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The Study of Man

The study of man is a vast field and covers many spheres of knowledge which have evolved over centuries. In Western philosophy, man is designated as a microcosm (from Greek micros kosmos: "little world") in which the macrocosm, or the universe, is reflected (1). This idea emerged from the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC who thought that a world soul guided the universe (e.g., in Plato) and a human soul guided a miniature universe hidden in man. Plato relates in Apology that the specific message of God that Socrates brought to his fellowmen was the soul or psyche is man's true self. He also stressed that the care or tending of one's soul to make it as good as possible, in fact making it like God, should be man's priority (2). He also advised not to ruin one's life by putting care for body or for possessions before the care of soul. In contrast to the view prevalent in circles influenced by Orphic-type religions that "soul sleeps while the body is active but wakes when the body sleeps", Socrates viewed soul as normal walking personality, the seat of character and intelligence, which determined whether man was wise, foolish, good or bad. In Socrates´ view, the soul is man and his happiness depends directly on the goodness or badness of his soul.

The concept of microcosm developed by the Ancient Greeks was propagated especially by Neoplatonists, and the idea was passed to Gnostics, to Christian Scholastics, to Jewish Kabbalists and to Renaissance philosophers such as Paracelus (3). The analogy of the whole (macrocosm) and parts (microcosm) was used to describe the metaphysical relationship man and the rest of nature until the 15th century. The standard assumption was that man had a fixed nature which determined both his place in the universe and his destiny. These are reflected in the two sayings have been set up as mottos in the field of philosophical anthropology since the 5th century BC. These are: "Man is the measure of all things" (Protagoras) and "Know thyself" (a saying from the Delphic oracle, echoed by Heracleitus and Socrates, among others)(4). These mottos reflect the specific orientation which makes man as its starting point and treats man and the study of man as the centre on which all other disciplines ultimately depend. Thus man, the world, and God have constituted three important foci of Western thought from the beginnings of its recorded history. Western thought has laid greater emphasis on existence of the individual human being in contrast to other systems where the personal identity dissolves into the All.

In the medieval period, Western culture was dominated by the Christian Church. Theology, rather than metaphysics, was given a priority even though many structures of Greek philosophy were preserved. The creation story in the book of Genesis made man a creature among other creatures, but not like other creatures. Man was the product of the final act of divine initiative, was given the responsibility for the Garden of Eden and the benefit of a direct relationship with his creator. The Fall and redemption, the categories of sin and grace, thus concern only man, the descendant of Adam, who was also given control over plants and animals. Man alone can, after a life in this world, hope to participate in an eternal life that is far more important than the temporal life that he will leave (5).

During this period, there was a discussion on the exact balance between mind and body which must be struck in man. Christian philosophy, through the writings of St. Augustine, gave prominence to Platonic views. Augustine's God is a wholly immaterial, supremely rational, transcendent creator of the universe. The twofold task of the Christian philosopher, a lover of wisdom, is to seek knowledge of the nature of God and of his own soul, the human self. For Augustine the soul is not the entire man but his better part. Augustine argued that since the will was reason, when people exercise their will, they are acting in the image of God, the supreme rational being. Thomas Aquinas, while placing less emphasis on the will, also regarded man as acting in the image of God to the extent that he exercises and seeks to fulfil his intelligent nature. But he rejected the Platonic tendency to devalue the body, insisting that it was part of the concept of man that he have flesh and bone, as well as a soul (6).

In the Renaissance period, humanists, however, proclaimed that what distinguishes man from all other creatures is that he has no nature (7). This was a way of asserting that man's actions are not bound by laws of nature in a way that they applied to other creatures. Thus, man is capable of taking responsibility of his own actions because he has the freedom to exercise his will. In this period, man become the primary focus of philosophical attention and the study of human nature began to displace theology and metaphysics as "first philosophy" - the branch of philosophy that is regarded as the foundation for all subsequent philosophy and that provided the framework of all scientific investigation (8).

During this period, man did not cease to view himself within the context of the world, nor did he deny the existence of God; he did, however, disengage himself from the bonds of cosmic determination and divine authority to become a centre of interest in his own eyes. In ancient literature, the educated people had a clear conscience instead of the guilty conscience of Christianity (9). At the same time, the great inventions and discoveries suggested that man could pride in his accomplishments and regard himself with admiration. Giovanni Pico, in 1486, expressed a view that breaks radically with Greek and Christian tradition. He thought that man has not been created with form as described in Greek tradition and has ability to make himself what he will. In this way, man's distinctive characteristic becomes his freedom: He is free to make himself in the image of God or the image in form of animals (10).

The rise of scientific thought in the 16th and 17th centuries represent first attempts at anthropological reflection (i.e., reflection centred on man, which explores his different aspects in a spirit of empirical investigation that is freed from all ties to universal truths). The thoughts of Michael de Montaigne represented the rise of a skeptical approach. Skepticism, the adoption of empirical approach and liberation from entrenched authority, lead to more pessimistic view's of man capacity of knowledge. The emphasis on man's humanity - on the limited nature of his capacities - leads to a denial that he can, even by the use of reason, transcend the realm of appearances. The only form of knowledge available to him is experimental knowledge, gained in the first instance by the use of outer senses. This led to accepting a belief that human beings are constituted in such a way that the knowledge of reality is always unavailable to them and also resulted in a renewal of attention to and interest in the everyday world of appearances. The knowledge of here and now becomes the only object of human knowledge and concern and the project of seeking knowledge of reality behind appearances must be abandoned because it is beyond the scope of human understanding (11).

In contrast to Skepticism, the work of Rene Descartes represented an optimistic continuation of optimism about man's capacity of knowledge. The foundation and starting point of Cartesian knowledge is, for each individual, within himself, in his experience of certainty that he must have of his own existence and in the idea of a perfect, infinite being. His work is characteristic of philosophical effort of 17th century, which was engaged in a struggle to achieve a synthesis between old established orders and newly proclaimed freedoms that were based on skeptical rejection of the older orders. There were undeniable tensions in the philosophy of this period that were the products of various unsuccessful attempts to reconcile two very different views of man in relation to God and the world (12).

John Locke argued that while man cannot prove the material world exists, his senses give him evidence affording all the certainty that he needs. In principle, Locke thought that it was impossible to have any understanding between mind and body because one could not conceive a vantage point outside oneself to observe the correlation between a condition of one's body and his one's perception of this condition. While one can observe bodies of other people and their behaviour, the observer has no direct perception of what is going on in their minds. The mind and its contents are known to each person by introspection. If it is presumed that minds of all people work basically in the same way, then introspection provides evidence for human psychology. Locke also distinguished between 'man' and 'person', reserving 'man' for the animal species and 'person' for a moral subject. In this way, empirical studies can be conducted on both aspects: man as a natural and as a moral being. The resulting picture lacks any integral unity because man is an incomprehensible union of body and mind (13).

The 18th century Enlightenment is characterized by an optimistic faith in ability of man to develop progressively by using reason. By coming to know both himself and the natural world over a period of time, he is able to develop morally and materially and increasingly dominate both his animal instincts and the natural world that forms his environment. Vico presented the idea that the study of man must differ in goals and methods from that in the natural world. This is because the nature of man is not static and unalterable. A person through his own efforts can understand the world and adapt to it to meet his physical and spiritual needs and transform that world and himself. Thus, each individual is both the product and the support of a collective conscience that defines a particular moment in the history of the spirit. Thus, each epoch interprets the sum of its traditions, norms, and values in such a way as to impose a model of behaviour on our daily life as well as special domains of morals, religion and art (14).

The 19th century was a time of greatly increased activity in the science of man. There was a corresponding rapid development of various disciplines, but this was accompanied by increasing specialization within disciplines. There was a declining influence of religion in all branches of science (15). In the late 19th century, Friendrich Nietzche, a German philosopher, announced that God was dead. This meant that the universal God-given ideals of reason and truth, goodness and beauty were also dead. Thus, in becoming more involved with the world, man removed the transcendent support for belief in absolute standards or ideals.

In the 20th century, the study of man showed rapid expansion, increasing specialization, and fragmentation of empirical knowledge. The empirical knowledge obtained through outer senses placed man in context of the physical universe and defined his existence in terms of time and space, and helped him to relate to immediate and distant physical surroundings. Through the development of science and technology, man has acquired knowledge about objects which range from particles within atoms to composition of distant stars and galaxies (16). Henle has identified at least five formally distinct refined ways of knowing or organizing knowledge: (1) humanistic; (2) scientific; (3) philosophical; (4) mathematical; and (5) theological. The specialization involved in the organization of knowledge has led to narrowing of viewpoints as shown above and has also led to lack of communication between people specializing in different fields (17).

In this short review, I have shown how the Western man has devalued metaphysical principles to understand nature and has become dependent on his own ability in the arts and sciences. At present, he is living in a rapidly changing world and is being forced to address social, economic, political, scientific and spiritual issues in a holistic way. This is proving to be extremely difficult because he seems to lack two important things: a holistic model to integrate the empirical information and a metaphysical foundation to understand his relationship with nature.

Although, I have been educated in the West, I do not subscribe to the dichotomy between matter and spirit and have resorted to Islamic philosophy to develop my world viewpoint. Islam makes no such distinction and seeks a balance between the material and spiritual dimensions of one's existence. This concept has been clearly articulated by Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni, also known as Aga Khan IV, on the occasion of foundation ceremony of the Ismailia Jamatkhana on 26 July, 1982 (18):

"Islam is an all encompassing in the direction which it gives to man's life. It is perhaps this very concept that the West, more familiar with the Augustinian Christian principle which separates the spiritual and the material, finds difficult fully to understand and appreciate. I say this not in any spirit of judgement but rather in clarification.

Islam, therefore, guides man not only in his spiritual relationship with God, it also guides man in his relationship with his fellow men and in his relationship with the material world around him. It encourages enterprise, but warns that enterprise, without a social conscience, is not acceptable. It is in this respect, where Islam's message applies to all aspects of man's life, that he will be judged not just on what he does but the manner in which he does it."

In my previous research bulletin, the development of total human potential involved the development of one's outer and inner dimensions. The great prophets developed their souls through practice of faith and created luminosity within themselves. In art, luminosity is symbolized as a halo around a person's face. In order to represent this in the model of total human potential, I have divided the inner dimension of one's existence presented in my previous research bulletin into spirituality and luminosity. The new model consists of three components: material, spiritual and luminous. All the learning through outer senses is still considered part of material existence. In my opinion, a learned person, a real Doctor of Philosophy, is a person which has simultaneously developed the material, spiritual and luminous dimensions of his or her existence.

This model has led me to ask the following question: Can a person who lives according to material science understand the ultimate reality? The answer is 'no' because if one lives totally according to material science, one will be successful only in science of the physical universe. This will lead to partial understanding of nature because material scientists deal only with limited and approximate descriptions of reality (19). The model of total human potential requires the development of spirituality and luminosity within oneself to understand the ultimate reality or monoreality (i.e., the one final reality).

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, also known as Aga Khan III, has linked the value of soul to the concept of monoreality as follows (20):

"Once man has thus comprehended the essence of existence there remains for him the duty, since he knows the value of his own soul, of making for himself a direct path which will constantly lead his individual soul to and bind it with the universal Soul of which the Universe, as much of it we perceive with our limited vision, is one of the infinite manifestations. Thus Islam's basic principle can only be defined as monorealism and not as monotheism."

Monoreality is the gnosis or recognition of God in one's own soul and is the final step in understanding the reality of the statement "Lo! we are Allah's and lo! unto Him we are returning" (21). Monoreality can be achieved by man if he strives to excel in the physical, spiritual and luminous dimensions of his existence. Spirituality is concerned with the development of soul. Luminosity is concerned with enriching the soul with Light, the highest form of intellect. This can all be achieved in the microcosm or the personal world of an individual as described by following verse of the Holy Quran (22):

"We shall show them Our portents on the horizons and within themselves (in their souls) until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth. Doth not thy Lord suffice, since He is Witness over all things?" (41:53).

In the beginning of this chapter, I presented Socrates' view that the soul is man and his happiness depends directly on the goodness or badness of his soul. Islam is a natural religion and emphasizes the simultaneous development of material, spiritual and luminous dimensions of one's existence which lead to recognition of soul and oneness. Therefore if a person achieves insight and complete understanding of religion, he will find that spiritual sciences will enable him to understand nature completely. In this sense, the development of spirituality and luminosity within oneself allows for complete understanding of material dimensions of one's existence. This model also suggests that integration of all spheres of knowledge, which seems to be an impossible task for the human intellect in the current information age, will be possible when one discovers the power of soul and creates luminosity within oneself. The mechanism for developing the soul (Ruh) and enriching it with Light (Noor) is a challenge facing human beings.

End Notes

  1. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8:102:2a.
  2. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 27:487:2b.
  3. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8:102:2a.
  4. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:560:2b.
  5. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:561:1a.
  6. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:561:2b.
  7. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:560:2b.
  8. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:561:1a.
  9. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:562:1a.
  10. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:562:1b.
  11. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:562:2a.
  12. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:562:2b.
  13. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:563:2a.
  14. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:565:2b.
  15. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:566:1a.
  16. Morrison, Philip, Morrison, Phylis and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of ten : a book about the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero.
  17. R. J. Henle, Science and the Humanities in Philosophy and Science as modes of knowing, 11-12.
  18. The speech was delivered in Burnaby, British Columbia on July 26, 1982.
  19. Capra, F, Steindl-Rast D., Matus, T. Belonging to the Universe. Explorations on the frontiers of Science and Spirituality, xiii.
  20. Aga Khan III, Memoirs of Aga Khan, 175.
  21. Pickthall, M. M. The meaning of the glorious Koran, 46.
  22. Pickthall, M. M. The meaning of the glorious Koran, 343-344.


    Aga Khan III. Memoirs of Aga Khan. London, Caswell, 1954.

    Aga Khan IV. "Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Burnaby Jamatkhana Foundation Ceremony", Hikmat, Vancouver, His Highness Price Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismailia Association for Canada, 1983, 2 (2): 20-21.

    Capra, F, Steindl-Rast D., Matus, T. Belonging to the universe : explorations on the frontiers of science and spirituality. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, c1991.

    Henle, R. J. "Science and the humanities", in Philosophy and science as modes of knowing; selected essays, ed. by Alden L. Fisher and George B. Murray, New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.

    Morrison, Philip, Morrison, Phylis and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of ten : a book about the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero. New York, Scientific American Library, c1994.

    Pickthall, M. M. The meaning of the glorious Koran. New York, The New American Library, 12th printing.

    Goetz, P. W. "Microcosm", in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 8, ed. P. W. Goetz, Chicago, c1988, 102.

    G. P. G. and M. E. T. "Philosophical Anthropology", in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 25, ed. P. W. Goetz, Chicago, c1988, 559-570.

    A. E. Ta. "Socrates", in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 27, ed. P. W. Goetz, Chicago, c1988, 484-488.

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