The Eighteenth Reflection: From Montesquieu to ‘Abdu’l-Baha Nader Saiedi
‘Abdu’l-Baha writes: Now concerning nature, it is but the essential properties and the necessary relations inherent in the realities of things… As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities… Consider the body of man, and let the part be an indication of the whole. Consider how these diverse parts and members of the human body are closely connected and harmoniously united one with the other. (Tablet to Professor Forel) One of the most interesting points in the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha is that he provides the same definition for four different things: Nature, religion (religious law), science, and love. In the above statement, ‘Abdu’l-Baha defines the realm of nature as necessary relations arising from the realities of things. That statement is written in 1921, two months before passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. But the same definition is used throughout his various writings to define religion, science and love as well. This identity of definition does not mean that these four realities are exactly the same. However, it indicates that all of them are various forms of relations. In addition, this identity indicates that despite their differences, the truth of all reality is ultimately one and the same. All things are in truth spiritual realities. But a different expression of this same definition has already been mentioned by the French philosopher Montesquieu in early 18 th century. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s definition is both an affirmation and a complete reversal of the way that definition was understood in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu’s definition is the beginning sentence of his famous book the Spirit of Laws. In defining laws, he writes: “Laws, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.” This concept became a main philosophical idea in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and almost all of them frequently spoke of the nature of things. For example, human behavior is subject to the universal law of utilitarianism, or rational pursuit of interests. Although Montesquieu’s worldview was partly different from most of the subsequent philosophers of the Enlightenment, his definition of law became a basic element of their worldview. Although ‘Abdu’l-Baha is using the same definition, and that means that like philosophers of the Enlightenment he believes that reality is subject to laws, he radically changes the meaning and implications of that definition. Consequently, ‘Abdu’l-Baha uses the Enlightenment definition to deduce from it the exact opposite meanings. In this short reflection we will explore three of these novel meanings. 1. Reality as Dialogical 18 th century french philosophy of the Enlightenment advocates a radical atomistic and individualistic conception of reality. Real things are solid individual phenomena defined by their specific natures. Relations, therefore, are secondary products of the solid individual things. In the realm of society, for example, individuals have a fundamental nature, namely they are rational and pursue their self- interests. Society and social relation, therefore, are products of the exchanges among these individuals who relate to each other in order to further their interests. That is why particular forms of social
organization accord with the nature of human beings. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s definition of nature and religion, on the contrary, imply the primacy of relations over individual things. In the above quotation, first ‘Abdu’l-Baha says that nature is necessary relations arising from the realities of things. But then he continues to say that if we observe the matter more carefully we will find out that “every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities.” In other words, the reality of all things are interdependent, and this interdependence and mutual relations constitute the primary truth of nature. This dialogical concept of reality emphasizes relations, totality, and reciprocity as the truth of being. Society is not just the sum of individuals. Instead, social relations constitute both society and individuals. When philosophers of the Enlightenment thought of reality they thought of objects and mechanical artifacts. But when ‘Abdu’l-Baha thinks of reality he sees them as organic beings. In the above quotation, he uses the example of human body: “ Consider the body of man, and let the part be an indication of the whole. Consider how these diverse parts and members of the human body are closely connected and harmoniously united one with the other.” 2. Historical Consciousness Another element of the worldview of the philosophers of the Enlightenment was their static conception of society. Since reality was understood in terms of objects, a mechanical understanding of the world was emphasized. Since individuals were defined as having a universal nature, and social institutions were reflections of that same nature, society was perceived as a static reality. Only one form of society and social institutions accord with the nature of things and once in existence, it will never change. The social order advocated by the Enlightenment is an unchangeable natural order for all human beings. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message was the opposite. Reality was defined as an organic reality and therefore, being is understood as a living, growing, developing and historical reality. In his Treatise on Politics (Risaliyi Siyasiyyih), ‘Abdu’l-Baha defines religion as necessary relations arising from the realities of things. On the basis of that definition, he concludes that religions are like the medicine which is necessary for healing the specific forms of illness that afflicts the body. Since this body changes, its character, needs, and problems change as well. All Manifestations of God are the same physician who know the necessary relations of this organic reality and bring about new remedies which correspond to the changing conditions of humanity. The same definition, therefore, becomes the occasion for affirmation of historical consciousness, namely the dynamic character of social reality and its ever-advancing development. 3. Volitional Necessity Philosophers of the Enlightenment understood reality as governed by necessary relations. But for them this meant that the world is a mechanical and material reality. The law of causation, therefore was perceived as a natural and logical necessity that is rooted in the nature of things. Consequently, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were likely to deduce from such idea, a naturalistic, materialistic and sometimes atheistic concept of the universe. It is very interesting that in the Tablet to Forel, ‘Abdu’l- Baha uses this definition in order to defend a spiritual worldview and offer an argument for the existence of God. Immediately in that same paragraph, he defines the realm of nature as a human body, whose unity is sustained by a living mind. God is the ground of the reality of the universe. But in that same tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Baha presents another novel and complex argument to prove the existence of God. The main point of ‘Abdu’l-Baha is that nature is defined by necessary relations, but this necessity is not a logical or compulsory necessity. Instead, it is a volitional necessity. The relations and laws of the
universe are neither accidental nor a logical necessity. On the contrary, they are necessary and regular because a Supreme Power has willed it that way. In discussing this point, ‘Abdu’l-Baha argues that these relations (laws of causation, processes of composition/formation and disintegration) can be conceived in three possible ways. These changes can be accidental or random, logical or compulsory necessity, or volitional necessity. He shows that necessary relations cannot be random, otherwise there would not be consistent regularity in the forms of causal sequence. They are also not a logical necessity, since they cannot be deduced from the definition of things. Consequently, they are a volitional and mystical necessity. That means that even the most materialistic events of nature are in reality deeply mystical and spiritual processes. In modern Western philosophy it was David Hume who first rejected the concept of causation as a logical necessity, defining it as a mere regular sequence. As Hume noted, we can discover the laws of causation ultimately on the basis of experience and not through a logical deduction. For ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the universe is ruled by necessary relations. Yet this necessity is a reflection of an eternal divine Will. In the Tablet to Forel he writes: Now, formation is of three kinds and of three kinds only: accidental, necessary and voluntary. The coming together of the various constituent elements of beings cannot be accidental, for unto every effect there must be a cause. It cannot be compulsory, for then the formation must be an inherent property of the constituent parts and the inherent property of a thing can in no wise be dissociated from it, such as light that is the revealer of things, heat that causeth the expansion of elements and the solar rays which are the essential property of the sun. Thus under such circumstances the decomposition of any formation is impossible, for the inherent properties of a thing cannot be separated from it. The third formation remaineth and that is the voluntary one, that is, an unseen force described as the Ancient Power, causeth these elements to come together, every formation giving rise to a distinct being .