The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Edited by William C. Chittick
Foreword by Huston Smith

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a world-renowned scholar on Islam, Sufism, and the Perennial Philosophy, and is the author of over fifty books and five hundred articles on topics ranging from comparative religion to traditional Islamic philosophy, cosmology, art, ecology, and mysticism. The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an anthology of 21 of his most representative essays, including several rare articles which have not been easily available in the U.S., carefully selected and edited by William C. Chittick, a former student of Prof. Nasr and leading scholar of Islam and Sufism.


Pontifical and Promethean Man (Chapter 17)

The concept of man as the pontiff, pontifex, or bridge between Heaven and earth, which is the traditional view of the anthropos, lies at the antipode of the modern conception of man, which envisages him as the Promethean earthly creature who has rebelled against Heaven and tried to appropriate the role of the Divinity for himself. Pontifical man, who, in the sense used here, is none other than traditional man, lives in a world which has both an Origin and a Center. He lives in full awareness of the Origin which contains his own perfection and whose primordial purity and wholeness he seeks to emulate, recapture, and transmit. He also lives on a circle of whose Center he is always aware and which he seeks to reach in his life, thought, and actions. Pontifical man is the reflection of the Center on the periphery and the echo of the Origin in later cycles of time and generations of history. He is the vicegerent of God (khalifat Allah) on earth, to use the Islamic term, responsible to God for his actions, and the custodian and protector of the earth of which he is given dominion on the condition that he remain faithful to himself as the central terrestrial figure created in the “form of God,” a theomorphic being living in this world but created for eternity. Pontifical man is aware of his role as intermediary between Heaven and earth and his entelechy as lying beyond the terrestrial domain over which he is allowed to rule provided he remains aware of the transient nature of his own journey on earth. Such a man lives in awareness of a spiritual reality which transcends him and yet which is none other than his own inner nature against which he cannot rebel, save by paying the price of separation from all that he is and all that he should wish to be. For such a man, life is impregnated with meaning and the universe peopled with creatures whom he can address as thou. He is aware that precisely because he is human there is both grandeur and danger connected with all that he does and thinks. His actions have an effect upon his own being beyond the limited spatiotemporal conditions in which such actions take place. He knows that somehow the bark which is to take him to the shore beyond after the fleeting journey that comprises his earthly life is constructed by what he does and how he lives while he is in the human state.

To be sure, the image of man as depicted in various traditions has not been identical. Some have emphasized the human state more than others and they have envisaged eschatological realities differ ently. But there is no doubt that all traditions are based on the central and dominant images of the Origin and the Center and see the final end of man in the state or reality which is other than this terrestrial life with which forgetful or fallen man identifies himself once he is cut off from revelation or religion that constantly hearkens back to the Origin and the Center.

Promethean man, on the contrary, is a creature of this world. He feels at home on earth, earth not considered as the virgin nature which is itself an echo of paradise, but as the artificial world created by Promethean man himself in order to make it possible for him to forget God and his own inner reality. Such a man envisages life as a big marketplace in which he is free to roam around and choose objects at will. Having lost the sense of the sacred, he is drowned in transience and impermanence and becomes a slave of his own lower nature, surrender to which he considers to be freedom. He follows passively the downward flow of the cycle of human history and in doing so takes pride by claiming that he has created his own destiny. But still being man, he has a nostalgia for the Sacred and the Eternal and thus turns to a thousand and one ways to satisfy this need, ways ranging from psychological novels to drug-induced mysticism.

He also becomes stifled by the prison of his own creation, wary of the destruction he has wrought upon the natural environment and the vilification of the urban setting in which he is forced to live. He seeks for solutions everywhere, even in teachings by which pontifical man, or traditional man, has lived over the ages. But these sources are not able to help him, for he approaches even these truths as Promethean man. This recently born creature, who has succeeded in wreaking havoc upon the earth and practically upsetting the ecological balance of the natural order itself in only some five centuries, is little aware that to overcome the impasse into which modern man has thrown himself as a result of attempting to forget what it really means to be man he must rediscover himself. He must come to understand the nature of man as that pontifical and central creature on this earth who stands as witness to an origin from which he descends and a center to which he ultimately returns. The traditional doctrine of man and not the measurement of skulls and footprints is the key for the understanding of that anthropos who, despite the rebellion of Promethean man against Heaven from the period of the Renaissance and its aftermath, is still the inner man of every man, the reality which no human being can deny wherever and whenever he lives, the imprint of a theomorphic nature which no historical change and transforma tion can erase completely from the face of that creature called man.

As far as the traditional doctrine of man is concerned, it is based in one way or another on the concept of primordial man as the source of perfection, the total and complete reflection of the Divinity and the archetypal reality containing the possibilities of cosmic existence itself. Man is the model of the universe because he is himself the reflection of those possibilities in the principial domain which mani fest themselves as the world. Man is more than merely man so that this way of envisaging his rapport with respect to the cosmos is far from being anthropomorphic in the usual sense of this term. The world is not seen as the reflection of man qua man but of man as being himself the total and plenary reflection of all those Divine Qualities whose reflections, in scattered and segmented fashion, comprise the manifested order.

In traditions with a strongly mythical character this inward rela tionship between man and the cosmos is depicted in the myth of the sacrifice of the primordial man. For example, in the Iranian religions the sacrifice of the primordial man is associated with the creation of the world and its various orders and realms, different parts of the “body” of the primordial man being associated with different orders of creatures such as animals, plants, and minerals. Sometimes, however, a more particular relationship is emphasized as in those Zoroas trian sources where Gayomart, who is the first man, is associated with the generation of the minerals, for as the Greater Bundahišn says, “When Gayomart was assailed with sickness, he fell on his left side. From his head lead came forth, from his blood zinc, from his marrow silver, from his feet iron, from his bones brass, from his fat crystal, from his arms steel, and from his soul as it departed, gold.” In Hinduism there is the famous passage in the Rg-Veda (X, 90) accord ing to which, from the sacrifice of Purusa or primordial man, the world and the human race consisting of the four castes are brought into being, the brahmins from his mouth, the rajanyas or ksatriyas from his arms, the vaisyas from his belly, and the sudras from his feet— his sacrifice, or yajña, being the model of all sacrifice. Primordial man is the archetype of creation as he is its purpose and entelechy. That is why according to a hadith, God addresses the Prophet of Islam, whose inner reality is the primordial man par excellence in the Islamic tradition, in these terms, “If thou wert not, I would not have created the world.” This perspective envisages the human reality in its divine and cosmic dimensions in exact opposition to philosophical anthropomorphism. Man does not see God and the world in his image but realizes that he is himself in his inner reality that image which reflects the Divine Qualities and by which cosmic reality is created, the possibilities being contained in the Logos “by which all things were made.”

The metaphysical doctrine of man in the fullness of his being, in what he is but not necessarily in what he appears to be, is expounded in various languages in the different traditions with diverse degrees of emphasis which are far from being negligible. Some traditions are based more upon the divinized human receptacle while others reject this perspective in favor of the Divinity in Itself. Some depict man in his state of fall from his primordial perfection and address their message to this fallen creature, whereas others, while being fully aware that the humanity they are addressing is not the society of perfect men living in paradise, address that primordial nature which still survives in man despite the layers of “forgetfulness” and imperfection which separate man from himself.

That primordial and plenary nature of man which Islam calls the “Universal or Perfect Man” (al-insan al-kamil) and to which the sapiential doctrines of Graeco-Alexandrian antiquity also allude in nearly the same terms, except for the Abrahamic and specifically Islamic aspects of the doctrines absent from the Neoplatonic and Hermetic sources, reveals human reality to possess three fundamen tal aspects. The Universal Man, whose reality is realized only by the prophets and great seers, since only they are human in the full sense of the word, is first of all the archetypal reality of the universe; second, the instrument or means whereby revelation descends into the world; and third, the perfect model for the spiritual life and the ultimate dispenser of esoteric knowledge. By virtue of the reality of the Universal Man, terrestrial man is able to gain access to revelation and tradition, hence to the sacred. Finally, through this reality, which is none other than man’s own reality actualized, man is able to follow that path of perfection which will finally allow him to gain knowledge of the sacred and to become fully himself. The saying of the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself,” or that of the Prophet of Islam, “He who knoweth himself knoweth his Lord,” is true not because man as an earthly creature is the measure of all things but because man is himself the reflection of that archetypal reality which is the measure of all things. That is why in traditional sciences of man the knowledge of the cosmos and the metacosmic reality are usually not expounded in terms of the reality of terrestrial man. Rather, the knowledge of man is expounded through and in reference to the macrocosm and metacosm, since they reflect in a blinding fashion and in an objective mode what man is if only he were to become what he really is. The traditional doctrine of Primordial or Universal Man with all its varia tions—Adam Kadmon, jen, Purusa, al-insan al-kamil, and the like—embraces at once the metaphysical, cosmogonic, revelatory, and in itiatic functions of that reality which constitutes the totality of the human state and which places before man both the grandeur of what he can be and the pettiness and wretchedness of what he is in most cases, in comparison with the ideal which he carries always within himself. Terrestrial man is nothing more than the externalization, coagulation, and often inversion and perversion of this idea and ideal of the Universal Man cast in the direction of the periphery. He is a being caught in the field of the centrifugal forces which characterize terrestrial existence as such, but is also constantly attracted by the Center where the inner man is always present.

It is also by virtue of carrying this reality within himself and bearing the characteristics of a theomorphic being, because he is such a being in his essential reality, that man remains an axial creature in this world. Even his denial of the sacred has a cosmic significance, his purely empirical and earthly science going to the extent of imposing the danger of destroying the harmony of the terrestrial environment itself. Man cannot live as a purely earthly creature totally at home in this world without destroying the natural environment, precisely because he is not such a creature. The pontifical function of man remains inseparable from his reality, from what he is. That is why traditional teachings envisage the happiness of man in his remaining aware and living according to his pontifical nature as the bridge between Heaven and earth. His religious laws and rites have a cosmic function and he is made aware that it is impossible for him to evade his responsibility as a creature who lives on the earth but is not only earthly, as a being strung between Heaven and earth, of both a spiritual and material mold, created to reflect the light of the Divine Empyrean within the world and to preserve harmony in the world through the dispensation of that light and the practice of that form of life which is in accordance with his inner reality as revealed by tradition. Man’s responsibility to society, the cosmos, and God issues ultimately from himself, not his self as ego but the inner man who is the mirror and reflection of the Supreme Self, the Ultimate Reality which can be envisaged as either pure Subject or pure Object since It transcends in Itself all dualities, being neither subject nor object.

The situation of man as bridge between Heaven and earth is re flected in all of his being and his faculties. Man is himself a supernat urally natural being. When he walks on the earth, on the one hand he appears as a creature of the earth; on the other, it is as if he were a celestial being who has descended upon the earthly realm. Likewise, his memory, speech, and imagination partake at once of several orders of reality. Most of all his intelligence is a supernaturally natural faculty, a sacrament partaking of all that the term supernatural signi fies in Christianity, yet functioning quasinaturally within him with the help of revelation and its unifying grace. That is why, while even in this world, man is able to move to the other shore of existence, to take his stance in the world of the sacred and to see nature herself as impregnated with grace. He is able to remove that sharp boundary which has been drawn between the natural and the supernatural in most schools of official Christian theology but which is not empha sized in the same manner in other traditions and is also overcome in the sapiential aspects of the Christian tradition itself.

Metaphysically speaking then, man has his archetype in that pri mordial, perfect, and universal being or man who is the mirror of the Divine Qualities and Names and the prototype of creation. But each human being also possesses his own archetype and has a reality in divinis as a possibility unto himself, one which is unique since that person reflects the archetype of the human species as such in the same way that every point on the circumference of a circle reflects the center and is yet distinct from other points. The reality of man as a species as well as of each human being has its root in the principial domain. Therefore man as such, as well as each human being, comes into the world through an “elaboration” and process which separates him from the Divine, and he departs from the world through paths, which in joy or sorrow, depending on his life on earth, finally lead him back to the Divine.