In philosophy, the concept of The Absolute, also known as The (Unconditioned) Ultimate, The Wholly Other, The Supreme Being, The Absolute/Ultimate Reality, and other names, is the thing, being, entity, power, force, reality, presence, law, principle, etc. that possesses maximal ontological status, existential ranking, existential greatness, or existentiality. In layman's terms, this is the one that is, in one way or another, the greatest, truest, or most real being.
There are many conceptions of The Absolute in various fields and subjects, such as philosophy, religion, spiritual traditions, mathematics, and even natural science. The nature of these conceptions can range from "merely" encompassing all physical existence, nature, or reality, to being completely unconditioned existentially, transcending all concepts, notions, and types, kinds, and categories of being.
The Absolute is often thought of as causing to come into being manifestations that interact with lower or lesser forms of being. This is either done passively, through emanations, or actively, through avatars and incarnations. These existential manifestations, which themselves can possess transcendent attributes, only contain minuscule or infinitesimal portions of the true essence of The Absolute.
The term itself was not in use in ancient or medieval philosophy, but closely related to the description of God as Actus purus (Pure Actuality) in scholasticism. It was introduced in modern philosophy, notably by Hegel, for "the sum of all being, actual and potential". The term has since also been adopted in perennial philosophy.
Major conceptions of The Absolute
There are three general ways of conceiving the Absolute. The Absolute might be (1) the first and greatest being, (2) not a being at all but the "ground" of being, or (3) both the ground of being and a being.
In conception one the Absolute is the most true and intelligible reality. It can be spoken of and known. For example, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Absolute Spirit is the most true reality. It is thinkable, speakable, and exists in the objective world by comprehending everything, including people, states, and world history.
In conception two the Absolute might be conceived of as utterly outside of all other reality and hence unintelligible. It cannot be known or spoken about. Plato's Socrates says that "The Form of the Good" is "beyond being", implying that it is even beyond thought, language, and normal categories of existence.
St. John of the Cross says:
He who truly arrives there
cuts free from himself;
all that he knew before
now seems worthless,
and his knowledge so soars
that he is left in unknowing
transcending all knowledge.
In conception three the Absolute is seen as transcending duality and distinction. This concept of a fundamental reality that transcends or includes all other reality is usually (but not always) associated with divinity. While this conception initially seems contradictory, it has been highly influential. One way to understand this third conception is to consider the Tao Te Ching.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.— Tao Te Ching, 1
These opening lines distinguish between two Taos. One is the "eternal Tao" (which cannot be named or explained) and the other "Tao" seems to exist in space and time (and can be named and explained). The eternal Tao is beyond existence and cannot be named or fully understood, while the other Tao exists and can be known. The eternal Tao is infinite; the other is finite. The eternal Tao is formless; the other is formed. The eternal Tao is transcendent; the other is immanent. The other "Tao" is an attempt to describe the "eternal Tao" in human terms; but such effort can never express the eternal Tao fully. He continues:
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery.
In these lines, he further discusses the difference between the two Taos. The eternal Tao is "nameless" and is the origin of Heaven and Earth; this origin can be understood as an underlying metaphysics that cannot be described fully. The "named" Tao, on the other hand, is able to describe specific phenomenons that exist in space and time, hence it is the mother of myriad of things; it also can be treated as the humanly conceived concepts in the effort to describe our physical world. Later, he points out that both the "named" and the "nameless" emerge together from the same eternal Tao. This seemingly self-contradictory unity, of course, is said to be the mystery to be understood.
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One or more of these three conceptions of the Absolute can be found in various other religions or philosophies. The following is a list of concepts of divine or absolute reality:
- Abrahamic religions — God in Abrahamic religions
- Ancient Egyptian Mythology — Ancient Egyptian creation myths
- Ancient Greek philosophy — Monad (philosophy), Apeiron, Logos, Arche
- Aristotelianism — Unmoved mover
- Buddhism — Buddha-nature / Sunyata
- Caodaism — Cao Đài
- The Chinese — Tian
- Chinese folk religion — Shangdi and Tian
- Chinese mythology — Jade Emperor, Pangu, Shangdi, Tian, Wufang Shangdi
- Chinese philosophy — Taiji, Wuji
- Chinese theology — Hundun
- Classical Mythology — Chaos
- Gnosticism — Monad (Gnosticism)
- Heideggerian — Being, Thing
- The Heraclitian — Logos
- Hermeticism — The All
- Lacanian — Thing
- The Indian —
- The early Indo-European — *Dyeus Phter
- The Jain — Kevala Jnana
- Shinto and Japanese Mythology — Japanese creation myth, Kotoamatsukami
- Korean Shamanism and Mythology — Haneullim
- The Mesoamerican — Teotl or Hunab Ku
- The North American — Great Spirit
- Odinani — Chukwu
- The Parmenidean or Neoplatonic — The One
- The Platonic — Form of the Good
- The Pythagorean — Apeiron
- The Slavic — Rod
- The Sumerian — Anu or Dingir
- The Spinozian — Nature
- Yazdânism — Haq
- Yoruba religion — Olorun, Olodumare, Olofi
- The Schopenhauerian — Will
- Zoroastrianism — Ahura Mazda
- Aldous Huxley's — Ground of Being
- F.H. Bradley's — Absolute
While these conceptions are superficially similar, they admit of multiple interpretations. Some philosophers, especially perennialists and pantheist philosophers, find great significance in the similarities between these different words and argue that various/all cultures past and present have an identical concept of the 'Absolute'.
Other philosophers, however, argue that these concepts are not the same, since the Logos is rational and formal whereas Brahman is formless and irrational; and since Plato's Form of the Good is impersonal where the Christian God is personal; since Bradley's Absolute is a conscious experience whereas Brand Blanshard's Absolute is an unconscious, intelligible system.
Perennialist philosophers such as John Hick argue that even if the concepts vary slightly, the reality of the Absolute reality behind the varying concepts is the same.
Within religious traditions
Philosophers such as Adi Shankara denied the Absolute any personal sense, whereas philosophers such as Ramanuja and Madhva, tended to identify the Absolute with a personal God. The Traditionalist School, via Frithjof Schuon, admits:
It is true that God as creator, revealer, and savior is not to be identified with the Absolute as such; it is likewise true that God in Himself, in the full depth of His reality, is not to be reduced to the creative Function.
Early Hinduism identified Brahman with Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The same immortal spirit was conceived of as functional in the world in three ways: creation, preservation, and destruction. There was therefore no real contradiction between love of a personal God and an impersonal Absolute, although the latter was sometimes conceived of as "purer."
Shaivism, and most monotheistic Indian religions, gave God five functions: creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, and revelation. Shiva, as Brahman, would therefore act in the world as a personal God. Yet this distinction between the Absolute and Infinite, or Transcendent and Immanent is not entirely, in itself, absolute. Philosophers like Shankara believe that upon doing away with maya the entire universe disappears, including the notion of a personal God. Philosophers such as Madhva and Ramanuja, tend to propound an identification of the Absolute with God, whereas later philosophers such as Nimbarka and Caitanya, tended to identify the Absolute with a personal form of God (Krishna). Either way, all these claims, taken in context, tend to prove non-contradictory.
The quote above, via Schuon, is actually fully represented within the Hindu tradition. Brahma, the creator god, is not worshiped within Hinduism. The only deities that are worshiped, are Shiva, and Vishnu. Both Shiva and Vishnu, by their respective devotees, are represented as having power over the following five functions: creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, and revelation. However, a further distinction is made by Shankara: God is not Brahman (the Absolute). Rather the appearance of God is still via the power of Maya. So there are in effect, three levels, which Schuon himself observes: Brahman (the Absolute), God as creator, revealer, and savior (AKA, Shiva or Vishnu), and finally God as creator (AKA, Brahma). Incidental reasons are given for Brahma's lack of worship, a Hindu myth attributes this situation to a curse by Bhrigu. Devdutt Pattanaik, an Indian author, gives some philosophical reasons. Ultimately the reason is actually inherent ("inherent" in the Absolute) and theological.
Relation of humanity to the Absolute
Laozi taught that the Tao was not only the ultimate reality but the ideal of human life. Another conceptual similarity between various conceptions is that the ultimate reality also somehow reveals to humans the way to live. For example, Plato taught that the Good was both the source of reality, the highest object of knowledge, and the ultimate end of desire.
In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was 'beyond existence' and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it. The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. 'In ritual', say the Analects, 'it is harmony with Nature that is prized.' The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being 'true'. This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'.— C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
I. K. Taimni says:
Because the Ultimate Reality which is denoted by the word 'Absolute' or 'Parabrahman' (卍) is the very core of our being as well as the cause and basis of the universe of which we are part, we can no more get away from it than our solar system can get away from the sun round which it resolves and from which it receives everything which keeps it alive and moving. Although the Absolute is sometimes referred to by such epithets as the Void, Ever-Darkness etc. and is beyond intellectual comprehension, still, from the intellectual point of view it is the most profound concept in the whole realm of philosophy. The fact that it is called 'Unknowable' does not mean that it is beyond the range of philosophical or religious thought and something on which thinking is impossible or undesirable. The very fact that it is the heart and the basis of the universe should make it the most intriguing object of enquiry within the realms of the intellect.— I. K. Taimni, Man, God and the Universe, Chapter 1
Aldous Huxley says:
Only the transcendent, the completely other, can be immanent without being modified by the becoming of that in which it dwells. The Perennial Philosophy teaches that it is desirable and indeed necessary to know the spiritual Ground of things, not only within the soul, but also outside in the world and, beyond world and soul, in its transcendent otherness 'in heaven.' ... God within and God without; these are two abstract notions, which can be entertained by the understanding and expressed in words.— Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
Experiencing the Absolute
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Philosophers and religious adherents who aim to pattern their life after the Absolute reality sometimes claim to have experienced the Absolute. They report mystical experiences, feelings of oneness, transcendence of their everyday personality or of personhood altogether.
Representing the Absolute
The Absolute is conceptually defined as something inexpressible and perhaps unthinkable. This concept creates special problems for expression in words, poetry, mythology, and art. Writers, painters, storytellers, filmmakers often use paradox or contradiction because of the "contradictory aspect of the ultimate reality".
According to Mircea Eliade, the Absolute can be mediated or revealed through symbols. For Eliade the "archaic" mind is constantly aware of the presence of the Sacred, and for this mind all symbols are religious (relinking to the Origin). Through symbols human beings can get an immediate "intuition" of certain features of the inexhaustible Sacred. The mind makes use of images to grasp the ultimate reality of things because reality manifests itself in contradictory ways and therefore can't be described in concepts. It is therefore the image as such, as a whole bundle of meaning, that is "true" (faithful, trustworthy). Eliade says :
...the sacred is equivalent to a power, and, in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being. Sacred power means reality and at the same time enduringness and efficacy. The polarity sacred-profane is often expressed as opposition between real and unreal or pseudoreal. [...] Thus it is easy to understand that religious man deeply desires to be, to participate in reality, to be saturated with power.
- Absolute idealism
- Absolute Infinite
- Conceptions of God—Existence of God—Names of God
- Dialectical monism—Neutral monism
- Eternal Buddha
- God—Godhead—God the Father
- Intrinsic value
- Meaning of life
- Reality in Buddhism
- Supreme Being
- The All
- Universality (philosophy)
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "The Absolute". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Huxley, Aldous (2009-01-01). The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 9780061724947. Tillich, Paul (1951-01-01). Systematic Theology. Vol. I. University of Chicago Press.
- Plato, Republic, Book VI, 508.
- Cross, St John of the (2015-01-16). The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, Volume 1 of 2. Waxkeep Publishing.
- Yandell, Keith E. (2002-01-22). Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 9781134827237.
- Moser, Paul (2009-01-01). "Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Kardiatheology". Philosophia Christi. 11 (2): 293–308.
- "Hick, John | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-27.
- Schuon, Frithjof (1974). "Form and Substance in the Religions". Studies in Comparative Religion.
- Ganguli, Kisari Mohan. "The Mahabharata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Draupadi-harana Parva: Section CCLXX". Sacred Texts.
The Supreme Spirit hath three conditions. In the form of Brahma, he is the Creator, and in the form of Vishnu he is the Preserver, and in his form as Rudra, he is the Destroyer of the Universe!
- Rodrigues, Hillary (2015). "Nirguna and Saguna Brahman". Mahavidya.
Until this occurs, “the world…even including Isvara (the Lord), is not ultimately true or real, but that ultimate reality belongs only to the infinite, eternal, unchanging, pure bliss consciousness that is Brahman…all that we see with our senses, even our private thoughts, Advaita claims, are not ultimately real” (Betty 216).
- Lewis, C.S. (1943). The Abolition of Man. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0-06-065294-4.
- The phrase "core of our being" is Freudian; see Bettina Bock von Wülfingen (2013). "Freud's 'Core of our Being' Between Cytology and Psychoanalysis". Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 36 (3): 226–244. doi:10.1002/bewi.201301604.
- Huxley, Aldous (1945). The Perennial Philosophy. United States: Harper & Brothers. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-06-172494-7.
- I. K. Taimni Man, God and the Universe Quest Books, 1974, p. 1-2
- "Plotinus - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
- Cf. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are two good examples (one religious, one atheistic) of the use of contradiction to convey the Absolute in the final sequences.
- Dadosky, 2004. p. 86
- Dadosky, 2004. p. 85
- Dadosky, 2004. p. 100
- See George MacDonald's The Golden Key