3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.175 This constitutes a radical division or differentiation within nature though it does not, of course, deny the oneness of the overall system of reality. Furthermore, according to the Writings, things differ in their capacity to reflect the divine Names or bounties176 and those differences of degree are real, essential and permanent.177 Just as we can never evolve into gods, so stones can never evolve into humans; these stations are fixed because “inequality in degree and capacity is a property of nature.”178 These inequalities and differences are real because they are divinely ordained as part of God’s system. Nor can they be crossed.179 The issue can, of course, be explained using Aristotelian terminology: there are many kinds of unity – unity of matter or material, unity of substance or essence, unity of form, unity of purpose, unity of logical relationship such as dependence and so on. “The organization of God”180, the single divine system 181 has a formal and purposive unitywhich is different from and must not be confused with as a material and / or substantial unity. Because all things are unified does not mean they are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the dualism of mind-soul-spirit and physical body does not contradict the organizational or systematic unity of creation.

 


3.5) The Body / Soul Connection

 

Given their distinctness, it is natural to ask how body and soul are connected. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the mediator between the outer, bodily senses and our inner mental senses such as memory and imagination is the “common faculty” which “communicates between the outward and inward powers and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.”182 Aristotle’s views on this matter are not directly addressed to the mind / body issue as we understand it now, so we must infer his views from other writings to related topics. For example, he mentions the “common sense”183 that allows the presentation of events perceived outwardly to be recollected inwardly. In effect, this “common sense” mediates between the physical senses or the body and the intellectual senses or the remembering mind. He also sees it as deriving general, that is, abstract ideas from the physical data supplied by the senses. Here too it operates as a mediator between body and mind.184 He does not, however, consider it a separate sixth sense.

 

In continuing to explore the subject of how the soul is related to the body, we must be sure to divest ourselves of the notion that the soul somehow resides inside the body like a seed in a pot. Neither Aristotle nor the Baha’i Writings see the soul as a ‘foreign entity’ that somehow enters the body. As Abdu’l-Baha tells us, “the rational soul, meaning the human spirit, does not descend into the body--that is to say, it does not enter it, for descent and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is exempt from this. The spirit never entered this body.”185 Aristotle holds a similar view, criticizing as “absurdity”186 those theories that would “join the soul to a body, or place it in a body.”187 This, of course, leaves us with the question of the soul’s relationship to the body, a relationship described by Abdu’l-Baha as follows resembling the relationship of light to a mirror: “When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear.”188

 

            What, then, is the precise relationship of the soul or spirit to the body according to Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings? We must bear in mind that both provide a philosophical answer, that is, formal answers or answers in principle, rather than specific physical or bio-chemical explanations for which we will have to look elsewhere. If we analyze Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor of the mirror and the light, we find that, in Aristotelian language, the issue is relatively straightforward: the soul is formally or virtually but not substantially present in the body just as the sun is formally but not substantially present in the mirror. The sun enlightens the mirror just as – to use Aristotle’s analogy189  – the impression of the signet ring in-forms or provides form to the wax. In other words, the sun itself is never in the mirror but its image, its form or virtual presence is there as long as the mirror is capable of reflecting it. When the mirror breaks, the sun does not disappear anymore than the signet ring is destroyed when the wax melts. In Aristotelian language, we would say that the soul in-forms matter to the degree that matter is capable of receiving that form.  

 

            Several things are clear at this point. First, in these analogies, neither the sun nor the signet ring depends on something else for its existence whereas the reverse is certainly the case. Second, light is the intermediary between the sun and the mirror, an observation similar to Aristotle’s belief that the soul enlightens or provides light for the active intellect (mind) to perceive, abstract and discriminate. Third, both light source and its emanated light surround the mirror, just as, according to Abdu’l-Baha, the “spirit surrounds the body”190 without being physically present in it. Aristotle would agree with at least the latter part of this statement.

 

4) Epistemology: Mind and Brain

 

Another important similarity between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings is the clear distinction between the non-material mind and its physical organ, the brain. The two work together but are not the same. For his part, Aristotle calls the mind “the place of forms”191 and even “the form of forms”192 which is “capable of receiving the forms of an object.”193 In other words, the mind is not a physical thing, or, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing.”194 Because it is itself not sensible195, the mind does not work with sensible realities, that is, actual substances, but rather with forms, or what Abdu’l-Baha calls “symbols”196 of outward things. Instead, the mind perceives forms, picturing to itself as forms various perceptions and intellectual realities197  such as love, God, goodness and other qualities. In a discussion of epistemology, he says, “The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual – that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses.”198  The Aristotelian term for a phenomenal reality that is not sensible is ‘form’, so here too we find endorsement for the Aristotelian concept of the mind working with forms. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha interprets this capacity to work with forms as a sign of the mind’s super-natural nature:

 

The spirit of man, however, can manifest itself in all forms at the same time. For example, we say that a material body is either square or spherical, triangular or hexagonal. While it is triangular, it cannot be square; and while it is square, it is not triangular. Similarly, it cannot be spherical and hexagonal at the same time . . . But the human spirit in itself contains all these forms, shapes and figures . . . As an evidence of this, at the present moment in the human spirit you have the shape of a square and the figure of a triangle. Simultaneously also you can conceive a hexagonal form. All these can be conceived at the same moment in the human spirit, and not one of them needs to be destroyed or broken in order that the spirit of man may be transferred to another.199

                                   

At this point it need only be added that the belief that the human spirit or mind can take in by perception or imagine and contain the forms of things is one of the center-pieces of Aristotelian philosophical and cognitive psychology whose outlines are visible in Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks here and elsewhere.

 


4.1) Reality is Discovered not Constructed

 

The similarities between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings in regards to epistemological matters do not end here. Perhaps most significant and far-reaching is their agreement that the mind or spirit discovers and does not create either spiritual or material realities. Baha’u’llah writes, “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.200 Elsewhere He writes that the divine “gift of understanding”201 “giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”202  Nowhere does Baha’u’llah state or even suggest that humankind creates or constructs reality. Indeed, if they create anything like reality it tends to be things like the “thick clouds203 of “idle fancies and vain imaginings.204 Baha’u’llah uses the latter phrase throughout His Writings to refer to those who refuse to see the truth about Him and prefer their own imaginative constructions. Significantly, He accounts them with “the lost in the Book of God.”205 In a similar vein, He exhorts the Persian people to “come forth to discover the Truth which hath dawned from the Day-Star of Truth”206 about the new Manifestation of God. Abdu’l-Baha’s statements consistently support the contention that human beings discover – and do not construct – truths about the spiritual and material realms. Indeed, humankind is distinct from the rest of nature and animals because it possesses “the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles”207, an idea that is widely scattered throughout the Writings in a wide variety of contexts. He also informs us that “When we carefully investigate the kingdoms of existence and observe the phenomena of the universe about us, we discover the absolute order and perfection of creation.”208

 

The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.209

                       

Furthermore, God has endowed humankind “with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.”210 Aristotle, of course, holds the same views, so much so that the whole notion of the human ‘construction’ of reality is found nowhere in his works. The Metaphysics begins with his reflections on past efforts to find the truth about reality, and their various inadequacies; the Psychology and various other books explore how the senses and the soul work to perceive and discover the nature of the surrounding world.

 


4.2) Epistemological Realism and Correspondence Theory of Truth

 

From this we can conclude that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle agree on several key epistemological issues subject to vociferous contemporary debate: first, that natural reality is objectively real and does not depend on human observers for its existence; second, that reality and its laws are given by God, not constructed, and that we must work with what is given; and third, that truth is the correspondence between reality and our interpretation of it, or, put otherwise, that reality and our interpretation of it are two distinct things and that we must test our interpretations against reality to discover whether or not they are in agreement. From this follows that reality is discovered and that there is such a thing as error, that is, an erroneous or inadequate understanding of reality that can be cured by abandoning it in order to change from ignorant to more knowledgeable. In other words, the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle share a realist epistemology.211 Without these premises, the entire Aristotelian and Baha’i enterprises would collapse, most especially the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation which presumes increasingly adequate comprehension of various truths. Finally, the belief that properties are real makes the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle incompatible with nominalism, that is, the belief that properties are either arbitrary human selections or outright impositions only externally related to their objects and that essences are fictitious. (See Aristotle’s refutation of the underlying logic of nominalism in Metaphysics, VII, 12.) For its part, realism holds that the relationship between attributes and substance is internal, that is, inherent and intrinsic and that essences are natural and real. 

 

The fact that for Aristotle the forms, essences or universals do not exist in a separate world or “Kingdom of Names”212 must not under any circumstances be interpreted to mean that for him these forms or essences are any less real than for Plato, the neo-Platonists and the Writings. No less than Plato, Aristotle is a realist, that is, believes that essences or forms are absolutely real and not mere human constructs. Moreover, the universals we abstract from particular things correspond to absolute realities; they are emphatically not arbitrary creations or selections. For this reason, the most we may conclude is that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is not whether or not the original essences or forms exist, but rather about where and how they exist – in a separate world, “Kingdom”213 or mind – or exemplified or instantiated in particular things. From this it follows that Aristotle cannot be presented as a nominalist without doing violence to his metaphysic and epistemology; his view, says renowned Aristotle scholar W. D. Ross, “is not that the object is constituted by thought.”214 Indeed, he is an “extreme realist allowing for no modification, still less construction of the object by the mind.”215 Even in regards to the universal that is abstracted from particulars, Ross says “the universal is always for Aristotle something which though perfectly real and objective has no separate existence."216 This means that we cannot divide the Baha’i Writings from Aristotle on the issue of the reality of forms or essences as Keven Brown seems tempted to do in Evolution and Baha’i Belief.217

 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that anything other than a realist, correspondence theory of truth would render numerous passages in the Writings meaningless. If reality were not objectively given and all constructions equally adequate or valid, Baha’u’llah could not lament that He “fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously.”218 These physicians are ignorant precisely because they have constructed reality to fit their “personal desires”219 and thus “erred grievously.”220 Abdu’l-Baha could neither tell us that an “ignorant man by learning becomes knowing, and the world of savagery, through the bounty of a wise educator, is changed into a civilized kingdom.”221 nor that the soul’s journey is necessary in order to acquire divine knowledge”222 to overcome our “lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.”223 Manifestations could not provide humankind with the “science of reality.”224 Without the existence of objective truth about reality, we could not be transformed from “the ignorant of mankind into the knowing”225; it would make no sense for Abdu’l-Baha to say that “the ignorant must be educated.”226 Indeed, the whole Baha’i concept of evolution to further knowledge and understanding both in this world and the next would be moot. 

 

Aristotle’s and the Writing’s agreement about the discovery (not construction) of reality and the correspondence theory of truth is bound to be a controversial issue in our times when theories about the ‘construction’ of reality abound. It is, therefore, necessary to explain in somewhat greater detail what Aristotle and the Writings mean. In a nutshell, the issue stands as follows: we all discover the same basic reality but construct different interpretations of it. However, these interpretations or constructions are constrained by the nature of what they are interpreting. For example, we may understand fire in various ways from the specific chemistry of combustion to a manifestation of divine power but what no interpretation can deny is that fire is hot and will burn human flesh unless counter-measures are taken. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.”227 How we interpret those “realities”228 may differ but all recognize the reality of fire’s power to inflict severe damage on human flesh. In other words, in considering this issue, we must, as precisely as possible, distinguish between what is perceived and what is interpreted, that is, we must distinguish between metaphysics and epistemology and hermeneutics. Here is another example. In progressive revelation, the Writings expect all to accept the fact or reality of Christ as a Manifestation of God but also they expect us to understand or interpret what this fact means in different ways at different times in history. As we can see, the doctrine of progressive revelation logically depends on the mind’s ability to distinguish real and objective fact from interpretation. Indeed, the Writings go even further because they explicitly condemn some interpretations as erroneous, as being “the dust of vain imaginings and the smoke of idle fancy”229, that is, misinterpretations due to the distortions of the ego and our lower animal natures.  Here too, the Writings implicitly expect us not only to distinguish real fact from constructed interpretation but also to distinguish between constructions that are appropriate and inappropriate for the age in which we live. This idea is also presented in the image of the sun’s light or reality being diminished or distorted by the dust on the mirror: “The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror.”230 The fact is that the mirror can be cleansed.231 Not only does Abdu’l-Baha support this but he also makes it clear that not all mirrors are equal in this regard: “The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world.232

 

4.3) The Reality of Attributes

 

 If attributes were not real, did not inhere in their substances and were not essential, how are we understand Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that the “names and attributes of Divinity are eternal and not accidental?233 Obviously the attributes of Divinity are not merely human constructs. If they were, why bother to strive to live up to Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “The soul that excels in attainment of His attributes and graces is most acceptable before God?234 What could the phrase “His attributes”235 even mean? Indeed, if attributes and properties are not real, then there is no rationale for God’s creation since, as Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world.”236 Furthermore, the whole of Baha’u’llah’s salvational project would be useless if properties were not real and did not provide real knowledge because of the Noonday Prayer’s assertion that we were created “to know [God] and to worship [Him]” would be rendered meaningless. If attributes are only human selections or impositions, are not inherent and do not provide real knowledge about things, they could only teach us, at most, about ourselves and our own modus operandi. This would effectively leave us locked in a bubble of our own perceptions and constructs. Aside from their logical weaknesses, such views simply contradict Abdu’l-Baha when he says,

 

But the question may be asked: How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration. We recognize the sun by its bounty and effulgence.237

 

Indeed, it is Baha’u’llah Himself who tells us that attributes are real when he describes God as “the Creator of all names and attributes.”238 If God created them, they are obviously real. If attributes were not real how could it be true that  “His names and His attributes, are made manifest in the world”?239 The following statement would also become senseless:

 

He must so educate the human reality that it may become the center of the divine appearance, to such a degree that the attributes and the names of God shall be resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man, and the holy verse "We will make man in Our image and likeness" shall be realized.240

                                                                         

If God had no real attributes how could they be made “resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man”?241 Indeed, if attributes are simply human fictions and impositions, they could not be attributes ‘of God’ and it would be we, the created, who are shaping the Creator and making Him in our image. Such a notion simply violates the Baha’i principle that the created cannot comprehend – let alone shape – the Creator. Believing that such is the case would indeed be to “join partners with God.”242

 

Nor should we think that it is only God Whom we know by means of attributes, for, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes”243, a fact supported by his statement that “In the human plane of existence we can say we have knowledge of a vegetable, its qualities and product.”244 If these attributes did not provide real knowledge about the object, the use of the word ‘know’ and its variations would be inappropriate. Obviously attributes are not simply human impositions but rather, actually provide knowledge about the objects or substances we are studying. As Baha’u’llah says, “This gift [“the gift of understanding”] giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”245 Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the rational soul, “the inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application.”246 Elsewhere he says, “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things”247 once again demonstrating that in the Baha’i view, humankind is capable of gaining real knowledge through an exploration of reality. The continual use of the word ‘discover’ throughout the Writings also proves that we discover what already exists independently and do not construct it.

 

5) The Analysis of Reality

 

The topic of discovering reality leads readily to the all important issue of how we analyze it to discover its truth. This subject, already touched on in our discussion of causality and the Prime Mover, makes it clear that the Writings analyze and present reality in Aristotelian terms. In other words, they present an Aristotelian vision of reality in which there are substances which have essential and non-essential attributes; in which things have essences; in which – as already shown – change is the actualization of potentials248; and in which materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. Readers may confirm for themselves the pervasive use of this Aristotelian terminology by typing them into any hyper-text edition of the Writings. They will find

that these words occur in almost every book. Of course, some of them also have a general, non-philosophical usage: ‘substance’, for example, is also employed as a synonym for ‘wealth.’249

In reviewing what follows, one must remember that the Aristotelian concepts form a coherent system of inter-dependent concepts and the use of one concept necessitates the use of at least some others.

 

However, before embarking on our survey of the Aristotelian analysis of reality, it is necessary to look briefly at the important issue of ‘standpoint epistemologies’, the notion that reality appears differently to differing points of view. All too often these are erroneously equated to relativism, the notion that all viewpoints of reality are equally true because all are ‘relative’. However, properly understood, the two are not the same and must be clearly distinguished. The Baha’i Writings and Aristotle embody a stand point epistemology but are not even slightly relativistic. The best way to grasp the difference is to imagine a jig-saw puzzle picture of Mount Fuji. A true stand-point epistemology simply asserts that there are many pieces all of which have some portion of the truth, or the mountain; whatever their differences, the pieces are ultimately rationally compatible with one another and will form a picture of the whole mountain. A relativist, on the other hand, asserts that any piece – indeed, any piece from any puzzle – makes an equally valid fit at every point on our Mount Fuji puzzle.  There is nothing in the Baha’i Writings nor in Aristotle that suggest such relativism since doing so would vitiate not just the concept of the Manifestation as a revealer of absolute truth but the entire concept of knowledge altogether. We must not be misled, as some have been by Shoghi Effendi’s statement that  “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”250 In each case where Shoghi Effendi makes this statement, the word ‘relative’ is clearly used in reference to progressive revelation not to the truth value of the essential teachings. In terms of our illustration, each Manifestation adds a piece to the puzzle but this does not even remotely suggest that the truth value of the piece is not absolute.

 

5.1) A Brief Crash Course: Substance, Attribute and Essence

 

            The primary concept in Aristotle’s analysis of reality is ‘substance’, a concept which underwent some development but never strayed far from the belief that a substance is anything which does not exist as the attribute of something else. Substances are particulars, a fact that is used by Abdu’l-Baha in explaining the return of Elias.251 Your raincoat is a substance and so is this essay. Substance, however, does not only mean ‘matter’ or what Aristotle called “sensible substances.”252 When it does, such matter forms the “substratum”253 of a thing, namely that which is given form. ‘Matter’ in Aristotle’s view is a relative term: matter is anything which potentially receives form. In the case of your raincoat, matter may be physical material but in regards to this study, the matter is the ideas expressed therein. A substance possesses attributes which identify it as the particular substance it is, raincoat, essay ,rose or idea and these attributes are called its ‘essence’ which we must distinguish from other non-essential or ‘accidental’ attributes which a thing does not require to be what it is.254 For example, weight and color are non-essential, accidental attributes in regards to the ideas in this essay. However, being water-proof is an essential attribute to raincoats. Each of these three substances differs essentially. 

 

Neither essential nor accidental attributes can exist by themselves as substances: no one has ever seen ‘red’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘crumpled’ by themselves because they depend on substances to be real. Roughly speaking, Aristotle uses ‘substance’ in four different ways, as “sensible substance” or physical matter that receives form and is, therefore, a composite; as “non-sensible substance” or spirit, or soul that provides form; as a general reference to any particular thing which does not exist as an attribute of something else; and finally, as the form, essence or actuality of a thing.255 The difference among the latter three terms is one of nuance and emphasis. ‘Form’ emphasizes the structure of a substance; ‘essence’ emphasizes its necessary attributes and ‘actuality’ emphasizes the typical or culminating actions of a thing. Like the Baha’i Writings, Aristotle identifies humankind as the highest substance in the phenomenal realm.256

 

5.2) God as a Substance

 

Let us now analyze the concept of substance as used in Aristotle and the Writings in greater depth. Both use the term in two distinct ways: as “sensible substance or matter in the ordinary sense and as something which does not exist as an attribute. There are also non-sensible substances257 of which Aristotle recognizes, above all, God, the Unmoved Mover. Significantly enough, this is exactly the Baha’i position. For example, speaking about the Manifestations, Baha’u’llah tells us,

 

Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. 258

             

In this passage we first notice that, as with Aristotle, the “physical”259 is clearly distinguished from the “substance”260, in this case, God’s substance. This establishes that the physical and the substantial are not the same and that God is a non-physical or non-sensible substance. If substance were understood materialistically, this statement would suggest that God has a material substance, a notion flatly incompatible with the Baha’i Teachings for that would render God susceptible to change261 and make the Divine a composite of matter and form. However, understood in an Aristotelian fashion, this passage presents no philosophical difficulties. God is the supreme substance, the only entity which absolutely exists and can in no wise be seen as an attribute of something else. He is also the supreme actuality insofar as God has no potentials left to be actualized. That is precisely what makes the Divine inaccessible to us.

 

Furthermore, this passage tells us that spiritually, the Manifestation is an immediate emanation from God, and is formally, though not substantially identical with the Divine. This reading, based on Aristotle’s terminology, is confirmed in the immediately following sentences which state, "He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: ‘Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.”262 The Manifestation has formal identity with God – “I am He” 263 – but not  substantial identity with God because He is “born of the substance of God”264 and “He is that He is’. ”265 For an Aristotelian, this relationship is rational, clear and perfectly unparadoxical: it is no different than the relationship between the original of a manuscript and a copy: the two share formal but not substantial identity and one is logically prior and is the final cause of the other. 

 

5.3) The Soul as Substance

 

            Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the nature of the immortal soul provides another example of the Aristotelian usage of ‘substance’ and related terms. 

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.266

                                                 

The first thing to notice is how the Master defines substance in proper Aristotelian fashion as something that “exists by itself”267 and not as an attribute of something else. Moreover, he refers to the soul as a non-material substance and applies this concept vis a vis the body. This is an implicit denial of any epiphenomenalist understanding of the soul, a point he emphasizes by describing the body with the Aristotelian term “accident.” 268  An ‘accident’ according to Aristotle, is an attribute that is non-essential to the existence of a thing which is why the substantial soul can live without the ‘accidental’ body. Thus, we can see at this point, how Abdu’l-Baha grounds his argument for the immortality of the soul in the concepts and definitions originally espoused by Aristotle. He explicitly states that “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”269 It is, in other words, the essence that provides the form that makes a body into a human body. Interestingly enough, Baha’u’llah applies this same concept to the Manifestation’s relationship to the world:

 

At that time, the signs of the Son of man shall appear in heaven, that is, the promised Beauty and Substance of life shall, when these signs have appeared, step forth out of the realm of the invisible into the visible world.270

 

No materialist understanding can make rational sense of the italicized phrase. However, if we apply Aristotle’s concept of substance, its meaning becomes clear: the Manifestation is the essence of life; He is That which informs matter with life itself, and is, in that sense, the world-soul. He is also the actuality, the culmination of life, that is, the highest possible example of life in the phenomenal realm.

 

5.4) Other Uses of ‘Substance’

 

The Aristotelian use of substance also allows us to perceive new levels of meaning in some of Baha’u’llah’s statements. Take, for example, the following:

 

When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? 271

 

At the first, most obvious level, this discusses our willingness to sacrifice our material wealth for the Manifestation. However, an Aristotelian reading suggests a deeper level: it expresses a willingness to sacrifice our very identity, our nature, our essence, our actuality for God’s Cause. This is the martyrdom of ontological “evanescence”272, of truly “utter abasement”273 before God. Baha’u’llah alludes to such complete and ongoing ontological martyrdom when he praises such holy souls as mullah Husayn: “They have offered, and will continue to offer up their lives, their substance, their souls, their spirit, their all, in the path of the Well-Beloved.”274 With the Aristotelian reading of ‘substance’, we see new aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom. The phrase “will continue to offer up”275 suggests that such ontological martyrdom may not be a single act but rather a way of life.

 

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the Writings never use the word ‘substance’ as a synonym for ‘material’, for such is patently not the case276, but rather that we must carefully distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian usage if we wish to avoid confusion. Take the following passage for instance: “Here we see that if attraction did not exist between the atoms, the composite substance of matter would not be possible.”277 The phrase “composite substance of matter”278 makes no sense until we recall that for Aristotle, all physical things were composites of matter which received form279 which together make them a substance or unity.280 Indeed, as seen in the following example, we find that Abdu’l-Baha fully recognizes that material things are composites of matter and form. 

 

The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother, and it is absolute perfection; but the darkness has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection. The substance of Adam's physical life was earth, but the substance of Abraham was pure sperm; it is certain that the pure and chaste sperm is superior to earth.281

                                                             

 

In the first part of this statement, ‘substance’ is meant as ‘sensible substance’ or common matter which, in order to be anything must receive form. He denies the reality of darkness because in the phenomenal world, nothing that lacks substance and form is real. However, in what follows, the meaning of ‘substance’ begins to shift in an Aristotelian direction. The substance of Adam, that is, his sensible substance as well as his being as a non-attribute, is connected to the earth, whereas the substance of Abraham, a Manifestation, is “pure sperm.” Unless we read them with the Aristotelian substratum of the Writings in mind, such statements could intellectually embarrass a modern believer. However, the meaning becomes clear when we recall that for Aristotle, sperm provided the form and that for Abraham in His divine station, that form is provided by God with whom He shares a formal, though not substantial identity. This divine form is obviously superior to the sensible matter of the earth. Lest anyone quarrel too harshly with Aristotle about sperm providing form, let us recall that sperm decides whether an infant is male or female, that is, in that regard, the formative principle. 

 

Here is another example of Abdu’l-Baha’s use of substance in Aristotelian fashion:

Know that the Reality of Divinity or the substance of the Essence of Oneness is pure sanctity and absolute holiness--that is to say, it is sanctified and exempt from all praise.282

 

‘Substance’ is certainly not being used as “sensible substance” or matter, for

that would render the passage meaningless or in complete denial of other Baha’i Teachings concerning the non-materiality of God. This passage emphasizes in the strictest philosophical manner that God, the Reality of Divinity, is a substance insofar as it is absolutely not an attribute of anything else. The “substance of the essence of Oneness”

28

3

means that the very substratum or essenceof what it means to be One is totally independent and sanctified above all other things. Although this idea is not new to Baha’is, it is interesting to observe how Abdu’l-Baha explains – and thus provides the basis for a rational philosophical defense – for this belief in Aristotelian terms. 

 

5.5) Hylomorphism: Matter and Form

 

            As the foregoing passages make clear, the Writings and Aristotle284 agree on hylomorphism, that is, the belief that everything in creation is made of both matter and form, though we must bear in mind that ‘matter’ is a relative term in Aristotle insofar as it can refer to physical ‘stuff’ sometimes called “elemental”285  by Abdu’l-Baha. Most fundamental to Aristotle is the doctrine that matter is the potential to receive form. In Aristotle, the form is the active principle while matter is receptive, passive or patient, an idea Baha’u’llah expresses when He writes:

 

The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different.286

 

Two comments are in order. First, the statement that these two are the “same” 287 refers to their origin and nature as created entities while their differences refer to their action in the phenomenal world of creation. This statement should no more be read as a reductionism to spirit than as a reductionism to matter. The Baha’i Writings, like Aristotle’s thought, are examples of hylomorphism, the belief that existence is made of matter and form; therefore, neither of them can be reduced to a spiritual-idealistic or material monism. Second, in the foregoing passage, the “heat generated”288 by the imposition of form onto matter is the tension that inevitably exists between form and matter, since form is the active principle of perfection while matter is the principle of receptivity but also of inertia. This tension is part of what constitutes and most especially living things since the quest for perfection, that is, highest possible self-expression, is an integral part of their existence. Although Aristotle does not explicitly refer to such tension, it is implicit in his characterization of matter and form.

 

The distinction between matter and form also brings us back to our resolution of the apparent self-contradiction between creationism and emanationism and the associated doctrines of time. ‘Creation’ refers to the notion that God made the world like an artisan, a concept implying that the world was made at some point in time. On the other hand, emanationism suggests that the universe is eternal – which, by the way, is another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings – and, consequently, there is no creation in time. On the basis of Aristotle289, we may conclude that ‘creation’ refers to the specific creation of a concrete thing such as the earth or this universe whereas ‘emanation’ refers to the formal principle, essence which has always existed as a potential available for actualization. After all, a Creator requires a creation but nothing says this creation must be material. In short, there is no contradiction between the two Teachings because one refers to the order of specific matter and time, whereas the other refers to the order of potential and form.

 

5.6) Essences

 

            Not only do Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings analyze the world in terms of substances and attributes, they also use the concept of ‘essence’ and accept essences as real. Controversial though it may be in the current philosophical climate, the bottom line is that the Baha’i Writings espouse a form of essentialism, a fact that comes as no surprise given its adherence to a realist epistemology and metaphysic. Because even the most cursory reading of such Aristotelian works as MetaphysicsPhysics and On the Soul, or any basic exposition of his works reveals the centrality of ‘essence’ to his thought, I will not needlessly lengthen our study by expounding on this subject. More to our purpose is to see how the concept of essence appears in the Baha’i Writings, for here, too, it plays a key role since everything, including God, is said to have an essence. 

 

            The Baha’i Writings use the term ‘essence’ in a variety of contexts and to express a variety of ideas but none of them stray from the fundamental Aristotelian meaning of (a) the attributes needed for a substance to be the kind of substance it is; (b) the defining or characteristic nature of a thing and (c) the capacities or potentials inherent in a thing; (d) the final cause of a thing’ (e) the formal cause of a thing and (f) substance and (g) the form of a thing and (h) actuality and (i) culmination.290 These various usages, differing in what aspect of the concept of ‘essence’ they emphasize, are related insofar as they all refer to those attributes, potential or actual, which make a thing the kind of and particular thing it is. Everything we can discuss has an essence which we can know insofar as human beings have the capacity to know it.

 

There seems to be little question that the Baha’i  Writings see all things endowed with an essence as described by Aristotle. In The Kitab-i-Iqan Baha’u’llah tells us that  “the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing [is] a door of knowledge.”291In Gleanings, Baha’u’llah states that “it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God.”292 In this quotation, the essence or “inmost reality”293 of a thing is defined by its capacity or potentiality to “testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God.”294 The concept of essence as capacity is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s basic position. The Writings specifically mention that each of the following has an essence: God 295; the human soul296; humankind297; belief in Divine Unity298; justice299; “all created things”300 beauty301; species of living things302; truth303; religion304; “this new age”305; and the spirit.306 On the basis of such a wide array of references to ‘essence’ it is, in my view, safe to say that the existence of essences is an important point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i  Writings. Indeed, these references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realize that such phrases as “inmost reality”307; “the realities of”308 ; “reality of”309; “inner reality”310, and “inner realities”311 also refer to the essence of things. This connection is further emphasized by the parallel usage seen in the references to the “inmost essence”312 of things.

 

In addition to being pervasive, the terms ‘essence’ and “inmost reality” are used in a manner that is not only consistent with but also combines several, if not all, of Aristotle’s usages into one. Take, for example, the following statement:

 

 (1) Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. (2) Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self . . . (3) These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.313

                                                                      

 

In these statements we can detect all of Aristotle’s uses of the term ‘essence’. The first statement shows the term being used as a reference to (a) the non-accidental attributes of a thing or substance and (b) its defining characteristic and therefore, (c) its form as well as (d) the formal cause of that substance. Because the formal cause requires (e) a final cause, we can say that the latter is included by logical implication. In the second statement, which is really a re-statement of the first with particular focus on humankind, we can detect the additional sense of ‘essence’ as actuality and culmination, that is, the emphasis on the undeniable existence of humankind as the culminating point of phenomenal reality. Finally, in the third statement, we see ‘essence’ – the attributes of God which are also “energies”314 – portrayed as potentials or potencies “latent”315 in us and are waiting to be moved from “from potentiality into actuality.”316 We could also repeat this analysis for Baha’u’llah’s statement that “[f]rom that which hath been said it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God”317 where we especially notice the attention drawn to “inmost reality”318 as “capacity” 319 or potential (which is another key Aristotelian term) as well as to how the phrase “[e]ach according to its capacity.”320 shows capacity or essential potential defining a thing as the kind of thing it is. 

 

In light of what we have learned, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the Baha’i Writings espouse some form of essentialism, although at this point, the exact nature of this essentialism requires further study and exploration. This conclusion is also supported, as we shall see, by Baha’i and Aristotelian ethics. Given the already noted division of nature into the mineral, vegetable, animal, human and supernatural realms, it cannot be denied that the Baha’i world picture divides phenomenal creation into kinds, each with their essential endowments of God’s attributes and consequently, natural and appropriate behaviors. These kinds are further divided into individuals who are or are not appropriate exemplars of their kind.

 

5.7) Essences and Epistemology

 

According to Aristotle321 what we know of a thing is its universal form, its universal essence or “formula”322 to use Aristotle’s example,  we recognize the form of ‘circular’ in a particular bronze circle but we must recall that while there is a formula for a circle and a formula for bronze, there is no formula or definition for this particular bronze circle. It is only recognized by the aid of “intuitive thinking or of perception.”323 As he writes, “It is not possible to define any thing, for definition is of the universal and of the form.”324 This formula or definition is known by the attributes manifested by specific examples but the particular itself is not known in and as itself: “matter is unknowable in itself.”325 This position does not differ significantly from what Abdu’l-Baha means when he says,

 

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing, and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities, otherwise it is unknown and hidden.326

                       

Not only does this passage show yet again that attributes are real and provide real knowledge, but it also tells us that the essence of a particular thing is not completely known. In other words, all human knowledge is about universals and forms, but cannot extend to the knowledge of the essence of a particular thing. As Aristotle says, “there is neither definition of nor demonstration about sensible, individual substances.”327 Aristotle relegates the knowledge of particulars to “opinion”328 and, although he does not explicitly say so, he, like the Baha’i Writings, would have to admit that only God is capable of knowing particulars in-themselves, that is, the individual essence, or what Duns Scotus called the “haecceitas”.

 

However, this cannot logically be taken to mean that the knowledge we obtain from the attributes and qualities is (a) false or (b) inadequate for our phenomenal purposes or (c) arbitrary fictions or (d) absolutely relative. In other words, while the Baha’i world picture is divided in two, with a noumenal realm known only to God and phenomenal realm known to us via attributes and qualities, this somewhat Kantian aspect of the Writings does not undermine the adequacy or correctness of our knowledge for the phenomenal realm and of universals. If it did, it would undermine science, which is a knowledge of universals in contrast to art which provides intuition of particulars. There is simply no logical reason to lead the Writings into relativistic wastelands seen in the work of some contemporary philosophers. Instead, the limitations on our knowledge lay the foundation for a rational argument for the necessity of revelation.

 

5.8) Potential

 

            Another aspect of substance, ultimately related to essence329, is potential. The word ‘potential’ does not refer to a mysterious little hidden ‘thingy’, but rather to the fact that only a certain number of transformations can be made in a substance without destroying it as the substance it is.  One can use a raincoat as a blanket, a book as an eye-shade and, with some manual dexterity, a rose as a drinking cup: these are potentials that each of them has. However, no amount of effort transforms a raincoat into a 800 pound gorilla, an book into a water-well or a rose into a telephone. They simply lack the potential for that. In many ways, essences are simply a ‘cluster’ of potentials that define a kind and / or an individual. As something changes or evolves – either moved internally or externally – its potentials are actualized or realized, that is, its potentials are revealed and manifested. A rosebud blossoms to produce as beautiful fragrance; of their own nature, a raincoat and essay do not.

 

 Now is also a good time to notice that raincoats, books and roses have different forms: in fact, each of them is matter that has been given a certain form that allows it to be and do certain things. All substances are composed of matter and form which are not the same: the matter in the raincoat could have been given the form of an umbrella, the words in the book arranged into a long metaphysical poem and the rose could have formed another kind of flower. Like two sides of a coin, matter and form are distinct, but not separable: all matter has form but which particular form it receives can vary. Matter also imposes potential limits on what forms can be adopted: sheet metal cannot accept the form to become light bulbs or rodeo bulls.

 

5.9) Essences and Potentials

 

In previous discussions, we have seen the close connection between essence and the concept of potentials. This connection is made even closer when we realize that an essence can also be defined as the collection of potentials that distinguish a particular kind and / or individual from other kinds and / or individuals. Humanity, for example, is endowed with and essentially defined by its rational and spiritual capacities both as an individual and as a species or kind. We must also bear in mind that potentials (and essences) are not little entities hidden in a substance like raisins in a bun. Rather they are (a) the ability or power to initiate or stop change in oneself or another330 or (b) the ability to change into or be changed into something else or be acted upon.331 To make use of the old proverb, a sow’s ear lacks the potential to be changed into a silk purse. The lack of a particular potential or potency is a “privation.”332 All created things suffer or exhibit absolute “privation” vis a vis God, and for this reason may be properly described as “utter nothingness.”333 This understanding allows a logical resolution to the apparent contradiction between Baha’u’llah’s statement that we come from “utter nothingness” 334 and Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that nothing can come from absolute nothingness.335 As the context makes clear, Baha’u’llah’s statements are in relation to “privation” or our ‘privative natures’ vis a vis God whereas Abdu’l-Baha’s assertions refer to substance and positive potentials or capacity. No logical contradiction exists because the statements are about different subjects. The concept of potentials also provides us with a rational interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s statement that copper can be turned into gold and vice versa. 336 The language of this passage, for example, “lieth hidden”337, “possible”338 and “can be turned”339, clearly indicates this statement is about potentials or capacities, which makes it a statement of scientific fact.  

 

The belief that potentials or capacities define us essentially is plain when Abdu’l-Baha says that “although capacities are not the same, every member of the human race is capable of education.”340 This asserts that we share individually different portions of the general species capacity to learn. In both Aristotle and the Writings, these capacities are sometimes also portrayed as powers or abilities to act or be acted on.341 The connection between capacities, or potentials and powers is plainly evident in the following quotation:

 

The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature's ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism.342

                                               

As we can see, potentials are the powers or abilities that humankind possesses, indeed, are the unique, that is, necessary characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of creation. However, we must be careful to note that although the word ‘potential’, ‘power’, ‘potency’ and ‘potencies’ are used pervasively throughout the Writings, not all usages of the latter two refer to potentials. For example, the description of God as “He, verily, through the potency of His name, the Mighty”343 does not use ‘potency’ in the sense of ‘potential’ but rather in the sense of an existing power. As a matter of fact, reading it as ‘potential’ would lead to the serious theological error of ascribing potentials, that is, unactualized powers or attributes to God, and, thereby characterizing the Divine as imperfect. We must, therefore, be careful to distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian uses of these terms. There are three other terms by which to explore the subject of potentials in the Writings: the first is ‘latent’, which is pervasively used.344 The second is “hidden” which is found in a similarly wide range of Baha’i texts referring to the concept of hidden – that is, potentially revealed or realized – qualities and their manifestation either through divine revelation, through natural processes or through human activity.345 The third is ‘realize’ which, when used philosophically instead of as a term for ‘to understand suddenly’, refers to the process by which the hidden or potential is made real, comes to fruition or is revealed in the world of being.346

            The importance of the concept of potentials for Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings can hardly be over-stated especially in an age in which the topic of change, and especially evolutionary change, is so hotly debated.  Both Aristotle’s and the Writing’s entire vision of change and development depend on his belief that change – be it locomotion, increase, growth or decay is the actualizing or realizing of hitherto invisible, hidden potentials. For this reason, they share a common understanding of evolution which is not seen as the alteration of one species into another but rather the successive actualization of hidden, unrealized potentials. This allows both to argue that each species is a specific and original complex of potentials that were always available or hidden in creation and that what appears to be the transformation of one species into another is really the actualization of hitherto hidden potentials.

 

            (Among the alleged common ancestors of human and ape, outward similarities notwithstanding, only one group had the potential to manifest a rational soul. This group must have had this potential from the beginning because the concept of potentials leading to new potentials involves an infinite regress and is, thereby, logically untenable. Here’s why. Either an organism has the potential to manifest rationality, or it does not. If it does not, it needs to acquire this potential (1) but to get this potential (1), it must first get the potential (2) to get the potential (1), and then, in turn it needs to acquire potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1) and so on . . . If  the organism turns out to already possess potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1), then the organism is obviously part of the distinct human line.)

 

Thus, it is inaccurate to say that Aristotle and the Writings deny evolution. Rather, they re-interpret the same data used by all anthropologists in terms of potentiality and conclude that all evolution is the actualization or manifestation of previously hidden potentials. They disagree with current scientific views but they are not out of harmony with science because there is sound logical reasoning about potentials underlying their views. 

 

5.10) Essence and Existence

 

The distinction between potential and actualization provides yet another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings, namely the distinction between essence and existence. As already noted, for Aristotle, the essence may be seen as the potentiality of a thing: the identity of a hammer, for example, is constituted by all its potential uses that determine it can be employed as a prop to hold up a shelf of books as well as melted down to make a steel plate and cup but not as a guard dog. Our actions are required to bring the hammer’s various potentials into actuality, that is, to bring them into existence. In other words, for Aristotle, existence is actualization: bringing something into existence means actualizing a potential. The same is true in the Baha’i Writings where we are brought into existence, that is, are actualized or manifest from mere potentialities which are actualized when the right combination of elements occurs. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha asks, “Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created?”347 The word “created”348 here must be read as meaning ‘actualized’, ‘brought into appearance’ or ‘manifest’ because if we read it as meaning  ‘brought into existence from absolute nothing’, then Abdu’l-Baha would be contradicting his own statements that

 

existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.349

 

Thus, for the Writings, as for Aristotle, to exist means to be actualized or to be manifest: we do not really exist before the point of actualization although the potential for us exists because , according to Abdu’l-Baha, we cannot come into existence from absolute nothing. Consequently,  it follows that things do not come into manifest existence merely because they have an essence, that is, merely because there is a potential for them to come into existence. Existence does not necessarily or automatically follow from one’s potential for existing. It must be provided by a special act – in Aristotle, the continued action of the Unmoved Mover, and, in the Baha’i case, the voluntary act of God Who chooses which potentials to actualize. In other words, for a potential to come into existence requires an act from an entity that already exists and is, thereby, able to take action which is something only existing entities can do. In the Baha’i view, this ‘entity’ is ultimately God, Who actualizes or provides existence to all things other than Himself. Only God exists by virtue of His own nature, that is, only in God are essence / potential and actualized existence one and the same. In short, it is not only God’s nature to exist but also to exist as a perfectly actualized Being. 

 

            The distinction between essence / potential and existence is of supreme philosophical importance for both Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings because it is the foundation for a Baha’i existentialism. The core of existential philosophies is the belief that ‘existence’ precedes essence’, although the meaning of this statement is variously interpreted. In all cases, however, existence is a result of a distinct act, and theistic and atheistic existentialisms diverge on the issue of whether God or the individual is ultimately responsible for this act. A Baha’i existentialism would, in a sense, have it both ways. As in theistic forms of existentialism, God is ultimately responsible for the act that manifests a potential in the world, and, as in atheistic existentialism, it is the individual who creates his or her own ‘voluntary self’ by choosing which potentials to actualize in this life. Indeed, the whole notion of our lives being a process of actualizing potentials leads us closer to the form of existentialism developed above all by Martin Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel, although it bears affinities to Sartre’s existentialism as well.

 

            Although this issue is explored more fully in my paper “The Call to Being: Introduction to a Baha’i Existentialism”, it is worthwhile to digress for a moment to make a few salient points to demonstrate the versatility of the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. It is in my view, preciseyt this versatility which led Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to retain whatever was useful in Aristotle as the substratum of the Writings. For example, if our lives are a process of actualizing our potential selves, certain consequences are unavoidable. Our lives are matters of perpetual choice among possibilities – often based on little more than faith – in a world in which we face the challenges of trying to relate to a God Who is essentially unknowable, as well as a world made up of things whose essences we cannot know directly. We live, and choose, in a world of essential mystery. Moreover, it also becomes evident that we are never completely ourselves which means that self-alienation and estrangement, wonder, and mystery are inherently structured into our being. We are, since the Writings assert the existence of an after-life of perpetual development and evolution, ladies and gentlemen ‘in waiting’, and therefore, not surprisingly, prone to ‘angst’ about our choices and their consequences. We are Marcel’s “homo viator”, for ever in transit, for whom every moment is simultaneously an arrival and departure and our only ‘rest’ is the journey itself. Moreover, we are intrinsically dissatisfied because we are, and never can be, never fully and completely ourselves. We are is locked in a constant struggle to become – or to avoid becoming – what we are not and our ‘nothingness’ always haunts us. Indeed, we can become so overwhelmed by this struggle that we give up, act in ‘bad faith’, lose our individual being in the anonymity of the crowd and adopt a collective rather than true-to-ourselves, personal identity. Then, we face the challenge of hearing the ‘call to being’ and finding the power to answer it.  We are always ‘in a situation’ and ‘in a world’; we are concrete real beings, not abstract concepts, whose moods and attitudes present the world and others to us in various ways and condition our ‘modes of being’. Finally, the Writing’s emphasis on the process of actualization and on our individual and social evolution to overcome ourselves to help establish a more highly evolved form of humankind has clearly Nietzschean overtones worthy of exploration. Readers even passingly familiar with existential thought will recognize both the existential themes as well as authors alluded to in this paragraph.

 

            It may be objected that the Writings and Aristotle cannot be essentialist and existentialist at the same time. However, this objection does not hold because of the individual’s free will to choose which of his human and personal potentials to actualize, when, where, how and why. Aristotelian essentialism does not do away with choice; it is not a form ethical determinism. What the Aristotelian insights confirmed by the Writings do is to provide an outline of the nature and structure of being and specifically human being, a project in which they are not fundamentally different than Being and TimeBeing and Nothingness and The Mystery Of Being. (Even Sartre who is most allergic to any suggestions of a general ‘human nature’ still recognizes, and thereby contradicts himself by reserving for humankind the specific character of “pour-soi” as distinguished from everything else which is “en-soi”.)  A Baha’i existentialism explores how we personally experience the nature and structure of human be-ing, and what this experience means for us as individuals in the world.

 

5.11) Substance-Attribute Ontology

 

Closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of substance is the concept of attributes since substances can only be known by the attributes they possess, a crucial fact explicitly stated in the Baha’i Writings: “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes.”350 This also applies to our knowledge of God:

 

“Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?”351

 

This issue is of far-reaching philosophical importance because it shows that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle both share a substance-attribute analysis of existence or a substance-attribute ontology and this, in turn, limits the kind of metaphysics and epistemologies to which they can be logically allied. This is clearly evident from even a cursory examination of Abdu’l-Baha’s preceding quotations in which there are three points worthy of note. First, the properties are “their”352 properties; they belong to a particular created substance and are clearly not arbitrary human constructs or ‘fictions’ imposed on them by the perceivers. The properties of substances are not necessarily human impositions. Second, phenomenal things are known to us through their attributes, from which it follows logically that these attributes provide real – albeit, as seen above, limited – knowledge. However limited it may be, such knowledge is still real knowledge about the substance possessing or manifesting the attributes. Third, this knowledge comes to us directly from the substances by means of their attributes or properties which we perceive. Such is precisely the import of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “the mind is connected with the acquisition of knowledge, like images reflected in a mirror.”353 In other words, the mind perceives or reflects these attributes directly and immediately just a mirror directly and immediately reflects whatever it faces.354 Just as humankind reflects the divine perfections355, so the mind reflects the real attributes of the substances around it.

 


3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.175 This constitutes a radical division or differentiation within nature though it does not, of course, deny the oneness of the overall system of reality. Furthermore, according to the Writings, things differ in their capacity to reflect the divine Names or bounties176 and those differences of degree are real, essential and permanent.177 Just as we can never evolve into gods, so stones can never evolve into humans; these stations are fixed because “inequality in degree and capacity is a property of nature.”178 These inequalities and differences are real because they are divinely ordained as part of God’s system. Nor can they be crossed.179 The issue can, of course, be explained using Aristotelian terminology: there are many kinds of unity – unity of matter or material, unity of substance or essence, unity of form, unity of purpose, unity of logical relationship such as dependence and so on. “The organization of God”180, the single divine system 181 has a formal and purposive unitywhich is different from and must not be confused with as a material and / or substantial unity. Because all things are unified does not mean they are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the dualism of mind-soul-spirit and physical body does not contradict the organizational or systematic unity of creation.

 


3.5) The Body / Soul Connection

 

Given their distinctness, it is natural to ask how body and soul are connected. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the mediator between the outer, bodily senses and our inner mental senses such as memory and imagination is the “common faculty” which “communicates between the outward and inward powers and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.”182 Aristotle’s views on this matter are not directly addressed to the mind / body issue as we understand it now, so we must infer his views from other writings to related topics. For example, he mentions the “common sense”183 that allows the presentation of events perceived outwardly to be recollected inwardly. In effect, this “common sense” mediates between the physical senses or the body and the intellectual senses or the remembering mind. He also sees it as deriving general, that is, abstract ideas from the physical data supplied by the senses. Here too it operates as a mediator between body and mind.184 He does not, however, consider it a separate sixth sense.

 

In continuing to explore the subject of how the soul is related to the body, we must be sure to divest ourselves of the notion that the soul somehow resides inside the body like a seed in a pot. Neither Aristotle nor the Baha’i Writings see the soul as a ‘foreign entity’ that somehow enters the body. As Abdu’l-Baha tells us, “the rational soul, meaning the human spirit, does not descend into the body--that is to say, it does not enter it, for descent and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is exempt from this. The spirit never entered this body.”185 Aristotle holds a similar view, criticizing as “absurdity”186 those theories that would “join the soul to a body, or place it in a body.”187 This, of course, leaves us with the question of the soul’s relationship to the body, a relationship described by Abdu’l-Baha as follows resembling the relationship of light to a mirror: “When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear.”188

 

            What, then, is the precise relationship of the soul or spirit to the body according to Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings? We must bear in mind that both provide a philosophical answer, that is, formal answers or answers in principle, rather than specific physical or bio-chemical explanations for which we will have to look elsewhere. If we analyze Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor of the mirror and the light, we find that, in Aristotelian language, the issue is relatively straightforward: the soul is formally or virtually but not substantially present in the body just as the sun is formally but not substantially present in the mirror. The sun enlightens the mirror just as – to use Aristotle’s analogy189  – the impression of the signet ring in-forms or provides form to the wax. In other words, the sun itself is never in the mirror but its image, its form or virtual presence is there as long as the mirror is capable of reflecting it. When the mirror breaks, the sun does not disappear anymore than the signet ring is destroyed when the wax melts. In Aristotelian language, we would say that the soul in-forms matter to the degree that matter is capable of receiving that form.  

 

            Several things are clear at this point. First, in these analogies, neither the sun nor the signet ring depends on something else for its existence whereas the reverse is certainly the case. Second, light is the intermediary between the sun and the mirror, an observation similar to Aristotle’s belief that the soul enlightens or provides light for the active intellect (mind) to perceive, abstract and discriminate. Third, both light source and its emanated light surround the mirror, just as, according to Abdu’l-Baha, the “spirit surrounds the body”190 without being physically present in it. Aristotle would agree with at least the latter part of this statement.

 

4) Epistemology: Mind and Brain

 

Another important similarity between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings is the clear distinction between the non-material mind and its physical organ, the brain. The two work together but are not the same. For his part, Aristotle calls the mind “the place of forms”191 and even “the form of forms”192 which is “capable of receiving the forms of an object.”193 In other words, the mind is not a physical thing, or, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing.”194 Because it is itself not sensible195, the mind does not work with sensible realities, that is, actual substances, but rather with forms, or what Abdu’l-Baha calls “symbols”196 of outward things. Instead, the mind perceives forms, picturing to itself as forms various perceptions and intellectual realities197  such as love, God, goodness and other qualities. In a discussion of epistemology, he says, “The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual – that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses.”198  The Aristotelian term for a phenomenal reality that is not sensible is ‘form’, so here too we find endorsement for the Aristotelian concept of the mind working with forms. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha interprets this capacity to work with forms as a sign of the mind’s super-natural nature:

 

The spirit of man, however, can manifest itself in all forms at the same time. For example, we say that a material body is either square or spherical, triangular or hexagonal. While it is triangular, it cannot be square; and while it is square, it is not triangular. Similarly, it cannot be spherical and hexagonal at the same time . . . But the human spirit in itself contains all these forms, shapes and figures . . . As an evidence of this, at the present moment in the human spirit you have the shape of a square and the figure of a triangle. Simultaneously also you can conceive a hexagonal form. All these can be conceived at the same moment in the human spirit, and not one of them needs to be destroyed or broken in order that the spirit of man may be transferred to another.199

                                   

At this point it need only be added that the belief that the human spirit or mind can take in by perception or imagine and contain the forms of things is one of the center-pieces of Aristotelian philosophical and cognitive psychology whose outlines are visible in Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks here and elsewhere.

 


4.1) Reality is Discovered not Constructed

 

The similarities between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings in regards to epistemological matters do not end here. Perhaps most significant and far-reaching is their agreement that the mind or spirit discovers and does not create either spiritual or material realities. Baha’u’llah writes, “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.200 Elsewhere He writes that the divine “gift of understanding”201 “giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”202  Nowhere does Baha’u’llah state or even suggest that humankind creates or constructs reality. Indeed, if they create anything like reality it tends to be things like the “thick clouds203 of “idle fancies and vain imaginings.204 Baha’u’llah uses the latter phrase throughout His Writings to refer to those who refuse to see the truth about Him and prefer their own imaginative constructions. Significantly, He accounts them with “the lost in the Book of God.”205 In a similar vein, He exhorts the Persian people to “come forth to discover the Truth which hath dawned from the Day-Star of Truth”206 about the new Manifestation of God. Abdu’l-Baha’s statements consistently support the contention that human beings discover – and do not construct – truths about the spiritual and material realms. Indeed, humankind is distinct from the rest of nature and animals because it possesses “the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles”207, an idea that is widely scattered throughout the Writings in a wide variety of contexts. He also informs us that “When we carefully investigate the kingdoms of existence and observe the phenomena of the universe about us, we discover the absolute order and perfection of creation.”208

 

The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.209

                       

Furthermore, God has endowed humankind “with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.”210 Aristotle, of course, holds the same views, so much so that the whole notion of the human ‘construction’ of reality is found nowhere in his works. The Metaphysics begins with his reflections on past efforts to find the truth about reality, and their various inadequacies; the Psychology and various other books explore how the senses and the soul work to perceive and discover the nature of the surrounding world.

 


4.2) Epistemological Realism and Correspondence Theory of Truth

 

From this we can conclude that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle agree on several key epistemological issues subject to vociferous contemporary debate: first, that natural reality is objectively real and does not depend on human observers for its existence; second, that reality and its laws are given by God, not constructed, and that we must work with what is given; and third, that truth is the correspondence between reality and our interpretation of it, or, put otherwise, that reality and our interpretation of it are two distinct things and that we must test our interpretations against reality to discover whether or not they are in agreement. From this follows that reality is discovered and that there is such a thing as error, that is, an erroneous or inadequate understanding of reality that can be cured by abandoning it in order to change from ignorant to more knowledgeable. In other words, the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle share a realist epistemology.211 Without these premises, the entire Aristotelian and Baha’i enterprises would collapse, most especially the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation which presumes increasingly adequate comprehension of various truths. Finally, the belief that properties are real makes the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle incompatible with nominalism, that is, the belief that properties are either arbitrary human selections or outright impositions only externally related to their objects and that essences are fictitious. (See Aristotle’s refutation of the underlying logic of nominalism in Metaphysics, VII, 12.) For its part, realism holds that the relationship between attributes and substance is internal, that is, inherent and intrinsic and that essences are natural and real. 

 

The fact that for Aristotle the forms, essences or universals do not exist in a separate world or “Kingdom of Names”212 must not under any circumstances be interpreted to mean that for him these forms or essences are any less real than for Plato, the neo-Platonists and the Writings. No less than Plato, Aristotle is a realist, that is, believes that essences or forms are absolutely real and not mere human constructs. Moreover, the universals we abstract from particular things correspond to absolute realities; they are emphatically not arbitrary creations or selections. For this reason, the most we may conclude is that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is not whether or not the original essences or forms exist, but rather about where and how they exist – in a separate world, “Kingdom”213 or mind – or exemplified or instantiated in particular things. From this it follows that Aristotle cannot be presented as a nominalist without doing violence to his metaphysic and epistemology; his view, says renowned Aristotle scholar W. D. Ross, “is not that the object is constituted by thought.”214 Indeed, he is an “extreme realist allowing for no modification, still less construction of the object by the mind.”215 Even in regards to the universal that is abstracted from particulars, Ross says “the universal is always for Aristotle something which though perfectly real and objective has no separate existence."216 This means that we cannot divide the Baha’i Writings from Aristotle on the issue of the reality of forms or essences as Keven Brown seems tempted to do in Evolution and Baha’i Belief.217

 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that anything other than a realist, correspondence theory of truth would render numerous passages in the Writings meaningless. If reality were not objectively given and all constructions equally adequate or valid, Baha’u’llah could not lament that He “fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously.”218 These physicians are ignorant precisely because they have constructed reality to fit their “personal desires”219 and thus “erred grievously.”220 Abdu’l-Baha could neither tell us that an “ignorant man by learning becomes knowing, and the world of savagery, through the bounty of a wise educator, is changed into a civilized kingdom.”221 nor that the soul’s journey is necessary in order to acquire divine knowledge”222 to overcome our “lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.”223 Manifestations could not provide humankind with the “science of reality.”224 Without the existence of objective truth about reality, we could not be transformed from “the ignorant of mankind into the knowing”225; it would make no sense for Abdu’l-Baha to say that “the ignorant must be educated.”226 Indeed, the whole Baha’i concept of evolution to further knowledge and understanding both in this world and the next would be moot. 

 

Aristotle’s and the Writing’s agreement about the discovery (not construction) of reality and the correspondence theory of truth is bound to be a controversial issue in our times when theories about the ‘construction’ of reality abound. It is, therefore, necessary to explain in somewhat greater detail what Aristotle and the Writings mean. In a nutshell, the issue stands as follows: we all discover the same basic reality but construct different interpretations of it. However, these interpretations or constructions are constrained by the nature of what they are interpreting. For example, we may understand fire in various ways from the specific chemistry of combustion to a manifestation of divine power but what no interpretation can deny is that fire is hot and will burn human flesh unless counter-measures are taken. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.”227 How we interpret those “realities”228 may differ but all recognize the reality of fire’s power to inflict severe damage on human flesh. In other words, in considering this issue, we must, as precisely as possible, distinguish between what is perceived and what is interpreted, that is, we must distinguish between metaphysics and epistemology and hermeneutics. Here is another example. In progressive revelation, the Writings expect all to accept the fact or reality of Christ as a Manifestation of God but also they expect us to understand or interpret what this fact means in different ways at different times in history. As we can see, the doctrine of progressive revelation logically depends on the mind’s ability to distinguish real and objective fact from interpretation. Indeed, the Writings go even further because they explicitly condemn some interpretations as erroneous, as being “the dust of vain imaginings and the smoke of idle fancy”229, that is, misinterpretations due to the distortions of the ego and our lower animal natures.  Here too, the Writings implicitly expect us not only to distinguish real fact from constructed interpretation but also to distinguish between constructions that are appropriate and inappropriate for the age in which we live. This idea is also presented in the image of the sun’s light or reality being diminished or distorted by the dust on the mirror: “The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror.”230 The fact is that the mirror can be cleansed.231 Not only does Abdu’l-Baha support this but he also makes it clear that not all mirrors are equal in this regard: “The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world.232

 

4.3) The Reality of Attributes

 

 If attributes were not real, did not inhere in their substances and were not essential, how are we understand Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that the “names and attributes of Divinity are eternal and not accidental?233 Obviously the attributes of Divinity are not merely human constructs. If they were, why bother to strive to live up to Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “The soul that excels in attainment of His attributes and graces is most acceptable before God?234 What could the phrase “His attributes”235 even mean? Indeed, if attributes and properties are not real, then there is no rationale for God’s creation since, as Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world.”236 Furthermore, the whole of Baha’u’llah’s salvational project would be useless if properties were not real and did not provide real knowledge because of the Noonday Prayer’s assertion that we were created “to know [God] and to worship [Him]” would be rendered meaningless. If attributes are only human selections or impositions, are not inherent and do not provide real knowledge about things, they could only teach us, at most, about ourselves and our own modus operandi. This would effectively leave us locked in a bubble of our own perceptions and constructs. Aside from their logical weaknesses, such views simply contradict Abdu’l-Baha when he says,

 

But the question may be asked: How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration. We recognize the sun by its bounty and effulgence.237

 

Indeed, it is Baha’u’llah Himself who tells us that attributes are real when he describes God as “the Creator of all names and attributes.”238 If God created them, they are obviously real. If attributes were not real how could it be true that  “His names and His attributes, are made manifest in the world”?239 The following statement would also become senseless:

 

He must so educate the human reality that it may become the center of the divine appearance, to such a degree that the attributes and the names of God shall be resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man, and the holy verse "We will make man in Our image and likeness" shall be realized.240

                                                                         

If God had no real attributes how could they be made “resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man”?241 Indeed, if attributes are simply human fictions and impositions, they could not be attributes ‘of God’ and it would be we, the created, who are shaping the Creator and making Him in our image. Such a notion simply violates the Baha’i principle that the created cannot comprehend – let alone shape – the Creator. Believing that such is the case would indeed be to “join partners with God.”242

 

Nor should we think that it is only God Whom we know by means of attributes, for, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes”243, a fact supported by his statement that “In the human plane of existence we can say we have knowledge of a vegetable, its qualities and product.”244 If these attributes did not provide real knowledge about the object, the use of the word ‘know’ and its variations would be inappropriate. Obviously attributes are not simply human impositions but rather, actually provide knowledge about the objects or substances we are studying. As Baha’u’llah says, “This gift [“the gift of understanding”] giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”245 Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the rational soul, “the inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application.”246 Elsewhere he says, “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things”247 once again demonstrating that in the Baha’i view, humankind is capable of gaining real knowledge through an exploration of reality. The continual use of the word ‘discover’ throughout the Writings also proves that we discover what already exists independently and do not construct it.

 

5) The Analysis of Reality

 

The topic of discovering reality leads readily to the all important issue of how we analyze it to discover its truth. This subject, already touched on in our discussion of causality and the Prime Mover, makes it clear that the Writings analyze and present reality in Aristotelian terms. In other words, they present an Aristotelian vision of reality in which there are substances which have essential and non-essential attributes; in which things have essences; in which – as already shown – change is the actualization of potentials248; and in which materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. Readers may confirm for themselves the pervasive use of this Aristotelian terminology by typing them into any hyper-text edition of the Writings. They will find

that these words occur in almost every book. Of course, some of them also have a general, non-philosophical usage: ‘substance’, for example, is also employed as a synonym for ‘wealth.’249

In reviewing what follows, one must remember that the Aristotelian concepts form a coherent system of inter-dependent concepts and the use of one concept necessitates the use of at least some others.

 

However, before embarking on our survey of the Aristotelian analysis of reality, it is necessary to look briefly at the important issue of ‘standpoint epistemologies’, the notion that reality appears differently to differing points of view. All too often these are erroneously equated to relativism, the notion that all viewpoints of reality are equally true because all are ‘relative’. However, properly understood, the two are not the same and must be clearly distinguished. The Baha’i Writings and Aristotle embody a stand point epistemology but are not even slightly relativistic. The best way to grasp the difference is to imagine a jig-saw puzzle picture of Mount Fuji. A true stand-point epistemology simply asserts that there are many pieces all of which have some portion of the truth, or the mountain; whatever their differences, the pieces are ultimately rationally compatible with one another and will form a picture of the whole mountain. A relativist, on the other hand, asserts that any piece – indeed, any piece from any puzzle – makes an equally valid fit at every point on our Mount Fuji puzzle.  There is nothing in the Baha’i Writings nor in Aristotle that suggest such relativism since doing so would vitiate not just the concept of the Manifestation as a revealer of absolute truth but the entire concept of knowledge altogether. We must not be misled, as some have been by Shoghi Effendi’s statement that  “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”250 In each case where Shoghi Effendi makes this statement, the word ‘relative’ is clearly used in reference to progressive revelation not to the truth value of the essential teachings. In terms of our illustration, each Manifestation adds a piece to the puzzle but this does not even remotely suggest that the truth value of the piece is not absolute.

 

5.1) A Brief Crash Course: Substance, Attribute and Essence

 

            The primary concept in Aristotle’s analysis of reality is ‘substance’, a concept which underwent some development but never strayed far from the belief that a substance is anything which does not exist as the attribute of something else. Substances are particulars, a fact that is used by Abdu’l-Baha in explaining the return of Elias.251 Your raincoat is a substance and so is this essay. Substance, however, does not only mean ‘matter’ or what Aristotle called “sensible substances.”252 When it does, such matter forms the “substratum”253 of a thing, namely that which is given form. ‘Matter’ in Aristotle’s view is a relative term: matter is anything which potentially receives form. In the case of your raincoat, matter may be physical material but in regards to this study, the matter is the ideas expressed therein. A substance possesses attributes which identify it as the particular substance it is, raincoat, essay ,rose or idea and these attributes are called its ‘essence’ which we must distinguish from other non-essential or ‘accidental’ attributes which a thing does not require to be what it is.254 For example, weight and color are non-essential, accidental attributes in regards to the ideas in this essay. However, being water-proof is an essential attribute to raincoats. Each of these three substances differs essentially. 

 

Neither essential nor accidental attributes can exist by themselves as substances: no one has ever seen ‘red’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘crumpled’ by themselves because they depend on substances to be real. Roughly speaking, Aristotle uses ‘substance’ in four different ways, as “sensible substance” or physical matter that receives form and is, therefore, a composite; as “non-sensible substance” or spirit, or soul that provides form; as a general reference to any particular thing which does not exist as an attribute of something else; and finally, as the form, essence or actuality of a thing.255 The difference among the latter three terms is one of nuance and emphasis. ‘Form’ emphasizes the structure of a substance; ‘essence’ emphasizes its necessary attributes and ‘actuality’ emphasizes the typical or culminating actions of a thing. Like the Baha’i Writings, Aristotle identifies humankind as the highest substance in the phenomenal realm.256

 

5.2) God as a Substance

 

Let us now analyze the concept of substance as used in Aristotle and the Writings in greater depth. Both use the term in two distinct ways: as “sensible substance or matter in the ordinary sense and as something which does not exist as an attribute. There are also non-sensible substances257 of which Aristotle recognizes, above all, God, the Unmoved Mover. Significantly enough, this is exactly the Baha’i position. For example, speaking about the Manifestations, Baha’u’llah tells us,

 

Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. 258

             

In this passage we first notice that, as with Aristotle, the “physical”259 is clearly distinguished from the “substance”260, in this case, God’s substance. This establishes that the physical and the substantial are not the same and that God is a non-physical or non-sensible substance. If substance were understood materialistically, this statement would suggest that God has a material substance, a notion flatly incompatible with the Baha’i Teachings for that would render God susceptible to change261 and make the Divine a composite of matter and form. However, understood in an Aristotelian fashion, this passage presents no philosophical difficulties. God is the supreme substance, the only entity which absolutely exists and can in no wise be seen as an attribute of something else. He is also the supreme actuality insofar as God has no potentials left to be actualized. That is precisely what makes the Divine inaccessible to us.

 

Furthermore, this passage tells us that spiritually, the Manifestation is an immediate emanation from God, and is formally, though not substantially identical with the Divine. This reading, based on Aristotle’s terminology, is confirmed in the immediately following sentences which state, "He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: ‘Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.”262 The Manifestation has formal identity with God – “I am He” 263 – but not  substantial identity with God because He is “born of the substance of God”264 and “He is that He is’. ”265 For an Aristotelian, this relationship is rational, clear and perfectly unparadoxical: it is no different than the relationship between the original of a manuscript and a copy: the two share formal but not substantial identity and one is logically prior and is the final cause of the other. 

 

5.3) The Soul as Substance

 

            Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the nature of the immortal soul provides another example of the Aristotelian usage of ‘substance’ and related terms. 

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.266

                                                 

The first thing to notice is how the Master defines substance in proper Aristotelian fashion as something that “exists by itself”267 and not as an attribute of something else. Moreover, he refers to the soul as a non-material substance and applies this concept vis a vis the body. This is an implicit denial of any epiphenomenalist understanding of the soul, a point he emphasizes by describing the body with the Aristotelian term “accident.” 268  An ‘accident’ according to Aristotle, is an attribute that is non-essential to the existence of a thing which is why the substantial soul can live without the ‘accidental’ body. Thus, we can see at this point, how Abdu’l-Baha grounds his argument for the immortality of the soul in the concepts and definitions originally espoused by Aristotle. He explicitly states that “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”269 It is, in other words, the essence that provides the form that makes a body into a human body. Interestingly enough, Baha’u’llah applies this same concept to the Manifestation’s relationship to the world:

 

At that time, the signs of the Son of man shall appear in heaven, that is, the promised Beauty and Substance of life shall, when these signs have appeared, step forth out of the realm of the invisible into the visible world.270

 

No materialist understanding can make rational sense of the italicized phrase. However, if we apply Aristotle’s concept of substance, its meaning becomes clear: the Manifestation is the essence of life; He is That which informs matter with life itself, and is, in that sense, the world-soul. He is also the actuality, the culmination of life, that is, the highest possible example of life in the phenomenal realm.

 

5.4) Other Uses of ‘Substance’

 

The Aristotelian use of substance also allows us to perceive new levels of meaning in some of Baha’u’llah’s statements. Take, for example, the following:

 

When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? 271

 

At the first, most obvious level, this discusses our willingness to sacrifice our material wealth for the Manifestation. However, an Aristotelian reading suggests a deeper level: it expresses a willingness to sacrifice our very identity, our nature, our essence, our actuality for God’s Cause. This is the martyrdom of ontological “evanescence”272, of truly “utter abasement”273 before God. Baha’u’llah alludes to such complete and ongoing ontological martyrdom when he praises such holy souls as mullah Husayn: “They have offered, and will continue to offer up their lives, their substance, their souls, their spirit, their all, in the path of the Well-Beloved.”274 With the Aristotelian reading of ‘substance’, we see new aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom. The phrase “will continue to offer up”275 suggests that such ontological martyrdom may not be a single act but rather a way of life.

 

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the Writings never use the word ‘substance’ as a synonym for ‘material’, for such is patently not the case276, but rather that we must carefully distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian usage if we wish to avoid confusion. Take the following passage for instance: “Here we see that if attraction did not exist between the atoms, the composite substance of matter would not be possible.”277 The phrase “composite substance of matter”278 makes no sense until we recall that for Aristotle, all physical things were composites of matter which received form279 which together make them a substance or unity.280 Indeed, as seen in the following example, we find that Abdu’l-Baha fully recognizes that material things are composites of matter and form. 

 

The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother, and it is absolute perfection; but the darkness has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection. The substance of Adam's physical life was earth, but the substance of Abraham was pure sperm; it is certain that the pure and chaste sperm is superior to earth.281

                                                             

 

In the first part of this statement, ‘substance’ is meant as ‘sensible substance’ or common matter which, in order to be anything must receive form. He denies the reality of darkness because in the phenomenal world, nothing that lacks substance and form is real. However, in what follows, the meaning of ‘substance’ begins to shift in an Aristotelian direction. The substance of Adam, that is, his sensible substance as well as his being as a non-attribute, is connected to the earth, whereas the substance of Abraham, a Manifestation, is “pure sperm.” Unless we read them with the Aristotelian substratum of the Writings in mind, such statements could intellectually embarrass a modern believer. However, the meaning becomes clear when we recall that for Aristotle, sperm provided the form and that for Abraham in His divine station, that form is provided by God with whom He shares a formal, though not substantial identity. This divine form is obviously superior to the sensible matter of the earth. Lest anyone quarrel too harshly with Aristotle about sperm providing form, let us recall that sperm decides whether an infant is male or female, that is, in that regard, the formative principle. 

 

Here is another example of Abdu’l-Baha’s use of substance in Aristotelian fashion:

Know that the Reality of Divinity or the substance of the Essence of Oneness is pure sanctity and absolute holiness--that is to say, it is sanctified and exempt from all praise.282

 

‘Substance’ is certainly not being used as “sensible substance” or matter, for

that would render the passage meaningless or in complete denial of other Baha’i Teachings concerning the non-materiality of God. This passage emphasizes in the strictest philosophical manner that God, the Reality of Divinity, is a substance insofar as it is absolutely not an attribute of anything else. The “substance of the essence of Oneness”

28

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means that the very substratum or essenceof what it means to be One is totally independent and sanctified above all other things. Although this idea is not new to Baha’is, it is interesting to observe how Abdu’l-Baha explains – and thus provides the basis for a rational philosophical defense – for this belief in Aristotelian terms. 

 

5.5) Hylomorphism: Matter and Form

 

            As the foregoing passages make clear, the Writings and Aristotle284 agree on hylomorphism, that is, the belief that everything in creation is made of both matter and form, though we must bear in mind that ‘matter’ is a relative term in Aristotle insofar as it can refer to physical ‘stuff’ sometimes called “elemental”285  by Abdu’l-Baha. Most fundamental to Aristotle is the doctrine that matter is the potential to receive form. In Aristotle, the form is the active principle while matter is receptive, passive or patient, an idea Baha’u’llah expresses when He writes:

 

The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different.286

 

Two comments are in order. First, the statement that these two are the “same” 287 refers to their origin and nature as created entities while their differences refer to their action in the phenomenal world of creation. This statement should no more be read as a reductionism to spirit than as a reductionism to matter. The Baha’i Writings, like Aristotle’s thought, are examples of hylomorphism, the belief that existence is made of matter and form; therefore, neither of them can be reduced to a spiritual-idealistic or material monism. Second, in the foregoing passage, the “heat generated”288 by the imposition of form onto matter is the tension that inevitably exists between form and matter, since form is the active principle of perfection while matter is the principle of receptivity but also of inertia. This tension is part of what constitutes and most especially living things since the quest for perfection, that is, highest possible self-expression, is an integral part of their existence. Although Aristotle does not explicitly refer to such tension, it is implicit in his characterization of matter and form.

 

The distinction between matter and form also brings us back to our resolution of the apparent self-contradiction between creationism and emanationism and the associated doctrines of time. ‘Creation’ refers to the notion that God made the world like an artisan, a concept implying that the world was made at some point in time. On the other hand, emanationism suggests that the universe is eternal – which, by the way, is another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings – and, consequently, there is no creation in time. On the basis of Aristotle289, we may conclude that ‘creation’ refers to the specific creation of a concrete thing such as the earth or this universe whereas ‘emanation’ refers to the formal principle, essence which has always existed as a potential available for actualization. After all, a Creator requires a creation but nothing says this creation must be material. In short, there is no contradiction between the two Teachings because one refers to the order of specific matter and time, whereas the other refers to the order of potential and form.

 

5.6) Essences

 

            Not only do Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings analyze the world in terms of substances and attributes, they also use the concept of ‘essence’ and accept essences as real. Controversial though it may be in the current philosophical climate, the bottom line is that the Baha’i Writings espouse a form of essentialism, a fact that comes as no surprise given its adherence to a realist epistemology and metaphysic. Because even the most cursory reading of such Aristotelian works as MetaphysicsPhysics and On the Soul, or any basic exposition of his works reveals the centrality of ‘essence’ to his thought, I will not needlessly lengthen our study by expounding on this subject. More to our purpose is to see how the concept of essence appears in the Baha’i Writings, for here, too, it plays a key role since everything, including God, is said to have an essence. 

 

            The Baha’i Writings use the term ‘essence’ in a variety of contexts and to express a variety of ideas but none of them stray from the fundamental Aristotelian meaning of (a) the attributes needed for a substance to be the kind of substance it is; (b) the defining or characteristic nature of a thing and (c) the capacities or potentials inherent in a thing; (d) the final cause of a thing’ (e) the formal cause of a thing and (f) substance and (g) the form of a thing and (h) actuality and (i) culmination.290 These various usages, differing in what aspect of the concept of ‘essence’ they emphasize, are related insofar as they all refer to those attributes, potential or actual, which make a thing the kind of and particular thing it is. Everything we can discuss has an essence which we can know insofar as human beings have the capacity to know it.

 

There seems to be little question that the Baha’i  Writings see all things endowed with an essence as described by Aristotle. In The Kitab-i-Iqan Baha’u’llah tells us that  “the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing [is] a door of knowledge.”291In Gleanings, Baha’u’llah states that “it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God.”292 In this quotation, the essence or “inmost reality”293 of a thing is defined by its capacity or potentiality to “testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God.”294 The concept of essence as capacity is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s basic position. The Writings specifically mention that each of the following has an essence: God 295; the human soul296; humankind297; belief in Divine Unity298; justice299; “all created things”300 beauty301; species of living things302; truth303; religion304; “this new age”305; and the spirit.306 On the basis of such a wide array of references to ‘essence’ it is, in my view, safe to say that the existence of essences is an important point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i  Writings. Indeed, these references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realize that such phrases as “inmost reality”307; “the realities of”308 ; “reality of”309; “inner reality”310, and “inner realities”311 also refer to the essence of things. This connection is further emphasized by the parallel usage seen in the references to the “inmost essence”312 of things.

 

In addition to being pervasive, the terms ‘essence’ and “inmost reality” are used in a manner that is not only consistent with but also combines several, if not all, of Aristotle’s usages into one. Take, for example, the following statement:

 

 (1) Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. (2) Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self . . . (3) These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.313

                                                                      

 

In these statements we can detect all of Aristotle’s uses of the term ‘essence’. The first statement shows the term being used as a reference to (a) the non-accidental attributes of a thing or substance and (b) its defining characteristic and therefore, (c) its form as well as (d) the formal cause of that substance. Because the formal cause requires (e) a final cause, we can say that the latter is included by logical implication. In the second statement, which is really a re-statement of the first with particular focus on humankind, we can detect the additional sense of ‘essence’ as actuality and culmination, that is, the emphasis on the undeniable existence of humankind as the culminating point of phenomenal reality. Finally, in the third statement, we see ‘essence’ – the attributes of God which are also “energies”314 – portrayed as potentials or potencies “latent”315 in us and are waiting to be moved from “from potentiality into actuality.”316 We could also repeat this analysis for Baha’u’llah’s statement that “[f]rom that which hath been said it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God”317 where we especially notice the attention drawn to “inmost reality”318 as “capacity” 319 or potential (which is another key Aristotelian term) as well as to how the phrase “[e]ach according to its capacity.”320 shows capacity or essential potential defining a thing as the kind of thing it is. 

 

In light of what we have learned, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the Baha’i Writings espouse some form of essentialism, although at this point, the exact nature of this essentialism requires further study and exploration. This conclusion is also supported, as we shall see, by Baha’i and Aristotelian ethics. Given the already noted division of nature into the mineral, vegetable, animal, human and supernatural realms, it cannot be denied that the Baha’i world picture divides phenomenal creation into kinds, each with their essential endowments of God’s attributes and consequently, natural and appropriate behaviors. These kinds are further divided into individuals who are or are not appropriate exemplars of their kind.

 

5.7) Essences and Epistemology

 

According to Aristotle321 what we know of a thing is its universal form, its universal essence or “formula”322 to use Aristotle’s example,  we recognize the form of ‘circular’ in a particular bronze circle but we must recall that while there is a formula for a circle and a formula for bronze, there is no formula or definition for this particular bronze circle. It is only recognized by the aid of “intuitive thinking or of perception.”323 As he writes, “It is not possible to define any thing, for definition is of the universal and of the form.”324 This formula or definition is known by the attributes manifested by specific examples but the particular itself is not known in and as itself: “matter is unknowable in itself.”325 This position does not differ significantly from what Abdu’l-Baha means when he says,

 

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing, and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities, otherwise it is unknown and hidden.326

                       

Not only does this passage show yet again that attributes are real and provide real knowledge, but it also tells us that the essence of a particular thing is not completely known. In other words, all human knowledge is about universals and forms, but cannot extend to the knowledge of the essence of a particular thing. As Aristotle says, “there is neither definition of nor demonstration about sensible, individual substances.”327 Aristotle relegates the knowledge of particulars to “opinion”328 and, although he does not explicitly say so, he, like the Baha’i Writings, would have to admit that only God is capable of knowing particulars in-themselves, that is, the individual essence, or what Duns Scotus called the “haecceitas”.

 

However, this cannot logically be taken to mean that the knowledge we obtain from the attributes and qualities is (a) false or (b) inadequate for our phenomenal purposes or (c) arbitrary fictions or (d) absolutely relative. In other words, while the Baha’i world picture is divided in two, with a noumenal realm known only to God and phenomenal realm known to us via attributes and qualities, this somewhat Kantian aspect of the Writings does not undermine the adequacy or correctness of our knowledge for the phenomenal realm and of universals. If it did, it would undermine science, which is a knowledge of universals in contrast to art which provides intuition of particulars. There is simply no logical reason to lead the Writings into relativistic wastelands seen in the work of some contemporary philosophers. Instead, the limitations on our knowledge lay the foundation for a rational argument for the necessity of revelation.

 

5.8) Potential

 

            Another aspect of substance, ultimately related to essence329, is potential. The word ‘potential’ does not refer to a mysterious little hidden ‘thingy’, but rather to the fact that only a certain number of transformations can be made in a substance without destroying it as the substance it is.  One can use a raincoat as a blanket, a book as an eye-shade and, with some manual dexterity, a rose as a drinking cup: these are potentials that each of them has. However, no amount of effort transforms a raincoat into a 800 pound gorilla, an book into a water-well or a rose into a telephone. They simply lack the potential for that. In many ways, essences are simply a ‘cluster’ of potentials that define a kind and / or an individual. As something changes or evolves – either moved internally or externally – its potentials are actualized or realized, that is, its potentials are revealed and manifested. A rosebud blossoms to produce as beautiful fragrance; of their own nature, a raincoat and essay do not.

 

 Now is also a good time to notice that raincoats, books and roses have different forms: in fact, each of them is matter that has been given a certain form that allows it to be and do certain things. All substances are composed of matter and form which are not the same: the matter in the raincoat could have been given the form of an umbrella, the words in the book arranged into a long metaphysical poem and the rose could have formed another kind of flower. Like two sides of a coin, matter and form are distinct, but not separable: all matter has form but which particular form it receives can vary. Matter also imposes potential limits on what forms can be adopted: sheet metal cannot accept the form to become light bulbs or rodeo bulls.

 

5.9) Essences and Potentials

 

In previous discussions, we have seen the close connection between essence and the concept of potentials. This connection is made even closer when we realize that an essence can also be defined as the collection of potentials that distinguish a particular kind and / or individual from other kinds and / or individuals. Humanity, for example, is endowed with and essentially defined by its rational and spiritual capacities both as an individual and as a species or kind. We must also bear in mind that potentials (and essences) are not little entities hidden in a substance like raisins in a bun. Rather they are (a) the ability or power to initiate or stop change in oneself or another330 or (b) the ability to change into or be changed into something else or be acted upon.331 To make use of the old proverb, a sow’s ear lacks the potential to be changed into a silk purse. The lack of a particular potential or potency is a “privation.”332 All created things suffer or exhibit absolute “privation” vis a vis God, and for this reason may be properly described as “utter nothingness.”333 This understanding allows a logical resolution to the apparent contradiction between Baha’u’llah’s statement that we come from “utter nothingness” 334 and Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that nothing can come from absolute nothingness.335 As the context makes clear, Baha’u’llah’s statements are in relation to “privation” or our ‘privative natures’ vis a vis God whereas Abdu’l-Baha’s assertions refer to substance and positive potentials or capacity. No logical contradiction exists because the statements are about different subjects. The concept of potentials also provides us with a rational interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s statement that copper can be turned into gold and vice versa. 336 The language of this passage, for example, “lieth hidden”337, “possible”338 and “can be turned”339, clearly indicates this statement is about potentials or capacities, which makes it a statement of scientific fact.  

 

The belief that potentials or capacities define us essentially is plain when Abdu’l-Baha says that “although capacities are not the same, every member of the human race is capable of education.”340 This asserts that we share individually different portions of the general species capacity to learn. In both Aristotle and the Writings, these capacities are sometimes also portrayed as powers or abilities to act or be acted on.341 The connection between capacities, or potentials and powers is plainly evident in the following quotation:

 

The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature's ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism.342

                                               

As we can see, potentials are the powers or abilities that humankind possesses, indeed, are the unique, that is, necessary characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of creation. However, we must be careful to note that although the word ‘potential’, ‘power’, ‘potency’ and ‘potencies’ are used pervasively throughout the Writings, not all usages of the latter two refer to potentials. For example, the description of God as “He, verily, through the potency of His name, the Mighty”343 does not use ‘potency’ in the sense of ‘potential’ but rather in the sense of an existing power. As a matter of fact, reading it as ‘potential’ would lead to the serious theological error of ascribing potentials, that is, unactualized powers or attributes to God, and, thereby characterizing the Divine as imperfect. We must, therefore, be careful to distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian uses of these terms. There are three other terms by which to explore the subject of potentials in the Writings: the first is ‘latent’, which is pervasively used.344 The second is “hidden” which is found in a similarly wide range of Baha’i texts referring to the concept of hidden – that is, potentially revealed or realized – qualities and their manifestation either through divine revelation, through natural processes or through human activity.345 The third is ‘realize’ which, when used philosophically instead of as a term for ‘to understand suddenly’, refers to the process by which the hidden or potential is made real, comes to fruition or is revealed in the world of being.346

            The importance of the concept of potentials for Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings can hardly be over-stated especially in an age in which the topic of change, and especially evolutionary change, is so hotly debated.  Both Aristotle’s and the Writing’s entire vision of change and development depend on his belief that change – be it locomotion, increase, growth or decay is the actualizing or realizing of hitherto invisible, hidden potentials. For this reason, they share a common understanding of evolution which is not seen as the alteration of one species into another but rather the successive actualization of hidden, unrealized potentials. This allows both to argue that each species is a specific and original complex of potentials that were always available or hidden in creation and that what appears to be the transformation of one species into another is really the actualization of hitherto hidden potentials.

 

            (Among the alleged common ancestors of human and ape, outward similarities notwithstanding, only one group had the potential to manifest a rational soul. This group must have had this potential from the beginning because the concept of potentials leading to new potentials involves an infinite regress and is, thereby, logically untenable. Here’s why. Either an organism has the potential to manifest rationality, or it does not. If it does not, it needs to acquire this potential (1) but to get this potential (1), it must first get the potential (2) to get the potential (1), and then, in turn it needs to acquire potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1) and so on . . . If  the organism turns out to already possess potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1), then the organism is obviously part of the distinct human line.)

 

Thus, it is inaccurate to say that Aristotle and the Writings deny evolution. Rather, they re-interpret the same data used by all anthropologists in terms of potentiality and conclude that all evolution is the actualization or manifestation of previously hidden potentials. They disagree with current scientific views but they are not out of harmony with science because there is sound logical reasoning about potentials underlying their views. 

 

5.10) Essence and Existence

 

The distinction between potential and actualization provides yet another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings, namely the distinction between essence and existence. As already noted, for Aristotle, the essence may be seen as the potentiality of a thing: the identity of a hammer, for example, is constituted by all its potential uses that determine it can be employed as a prop to hold up a shelf of books as well as melted down to make a steel plate and cup but not as a guard dog. Our actions are required to bring the hammer’s various potentials into actuality, that is, to bring them into existence. In other words, for Aristotle, existence is actualization: bringing something into existence means actualizing a potential. The same is true in the Baha’i Writings where we are brought into existence, that is, are actualized or manifest from mere potentialities which are actualized when the right combination of elements occurs. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha asks, “Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created?”347 The word “created”348 here must be read as meaning ‘actualized’, ‘brought into appearance’ or ‘manifest’ because if we read it as meaning  ‘brought into existence from absolute nothing’, then Abdu’l-Baha would be contradicting his own statements that

 

existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.349

 

Thus, for the Writings, as for Aristotle, to exist means to be actualized or to be manifest: we do not really exist before the point of actualization although the potential for us exists because , according to Abdu’l-Baha, we cannot come into existence from absolute nothing. Consequently,  it follows that things do not come into manifest existence merely because they have an essence, that is, merely because there is a potential for them to come into existence. Existence does not necessarily or automatically follow from one’s potential for existing. It must be provided by a special act – in Aristotle, the continued action of the Unmoved Mover, and, in the Baha’i case, the voluntary act of God Who chooses which potentials to actualize. In other words, for a potential to come into existence requires an act from an entity that already exists and is, thereby, able to take action which is something only existing entities can do. In the Baha’i view, this ‘entity’ is ultimately God, Who actualizes or provides existence to all things other than Himself. Only God exists by virtue of His own nature, that is, only in God are essence / potential and actualized existence one and the same. In short, it is not only God’s nature to exist but also to exist as a perfectly actualized Being. 

 

            The distinction between essence / potential and existence is of supreme philosophical importance for both Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings because it is the foundation for a Baha’i existentialism. The core of existential philosophies is the belief that ‘existence’ precedes essence’, although the meaning of this statement is variously interpreted. In all cases, however, existence is a result of a distinct act, and theistic and atheistic existentialisms diverge on the issue of whether God or the individual is ultimately responsible for this act. A Baha’i existentialism would, in a sense, have it both ways. As in theistic forms of existentialism, God is ultimately responsible for the act that manifests a potential in the world, and, as in atheistic existentialism, it is the individual who creates his or her own ‘voluntary self’ by choosing which potentials to actualize in this life. Indeed, the whole notion of our lives being a process of actualizing potentials leads us closer to the form of existentialism developed above all by Martin Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel, although it bears affinities to Sartre’s existentialism as well.

 

            Although this issue is explored more fully in my paper “The Call to Being: Introduction to a Baha’i Existentialism”, it is worthwhile to digress for a moment to make a few salient points to demonstrate the versatility of the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. It is in my view, preciseyt this versatility which led Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to retain whatever was useful in Aristotle as the substratum of the Writings. For example, if our lives are a process of actualizing our potential selves, certain consequences are unavoidable. Our lives are matters of perpetual choice among possibilities – often based on little more than faith – in a world in which we face the challenges of trying to relate to a God Who is essentially unknowable, as well as a world made up of things whose essences we cannot know directly. We live, and choose, in a world of essential mystery. Moreover, it also becomes evident that we are never completely ourselves which means that self-alienation and estrangement, wonder, and mystery are inherently structured into our being. We are, since the Writings assert the existence of an after-life of perpetual development and evolution, ladies and gentlemen ‘in waiting’, and therefore, not surprisingly, prone to ‘angst’ about our choices and their consequences. We are Marcel’s “homo viator”, for ever in transit, for whom every moment is simultaneously an arrival and departure and our only ‘rest’ is the journey itself. Moreover, we are intrinsically dissatisfied because we are, and never can be, never fully and completely ourselves. We are is locked in a constant struggle to become – or to avoid becoming – what we are not and our ‘nothingness’ always haunts us. Indeed, we can become so overwhelmed by this struggle that we give up, act in ‘bad faith’, lose our individual being in the anonymity of the crowd and adopt a collective rather than true-to-ourselves, personal identity. Then, we face the challenge of hearing the ‘call to being’ and finding the power to answer it.  We are always ‘in a situation’ and ‘in a world’; we are concrete real beings, not abstract concepts, whose moods and attitudes present the world and others to us in various ways and condition our ‘modes of being’. Finally, the Writing’s emphasis on the process of actualization and on our individual and social evolution to overcome ourselves to help establish a more highly evolved form of humankind has clearly Nietzschean overtones worthy of exploration. Readers even passingly familiar with existential thought will recognize both the existential themes as well as authors alluded to in this paragraph.

 

            It may be objected that the Writings and Aristotle cannot be essentialist and existentialist at the same time. However, this objection does not hold because of the individual’s free will to choose which of his human and personal potentials to actualize, when, where, how and why. Aristotelian essentialism does not do away with choice; it is not a form ethical determinism. What the Aristotelian insights confirmed by the Writings do is to provide an outline of the nature and structure of being and specifically human being, a project in which they are not fundamentally different than Being and TimeBeing and Nothingness and The Mystery Of Being. (Even Sartre who is most allergic to any suggestions of a general ‘human nature’ still recognizes, and thereby contradicts himself by reserving for humankind the specific character of “pour-soi” as distinguished from everything else which is “en-soi”.)  A Baha’i existentialism explores how we personally experience the nature and structure of human be-ing, and what this experience means for us as individuals in the world.

 

5.11) Substance-Attribute Ontology

 

Closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of substance is the concept of attributes since substances can only be known by the attributes they possess, a crucial fact explicitly stated in the Baha’i Writings: “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes.”350 This also applies to our knowledge of God:

 

“Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?”351

 

This issue is of far-reaching philosophical importance because it shows that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle both share a substance-attribute analysis of existence or a substance-attribute ontology and this, in turn, limits the kind of metaphysics and epistemologies to which they can be logically allied. This is clearly evident from even a cursory examination of Abdu’l-Baha’s preceding quotations in which there are three points worthy of note. First, the properties are “their”352 properties; they belong to a particular created substance and are clearly not arbitrary human constructs or ‘fictions’ imposed on them by the perceivers. The properties of substances are not necessarily human impositions. Second, phenomenal things are known to us through their attributes, from which it follows logically that these attributes provide real – albeit, as seen above, limited – knowledge. However limited it may be, such knowledge is still real knowledge about the substance possessing or manifesting the attributes. Third, this knowledge comes to us directly from the substances by means of their attributes or properties which we perceive. Such is precisely the import of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “the mind is connected with the acquisition of knowledge, like images reflected in a mirror.”353 In other words, the mind perceives or reflects these attributes directly and immediately just a mirror directly and immediately reflects whatever it faces.354 Just as humankind reflects the divine perfections355, so the mind reflects the real attributes of the substances around it.

 


3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.175 This constitutes a radical division or differentiation within nature though it does not, of course, deny the oneness of the overall system of reality. Furthermore, according to the Writings, things differ in their capacity to reflect the divine Names or bounties176 and those differences of degree are real, essential and permanent.177 Just as we can never evolve into gods, so stones can never evolve into humans; these stations are fixed because “inequality in degree and capacity is a property of nature.”178 These inequalities and differences are real because they are divinely ordained as part of God’s system. Nor can they be crossed.179 The issue can, of course, be explained using Aristotelian terminology: there are many kinds of unity – unity of matter or material, unity of substance or essence, unity of form, unity of purpose, unity of logical relationship such as dependence and so on. “The organization of God”180, the single divine system 181 has a formal and purposive unitywhich is different from and must not be confused with as a material and / or substantial unity. Because all things are unified does not mean they are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the dualism of mind-soul-spirit and physical body does not contradict the organizational or systematic unity of creation.

 


3.5) The Body / Soul Connection

 

Given their distinctness, it is natural to ask how body and soul are connected. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the mediator between the outer, bodily senses and our inner mental senses such as memory and imagination is the “common faculty” which “communicates between the outward and inward powers and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.”182 Aristotle’s views on this matter are not directly addressed to the mind / body issue as we understand it now, so we must infer his views from other writings to related topics. For example, he mentions the “common sense”183 that allows the presentation of events perceived outwardly to be recollected inwardly. In effect, this “common sense” mediates between the physical senses or the body and the intellectual senses or the remembering mind. He also sees it as deriving general, that is, abstract ideas from the physical data supplied by the senses. Here too it operates as a mediator between body and mind.184 He does not, however, consider it a separate sixth sense.

 

In continuing to explore the subject of how the soul is related to the body, we must be sure to divest ourselves of the notion that the soul somehow resides inside the body like a seed in a pot. Neither Aristotle nor the Baha’i Writings see the soul as a ‘foreign entity’ that somehow enters the body. As Abdu’l-Baha tells us, “the rational soul, meaning the human spirit, does not descend into the body--that is to say, it does not enter it, for descent and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is exempt from this. The spirit never entered this body.”185 Aristotle holds a similar view, criticizing as “absurdity”186 those theories that would “join the soul to a body, or place it in a body.”187 This, of course, leaves us with the question of the soul’s relationship to the body, a relationship described by Abdu’l-Baha as follows resembling the relationship of light to a mirror: “When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear.”188

 

            What, then, is the precise relationship of the soul or spirit to the body according to Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings? We must bear in mind that both provide a philosophical answer, that is, formal answers or answers in principle, rather than specific physical or bio-chemical explanations for which we will have to look elsewhere. If we analyze Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor of the mirror and the light, we find that, in Aristotelian language, the issue is relatively straightforward: the soul is formally or virtually but not substantially present in the body just as the sun is formally but not substantially present in the mirror. The sun enlightens the mirror just as – to use Aristotle’s analogy189  – the impression of the signet ring in-forms or provides form to the wax. In other words, the sun itself is never in the mirror but its image, its form or virtual presence is there as long as the mirror is capable of reflecting it. When the mirror breaks, the sun does not disappear anymore than the signet ring is destroyed when the wax melts. In Aristotelian language, we would say that the soul in-forms matter to the degree that matter is capable of receiving that form.  

 

            Several things are clear at this point. First, in these analogies, neither the sun nor the signet ring depends on something else for its existence whereas the reverse is certainly the case. Second, light is the intermediary between the sun and the mirror, an observation similar to Aristotle’s belief that the soul enlightens or provides light for the active intellect (mind) to perceive, abstract and discriminate. Third, both light source and its emanated light surround the mirror, just as, according to Abdu’l-Baha, the “spirit surrounds the body”190 without being physically present in it. Aristotle would agree with at least the latter part of this statement.

 

4) Epistemology: Mind and Brain

 

Another important similarity between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings is the clear distinction between the non-material mind and its physical organ, the brain. The two work together but are not the same. For his part, Aristotle calls the mind “the place of forms”191 and even “the form of forms”192 which is “capable of receiving the forms of an object.”193 In other words, the mind is not a physical thing, or, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing.”194 Because it is itself not sensible195, the mind does not work with sensible realities, that is, actual substances, but rather with forms, or what Abdu’l-Baha calls “symbols”196 of outward things. Instead, the mind perceives forms, picturing to itself as forms various perceptions and intellectual realities197  such as love, God, goodness and other qualities. In a discussion of epistemology, he says, “The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual – that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses.”198  The Aristotelian term for a phenomenal reality that is not sensible is ‘form’, so here too we find endorsement for the Aristotelian concept of the mind working with forms. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha interprets this capacity to work with forms as a sign of the mind’s super-natural nature:

 

The spirit of man, however, can manifest itself in all forms at the same time. For example, we say that a material body is either square or spherical, triangular or hexagonal. While it is triangular, it cannot be square; and while it is square, it is not triangular. Similarly, it cannot be spherical and hexagonal at the same time . . . But the human spirit in itself contains all these forms, shapes and figures . . . As an evidence of this, at the present moment in the human spirit you have the shape of a square and the figure of a triangle. Simultaneously also you can conceive a hexagonal form. All these can be conceived at the same moment in the human spirit, and not one of them needs to be destroyed or broken in order that the spirit of man may be transferred to another.199

                                   

At this point it need only be added that the belief that the human spirit or mind can take in by perception or imagine and contain the forms of things is one of the center-pieces of Aristotelian philosophical and cognitive psychology whose outlines are visible in Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks here and elsewhere.

 


4.1) Reality is Discovered not Constructed

 

The similarities between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings in regards to epistemological matters do not end here. Perhaps most significant and far-reaching is their agreement that the mind or spirit discovers and does not create either spiritual or material realities. Baha’u’llah writes, “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.200 Elsewhere He writes that the divine “gift of understanding”201 “giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”202  Nowhere does Baha’u’llah state or even suggest that humankind creates or constructs reality. Indeed, if they create anything like reality it tends to be things like the “thick clouds203 of “idle fancies and vain imaginings.204 Baha’u’llah uses the latter phrase throughout His Writings to refer to those who refuse to see the truth about Him and prefer their own imaginative constructions. Significantly, He accounts them with “the lost in the Book of God.”205 In a similar vein, He exhorts the Persian people to “come forth to discover the Truth which hath dawned from the Day-Star of Truth”206 about the new Manifestation of God. Abdu’l-Baha’s statements consistently support the contention that human beings discover – and do not construct – truths about the spiritual and material realms. Indeed, humankind is distinct from the rest of nature and animals because it possesses “the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles”207, an idea that is widely scattered throughout the Writings in a wide variety of contexts. He also informs us that “When we carefully investigate the kingdoms of existence and observe the phenomena of the universe about us, we discover the absolute order and perfection of creation.”208

 

The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.209

                       

Furthermore, God has endowed humankind “with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.”210 Aristotle, of course, holds the same views, so much so that the whole notion of the human ‘construction’ of reality is found nowhere in his works. The Metaphysics begins with his reflections on past efforts to find the truth about reality, and their various inadequacies; the Psychology and various other books explore how the senses and the soul work to perceive and discover the nature of the surrounding world.

 


4.2) Epistemological Realism and Correspondence Theory of Truth

 

From this we can conclude that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle agree on several key epistemological issues subject to vociferous contemporary debate: first, that natural reality is objectively real and does not depend on human observers for its existence; second, that reality and its laws are given by God, not constructed, and that we must work with what is given; and third, that truth is the correspondence between reality and our interpretation of it, or, put otherwise, that reality and our interpretation of it are two distinct things and that we must test our interpretations against reality to discover whether or not they are in agreement. From this follows that reality is discovered and that there is such a thing as error, that is, an erroneous or inadequate understanding of reality that can be cured by abandoning it in order to change from ignorant to more knowledgeable. In other words, the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle share a realist epistemology.211 Without these premises, the entire Aristotelian and Baha’i enterprises would collapse, most especially the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation which presumes increasingly adequate comprehension of various truths. Finally, the belief that properties are real makes the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle incompatible with nominalism, that is, the belief that properties are either arbitrary human selections or outright impositions only externally related to their objects and that essences are fictitious. (See Aristotle’s refutation of the underlying logic of nominalism in Metaphysics, VII, 12.) For its part, realism holds that the relationship between attributes and substance is internal, that is, inherent and intrinsic and that essences are natural and real. 

 

The fact that for Aristotle the forms, essences or universals do not exist in a separate world or “Kingdom of Names”212 must not under any circumstances be interpreted to mean that for him these forms or essences are any less real than for Plato, the neo-Platonists and the Writings. No less than Plato, Aristotle is a realist, that is, believes that essences or forms are absolutely real and not mere human constructs. Moreover, the universals we abstract from particular things correspond to absolute realities; they are emphatically not arbitrary creations or selections. For this reason, the most we may conclude is that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is not whether or not the original essences or forms exist, but rather about where and how they exist – in a separate world, “Kingdom”213 or mind – or exemplified or instantiated in particular things. From this it follows that Aristotle cannot be presented as a nominalist without doing violence to his metaphysic and epistemology; his view, says renowned Aristotle scholar W. D. Ross, “is not that the object is constituted by thought.”214 Indeed, he is an “extreme realist allowing for no modification, still less construction of the object by the mind.”215 Even in regards to the universal that is abstracted from particulars, Ross says “the universal is always for Aristotle something which though perfectly real and objective has no separate existence."216 This means that we cannot divide the Baha’i Writings from Aristotle on the issue of the reality of forms or essences as Keven Brown seems tempted to do in Evolution and Baha’i Belief.217

 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that anything other than a realist, correspondence theory of truth would render numerous passages in the Writings meaningless. If reality were not objectively given and all constructions equally adequate or valid, Baha’u’llah could not lament that He “fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously.”218 These physicians are ignorant precisely because they have constructed reality to fit their “personal desires”219 and thus “erred grievously.”220 Abdu’l-Baha could neither tell us that an “ignorant man by learning becomes knowing, and the world of savagery, through the bounty of a wise educator, is changed into a civilized kingdom.”221 nor that the soul’s journey is necessary in order to acquire divine knowledge”222 to overcome our “lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.”223 Manifestations could not provide humankind with the “science of reality.”224 Without the existence of objective truth about reality, we could not be transformed from “the ignorant of mankind into the knowing”225; it would make no sense for Abdu’l-Baha to say that “the ignorant must be educated.”226 Indeed, the whole Baha’i concept of evolution to further knowledge and understanding both in this world and the next would be moot. 

 

Aristotle’s and the Writing’s agreement about the discovery (not construction) of reality and the correspondence theory of truth is bound to be a controversial issue in our times when theories about the ‘construction’ of reality abound. It is, therefore, necessary to explain in somewhat greater detail what Aristotle and the Writings mean. In a nutshell, the issue stands as follows: we all discover the same basic reality but construct different interpretations of it. However, these interpretations or constructions are constrained by the nature of what they are interpreting. For example, we may understand fire in various ways from the specific chemistry of combustion to a manifestation of divine power but what no interpretation can deny is that fire is hot and will burn human flesh unless counter-measures are taken. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.”227 How we interpret those “realities”228 may differ but all recognize the reality of fire’s power to inflict severe damage on human flesh. In other words, in considering this issue, we must, as precisely as possible, distinguish between what is perceived and what is interpreted, that is, we must distinguish between metaphysics and epistemology and hermeneutics. Here is another example. In progressive revelation, the Writings expect all to accept the fact or reality of Christ as a Manifestation of God but also they expect us to understand or interpret what this fact means in different ways at different times in history. As we can see, the doctrine of progressive revelation logically depends on the mind’s ability to distinguish real and objective fact from interpretation. Indeed, the Writings go even further because they explicitly condemn some interpretations as erroneous, as being “the dust of vain imaginings and the smoke of idle fancy”229, that is, misinterpretations due to the distortions of the ego and our lower animal natures.  Here too, the Writings implicitly expect us not only to distinguish real fact from constructed interpretation but also to distinguish between constructions that are appropriate and inappropriate for the age in which we live. This idea is also presented in the image of the sun’s light or reality being diminished or distorted by the dust on the mirror: “The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror.”230 The fact is that the mirror can be cleansed.231 Not only does Abdu’l-Baha support this but he also makes it clear that not all mirrors are equal in this regard: “The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world.232

 

4.3) The Reality of Attributes

 

 If attributes were not real, did not inhere in their substances and were not essential, how are we understand Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that the “names and attributes of Divinity are eternal and not accidental?233 Obviously the attributes of Divinity are not merely human constructs. If they were, why bother to strive to live up to Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “The soul that excels in attainment of His attributes and graces is most acceptable before God?234 What could the phrase “His attributes”235 even mean? Indeed, if attributes and properties are not real, then there is no rationale for God’s creation since, as Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world.”236 Furthermore, the whole of Baha’u’llah’s salvational project would be useless if properties were not real and did not provide real knowledge because of the Noonday Prayer’s assertion that we were created “to know [God] and to worship [Him]” would be rendered meaningless. If attributes are only human selections or impositions, are not inherent and do not provide real knowledge about things, they could only teach us, at most, about ourselves and our own modus operandi. This would effectively leave us locked in a bubble of our own perceptions and constructs. Aside from their logical weaknesses, such views simply contradict Abdu’l-Baha when he says,

 

But the question may be asked: How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration. We recognize the sun by its bounty and effulgence.237

 

Indeed, it is Baha’u’llah Himself who tells us that attributes are real when he describes God as “the Creator of all names and attributes.”238 If God created them, they are obviously real. If attributes were not real how could it be true that  “His names and His attributes, are made manifest in the world”?239 The following statement would also become senseless:

 

He must so educate the human reality that it may become the center of the divine appearance, to such a degree that the attributes and the names of God shall be resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man, and the holy verse "We will make man in Our image and likeness" shall be realized.240

                                                                         

If God had no real attributes how could they be made “resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man”?241 Indeed, if attributes are simply human fictions and impositions, they could not be attributes ‘of God’ and it would be we, the created, who are shaping the Creator and making Him in our image. Such a notion simply violates the Baha’i principle that the created cannot comprehend – let alone shape – the Creator. Believing that such is the case would indeed be to “join partners with God.”242

 

Nor should we think that it is only God Whom we know by means of attributes, for, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes”243, a fact supported by his statement that “In the human plane of existence we can say we have knowledge of a vegetable, its qualities and product.”244 If these attributes did not provide real knowledge about the object, the use of the word ‘know’ and its variations would be inappropriate. Obviously attributes are not simply human impositions but rather, actually provide knowledge about the objects or substances we are studying. As Baha’u’llah says, “This gift [“the gift of understanding”] giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”245 Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the rational soul, “the inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application.”246 Elsewhere he says, “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things”247 once again demonstrating that in the Baha’i view, humankind is capable of gaining real knowledge through an exploration of reality. The continual use of the word ‘discover’ throughout the Writings also proves that we discover what already exists independently and do not construct it.

 

5) The Analysis of Reality

 

The topic of discovering reality leads readily to the all important issue of how we analyze it to discover its truth. This subject, already touched on in our discussion of causality and the Prime Mover, makes it clear that the Writings analyze and present reality in Aristotelian terms. In other words, they present an Aristotelian vision of reality in which there are substances which have essential and non-essential attributes; in which things have essences; in which – as already shown – change is the actualization of potentials248; and in which materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. Readers may confirm for themselves the pervasive use of this Aristotelian terminology by typing them into any hyper-text edition of the Writings. They will find

that these words occur in almost every book. Of course, some of them also have a general, non-philosophical usage: ‘substance’, for example, is also employed as a synonym for ‘wealth.’249

In reviewing what follows, one must remember that the Aristotelian concepts form a coherent system of inter-dependent concepts and the use of one concept necessitates the use of at least some others.

 

However, before embarking on our survey of the Aristotelian analysis of reality, it is necessary to look briefly at the important issue of ‘standpoint epistemologies’, the notion that reality appears differently to differing points of view. All too often these are erroneously equated to relativism, the notion that all viewpoints of reality are equally true because all are ‘relative’. However, properly understood, the two are not the same and must be clearly distinguished. The Baha’i Writings and Aristotle embody a stand point epistemology but are not even slightly relativistic. The best way to grasp the difference is to imagine a jig-saw puzzle picture of Mount Fuji. A true stand-point epistemology simply asserts that there are many pieces all of which have some portion of the truth, or the mountain; whatever their differences, the pieces are ultimately rationally compatible with one another and will form a picture of the whole mountain. A relativist, on the other hand, asserts that any piece – indeed, any piece from any puzzle – makes an equally valid fit at every point on our Mount Fuji puzzle.  There is nothing in the Baha’i Writings nor in Aristotle that suggest such relativism since doing so would vitiate not just the concept of the Manifestation as a revealer of absolute truth but the entire concept of knowledge altogether. We must not be misled, as some have been by Shoghi Effendi’s statement that  “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”250 In each case where Shoghi Effendi makes this statement, the word ‘relative’ is clearly used in reference to progressive revelation not to the truth value of the essential teachings. In terms of our illustration, each Manifestation adds a piece to the puzzle but this does not even remotely suggest that the truth value of the piece is not absolute.

 

5.1) A Brief Crash Course: Substance, Attribute and Essence

 

            The primary concept in Aristotle’s analysis of reality is ‘substance’, a concept which underwent some development but never strayed far from the belief that a substance is anything which does not exist as the attribute of something else. Substances are particulars, a fact that is used by Abdu’l-Baha in explaining the return of Elias.251 Your raincoat is a substance and so is this essay. Substance, however, does not only mean ‘matter’ or what Aristotle called “sensible substances.”252 When it does, such matter forms the “substratum”253 of a thing, namely that which is given form. ‘Matter’ in Aristotle’s view is a relative term: matter is anything which potentially receives form. In the case of your raincoat, matter may be physical material but in regards to this study, the matter is the ideas expressed therein. A substance possesses attributes which identify it as the particular substance it is, raincoat, essay ,rose or idea and these attributes are called its ‘essence’ which we must distinguish from other non-essential or ‘accidental’ attributes which a thing does not require to be what it is.254 For example, weight and color are non-essential, accidental attributes in regards to the ideas in this essay. However, being water-proof is an essential attribute to raincoats. Each of these three substances differs essentially. 

 

Neither essential nor accidental attributes can exist by themselves as substances: no one has ever seen ‘red’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘crumpled’ by themselves because they depend on substances to be real. Roughly speaking, Aristotle uses ‘substance’ in four different ways, as “sensible substance” or physical matter that receives form and is, therefore, a composite; as “non-sensible substance” or spirit, or soul that provides form; as a general reference to any particular thing which does not exist as an attribute of something else; and finally, as the form, essence or actuality of a thing.255 The difference among the latter three terms is one of nuance and emphasis. ‘Form’ emphasizes the structure of a substance; ‘essence’ emphasizes its necessary attributes and ‘actuality’ emphasizes the typical or culminating actions of a thing. Like the Baha’i Writings, Aristotle identifies humankind as the highest substance in the phenomenal realm.256

 

5.2) God as a Substance

 

Let us now analyze the concept of substance as used in Aristotle and the Writings in greater depth. Both use the term in two distinct ways: as “sensible substance or matter in the ordinary sense and as something which does not exist as an attribute. There are also non-sensible substances257 of which Aristotle recognizes, above all, God, the Unmoved Mover. Significantly enough, this is exactly the Baha’i position. For example, speaking about the Manifestations, Baha’u’llah tells us,

 

Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. 258

             

In this passage we first notice that, as with Aristotle, the “physical”259 is clearly distinguished from the “substance”260, in this case, God’s substance. This establishes that the physical and the substantial are not the same and that God is a non-physical or non-sensible substance. If substance were understood materialistically, this statement would suggest that God has a material substance, a notion flatly incompatible with the Baha’i Teachings for that would render God susceptible to change261 and make the Divine a composite of matter and form. However, understood in an Aristotelian fashion, this passage presents no philosophical difficulties. God is the supreme substance, the only entity which absolutely exists and can in no wise be seen as an attribute of something else. He is also the supreme actuality insofar as God has no potentials left to be actualized. That is precisely what makes the Divine inaccessible to us.

 

Furthermore, this passage tells us that spiritually, the Manifestation is an immediate emanation from God, and is formally, though not substantially identical with the Divine. This reading, based on Aristotle’s terminology, is confirmed in the immediately following sentences which state, "He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: ‘Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.”262 The Manifestation has formal identity with God – “I am He” 263 – but not  substantial identity with God because He is “born of the substance of God”264 and “He is that He is’. ”265 For an Aristotelian, this relationship is rational, clear and perfectly unparadoxical: it is no different than the relationship between the original of a manuscript and a copy: the two share formal but not substantial identity and one is logically prior and is the final cause of the other. 

 

5.3) The Soul as Substance

 

            Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the nature of the immortal soul provides another example of the Aristotelian usage of ‘substance’ and related terms. 

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.266

                                                 

The first thing to notice is how the Master defines substance in proper Aristotelian fashion as something that “exists by itself”267 and not as an attribute of something else. Moreover, he refers to the soul as a non-material substance and applies this concept vis a vis the body. This is an implicit denial of any epiphenomenalist understanding of the soul, a point he emphasizes by describing the body with the Aristotelian term “accident.” 268  An ‘accident’ according to Aristotle, is an attribute that is non-essential to the existence of a thing which is why the substantial soul can live without the ‘accidental’ body. Thus, we can see at this point, how Abdu’l-Baha grounds his argument for the immortality of the soul in the concepts and definitions originally espoused by Aristotle. He explicitly states that “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”269 It is, in other words, the essence that provides the form that makes a body into a human body. Interestingly enough, Baha’u’llah applies this same concept to the Manifestation’s relationship to the world:

 

At that time, the signs of the Son of man shall appear in heaven, that is, the promised Beauty and Substance of life shall, when these signs have appeared, step forth out of the realm of the invisible into the visible world.270

 

No materialist understanding can make rational sense of the italicized phrase. However, if we apply Aristotle’s concept of substance, its meaning becomes clear: the Manifestation is the essence of life; He is That which informs matter with life itself, and is, in that sense, the world-soul. He is also the actuality, the culmination of life, that is, the highest possible example of life in the phenomenal realm.

 

5.4) Other Uses of ‘Substance’

 

The Aristotelian use of substance also allows us to perceive new levels of meaning in some of Baha’u’llah’s statements. Take, for example, the following:

 

When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? 271

 

At the first, most obvious level, this discusses our willingness to sacrifice our material wealth for the Manifestation. However, an Aristotelian reading suggests a deeper level: it expresses a willingness to sacrifice our very identity, our nature, our essence, our actuality for God’s Cause. This is the martyrdom of ontological “evanescence”272, of truly “utter abasement”273 before God. Baha’u’llah alludes to such complete and ongoing ontological martyrdom when he praises such holy souls as mullah Husayn: “They have offered, and will continue to offer up their lives, their substance, their souls, their spirit, their all, in the path of the Well-Beloved.”274 With the Aristotelian reading of ‘substance’, we see new aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom. The phrase “will continue to offer up”275 suggests that such ontological martyrdom may not be a single act but rather a way of life.

 

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the Writings never use the word ‘substance’ as a synonym for ‘material’, for such is patently not the case276, but rather that we must carefully distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian usage if we wish to avoid confusion. Take the following passage for instance: “Here we see that if attraction did not exist between the atoms, the composite substance of matter would not be possible.”277 The phrase “composite substance of matter”278 makes no sense until we recall that for Aristotle, all physical things were composites of matter which received form279 which together make them a substance or unity.280 Indeed, as seen in the following example, we find that Abdu’l-Baha fully recognizes that material things are composites of matter and form. 

 

The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother, and it is absolute perfection; but the darkness has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection. The substance of Adam's physical life was earth, but the substance of Abraham was pure sperm; it is certain that the pure and chaste sperm is superior to earth.281

                                                             

 

In the first part of this statement, ‘substance’ is meant as ‘sensible substance’ or common matter which, in order to be anything must receive form. He denies the reality of darkness because in the phenomenal world, nothing that lacks substance and form is real. However, in what follows, the meaning of ‘substance’ begins to shift in an Aristotelian direction. The substance of Adam, that is, his sensible substance as well as his being as a non-attribute, is connected to the earth, whereas the substance of Abraham, a Manifestation, is “pure sperm.” Unless we read them with the Aristotelian substratum of the Writings in mind, such statements could intellectually embarrass a modern believer. However, the meaning becomes clear when we recall that for Aristotle, sperm provided the form and that for Abraham in His divine station, that form is provided by God with whom He shares a formal, though not substantial identity. This divine form is obviously superior to the sensible matter of the earth. Lest anyone quarrel too harshly with Aristotle about sperm providing form, let us recall that sperm decides whether an infant is male or female, that is, in that regard, the formative principle. 

 

Here is another example of Abdu’l-Baha’s use of substance in Aristotelian fashion:

Know that the Reality of Divinity or the substance of the Essence of Oneness is pure sanctity and absolute holiness--that is to say, it is sanctified and exempt from all praise.282

 

‘Substance’ is certainly not being used as “sensible substance” or matter, for

that would render the passage meaningless or in complete denial of other Baha’i Teachings concerning the non-materiality of God. This passage emphasizes in the strictest philosophical manner that God, the Reality of Divinity, is a substance insofar as it is absolutely not an attribute of anything else. The “substance of the essence of Oneness”

28

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means that the very substratum or essenceof what it means to be One is totally independent and sanctified above all other things. Although this idea is not new to Baha’is, it is interesting to observe how Abdu’l-Baha explains – and thus provides the basis for a rational philosophical defense – for this belief in Aristotelian terms. 

 

5.5) Hylomorphism: Matter and Form

 

            As the foregoing passages make clear, the Writings and Aristotle284 agree on hylomorphism, that is, the belief that everything in creation is made of both matter and form, though we must bear in mind that ‘matter’ is a relative term in Aristotle insofar as it can refer to physical ‘stuff’ sometimes called “elemental”285  by Abdu’l-Baha. Most fundamental to Aristotle is the doctrine that matter is the potential to receive form. In Aristotle, the form is the active principle while matter is receptive, passive or patient, an idea Baha’u’llah expresses when He writes:

 

The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different.286

 

Two comments are in order. First, the statement that these two are the “same” 287 refers to their origin and nature as created entities while their differences refer to their action in the phenomenal world of creation. This statement should no more be read as a reductionism to spirit than as a reductionism to matter. The Baha’i Writings, like Aristotle’s thought, are examples of hylomorphism, the belief that existence is made of matter and form; therefore, neither of them can be reduced to a spiritual-idealistic or material monism. Second, in the foregoing passage, the “heat generated”288 by the imposition of form onto matter is the tension that inevitably exists between form and matter, since form is the active principle of perfection while matter is the principle of receptivity but also of inertia. This tension is part of what constitutes and most especially living things since the quest for perfection, that is, highest possible self-expression, is an integral part of their existence. Although Aristotle does not explicitly refer to such tension, it is implicit in his characterization of matter and form.

 

The distinction between matter and form also brings us back to our resolution of the apparent self-contradiction between creationism and emanationism and the associated doctrines of time. ‘Creation’ refers to the notion that God made the world like an artisan, a concept implying that the world was made at some point in time. On the other hand, emanationism suggests that the universe is eternal – which, by the way, is another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings – and, consequently, there is no creation in time. On the basis of Aristotle289, we may conclude that ‘creation’ refers to the specific creation of a concrete thing such as the earth or this universe whereas ‘emanation’ refers to the formal principle, essence which has always existed as a potential available for actualization. After all, a Creator requires a creation but nothing says this creation must be material. In short, there is no contradiction between the two Teachings because one refers to the order of specific matter and time, whereas the other refers to the order of potential and form.

 

5.6) Essences

 

            Not only do Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings analyze the world in terms of substances and attributes, they also use the concept of ‘essence’ and accept essences as real. Controversial though it may be in the current philosophical climate, the bottom line is that the Baha’i Writings espouse a form of essentialism, a fact that comes as no surprise given its adherence to a realist epistemology and metaphysic. Because even the most cursory reading of such Aristotelian works as MetaphysicsPhysics and On the Soul, or any basic exposition of his works reveals the centrality of ‘essence’ to his thought, I will not needlessly lengthen our study by expounding on this subject. More to our purpose is to see how the concept of essence appears in the Baha’i Writings, for here, too, it plays a key role since everything, including God, is said to have an essence. 

 

            The Baha’i Writings use the term ‘essence’ in a variety of contexts and to express a variety of ideas but none of them stray from the fundamental Aristotelian meaning of (a) the attributes needed for a substance to be the kind of substance it is; (b) the defining or characteristic nature of a thing and (c) the capacities or potentials inherent in a thing; (d) the final cause of a thing’ (e) the formal cause of a thing and (f) substance and (g) the form of a thing and (h) actuality and (i) culmination.290 These various usages, differing in what aspect of the concept of ‘essence’ they emphasize, are related insofar as they all refer to those attributes, potential or actual, which make a thing the kind of and particular thing it is. Everything we can discuss has an essence which we can know insofar as human beings have the capacity to know it.

 

There seems to be little question that the Baha’i  Writings see all things endowed with an essence as described by Aristotle. In The Kitab-i-Iqan Baha’u’llah tells us that  “the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing [is] a door of knowledge.”291In Gleanings, Baha’u’llah states that “it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God.”292 In this quotation, the essence or “inmost reality”293 of a thing is defined by its capacity or potentiality to “testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God.”294 The concept of essence as capacity is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s basic position. The Writings specifically mention that each of the following has an essence: God 295; the human soul296; humankind297; belief in Divine Unity298; justice299; “all created things”300 beauty301; species of living things302; truth303; religion304; “this new age”305; and the spirit.306 On the basis of such a wide array of references to ‘essence’ it is, in my view, safe to say that the existence of essences is an important point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i  Writings. Indeed, these references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realize that such phrases as “inmost reality”307; “the realities of”308 ; “reality of”309; “inner reality”310, and “inner realities”311 also refer to the essence of things. This connection is further emphasized by the parallel usage seen in the references to the “inmost essence”312 of things.

 

In addition to being pervasive, the terms ‘essence’ and “inmost reality” are used in a manner that is not only consistent with but also combines several, if not all, of Aristotle’s usages into one. Take, for example, the following statement:

 

 (1) Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. (2) Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self . . . (3) These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.313

                                                                      

 

In these statements we can detect all of Aristotle’s uses of the term ‘essence’. The first statement shows the term being used as a reference to (a) the non-accidental attributes of a thing or substance and (b) its defining characteristic and therefore, (c) its form as well as (d) the formal cause of that substance. Because the formal cause requires (e) a final cause, we can say that the latter is included by logical implication. In the second statement, which is really a re-statement of the first with particular focus on humankind, we can detect the additional sense of ‘essence’ as actuality and culmination, that is, the emphasis on the undeniable existence of humankind as the culminating point of phenomenal reality. Finally, in the third statement, we see ‘essence’ – the attributes of God which are also “energies”314 – portrayed as potentials or potencies “latent”315 in us and are waiting to be moved from “from potentiality into actuality.”316 We could also repeat this analysis for Baha’u’llah’s statement that “[f]rom that which hath been said it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God”317 where we especially notice the attention drawn to “inmost reality”318 as “capacity” 319 or potential (which is another key Aristotelian term) as well as to how the phrase “[e]ach according to its capacity.”320 shows capacity or essential potential defining a thing as the kind of thing it is. 

 

In light of what we have learned, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the Baha’i Writings espouse some form of essentialism, although at this point, the exact nature of this essentialism requires further study and exploration. This conclusion is also supported, as we shall see, by Baha’i and Aristotelian ethics. Given the already noted division of nature into the mineral, vegetable, animal, human and supernatural realms, it cannot be denied that the Baha’i world picture divides phenomenal creation into kinds, each with their essential endowments of God’s attributes and consequently, natural and appropriate behaviors. These kinds are further divided into individuals who are or are not appropriate exemplars of their kind.

 

5.7) Essences and Epistemology

 

According to Aristotle321 what we know of a thing is its universal form, its universal essence or “formula”322 to use Aristotle’s example,  we recognize the form of ‘circular’ in a particular bronze circle but we must recall that while there is a formula for a circle and a formula for bronze, there is no formula or definition for this particular bronze circle. It is only recognized by the aid of “intuitive thinking or of perception.”323 As he writes, “It is not possible to define any thing, for definition is of the universal and of the form.”324 This formula or definition is known by the attributes manifested by specific examples but the particular itself is not known in and as itself: “matter is unknowable in itself.”325 This position does not differ significantly from what Abdu’l-Baha means when he says,

 

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing, and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities, otherwise it is unknown and hidden.326

                       

Not only does this passage show yet again that attributes are real and provide real knowledge, but it also tells us that the essence of a particular thing is not completely known. In other words, all human knowledge is about universals and forms, but cannot extend to the knowledge of the essence of a particular thing. As Aristotle says, “there is neither definition of nor demonstration about sensible, individual substances.”327 Aristotle relegates the knowledge of particulars to “opinion”328 and, although he does not explicitly say so, he, like the Baha’i Writings, would have to admit that only God is capable of knowing particulars in-themselves, that is, the individual essence, or what Duns Scotus called the “haecceitas”.

 

However, this cannot logically be taken to mean that the knowledge we obtain from the attributes and qualities is (a) false or (b) inadequate for our phenomenal purposes or (c) arbitrary fictions or (d) absolutely relative. In other words, while the Baha’i world picture is divided in two, with a noumenal realm known only to God and phenomenal realm known to us via attributes and qualities, this somewhat Kantian aspect of the Writings does not undermine the adequacy or correctness of our knowledge for the phenomenal realm and of universals. If it did, it would undermine science, which is a knowledge of universals in contrast to art which provides intuition of particulars. There is simply no logical reason to lead the Writings into relativistic wastelands seen in the work of some contemporary philosophers. Instead, the limitations on our knowledge lay the foundation for a rational argument for the necessity of revelation.

 

5.8) Potential

 

            Another aspect of substance, ultimately related to essence329, is potential. The word ‘potential’ does not refer to a mysterious little hidden ‘thingy’, but rather to the fact that only a certain number of transformations can be made in a substance without destroying it as the substance it is.  One can use a raincoat as a blanket, a book as an eye-shade and, with some manual dexterity, a rose as a drinking cup: these are potentials that each of them has. However, no amount of effort transforms a raincoat into a 800 pound gorilla, an book into a water-well or a rose into a telephone. They simply lack the potential for that. In many ways, essences are simply a ‘cluster’ of potentials that define a kind and / or an individual. As something changes or evolves – either moved internally or externally – its potentials are actualized or realized, that is, its potentials are revealed and manifested. A rosebud blossoms to produce as beautiful fragrance; of their own nature, a raincoat and essay do not.

 

 Now is also a good time to notice that raincoats, books and roses have different forms: in fact, each of them is matter that has been given a certain form that allows it to be and do certain things. All substances are composed of matter and form which are not the same: the matter in the raincoat could have been given the form of an umbrella, the words in the book arranged into a long metaphysical poem and the rose could have formed another kind of flower. Like two sides of a coin, matter and form are distinct, but not separable: all matter has form but which particular form it receives can vary. Matter also imposes potential limits on what forms can be adopted: sheet metal cannot accept the form to become light bulbs or rodeo bulls.

 

5.9) Essences and Potentials

 

In previous discussions, we have seen the close connection between essence and the concept of potentials. This connection is made even closer when we realize that an essence can also be defined as the collection of potentials that distinguish a particular kind and / or individual from other kinds and / or individuals. Humanity, for example, is endowed with and essentially defined by its rational and spiritual capacities both as an individual and as a species or kind. We must also bear in mind that potentials (and essences) are not little entities hidden in a substance like raisins in a bun. Rather they are (a) the ability or power to initiate or stop change in oneself or another330 or (b) the ability to change into or be changed into something else or be acted upon.331 To make use of the old proverb, a sow’s ear lacks the potential to be changed into a silk purse. The lack of a particular potential or potency is a “privation.”332 All created things suffer or exhibit absolute “privation” vis a vis God, and for this reason may be properly described as “utter nothingness.”333 This understanding allows a logical resolution to the apparent contradiction between Baha’u’llah’s statement that we come from “utter nothingness” 334 and Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that nothing can come from absolute nothingness.335 As the context makes clear, Baha’u’llah’s statements are in relation to “privation” or our ‘privative natures’ vis a vis God whereas Abdu’l-Baha’s assertions refer to substance and positive potentials or capacity. No logical contradiction exists because the statements are about different subjects. The concept of potentials also provides us with a rational interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s statement that copper can be turned into gold and vice versa. 336 The language of this passage, for example, “lieth hidden”337, “possible”338 and “can be turned”339, clearly indicates this statement is about potentials or capacities, which makes it a statement of scientific fact.  

 

The belief that potentials or capacities define us essentially is plain when Abdu’l-Baha says that “although capacities are not the same, every member of the human race is capable of education.”340 This asserts that we share individually different portions of the general species capacity to learn. In both Aristotle and the Writings, these capacities are sometimes also portrayed as powers or abilities to act or be acted on.341 The connection between capacities, or potentials and powers is plainly evident in the following quotation:

 

The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature's ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism.342

                                               

As we can see, potentials are the powers or abilities that humankind possesses, indeed, are the unique, that is, necessary characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of creation. However, we must be careful to note that although the word ‘potential’, ‘power’, ‘potency’ and ‘potencies’ are used pervasively throughout the Writings, not all usages of the latter two refer to potentials. For example, the description of God as “He, verily, through the potency of His name, the Mighty”343 does not use ‘potency’ in the sense of ‘potential’ but rather in the sense of an existing power. As a matter of fact, reading it as ‘potential’ would lead to the serious theological error of ascribing potentials, that is, unactualized powers or attributes to God, and, thereby characterizing the Divine as imperfect. We must, therefore, be careful to distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian uses of these terms. There are three other terms by which to explore the subject of potentials in the Writings: the first is ‘latent’, which is pervasively used.344 The second is “hidden” which is found in a similarly wide range of Baha’i texts referring to the concept of hidden – that is, potentially revealed or realized – qualities and their manifestation either through divine revelation, through natural processes or through human activity.345 The third is ‘realize’ which, when used philosophically instead of as a term for ‘to understand suddenly’, refers to the process by which the hidden or potential is made real, comes to fruition or is revealed in the world of being.346

            The importance of the concept of potentials for Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings can hardly be over-stated especially in an age in which the topic of change, and especially evolutionary change, is so hotly debated.  Both Aristotle’s and the Writing’s entire vision of change and development depend on his belief that change – be it locomotion, increase, growth or decay is the actualizing or realizing of hitherto invisible, hidden potentials. For this reason, they share a common understanding of evolution which is not seen as the alteration of one species into another but rather the successive actualization of hidden, unrealized potentials. This allows both to argue that each species is a specific and original complex of potentials that were always available or hidden in creation and that what appears to be the transformation of one species into another is really the actualization of hitherto hidden potentials.

 

            (Among the alleged common ancestors of human and ape, outward similarities notwithstanding, only one group had the potential to manifest a rational soul. This group must have had this potential from the beginning because the concept of potentials leading to new potentials involves an infinite regress and is, thereby, logically untenable. Here’s why. Either an organism has the potential to manifest rationality, or it does not. If it does not, it needs to acquire this potential (1) but to get this potential (1), it must first get the potential (2) to get the potential (1), and then, in turn it needs to acquire potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1) and so on . . . If  the organism turns out to already possess potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1), then the organism is obviously part of the distinct human line.)

 

Thus, it is inaccurate to say that Aristotle and the Writings deny evolution. Rather, they re-interpret the same data used by all anthropologists in terms of potentiality and conclude that all evolution is the actualization or manifestation of previously hidden potentials. They disagree with current scientific views but they are not out of harmony with science because there is sound logical reasoning about potentials underlying their views. 

 

5.10) Essence and Existence

 

The distinction between potential and actualization provides yet another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings, namely the distinction between essence and existence. As already noted, for Aristotle, the essence may be seen as the potentiality of a thing: the identity of a hammer, for example, is constituted by all its potential uses that determine it can be employed as a prop to hold up a shelf of books as well as melted down to make a steel plate and cup but not as a guard dog. Our actions are required to bring the hammer’s various potentials into actuality, that is, to bring them into existence. In other words, for Aristotle, existence is actualization: bringing something into existence means actualizing a potential. The same is true in the Baha’i Writings where we are brought into existence, that is, are actualized or manifest from mere potentialities which are actualized when the right combination of elements occurs. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha asks, “Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created?”347 The word “created”348 here must be read as meaning ‘actualized’, ‘brought into appearance’ or ‘manifest’ because if we read it as meaning  ‘brought into existence from absolute nothing’, then Abdu’l-Baha would be contradicting his own statements that

 

existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.349

 

Thus, for the Writings, as for Aristotle, to exist means to be actualized or to be manifest: we do not really exist before the point of actualization although the potential for us exists because , according to Abdu’l-Baha, we cannot come into existence from absolute nothing. Consequently,  it follows that things do not come into manifest existence merely because they have an essence, that is, merely because there is a potential for them to come into existence. Existence does not necessarily or automatically follow from one’s potential for existing. It must be provided by a special act – in Aristotle, the continued action of the Unmoved Mover, and, in the Baha’i case, the voluntary act of God Who chooses which potentials to actualize. In other words, for a potential to come into existence requires an act from an entity that already exists and is, thereby, able to take action which is something only existing entities can do. In the Baha’i view, this ‘entity’ is ultimately God, Who actualizes or provides existence to all things other than Himself. Only God exists by virtue of His own nature, that is, only in God are essence / potential and actualized existence one and the same. In short, it is not only God’s nature to exist but also to exist as a perfectly actualized Being. 

 

            The distinction between essence / potential and existence is of supreme philosophical importance for both Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings because it is the foundation for a Baha’i existentialism. The core of existential philosophies is the belief that ‘existence’ precedes essence’, although the meaning of this statement is variously interpreted. In all cases, however, existence is a result of a distinct act, and theistic and atheistic existentialisms diverge on the issue of whether God or the individual is ultimately responsible for this act. A Baha’i existentialism would, in a sense, have it both ways. As in theistic forms of existentialism, God is ultimately responsible for the act that manifests a potential in the world, and, as in atheistic existentialism, it is the individual who creates his or her own ‘voluntary self’ by choosing which potentials to actualize in this life. Indeed, the whole notion of our lives being a process of actualizing potentials leads us closer to the form of existentialism developed above all by Martin Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel, although it bears affinities to Sartre’s existentialism as well.

 

            Although this issue is explored more fully in my paper “The Call to Being: Introduction to a Baha’i Existentialism”, it is worthwhile to digress for a moment to make a few salient points to demonstrate the versatility of the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. It is in my view, preciseyt this versatility which led Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to retain whatever was useful in Aristotle as the substratum of the Writings. For example, if our lives are a process of actualizing our potential selves, certain consequences are unavoidable. Our lives are matters of perpetual choice among possibilities – often based on little more than faith – in a world in which we face the challenges of trying to relate to a God Who is essentially unknowable, as well as a world made up of things whose essences we cannot know directly. We live, and choose, in a world of essential mystery. Moreover, it also becomes evident that we are never completely ourselves which means that self-alienation and estrangement, wonder, and mystery are inherently structured into our being. We are, since the Writings assert the existence of an after-life of perpetual development and evolution, ladies and gentlemen ‘in waiting’, and therefore, not surprisingly, prone to ‘angst’ about our choices and their consequences. We are Marcel’s “homo viator”, for ever in transit, for whom every moment is simultaneously an arrival and departure and our only ‘rest’ is the journey itself. Moreover, we are intrinsically dissatisfied because we are, and never can be, never fully and completely ourselves. We are is locked in a constant struggle to become – or to avoid becoming – what we are not and our ‘nothingness’ always haunts us. Indeed, we can become so overwhelmed by this struggle that we give up, act in ‘bad faith’, lose our individual being in the anonymity of the crowd and adopt a collective rather than true-to-ourselves, personal identity. Then, we face the challenge of hearing the ‘call to being’ and finding the power to answer it.  We are always ‘in a situation’ and ‘in a world’; we are concrete real beings, not abstract concepts, whose moods and attitudes present the world and others to us in various ways and condition our ‘modes of being’. Finally, the Writing’s emphasis on the process of actualization and on our individual and social evolution to overcome ourselves to help establish a more highly evolved form of humankind has clearly Nietzschean overtones worthy of exploration. Readers even passingly familiar with existential thought will recognize both the existential themes as well as authors alluded to in this paragraph.

 

            It may be objected that the Writings and Aristotle cannot be essentialist and existentialist at the same time. However, this objection does not hold because of the individual’s free will to choose which of his human and personal potentials to actualize, when, where, how and why. Aristotelian essentialism does not do away with choice; it is not a form ethical determinism. What the Aristotelian insights confirmed by the Writings do is to provide an outline of the nature and structure of being and specifically human being, a project in which they are not fundamentally different than Being and TimeBeing and Nothingness and The Mystery Of Being. (Even Sartre who is most allergic to any suggestions of a general ‘human nature’ still recognizes, and thereby contradicts himself by reserving for humankind the specific character of “pour-soi” as distinguished from everything else which is “en-soi”.)  A Baha’i existentialism explores how we personally experience the nature and structure of human be-ing, and what this experience means for us as individuals in the world.

 

5.11) Substance-Attribute Ontology

 

Closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of substance is the concept of attributes since substances can only be known by the attributes they possess, a crucial fact explicitly stated in the Baha’i Writings: “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes.”350 This also applies to our knowledge of God:

 

“Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?”351

 

This issue is of far-reaching philosophical importance because it shows that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle both share a substance-attribute analysis of existence or a substance-attribute ontology and this, in turn, limits the kind of metaphysics and epistemologies to which they can be logically allied. This is clearly evident from even a cursory examination of Abdu’l-Baha’s preceding quotations in which there are three points worthy of note. First, the properties are “their”352 properties; they belong to a particular created substance and are clearly not arbitrary human constructs or ‘fictions’ imposed on them by the perceivers. The properties of substances are not necessarily human impositions. Second, phenomenal things are known to us through their attributes, from which it follows logically that these attributes provide real – albeit, as seen above, limited – knowledge. However limited it may be, such knowledge is still real knowledge about the substance possessing or manifesting the attributes. Third, this knowledge comes to us directly from the substances by means of their attributes or properties which we perceive. Such is precisely the import of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “the mind is connected with the acquisition of knowledge, like images reflected in a mirror.”353 In other words, the mind perceives or reflects these attributes directly and immediately just a mirror directly and immediately reflects whatever it faces.354 Just as humankind reflects the divine perfections355, so the mind reflects the real attributes of the substances around it.

 


3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.175 This constitutes a radical division or differentiation within nature though it does not, of course, deny the oneness of the overall system of reality. Furthermore, according to the Writings, things differ in their capacity to reflect the divine Names or bounties176 and those differences of degree are real, essential and permanent.177 Just as we can never evolve into gods, so stones can never evolve into humans; these stations are fixed because “inequality in degree and capacity is a property of nature.”178 These inequalities and differences are real because they are divinely ordained as part of God’s system. Nor can they be crossed.179 The issue can, of course, be explained using Aristotelian terminology: there are many kinds of unity – unity of matter or material, unity of substance or essence, unity of form, unity of purpose, unity of logical relationship such as dependence and so on. “The organization of God”180, the single divine system 181 has a formal and purposive unitywhich is different from and must not be confused with as a material and / or substantial unity. Because all things are unified does not mean they are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the dualism of mind-soul-spirit and physical body does not contradict the organizational or systematic unity of creation.

 


3.5) The Body / Soul Connection

 

Given their distinctness, it is natural to ask how body and soul are connected. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the mediator between the outer, bodily senses and our inner mental senses such as memory and imagination is the “common faculty” which “communicates between the outward and inward powers and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.”182 Aristotle’s views on this matter are not directly addressed to the mind / body issue as we understand it now, so we must infer his views from other writings to related topics. For example, he mentions the “common sense”183 that allows the presentation of events perceived outwardly to be recollected inwardly. In effect, this “common sense” mediates between the physical senses or the body and the intellectual senses or the remembering mind. He also sees it as deriving general, that is, abstract ideas from the physical data supplied by the senses. Here too it operates as a mediator between body and mind.184 He does not, however, consider it a separate sixth sense.

 

In continuing to explore the subject of how the soul is related to the body, we must be sure to divest ourselves of the notion that the soul somehow resides inside the body like a seed in a pot. Neither Aristotle nor the Baha’i Writings see the soul as a ‘foreign entity’ that somehow enters the body. As Abdu’l-Baha tells us, “the rational soul, meaning the human spirit, does not descend into the body--that is to say, it does not enter it, for descent and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is exempt from this. The spirit never entered this body.”185 Aristotle holds a similar view, criticizing as “absurdity”186 those theories that would “join the soul to a body, or place it in a body.”187 This, of course, leaves us with the question of the soul’s relationship to the body, a relationship described by Abdu’l-Baha as follows resembling the relationship of light to a mirror: “When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear.”188

 

            What, then, is the precise relationship of the soul or spirit to the body according to Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings? We must bear in mind that both provide a philosophical answer, that is, formal answers or answers in principle, rather than specific physical or bio-chemical explanations for which we will have to look elsewhere. If we analyze Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor of the mirror and the light, we find that, in Aristotelian language, the issue is relatively straightforward: the soul is formally or virtually but not substantially present in the body just as the sun is formally but not substantially present in the mirror. The sun enlightens the mirror just as – to use Aristotle’s analogy189  – the impression of the signet ring in-forms or provides form to the wax. In other words, the sun itself is never in the mirror but its image, its form or virtual presence is there as long as the mirror is capable of reflecting it. When the mirror breaks, the sun does not disappear anymore than the signet ring is destroyed when the wax melts. In Aristotelian language, we would say that the soul in-forms matter to the degree that matter is capable of receiving that form.  

 

            Several things are clear at this point. First, in these analogies, neither the sun nor the signet ring depends on something else for its existence whereas the reverse is certainly the case. Second, light is the intermediary between the sun and the mirror, an observation similar to Aristotle’s belief that the soul enlightens or provides light for the active intellect (mind) to perceive, abstract and discriminate. Third, both light source and its emanated light surround the mirror, just as, according to Abdu’l-Baha, the “spirit surrounds the body”190 without being physically present in it. Aristotle would agree with at least the latter part of this statement.

 

4) Epistemology: Mind and Brain

 

Another important similarity between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings is the clear distinction between the non-material mind and its physical organ, the brain. The two work together but are not the same. For his part, Aristotle calls the mind “the place of forms”191 and even “the form of forms”192 which is “capable of receiving the forms of an object.”193 In other words, the mind is not a physical thing, or, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing.”194 Because it is itself not sensible195, the mind does not work with sensible realities, that is, actual substances, but rather with forms, or what Abdu’l-Baha calls “symbols”196 of outward things. Instead, the mind perceives forms, picturing to itself as forms various perceptions and intellectual realities197  such as love, God, goodness and other qualities. In a discussion of epistemology, he says, “The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual – that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses.”198  The Aristotelian term for a phenomenal reality that is not sensible is ‘form’, so here too we find endorsement for the Aristotelian concept of the mind working with forms. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha interprets this capacity to work with forms as a sign of the mind’s super-natural nature:

 

The spirit of man, however, can manifest itself in all forms at the same time. For example, we say that a material body is either square or spherical, triangular or hexagonal. While it is triangular, it cannot be square; and while it is square, it is not triangular. Similarly, it cannot be spherical and hexagonal at the same time . . . But the human spirit in itself contains all these forms, shapes and figures . . . As an evidence of this, at the present moment in the human spirit you have the shape of a square and the figure of a triangle. Simultaneously also you can conceive a hexagonal form. All these can be conceived at the same moment in the human spirit, and not one of them needs to be destroyed or broken in order that the spirit of man may be transferred to another.199

                                   

At this point it need only be added that the belief that the human spirit or mind can take in by perception or imagine and contain the forms of things is one of the center-pieces of Aristotelian philosophical and cognitive psychology whose outlines are visible in Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks here and elsewhere.

 


4.1) Reality is Discovered not Constructed

 

The similarities between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings in regards to epistemological matters do not end here. Perhaps most significant and far-reaching is their agreement that the mind or spirit discovers and does not create either spiritual or material realities. Baha’u’llah writes, “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.200 Elsewhere He writes that the divine “gift of understanding”201 “giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”202  Nowhere does Baha’u’llah state or even suggest that humankind creates or constructs reality. Indeed, if they create anything like reality it tends to be things like the “thick clouds203 of “idle fancies and vain imaginings.204 Baha’u’llah uses the latter phrase throughout His Writings to refer to those who refuse to see the truth about Him and prefer their own imaginative constructions. Significantly, He accounts them with “the lost in the Book of God.”205 In a similar vein, He exhorts the Persian people to “come forth to discover the Truth which hath dawned from the Day-Star of Truth”206 about the new Manifestation of God. Abdu’l-Baha’s statements consistently support the contention that human beings discover – and do not construct – truths about the spiritual and material realms. Indeed, humankind is distinct from the rest of nature and animals because it possesses “the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles”207, an idea that is widely scattered throughout the Writings in a wide variety of contexts. He also informs us that “When we carefully investigate the kingdoms of existence and observe the phenomena of the universe about us, we discover the absolute order and perfection of creation.”208

 

The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.209

                       

Furthermore, God has endowed humankind “with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.”210 Aristotle, of course, holds the same views, so much so that the whole notion of the human ‘construction’ of reality is found nowhere in his works. The Metaphysics begins with his reflections on past efforts to find the truth about reality, and their various inadequacies; the Psychology and various other books explore how the senses and the soul work to perceive and discover the nature of the surrounding world.

 


4.2) Epistemological Realism and Correspondence Theory of Truth

 

From this we can conclude that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle agree on several key epistemological issues subject to vociferous contemporary debate: first, that natural reality is objectively real and does not depend on human observers for its existence; second, that reality and its laws are given by God, not constructed, and that we must work with what is given; and third, that truth is the correspondence between reality and our interpretation of it, or, put otherwise, that reality and our interpretation of it are two distinct things and that we must test our interpretations against reality to discover whether or not they are in agreement. From this follows that reality is discovered and that there is such a thing as error, that is, an erroneous or inadequate understanding of reality that can be cured by abandoning it in order to change from ignorant to more knowledgeable. In other words, the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle share a realist epistemology.211 Without these premises, the entire Aristotelian and Baha’i enterprises would collapse, most especially the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation which presumes increasingly adequate comprehension of various truths. Finally, the belief that properties are real makes the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle incompatible with nominalism, that is, the belief that properties are either arbitrary human selections or outright impositions only externally related to their objects and that essences are fictitious. (See Aristotle’s refutation of the underlying logic of nominalism in Metaphysics, VII, 12.) For its part, realism holds that the relationship between attributes and substance is internal, that is, inherent and intrinsic and that essences are natural and real. 

 

The fact that for Aristotle the forms, essences or universals do not exist in a separate world or “Kingdom of Names”212 must not under any circumstances be interpreted to mean that for him these forms or essences are any less real than for Plato, the neo-Platonists and the Writings. No less than Plato, Aristotle is a realist, that is, believes that essences or forms are absolutely real and not mere human constructs. Moreover, the universals we abstract from particular things correspond to absolute realities; they are emphatically not arbitrary creations or selections. For this reason, the most we may conclude is that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is not whether or not the original essences or forms exist, but rather about where and how they exist – in a separate world, “Kingdom”213 or mind – or exemplified or instantiated in particular things. From this it follows that Aristotle cannot be presented as a nominalist without doing violence to his metaphysic and epistemology; his view, says renowned Aristotle scholar W. D. Ross, “is not that the object is constituted by thought.”214 Indeed, he is an “extreme realist allowing for no modification, still less construction of the object by the mind.”215 Even in regards to the universal that is abstracted from particulars, Ross says “the universal is always for Aristotle something which though perfectly real and objective has no separate existence."216 This means that we cannot divide the Baha’i Writings from Aristotle on the issue of the reality of forms or essences as Keven Brown seems tempted to do in Evolution and Baha’i Belief.217

 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that anything other than a realist, correspondence theory of truth would render numerous passages in the Writings meaningless. If reality were not objectively given and all constructions equally adequate or valid, Baha’u’llah could not lament that He “fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously.”218 These physicians are ignorant precisely because they have constructed reality to fit their “personal desires”219 and thus “erred grievously.”220 Abdu’l-Baha could neither tell us that an “ignorant man by learning becomes knowing, and the world of savagery, through the bounty of a wise educator, is changed into a civilized kingdom.”221 nor that the soul’s journey is necessary in order to acquire divine knowledge”222 to overcome our “lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.”223 Manifestations could not provide humankind with the “science of reality.”224 Without the existence of objective truth about reality, we could not be transformed from “the ignorant of mankind into the knowing”225; it would make no sense for Abdu’l-Baha to say that “the ignorant must be educated.”226 Indeed, the whole Baha’i concept of evolution to further knowledge and understanding both in this world and the next would be moot. 

 

Aristotle’s and the Writing’s agreement about the discovery (not construction) of reality and the correspondence theory of truth is bound to be a controversial issue in our times when theories about the ‘construction’ of reality abound. It is, therefore, necessary to explain in somewhat greater detail what Aristotle and the Writings mean. In a nutshell, the issue stands as follows: we all discover the same basic reality but construct different interpretations of it. However, these interpretations or constructions are constrained by the nature of what they are interpreting. For example, we may understand fire in various ways from the specific chemistry of combustion to a manifestation of divine power but what no interpretation can deny is that fire is hot and will burn human flesh unless counter-measures are taken. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.”227 How we interpret those “realities”228 may differ but all recognize the reality of fire’s power to inflict severe damage on human flesh. In other words, in considering this issue, we must, as precisely as possible, distinguish between what is perceived and what is interpreted, that is, we must distinguish between metaphysics and epistemology and hermeneutics. Here is another example. In progressive revelation, the Writings expect all to accept the fact or reality of Christ as a Manifestation of God but also they expect us to understand or interpret what this fact means in different ways at different times in history. As we can see, the doctrine of progressive revelation logically depends on the mind’s ability to distinguish real and objective fact from interpretation. Indeed, the Writings go even further because they explicitly condemn some interpretations as erroneous, as being “the dust of vain imaginings and the smoke of idle fancy”229, that is, misinterpretations due to the distortions of the ego and our lower animal natures.  Here too, the Writings implicitly expect us not only to distinguish real fact from constructed interpretation but also to distinguish between constructions that are appropriate and inappropriate for the age in which we live. This idea is also presented in the image of the sun’s light or reality being diminished or distorted by the dust on the mirror: “The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror.”230 The fact is that the mirror can be cleansed.231 Not only does Abdu’l-Baha support this but he also makes it clear that not all mirrors are equal in this regard: “The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world.232

 

4.3) The Reality of Attributes

 

 If attributes were not real, did not inhere in their substances and were not essential, how are we understand Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that the “names and attributes of Divinity are eternal and not accidental?233 Obviously the attributes of Divinity are not merely human constructs. If they were, why bother to strive to live up to Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “The soul that excels in attainment of His attributes and graces is most acceptable before God?234 What could the phrase “His attributes”235 even mean? Indeed, if attributes and properties are not real, then there is no rationale for God’s creation since, as Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world.”236 Furthermore, the whole of Baha’u’llah’s salvational project would be useless if properties were not real and did not provide real knowledge because of the Noonday Prayer’s assertion that we were created “to know [God] and to worship [Him]” would be rendered meaningless. If attributes are only human selections or impositions, are not inherent and do not provide real knowledge about things, they could only teach us, at most, about ourselves and our own modus operandi. This would effectively leave us locked in a bubble of our own perceptions and constructs. Aside from their logical weaknesses, such views simply contradict Abdu’l-Baha when he says,

 

But the question may be asked: How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration. We recognize the sun by its bounty and effulgence.237

 

Indeed, it is Baha’u’llah Himself who tells us that attributes are real when he describes God as “the Creator of all names and attributes.”238 If God created them, they are obviously real. If attributes were not real how could it be true that  “His names and His attributes, are made manifest in the world”?239 The following statement would also become senseless:

 

He must so educate the human reality that it may become the center of the divine appearance, to such a degree that the attributes and the names of God shall be resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man, and the holy verse "We will make man in Our image and likeness" shall be realized.240

                                                                         

If God had no real attributes how could they be made “resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man”?241 Indeed, if attributes are simply human fictions and impositions, they could not be attributes ‘of God’ and it would be we, the created, who are shaping the Creator and making Him in our image. Such a notion simply violates the Baha’i principle that the created cannot comprehend – let alone shape – the Creator. Believing that such is the case would indeed be to “join partners with God.”242

 

Nor should we think that it is only God Whom we know by means of attributes, for, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes”243, a fact supported by his statement that “In the human plane of existence we can say we have knowledge of a vegetable, its qualities and product.”244 If these attributes did not provide real knowledge about the object, the use of the word ‘know’ and its variations would be inappropriate. Obviously attributes are not simply human impositions but rather, actually provide knowledge about the objects or substances we are studying. As Baha’u’llah says, “This gift [“the gift of understanding”] giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”245 Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the rational soul, “the inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application.”246 Elsewhere he says, “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things”247 once again demonstrating that in the Baha’i view, humankind is capable of gaining real knowledge through an exploration of reality. The continual use of the word ‘discover’ throughout the Writings also proves that we discover what already exists independently and do not construct it.

 

5) The Analysis of Reality

 

The topic of discovering reality leads readily to the all important issue of how we analyze it to discover its truth. This subject, already touched on in our discussion of causality and the Prime Mover, makes it clear that the Writings analyze and present reality in Aristotelian terms. In other words, they present an Aristotelian vision of reality in which there are substances which have essential and non-essential attributes; in which things have essences; in which – as already shown – change is the actualization of potentials248; and in which materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. Readers may confirm for themselves the pervasive use of this Aristotelian terminology by typing them into any hyper-text edition of the Writings. They will find

that these words occur in almost every book. Of course, some of them also have a general, non-philosophical usage: ‘substance’, for example, is also employed as a synonym for ‘wealth.’249

In reviewing what follows, one must remember that the Aristotelian concepts form a coherent system of inter-dependent concepts and the use of one concept necessitates the use of at least some others.

 

However, before embarking on our survey of the Aristotelian analysis of reality, it is necessary to look briefly at the important issue of ‘standpoint epistemologies’, the notion that reality appears differently to differing points of view. All too often these are erroneously equated to relativism, the notion that all viewpoints of reality are equally true because all are ‘relative’. However, properly understood, the two are not the same and must be clearly distinguished. The Baha’i Writings and Aristotle embody a stand point epistemology but are not even slightly relativistic. The best way to grasp the difference is to imagine a jig-saw puzzle picture of Mount Fuji. A true stand-point epistemology simply asserts that there are many pieces all of which have some portion of the truth, or the mountain; whatever their differences, the pieces are ultimately rationally compatible with one another and will form a picture of the whole mountain. A relativist, on the other hand, asserts that any piece – indeed, any piece from any puzzle – makes an equally valid fit at every point on our Mount Fuji puzzle.  There is nothing in the Baha’i Writings nor in Aristotle that suggest such relativism since doing so would vitiate not just the concept of the Manifestation as a revealer of absolute truth but the entire concept of knowledge altogether. We must not be misled, as some have been by Shoghi Effendi’s statement that  “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”250 In each case where Shoghi Effendi makes this statement, the word ‘relative’ is clearly used in reference to progressive revelation not to the truth value of the essential teachings. In terms of our illustration, each Manifestation adds a piece to the puzzle but this does not even remotely suggest that the truth value of the piece is not absolute.

 

5.1) A Brief Crash Course: Substance, Attribute and Essence

 

            The primary concept in Aristotle’s analysis of reality is ‘substance’, a concept which underwent some development but never strayed far from the belief that a substance is anything which does not exist as the attribute of something else. Substances are particulars, a fact that is used by Abdu’l-Baha in explaining the return of Elias.251 Your raincoat is a substance and so is this essay. Substance, however, does not only mean ‘matter’ or what Aristotle called “sensible substances.”252 When it does, such matter forms the “substratum”253 of a thing, namely that which is given form. ‘Matter’ in Aristotle’s view is a relative term: matter is anything which potentially receives form. In the case of your raincoat, matter may be physical material but in regards to this study, the matter is the ideas expressed therein. A substance possesses attributes which identify it as the particular substance it is, raincoat, essay ,rose or idea and these attributes are called its ‘essence’ which we must distinguish from other non-essential or ‘accidental’ attributes which a thing does not require to be what it is.254 For example, weight and color are non-essential, accidental attributes in regards to the ideas in this essay. However, being water-proof is an essential attribute to raincoats. Each of these three substances differs essentially. 

 

Neither essential nor accidental attributes can exist by themselves as substances: no one has ever seen ‘red’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘crumpled’ by themselves because they depend on substances to be real. Roughly speaking, Aristotle uses ‘substance’ in four different ways, as “sensible substance” or physical matter that receives form and is, therefore, a composite; as “non-sensible substance” or spirit, or soul that provides form; as a general reference to any particular thing which does not exist as an attribute of something else; and finally, as the form, essence or actuality of a thing.255 The difference among the latter three terms is one of nuance and emphasis. ‘Form’ emphasizes the structure of a substance; ‘essence’ emphasizes its necessary attributes and ‘actuality’ emphasizes the typical or culminating actions of a thing. Like the Baha’i Writings, Aristotle identifies humankind as the highest substance in the phenomenal realm.256

 

5.2) God as a Substance

 

Let us now analyze the concept of substance as used in Aristotle and the Writings in greater depth. Both use the term in two distinct ways: as “sensible substance or matter in the ordinary sense and as something which does not exist as an attribute. There are also non-sensible substances257 of which Aristotle recognizes, above all, God, the Unmoved Mover. Significantly enough, this is exactly the Baha’i position. For example, speaking about the Manifestations, Baha’u’llah tells us,

 

Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. 258

             

In this passage we first notice that, as with Aristotle, the “physical”259 is clearly distinguished from the “substance”260, in this case, God’s substance. This establishes that the physical and the substantial are not the same and that God is a non-physical or non-sensible substance. If substance were understood materialistically, this statement would suggest that God has a material substance, a notion flatly incompatible with the Baha’i Teachings for that would render God susceptible to change261 and make the Divine a composite of matter and form. However, understood in an Aristotelian fashion, this passage presents no philosophical difficulties. God is the supreme substance, the only entity which absolutely exists and can in no wise be seen as an attribute of something else. He is also the supreme actuality insofar as God has no potentials left to be actualized. That is precisely what makes the Divine inaccessible to us.

 

Furthermore, this passage tells us that spiritually, the Manifestation is an immediate emanation from God, and is formally, though not substantially identical with the Divine. This reading, based on Aristotle’s terminology, is confirmed in the immediately following sentences which state, "He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: ‘Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.”262 The Manifestation has formal identity with God – “I am He” 263 – but not  substantial identity with God because He is “born of the substance of God”264 and “He is that He is’. ”265 For an Aristotelian, this relationship is rational, clear and perfectly unparadoxical: it is no different than the relationship between the original of a manuscript and a copy: the two share formal but not substantial identity and one is logically prior and is the final cause of the other. 

 

5.3) The Soul as Substance

 

            Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the nature of the immortal soul provides another example of the Aristotelian usage of ‘substance’ and related terms. 

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.266

                                                 

The first thing to notice is how the Master defines substance in proper Aristotelian fashion as something that “exists by itself”267 and not as an attribute of something else. Moreover, he refers to the soul as a non-material substance and applies this concept vis a vis the body. This is an implicit denial of any epiphenomenalist understanding of the soul, a point he emphasizes by describing the body with the Aristotelian term “accident.” 268  An ‘accident’ according to Aristotle, is an attribute that is non-essential to the existence of a thing which is why the substantial soul can live without the ‘accidental’ body. Thus, we can see at this point, how Abdu’l-Baha grounds his argument for the immortality of the soul in the concepts and definitions originally espoused by Aristotle. He explicitly states that “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”269 It is, in other words, the essence that provides the form that makes a body into a human body. Interestingly enough, Baha’u’llah applies this same concept to the Manifestation’s relationship to the world:

 

At that time, the signs of the Son of man shall appear in heaven, that is, the promised Beauty and Substance of life shall, when these signs have appeared, step forth out of the realm of the invisible into the visible world.270

 

No materialist understanding can make rational sense of the italicized phrase. However, if we apply Aristotle’s concept of substance, its meaning becomes clear: the Manifestation is the essence of life; He is That which informs matter with life itself, and is, in that sense, the world-soul. He is also the actuality, the culmination of life, that is, the highest possible example of life in the phenomenal realm.

 

5.4) Other Uses of ‘Substance’

 

The Aristotelian use of substance also allows us to perceive new levels of meaning in some of Baha’u’llah’s statements. Take, for example, the following:

 

When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? 271

 

At the first, most obvious level, this discusses our willingness to sacrifice our material wealth for the Manifestation. However, an Aristotelian reading suggests a deeper level: it expresses a willingness to sacrifice our very identity, our nature, our essence, our actuality for God’s Cause. This is the martyrdom of ontological “evanescence”272, of truly “utter abasement”273 before God. Baha’u’llah alludes to such complete and ongoing ontological martyrdom when he praises such holy souls as mullah Husayn: “They have offered, and will continue to offer up their lives, their substance, their souls, their spirit, their all, in the path of the Well-Beloved.”274 With the Aristotelian reading of ‘substance’, we see new aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom. The phrase “will continue to offer up”275 suggests that such ontological martyrdom may not be a single act but rather a way of life.

 

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the Writings never use the word ‘substance’ as a synonym for ‘material’, for such is patently not the case276, but rather that we must carefully distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian usage if we wish to avoid confusion. Take the following passage for instance: “Here we see that if attraction did not exist between the atoms, the composite substance of matter would not be possible.”277 The phrase “composite substance of matter”278 makes no sense until we recall that for Aristotle, all physical things were composites of matter which received form279 which together make them a substance or unity.280 Indeed, as seen in the following example, we find that Abdu’l-Baha fully recognizes that material things are composites of matter and form. 

 

The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother, and it is absolute perfection; but the darkness has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection. The substance of Adam's physical life was earth, but the substance of Abraham was pure sperm; it is certain that the pure and chaste sperm is superior to earth.281

                                                             

 

In the first part of this statement, ‘substance’ is meant as ‘sensible substance’ or common matter which, in order to be anything must receive form. He denies the reality of darkness because in the phenomenal world, nothing that lacks substance and form is real. However, in what follows, the meaning of ‘substance’ begins to shift in an Aristotelian direction. The substance of Adam, that is, his sensible substance as well as his being as a non-attribute, is connected to the earth, whereas the substance of Abraham, a Manifestation, is “pure sperm.” Unless we read them with the Aristotelian substratum of the Writings in mind, such statements could intellectually embarrass a modern believer. However, the meaning becomes clear when we recall that for Aristotle, sperm provided the form and that for Abraham in His divine station, that form is provided by God with whom He shares a formal, though not substantial identity. This divine form is obviously superior to the sensible matter of the earth. Lest anyone quarrel too harshly with Aristotle about sperm providing form, let us recall that sperm decides whether an infant is male or female, that is, in that regard, the formative principle. 

 

Here is another example of Abdu’l-Baha’s use of substance in Aristotelian fashion:

Know that the Reality of Divinity or the substance of the Essence of Oneness is pure sanctity and absolute holiness--that is to say, it is sanctified and exempt from all praise.282

 

‘Substance’ is certainly not being used as “sensible substance” or matter, for

that would render the passage meaningless or in complete denial of other Baha’i Teachings concerning the non-materiality of God. This passage emphasizes in the strictest philosophical manner that God, the Reality of Divinity, is a substance insofar as it is absolutely not an attribute of anything else. The “substance of the essence of Oneness”

28

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means that the very substratum or essenceof what it means to be One is totally independent and sanctified above all other things. Although this idea is not new to Baha’is, it is interesting to observe how Abdu’l-Baha explains – and thus provides the basis for a rational philosophical defense – for this belief in Aristotelian terms. 

 

5.5) Hylomorphism: Matter and Form

 

            As the foregoing passages make clear, the Writings and Aristotle284 agree on hylomorphism, that is, the belief that everything in creation is made of both matter and form, though we must bear in mind that ‘matter’ is a relative term in Aristotle insofar as it can refer to physical ‘stuff’ sometimes called “elemental”285  by Abdu’l-Baha. Most fundamental to Aristotle is the doctrine that matter is the potential to receive form. In Aristotle, the form is the active principle while matter is receptive, passive or patient, an idea Baha’u’llah expresses when He writes:

 

The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different.286

 

Two comments are in order. First, the statement that these two are the “same” 287 refers to their origin and nature as created entities while their differences refer to their action in the phenomenal world of creation. This statement should no more be read as a reductionism to spirit than as a reductionism to matter. The Baha’i Writings, like Aristotle’s thought, are examples of hylomorphism, the belief that existence is made of matter and form; therefore, neither of them can be reduced to a spiritual-idealistic or material monism. Second, in the foregoing passage, the “heat generated”288 by the imposition of form onto matter is the tension that inevitably exists between form and matter, since form is the active principle of perfection while matter is the principle of receptivity but also of inertia. This tension is part of what constitutes and most especially living things since the quest for perfection, that is, highest possible self-expression, is an integral part of their existence. Although Aristotle does not explicitly refer to such tension, it is implicit in his characterization of matter and form.

 

The distinction between matter and form also brings us back to our resolution of the apparent self-contradiction between creationism and emanationism and the associated doctrines of time. ‘Creation’ refers to the notion that God made the world like an artisan, a concept implying that the world was made at some point in time. On the other hand, emanationism suggests that the universe is eternal – which, by the way, is another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings – and, consequently, there is no creation in time. On the basis of Aristotle289, we may conclude that ‘creation’ refers to the specific creation of a concrete thing such as the earth or this universe whereas ‘emanation’ refers to the formal principle, essence which has always existed as a potential available for actualization. After all, a Creator requires a creation but nothing says this creation must be material. In short, there is no contradiction between the two Teachings because one refers to the order of specific matter and time, whereas the other refers to the order of potential and form.

 

5.6) Essences

 

            Not only do Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings analyze the world in terms of substances and attributes, they also use the concept of ‘essence’ and accept essences as real. Controversial though it may be in the current philosophical climate, the bottom line is that the Baha’i Writings espouse a form of essentialism, a fact that comes as no surprise given its adherence to a realist epistemology and metaphysic. Because even the most cursory reading of such Aristotelian works as MetaphysicsPhysics and On the Soul, or any basic exposition of his works reveals the centrality of ‘essence’ to his thought, I will not needlessly lengthen our study by expounding on this subject. More to our purpose is to see how the concept of essence appears in the Baha’i Writings, for here, too, it plays a key role since everything, including God, is said to have an essence. 

 

            The Baha’i Writings use the term ‘essence’ in a variety of contexts and to express a variety of ideas but none of them stray from the fundamental Aristotelian meaning of (a) the attributes needed for a substance to be the kind of substance it is; (b) the defining or characteristic nature of a thing and (c) the capacities or potentials inherent in a thing; (d) the final cause of a thing’ (e) the formal cause of a thing and (f) substance and (g) the form of a thing and (h) actuality and (i) culmination.290 These various usages, differing in what aspect of the concept of ‘essence’ they emphasize, are related insofar as they all refer to those attributes, potential or actual, which make a thing the kind of and particular thing it is. Everything we can discuss has an essence which we can know insofar as human beings have the capacity to know it.

 

There seems to be little question that the Baha’i  Writings see all things endowed with an essence as described by Aristotle. In The Kitab-i-Iqan Baha’u’llah tells us that  “the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing [is] a door of knowledge.”291In Gleanings, Baha’u’llah states that “it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God.”292 In this quotation, the essence or “inmost reality”293 of a thing is defined by its capacity or potentiality to “testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God.”294 The concept of essence as capacity is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s basic position. The Writings specifically mention that each of the following has an essence: God 295; the human soul296; humankind297; belief in Divine Unity298; justice299; “all created things”300 beauty301; species of living things302; truth303; religion304; “this new age”305; and the spirit.306 On the basis of such a wide array of references to ‘essence’ it is, in my view, safe to say that the existence of essences is an important point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i  Writings. Indeed, these references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realize that such phrases as “inmost reality”307; “the realities of”308 ; “reality of”309; “inner reality”310, and “inner realities”311 also refer to the essence of things. This connection is further emphasized by the parallel usage seen in the references to the “inmost essence”312 of things.

 

In addition to being pervasive, the terms ‘essence’ and “inmost reality” are used in a manner that is not only consistent with but also combines several, if not all, of Aristotle’s usages into one. Take, for example, the following statement:

 

 (1) Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. (2) Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self . . . (3) These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.313

                                                                      

 

In these statements we can detect all of Aristotle’s uses of the term ‘essence’. The first statement shows the term being used as a reference to (a) the non-accidental attributes of a thing or substance and (b) its defining characteristic and therefore, (c) its form as well as (d) the formal cause of that substance. Because the formal cause requires (e) a final cause, we can say that the latter is included by logical implication. In the second statement, which is really a re-statement of the first with particular focus on humankind, we can detect the additional sense of ‘essence’ as actuality and culmination, that is, the emphasis on the undeniable existence of humankind as the culminating point of phenomenal reality. Finally, in the third statement, we see ‘essence’ – the attributes of God which are also “energies”314 – portrayed as potentials or potencies “latent”315 in us and are waiting to be moved from “from potentiality into actuality.”316 We could also repeat this analysis for Baha’u’llah’s statement that “[f]rom that which hath been said it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God”317 where we especially notice the attention drawn to “inmost reality”318 as “capacity” 319 or potential (which is another key Aristotelian term) as well as to how the phrase “[e]ach according to its capacity.”320 shows capacity or essential potential defining a thing as the kind of thing it is. 

 

In light of what we have learned, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the Baha’i Writings espouse some form of essentialism, although at this point, the exact nature of this essentialism requires further study and exploration. This conclusion is also supported, as we shall see, by Baha’i and Aristotelian ethics. Given the already noted division of nature into the mineral, vegetable, animal, human and supernatural realms, it cannot be denied that the Baha’i world picture divides phenomenal creation into kinds, each with their essential endowments of God’s attributes and consequently, natural and appropriate behaviors. These kinds are further divided into individuals who are or are not appropriate exemplars of their kind.

 

5.7) Essences and Epistemology

 

According to Aristotle321 what we know of a thing is its universal form, its universal essence or “formula”322 to use Aristotle’s example,  we recognize the form of ‘circular’ in a particular bronze circle but we must recall that while there is a formula for a circle and a formula for bronze, there is no formula or definition for this particular bronze circle. It is only recognized by the aid of “intuitive thinking or of perception.”323 As he writes, “It is not possible to define any thing, for definition is of the universal and of the form.”324 This formula or definition is known by the attributes manifested by specific examples but the particular itself is not known in and as itself: “matter is unknowable in itself.”325 This position does not differ significantly from what Abdu’l-Baha means when he says,

 

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing, and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities, otherwise it is unknown and hidden.326

                       

Not only does this passage show yet again that attributes are real and provide real knowledge, but it also tells us that the essence of a particular thing is not completely known. In other words, all human knowledge is about universals and forms, but cannot extend to the knowledge of the essence of a particular thing. As Aristotle says, “there is neither definition of nor demonstration about sensible, individual substances.”327 Aristotle relegates the knowledge of particulars to “opinion”328 and, although he does not explicitly say so, he, like the Baha’i Writings, would have to admit that only God is capable of knowing particulars in-themselves, that is, the individual essence, or what Duns Scotus called the “haecceitas”.

 

However, this cannot logically be taken to mean that the knowledge we obtain from the attributes and qualities is (a) false or (b) inadequate for our phenomenal purposes or (c) arbitrary fictions or (d) absolutely relative. In other words, while the Baha’i world picture is divided in two, with a noumenal realm known only to God and phenomenal realm known to us via attributes and qualities, this somewhat Kantian aspect of the Writings does not undermine the adequacy or correctness of our knowledge for the phenomenal realm and of universals. If it did, it would undermine science, which is a knowledge of universals in contrast to art which provides intuition of particulars. There is simply no logical reason to lead the Writings into relativistic wastelands seen in the work of some contemporary philosophers. Instead, the limitations on our knowledge lay the foundation for a rational argument for the necessity of revelation.

 

5.8) Potential

 

            Another aspect of substance, ultimately related to essence329, is potential. The word ‘potential’ does not refer to a mysterious little hidden ‘thingy’, but rather to the fact that only a certain number of transformations can be made in a substance without destroying it as the substance it is.  One can use a raincoat as a blanket, a book as an eye-shade and, with some manual dexterity, a rose as a drinking cup: these are potentials that each of them has. However, no amount of effort transforms a raincoat into a 800 pound gorilla, an book into a water-well or a rose into a telephone. They simply lack the potential for that. In many ways, essences are simply a ‘cluster’ of potentials that define a kind and / or an individual. As something changes or evolves – either moved internally or externally – its potentials are actualized or realized, that is, its potentials are revealed and manifested. A rosebud blossoms to produce as beautiful fragrance; of their own nature, a raincoat and essay do not.

 

 Now is also a good time to notice that raincoats, books and roses have different forms: in fact, each of them is matter that has been given a certain form that allows it to be and do certain things. All substances are composed of matter and form which are not the same: the matter in the raincoat could have been given the form of an umbrella, the words in the book arranged into a long metaphysical poem and the rose could have formed another kind of flower. Like two sides of a coin, matter and form are distinct, but not separable: all matter has form but which particular form it receives can vary. Matter also imposes potential limits on what forms can be adopted: sheet metal cannot accept the form to become light bulbs or rodeo bulls.

 

5.9) Essences and Potentials

 

In previous discussions, we have seen the close connection between essence and the concept of potentials. This connection is made even closer when we realize that an essence can also be defined as the collection of potentials that distinguish a particular kind and / or individual from other kinds and / or individuals. Humanity, for example, is endowed with and essentially defined by its rational and spiritual capacities both as an individual and as a species or kind. We must also bear in mind that potentials (and essences) are not little entities hidden in a substance like raisins in a bun. Rather they are (a) the ability or power to initiate or stop change in oneself or another330 or (b) the ability to change into or be changed into something else or be acted upon.331 To make use of the old proverb, a sow’s ear lacks the potential to be changed into a silk purse. The lack of a particular potential or potency is a “privation.”332 All created things suffer or exhibit absolute “privation” vis a vis God, and for this reason may be properly described as “utter nothingness.”333 This understanding allows a logical resolution to the apparent contradiction between Baha’u’llah’s statement that we come from “utter nothingness” 334 and Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that nothing can come from absolute nothingness.335 As the context makes clear, Baha’u’llah’s statements are in relation to “privation” or our ‘privative natures’ vis a vis God whereas Abdu’l-Baha’s assertions refer to substance and positive potentials or capacity. No logical contradiction exists because the statements are about different subjects. The concept of potentials also provides us with a rational interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s statement that copper can be turned into gold and vice versa. 336 The language of this passage, for example, “lieth hidden”337, “possible”338 and “can be turned”339, clearly indicates this statement is about potentials or capacities, which makes it a statement of scientific fact.  

 

The belief that potentials or capacities define us essentially is plain when Abdu’l-Baha says that “although capacities are not the same, every member of the human race is capable of education.”340 This asserts that we share individually different portions of the general species capacity to learn. In both Aristotle and the Writings, these capacities are sometimes also portrayed as powers or abilities to act or be acted on.341 The connection between capacities, or potentials and powers is plainly evident in the following quotation:

 

The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature's ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism.342

                                               

As we can see, potentials are the powers or abilities that humankind possesses, indeed, are the unique, that is, necessary characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of creation. However, we must be careful to note that although the word ‘potential’, ‘power’, ‘potency’ and ‘potencies’ are used pervasively throughout the Writings, not all usages of the latter two refer to potentials. For example, the description of God as “He, verily, through the potency of His name, the Mighty”343 does not use ‘potency’ in the sense of ‘potential’ but rather in the sense of an existing power. As a matter of fact, reading it as ‘potential’ would lead to the serious theological error of ascribing potentials, that is, unactualized powers or attributes to God, and, thereby characterizing the Divine as imperfect. We must, therefore, be careful to distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian uses of these terms. There are three other terms by which to explore the subject of potentials in the Writings: the first is ‘latent’, which is pervasively used.344 The second is “hidden” which is found in a similarly wide range of Baha’i texts referring to the concept of hidden – that is, potentially revealed or realized – qualities and their manifestation either through divine revelation, through natural processes or through human activity.345 The third is ‘realize’ which, when used philosophically instead of as a term for ‘to understand suddenly’, refers to the process by which the hidden or potential is made real, comes to fruition or is revealed in the world of being.346

            The importance of the concept of potentials for Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings can hardly be over-stated especially in an age in which the topic of change, and especially evolutionary change, is so hotly debated.  Both Aristotle’s and the Writing’s entire vision of change and development depend on his belief that change – be it locomotion, increase, growth or decay is the actualizing or realizing of hitherto invisible, hidden potentials. For this reason, they share a common understanding of evolution which is not seen as the alteration of one species into another but rather the successive actualization of hidden, unrealized potentials. This allows both to argue that each species is a specific and original complex of potentials that were always available or hidden in creation and that what appears to be the transformation of one species into another is really the actualization of hitherto hidden potentials.

 

            (Among the alleged common ancestors of human and ape, outward similarities notwithstanding, only one group had the potential to manifest a rational soul. This group must have had this potential from the beginning because the concept of potentials leading to new potentials involves an infinite regress and is, thereby, logically untenable. Here’s why. Either an organism has the potential to manifest rationality, or it does not. If it does not, it needs to acquire this potential (1) but to get this potential (1), it must first get the potential (2) to get the potential (1), and then, in turn it needs to acquire potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1) and so on . . . If  the organism turns out to already possess potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1), then the organism is obviously part of the distinct human line.)

 

Thus, it is inaccurate to say that Aristotle and the Writings deny evolution. Rather, they re-interpret the same data used by all anthropologists in terms of potentiality and conclude that all evolution is the actualization or manifestation of previously hidden potentials. They disagree with current scientific views but they are not out of harmony with science because there is sound logical reasoning about potentials underlying their views. 

 

5.10) Essence and Existence

 

The distinction between potential and actualization provides yet another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings, namely the distinction between essence and existence. As already noted, for Aristotle, the essence may be seen as the potentiality of a thing: the identity of a hammer, for example, is constituted by all its potential uses that determine it can be employed as a prop to hold up a shelf of books as well as melted down to make a steel plate and cup but not as a guard dog. Our actions are required to bring the hammer’s various potentials into actuality, that is, to bring them into existence. In other words, for Aristotle, existence is actualization: bringing something into existence means actualizing a potential. The same is true in the Baha’i Writings where we are brought into existence, that is, are actualized or manifest from mere potentialities which are actualized when the right combination of elements occurs. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha asks, “Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created?”347 The word “created”348 here must be read as meaning ‘actualized’, ‘brought into appearance’ or ‘manifest’ because if we read it as meaning  ‘brought into existence from absolute nothing’, then Abdu’l-Baha would be contradicting his own statements that

 

existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.349

 

Thus, for the Writings, as for Aristotle, to exist means to be actualized or to be manifest: we do not really exist before the point of actualization although the potential for us exists because , according to Abdu’l-Baha, we cannot come into existence from absolute nothing. Consequently,  it follows that things do not come into manifest existence merely because they have an essence, that is, merely because there is a potential for them to come into existence. Existence does not necessarily or automatically follow from one’s potential for existing. It must be provided by a special act – in Aristotle, the continued action of the Unmoved Mover, and, in the Baha’i case, the voluntary act of God Who chooses which potentials to actualize. In other words, for a potential to come into existence requires an act from an entity that already exists and is, thereby, able to take action which is something only existing entities can do. In the Baha’i view, this ‘entity’ is ultimately God, Who actualizes or provides existence to all things other than Himself. Only God exists by virtue of His own nature, that is, only in God are essence / potential and actualized existence one and the same. In short, it is not only God’s nature to exist but also to exist as a perfectly actualized Being. 

 

            The distinction between essence / potential and existence is of supreme philosophical importance for both Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings because it is the foundation for a Baha’i existentialism. The core of existential philosophies is the belief that ‘existence’ precedes essence’, although the meaning of this statement is variously interpreted. In all cases, however, existence is a result of a distinct act, and theistic and atheistic existentialisms diverge on the issue of whether God or the individual is ultimately responsible for this act. A Baha’i existentialism would, in a sense, have it both ways. As in theistic forms of existentialism, God is ultimately responsible for the act that manifests a potential in the world, and, as in atheistic existentialism, it is the individual who creates his or her own ‘voluntary self’ by choosing which potentials to actualize in this life. Indeed, the whole notion of our lives being a process of actualizing potentials leads us closer to the form of existentialism developed above all by Martin Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel, although it bears affinities to Sartre’s existentialism as well.

 

            Although this issue is explored more fully in my paper “The Call to Being: Introduction to a Baha’i Existentialism”, it is worthwhile to digress for a moment to make a few salient points to demonstrate the versatility of the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. It is in my view, preciseyt this versatility which led Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to retain whatever was useful in Aristotle as the substratum of the Writings. For example, if our lives are a process of actualizing our potential selves, certain consequences are unavoidable. Our lives are matters of perpetual choice among possibilities – often based on little more than faith – in a world in which we face the challenges of trying to relate to a God Who is essentially unknowable, as well as a world made up of things whose essences we cannot know directly. We live, and choose, in a world of essential mystery. Moreover, it also becomes evident that we are never completely ourselves which means that self-alienation and estrangement, wonder, and mystery are inherently structured into our being. We are, since the Writings assert the existence of an after-life of perpetual development and evolution, ladies and gentlemen ‘in waiting’, and therefore, not surprisingly, prone to ‘angst’ about our choices and their consequences. We are Marcel’s “homo viator”, for ever in transit, for whom every moment is simultaneously an arrival and departure and our only ‘rest’ is the journey itself. Moreover, we are intrinsically dissatisfied because we are, and never can be, never fully and completely ourselves. We are is locked in a constant struggle to become – or to avoid becoming – what we are not and our ‘nothingness’ always haunts us. Indeed, we can become so overwhelmed by this struggle that we give up, act in ‘bad faith’, lose our individual being in the anonymity of the crowd and adopt a collective rather than true-to-ourselves, personal identity. Then, we face the challenge of hearing the ‘call to being’ and finding the power to answer it.  We are always ‘in a situation’ and ‘in a world’; we are concrete real beings, not abstract concepts, whose moods and attitudes present the world and others to us in various ways and condition our ‘modes of being’. Finally, the Writing’s emphasis on the process of actualization and on our individual and social evolution to overcome ourselves to help establish a more highly evolved form of humankind has clearly Nietzschean overtones worthy of exploration. Readers even passingly familiar with existential thought will recognize both the existential themes as well as authors alluded to in this paragraph.

 

            It may be objected that the Writings and Aristotle cannot be essentialist and existentialist at the same time. However, this objection does not hold because of the individual’s free will to choose which of his human and personal potentials to actualize, when, where, how and why. Aristotelian essentialism does not do away with choice; it is not a form ethical determinism. What the Aristotelian insights confirmed by the Writings do is to provide an outline of the nature and structure of being and specifically human being, a project in which they are not fundamentally different than Being and TimeBeing and Nothingness and The Mystery Of Being. (Even Sartre who is most allergic to any suggestions of a general ‘human nature’ still recognizes, and thereby contradicts himself by reserving for humankind the specific character of “pour-soi” as distinguished from everything else which is “en-soi”.)  A Baha’i existentialism explores how we personally experience the nature and structure of human be-ing, and what this experience means for us as individuals in the world.

 

5.11) Substance-Attribute Ontology

 

Closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of substance is the concept of attributes since substances can only be known by the attributes they possess, a crucial fact explicitly stated in the Baha’i Writings: “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes.”350 This also applies to our knowledge of God:

 

“Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?”351

 

This issue is of far-reaching philosophical importance because it shows that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle both share a substance-attribute analysis of existence or a substance-attribute ontology and this, in turn, limits the kind of metaphysics and epistemologies to which they can be logically allied. This is clearly evident from even a cursory examination of Abdu’l-Baha’s preceding quotations in which there are three points worthy of note. First, the properties are “their”352 properties; they belong to a particular created substance and are clearly not arbitrary human constructs or ‘fictions’ imposed on them by the perceivers. The properties of substances are not necessarily human impositions. Second, phenomenal things are known to us through their attributes, from which it follows logically that these attributes provide real – albeit, as seen above, limited – knowledge. However limited it may be, such knowledge is still real knowledge about the substance possessing or manifesting the attributes. Third, this knowledge comes to us directly from the substances by means of their attributes or properties which we perceive. Such is precisely the import of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “the mind is connected with the acquisition of knowledge, like images reflected in a mirror.”353 In other words, the mind perceives or reflects these attributes directly and immediately just a mirror directly and immediately reflects whatever it faces.354 Just as humankind reflects the divine perfections355, so the mind reflects the real attributes of the substances around it.

 


3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.175 This constitutes a radical division or differentiation within nature though it does not, of course, deny the oneness of the overall system of reality. Furthermore, according to the Writings, things differ in their capacity to reflect the divine Names or bounties176 and those differences of degree are real, essential and permanent.177 Just as we can never evolve into gods, so stones can never evolve into humans; these stations are fixed because “inequality in degree and capacity is a property of nature.”178 These inequalities and differences are real because they are divinely ordained as part of God’s system. Nor can they be crossed.179 The issue can, of course, be explained using Aristotelian terminology: there are many kinds of unity – unity of matter or material, unity of substance or essence, unity of form, unity of purpose, unity of logical relationship such as dependence and so on. “The organization of God”180, the single divine system 181 has a formal and purposive unitywhich is different from and must not be confused with as a material and / or substantial unity. Because all things are unified does not mean they are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the dualism of mind-soul-spirit and physical body does not contradict the organizational or systematic unity of creation.

 


3.5) The Body / Soul Connection

 

Given their distinctness, it is natural to ask how body and soul are connected. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the mediator between the outer, bodily senses and our inner mental senses such as memory and imagination is the “common faculty” which “communicates between the outward and inward powers and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.”182 Aristotle’s views on this matter are not directly addressed to the mind / body issue as we understand it now, so we must infer his views from other writings to related topics. For example, he mentions the “common sense”183 that allows the presentation of events perceived outwardly to be recollected inwardly. In effect, this “common sense” mediates between the physical senses or the body and the intellectual senses or the remembering mind. He also sees it as deriving general, that is, abstract ideas from the physical data supplied by the senses. Here too it operates as a mediator between body and mind.184 He does not, however, consider it a separate sixth sense.

 

In continuing to explore the subject of how the soul is related to the body, we must be sure to divest ourselves of the notion that the soul somehow resides inside the body like a seed in a pot. Neither Aristotle nor the Baha’i Writings see the soul as a ‘foreign entity’ that somehow enters the body. As Abdu’l-Baha tells us, “the rational soul, meaning the human spirit, does not descend into the body--that is to say, it does not enter it, for descent and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is exempt from this. The spirit never entered this body.”185 Aristotle holds a similar view, criticizing as “absurdity”186 those theories that would “join the soul to a body, or place it in a body.”187 This, of course, leaves us with the question of the soul’s relationship to the body, a relationship described by Abdu’l-Baha as follows resembling the relationship of light to a mirror: “When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear.”188

 

            What, then, is the precise relationship of the soul or spirit to the body according to Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings? We must bear in mind that both provide a philosophical answer, that is, formal answers or answers in principle, rather than specific physical or bio-chemical explanations for which we will have to look elsewhere. If we analyze Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor of the mirror and the light, we find that, in Aristotelian language, the issue is relatively straightforward: the soul is formally or virtually but not substantially present in the body just as the sun is formally but not substantially present in the mirror. The sun enlightens the mirror just as – to use Aristotle’s analogy189  – the impression of the signet ring in-forms or provides form to the wax. In other words, the sun itself is never in the mirror but its image, its form or virtual presence is there as long as the mirror is capable of reflecting it. When the mirror breaks, the sun does not disappear anymore than the signet ring is destroyed when the wax melts. In Aristotelian language, we would say that the soul in-forms matter to the degree that matter is capable of receiving that form.  

 

            Several things are clear at this point. First, in these analogies, neither the sun nor the signet ring depends on something else for its existence whereas the reverse is certainly the case. Second, light is the intermediary between the sun and the mirror, an observation similar to Aristotle’s belief that the soul enlightens or provides light for the active intellect (mind) to perceive, abstract and discriminate. Third, both light source and its emanated light surround the mirror, just as, according to Abdu’l-Baha, the “spirit surrounds the body”190 without being physically present in it. Aristotle would agree with at least the latter part of this statement.

 

4) Epistemology: Mind and Brain

 

Another important similarity between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings is the clear distinction between the non-material mind and its physical organ, the brain. The two work together but are not the same. For his part, Aristotle calls the mind “the place of forms”191 and even “the form of forms”192 which is “capable of receiving the forms of an object.”193 In other words, the mind is not a physical thing, or, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing.”194 Because it is itself not sensible195, the mind does not work with sensible realities, that is, actual substances, but rather with forms, or what Abdu’l-Baha calls “symbols”196 of outward things. Instead, the mind perceives forms, picturing to itself as forms various perceptions and intellectual realities197  such as love, God, goodness and other qualities. In a discussion of epistemology, he says, “The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual – that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses.”198  The Aristotelian term for a phenomenal reality that is not sensible is ‘form’, so here too we find endorsement for the Aristotelian concept of the mind working with forms. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha interprets this capacity to work with forms as a sign of the mind’s super-natural nature:

 

The spirit of man, however, can manifest itself in all forms at the same time. For example, we say that a material body is either square or spherical, triangular or hexagonal. While it is triangular, it cannot be square; and while it is square, it is not triangular. Similarly, it cannot be spherical and hexagonal at the same time . . . But the human spirit in itself contains all these forms, shapes and figures . . . As an evidence of this, at the present moment in the human spirit you have the shape of a square and the figure of a triangle. Simultaneously also you can conceive a hexagonal form. All these can be conceived at the same moment in the human spirit, and not one of them needs to be destroyed or broken in order that the spirit of man may be transferred to another.199

                                   

At this point it need only be added that the belief that the human spirit or mind can take in by perception or imagine and contain the forms of things is one of the center-pieces of Aristotelian philosophical and cognitive psychology whose outlines are visible in Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks here and elsewhere.

 


4.1) Reality is Discovered not Constructed

 

The similarities between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings in regards to epistemological matters do not end here. Perhaps most significant and far-reaching is their agreement that the mind or spirit discovers and does not create either spiritual or material realities. Baha’u’llah writes, “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.200 Elsewhere He writes that the divine “gift of understanding”201 “giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”202  Nowhere does Baha’u’llah state or even suggest that humankind creates or constructs reality. Indeed, if they create anything like reality it tends to be things like the “thick clouds203 of “idle fancies and vain imaginings.204 Baha’u’llah uses the latter phrase throughout His Writings to refer to those who refuse to see the truth about Him and prefer their own imaginative constructions. Significantly, He accounts them with “the lost in the Book of God.”205 In a similar vein, He exhorts the Persian people to “come forth to discover the Truth which hath dawned from the Day-Star of Truth”206 about the new Manifestation of God. Abdu’l-Baha’s statements consistently support the contention that human beings discover – and do not construct – truths about the spiritual and material realms. Indeed, humankind is distinct from the rest of nature and animals because it possesses “the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles”207, an idea that is widely scattered throughout the Writings in a wide variety of contexts. He also informs us that “When we carefully investigate the kingdoms of existence and observe the phenomena of the universe about us, we discover the absolute order and perfection of creation.”208

 

The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.209

                       

Furthermore, God has endowed humankind “with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.”210 Aristotle, of course, holds the same views, so much so that the whole notion of the human ‘construction’ of reality is found nowhere in his works. The Metaphysics begins with his reflections on past efforts to find the truth about reality, and their various inadequacies; the Psychology and various other books explore how the senses and the soul work to perceive and discover the nature of the surrounding world.

 


4.2) Epistemological Realism and Correspondence Theory of Truth

 

From this we can conclude that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle agree on several key epistemological issues subject to vociferous contemporary debate: first, that natural reality is objectively real and does not depend on human observers for its existence; second, that reality and its laws are given by God, not constructed, and that we must work with what is given; and third, that truth is the correspondence between reality and our interpretation of it, or, put otherwise, that reality and our interpretation of it are two distinct things and that we must test our interpretations against reality to discover whether or not they are in agreement. From this follows that reality is discovered and that there is such a thing as error, that is, an erroneous or inadequate understanding of reality that can be cured by abandoning it in order to change from ignorant to more knowledgeable. In other words, the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle share a realist epistemology.211 Without these premises, the entire Aristotelian and Baha’i enterprises would collapse, most especially the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation which presumes increasingly adequate comprehension of various truths. Finally, the belief that properties are real makes the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle incompatible with nominalism, that is, the belief that properties are either arbitrary human selections or outright impositions only externally related to their objects and that essences are fictitious. (See Aristotle’s refutation of the underlying logic of nominalism in Metaphysics, VII, 12.) For its part, realism holds that the relationship between attributes and substance is internal, that is, inherent and intrinsic and that essences are natural and real. 

 

The fact that for Aristotle the forms, essences or universals do not exist in a separate world or “Kingdom of Names”212 must not under any circumstances be interpreted to mean that for him these forms or essences are any less real than for Plato, the neo-Platonists and the Writings. No less than Plato, Aristotle is a realist, that is, believes that essences or forms are absolutely real and not mere human constructs. Moreover, the universals we abstract from particular things correspond to absolute realities; they are emphatically not arbitrary creations or selections. For this reason, the most we may conclude is that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is not whether or not the original essences or forms exist, but rather about where and how they exist – in a separate world, “Kingdom”213 or mind – or exemplified or instantiated in particular things. From this it follows that Aristotle cannot be presented as a nominalist without doing violence to his metaphysic and epistemology; his view, says renowned Aristotle scholar W. D. Ross, “is not that the object is constituted by thought.”214 Indeed, he is an “extreme realist allowing for no modification, still less construction of the object by the mind.”215 Even in regards to the universal that is abstracted from particulars, Ross says “the universal is always for Aristotle something which though perfectly real and objective has no separate existence."216 This means that we cannot divide the Baha’i Writings from Aristotle on the issue of the reality of forms or essences as Keven Brown seems tempted to do in Evolution and Baha’i Belief.217

 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that anything other than a realist, correspondence theory of truth would render numerous passages in the Writings meaningless. If reality were not objectively given and all constructions equally adequate or valid, Baha’u’llah could not lament that He “fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously.”218 These physicians are ignorant precisely because they have constructed reality to fit their “personal desires”219 and thus “erred grievously.”220 Abdu’l-Baha could neither tell us that an “ignorant man by learning becomes knowing, and the world of savagery, through the bounty of a wise educator, is changed into a civilized kingdom.”221 nor that the soul’s journey is necessary in order to acquire divine knowledge”222 to overcome our “lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.”223 Manifestations could not provide humankind with the “science of reality.”224 Without the existence of objective truth about reality, we could not be transformed from “the ignorant of mankind into the knowing”225; it would make no sense for Abdu’l-Baha to say that “the ignorant must be educated.”226 Indeed, the whole Baha’i concept of evolution to further knowledge and understanding both in this world and the next would be moot. 

 

Aristotle’s and the Writing’s agreement about the discovery (not construction) of reality and the correspondence theory of truth is bound to be a controversial issue in our times when theories about the ‘construction’ of reality abound. It is, therefore, necessary to explain in somewhat greater detail what Aristotle and the Writings mean. In a nutshell, the issue stands as follows: we all discover the same basic reality but construct different interpretations of it. However, these interpretations or constructions are constrained by the nature of what they are interpreting. For example, we may understand fire in various ways from the specific chemistry of combustion to a manifestation of divine power but what no interpretation can deny is that fire is hot and will burn human flesh unless counter-measures are taken. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.”227 How we interpret those “realities”228 may differ but all recognize the reality of fire’s power to inflict severe damage on human flesh. In other words, in considering this issue, we must, as precisely as possible, distinguish between what is perceived and what is interpreted, that is, we must distinguish between metaphysics and epistemology and hermeneutics. Here is another example. In progressive revelation, the Writings expect all to accept the fact or reality of Christ as a Manifestation of God but also they expect us to understand or interpret what this fact means in different ways at different times in history. As we can see, the doctrine of progressive revelation logically depends on the mind’s ability to distinguish real and objective fact from interpretation. Indeed, the Writings go even further because they explicitly condemn some interpretations as erroneous, as being “the dust of vain imaginings and the smoke of idle fancy”229, that is, misinterpretations due to the distortions of the ego and our lower animal natures.  Here too, the Writings implicitly expect us not only to distinguish real fact from constructed interpretation but also to distinguish between constructions that are appropriate and inappropriate for the age in which we live. This idea is also presented in the image of the sun’s light or reality being diminished or distorted by the dust on the mirror: “The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror.”230 The fact is that the mirror can be cleansed.231 Not only does Abdu’l-Baha support this but he also makes it clear that not all mirrors are equal in this regard: “The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world.232

 

4.3) The Reality of Attributes

 

 If attributes were not real, did not inhere in their substances and were not essential, how are we understand Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that the “names and attributes of Divinity are eternal and not accidental?233 Obviously the attributes of Divinity are not merely human constructs. If they were, why bother to strive to live up to Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “The soul that excels in attainment of His attributes and graces is most acceptable before God?234 What could the phrase “His attributes”235 even mean? Indeed, if attributes and properties are not real, then there is no rationale for God’s creation since, as Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world.”236 Furthermore, the whole of Baha’u’llah’s salvational project would be useless if properties were not real and did not provide real knowledge because of the Noonday Prayer’s assertion that we were created “to know [God] and to worship [Him]” would be rendered meaningless. If attributes are only human selections or impositions, are not inherent and do not provide real knowledge about things, they could only teach us, at most, about ourselves and our own modus operandi. This would effectively leave us locked in a bubble of our own perceptions and constructs. Aside from their logical weaknesses, such views simply contradict Abdu’l-Baha when he says,

 

But the question may be asked: How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration. We recognize the sun by its bounty and effulgence.237

 

Indeed, it is Baha’u’llah Himself who tells us that attributes are real when he describes God as “the Creator of all names and attributes.”238 If God created them, they are obviously real. If attributes were not real how could it be true that  “His names and His attributes, are made manifest in the world”?239 The following statement would also become senseless:

 

He must so educate the human reality that it may become the center of the divine appearance, to such a degree that the attributes and the names of God shall be resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man, and the holy verse "We will make man in Our image and likeness" shall be realized.240

                                                                         

If God had no real attributes how could they be made “resplendent in the mirror of the reality of man”?241 Indeed, if attributes are simply human fictions and impositions, they could not be attributes ‘of God’ and it would be we, the created, who are shaping the Creator and making Him in our image. Such a notion simply violates the Baha’i principle that the created cannot comprehend – let alone shape – the Creator. Believing that such is the case would indeed be to “join partners with God.”242

 

Nor should we think that it is only God Whom we know by means of attributes, for, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes”243, a fact supported by his statement that “In the human plane of existence we can say we have knowledge of a vegetable, its qualities and product.”244 If these attributes did not provide real knowledge about the object, the use of the word ‘know’ and its variations would be inappropriate. Obviously attributes are not simply human impositions but rather, actually provide knowledge about the objects or substances we are studying. As Baha’u’llah says, “This gift [“the gift of understanding”] giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.”245 Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the rational soul, “the inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application.”246 Elsewhere he says, “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things”247 once again demonstrating that in the Baha’i view, humankind is capable of gaining real knowledge through an exploration of reality. The continual use of the word ‘discover’ throughout the Writings also proves that we discover what already exists independently and do not construct it.

 

5) The Analysis of Reality

 

The topic of discovering reality leads readily to the all important issue of how we analyze it to discover its truth. This subject, already touched on in our discussion of causality and the Prime Mover, makes it clear that the Writings analyze and present reality in Aristotelian terms. In other words, they present an Aristotelian vision of reality in which there are substances which have essential and non-essential attributes; in which things have essences; in which – as already shown – change is the actualization of potentials248; and in which materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. Readers may confirm for themselves the pervasive use of this Aristotelian terminology by typing them into any hyper-text edition of the Writings. They will find

that these words occur in almost every book. Of course, some of them also have a general, non-philosophical usage: ‘substance’, for example, is also employed as a synonym for ‘wealth.’249

In reviewing what follows, one must remember that the Aristotelian concepts form a coherent system of inter-dependent concepts and the use of one concept necessitates the use of at least some others.

 

However, before embarking on our survey of the Aristotelian analysis of reality, it is necessary to look briefly at the important issue of ‘standpoint epistemologies’, the notion that reality appears differently to differing points of view. All too often these are erroneously equated to relativism, the notion that all viewpoints of reality are equally true because all are ‘relative’. However, properly understood, the two are not the same and must be clearly distinguished. The Baha’i Writings and Aristotle embody a stand point epistemology but are not even slightly relativistic. The best way to grasp the difference is to imagine a jig-saw puzzle picture of Mount Fuji. A true stand-point epistemology simply asserts that there are many pieces all of which have some portion of the truth, or the mountain; whatever their differences, the pieces are ultimately rationally compatible with one another and will form a picture of the whole mountain. A relativist, on the other hand, asserts that any piece – indeed, any piece from any puzzle – makes an equally valid fit at every point on our Mount Fuji puzzle.  There is nothing in the Baha’i Writings nor in Aristotle that suggest such relativism since doing so would vitiate not just the concept of the Manifestation as a revealer of absolute truth but the entire concept of knowledge altogether. We must not be misled, as some have been by Shoghi Effendi’s statement that  “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”250 In each case where Shoghi Effendi makes this statement, the word ‘relative’ is clearly used in reference to progressive revelation not to the truth value of the essential teachings. In terms of our illustration, each Manifestation adds a piece to the puzzle but this does not even remotely suggest that the truth value of the piece is not absolute.

 

5.1) A Brief Crash Course: Substance, Attribute and Essence

 

            The primary concept in Aristotle’s analysis of reality is ‘substance’, a concept which underwent some development but never strayed far from the belief that a substance is anything which does not exist as the attribute of something else. Substances are particulars, a fact that is used by Abdu’l-Baha in explaining the return of Elias.251 Your raincoat is a substance and so is this essay. Substance, however, does not only mean ‘matter’ or what Aristotle called “sensible substances.”252 When it does, such matter forms the “substratum”253 of a thing, namely that which is given form. ‘Matter’ in Aristotle’s view is a relative term: matter is anything which potentially receives form. In the case of your raincoat, matter may be physical material but in regards to this study, the matter is the ideas expressed therein. A substance possesses attributes which identify it as the particular substance it is, raincoat, essay ,rose or idea and these attributes are called its ‘essence’ which we must distinguish from other non-essential or ‘accidental’ attributes which a thing does not require to be what it is.254 For example, weight and color are non-essential, accidental attributes in regards to the ideas in this essay. However, being water-proof is an essential attribute to raincoats. Each of these three substances differs essentially. 

 

Neither essential nor accidental attributes can exist by themselves as substances: no one has ever seen ‘red’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘crumpled’ by themselves because they depend on substances to be real. Roughly speaking, Aristotle uses ‘substance’ in four different ways, as “sensible substance” or physical matter that receives form and is, therefore, a composite; as “non-sensible substance” or spirit, or soul that provides form; as a general reference to any particular thing which does not exist as an attribute of something else; and finally, as the form, essence or actuality of a thing.255 The difference among the latter three terms is one of nuance and emphasis. ‘Form’ emphasizes the structure of a substance; ‘essence’ emphasizes its necessary attributes and ‘actuality’ emphasizes the typical or culminating actions of a thing. Like the Baha’i Writings, Aristotle identifies humankind as the highest substance in the phenomenal realm.256

 

5.2) God as a Substance

 

Let us now analyze the concept of substance as used in Aristotle and the Writings in greater depth. Both use the term in two distinct ways: as “sensible substance or matter in the ordinary sense and as something which does not exist as an attribute. There are also non-sensible substances257 of which Aristotle recognizes, above all, God, the Unmoved Mover. Significantly enough, this is exactly the Baha’i position. For example, speaking about the Manifestations, Baha’u’llah tells us,

 

Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. 258

             

In this passage we first notice that, as with Aristotle, the “physical”259 is clearly distinguished from the “substance”260, in this case, God’s substance. This establishes that the physical and the substantial are not the same and that God is a non-physical or non-sensible substance. If substance were understood materialistically, this statement would suggest that God has a material substance, a notion flatly incompatible with the Baha’i Teachings for that would render God susceptible to change261 and make the Divine a composite of matter and form. However, understood in an Aristotelian fashion, this passage presents no philosophical difficulties. God is the supreme substance, the only entity which absolutely exists and can in no wise be seen as an attribute of something else. He is also the supreme actuality insofar as God has no potentials left to be actualized. That is precisely what makes the Divine inaccessible to us.

 

Furthermore, this passage tells us that spiritually, the Manifestation is an immediate emanation from God, and is formally, though not substantially identical with the Divine. This reading, based on Aristotle’s terminology, is confirmed in the immediately following sentences which state, "He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: ‘Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.”262 The Manifestation has formal identity with God – “I am He” 263 – but not  substantial identity with God because He is “born of the substance of God”264 and “He is that He is’. ”265 For an Aristotelian, this relationship is rational, clear and perfectly unparadoxical: it is no different than the relationship between the original of a manuscript and a copy: the two share formal but not substantial identity and one is logically prior and is the final cause of the other. 

 

5.3) The Soul as Substance

 

            Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the nature of the immortal soul provides another example of the Aristotelian usage of ‘substance’ and related terms. 

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.266

                                                 

The first thing to notice is how the Master defines substance in proper Aristotelian fashion as something that “exists by itself”267 and not as an attribute of something else. Moreover, he refers to the soul as a non-material substance and applies this concept vis a vis the body. This is an implicit denial of any epiphenomenalist understanding of the soul, a point he emphasizes by describing the body with the Aristotelian term “accident.” 268  An ‘accident’ according to Aristotle, is an attribute that is non-essential to the existence of a thing which is why the substantial soul can live without the ‘accidental’ body. Thus, we can see at this point, how Abdu’l-Baha grounds his argument for the immortality of the soul in the concepts and definitions originally espoused by Aristotle. He explicitly states that “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”269 It is, in other words, the essence that provides the form that makes a body into a human body. Interestingly enough, Baha’u’llah applies this same concept to the Manifestation’s relationship to the world:

 

At that time, the signs of the Son of man shall appear in heaven, that is, the promised Beauty and Substance of life shall, when these signs have appeared, step forth out of the realm of the invisible into the visible world.270

 

No materialist understanding can make rational sense of the italicized phrase. However, if we apply Aristotle’s concept of substance, its meaning becomes clear: the Manifestation is the essence of life; He is That which informs matter with life itself, and is, in that sense, the world-soul. He is also the actuality, the culmination of life, that is, the highest possible example of life in the phenomenal realm.

 

5.4) Other Uses of ‘Substance’

 

The Aristotelian use of substance also allows us to perceive new levels of meaning in some of Baha’u’llah’s statements. Take, for example, the following:

 

When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? 271

 

At the first, most obvious level, this discusses our willingness to sacrifice our material wealth for the Manifestation. However, an Aristotelian reading suggests a deeper level: it expresses a willingness to sacrifice our very identity, our nature, our essence, our actuality for God’s Cause. This is the martyrdom of ontological “evanescence”272, of truly “utter abasement”273 before God. Baha’u’llah alludes to such complete and ongoing ontological martyrdom when he praises such holy souls as mullah Husayn: “They have offered, and will continue to offer up their lives, their substance, their souls, their spirit, their all, in the path of the Well-Beloved.”274 With the Aristotelian reading of ‘substance’, we see new aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom. The phrase “will continue to offer up”275 suggests that such ontological martyrdom may not be a single act but rather a way of life.

 

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the Writings never use the word ‘substance’ as a synonym for ‘material’, for such is patently not the case276, but rather that we must carefully distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian usage if we wish to avoid confusion. Take the following passage for instance: “Here we see that if attraction did not exist between the atoms, the composite substance of matter would not be possible.”277 The phrase “composite substance of matter”278 makes no sense until we recall that for Aristotle, all physical things were composites of matter which received form279 which together make them a substance or unity.280 Indeed, as seen in the following example, we find that Abdu’l-Baha fully recognizes that material things are composites of matter and form. 

 

The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother, and it is absolute perfection; but the darkness has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection. The substance of Adam's physical life was earth, but the substance of Abraham was pure sperm; it is certain that the pure and chaste sperm is superior to earth.281

                                                             

 

In the first part of this statement, ‘substance’ is meant as ‘sensible substance’ or common matter which, in order to be anything must receive form. He denies the reality of darkness because in the phenomenal world, nothing that lacks substance and form is real. However, in what follows, the meaning of ‘substance’ begins to shift in an Aristotelian direction. The substance of Adam, that is, his sensible substance as well as his being as a non-attribute, is connected to the earth, whereas the substance of Abraham, a Manifestation, is “pure sperm.” Unless we read them with the Aristotelian substratum of the Writings in mind, such statements could intellectually embarrass a modern believer. However, the meaning becomes clear when we recall that for Aristotle, sperm provided the form and that for Abraham in His divine station, that form is provided by God with whom He shares a formal, though not substantial identity. This divine form is obviously superior to the sensible matter of the earth. Lest anyone quarrel too harshly with Aristotle about sperm providing form, let us recall that sperm decides whether an infant is male or female, that is, in that regard, the formative principle. 

 

Here is another example of Abdu’l-Baha’s use of substance in Aristotelian fashion:

Know that the Reality of Divinity or the substance of the Essence of Oneness is pure sanctity and absolute holiness--that is to say, it is sanctified and exempt from all praise.282

 

‘Substance’ is certainly not being used as “sensible substance” or matter, for

that would render the passage meaningless or in complete denial of other Baha’i Teachings concerning the non-materiality of God. This passage emphasizes in the strictest philosophical manner that God, the Reality of Divinity, is a substance insofar as it is absolutely not an attribute of anything else. The “substance of the essence of Oneness”

28

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means that the very substratum or essenceof what it means to be One is totally independent and sanctified above all other things. Although this idea is not new to Baha’is, it is interesting to observe how Abdu’l-Baha explains – and thus provides the basis for a rational philosophical defense – for this belief in Aristotelian terms. 

 

5.5) Hylomorphism: Matter and Form

 

            As the foregoing passages make clear, the Writings and Aristotle284 agree on hylomorphism, that is, the belief that everything in creation is made of both matter and form, though we must bear in mind that ‘matter’ is a relative term in Aristotle insofar as it can refer to physical ‘stuff’ sometimes called “elemental”285  by Abdu’l-Baha. Most fundamental to Aristotle is the doctrine that matter is the potential to receive form. In Aristotle, the form is the active principle while matter is receptive, passive or patient, an idea Baha’u’llah expresses when He writes:

 

The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different.286

 

Two comments are in order. First, the statement that these two are the “same” 287 refers to their origin and nature as created entities while their differences refer to their action in the phenomenal world of creation. This statement should no more be read as a reductionism to spirit than as a reductionism to matter. The Baha’i Writings, like Aristotle’s thought, are examples of hylomorphism, the belief that existence is made of matter and form; therefore, neither of them can be reduced to a spiritual-idealistic or material monism. Second, in the foregoing passage, the “heat generated”288 by the imposition of form onto matter is the tension that inevitably exists between form and matter, since form is the active principle of perfection while matter is the principle of receptivity but also of inertia. This tension is part of what constitutes and most especially living things since the quest for perfection, that is, highest possible self-expression, is an integral part of their existence. Although Aristotle does not explicitly refer to such tension, it is implicit in his characterization of matter and form.

 

The distinction between matter and form also brings us back to our resolution of the apparent self-contradiction between creationism and emanationism and the associated doctrines of time. ‘Creation’ refers to the notion that God made the world like an artisan, a concept implying that the world was made at some point in time. On the other hand, emanationism suggests that the universe is eternal – which, by the way, is another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings – and, consequently, there is no creation in time. On the basis of Aristotle289, we may conclude that ‘creation’ refers to the specific creation of a concrete thing such as the earth or this universe whereas ‘emanation’ refers to the formal principle, essence which has always existed as a potential available for actualization. After all, a Creator requires a creation but nothing says this creation must be material. In short, there is no contradiction between the two Teachings because one refers to the order of specific matter and time, whereas the other refers to the order of potential and form.

 

5.6) Essences

 

            Not only do Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings analyze the world in terms of substances and attributes, they also use the concept of ‘essence’ and accept essences as real. Controversial though it may be in the current philosophical climate, the bottom line is that the Baha’i Writings espouse a form of essentialism, a fact that comes as no surprise given its adherence to a realist epistemology and metaphysic. Because even the most cursory reading of such Aristotelian works as MetaphysicsPhysics and On the Soul, or any basic exposition of his works reveals the centrality of ‘essence’ to his thought, I will not needlessly lengthen our study by expounding on this subject. More to our purpose is to see how the concept of essence appears in the Baha’i Writings, for here, too, it plays a key role since everything, including God, is said to have an essence. 

 

            The Baha’i Writings use the term ‘essence’ in a variety of contexts and to express a variety of ideas but none of them stray from the fundamental Aristotelian meaning of (a) the attributes needed for a substance to be the kind of substance it is; (b) the defining or characteristic nature of a thing and (c) the capacities or potentials inherent in a thing; (d) the final cause of a thing’ (e) the formal cause of a thing and (f) substance and (g) the form of a thing and (h) actuality and (i) culmination.290 These various usages, differing in what aspect of the concept of ‘essence’ they emphasize, are related insofar as they all refer to those attributes, potential or actual, which make a thing the kind of and particular thing it is. Everything we can discuss has an essence which we can know insofar as human beings have the capacity to know it.

 

There seems to be little question that the Baha’i  Writings see all things endowed with an essence as described by Aristotle. In The Kitab-i-Iqan Baha’u’llah tells us that  “the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing [is] a door of knowledge.”291In Gleanings, Baha’u’llah states that “it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God.”292 In this quotation, the essence or “inmost reality”293 of a thing is defined by its capacity or potentiality to “testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God.”294 The concept of essence as capacity is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s basic position. The Writings specifically mention that each of the following has an essence: God 295; the human soul296; humankind297; belief in Divine Unity298; justice299; “all created things”300 beauty301; species of living things302; truth303; religion304; “this new age”305; and the spirit.306 On the basis of such a wide array of references to ‘essence’ it is, in my view, safe to say that the existence of essences is an important point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i  Writings. Indeed, these references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realize that such phrases as “inmost reality”307; “the realities of”308 ; “reality of”309; “inner reality”310, and “inner realities”311 also refer to the essence of things. This connection is further emphasized by the parallel usage seen in the references to the “inmost essence”312 of things.

 

In addition to being pervasive, the terms ‘essence’ and “inmost reality” are used in a manner that is not only consistent with but also combines several, if not all, of Aristotle’s usages into one. Take, for example, the following statement:

 

 (1) Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. (2) Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self . . . (3) These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.313

                                                                      

 

In these statements we can detect all of Aristotle’s uses of the term ‘essence’. The first statement shows the term being used as a reference to (a) the non-accidental attributes of a thing or substance and (b) its defining characteristic and therefore, (c) its form as well as (d) the formal cause of that substance. Because the formal cause requires (e) a final cause, we can say that the latter is included by logical implication. In the second statement, which is really a re-statement of the first with particular focus on humankind, we can detect the additional sense of ‘essence’ as actuality and culmination, that is, the emphasis on the undeniable existence of humankind as the culminating point of phenomenal reality. Finally, in the third statement, we see ‘essence’ – the attributes of God which are also “energies”314 – portrayed as potentials or potencies “latent”315 in us and are waiting to be moved from “from potentiality into actuality.”316 We could also repeat this analysis for Baha’u’llah’s statement that “[f]rom that which hath been said it becometh evident that all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God”317 where we especially notice the attention drawn to “inmost reality”318 as “capacity” 319 or potential (which is another key Aristotelian term) as well as to how the phrase “[e]ach according to its capacity.”320 shows capacity or essential potential defining a thing as the kind of thing it is. 

 

In light of what we have learned, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the Baha’i Writings espouse some form of essentialism, although at this point, the exact nature of this essentialism requires further study and exploration. This conclusion is also supported, as we shall see, by Baha’i and Aristotelian ethics. Given the already noted division of nature into the mineral, vegetable, animal, human and supernatural realms, it cannot be denied that the Baha’i world picture divides phenomenal creation into kinds, each with their essential endowments of God’s attributes and consequently, natural and appropriate behaviors. These kinds are further divided into individuals who are or are not appropriate exemplars of their kind.

 

5.7) Essences and Epistemology

 

According to Aristotle321 what we know of a thing is its universal form, its universal essence or “formula”322 to use Aristotle’s example,  we recognize the form of ‘circular’ in a particular bronze circle but we must recall that while there is a formula for a circle and a formula for bronze, there is no formula or definition for this particular bronze circle. It is only recognized by the aid of “intuitive thinking or of perception.”323 As he writes, “It is not possible to define any thing, for definition is of the universal and of the form.”324 This formula or definition is known by the attributes manifested by specific examples but the particular itself is not known in and as itself: “matter is unknowable in itself.”325 This position does not differ significantly from what Abdu’l-Baha means when he says,

 

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing, and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities, otherwise it is unknown and hidden.326

                       

Not only does this passage show yet again that attributes are real and provide real knowledge, but it also tells us that the essence of a particular thing is not completely known. In other words, all human knowledge is about universals and forms, but cannot extend to the knowledge of the essence of a particular thing. As Aristotle says, “there is neither definition of nor demonstration about sensible, individual substances.”327 Aristotle relegates the knowledge of particulars to “opinion”328 and, although he does not explicitly say so, he, like the Baha’i Writings, would have to admit that only God is capable of knowing particulars in-themselves, that is, the individual essence, or what Duns Scotus called the “haecceitas”.

 

However, this cannot logically be taken to mean that the knowledge we obtain from the attributes and qualities is (a) false or (b) inadequate for our phenomenal purposes or (c) arbitrary fictions or (d) absolutely relative. In other words, while the Baha’i world picture is divided in two, with a noumenal realm known only to God and phenomenal realm known to us via attributes and qualities, this somewhat Kantian aspect of the Writings does not undermine the adequacy or correctness of our knowledge for the phenomenal realm and of universals. If it did, it would undermine science, which is a knowledge of universals in contrast to art which provides intuition of particulars. There is simply no logical reason to lead the Writings into relativistic wastelands seen in the work of some contemporary philosophers. Instead, the limitations on our knowledge lay the foundation for a rational argument for the necessity of revelation.

 

5.8) Potential

 

            Another aspect of substance, ultimately related to essence329, is potential. The word ‘potential’ does not refer to a mysterious little hidden ‘thingy’, but rather to the fact that only a certain number of transformations can be made in a substance without destroying it as the substance it is.  One can use a raincoat as a blanket, a book as an eye-shade and, with some manual dexterity, a rose as a drinking cup: these are potentials that each of them has. However, no amount of effort transforms a raincoat into a 800 pound gorilla, an book into a water-well or a rose into a telephone. They simply lack the potential for that. In many ways, essences are simply a ‘cluster’ of potentials that define a kind and / or an individual. As something changes or evolves – either moved internally or externally – its potentials are actualized or realized, that is, its potentials are revealed and manifested. A rosebud blossoms to produce as beautiful fragrance; of their own nature, a raincoat and essay do not.

 

 Now is also a good time to notice that raincoats, books and roses have different forms: in fact, each of them is matter that has been given a certain form that allows it to be and do certain things. All substances are composed of matter and form which are not the same: the matter in the raincoat could have been given the form of an umbrella, the words in the book arranged into a long metaphysical poem and the rose could have formed another kind of flower. Like two sides of a coin, matter and form are distinct, but not separable: all matter has form but which particular form it receives can vary. Matter also imposes potential limits on what forms can be adopted: sheet metal cannot accept the form to become light bulbs or rodeo bulls.

 

5.9) Essences and Potentials

 

In previous discussions, we have seen the close connection between essence and the concept of potentials. This connection is made even closer when we realize that an essence can also be defined as the collection of potentials that distinguish a particular kind and / or individual from other kinds and / or individuals. Humanity, for example, is endowed with and essentially defined by its rational and spiritual capacities both as an individual and as a species or kind. We must also bear in mind that potentials (and essences) are not little entities hidden in a substance like raisins in a bun. Rather they are (a) the ability or power to initiate or stop change in oneself or another330 or (b) the ability to change into or be changed into something else or be acted upon.331 To make use of the old proverb, a sow’s ear lacks the potential to be changed into a silk purse. The lack of a particular potential or potency is a “privation.”332 All created things suffer or exhibit absolute “privation” vis a vis God, and for this reason may be properly described as “utter nothingness.”333 This understanding allows a logical resolution to the apparent contradiction between Baha’u’llah’s statement that we come from “utter nothingness” 334 and Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that nothing can come from absolute nothingness.335 As the context makes clear, Baha’u’llah’s statements are in relation to “privation” or our ‘privative natures’ vis a vis God whereas Abdu’l-Baha’s assertions refer to substance and positive potentials or capacity. No logical contradiction exists because the statements are about different subjects. The concept of potentials also provides us with a rational interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s statement that copper can be turned into gold and vice versa. 336 The language of this passage, for example, “lieth hidden”337, “possible”338 and “can be turned”339, clearly indicates this statement is about potentials or capacities, which makes it a statement of scientific fact.  

 

The belief that potentials or capacities define us essentially is plain when Abdu’l-Baha says that “although capacities are not the same, every member of the human race is capable of education.”340 This asserts that we share individually different portions of the general species capacity to learn. In both Aristotle and the Writings, these capacities are sometimes also portrayed as powers or abilities to act or be acted on.341 The connection between capacities, or potentials and powers is plainly evident in the following quotation:

 

The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature's ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism.342

                                               

As we can see, potentials are the powers or abilities that humankind possesses, indeed, are the unique, that is, necessary characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of creation. However, we must be careful to note that although the word ‘potential’, ‘power’, ‘potency’ and ‘potencies’ are used pervasively throughout the Writings, not all usages of the latter two refer to potentials. For example, the description of God as “He, verily, through the potency of His name, the Mighty”343 does not use ‘potency’ in the sense of ‘potential’ but rather in the sense of an existing power. As a matter of fact, reading it as ‘potential’ would lead to the serious theological error of ascribing potentials, that is, unactualized powers or attributes to God, and, thereby characterizing the Divine as imperfect. We must, therefore, be careful to distinguish between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian uses of these terms. There are three other terms by which to explore the subject of potentials in the Writings: the first is ‘latent’, which is pervasively used.344 The second is “hidden” which is found in a similarly wide range of Baha’i texts referring to the concept of hidden – that is, potentially revealed or realized – qualities and their manifestation either through divine revelation, through natural processes or through human activity.345 The third is ‘realize’ which, when used philosophically instead of as a term for ‘to understand suddenly’, refers to the process by which the hidden or potential is made real, comes to fruition or is revealed in the world of being.346

            The importance of the concept of potentials for Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings can hardly be over-stated especially in an age in which the topic of change, and especially evolutionary change, is so hotly debated.  Both Aristotle’s and the Writing’s entire vision of change and development depend on his belief that change – be it locomotion, increase, growth or decay is the actualizing or realizing of hitherto invisible, hidden potentials. For this reason, they share a common understanding of evolution which is not seen as the alteration of one species into another but rather the successive actualization of hidden, unrealized potentials. This allows both to argue that each species is a specific and original complex of potentials that were always available or hidden in creation and that what appears to be the transformation of one species into another is really the actualization of hitherto hidden potentials.

 

            (Among the alleged common ancestors of human and ape, outward similarities notwithstanding, only one group had the potential to manifest a rational soul. This group must have had this potential from the beginning because the concept of potentials leading to new potentials involves an infinite regress and is, thereby, logically untenable. Here’s why. Either an organism has the potential to manifest rationality, or it does not. If it does not, it needs to acquire this potential (1) but to get this potential (1), it must first get the potential (2) to get the potential (1), and then, in turn it needs to acquire potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1) and so on . . . If  the organism turns out to already possess potential (3) to get potential (2) to get potential (1), then the organism is obviously part of the distinct human line.)

 

Thus, it is inaccurate to say that Aristotle and the Writings deny evolution. Rather, they re-interpret the same data used by all anthropologists in terms of potentiality and conclude that all evolution is the actualization or manifestation of previously hidden potentials. They disagree with current scientific views but they are not out of harmony with science because there is sound logical reasoning about potentials underlying their views. 

 

5.10) Essence and Existence

 

The distinction between potential and actualization provides yet another point of agreement between Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings, namely the distinction between essence and existence. As already noted, for Aristotle, the essence may be seen as the potentiality of a thing: the identity of a hammer, for example, is constituted by all its potential uses that determine it can be employed as a prop to hold up a shelf of books as well as melted down to make a steel plate and cup but not as a guard dog. Our actions are required to bring the hammer’s various potentials into actuality, that is, to bring them into existence. In other words, for Aristotle, existence is actualization: bringing something into existence means actualizing a potential. The same is true in the Baha’i Writings where we are brought into existence, that is, are actualized or manifest from mere potentialities which are actualized when the right combination of elements occurs. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha asks, “Did we not pray potentially for these needed blessings before we were created?”347 The word “created”348 here must be read as meaning ‘actualized’, ‘brought into appearance’ or ‘manifest’ because if we read it as meaning  ‘brought into existence from absolute nothing’, then Abdu’l-Baha would be contradicting his own statements that

 

existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.349

 

Thus, for the Writings, as for Aristotle, to exist means to be actualized or to be manifest: we do not really exist before the point of actualization although the potential for us exists because , according to Abdu’l-Baha, we cannot come into existence from absolute nothing. Consequently,  it follows that things do not come into manifest existence merely because they have an essence, that is, merely because there is a potential for them to come into existence. Existence does not necessarily or automatically follow from one’s potential for existing. It must be provided by a special act – in Aristotle, the continued action of the Unmoved Mover, and, in the Baha’i case, the voluntary act of God Who chooses which potentials to actualize. In other words, for a potential to come into existence requires an act from an entity that already exists and is, thereby, able to take action which is something only existing entities can do. In the Baha’i view, this ‘entity’ is ultimately God, Who actualizes or provides existence to all things other than Himself. Only God exists by virtue of His own nature, that is, only in God are essence / potential and actualized existence one and the same. In short, it is not only God’s nature to exist but also to exist as a perfectly actualized Being. 

 

            The distinction between essence / potential and existence is of supreme philosophical importance for both Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings because it is the foundation for a Baha’i existentialism. The core of existential philosophies is the belief that ‘existence’ precedes essence’, although the meaning of this statement is variously interpreted. In all cases, however, existence is a result of a distinct act, and theistic and atheistic existentialisms diverge on the issue of whether God or the individual is ultimately responsible for this act. A Baha’i existentialism would, in a sense, have it both ways. As in theistic forms of existentialism, God is ultimately responsible for the act that manifests a potential in the world, and, as in atheistic existentialism, it is the individual who creates his or her own ‘voluntary self’ by choosing which potentials to actualize in this life. Indeed, the whole notion of our lives being a process of actualizing potentials leads us closer to the form of existentialism developed above all by Martin Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel, although it bears affinities to Sartre’s existentialism as well.

 

            Although this issue is explored more fully in my paper “The Call to Being: Introduction to a Baha’i Existentialism”, it is worthwhile to digress for a moment to make a few salient points to demonstrate the versatility of the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. It is in my view, preciseyt this versatility which led Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to retain whatever was useful in Aristotle as the substratum of the Writings. For example, if our lives are a process of actualizing our potential selves, certain consequences are unavoidable. Our lives are matters of perpetual choice among possibilities – often based on little more than faith – in a world in which we face the challenges of trying to relate to a God Who is essentially unknowable, as well as a world made up of things whose essences we cannot know directly. We live, and choose, in a world of essential mystery. Moreover, it also becomes evident that we are never completely ourselves which means that self-alienation and estrangement, wonder, and mystery are inherently structured into our being. We are, since the Writings assert the existence of an after-life of perpetual development and evolution, ladies and gentlemen ‘in waiting’, and therefore, not surprisingly, prone to ‘angst’ about our choices and their consequences. We are Marcel’s “homo viator”, for ever in transit, for whom every moment is simultaneously an arrival and departure and our only ‘rest’ is the journey itself. Moreover, we are intrinsically dissatisfied because we are, and never can be, never fully and completely ourselves. We are is locked in a constant struggle to become – or to avoid becoming – what we are not and our ‘nothingness’ always haunts us. Indeed, we can become so overwhelmed by this struggle that we give up, act in ‘bad faith’, lose our individual being in the anonymity of the crowd and adopt a collective rather than true-to-ourselves, personal identity. Then, we face the challenge of hearing the ‘call to being’ and finding the power to answer it.  We are always ‘in a situation’ and ‘in a world’; we are concrete real beings, not abstract concepts, whose moods and attitudes present the world and others to us in various ways and condition our ‘modes of being’. Finally, the Writing’s emphasis on the process of actualization and on our individual and social evolution to overcome ourselves to help establish a more highly evolved form of humankind has clearly Nietzschean overtones worthy of exploration. Readers even passingly familiar with existential thought will recognize both the existential themes as well as authors alluded to in this paragraph.

 

            It may be objected that the Writings and Aristotle cannot be essentialist and existentialist at the same time. However, this objection does not hold because of the individual’s free will to choose which of his human and personal potentials to actualize, when, where, how and why. Aristotelian essentialism does not do away with choice; it is not a form ethical determinism. What the Aristotelian insights confirmed by the Writings do is to provide an outline of the nature and structure of being and specifically human being, a project in which they are not fundamentally different than Being and TimeBeing and Nothingness and The Mystery Of Being. (Even Sartre who is most allergic to any suggestions of a general ‘human nature’ still recognizes, and thereby contradicts himself by reserving for humankind the specific character of “pour-soi” as distinguished from everything else which is “en-soi”.)  A Baha’i existentialism explores how we personally experience the nature and structure of human be-ing, and what this experience means for us as individuals in the world.

 

5.11) Substance-Attribute Ontology

 

Closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of substance is the concept of attributes since substances can only be known by the attributes they possess, a crucial fact explicitly stated in the Baha’i Writings: “Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes.”350 This also applies to our knowledge of God:

 

“Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?”351

 

This issue is of far-reaching philosophical importance because it shows that the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle both share a substance-attribute analysis of existence or a substance-attribute ontology and this, in turn, limits the kind of metaphysics and epistemologies to which they can be logically allied. This is clearly evident from even a cursory examination of Abdu’l-Baha’s preceding quotations in which there are three points worthy of note. First, the properties are “their”352 properties; they belong to a particular created substance and are clearly not arbitrary human constructs or ‘fictions’ imposed on them by the perceivers. The properties of substances are not necessarily human impositions. Second, phenomenal things are known to us through their attributes, from which it follows logically that these attributes provide real – albeit, as seen above, limited – knowledge. However limited it may be, such knowledge is still real knowledge about the substance possessing or manifesting the attributes. Third, this knowledge comes to us directly from the substances by means of their attributes or properties which we perceive. Such is precisely the import of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that “the mind is connected with the acquisition of knowledge, like images reflected in a mirror.”353 In other words, the mind perceives or reflects these attributes directly and immediately just a mirror directly and immediately reflects whatever it faces.354 Just as humankind reflects the divine perfections355, so the mind reflects the real attributes of the substances around it.

 


3) The Soul

 

Both the existence and nature of the soul are another key area of agreement between the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle. However, before we explore this subject, it is important to clarify the Baha’i usage of some terminology. We must understand that according to Baha’u’llah, “spirit, mind, soul, hearing and sight are one but differ through differing causes.” 118 In other words, the mind, the rational soul, the power of sight and hearing are all the operations of a single power – spirit – through different instruments. Abdu’l-Baha confirms this when he says, “It is the same reality which is given different names according to the different conditions wherein it is manifested . . . when it governs the physical functions of the human body, it is called the human soul; when it manifests itself as the thinker, the comprehender, it is called mind; And when it soars into the atmosphere of God, and travels to the spiritual world, it becomes designated as spirit.”119 Aristotle expresses a similar view as the mind as a power of the soul when he writes, “by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges.”120 As Julio Savi writes, “These words enable us to understand the fundamental one-ness of the spirit beyond the multiplicity of its expressions. The instruments of the soul (or spirit of man) should not, therefore, be viewed as independent entities, but as different aspects of the same reality in its different functions.”121 It is essential not to lose sight of this fact if we wish to make clear sense of what would otherwise be a confused and self-contradictory jumble in the Writings.

 

The significance of the equation ‘spirit = mind = soul’ is that it is in fundamental agreement with Aristotle’s own views. As in Baha’u’llah’s statement, Aristotle, too, maintains that the soul controls such bodily functions as movement122, nutrition and reproduction123 and possesses the powers of sight124, touch125, sensation and, most significantly in light of Baha’u’llah’s statement, thinking.126 Thinking is an activity of the mind, or, what Aristotle calls the ‘active reason’ or ‘active intellect’. As we shall see, it is explicitly identified with the soul’s higher, specifically human functions for Aristotle, like the Baha’i Writings, also divides the human soul into two parts, the lower, that is, animal bodily functions and the higher, specifically human function of reason which he calls “divine.”127 Moreover, in complete agreement with the Baha’i Writings,128 he makes it clear that sickness, old age and death are not a diminishing of the soul itself but rather of its bodily “vehicle.”128

 

We have already seen explicit agreement on the existence of a vegetable, animal and human soul each including the powers of the one below it and adding its own essentially unique powers.129 Soul is the essence or form which “corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing’s essence.”130 Soul, in other words, is the “essential ‘whatness of a body’.”131 This, in turn, makes soul the “substance”132 as well as the “actuality”133 of a body –  a point on which it is absolutely necessary to note that ‘substance’ does not necessarily mean ‘matter’ in Aristotle. That said, let us see just how similar Aristotle’s views and the Writings. I shall first present a list of items on which Aristotle and the Writings share congruent views on the soul, and then focus on two in particular: the immateriality of the mind and the immortality of the soul. 

 


3.1) Rational Soul as Humankind’s Essential Attribute

 

The first similarity between the Writings and Aristotle’s concept of the soul is both the Baha’i Writings and Aristotle see the rational soul as the essential attribute that distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Abdu’l-Baha, for example identifies the “rational soul”134 with the “human spirit”135 and describes the “station of the rational soul”136 as “the human reality.”137 Elsewhere he asserts “The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names – the human spirit and the rational soul – designate one thing.”138 For his part Aristotle  shows his agreement with Abdu’l-Baha by saying that “Without reason man is a brute.”139 He also asserts that “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue”140 and that the highest virtue – both in the sense of the highest good and the highest power in humankind – is contemplation.141  He writes, “Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation142 and adds that since “reason is divine”143, “he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods.”144 Although Aristotle himself never uses the scholastic term “rational soul”, clearly in his view, reason distinguishes humankind distinct from the rest of nature145 and it is by virtue of rationality that humankind partakes of the divine, or, at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.”146

 


3.2) Rational Soul As Immortal

 

The fact that the human soul distinguishes us from the rest of nature prepares the way for us to recognize that, unlike other beings, it is immortal, another issue on which Aristotle and the Baha’i Writings agree. Aristotle’s own views show some development – but no wavering on the fundamental issue of eternal survival. In Eudemus, he asserts that the soul existed before entering the body and will continue to exist afterwards 147 an opinion not continued in Aristotle’s other works touching on the same subject. This view bears at least some resemblance to the Baha’i notion that soul pre-existed potentially before its creation or actualization in material form.148 However, his most famous and influential reference to immortality occurs On the Soul, where he tells us unequivocally that the human soul, or at least, the specifically human parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.”149  Not being “the formula of a thing’s essence”150 that is, the essence of any bodily organ, they are not limited by them.  Elsewhere, Aristotle informs us that the ability to think “seems to be to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers.”151 Aristotle also says that when the mind is “set free from its present conditions it [the mind] appears just as it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.”152 In short, the specifically human aspects of the soul can exist without the body and are immortal. The strength of Baha’i belief in immortality – which needs no great elaboration here – is perhaps best summed up in the title of chapter 66 of Some Answered Questions, “The Existence of the Rational Soul After the Death of the Body” and the various proofs offered in support. What is plainly evident is that Aristotle’s belief in the immortality of the mind, or active reason153 and the Baha’i Writings are not just in general but in quite specific agreement that what survives is our human, rational functions and not our animal selves.

 


3.3) Soul as Substance

 

Among other agreements between Aristotle and the Writings, we find the idea that the soul is a substance154, not, of course, in the sense of Locke’s materialist misunderstanding of the term, but in the sense of a distinct entity that does not merely exist as a predicate of something else. Indeed, it is “the cause or source of the living body.”155 The soul is real and no mere emergent or epiphenomenon of physiological processes and is distinct from the body. In other words, when discussing the soul, we must not confuse the appearance of the soul in the body once the body is an adequate mirror and the notion that soul is a product of physiological events. In fact, the situation is quite the other way around: as Abdu’l-Baha says, “the rational soul is the substance through which the body exists.”156 Elsewhere, he states:

 

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.157

 

These statements could almost be a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that “the soul is the primary substance and the body is the matter”158 which is the philosophical gist of what Abdu’l-Baha says. Using Aristotelian language, – “substance [that] exists by itself”159 and “accident”160 – he clearly rejects the reduction of the soul to an “accident”160  or epiphenomenon resulting from physiological processes. By asserting that the “rational soul is the substance”161, he is, of course, implicitly asserting that the rational soul is also the essence and actuality of the body; it is what the body seeks to realize as best it can given its material limitations to reflect the essence or soul. These views harmonize with Aristotle’s who tells us, for example, that the soul is a substance, form, essence and actuality162, the body’s final cause 163 as well as the origin or cause of the living body.164 Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s statement here also tells us that the soul or spirit is, in effect, unassailable by external events, a view that is shared by Aristotle when he writes that “The incapacity of old age is due to the affection not of the soul but of its vehicle . . . mind itself is impassible . . .”165

 


3.4) Mind / matter- Mind / body Dualism

 

The concept that the “spirit or human soul”166 can exist separately from the body inescapably commits Aristotle168 and the Baha’i Writings to some form of what is called mind / matter dualism but which could just as well be termed soul / matter dualism. Aristotle says bluntly that “the body cannot be the soul”169 and Abdu’l-Baha states, 

 

The spirit, or the human soul, is the rider; and the body is only the steed. . . The spirit may be likened to the lamp within the lantern. The body is simply the outer lantern. If the lantern should break the light is ever the same . . .170

                                   

Elsewhere he tells us “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal.”171 Clearly evident in these statements is an actual not merely intellectual distinction between the “human soul” or the specifically human powers of the soul and our animal bodies. This supported by the fact that Abdu’l-Baha often and approvingly quotes Christ’s statement that what is born of flesh or matter is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.172 Clearly, spirit and matter are two essentially different things.

 

It may be objected that the oneness of reality precludes any form of dualism but such is not the truly case. The following quotation is often produced to support some kind of monism in the Baha’i Writings:

 

It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the important existences was in the beginning-- for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared.173

 

In the first place, both this passage and its context, refer to matter rather than spirit or soul and assert no more than that originally, matter was one and that g

radually various forms of matter evolved or broke symmetry from this initial supersymmetry. There is not the slightest suggestion here that soul, spirit or mind are somehow forms of matter albeit very subtle ones. Moreover, even if one chose to ignore its obvious reference to matter alone, and read this passage as implying that spirit and matter were all originally one, the situation does not change for us as we are today. The passage clearly indicates that matter, and by supposed implication, spirit, have by now evolved into different forms so that whatever unity they may have once had, no longer exists now. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, we now live in a world that shows a clear and essential distinction between matter and spirit. Thus, if there is a monism in the Baha’i Writings, it is at best a ‘historical monism’ which is no longer functional.

 

I would suggest that the following understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s statements is more consistent with the Writings than the ‘monist’ interpretation. His statement that “The organization of God is one: the evolution of existence is one: the divine system is one”174 does not mean all parts of the organization or system are the same and that differences are unreal. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha rejects that concept when he says that humankind is truly and essentially separate and distinct from nature, that we possess powers not found in nature itself, that, in effect, the phenomenal universe, though one insofar as it is a coherent and unified system dependent on God, is also divided in two insofar as we possesses powers not found in the rest of nature.