On the mystical shaping of self

Auguste Rodin, ’Le Penseur’, 1904, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris. A testament to both patriarchy and the ‘feminine’ reason of the mystical.

One of the greatest, most fruitful and resonant metaphors in Western culture

From Plotinus:

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’

The Enneads, Trans., Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, 54, 1.6.9

through Christianity:

‘A sculptor who wishes to carve a figure out of a block uses his chisel, first cutting away great chunks of marble, then smaller pieces, until he finally reaches a point where only a brush of hand is needed to reveal the figure. In the same way, the soul has to undergo tremendous mortifications at first, and then more refined detachments, until finally its Divine image is revealed.’

through Catholicism

through Cusanus:

‘For the wise thought as if [along the following line]: a craftsman [who] wants to chisel a statue in stone and [who] has in himself the form of the statue, as an idea, produces – through certain instruments which he moves – the form of the statue in imitation of the idea’

De Docta Ignorantia II.10, in Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia, 1440), The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1985, 112

through Nietzsche:

‘Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal Oneness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. The noblest clay, the most precious marble, man, is kneaded and hewn here, and to the chisel-blows of the Dionysiac world-artist there echoes the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries, “Do you bow low, multitudes? Do you sense the Creator, world?”‘

Friedrich Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) Penguin, Trans., Shaun Whiteside, Ed., Michael Tanner 1993, 18

through Foucault:

‘This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?’

in Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984,  Ed., Lawrence D. Kritzman, Routledge, London, 1990, 14

And what does the concealed priesthood in academic philosophy, who have failed so profoundly in their social and intellectual responsibility have to say about all this mysticism in their and our midst?

The stupid mystic Wittgenstein spoke for them: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Trans., D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Routledge, New York, 2005


5 thoughts on “On the mystical shaping of self

  1. I enjoyed reading all the fragments from different philosophers, but I’m missing a little bit some reflection to tie it all together, which would better explain what you understand by mysticism and mystic. What makes Wittgenstein a mystic? And Nietzsche, for whom God is dead? Is Foucault also a mystic (one of Pierre Hadot’s criticisms of Foucault is that in taking over his own references to ancient Greek philosophers and their spiritual exercises, Foucault misses the dimension of the spiritual and the cosmic, and makes the concept of the care of the self into a purely aesthetic self-fashioning)…?


    • Hello Anna, thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions. To be a mystic does not mean that one is solely preoccupied with mystical beliefs and concerns but that mysticism is fundamental to how one thinks of the world. Nicholas of Cusa was a mystic, he was also a very active Catholic Cardinal; Wittgenstein, in my view, was a mystic – but he wrote primarily (as you know) on other matters. What exemplifies his mysticism is his Tractatus – not only is it book-ended with professions of a core belief of mysticism – that what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence, the content too, is mystical. In my view, his commitment to the ‘limitations of language’ and how that should be understood is informed by mysticism. I think that Wittgenstein was one of many (particularly in philosophy and primarily as a result of the rise of science) who wanted their mystical position to be accepted as ‘rational’ (a very poorly understood concept, particularly by philosophers). One of my posts is a very beautiful example of honest mystical writing on the limitations of language by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (in the form of a ‘fake’ letter – that’s the feeling for contradiction in mysticism for you!).

      Nietzsche is another like Wittgenstein. He is famous for telling us that God is dead. But not only is this expression in Hegel’s philosophy, it derives from a Lutheran hymn. Nietzsche wanted the Christian God ‘dead’ so that his ‘god’ (the Dionysiac Übermensch) could emerge centre-stage. Nietzsche was utterly ‘a man of god’ – in the mystical sense. His philosophy is informed by Neoplatonism, from his first text The Birth of Tragedy (in which he repeatedly refers to the primal Oneness, with descriptions of union with it through mystical ecstasy) to the final so-called aphorism in his The Will to Power (which ‘aphorism’ is a synopsis of The Enneads). The influence of Neoplatonism is throughout his philosophy.

      I don’t regard Foucault as a mystic but I included a quotation from him to exemplify (with others) the influence of mysticism (specifically Plotinus’ great metaphor) on his philosophy.

      If you are interested to explore the pervasive influence of mysticism on Western culture (academic philosophers are slowly and gingerly beginning to address their most massive cover-up of this most important cultural influence), I strongly recommend the 2 volume anthology edited by William Franke On What Cannot Be Said. It includes an excerpt from Wittgenstein.

      What are your thoughts? Phil


  2. Thanks, the reply was illuminating. I think of mysticism as direct knowledge of god, whether a personal or a pantheistic god synonymous with nature or a Dionysian life force. And it’s a form of union that is ecstatic, it transports one both beyond the self and also beyond concepts and words; it is a form of knowledge felt by the heart and body (or soul) rather than by the rational mind. But that’s not the same as saying that there are limits to language – that position can also held by a skeptic or an empiricist who has nothing in common with mysticism but simply doesn’t believe that representations can ever capture reality. I don’t know Wittgenstein well enough to discern which he is, but thank you for recommending Franke’s book.


    • Hello Anna, I think your definition of mysticism is excellent and that you also stated the mystic’s position regarding ‘the limits of language’ – that a mystical experience goes ‘beyond concepts and words; it is a form of knowledge felt by the heart and body (or soul) rather than by the rational mind.’ Such an experience draws on a rapid, fluid, very rich and non-linguistic form of reason – intuition – and is therefore profoundly connected to creativity – hence the resonance of Plotinus’ sculptor metaphor in art, religion, literature and philosophy. Neoplatonism also inspired Copernicus to the greatest scientific hypothesis (the divine light is at the centre, not the earth) and Kepler. Phil


  3. Hi Phil. I enjoy your posts on these topics and largely share your sentiments. For myself, I would question the idea that Wittgenstein endorsed mysticism except in its derogatory meaning as muddled and obscure. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I never get the slightest feeling that he understands mysticism. The ‘Investigations’ seem like just a confusion of empty words, but then I haven’t read them for a long time. I wonder if I should revise my opinion.


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