Ostad Elahi & Descartes: Philosophy, the Science of Spirituality, and the Medicine of the Soul
A lecture by Dr. Elie During, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris Ouest, Nanterre
A vast metaphysical movement marks and justifies the proximity and somewhat surprising commonality between the philosophies of these two thinkers, the quadricentennial of one coming within a year of coinciding with the centennial of the other. In reality, the philosophy that Ostad Elahi calls natural spirituality and ethics is indissociable from the metaphysical concept of spiritual realism, the principle proponent of which has historically been Descartes. But as we shall see, the alignment of these two philosophies is only possible if we reconsider our notion of the conception of reality and, in particular, a thing (res).
Separated by the span of three centuries, what do these thinkers share in common aside from being philosophers? Ostad Elahi was an exceptional jurist, musician, and mystic, whereas Descartes was a mathematician and a scientist of the highest order. What I will emphasize here is the philosophical dimension of these two figures who emerge from different traditional frameworks despite their intellectual similarities. The philosophers and authorities that Ostad Elahi implicitly refers to are Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus on one hand, and Avicenna, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra on the other. At the same time, Ostad Elahi’s system of thought is remarkably closer to Leibniz than that of Descartes.
In reality, Ostad Elahi is not a Cartesian in the strict sense of the term, as no traces of Cartesian doctrines or philosophical movements can be found in his thinking. If we now speak of the “Cartesian mind,” however, which is the theme of this symposium, it is not irrational to compare Descartes and Ostad Elahi, for we can observe Descartes’s mentality and approach in Ostad Elahi’s thought, and can clearly state that Ostad Elahi’s philosophy encompasses that of Descartes without necessarily being categorized as part of that philosophy. Therefore, the similarity of their thoughts is not based on the commonality of specific doctrinal points, but rather in their philosophical orientations, which is to say the commonality in their community of interests. The objective is to allude to a certain affinity between two philosophical minds that converge on the task of “setting forth a universal science that will elevate the true nature of humanity to the highest level of perfection.” Descartes once considered this phrase for the title of a book that he ultimately called Metaphysical Meditations.
Once we broach the subject of the nature of human beings and their perfection, we are essentially concerned with the soul, the soul by itself and the embodied soul. Thus, we have to investigate this matter further if we are not to limit ourselves to generalities. In so doing, the intellectual differences and similarities will become apparent and the two perspectives will be drawn closer together while highlighting their commonalities.
Ostad Elahi does not at all pose the question of life, meaning the animation of a body that has the potential for life, for this question has already been resolved by the basharic or “terrestrial” soul (a human-animal endowed with life). By definition, the body is endowed with life, a basic and self-evident concept. The body is a material shell animated with life by the terrestrial (human-animal) soul. The main question here is what happens to the celestial soul, which according to tradition has been endowed with the divine breath and unites with the body. This “trialism” (one body, two souls) of Ostad Elahi refutes with greater clarity than Descartes the old philosophical notion of the communication of substances, for in reality everything takes shape through the combination of two souls with equal spiritual natures.
The difficulty arises when we hypothetically assume the union of these three substances. The issue is no longer to understand how seemingly independent and separate substances can communicate with one other, but rather how these elements are modified based on rational exchanges that constitute the foundation of every ethical and spiritual life. The goal of a theory of the soul is to elucidate the interplay of these elements, the “fusion” that takes place in a spiritual space and in which events, destinies, and processes can be explained philosophically in a manner not unlike that of anatomists or physicians. In a sense, what is at issue here is the meaning of an embodied life, and in Descartes’s as in Ostad Elahi’s thought it is the issue of passions that transforms the false problem of unification into a true ethical and spiritual problem.
A Spiritual Position
Let us assume in this article that the Cartesian position is clear to everyone; the comparison that we will engage is often implicit, and we will refer to Ostad Elahi more so than Descartes. In Ostad Elahi’s thought, everything is directed toward attributing meaning to the mechanism of passions within the framework of the soul’s theory of perfection. But how exactly does it work?
I can only briefly describe the spiritual position that Ostad Elahi constructs within that realm of union. In doing so, the terms that we will elaborate upon are the following:
The self of ordinary consciousness, which emerges at the interface between the body and the soul, or between the human-animal soul and the celestial soul; it constitutes the true or metaphysical self.
The imperious self, which lacks a substantive existence, engenders a lack of equilibrium and projects an image of immoderate animal instincts onto the soul (that which Descartes called “inclination”).
Spiritual willpower or the power of the soul, which combines with “celestial reason” (Descartes called it reflexive will combined with reason). These two spiritual components comprise the foundation for the regulation and proper use of passions, and are considered the very heart of ethics; in their actualized state, Ostad Elahi refers to them as “sincerity” (or a “sincere and resolute will,”) whereas Descartes refers to them as “generosity.” Of course, it would be absurd to consider these two concepts as purely identical.
At the heart of this spiritual position lies the imperious self and the struggles, power plays, pressures, and counterpressures that revolve around it. As for asceticism and its consequences, Ostad Elahi constantly reminds us that we should not weaken the body or the imperious self, but rather seek to strengthen the soul so that it can always counterbalance and equalize the advances of the imperious self.
The Fundamental Process: An Osmotic Relationship
How can we integrate this unification of body and soul with a spiritual goal? How can we comprehend the destiny of the soul in relation to this union? Of course, in addition to the aforementioned topics (the celestial soul, the terrestrial soul, and the imperious self), Ostad Elahi also invokes other characteristics by discussing types of souls, spiritual aptitudes, and degrees of maturity; pathology (functional impairments, spiritual illnesses); and physiology, in the same way that these are understood in the science of medicine—in other words, as a theory of the natural functioning of the union of body and soul. Whereas Descartes proposes a mechanical model for regulating the passions (the use of force, pressure, and counterpressures), Ostad Elahi presents a biological and medical model based on the principle of osmosis in which it is as if there were an osmotic membrane between the body and the soul that regulates the exchanges from one substance to another. Here, it is the soul (or in other words, transcendent willpower and celestial reason) that controls the sensitivity of this osmotic membrane in order to establish a balanced relationship between the ingress and egress of the substances. Moreover, it is through the proper development of this osmotic relationship that the purpose of this body-soul union becomes apparent in relation to the general process of perfection. In this sense, Ostad Elahi’s original theory on union appears stronger. I will summarize the meaning of this theory in a few sentences.
In its original state, the celestial soul is pure. Ostad Elahi explains that if we were to compare the divine to a boundless ocean, the celestial soul would be the equivalent of pure or distilled water. This water, however, does not have the same rich composition of the divine ocean, and it has only been given the opportunity to acquire the “quality” of the ocean through successive sojourns in human lives (and through its fusion with the physical body). This interaction is made possible because the constitutive elements of these “qualities” are found in excessive amounts in the human body. In reality, the process of perfection consists in transferring these excessive elements in the human-animal to the celestial soul in the correct proportions. At the culmination of this process, the soul’s nature becomes identical to that of the divine ocean and truly becomes a drop of water therein, returning to its origin.
To avoid any misunderstanding, however, that may result from a naive comprehension of this metaphor, it should be said that when we speak of the body, we are in fact talking about the human-animal or terrestrial soul. This is why the qualities and influences that the soul seeks in its merger with the body are psychological in nature. (“Traces” and “effects” should not be considered in their medieval sense as “impressions of species.”)
In this medicine of the soul, ethics are based less on a clear understanding of moral laws than on the work of one’s willpower, which leads to the strengthening of the soul in its control over the processes of the body-soul union. But the ultimate goal of this union and the osmotic relationship that occurs in this process is the transfiguration of the soul, such that its qualities culminate in those of the divine. Therefore, the “divination of man,” to quote Plato, is realized through the alchemy of this union, a form of distillation through which the soul can extract the essence that it needs to acquire this divine quality from the body and thus from matter itself. The theological import of this theory should be properly assessed, for it would not be an exaggeration to state that it revolutionizes all the traditional models of descension, incarnation, and purification of the soul. The embodiment of the soul is not intended for it to realize powers that it previously had, but rather the soul must realize the transmutation of its own substance through the measured assessment and refinement of the material body in order to cultivate the extraordinary powers within it.
Ostad Elahi sets forth the idea of a philosopher-physician more clearly than Descartes himself, who admitted that he sought to speak “neither as an orator nor as a moral philosopher, but as a physicist.” According to Ostad Elahi, natural spirituality is the medicine of the soul. But that is because the soul is a thing. Descartes was heavily criticized for explicitly stating this point and using the expression res cogitans (a thinking thing). Yet it is only in this way that it becomes possible to explore the topic, topology, and typology of the soul.
In its most general sense, what is a thing if not the quality associated with the scope of its dimension? This dimension, however, can either be ideal or—according to the precise sense in which Suhrawardi or Mulla Sadra consider the word—imaginal. Therefore, we must say that the soul is a thing: a spiritual thing, an imaginal thing. It is a multiplicity that is realized through union with the body, endowed with parts, constituent elements, and a complete structure that is in contact with the environment. The possibility of a spiritual realism that does not reduce the soul to a bone or an immaterial substance that merely serves as an ethereal double of the body appears to be the most profound issue that emerges in the parallel study of Descartes and Ostad Elahi.