al Ghazali and the connections between his Islamic philosophy and Plotinus.
It suddenly occurred to me, while I was reading it, that the author — clearly a very respectable academic — thought that the source of al Ghazali's revelations and writings about the nature of Being and Light were other philosophic traditions. In pondering this, I realized that the vast majority of people who study individuals who have brought revelational material on inner work think they perhaps somehow got their ideas from books.
The idea is intriguing, because the lines that academia attempts to trace between inner philosophies and esoteric schools are all traced on the pages of books. When it finds similarities, it reports that so and so got their idea from another so and so that went before them; and so on.
It's actually nothing like this. The nature of inner revelation is that it is consistent; thus, Plotinus, to the extent that he had an inner revelation, an inflow of divine influences, had a perception about the nature of light; and others who followed him, al Ghazali, for example, had the same insights because they had the same experiences. Not because they had heard what those who went before them said.
This may seem to be a fine point of distinction, but it's an essential one. The reason that Ibn 'Arabi and Swedenborg sound alike is not because Swedenborg read 'Arabi's writing, or was necessarily aware of his tradition. That could have happened, to be sure; yet scholars would probably agree it's unlikely. 'Arabi's writings have never, so far as I know, been extensively translated into Western languages; and although his ideas may have been spoken about and reached Swedenborg, Swedenborg by his own account was not influenced by writings, but rather by revelation.
Revelation is an essential influence within man's inner world. There are, of course, revelations that turn out to be invented or delusional; these are not, in the end, too hard to recognize, and I won't name names. But the striking quality of real inner revelation is that those who have a correct understanding of such an experience all emerge from it saying essentially the same things, because the universal truths that underlie this experience are not mutable.
One can know, in the same way that one can look at a renaissance artist's use of pigment materials and know whether or not a particular painting was his (the forgeries deviate from the original artist's pigment recipes) one can read a revelational text and know, by and large, whether or not it is true — if one has enough of a connection to real inner work to know that.
People who study things with the mind, or think that understanding comes out of books, will never understand this. Studying things with the intellect and following things in books is a good thing, mind you; I do it myself. But the point — as Ibn 'Arabi said time and time again, when writing — is that real understanding does not come out of the intellect. It can be recorded there; and some transmission of this kind can take place, but only to one who is properly prepared.
Gurdjieff discussed this matter with Ouspensky at some length, in regard to both writing and symbolic art. The difficulty is that those who evaluate esoteric materials as though everything came from the same level, or could be understood from the point of view of relativism, simply don't have enough understanding to evaluate things properly. And this is a real problem.
In the mixing up of various works and traditions that has taken place due to the expansion of information exchange in the late 20th and early 21st century, an enormous amount of dilution has taken place. The critical faculties of man are, on the whole, steadily deteriorating, and the ability in human beings to properly discriminate, based on the influences of levels and their action within mankind, between nonsense and actual inner work is steadily deteriorating along with those faculties.
Without a right ability of discrimination, one cannot know what is true and what is invented. A man or woman can go a very long way off a path into the woods due to a failure of discrimination, and end up in a place that looks very magical, but is actually just a witch's hut.
Gurdjieff famously included the following admonition in his aphorisms:
"If you have not by nature a critical mind your staying here is useless."
May your soul be filled with light.