Articles

Ancient Wisdom Renewed

Oct 28, 2020

Course: Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation: A Systematic Survey (2020)
Faculty: Robert Stockman, Nima Rafiei

Editor’s Note: What follows is a meditation on Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Wisdom written by Bob Ballenger, a student in the above mentioned course. This was Bob’s first Wilmette Institute course, and he plans to take Philosophy and the Bahá’í Faith in December.


Science is what we know, Philosophy is what we should learn

by Bob Ballenger

Humans are too weak to discover truth by reason alone.

Augustine of Hippo

When I was in college, I took as many philosophy courses as I could, although it turned out I wasn’t very good at understanding the subject. I knew there was something profound and important about philosophy, despite the fact that its essence eluded me.

So, it was something of a relief to read in Bahá’u’llah’s Tablet of Wisdom that “were anyone to observe with a discriminating eye he would readily comprehend that most of this knowledge hath been acquired from the sages of the past, for it is they who have laid the foundation of philosophy, reared its structure and reinforced its pillars.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates, as described in Plato’s Apology (38a5–6)

The goal of philosophy is to help a person accumulate the wisdom necessary to live a life filled with meaning and purpose. It is no accident that this is also an objective of the Bahá’í Revelation.

Writing in the Tablet of Wisdom, Bahá’u’lláh devotes a fair amount of space to extolling the founders of philosophy, especially Socrates, the foremost thinker of ancient Greece.

Specifically, Bahá’u’lláh praises Socrates as “indeed wise, accomplished and righteous. He practiced self-denial, repressed his appetites for selfish desires and turned away from material pleasures. He withdrew to the mountains where he dwelt in a cave. He dissuaded men from worshipping idols and taught them the way of God, the Lord of Mercy, until the ignorant rose up against him. They arrested him and put him to death in prison.”

That capsule description shows a remarkable—and intentional—similarity to Bahá’u’lláh’s own life story.

The essence and the fundamentals of philosophy have emanated from the Prophets,” Bahá’u’lláh notes in the Tablet of Wisdom. “That the people differ concerning the inner meanings and mysteries thereof is to be attributed to the divergence of their views and minds.”

This statement finds an eerie yet amusing echo in a remark from William James, an early 20th century American philosopher:

“There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.”

William James

Bahá’u’lláh also notes that “[a] true philosopher would never deny God nor His evidences, rather would he acknowledge His glory and overpowering majesty which overshadow all created things.”

England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) put it similarly: 

“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

Francis Bacon

One of the values of philosophy is that it can support and broaden public acceptance of the Message of Bahá’u’lláh.  There are countless examples of philosophical statements that mirror the Bahá’í teachings, including these:

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire”

Epictetus, The Discourses

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Socrates

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Søren Kierkegaard

So, philosophy is not one of those useless disciplines that “begin with words and end with words,” but it offers real insights into the human condition and how to improve it. It is gratifying that Bahá’u’lláh had no problem in recognizing and praising the contribution of philosophy to humanity.

Contributors

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Bob Ballenger

Bob Ballenger is retired and lives in a suburb of Los Angeles, California, USA.

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