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Rene Guenon: Infinity and Possibility

Rene Guenon: Infinity and Possibility
Photo: René Guénon, his wife Fatma Harem and their two daughters

To understand the doctrine of the multiplicity of the states of the being, it is necessary before considering anything else to return to the most primordial notion of all, that of metaphysical Infinity, envisaged in its relationship with universal Possibility. The Infinite, according to the etymology of the term which designates it, is that which has no limits; and if we are to preserve this word in its strict sense we must rigorously limit its use to the designation of that which has absolutely no limits whatsoever, excluding here everything that only escapes from certain particular limiting conditions while remaining subject to other limitations by virtue of its very nature, in which these limitations are essentially inherent-as, from the logical point of view which simply translates in its fashion the point of view that can be called 'ontological', are those elements implicated in the very definition of the things in question. As we have already mentioned on many occasions, these latter include number, space, and time, even in the most general and extended conceptions we can possibly form of them, which far exceed our ordinary notions; all of this can really only be in the domain of the indefinite. It is to this indefinitude, when it is of a quantitative order as in the examples just mentioned, that some people improperly apply the term 'mathematical infinity', as if adding a fixed epithet or qualification to the word 'infinity' did not itself imply a contradiction pure and simple. In fact, this indefinitude, proceeding from the finite of which it is merely an extension or a development (and therefore always reducible to the finite), has no common measure with the true Infinite, any more than an individuality, human or otherwise, even considered with the integrality of the indefinite prolongations of which it is capable, can ever be commensurate with the total being. This formation of the indefinite from the finite, of which we have a very clear example in the production of the series of numbers, is only possible on condition that the finite already contain the indefinite potentially, and even were the limits extended so far as to be lost to sight, so to speak-that is, to the point at which they escape our ordinary means of measurement-they certainly are not abolished thereby; by reason of the very nature of the causal relation it is quite obvious that the 'greater' cannot come from the 'lesser', nor the Infinite from the finite.

It cannot be otherwise when, as in the present case, we consider various orders of particular possibilities that are manifestly limited by the coexistence of other orders of possibilities, and thus limited by virtue of their own nature to such and such determined possibilities and no others, and not to all possibilities without restriction. If it were not so, the coexistence of an indefinitude of other possibilities not included in these, each of which is equally susceptible of an indefinite development, moreover, would be an impossibility and thus an absurdity in the logical sense of the word.4 The Infinite on the contrary, to be truly such, cannot admit of any restriction, which presupposes that it be absolutely unconditioned and undetermined, for every determination, of whatever sort, is necessarily a limitation by the very fact that it must leave something outside of itself, namely all other equally possible determinations. Besides, limitation presents the character of a veritable negation; to set a limit is ·to deny to that which is limited everything that this limit excludes, and consequently the negation of a limit is properly the negation of a negation, that is to say, logically, and even mathematically, an affirmation, so that in reality the negation of all limit is equivalent to total and absolute affirmation. That which has no limits is that of which nothing can be denied, and is therefore what contains everything, that outside of which there is nothing; and this idea of the Infinite, which is thus the most affirmative of all because it comprehends or embraces all particular affirmations whatsoever, can only be expressed in negative terms by reason of its absolute indetermination. In language, any direct affirmation is in fact necessarily a particular and determined affirmation-the affirmation of something particular-whereas total and absolute affirmation is no particular affirmation to the exclusion of others since it implies them all equally; and from this it should be easy to grasp the very close relation this presents with universal Possibility, which in the same way comprehends all particular possibilities.

The idea of the Infinite we have just presented from the purely metaphysical point of view can be neither discussed nor contested,  for by the very fact that it contains nothing negative it cannot contain any contradiction-and this is all the more necessarily so, logically speaking/ since it is negation that would occasion contradiction. If in fact one envisages the 'Whole' in the universal and absolute sense, it is evident that it cannot be limited in any way, for it could only be so in virtue of something exterior to it, and if anything were exterior to it, it would not be the 'Whole'. It is important to observe moreover that the 'Whole' in this sense must not in any way be likened to a particular or determined whole, that is, to a totality composed of parts that would stand in a definite relationship to it; properly speaking, it is 'without parts', for these parts would of necessity be relative and finite and so could have no common measure with it, and consequently no relationship with it, which amounts to saying that they would not exist for it, and this suffices to show that one should not try to form any particular conception of it.

What we have just said of the universal Whole in its most absolute indetermination also applies to it when it is envisaged from the point of view of Possibility; and in truth there is no determination here either, or at least only the minimum required to render it actually conceivable to us, and above all expressible to some degree. As we have already had occasion to observe, a limitation of total Possibility is properly speaking an in1possibility, since to limit it one would have to conceive it, and what is outside of the possible can be nothing but the impossible; but since an impossibility is a negation pure and simple, a true nothingness, it can obviously not limit anything whatsoever, from which it immediately follows that universal Possibility is necessarily unlimited. \Ve must take great care, however, to understand that this applies only to universal and total Possibility, which is thus only what we could call an aspect of the Infinite, from which it is in no way and in no measure distinct; nothing can be outside the Infinite, for if something were, the infinite would be limited and so no longer the Infinite. The conception of a 'plurality of infinites' is absurd because these 'infinities' would mutually limit each other, and so in reality none of them would be infinite;  when we say therefore that universal Possibility is infinite or unlimited, it must be understood that it is nothing other than the Infinite itself envisaged under a certain aspect-insofar as it is permissible to say that there are aspects to the Infinite. Since the Infinite is truly 'without parts', strictly speaking there could be no question of a multiplicity of aspects really and 'distinctively' inhering in it; in fact it is we who conceive the Infinite under this or that aspect because we cannot do otherwise, and even if our conception were not essentially limited-as it is so long as we are in an individual state-it would necessarily have to limit itself, for to become expressible, it must assume a determinate form. What matters is that we should clearly understand whence the limitation comes and on what it depends, so that we attribute it only to our own imperfection, or rather to that of the exterior and interior faculties currently at our disposal as individual beings, which as such effectively possess only a definite and conditioned existence, and do not transfer this imperfection, which is as purely contingent and transitory as are the conditions to which it refers and from which it results, to the unlimited domain of universal Possibility itself.

And, finally, let us add that if one speaks correlatively of the Infinite and Possibility, it is not with the intention of establishing between these terms a distinction which could not in fact exist, but rather because here the Infinite is being envisaged particularly in its active aspect while Possibility is its passive aspect. 13 Now whether we regard it as active or passive, it is always the Infinite which cannot be affected by these contingent points of view, and the determinations, whatever may be the principle by which they are effected, only exist in relation to our own conception. In short, this is what we have elsewhere called 'active perfection' (Khien) and 'passive perfection' (Khouen), following the terminology of the Far-Eastern doctrine, perfection in its absolute sense being identical with the Infinite understood in all its indetermination; and as we said at the time, this is analogous-though to another degree and from a more universal point of view-to what in Being are called 'essence' and 'substance'. For what follows it must be well understood that Being does not contain the whole of Possibility, and that consequently it can in no wise be identified with the Infinite; this is why we say that our point of view here is far more universal than that from which we envisage Being alone. We mention this only to avoid all confusion, for in what follows we shall have occasion to explain this point more fully.


'The Multiple States of the Being' By René Guénon (Author)
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'The Multiple States of the Being'
By René Guénon (Author)
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This text, René Guénon's most comprehensive work of 'pure' metaphysics, is written as if nothing at all is, but That which is in its own essence. And, in truth, what else is there? Being is multiple and comprises many states, both manifest and unmanifest; but the unmanifest has precedence, what is seen being effectively nothing in the face of what is not seen. To realize this is to realize the contingency of the human state and the set of its inherent possibilities; to realize the contingency of the human state is to be liberated from it; to be liberated from the human state is to assimilate the principle by which the being can be liberated from all states. This is the end of the spiritual life, and also of the human form: 'end' both as telos and as annihilation. And since all beings in manifestation exist equally and simultaneously in all the planes and states of the Unmanifest, to know Infinite Possibility is precisely to become what one is. Whatever else Guénon wrote, as mystagogue, hermeneut, critic of the modern world, emanated from and existed to support the realization of only This.
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