The Hidden Hierarchy of Existence

By Kurt Almqvist

At the 1972 conference on the care of the environment in Stockholm, one of the participants -- in the division "Environment Forum" -- was a Persian scientist and author named Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The reason for his presence is such that it merits special mention. The leader of the conference, Maurice Strong, had personally invited him to attend after reading one of his books titled The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. Nasr received his Ph.D. in the history of science and philosophy at Harvard, and since 1964 has been professor at the University of Teheran as well as at the American University in Beirut. He has served as guest lecturer at both Harvard and the University of Chicago, and it is on his lectures at the latter seat of learning that the above-mentioned book is based. His other published works treat of the mysticism, philosophy and science of Islam, but his intellectual horizon is by no means limited to the cultural bounds of this religion, as is evidenced by the subject he chose for his doctoral dissertation. On the contrary, in reading his works, one is struck by his intimate knowledge not only of the other Asian cultures but also of Western religions, philosophy and natural sciences and the history of these disciplines.

In The Encounter of Man and Nature Seyyed Hossein Nasr tries to show that, for a thorough understanding of the present disharmony between man and nature, it is not enough to have a detailed knowledge of the outward factors involved -- physical, chemical and biological processes, available natural resources, population growth, the economic distribution among peoples, etc. -- nor merely of man's egoism and lust for gain: the causes of disharmony lie beyond all material as well as moral factors. What we call "nature," i.e. our organic environment, is in its innermost workings something other and greater than the quantitative sum of its venous elements: these are held together and organized by a qualitative reality, which transcends it and is at the same time its common innermost life-marrow. In no other way can we explain the harmony of nature as a whole to which we -- consciously or unconsciously -- aspire.

This insight exists in all Eastern religions, as also among the so-called nature-people, for instance the American Indians, and it existed also in the West before the present age. In one chapter of the book, Nasr explains each of the great world religions from this standpoint. Most clearly do we find these connections in the spiritual traditions of China, Taoism and neo-Confucianism, through their concrete imagery: "The ways of men are conditioned by those of earth, the ways of earth by those of heaven, the ways of heaven by those of the Tao, and the Tao comes into being by itself," says the Tao-Te-Ching, the most important scripture of Taoism. Tao is thus the basic origin of all, and to preserve the harmony with himself and with the rest of creation, man must first see that he maintains his unity with this principle (also from Tao-Te-Ching):

The World has a First Cause, which may be regarded as the Mother of the World. When one has found the Mother, one can know the Child. Knowing the Child and still keeping the Mother, to the end of his days he shall suffer no harm.

What enables man to arrive at this vision of oneness is the symbolic character in the elements -- forms, colors and appearances -- that go to build up nature. For all these qualitative elements have their essential reality and task in their ability to show us the way to corresponding elements of a "higher" sphere of reality with less rigid and confined boundaries than those of the physical-material. This sphere, in turn, has its analogical correspondences in a still higher one, and so on, all the way to the ultimate origin of all things, the unity of all, which the Chinese call Tao. The best known expression that we have of this symbolism is the geocentric view of the ancient and medieval world: the "Jacob's ladder" of heavenly spheres round the earth that stems directly from the evidence of our eyes, in its own way irrefutable. Up this ladder, man could -- and in principle still can -- climb with the aid of the "intuitive" side of his intelligence, for this is unlimited in scope, being in its nature absolute: otherwise man would not, to use the language of Christianity, be "God's image."

It is an awareness of these connections -- and by no means a childish lack of scientific precision -- that is the basis of the traditional cosmologies of all religions and of their "teachings about the world." Where nature is just as valid a path to God as prophetic Revelation, the knowledge of nature is quite naturally incorporated in the religious totality. Because of this regard for nature, it is sacred, and there can be no question of wanting to "control" it with the sole intent of exploiting its riches for our material well-being. The world is a temple, and conversely, the temple is consciously seen as a picture of the world.

In the West this cosmic temple finally collapsed with the victory of the Copernican world view, and this was one of the decisive milestones on the road that led to nature's secularization, a road that was begun much earlier, at the end of the height of the Middle Ages. A similar development took place in the other branches of natural science. It implied everywhere that a knowledge and method based on cosmic and supracosmic interconnections were superseded by a philosophy wherein individual facts of nature were seen as separate and distinct from one another and were therefore deprived of their symbolic, sacred character. The fateful thing about the rise of these "profane" sciences -- astronomy, chemistry, physics in the modern sense, etc. -- was, of course, not their content of truth, which is indisputable and from a spiritual standpoint neutral, but the impossibility for people in their then spiritual situation to tie them to a new symbolism: the very concentration of attention on quantitative facts which had secured for Westerners their discoveries in natural science demanded the abandonment of the symbolic approach!

Hence, nature became for the West largely something that was cut off from the vision and path of religion. Once it had lost its sacred function, the knowledge of nature could have no other purpose than to satisfy man's worldly and individual needs: material, sensual or sentimental; for science always needed some purpose besides the pure acquisition of knowledge. In other words, science had to be directed more and more to practical application, more and more to serve technology. Hence the latter was destined some day to attain quasi-perfection and, as man at that stage of his development had long since lost all consciousness of the sacred character of nature, i.e. any impediment to his egoism, the consequences have necessarily been the unscrupulous devastation and rapine seen in our days. Hossein Nasr states pointedly that modern man regards nature as a prostitute "to be used without any sense of obligation or responsibility."

The words of Christ spring to mind: "What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" This in turn brings the thought to the role of theology in this complex of questions. Nasr points out that Christian theology, tragically enough, was forced from the start to take a one-sidedly negative stand toward nature. Archaic cosmology which, with its Olympian god-world, also had had a pronounced sacred character from the beginning, had ever since Aristotle become more and more secularized and "humanized." The reason for this was the increasing rationalism in philosophy and the ebbing of the life-giving stream of the Mysteries. The ancient view of nature which faced the early Christians was already a sort of idolatry, a "knowledge of the flesh," as Paul calls it. And as Christianity in the beginning was limited to the task of saving individual human souls, it was forced by the needs of its time to "throw out the baby with the bathwater": by denying the only available but corrupted cosmology, it suppressed all need to integrate the natural into the supranatural, "the knowledge of earth" into the "knowledge of God." In doing so it also denied that element in man which makes this integration possible: the supranatural essence of his understanding. Later, when Christianity established itself as the soul of Western culture, the resultant lack of natural philosophy and of the wisdom of mysticism was filled with the aid of cosmological schools emanating from other cultural spheres, among them the Alexandrian. These were the schools that are usually lumped together under the name "Hermetism," and they were offshoots of the neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic schools of late antiquity. It was their cosmology that lay behind such movements as the building of the cathedrals.

On the whole, after Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) this synthesis began to erode away by reason of the rationalism that once more (as in post-Aristotelian antiquity) was spreading throughout the West. The wholeness view of the Middle Ages received its deathblow during the Renaissance with the fateful consequences described above -- consequences that in our day have become terrifyingly concrete in the form of destruction of the environment and the threat of total world war.

Present-day attempts by a few scattered theologians to patch together natural science and religion have been fruitless, because they build on erroneous premises, such, for instance, as a basically materialistic and evolutionistic idea. The only thing that really could restore the harmony between man and nature would be a rediscovery of the hidden hierarchy of Existence, an insight that the earth, which is man's living place, takes all its life and all its reality from a Focus of unity that is its heart but that also transcends it; in other words, from that spiritual sphere which religion calls "Heaven" and which is also the Source of religious Revelation.

This insight would by no means necessitate the abandonment of modern science: the latter has validity on its own premises and possesses, as do all existing things, a latent spirituality. What is needed is thus "only" a reawakening of a consciousness of this spirituality through a renewal of the lost outlook of wholeness and oneness, which in turn would bring about a reestablishment of the cosmology of the early Middle Ages, seen from its own premises. This would necessarily imply an acceptance once more of the supranatural side of man's intelligence and its restoration to the "high seat" originally intended for it: "the highest peak of spirit" as Meister Eckhart called it. In this work the West could, as Nasr points out, be helped by the religions of the Orient, where nature symbology and wisdom-accented mysticism are still alive in spite of everything.

The advice of Taoism, given two and a half millennia ago, is evidenced by the "destruction of the environment" today. "If, knowing the child and yet maintaining steadfastly in touch with the Mother, then is one during all his days protected from harm." If the catchword today is: "Remember that you have only one earth!" this should be completed with: "and that there is also a heaven above this earth!" For if Heaven -- even the physical heaven -- is the "matrix" of earth's life and the origin of the compassion that earth needs to survive, then it must unfortunately be said that mankind is not far from committing a double crime: it has not only prostituted and raped the "child" but also -- at an earlier time -- torn the child from its mother. By this action among other things by this action -- it is in process of cutting itself off from the help of the "Mother."

Dr. Almqvist, a teacher of Romance languages in Strangnas, central Sweden, is the author of several books and poems, as well as of a number of essays on the philosophy of religion. This article originally appeared in the August 25, 1972 issue of Svenska Dagbladet, one of Stockholm's leading newspapers, and is reproduced with permission. -- Editor of Sunrise magazine.

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