The last few decades have witnessed a remarkable increase in learned monographs on ancient philosophy and religion. We know more about their social contexts and have also seen a significant increase in translations of texts. Yet despite the fact that we have much more information about ancient religions we scarcely understand what motivated the spiritual thinkers of the ancient world. Information without vision is meaningless. Without a persuasive narrative, without deep insight to give it life, the increase of information—however accurate and scholarly—only suffocates us.
That is why there is much to celebrate in Charles Stang’s Our Divine Double. Stang gives us more than information; he offers us an entirely new lens through which to explore the world of ancient Mediterranean religious traditions. Through the theme of the divine double we discover a spiritual trajectory that was present in our sources but that somehow we had missed. Stang breathes life into scholarship and provides a new understanding of traditions about which we thought there was nothing new to learn.
Eloquently written and accessible, this book traces in successive chapters the spiritual current of doubling that underlies Platonism, early Christianity, Manichaeism, and Neoplatonism. To read Our Divine Double is to fall under the spell that enthralled the author, who tells us that “the task of this book is to retrieve this tradition of the divine double from the obscurity into which it has fallen” (12). There is a prescriptive edge to Stang’s explorations. He has something at stake and his passion for retrieving the divine element in our human condition is infectious. Not only does this book invite us into the originating impulse of Christianity and other ancient traditions, it allows us to recognize that the divine double still lives among us, in intuitions, dreams and reveries, which belong to a language that has long been forgotten in our contemporary culture. Stang has discovered the syntax that allows us to reflect on such moments and recover a place for them in Western traditions.
So, what is this essential element of ancient religions that Stang calls our divine double? Put plainly, it is the revelatory experience of discovering that my “self” is not all that I am, that there is, indeed, a divine self with which I am also identified, which has been described variously as a daimonion, a twin, a companion or as the soul that never descends into our world. Perhaps the most dramatic encounter with the divine double is exemplified in Mani, the 3rd century Prophet of Light. According to a tenth-century source cited by Stang (154-5):
Even when young, Mani spoke with words of wisdom and then, when he was twelve years old, there came to him a revelation. According to his statement it was from the King of the Gardens of Light and, from what he said, it was God exalted. The angel bringing the revelation was called the Twin … a Nabatean word meaning Companion . . . When he completed his twenty-fourth year, the Twin came to him saying, “The time is fulfilled for thee to come forth and to give the summons to thy cause.”
So began Mani’s career as prophet, led by his angelic Twin. Or consider another kind of divine double, the Platonic daimonion of whom Socrates says at his trial: “Something divine (theion) or spiritual (daimonion) comes to me . . . This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything” (27). Stang does not rationalize the daimonion into the “conscience” of Socrates. He accepts its autonomy—impossible for us—and characterizes Socrates’ divine double as a guiding daimon that uses “negative stimuli” to steer him to the Good (29). Centuries later, we have the remarkable confession of Plotinus, the third- century Alexandrian Platonist, describing his divine double: “Many times, I have awakened to myself away from the body . . . believing myself then to be part of the higher realm . . . one with the divine, rooted in it . . . above all intelligible beings. But then, going down from this position in the divine, from Nous down to discursive reasoning, I am puzzled how I could, even now, descend; [I am puzzled] how my soul has come to be in the body” (Enn. 188.8.131.52-10).
One might argue that all of Neoplatonism, indeed all the diverse traditions that embrace a “divine double” are attempts to work out this puzzle of Plotinus. How is it that one can be embodied and mortal and disembodied and immortal, a dweller of the higher realm? Among the thinkers in this tradition there seems to be a sense that our embodied “self” is, as Plotinus put it, “inferior” to our divine self, that our conventional identity is false. So, then, do traditions of the divine double negate the reality of the embodied self? Here Stang provides crucial guidance: “Rather than overcoming this division, the self must first be initiated into its constitutive division, the difference between the “I” and its double. The self is not one half of the pair— either the “I” or its double—but is rather the pair itself, somehow preserving that constitutive difference or division in a new self, a new ‘I’” (7). Drawing from the work of Henry Corbin, Stang characterizes this divided identity—“the pair itself”—as an unus-ambo, a “bi-unity” made up of one’s endowed self along with one’s divinely achieved self. This terminology, borrowed from Lloyd Gerson, is clarified by Stang to avoid the impression that the divine self is achieved through willful endeavor. In each case of the divine double’s revelation it is more reception than achievement, as Stang clarifies: “its arrival is more often occasioned by a release or letting-go than by a grasping effort” (25).
Stang explores in detail how the divine double is received in very different contexts, Christian, Manichaean and Platonic; and he gives such meticulous and nuanced attention to its expression that we may forget what an ambitious—and even daring—book this is. I would go so far as to suggest, using Stang’s language, that his own divine double, his daimon, had a hand in it. To reveal the underlying telos of these religious traditions is the work of no mere scholar adding and subtracting the evidence of testimonies, placing yet another brick in the edifice of scholarly information. Our Divine Double is a daimonic vision channeled through a scholar trained to receive it. But perhaps we are not allowed to speak these mysteries out loud. Consider it, then, a whisper: a daimon wrote this book.
But how did they do it, Stang and his daimon? What is the conceptual frame that allows the trajectory of the divine double to come into focus? What scholarly incantation makes it appear? The key to reveal this trajectory is Platonic metaphysics, specifically the metaphysics of Plato’s Parmenides. This dialogue, Stang writes, exemplifies in “a different register and a different altitude” (250) the profound paradox of identity and difference we see expressed in the existential experiences of the divine double. The Parmenides explores the root principle of Platonism, the One, and determines that the One both is and is not. The paradox of the One is the fundamental principle underlying all Platonic and Neoplatonic metaphysics. It is the glyph that reveals at once the mysteries of immanence and transcendence that are understood only through the experience of oneself as simultaneously I and not I, as myself and angelic other. The tradition of the divine double, Stang writes, is “a long meditation on [the] paradox” of the One that is and is not (249). And according to this tradition it is our telos to realize this paradox fully. It is the deification of the human being.
Anyone interested in understanding the later Platonists needs to read this book to re-imagine the existential questions of Plato, Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus. The same is true, perhaps in an even more striking way, for those interested in the origins of Christianity. How is it that the experience of unity in duality, being both I and not I, reflects not only the paradox of the Platonic One but the paradox of Christian divinity as well? Through the lens of the divine double, the enigmas of the Gospel of Thomas take on new meaning, as when Jesus says: “When you come to dwell in the Light what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two what will you do?” (88). Throughout the Gospel of Thomas, the reader is invited to experience division and the confluence of opposites as essential to the deified state: becoming male and female, inside and outside, above and below. It is not, Stang argues, an urge to slough off one’s embodied self through self-denial in order to achieve a prelapsarian unity. It is a call to experience a radical transformation achieved only by becoming one and two. As Stang puts it: “To enter the kingdom . . . is to bend the law of noncontradiction to its breaking point, to overcome contraries, and to realize a unity-in-duality” (93). It is to enter the state of exaiphnēs, the timeless “moment” that serves as pivot in Plato’s Parmenides between the One that is and the One that is not, somehow, impossibly, being both (93). This is an impossibility that humans are called to realize. The celibate solution, sloughing off one’s embodied self to identify with the divine, is a tempting simplicity that, for Stang, misses the mystery into which the Gospel of Thomas invites us. It would abort our realization of the divine double.
Following Stang, who resists encratic readings of the Gospel of Thomas, I wonder if Plotinus is the best Neoplatonist to exemplify the divine double. He encourages us to fly from embodied life, identifies with his undescended Nous, and dismisses his embodied self as an “inferior companion” (Enn. 184.108.40.206). By contrast, Iamblichus insists more impossibly that only in the acceptance of our embodied and mortal identity can we discover our divine self, thus heightening the “tenuous union” of our dividedness. Stang writes that the Iamblichean soul is “homeward bound only because fully exiled” (234), and this strikes me as more expressive of the paradox of the divine double than the collapsing of self into the divine seen in Plotinus. The deeper question is how to distinguish encratic denials of self from the catharsis that culminates in the divine double. What is the nature of this catharsis and how do we distinguish it from self-denial? How do we embody it?
My second question focuses on the person of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel, Stang says, is “our most profound Christian witness to the divine double” (106); the reader realizes that, as Jesus’ twin, she both is and is not Jesus. But what of Jesus himself? What of his dividedness? There seems to be a different valence of divine doubling for Jesus, for by personifying the divine principle, his own “double” collapses into undivided unity. A kind of iconic hegemony has occurred in which Jesus becomes the dominating figure, as if a “part” swallows up the Platonic “whole,” as if—in Stang’s terms —the horizontal double of the historical Jesus displaces the vertical principle of divinity. Perhaps this gave rise to later Christological debates that continued or possibly buried the tradition of the divine double.
There is something wild, infectious, even mad in this book. Stang embraces cognitive and existential impossibilities under the rubric of “our divine double,” and yet, through his careful and cadenced presentation of these paradoxes, Stang tames the madness and leads his readers in; he offers us a taste of bi-unity; he allows us to feel the touch of Plato’s heaven-sent madness.