Hasan Spiker’s most recent work, Hierarchy & Freedom, explores the historical/philosophical relationship between “hierarchy” and “freedom” in Western thought, providing a convincing case for Platonism and its innate hierarchical structures in opposition to the empirical, positivistic philosophical structure forwarded by the West. Spiker is a contemporary philosopher and comparative scholar of Islāmic, Greek, and modern thought. As noted in his biography for Zaytuna College, Spiker spent twelve years studying the Islamic sciences in the Middle East, primarily under the tutelage of the Iraqi sage al-Sayyid Quṣayy Abū al-Siʿd, principally focusing on interactions between the school of Ibn ʿArabī and late kalām.1
Before proceeding, it should be clarified that this piece expects some level of familiarity with Platonic thought and, to some degree, the works referenced. In the upcoming pieces, In Shāʾ Allāh, there will be more elaborate discussions on Platonism, Akbarianism, and the frameworks they provide to counteract modernity’s ironic attempt at the removal of metaphysics. This piece however, intends to lay forth a brief summary, coupled with my own commentary, on Spiker’s work.
The repudiation of any intrinsic hierarchy, Spiker writes, is one of the defining insistences of contemporary liberal Western society, in contrast to the premodern stance that reality is inherently hierarchical. Although the view won near-unanimous acceptance during the time of Plato, it began to be unanimously rejected during the Enlightenment culminating with the form of radical empiricism upheld by John Locke. It was in part what had influenced the positivistic philosophy that later became the norm; I add in part as the entire shift to an empirical approach may not be attributed to any particular metaphysical position, whether it is in the form of rejecting Platonism and embracing nominalism or otherwise.2
When speaking of freedom, what is intended by “autonomy” is the notion of “self-determination” that is central to contemporary ideas of freedom. Man is at liberty to choose what meaning he will pursue and how, in essence contradicting the Islāmic conception thereof in two regards, namely, in that of liberty and meaning. Freedom, from the Islāmic perspective, is not what is attained via removing restrictions pertaining to every visible thing and action. Rather, he who engages in meaningless pursuits and allows his carnal soul to dominate the dictates of its rational counterpart — for the nafs to overcome the fiṭrah — is in effect chained to his own nafs, and may hardly be called free. The free are those whose actions, beliefs, and principles are in harmony with their rational souls, for they have subjugated their own nufūs such that they follow their dictates and do not dictate the actions of man themselves. This intimately ties into the pursuit of meaning, as our meanings have been given to us by God ﷻ, although we do have sufficient liberty to decide how we will pursue that meaning and enshrine it with glory.
To return to the original topic, the theory of hierarchical thinking was derived from Dionysius who, in turn, derived his ideas from the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus. It received further attention in the Middle Ages from prominent thinkers such as Aquinas. It held that far from being aspects of mere social, epistemological, moral, and political conventions, hierarchies are rooted in a reality under the subordination of God ﷻ. It will be later clarified how it intertwines with the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd and how hierarchies are intrinsic in every regard, as upheld by both Neoplatonic and Akbarian strands of thought.
While the repudiation of this hierarchy has yielded a form of freedom that is popularly enjoyed in the Western world, the intellectual bankruptcy thereof is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. Spiker argues that the ontology of a Platonic hierarchy provides a much stronger ground for autonomy and freedom.
Spiker proceeds to explore the Proclean-Dionysian view of metaphysical hierarchy, beginning with Voltaire who initially expresses his fascination with Plato’s hierarchy: from brute matter to organized matter, from plants to zoophytes, from zoophytes to animals, from animals to humans, from humans to spirits, and from spirits to immaterial substances. Spiker clarifies, however, that this more approximates to the Dionysian view of hierarchy than the Platonic one. Voltaire, he writes, fails to see the rationality of hierarchy; he only sees fantasy. Edward Feser, likewise, similarly attempts to refute Platonism, providing proofs instead for Realism as it appears in Aristotelian and Scholastic strands of thought.3 He, likewise, fails to notice that anti-hierarchical views favor the empirical to the detriment of the intelligible. The intelligible, thus, becomes a mere concept. As shall be explored in a later section, it is the very concept of rationality itself that has led the Platonists and the Enlightenment thinkers to view the same topic and arrive at radically different conclusions. This is because the philosophical justifications for hierarchy were founded on the Platonic conception of reason wherein the logical and the metaphysical priorities are identified, and the empirical — far from constituting the intelligible — is a derivative of and is ontologically subservient thereto.
The metaphysical necessity of hierarchy was found in the henological principle that “every manifold in some way partakes in unity.” Proclus’s authority, as Dodds writes, for this principle is Parmenides: “Since they are other than the one, they are not the one; if they were, they could not be other than it. Yet the others are not wholly destitute of the one (unity), but partake of it in a way…”4
The same notion appears in Akbarian thought. Al-Nābulusī, in the very beginning of al-Wujūd, clarifies that the notion of waḥdat al-wujūd may not be conflated with pantheism, as it implies that all existences are fundamentally sustained by God ﷻ. Furthermore, it is not the case that all existences are God ﷻ or that He is within all existences.5 This, in turn, may be further clarified based on the differentiation he later draws between existence and existents, writing that while existents are differentiable and may take multiple forms, existence, in effect, is one. They are what existents follow and exist by virtue thereof. Spiker provides the example of a tree, writing that an arbitrary proliferation of properties, say, colors, and shapes, could never be a tree unless they were subordinated to a ‘tree’ as their substratum, demonstrating that there has to be a unifying principle which comprises these differences so that the world may be ultimately rendered coherent.
He cites Radek Chlup who clarifies, “The problem of unity and multiplicity concerns everything around us not just ontologically but epistemologically as well. Multiplicity is when we see some difference, whether we are able to distinguish one thing from another. Yet, if the world consisted of manifolds only, it would be altogether incoherent and impossible to grasp. We would not see any connections but only distinctions. As a result, we would not be able to comprehend any single entity — for when we tried, it would vanish into an infinite number of parts and aspects.”6
The question of unity and oneness, from the Akbarian Ṣūfī perspective, is intimately tied to waḥdat al-wujūd. If we take words, for example, we witness that they partake of a symbolic reality, manifesting the speaker’s thoughts at a level of verbal reality. Nature, similarly, is a symbolic form via which Divine Creativity manifests. From an occasionalist framework, we must not understand causality as a system wherein a word gives rise to another or an event to another (in simpler terms, we do not say that it is one perceptible event in play that causes another) but one wherein the relation of God ﷻ, the intelligent agent, causing all things holds true.7 God ﷻ, in other words, is the cause, while all else are merely perceived causes.8
Nature in this conception consists of discrete, discontinuous processes and relations which are perpetually renewed manifestations of an underlying, abiding reality that both includes and excludes them. In the words of al-Nābulusī, what is intended by waḥdat al-wujūd is that all existences are fundamentally sustained by God ﷻ — not that all existences are God ﷻ. 9 Nature in short is a symbol through which manifests a reality higher more enduring than it. The world is a theater for the manifestation of the Divine Names. In Akbarian terms, the phenomenal world is the theater for the manifestation of the One Unique Being: Allāh ﷻ, the Name which encompasses all the Divine Names, and it is He who is, in effect, the One True Existence, while all others are mere shadows.
Yet another principle central to the Proclean-Dionysian hierarchy is that every productive cause is superior to that which it produces. This is not that different from the Aristotelian notion of causation either, in that the cause is ontologically superior to the effects it produces, insofar as the effect cannot possess what the cause may not give rise to. The cause must possess the set of attributes that the effect may in turn come to possess, either in whole or in part.
But the effects in terms of existence must have some unifying principle or substratum, to return to the original discussion of hierarchies and unity. The same may be witnessed within the domain of human experience. The five senses perceive in their own manners, and their perceptions are later synthesized to form a coherent world of thoughts that is subordinated to the intellect.
In accounting for the intelligibility of the world, we discern numerous other grades of hierarchy that mediate between individuals and Forms. Forms are distinct causes of things, but things are not directly caused by the Forms. The phenomenal world of individual things that make this world this world is a single world because it had unity conferred to it by another principle. While the “upper” part of the soul contemplates the Forms, the “lower” part creates our spatiotemporal realm of sensible, particularized traces thereof. Al-Aṭṭās elaborates upon this in his Prolegomena, writing that our perceptions — those of the mind, to be exact — are only based upon accidental properties of certain things, and they do not witness their essences. The essences are largely available to the Ṣūfīs, for the veil has been lifted from their visions, and they may cognize through their souls the essence of things to varying degrees. It is they who may perceive the ḥaqīqah (the ontological reality) of things, rather than the mere accidental properties that the mind may cognize. This is in distinction to the ḥaqq of the matter in question, which has two aspects, one pertaining to the reality of what it is in reference to, and the other to certain modes or aspects relevant thereto. In simpler terms, a proposition regarding some accidental property of an object – say, its color – would denote a ḥaqq, if true, whereas the very essence of the object would denote its ḥaqīqah.10 Things comprise both physical and metaphysical realities, the latter being perceptible only by the soul upon the lifting of the veil that guards the vision of man therefrom.
As Ibn Sīnā writes in the Ishārāt, the purpose of philosophy or conceptual thought is to arrive at the reality of things insofar as it is possible for a human being to do so. Later he qualifies this assertion, writing that man himself cannot grasp the realities of things. As it pertains to these things, we may only know their properties, connections, and accidents, but not what makes them different. It is the distinctive property or a set thereof of a thing — according to the Aristotelian conception — that defines its essence and sets it apart from other existences.11 The notion, as will be discussed, is far more strongly grounded under a Platonic notion of unity which unites the differences into a coherent whole.
The soul is the foundation and container of knowledge, with intuition being a faculty thereof. There are four terms used in relation to the soul: the nafs, the qalb, the rūḥ, and the ʿaql. Each connotes two meanings: one pertaining to the material realm, and the other to the metaphysical. When the Soul comprehends, it is called the “Intellect” (ʿaql); when it governs the body, it is called the “Soul” (nafs); when it receives knowledge through intuition, it is called the “Heart”(ʿaql); and when it is in its abstract world — the sort that appears in a state of kashf — it is called the “Spirit” (rūḥ).12 All four unite under a single umbrella that we refer to as the “Soul.” But the Soul, in general terms, is divisible into two forms: the carnal soul and the rational. Harmony with the fiṭrah requires the subjugation of the carnal and the embellishment of and submission to the rational. Obedience to the former and its dictates blackens the heart, for as the Prophet ﷺ said:
Verily, when the servant commits a sin, a black mark appears upon his heart. If he abandons the sin, seeks forgiveness, and repents, then his heart will be polished. If he returns to the sin, the blackness will be increased until it overcomes his heart. It is the covering that Allāh has mentioned: No, rather a covering is over their hearts from what they have earned.13
Intuition, in our epistemic view, is not merely knowledge that subsists in our nature but may also be defined as a synthesis of reason and experience. The intuition that an individual may have with regard to reality or certain aspects thereof would be dependent upon his experience, existing knowledge, and capacity, all of which may be strengthened. It is strengthened, on the part of man, by those who undertake rigorous spiritual exertions and are thus able to transcend to higher spiritual stations until the veil, from their visions, is removed.14
To elucidate the above, Spiker’s own words may be taken: “It is only by realizing one’s own nature through the ascent to the unconstrained freedom of the One via increasing identification with the Intellect (that is, True Being) as intermediary, and the increasing distancing of oneself from ‘bodily affections’ — that is, only by ascending through the hierarchy of being — that one can become truly free, such that some things become truly ‘up to us.’”15 From an Akbarian standpoint, it is via greater identification with the fiṭrah that one gains true freedom, as the subjugation of the lower, carnal self is necessary as the latter is what binds man, pulls him towards the material realm of existence, and thwarts his ascendence and transcendence.
The empirically bound being, thus, cannot be called “free.” John Rist concludes that freedom, for Plotinus, is not simply equivalent to the power of choice, but freedom from that necessity of choice which the passions impose.16 This is a power available to the purified soul, manifested through the subordination of the lower faculties to the intellect given its conformity with the rational soul.
Following these discussions, Spiker tackles modernity and its philosophical underpinnings, beginning with Arbogast Schmitt, writing that for him the idea that modernity has brought with it freedom and autonomy is a delusive perception.17This is, as Spiker adds, due to modernity’s ignorance and misunderstanding of the Platonic-Aristotelian strands of thought that it claims to correct, as well as a dogmatic view of rationality which is founded upon the empirical understanding of the world. Thus, while reason, according to the Platonic conception, was founded upon the principle of noncontradiction and rational discrimination, the understanding perpetuated by modernity rests upon empirical data. Schmitt traces the broad new tradition to William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, but it is truly under Locke that such views were radicalized.18
The above is clarified as we see conceptions of cognition in different strands of thought. For Aristotle, for example, the fullness of cognition of a certain thing only begins with the perception of the particular, constituting a mere “pre-scientific” ingredient. Complete cognition is then contingent upon determining what is truly distinctive about it. Knowledge, thus, is fundamentally based on distinction from the Aristotelian standpoint. But we do not hold that the distinctions we may draw, or the conclusions — although they may be based upon accidents rather than essences — with the mind do not grant us certainty. This is a view largely forwarded by modernism which, in turn, leads to unfettered skepticism. If it is the case that any attempted representation of the reality of any individual is flawed, then modernity is faced with a problem, as it faces the question of what exactly it is within human self-determination that must be defended. What then remains the purpose of “correcting” the strands of thought it aims to correct?
If we do not identify, and are left with no explanation concerning, which aspects of self-determination must be protected, we are left with an arbitrary mode of freedom that is dogmatically defended, and any claim of intrinsic hierarchy ordering the objects is necessarily excluded. For while it is the standard of this mode of knowledge to represent the empirical particular, the representation will always fall short of the empirical particular itself, given the impossibility of any essence to be described perfectly.
For the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of reason, on the other hand, as Schmitt describes, the fundamental unit of knowledge is founded upon the “primary universal,” as he titles it, which is the unity bestowed upon all possible things. It is not to be equated with the immanent universal which is instantiated by the particular. Rather, the primary universal is the rational determination of the rubric under which all the criteria to which every possible individual must conform in order to constitute the instance of a given species. It is the distinct, intelligible entity that exemplifies the totality of these possibilities.
This is largely, if not completely, antithetical to the Lockean empirical approach, the underlying peculiarities of which shall be discussed shortly. Locke, thoroughly an Empiricist, rejects the notion that there are “innate” concepts reflecting some putative hierarchical order. His views regarding Platonic hierarchies are not merely restricted thereto but rather extend to syllogistic logical orders, given his idea of the “subjective human mind.” He argued vigorously for the position that every idea originates in experience, making the refutation of “innate ideas” central to his philosophical project.
Locke was opposed to any notion of subordination that particular judgments may have to principles with greater degrees of certainty. According to his “way of ideas,” sensation and reflection lead to the initiation of simple ideas which, in turn, leads to complex knowledge. In sensation, these ideas are engendered by primary (figures, numbers, etc.) and secondary qualities (heat, coldness, etc.). But the distinction between primary and secondary qualities does not reflect any ontological hierarchy of qualities in nature, as knowledge in the Lockean view possesses no such degree, being grounded in the empirical particular.
As is the case with Plotinus, liberty for Locke is not merely contingent upon the voluntary, but rather the voluntary is in conjunction with what one wills to do. Unlike the Platonic conception, however, Locke has a hedonistic perception of morality. His hedonistic definition of happiness renders the mere achievement of pleasure a fully consistent rational motive for freedom.
When the question concerns balancing the matter with scriptural dictates, however, Locke writes that since some desires we possess in this world conflict with scripture, they must be suspended so that the greater good may be attained, since scriptures promise punishment if some dictates are carried out, and pleasure if they are refrained from. But by rooting such in merely pleasure and pain, he provides a very feeble justification for what makes an action “good” particularly as it is relevant to the Afterlife, for the nonexistence thereof, to Locke, remains a real possibility.19 Rather than providing an epistemologically sound justification, he renders his entire system of theology and deontology weak and susceptible to being used as justification for all forms of pursuit: lust, wealth, and worldly power, among others. Given his inability to provide any ontological or epistemological justification for his views other than the weak theological hedonistic voluntarism he forwards for his claim, it can be seen why and how his views deteriorate into the contemporary political and social contexts wherein freedom, regardless of what is done with it, is the ultimate value. But it is in such a manner that man becomes chained, for freedom dictates that man must in accordance with what his true nature demands. And thus, the dictates of the secular are fundamentally in contradiction with what man’s nature seeks: union with God ﷻ.
And Allāh ﷻ knows best.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- There are differences between the Akbarians and the theologians (mutakallimīn), but these differences are specific in nature and do not lead to the repudiation of ideas fundamental to Islām. They are rather two varying strands that seek to uphold core tenets of the dīn from two different perspectives. And this is even assuming that a strong distinction must be drawn between the two to begin with, since syntheses, historically, were drawn between these two strands, thus producing scholars who held to Ibn ʿArabī’s metaphysical viewpoints while having subscribed nevertheless to a dialectic school, particularly as may be seen with the Māturīdīs.
- Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God.
- E.R. Dodds, Proclus: The Elements of Theology.
- ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Wujūd.
- Radek Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction, pg. 50.
- Anthony Kenny, A Brief History of Western Philosophy. See Hume’s critiques of causation laid out in the book. In essence, Hume argues from four aspects: (1) Neither reason nor experience shows that the future must resemble the past; (2) cause and effect must be distinct existences, each conceivable without the other; (3) the causal relationship is to be analyzed in terms of contiguity, precedence, and constant conjunction; and (4) it is not a necessary truth that every beginning of existence has a cause.
- Adi Setia, Philosophy of Science of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas
- Al-Nābulusī, al-Wujūd.
- Syed Naqīb al-Aṭṭās, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islām.
- Karim Lahham, The Anatomy of Knowledge and the Ontological Necessity of First Principles.
- Al-Aṭṭās, Prolegomena.
- Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3334.
- Al-Aṭṭās, Prolegomena.
- Hasan Spiker, Hierarchy & Freedom, pg. 68
- J.M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pg. 137.
- Spiker, pg. 78.
- Ibid, pg. 80.
- Ibid, pg. 105.
Chaudhury Nafee Ibne Sajed
Chaudhury Nafee Ibne Sajed is a software engineer who has studied Computer Science at Stony Brook University. He is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in the Islamic Tradition and its Sciences, ranging from Fiqh, Usūl, and Hadīth to Tasawwuf.