The Seventeenth Reflection: Freedom vs. the Struggle for Existence Nader Saiedi
“Abdu’l-Baha writes: And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is man’s freedom, that through the ideal Power he should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature. This matter of the struggle for existence is the fountain-head of all calamities and is the supreme affliction. (Tablet to The Hague) In this reflection we will study one of the historic statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha about the meaning of true freedom and liberty. In one of the previous reflections we have discussed Baha’u’llah’s discussion of true liberty. We noted that he equates freedom with the emergence of a new culture when honor and glory are seen not in loving oneself or one’s own particularistic group, but rather in loving the whole world. This beautiful idea is further explored and elaborated, in most novel ways, in the writings of the next leader of the Baha’i Faith, ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In 1919, close to the end of his life, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote a letter to the Organization for a Durable Peace in Hague, in which he discussed Baha’u’llah’s concept of peace. In this short reflection we will not address ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s complex theory of peace but address one of the main components of that theory. One of the essential preconditions of peace, Abdu’l-Baha argues, is the realization of true freedom. Likewise, ‘Abdu’l-Baha defines this new concept of freedom as one of the main teachings of Baha’u’llah, teachings that are usually referred to as the 12 teachings of Baha’u’llah (which in fact are at least 17). In this short reflection we explore a few dimensions of this novel philosophical and sociological worldview. 1. Freedom as Liberation from the Bondage of Nature Following Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s worldview is based on a spiritual interpretation of reality. Human beings are reflections of divine names and attributes, and for that reason, human freedom is realized through actualization of human potentialities. This self-actualization is both true freedom and true peace. Such freedom requires emancipation from the laws of material nature, and a life that is regulated by the laws of spirit. This freedom, therefore, requires two forms of liberation from nature, both external and internal. ‘Abdu’l-Baha frequently discusses the dynamics of the emancipation from the external nature. Science and technology are the means for realization of this external freedom. Through science and technology humans learn the laws of nature and through such knowledge they can overcoming them. According to nature, human beings cannot fly. But human reason provides the basis for overcoming this natural limitation. Humans learn about this law and create airplanes. This way we humans can become partly autonomous from our immediate environment. This increasing complexity of social organization makes it possible to become progressively autonomous from one’s immediate environment. In his talk at Columbia University in 1912, and in a language which reminds us of the future system theory, ‘Abdu’l- Baha praises reason as the agent which liberates humans from the bondage of nature:
All created things are captives of nature and subject to its laws. They cannot transgress the control of these laws in one detail or particular. The infinite starry worlds and heavenly bodies are nature’s obedient subjects. The earth and its myriad organisms, all minerals, plants and animals are thralls of its dominion. But man through the exercise of his scientific, intellectual power can rise out of this condition, can modify, change and control nature according to his own wishes and uses. Science, so to speak, is the breaker of the laws of nature. Consider, for example, that man according to natural law should dwell upon the surface of the earth. By overcoming this law and restriction, however, he sails in ships over the ocean, mounts to the zenith in airplanes and sinks to the depths of the sea in submarines. This is against the fiat of nature and a violation of her sovereignty and dominion… He takes the sword from nature’s hand and uses it upon nature’s head. According to natural law night is a period of darkness and obscurity, but man by utilizing the power of electricity, by wielding this electric sword overcomes the darkness and dispels the gloom. (Promulgation of Universal Peace However, for ‘Abdu’l-Baha this liberation from external nature by itself is not sufficient for realization of true freedom. In fact, unlike some positivistic modern theories which equate freedom with scientific and instrumental rationality, ‘Abdu’l-Baha argues that scientific progress can only lead to true freedom when it is accompanied by human liberation from internal nature as well. While emancipation from external nature takes place through science and technology, liberation from internal nature takes place through emancipation from the principle of struggle for existence. In other words, humans must live a life which is determined by the laws of the republic of spirit, and not by the laws of the coercion, brutishness and jungle. If humans regulate their social and cultural life on the basis of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, humans are reduced to beasts of nature. Such culture is a perpetual culture of war, mutual destruction, and death. It is only when humans are born as a spiritual being, that they can become free. True freedom, therefore, requires a life that is oriented to universal love, communication, and universal peace. True liberty requires liberation from both external nature and internal nature. It may be assumed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s idea of freedom as liberation from bondage of nature represents a negative judgment against nature. The truth is the opposite. The natural law of the struggle for existence is praisewirthy at the level of nature itself. The apparent dominance of violence in the realm of nature is in reality another expression of divine wisdom. The consequence of the rule of the struggle for existence at the level of nature is realization of ecological balance, natural beauty, and preservation of diversity of life in the planet. Problem arises when humans who are endowed with intellect act in accordance with that same natural law. Humans do not act on the basis of regulated instincts and restrained desires. Their reason creates nuclear weapon, and human unrestrained consumption leads to depletion and destruction of the environment. If humans live in accordance with the law of struggle for existence the result is not ecological balance. Instead it leads to destruction of humans and the planet. That is why, in the life of humans the natural law-which is sacred and good at the level of nature-must be replaced by the law of spirit and morality. Liberation from external nature is a necessary but not sufficient condition for true liberty. Devoid of liberation from internal nature, scientific advancement can actually lead to militarism, destruction of the environment, and destruction of humans. That is why, true liberty requires emancipation from the beastly culture. Internal freedom, therefore, leads to a science that protects the environment and is respectful of nature as well. 2. Struggle for Existence as Prejudice
Another novel aspect of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s novel theory of freedom is his historic discovery that at the level of social existence of human beings, the law of struggle for existence appears as the law of prejudice. According to ‘Abdu’l-Baha emancipation from internal nature is the same as emancipation form all kinds of prejudice. It is various kinds of prejudice that cause violence and destruction among human beings. All wars are products of various forms of prejudice. Elimination of all kinds of prejudice, therefore, is the essential precondition of the realization of peace and true liberty in the world. In the same Tablet to Organization for Durable Peace in Hague, he writes: And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity. As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest… It has therefore been ascertained and proved that all prejudices are destructive of the human edifice. As long as these prejudices persist, the struggle for existence must remain dominant, and bloodthirstiness and rapacity continue. Therefore, even as was the case in the past, the world of humanity cannot be saved from the darkness of nature and cannot attain illumination except through the abandonment of prejudices and the acquisition of the morals of the Kingdom. It is important to note that the word used by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, translated as prejudice, is a much more complex term than prejudice. The term used by ‘Abdu’l-Baha is “Ta’assub”. This word has complex meanings. It not only means prejudice; it also means the cause of prejudice. The word ta’assub is derived from the root ‘usbah which means group. Ta’assub, therefore, is reduction of one’s identity to a particularistic group. When one’s identity is defined by solidarity with one group, other groups become enemies or strangers. It is this particularistic identity that causes prejudice namely partial judgment, double standards, and hatred of others. The realization of true freedom, therefore, is emancipation form the bondage of nature and the exigency of the struggle for existence. But such bondage is the same as ta’assub, namely defining virtue and honor as loving one’s own group and hating others. That is precisely the way Baha’u’llah defined the concept of liberty and freedom.
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