(2) Withdrawal and Return: Individuals (Arnold Toynbee)

In the last section we have studied the course which is followed by creative personalities when they are taking the mystic path which is their highest spiritual level. We have seen that they pass first out of action into ecstasy and then out of ecstasy into action on a new and higher plane. In using such language we describe the creative movement in terms of the personality's psychic experience. In terms of his external relations with the society to which he belongs we shall be describing the same duality of movement if we call it withdrawal and return. The withdrawal makes it possible for the personality to realize powers within himself which might have remained dormant if he had not been released for the time being from his social toils and trammels. Such a withdrawal may be a voluntary action on his part or it may be forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control; in either case the withdrawal is an opportunity, and perhaps a necessary condition, for the anchorite's transfiguration; 'anchorite', in the original Greek, means literally 'one who goes apart'; but a transfiguration in solitude can have no purpose, and perhaps even no meaning, except as a prelude to the return of the transfigured personality into the social milieu out of which he had originally come: a native environment from which the human social animal cannot permanently estrange himself without repudiating his humanity and becoming, in Aristotle's phrase, 'either a beast or a god'. The return is the essence of the whole movement as well as its final cause.

This is apparent in the Syriac myth of Moses' solitary ascent of Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain in order to commune with Yahweh at Yahweh's call; and the call is to Moses alone, while the rest of the Children of Israel are charged to keep their distance. Yet Yahweh's whole purpose in calling Moses up is to send him down again as the bearer of a new law which Moses is to communicate to the rest of the people because they are incapable of coming up and receiving the communication themselves.

'And Moses went up unto God; and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying: "Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob and tell the Children of Israel." . . . And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony . . . written with the finger of God.

The emphasis upon the return is equally strong in the account of the prophetic experience and the prophetic mission given by the Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century of the Christian Era:

'The human soul has an innate disposition to divest itself of its human nature in order to clothe itself in the nature of the angels and to become an angel in reality for a single instant of time—a moment which comes and goes as swiftly as the flicker of an eyelid. Thereupon the soul resumes its human nature, after having received, in the world of angels, a message which it has to carry to its own human kind.

In this philosophic interpretation of the Islamic doctrine of prophecy we seem to catch an echo of a famous passage of Hellenic philosophy: Plato's simile of the Cave. In this passage Plato likens the ordinary run of mankind to prisoners in a cave, standing with their backs to the light and gazing at shadows cast upon a screen by the realities which are moving about behind them. The prisoners take it for granted that the shadows which they see on the back wall of the cave are the ultimate realities, since these are the only things that they have ever been able to see. Plato then imagines a single prisoner being suddenly released and compelled to turn round and face the light and walk out into the open. The first result of this re-orientation of vision is that the liberated prisoner is dazzled and confused. But not for long; for the faculty of vision is already in him and his eyes gradually inform him of the nature of the real world. He is then sent back to his cave again; and he is just as much dazzled and confused by the twilight now as he was by the sunlight before. As he formerly regretted his translation into the sunlight, so he now regrets his re-translation into the twilight, and with better reason; for in returning to his old companions in the cave who have never seen the sunlight he will be exposed to the risk of a hostile reception.

'There will assuredly be laughter at his expense, and it will be said of him that the only result of his escapade up there is that he has come back with his eyesight ruined. Moral: it is a fool's game even to make the attempt to go up aloft; "and as for the busybody who goes in for all this liberating and translating to higher spheres, if ever we have a chance to catch him and kill him, we will certainly take it".'

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, p. 217