrote e.g. ‘By advancing in self knowledge ascend to knowledge of God.’ (Golden Ep 2.(23)289.) Through him and S. Bernard (1090-1153: ‘No-one is saved without self knowledge’) what Gilson miscalls ‘Christian socratism’ became a commonplace in Cistercian writings.
Do you wish to know God? Learn first to know yourself (cited in 1954 Early Fathers from the Philokalia p. 109 from a Russian collection of his miscellaneous sayings).
For mind (apex mentis) to find itself mind must cut off all that mind has added to itself for it is not only more interior than objects outside itself but more interior than its images of objects…the instant that mind understands what it means when it tells itself to know itself it knows itself because it is present to itself (De Trin 10.8-9). O God ever the same let me know myself, let me know you: ‘noverim me noverim te’ (Soliloques).
In Chapter 10 of The Confessions he returns to this again and again:
What I know of myself I know through your light shining in me (Quod de me scio, te mihi lucente scio (5)7);
Into my mind shines that which space cannot contain and what is tasted there cannot be diminished by eating (6)8;
Your God is to you the life of your life (6)10;
By my mind itself I ascend to God (6)11;
I mount toward you ever above me (17)26;
My body lives by my soul, my soul lives by you (21)29;
You are not mind itself because you are the Lord God of the mind (25)36;
Where did I find you that I might learn you but in you above me (26)37.
S. Nilus (360-430)
When you know yourself you are able to know God (Ep 3.314).
Isaac the Syrian of Nineveh (5007-595)
Two knowledges are received from without: the natural (what the senses perceive) and the spiritual (concerned with what the spirit receives) but the third knowledge is manifest in mind’s inmost depths, for the kingdom is within; its coming cannot be observed for the kingdom comes without observation: it reveals itself by itself without thoughts, further in than any image imprinted on the hidden mind (cited in Early Fathers from the Philokalia pl96).
Pope Gregory I (540-604)
The mind… rising to knowledge of itself… prepares a path to contemplate the substance of eternity and extends itself to itself by climbing which it enters into itself and from itself tends (in epectasy) to its maker (Morals 5.61-62).
The Futûhât Al-Makkiyyah
II 308.22 (C.)
When man becomes aware of the true knowledge of himself…he finds nothing but his possibility, poverty, lowliness, subjection, need and misery…his need for someone to guide him…to the path which will take him to felicity with God…he needs knowledge of…the law…so as to perform secondary worship (that of servanthood) as well as primary (that of all actualised possibilities). He now combines both forms of worship for he has knowledge of himself and everyone who knows himself knows his Lord and who knows his Lord worships him by his command.
II 472.35 (C.)
…this knowledge of God which follows knowledge of self may be either a knowledge of one’s incapacity to attain knowledge of God or a knowledge of the fact that he is God. (Cf. Philo: We can know that he is, not what he is.)
II 500.16 (C.)
He is related to us by bringing us into existence so we are related to him through our existence. Hence we know ourself (as being brought into existence) and God (as bringing us into existence).
II 552.12 (C., C.)
…There is tasting (dhawq) and drinking (sharb) but there is no ri (satiety and quenching) because Q20.144 ‘increase me in my knowledge’ is absolute…the preparedness of the seeker is to gain knowledge and the knowledge gained is only preparedness for further knowledge. Since it is by knowledge of the new preparedness for further knowledge that we actually become thirsty, there is never any quenching. The ignorant being ignorant of this think they know God but he who has no knowledge of himself has no knowledge of his Lord and so the gnostic knows he is one of those who do not know. (Cf. Eckhart on the verse They shall eat me and hunger.)
III 72.32 (C.)
He who etc., does not mean we know the essence… how could the delimited know the non-delimited?
III 101.18 (C.) To know oneself is:
a) the fact that one remains forever in one’s possibility
b) that becoming is the property of the preparedness of possibles.
To know one’s Lord is:
a) the fact that God alone is
b) that he alone makes the changes of becoming manifest.
III 121.25 (C.)
As knowledge of self has no end so there is no end to knowledge of God…hence the knower says in every state, ‘Increase me in my knowledge’ and God increases him in knowledge of self that he may increase in knowledge of his Lord.
III 198.33 (C.)
The heart (qalb) has the character of flux or flowing-forward (taqlib)… now transmutation (tahawwul) and flux (qalb) are attributes of time (al-dahr)… and each day God is upon some task (Q55.29)… if man examines his heart he knows that ceaseless creation is the root of its ceaseless flux… thus ‘He who knows etc’ and flowing from mercy to mercy is flowing ‘between the two fingers of the all-merciful’. (This shows that the double paradox of ceaseless creation and epectasy or ceaseless self-modification is indivisible.)
III 314.22 (C.)
Ibn ‘Arabi is speaking about a hylemorphic composition (form and matter, act and potency, etc.) and concludes: When we know our souls we know our Lord like two exactly similar things hence ‘He who knows etc’ and hence (Q41.53) We show them Our signs upon the horizons and in themselves till it is clear that He is the Real.
III 404.28 (C.344)
He who knows himself has known his Lord for the creature most knowing in respect of creation is the most knowing in respect of God. (cf II 472.35 where knowledge of God follows knowledge of self: the two knowledges advance pari passu and increase each other.)
The Fusûs al-Hikam
‘Who knows himself etc’ links knowledge of God and of self in our experience of the inseparability of transcendence and immanence as in Q40.53 ‘Showing our signs on the horizon’ (in the world outside ourself) ‘and in yourself (i.e. at apex mentis) ’till it becomes clear, etc’, (i.e. you are to him as body to mind; he is to you as spirit governing your physical form), (cf Augustine: My body lives by my soul, my soul by you.)
‘Whoever knows etc’ means we cannot know God as God without reference to the cosmos… only knowledge of the dependent as dependent can confirm the independence of the independent.
Ishmael (A. 107)
The servants who know their Lord are those who enter my ‘paradise’ (My ‘janna‘: janna, ‘to be hidden’ is the ‘castle’ of Eckhart and S. Teresa of Avila) which is none other than yourself and entering yourself you know: (a) yourself with a gnosis other than that by which you know (b) your Lord by knowing yourself. There is thus a double gnosis: (a) knowing yourself as mere possibility and (b) knowing your Lord as he who is actualising the possibility.
He who knows himself in this way knows his Lord and this is the way of which the amazing thing is that such a one is always advancing, even if, since the veil is so fine, he is unaware of it. (Like the dead Sufis whom Ibn ‘Arabi says he instructed in ‘advancement’ or epectasy.) Similars in the sight of the gnostics are different from each other. (Mind being always in self-modification and never simply the same as itself.) Since this can’t be known by speculation, it can’t be attained by scholastic theologians and was never understood by (ancient greek) philosophers.
Jesus (A. 181)
Whoever wishes to know the divine breath must first know the cosmos for he who knows himself knows his Lord who is manifest in him. (The ‘distress of the Divine Names at the non-manifestation of their effects’ prior to the creating word of command, is not only why the obligating command is for us to show the effects, but indicates that the divine and uncreated energies are themselves an eternal manifestation of the essence prior to the creating word: the former is developed by Eckhart, the latter by S. Gregory Palamas.)
Since man’s knowledge of himself comes before his knowledge of his Lord which results from it, we may understand: either that one is not able to know and attain or that gnosis is possible.
Doubts as to Plato’s authorship of the First Dialogue of Alcibiades are strengthened by its philonic view of Delphi: ‘I will tell you what I suspect to be its meaning and lesson. To know yourself, let soul look at that part of soul which is like herself where virtue resides, which is most divine, which has to do with wisdom and knowledge, and which resembles the divine… one who, looking at this, knows that which is divine is the most likely to be he who knows himself… and his self-knowledge is wisdom.
The 16 texts from Ibn ‘Arabi show how the hadith unifies the double movement of descent and ascent. Continuous creation requiring the continuousness of epectasy, advancement, or taraqqi. This is what gives stability to the entire framework of Akbarian thought.
References: FM – Futûhât al-Makkiyyah; FH – Fusûs Al-Hikam; A – Ralph Austin, The Bezels of Wisdom, 1980, Paulist Press / SPCK; C – William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, 1989, State University of N.Y. Press.
Taken from the Newsletter of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Summer, 1990.