The following is an excerpt from Seyyed Hossien Nasr’s Noranda lecture delivered in Montreal, 1967:
In a world exhibition whose theme is “Man and His World,” “La Terre des Hommes,” and which is devoted to a display of the different aspects of man’s life and activities, it is perhaps not futile to pause for a moment and pose the question who is this man to whom the world is said to belong, the world or the “earth” that he has conquered yet is on the verge of destroying at the very moment when his conquest seems most complete. Modern man feels at home on earth, or rather would like to feel at home completely in this world, in contrast to the traditional Christian man or men of other civilizations who nearly always felt as a traveler in this world and a stranger upon the earth, which they considered as but a temporary abode. Yet even modern man cannot totally evade or forget his inner yearning for the abode beyond, his urge for the transcendent, or remain oblivious to the fact that the more he tries to become a completely terrestrial being, a creature of this earth, the more does the earth seem to crumble from under his feet and the more does he seem to fall out of harmony with the earthly environment. It is a paradox that the more man has tried to become “natural” during the postmedieval period, the more has he lost harmony and contact with nature to the extent of endangering his own existence within it.
Let us not forget that today the predominant axis of man’s knowledge of things, his science, is earthly and terrestrial. Modern man learned the laws of the physics of the earth from celestial physics and astronomy. The laws of motion of Newton were based on the laws of planetary motion established by a Pythagorian Kepler who significantly enough spoke of these laws, specially the third law, in a work entitled Harmonia Mundi. And once these heavenly laws were relegated to the level of terrestrial physics, this physics itself became the model of other forms of knowledge. Today it is this “earthly” physics that seeks to understand the constitution of the “heavens” and therefore to obliterate the meaning of heaven, at least physically. Today all of modern man’s science is “terrestrial,” yet he cannot obliterate the metaphysical and symbolic significance of “heaven,” of the “celestial” whose imprint he bears deep within himself. And so when man no longer makes spiritual flights or ascensions into the heavens in the manner of a Dante, he has the mystique to fly with a capsule into planetary space-in the same way that when he no longer climbs spiritual mountains, he tries to desecrate and debase physical mountains by “conquering” them. Or when the majority of men no longer practice those authentic spiritual disciplines that make the veritable vision of the transcendent world possible, they use mescalin and LSD with the hope of gaining such a vision without undertaking the necessary travail, self-negation. and discipline. Although outwardly now a complete creature of the earth and its master, and no longer the “half angel-half man” of traditional Christianity, this urge is deeply engraved in the very texture of man’s existence and manifests itself in one way or another, sometimes even violently, when the natural and normal means are not open to it.
Man feels himself as the possessor of all things, as the unquestionable conqueror and master of all of nature as if he had created it himself. But this sense of possession and power is only too often combined with a remarkable lack of responsibility and realization of the right to life of other creatures. Man’s domination is too often a prostitution of nature rather than its legitimate use. The voice of conservationists is raised here and there but is usually drowned in the much louder voice that in the name of human welfare wants to make man’s mastery over the earth total and complete. irrespective of what this may mean for the earth itself and its creatures. It is here that one is faced with the tragic situation in which the very assertion of the unlimited rights and power of man over the earth makes man’s life on earth ever more difficult and dangerous, leading in a direction that if pursued further might mean the very termination of both this domination and man’s very life. One is reminded of the Koranic verses: “But the Devil whispered to him, saying: 0 Adam! Shall I show thee the tree of immortality and power that wasteth not away?” (20: 120, Pickthall translation), referring to a Faustian power that not only appears not to waste away but is always posing the danger of destroying him who would wield that power. Being no longer the custodian of the earth, and yet wielding power, man is in the danger of losing his mastery over it as well. It seems that man cannot really live peacefully on earth and be just an earthly creature. The loss of the transcendent dimension has made terrestrial life itself precarious.
Could one but conclude that a secular humanism of the type first cultivated during the Renaissance is basically contradictory and fallacious? That is, one cannot speak of man and defend his dignity and right independent of the “divine image” that has made him man and bestowed upon him both dignity and freedom. Otherwise, humanism is only a halfway house from the theomorphic conception of man to the infrahuman into which man is being dragged today through many of his own inventions and creations. He who wishes to speak about man better concern himself about the whole of man or not speak at all. And he who wishes to speak about man and his world must of necessity first consider who is man and in reality whose world one is speaking about. Without penetrating into these questions and discovering the appropriate answers the hope for a harmonious relation between man and his world is dim indeed, and so many pictures of the further and more complete conquest of nature in the future become nothing but a chimera and dream, for within man lie forces that no “earthly” science, even if it is extended to the Pleiades, can ever understand or unravel or control.
Modern science may enable man to know how he is constituted chemically or biologically or where he is in galactic space. But this form of science cannot tell man who he is, where he was before his earthly existence, and where he will be after it. It cannot reveal to man where he stands in what has been called existential space, in the hierarchy of universal existence. It therefore cannot provide for man “orientation,” for to orient man’s life means to know where he comes from, where he is to go, and most of all who he is.