Posts Tagged ‘‘Abdu’l-Baha’

Leon Kass has an article in this month’s National Affairs (recently relaunched) in which he uses his own journey from study of science to study of humanities as a meditation on the role of humanities in life. In the piece, which is well worth reading, Kass approvingly cites Aristotle as a guide in how to live well:

We are today inclined to praise as excellent one or the other of two human types. Utilitarians esteem the shrewd and cunning man who knows how to get what he wants. Moralists praise the man of good will, the well-intentioned or good-hearted fellow bent on doing good. But these views, Aristotle shows us, are both inadequate. The highest human excellence in the realm of action requires both that one’s intentions be good and that one’s judgment be sound. Never a slave to abstract principles or rules of conduct, never a moral preener espousing “ideals” or doctrines, the prudent man knows that excellence really consists in finding and enacting the best thing to do here and now, always with a view to the good but always as seen in the light of the circumstances.

We would do well to consider Aristotle’s emphasis on combining moral intentions with the ability to make sound decisions and get things done. We have perhaps had too much emphasis on the extremes, which Kass characterizes as utilitarianism and moralism. Andrew Leonard expresses this in another way in a review at Salon of robert Skidelsky’s new book, Keynes. Considering the trends in ‘rich’ countries, Skidelsky makes an observation and poses a series of questions:

Although real incomes in rich countries have doubled in the last thirty years, the populations of these countries work harder than ever and are no happier. This raises the question of why they are still on the growth treadmill. Is it because capitalism needs constantly to expand markets, and ensnare by advertising more and more people into useless consumption? Is it because economists have ignored the fact that, as societies become wealthier, positional goods — goods which satisfy not our needs, but our longing for status — become more and more desirable? Is it because globalization has made affluence too insecure and too uneven in its spread for most people in wealthy societies to ease off work? Or is it because we lack any agreed idea of the good life in the name of which we can say “enough is enough”?

In last question Skidelsky parallels Kass. They both point to a lack of a commonly-agreed sense of what a good life is. In an age of unprecedented wealth on the earth, clearly our material advancement is not sufficient to constitute moral living. Moreover, following Aristotle, mere having the intention of living some other way is not sufficient, either. We must not be content with merely criticizing the materialist status quo. We must actively seek, promote, and try to live an alternative.

In that progression of logic lie the seeds of a life of faith.

‘Abdu’l-Baha has said, “By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” But He goes further than this, as recorded in Paris Talks. Though it is a lengthy excerpt, I will quote it here in full.

All over the world one hears beautiful sayings extolled and noble precepts admired. All men say they love what is good, and hate everything that is evil! Sincerity is to be admired, whilst lying is despicable. Faith is a virtue, and treachery is a disgrace to humanity. It is a blessed thing to gladden the hearts of men, and wrong to be the cause of pain. To be kind and merciful is right, while to hate is sinful. Justice is a noble quality and injustice an iniquity. That it is one’s duty to be pitiful and harm no one, and to avoid jealousy and malice at all costs. Wisdom is the glory of man, not ignorance; light, not darkness! It is a good thing to turn one’s face toward God, and foolishness to ignore Him. That it is our duty to guide man upward, and not to mislead him and be the cause of his downfall. There are many more examples like unto these.
But all these sayings are but words and we see very few of them carried into the world of action. On the contrary, we perceive that men are carried away by passion and selfishness, each man thinking only of what will benefit himself even if it means the ruin of his brother. They are all anxious to make their fortune and care little or nothing for the welfare of others. They are concerned about their own peace and comfort, while the condition of their fellows troubles them not at all.
Unhappily this is the road most men tread.
But Bahá’ís must not be thus; they must rise above this condition. Actions must be more to them than words. By their actions they must be merciful and not merely by their words. They must on all occasions confirm by their actions what they proclaim in words. Their deeds must prove their fidelity, and their actions must show forth Divine light.
Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Bahá’ís, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity.
If we are true Bahá’ís speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
This is the work of a true Bahá’í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá’ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name.
God, who sees all hearts, knows how far our lives are the fulfilment of our words.


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Yesterday was Labor Day in the U.S., and Michael Lind used the occasion to post an interesting article at Salon: “Who are the wealth creators?” In the piece, Lind argues against what he calls the libertarian right position that “economic growth is almost exclusively the result of investment decisions by a small number of rich individuals.” After quoting from Lincoln to show that Republicans have not always held such a view (nor do all now, I would say), Lind argues for another theory of the origins of economic growth, which states that

the true creator of wealth is, ultimately, the commonwealth – not only the political community, but the civilization that it shares with other nations. No technical invention or business innovation is a creation of something from nothing. All depend on the intellectual capital that the human race has accumulated since the Paleolithic period.

Calling this the commonwealth theory, Lind goes on to say that it

defines wealth broadly, as everything that conduces to the well-being of a community. Material production is only one of many activities that enrich a society. Public goods like safety and utilities and infrastructure and parks are part of the wealth that we share in common. So are many private goods that sometimes are best provided by the public, like public education and inexpensive healthcare.

Lind advances a wise view of wealth, taking into consideration the many ways in which a society develops, rather than just the monetary. Indeed, it conceptualizes wealth in a way that might help us practice Baha’u’llah’s admonition in the Gleanings: “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s comments on the causes of and remedies for strikes give credence to this notion:

You have questioned me about strikes. This question is and will be for a long time the subject of great difficulties. Strikes are due to two causes. One is the extreme greed and rapacity of the manufacturers and industrialists; the other, the excesses, the avidity and intransigence of the workmen and artisans. It is, therefore, necessary to remedy these two causes.

It is, therefore, preferable for moderation to be established by means of laws and regulations to hinder the constitution of the excessive fortunes of certain individuals, and to protect the essential needs of the masses. For instance, the manufacturers and the industrialists heap up a treasure each day, and the poor artisans do not gain their daily sustenance: that is the height of iniquity, and no just man can accept it. Therefore, laws and regulations should be established which would permit the workmen to receive from the factory owner their wages and a share in the fourth or the fifth part of the profits, according to the capacity of the factory; or in some other way the body of workmen and the manufacturers should share equitably the profits and advantages. Indeed, the capital and management come from the owner of the factory, and the work and labor, from the body of the workmen. (Some Answered Questions, pp. 273-4)

In casting blame for strikes on both owners and laborers and in explaining that both owners and workers earn the profits of the company and thus generate wealth, ‘Abdu’l-Baha anticipates Lind’s commonwealth theory. In recognizing the role of both owners and workers and calling for profit-sharing, though, ‘Abdu’l-Baha does not advocate equality of distribution. He goes so far as to say that enforced equality would be to the detriment of society:

rules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain private individuals and meet the needs of millions of the poor masses; thus a certain moderation would be obtained. However, absolute equality is just as impossible, for absolute equality in fortunes, honors, commerce, agriculture, industry would end in disorderliness, in chaos, in disorganization of the means of existence, and in universal disappointment: the order of the community would be quite destroyed. Thus difficulties will also arise when unjustified equality is imposed.

Perhaps instead of celebrating Labor, then, we should celebrate our common wealth, created from all our diversity of fortunes and honors.

(For an interesting look at the dangers of gross accumulation of wealth among a small minority in a society, see Luigi Zingales’s “Capitalism After the Crisis” at National Affairs. Thanks to David Brooks in today’s New York Times for the pointer.)

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In my first survey of British literature at college, our professor gave the class a motto: bene legere saecla vincere. He translated the Latin for us: To read well is to conquer the ages. A nice motivator for an idealistic English-major-nerd, which I was.

In the discourse about education, there seems to be an implicit idea along much the same lines: To teach well is to conquer the ages, or at least to influence them pretty significantly. The problem, I guess, is defining what it means to teach well.

Stanley Fish has two recent posts (part 1 and part 2) at his Think Again blog for the New York Times about the content of a core curriculum for colleges. Fish advocates teaching basic competencies in core disciplines and gives examples from the discipline of composition, with which he is quite familiar.

Steven Brill at The New Yorker writes about the difficulties involved with getting rid of bad teachers in New York City schools. Brill’s essay notes the conflict between education reformers and teacher’s unions over the use of student test results in evaluating teachers. Implicit in the reformers’ push to include the results in teacher evaluations is the idea that the tests measure student mastery of valuable competencies. If we stipulate that idea as true (which many educators would not), we see a common thought with Fish: teaching well means getting students to master core competencies.

In a conversation about the nature of education, recorded in Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained that there are three types of education: “material, human and spiritual.”

Material education is concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease. This education is common to animals and man.
Human education signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.
Divine education is that of the Kingdom of God: it consists in acquiring divine perfections, and this is true education; for in this state man becomes the focus of divine blessings, the manifestation of the words, “Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.” This is the goal of the world of humanity.

Viewed through this tripartite lens, the idea of teaching core competencies in important subject areas falls within the realm of human education. Mastering the technical skills and abilities of the various areas of human endeavor is a crucial part of a well-rounded education, and Fish and the reformers in Brill’s essay are right to focus on it. Anyone who is teaching well helps students to develop technical, area-specific expertise. Post-industrial education in pluralistic societies assumes that the development of such expertise is the only end of formal schooling (or at least it is the only one that everyone can agree on).

‘Abdu’l-Baha indicates, though, that such expertise is not the end of education. Instead, human beings must further be trained to acquire human perfections. The historical focus on virtues in educating citizens acknowledges this truth, and it is a truth to which we will have to return. To teach well is to help students develop all aspects of themselves: physical, intellectual, and moral. Only when we recognize that will we conquer the ages.

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Somehow, in my post below on the advancement of women, I missed that the New York Times Magazine this week is entirely dedicated to stories about advancing women’s rights.

Here‘s a multimedia taste of what the magazine has on offer, courtesy of Nick Kristof, whose blog is here.

Two more quotes on this theme.

From ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in a talk of 1912:

When all mankind shall receive the same opportunity of education and the equality of men and women be realized, the foundations of war will be utterly destroyed. Without equality this will be impossible because all differences and distinction are conducive to discord and strife.

From a Tablet of Baha’u’llah:

Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God. The Dawning-Place of the Light of God sheddeth its radiance upon all with the same effulgence. Verily God created women for men, and men for women.

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Well, no.

But as their head of leadership development, Evan Wittenberg, notes in a video interview with the Washington Post, they structure themselves to promote individual initiative and use a form of consultation that focuses on choosing the best idea. The relevant part begins at about 3 minutes into the video. (I’ve tried to embed, with no luck.)

The illustrative quote, as well as I could transcribe it:

We have a tendency to be pretty comfortable getting pretty combative around the best idea. And it’s not personal because it’s about the idea. And what it does is at the end of the process it has the best idea win.

Regarding consultation among Baha’is, ‘Abdu’l-Baha exhorts them to the following standard:

In this day, assemblies of consultation are of the greatest importance and a vital necessity. Obedience unto them is essential and obligatory. The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. If after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously well and good; but if, the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.”

He further stipulates:

The first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the assembly. They must be wholly free from estrangement and must manifest in themselves the Unity of God, for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden. Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be non-existent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught. The second condition:—They must when coming together turn their faces to the Kingdom on High and ask aid from the Realm of Glory. They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden. The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority. It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness….

Shoghi Effendi quotes these passages in a letter to the Baha’is of the British Isles, written on March 5, 1922.

I doubt whether Google employees all love each other and collectively ask for the support of God in their endeavours, but no doubt their success in spurring innovation comes to a large degree from the alignment of their management practices with the processes of consultation.

As Baha’u’llah wrote (quoted by the Universal House of Justice in The Promise of World Peace):

Consultation bestows greater awareness and transmutes conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leads the way and guides. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.

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(Updated below.)

Speaking at Hotel Sacramento on October 25, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Baha made the following observation:

The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment. When the two wings or parts become equivalent in strength, enjoying the same prerogatives, the flight of man will be exceedingly lofty and extraordinary. Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 375)

In light of that quotation, it was good to see Korean golfer Se Re Pak getting her due as the first Korean to win a major golf tournament. (One of her male countrymen just beat Tiger Woods in the US PGA Championships this week.)

I’m more ambivalent about the fact that women are now fighting alongside men in Iraq (video here), but only because they’re out there killing people like the men have done. Of course, they’re training Iraqis to be able to provide security for their own country, too, which is undoubtedly good.

More broadly, It was heartening to read Mary Beth Sheridan’s piece in The Washington Post that Secretary of State Clinton will make women’s development a central issue in her tenure. As Sheridan notes,

Clinton vowed in a major policy address last month to make women the focus of U.S. assistance programs. The idea is applauded by development experts, who have found that investing in girls’ education, maternal health and women’s micro-finance provides a powerful boost to Third World families.

So, nearly 100 years on, evidence and experience show that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s observation was correct. Maybe this bird will fly soon, after all.

It appears that there’s at least one strong counter-example to the advancement of women in the news today. A new law just passed the Afghan parliament.

It allows a man to withhold food from his wife if she refuses his sexual demands; a woman must get her husband’s permission to work; and fathers and grandfathers are given exclusive custody of children.


Amy Davidson has a bit more analysis of women in the US military. She writes:

And is this worth celebrating? Don’t women have both the privilege and responsibility not to be warriors—to be, depending on how you feel about war, the girl back home or Lysistrata? War is hard enough on boys—do we need girls to be soldiers, too? But that’s like saying that the draft is fine as long as upper-middle-class college students are exempt. Sending an eighteen-year-old boy to die and kill in a foolish war is not any better than sending an eighteen-year-old girl.

In case you need to know who Lysistrata is, here is the play by Aristophanes and a summary.

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