• Anand Mishra

Man and Nature - Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Flamingos flocking up the creek at Mumbai, the sudden freshness in the air, a cleaner Yamuna carry a message from Nature, if only we are willing to listen. Man, bewitched by the Satan of Modernity, has been guilty of tormenting nature incessantly in the name of his endless 'needs'. Only when he is 'locked down' by a pandemic of his own making that nature has got a chance to breathe free. People left with any reflective ability characteristic of 'being human' are now forced to question the very beliefs modern civilisations are based on. But the rare few in whom this fire of discrimination has been alive and burning, have been pertinent in pointing out the inherent flaws of modernity in relation to the interaction of Man and Nature. Noteworthy in this regard is the work of Prof. Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who in his rare gem, 'Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man' looks at the ecological problem from a completely different perspective, perhaps the only perspective that matters and one which has been neglected the most. He argues that the deplorable condition of nature is simply the manifestation of the inner destitution in the soul of man, made possible by a process of gradual desacralization of nature that has its roots in the very origins and ideals of western civilisation. The beauty of this book lies in its description of how man, made after the 'Image of God' has become no more than an intelligent animal (intelligent by his own standards!), how nature, once the most visible form of its Creator has degenerated into a plaything of man.


That there is something wrong in the relation between man and nature is felt by all, but very few are willing to look into the root cause of the same.

It must be remembered that for the non-modern man, every bit of nature was sacred. Therefore, first the cosmos was emptied of all sacredness (no wonder man of now is 'scared of the sacred') to make ground for the birth of modern sciences of nature. The restrictive outlook associated with modern science makes the study of cosmology impossible owing to the neglect of metaphysical knowledge or gnosis. All the levels of being and reality are brought down to the physical along a general tendency to reduce the higher to the lower. Philosophy that is meant to guide science, itself becomes its ancillary. The Christian Theological view of the encounter between man and nature, owing to its sharp distinction between flesh and spirit, meant that Theology could not be of much help. Consequently, there was no common ground left among the domains of Theology, Science and Philosophy. This was because Metaphysics or Gnosis which is essentially the bridge among the three had lost its true meaning. As a result, there was no Philosophy of Nature.


The author takes recourse to the history of science to look for the causes of the present state of science, where only positive science can acclaim the status of legitimacy and all symbolic ancient sciences are reduced to superstition. He starts from the great systems of the early Greeks and explains how the Olympian decline led to the rise of Naturalism and Empiricism over Cosmology and Physics. After Aristotle, rationalism of Stoics and Epicureans etc. showed little interest in natural sciences. Christianity came to being under this environment of Naturalism and Empiricism and reacted against it by drawing a strict divide between natural and supernatural, advocating love over gnosis. Therefore, the official theology left the problem of nature out of its domain. But with the growth of Christianity into a life force of a humanity, it had to develop its own art, cosmology and natural sciences for which it imbibed the tenets of Hermetic-Pythagorean Cosmology into its esoteric dimensions, giving it a new breath of life that is reflected at once in the medieval art and architecture. Through contact with the Islamic world, early medieval Christianity became acquainted with Peripatetic Science and Philosophy leading to the 'Aristotelianization of Christian Theology'; Gnostic and Metaphysical elements made way for the rise of an increasingly Rationalistic Theology. Then reason was attacked on grounds of universal and particular causes and Scepticism marshalled by Ockham, came into being. Rationalism that came out of symbolic and contemplative view of nature made way for Philosophical Scepticism. With the onset of Renaissance man became completely earth-bound and 'the measure of all things'; philosophical doubt combined with naturalism and humanism led to the complete dislocation of man's place in the cosmos. The Cartesian Certainty that is essentially reductionist became a permanent element of the scientific world view and consequently there was complete de-ontologization of science. The empiricists drew the logical conclusion of Cartesian Philosophy and Kant demonstrated the inability of human reason to reach knowledge of the essence of things. Man, without a transcendent truth, became the norm and truth was reduced to utility. All that was left for man, was to exploit and dominate nature which is what is continuing to this day, only increasing in intensity. This was accentuated by the surrender of philosophy, alienation of man from nature and scientific theories like evolution and survival of the fittest whereby all excesses were justified.


That man has voluntarily dislodged himself from his place in the cosmos has become well established by now. The only solution would then be the rediscovery of the Metaphysical Doctrines that would help in the rediscovery of the same, provide the rightful place to the physical sciences, revitalise theology and most importantly help in developing that philosophy of nature which would restore the status accorded to nature in all great systems of the orient. Dr. Nasr provides a brief survey of all these systems with appreciable brevity. Himself a part of a living tradition, his views on other systems are equally genuine. He succinctly delineates the systems of Taoism, Shintoism, Hindu systems of Vedānta, Sāṅkhya, Vaiśesika, Śāktism and the Vedāngas. His special emphasis is on the usefulness of Islam to Christianity as both derive from the same Abrahamic Tradition. However, the challenges that Islam is itself beset with today make it a difficult prospect. Nevertheless, the one thread that runs through all the oriental traditions is the totality and integrity of their thought and this is what the western world is in dire need of. He then goes on to describe the effects of the restoration of Metaphysical doctrines and how they can guide the haphazard physical sciences. The fault lines in the development of modern science and technology and the fickle nature of scientific theories, supposed to be infallible, is expertly looked into. The author's critique of the theory of evolution is a special feature of the same. Science criticizes everything, even the principles that lie beyond its domain, the rejection of whose existence forms the very basis of its existence, but the only thing that science doesn't criticize is science itself. Metaphysics can do so by providing the criterion to judge and regulate science. Moreover, the rediscovery of Metaphysics would also help remove obstacles posed by obscure pseudo-philosophy that has provided ground for immense damage to harmony between man and nature. With it can also come the revitalisation of the traditional sciences such as Alchemy and Cosmology, true meaning of symbolism which is essentially a sacralization of the cosmos can be rediscovered as well. The horrors made possible by uncontrolled Science and Technology can be checked. Also, the illusion of considering man exclusively an economic being can also be removed with the knowledge of various levels and hierarchy of being. The only thing the author has not cleared his stance on is 'how' can this be brought about. Perhaps it is out of his understanding that the western man would find it extremely difficult to 'accept' this reality in the first place.

It can be said that reading this masterpiece, one is left in awe of the genius of Dr. Nasr. His authoritative knowledge in so many diverse streams is inspiring. Most remarkable feature of this work is the fact that its nature is in conformity with its central idea of the restoration of hierarchy of reality: Everything finds its due place here.

Look where you stand in the hierarchy by clicking here.