Human Nature

Human Nature and an Evaluation of Modern Psychology: Syed Hasan Askari (extract from: Towards A Spiritual Humanism A Muslim–Humanist Dialogue, chapter 5)

Hasan Askari “It is very intriguing to see how very different and conflicting world-views share a high degree of consensus when it comes to human nature. We notice how close Islam and Humanism are to each other when we seriously take into account the issue of human nature in its original structure, in its unfoldment in community, in culture and in history – and also in the deeply held notion of human responsibility.

Islam doesn’t have the notion of a personal saviour in history, a saviour given once and for all to all humanity. Muhammad is not the intercessor or saviour of all the Muslim community. Each human being is understood as both responsible and accountable. It is this notion of accountability in Islam which is characteristic of a deep sense of predicament for the Muslim individual. Each individual has to hold onto his own awareness, to his own remembrance of what he believes, and to accepting responsibility for his own actions. The entirety of Islamic eschatology, including the emphasis on resurrection and the Day of Judgement, is a grand epic of emphasis on each individual’s accountability to his fellow man, to himself, and to principles higher than himself.

As far as the original structure of human nature is concerned, Islam doesn’t have the concept of original sin. The mythical or archetypal drama of Adam and Eve’s creation and their leaving the state of paradise or the state of undifferentiated being is understood quite differently from the Christian interpretation of the same story. Iqbal (d.1938), the great Muslim theologian-philosopher and poet, refers to Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience as an act of differentiation in consciousness, which, once realized, left no other option but to enter earthly history. Therefore, history begins with Adam and Eve leaving the state of undifferentiated consciousness. Iqbal understands humanity as struggling to reach that same state in history – a vision of the unity of their being, the meeting of the beginning and the end.

There is therefore, in my view, a great consensus between the humanistic and the Islamic understanding of man, and because it is so I have proposed many times that these two conceptions should come together in the world to work for human rights and for human justice. The Quran itself suggests for the need to suspend theological judgements and disputations and work in the way of the good.

Surely it is possible to suspend ideological judgements between Muslims and humanists and work in the way of the common good in this present hour of human history.

As far as the question of neutrality of human nature is concerned, I personally believe that the word neutral is a device to resolve this dichotomy of human nature being either essentially good or essentially evil. It is a way out of the controversy. I subscribe to the notion of human nature as potentiality, as power. It is a repository of powers – powers vital, powers rational and powers spiritual. And it is up to each individual, as to how these powers are unfolded, enriched and brought to bear upon both the individual good and the common good.

These powers relate to our discourse and original focus on the soul because they are embedded in the ontological structure of the human being. These powers, both non-material and material, are in a state of vacillation because on the one hand they cleave to the intelligible world and on the other they fall prey to the images produced in the material world. In my view, it should be the goal of each individual life, and collective life as a whole, to reach a balance between the intelligible and the sensible. We need to create awareness with regard to these powers, powers which are not essentially of perception or of functioning in the world, but powers which pertain to our ultimate destiny.

There are two extremely crucial moments in our modern transformation which both humanists and Muslims and religious people in general have to come to terms with. The first moment which created the greatest upheaval in our thought came about through Darwin and Spencer, namely, the theory of evolution. Let me now make a comment that is going to take us both into the heart of the matter. I totally accept the evidence and the theory built upon that evidence that there is a temporal unfoldment of the material universe, that there is a temporal unfoldment of the various life forms. There is a progress from simple to the complex; there is a mutation, adaptation and survival of the fittest not only in quantitative terms but also in qualitative and functional terms. All this pertains to what I call the collective forms. I would apply even the concept “collective form” to consciousness, language and culture. Therefore, I would go a long way with Spencer when he reiterates the evolutionary principle on the social level, on the cultural level. I would go to the extent of embracing Auguste Comte in his well-known formulation of the stages of human growth arriving at the rational or the positivistic as their highest summit. At the point Comte feels the need to invoke a totality, not in sacred, metaphysical terms, but in immanent, holistic terms. That gesture of Comte’s however mad it appeared at the time, accompanies us, pursues us and haunts us like a dream. However, there is something missing, and that something has been highlighted by those who disagree with the theory of evolution, and who at the same time commit all sorts of mistakes in exaggerating the lacunas in the theory and attempt to rely upon any evidence that might come forth to contradict it. Such a ritual employment of the scientific method to disprove the theory of evolution is to me nonsense – that is not the issue.

The issue is about another mystery which the traditional scientific theory of evolution does not meet. In the absence of any other language I would tentatively suggest that we don’t have a theory of emergence. By emergence I mean the emergence of individuals. We have a theory – sociologically and biologically – of coming into being and unfoldment in evolution of a species, of cultural species, of linguistic species, but we don’t have a theory to explain or help us understand how individuals emerge in history. I am using the word “individual” as applicable not only to those creative geniuses throughout history, but also to those creative configurations of culture – say, Ancient India, Greece, China and Egypt – which are very enigmatic, and very mysterious in terms of symbol, in terms of constructs, and in terms of philosophy. To me these configurations are also “individuals”. “Individuals” are not comparable. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution with all its limitations was one of the first crucial moments in modern thought.

The second great upheaval in our modern transformation was registered by the School of Vienna headed by Sigmund Freud. Here something more spectacular happened because the theory of evolution was forestalled in both metaphor and myth in ancient and medieval times. We have, for example, striking evidence of notions pertaining to evolution in Islamic gnostic philosophy. Both the great Persian poet Rumi (d.1273), and Ibn Miskawa, (d.1030) the first philosopher of ethics in Islam, talked about evolution, and they regarded the philosopher-prophet as the culmination of human evolution. Rumi talks about the development of life, from mineral to plant and from animal to man. In response to the question of what lies behind man Rumi gives us through poetry and parable a fascinating account of the human soul. The ecstasy he expressed through dance was itself a form of evolution.

So the theory of evolution as expressed in the 19th century was not a surprise for those already familiar with the idea running through history. It had already been given in drama, in poetry and also in different symbols. Even the myth of creation was a foretelling of that theory in a very succinct and symbolic manner.

However, the idea which came out of the School of Vienna was spectacular, was conceptually new, was substantially new, namely, that human reality as we know it is not exhausted in our consciousness. Furthermore, consciousness is a very small part of a greater totality, namely, the unconscious. Whenever the word “unconscious” was used in former times and in any language in the world, it was used either to mean forgetfulness; very occasionally it was used as a symbol of nothingness, and more rarely still as a symbol of the ontological entity. We still don’t know how to handle the implications of this idea, and however we call ourselves Freudians or Humanists, let us ask ourselves frankly how far we ourselves have imbibed that idea. It is extremely difficult for us to grapple with the notion that we are in the ocean of the unconscious. Indeed the idea is as difficult for us to handle as the idea of nuclear holocaust because humanity still doesn’t know what global mass destruction really means. Our mind cannot hold in its image what such destruction implies and therefore our inability to cope with the idea in either emotional or intellectual terms. Thus the discovery of the unconscious was a remarkable idea, but it is perhaps an inevitable tragedy that any new idea is rapidly exploited by current world-views to either support or buttress their positions. It seems to me that Freud’s breakthrough in his discovery of the unconscious offered exactly such an assistance to those world-views which saw in his theory a remarkable opportunity for self-justification. However, this is not our main concern. Our concern here is how to respond to the challenge represented by the idea.

What was Freud’s major contribution? Regarding the scientific debate as to whether Freud’s theory is adequately based upon on concrete evidence or not, the charge against him is that it is based on highly selective clinical evidence. However his theory may have been based on very limited selective clinical evidence it had a very important contribution to make – namely, that the human personality is not only conscious but greatly unconscious.

According to Freud, this unconscious aspect of the human personality is personal. It is a personal unconscious which may be regressed into the infantile and even pre-natal stages of human development. At this point we enter the moment which every theorist is likely to enter and that is the moment for speculation, in the same way that religious philosophers speculate. So, Freud speculated, on the basis of the evidence he had gathered, that whatever we have in our conscious superstructure is derived from repressed drives, and from images which are hinged to, and drawn from, one basic substratum or another and then pushed onto other areas in our conscious life. This theory demonstrated that neither religion, nor art, nor poetry, nor philosophy had any concrete epistemological validity except on a psychological basis.

I quite agree that within the first quarter of the 20th century the European spirit was plunged into a state of distress and a mood of self-critique. This is evident whether seen from the standpoint of the sophisticated psychoanalytical approaches of the School of Vienna, or the Barthian critique of the Enlightenment, or Spengler’s Decline of the West, or Toynbee’s Study of History. There was a need for the renewal of a philosophy which could take stock of this massive cultural failure of the West.

It was indeed a very testing time, and those who worked in that period between two World Wars, whether theologians or philosophers, whether psychologists or social scientists, had to face a second fiasco right within the cradle of European philosophy, namely the tragic lapse of German idealism into a racist, Nordic, fascist ideology. This moment threw all of us off our ground, and hence I agree that a great part of Western thought is historically conditioned. Its mood is based on concrete historical experience. The experience of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany left no room for any speculative understanding, for right within the human condition was a spectacle of deep challengefulness.

We have to draw lessons from that mood and then continue our search from those basic philosophical and ideological positions which began right within the 19th century from Darwin and Spencer through to Freud. It was in this context that I referred to the most extraordinary discovery of the School of Vienna pertaining to the neurotic basis of the human personality of the personal unconscious and the discovery of a psychic foundation which could not be named but ambiguously. The Latin word “libido” was used, first in a narrow sense by Freud and later in a much wider sense by Carl Jung. Libido as a concept derives from Cicero’s definition of libido as action or state flowing from the total suspension of reason. It was this aspect of the unconscious in the personal life of each individual which was popularly termed as the irrational in man but which Freud understood as not only the sheer opposite of reason but as something vaster and mightier, as something more subliminal and dark. He used the term “id” to describe it as there was no other symbol to denote it.

This discovery had two very extraordinary consequences. It came as a shock to the entire world of philosophy and knowledge because for the first time in the history of thought a new category was being postulated. The entire history of human thought had rested upon the notion of consciousness, upon conscious use of language and reason, and anything outside that realm fell into the category of emotion, or the unknowable, or the indeterminate. However, with Freud’s discovery it obtained an ontological presence whose real nature was totally unknown except as given through symptoms clinically and theoretically stated through Freudian understanding of the human psyche. However, there was a missing link or a lacuna which was taken up by critics of Freud if not deliberately, inevitably in their reflections on his work. The lacuna I am referring to was also obvious to Freud himself, namely, how could this personal unconscious level be related to massive collective events in the life of the world? Firstly, how could one explain the irrational, violent and barbaric acts of World War I, as well as all the other wars and occasions of bloodshed in human history? Secondly, how does one explain the dream world and what happens in a dream? It is at that point that Carl Jung’s entry into the psychoanalytical scene in Europe led to an extension of the meaning of the word, psyche.

Jung was not satisfied with the personalistic, limited, reductionist view of libido. He had another sort of evidence, which was available to Freud also but the latter was unwilling to relate it to an extended category of the psyche, namely, the evidence of the collective unconscious in the reproduction of images, symbols and mythical archaic material from across the world. It was this evidence that led Jung to postulate a universal notion of the collective unconscious, or a transpersonal category of the human psyche. Jung was therefore unable to agree to Freud’s definition of libido as restricted to one vital drive, namely the sex drive. Jung translated the term libido into the more neutral and universal term of psychic energy of which sex is only one manifestation. He developed a framework of reference through which not only individual personal neurosis but also the collective neurosis could be understood and explained. In that basic structure Jung identified how those indefinable, still unclear foundations of our human behaviour, namely instincts, came to impart a particular profile to our personalities. Along with instincts, he discovered another structure, equally ambiguous, unfathomable and inaccessible, namely, archetypes which are inherent, universally present dispositions in the human psyche that reproduce themselves across time and space and irrespective of boundaries of culture, language and religion.

It was this body or this new reality of the universal psyche which became, in my view, the greatest contribution to modern self-understanding. This was a reintroduction into human thought of the ancient principle of soul – for soul and psyche are interchangeable terms, and it was not the religious notion of the soul as a substance external to man, but constituting man, constituting the totality of human reality. In that sense the psyche of Jung became a very significant contribution in that it brought the variety of human phenomena, both conscious and unconscious, under one term. For the first time we were able to understand what humanity really is, what it really stands for. It stands for a hidden, universal unity across all physical and racial boundaries. It was this notion which created, both in the 1930s and later, a great upheaval, for Jung went to the extent of saying that even our philosophy, our conscious rational constructs are a function of the psyche. However, at the same time, Jung was critical of world events, and he put forward the notion of the collective consciousness or the collective hypnosis created by religion, race, culture and language.

In that sense, I believe that what Freud calls illusion, what Marx calls the opium of the masses, what Durkheim calls collective representation, and what Jung calls collective hypnosis, all sum up the phenomenon of collective history restricted to one particular formulation.

What is at stake here is not a choice between rationalism and depth psychology. What is at stake is the very nature of our conscious thought, our conscious constructs or consciousness as traditionally understood. The Jungian concept of the collective unconscious which far transcended the personal unconsciousness of Freud was instrumental in bringing into open the limited one-sided nature of consciousness as a whole. It was this one-sidedness of conscious culture, or conscious philosophy, or conscious ideology that led Jung to insist upon the principle or goal of integration, of bringing into consciousness those unconscious contents. When either a person or a community systematically blocks that message from the unconscious and doesn’t imbibe or integrate those forces from within the unconscious then the conscious culture or the conscious ideology becomes an expression of one-sided emphasis. It is this one-sidedness or lopsidedness which, according to Jung, results in the development of mass neurosis, mass hysteria and mass frenzy, because the unconscious takes its own revenge, for what is not acknowledged, accepted or integrated is compensated for on the collective level. It was this one-sidedness of the rational culture of Europe which plunged Germany into fascism, and which has plunged us into situations of ideological confrontation which prevent us seeing the unity of our psyche across ideological frontiers. Therefore, Jung is giving a prophetic fight to the imbalances within the personal psyche and to the imbalances within the collective psyche. At the same time he is aware of the principle of compensation operative in the lives of individuals and also in the life of civilizations.

If the conscious individual suffers from imbalance he or she goes to the extreme of emphasizing only one aspect of his or her personality. Similarly when a conscious culture suffers from imbalance it likewise will suffer from a one-sided emphasis. It is at this point that the principle of compensation emerges from the unconscious. Jung gives us an interesting example of compensation when he refers to the enthronement of the goddess of reason in France soon after the French Revolution towards the end of the 18th century. At the same time, a small ship bound for Europe left the port of Cochin in South India bringing with it the Sanskrit manuscript of the Upanishads, an event which led to the opening of the doors of the Orient upon the European mind. Similarly, soon after the Napoleonic Wars, the Rosetta Stone was discovered and brought to France by Napoleon. This in turn led to the opening of the doors of Egyptology, to the development of the grammar of Egyptian hieroglyphics and to the entire Occident being plunged into a new discovery of Oriental wisdom – all this Jung regards as an example of the principle of compensation.

In the same manner, we notice that in the very heart of rational discursive culture, in the very heart of mass mechanization, an emergence, from both within the Christian past and from within the East, of esoteric forms of consciousness. And also, the very yearning to go back in history, to develop an archaeological consciousness, is an expression of the need in our conscious culture for broader integration including the unity of the past and the future as well. Unless the future is also brought in to the process of integration, unless we have some perspective on eschaton or eschatology, the drive towards archaeon and archaeology is another imbalance. Therefore, both myth and reason, genesis and eschatology constitute a unity.

To refer to the archetype is to refer to the basis of unity in the psyche, both of the individual and of the human community as a whole. The archetype of self, or rebirth or self, sums up the process of integration. The images of the wiseman or the sage, the image of the mandela or circle, or, the suggestions given to us through myth or dream all point to the same archetype. After all, what is a myth? A myth is a public dream. What is a dream? A dream is a private myth. All the suggestions or images point to the basic archetype of self, of which both the child and the sage are symbols. Jung believed that symbols intervene between our conscious life and our collective unconscious. When we abolish symbols from our culture or when we block or prevent our imagination from creating new symbols on the basis of archetypal structures we create imbalances. So to me, Jungian depth psychology is an extended humanism. It deepened humanism, which is no longer an ideological humanism but a philosophical and psychological humanism. Jung embraced the humanist perspective of insisting on the rational approach because in his confrontation with the East Jung never succumbed to Eastern wisdom in its totality. He valued consciousness so much that he could not subscribe to either the Vedantic way, or Zen, or any other Eastern form of dissolving consciousness which would have involved sacrificing the gift of reason. Yet at the same time, he did not subscribe to the Western understanding of reason as anchored only in the ego, to subject of our immediate consciousness. His hope was that the West would develop from within its own unconscious sources, motivated, mobilised or spurred into awareness by its contact with the East. In that sense the human personality would obtain a numinous character, and I therefore repeat that the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, of the psyche, of the self, as a principle of the union of opposites, as a principle of integration of the conscious and the unconscious, provides both humanists and religious people with a ground, both spiritual and rational, upon which to stand.

Then arises the main issue: What about the idea of God? What about the idea of transcendence? What about the idea of a principle of ultimacy? For the first time through Jung, we learn that the entire rationalistic, humanistic, and materialistic rejection of the idea of God was basically on the cosmological level, but now not only the idea of God, but the idea of a rational being and the idea of rational consciousness became a part of the matrix of the psyche itself. It is this inward looking perspective which Jung inaugurated and which was enshrined in all cultures of the world albeit not so consciously and not so systematically.

For Jung, the idea of God becomes an image in the human psyche of a potentiality, or of an archetype of self-integration, or of coming home. Then, the ultimate question of questions is whether the psyche is parallel to nature. Are we now looking for a sharp, newly discovered, newly stated parallelism or dualism? Jung could not bear to leave this question unanswered. It appears he had a monistic approach on body and soul and on man and nature. Therefore, through his contact and conversations with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, and through discoveries of his own, Jung published during the last years of his life his text on synchronicity wherein he offered a principle for uniting the psychic and the physical realms. In this context the psyche becomes not only the human psyche but the psyche of the cosmos. And here we have all the analogies with the systems of the ancients in particular with the system of Plotinus where we find all is soul – the soul of the cosmos, the soul of humanity, and the soul of the specific individual. We need such a unifying principle, which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality. Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today. What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psyche and physical realms. 

Whatever we do to ourselves we do to our planet also. It was in this sense that Jung was fascinated to find that the discovery of the human psyche and the discovery of the subnuclear atomic structure coincided at one and the same moment in time. Jung is conscious, however, that unlike physics, psychology doesn’t have an archimedian point. It doesn’t have a point outside what it observes, because whatever psychologists say will be within that psyche. Therefore, a real psychologist is one who aspires for self-abolition because if he stays there he creates an artificial point that can result in all sorts of fallacies about his understanding. So, in that sense humanism is given a deeper extension and religious and philosophical systems are given a new critical tool. Out of this unity we may perhaps reach for a new understanding of a very ancient and beautiful term, namely the Soul.

In all this perhaps we should keep in the centre the challenge of over-simplification, one-mindedness, and collective hypnosis. It is however a very intriguing fact of history, whether modern history or of history in the past, that every collectively experienced ideology whether of exploitation or of the experience of oppression can lead to a collective hypnosis. Even the oppressed can develop a hypnotic state and thus engender an oppressive system from within themselves which in turn leads to even more oppressive mechanisms. We have seen this very state of affairs with regard to the behaviour of a certain sector of Judaism vis-à-vis the Palestinians. How is it possible that those who went through an experience of such terrible suffering could turn out to be such violent oppressors themselves? This I see as a paradigm, because the human collectivity is never free unless it takes stock of the Jungian prophetic call to move out of collective hypnosis. So, I suggest that we keep in view these two challenges of one-sidedness and of collective hypnosis, whether secular or sacred, and then move from there to see how best we can create non-ideological, inter-religious and inter-personal encounters and relationships as a new paradigm within which to generate a new spirit in our times.

*extract from: Towards A Spiritual Humanism A Muslim–Humanist Dialogue, chapter 5

(ISBN 1 873685 97 4)

See also on this blog “When The Atheist Met The Mystic” a book review of Towards A Spiritual Humanism by Professor Gregory Barker, University of Wales.

4 thoughts on “Human Nature”

  1. Simply put Wholesome, Wise, Wonderful purity at it’s best. Transcends all ‘borders’ of self soul & spirit – why o why are we not taught this in the beginning of our lives! Today I start by informing my child & allowing him the awareness I was denied until my own break away! Thank you Musa.


  2. Amazing written work about the world and the world beyond the world. About the role of our collective consciousness as One agreement and its multitude of individual sub-agreements that make it rich of unique perceptions. The root of our physical reality is purely based out of values which those are directly linked to our belief system. While they are the structures that allows consciousness to weave its experience, it is the first place to begin the journey into reinventing the world. As when we rediscover the Truth beyond the belief, we uncover the consistent and common ground on which Humanity can co-exist in Peace and harmony while embracing all of its differences..
    Bless You Musa, Bless You Hasan…


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As soon as you talk of the soul you talk of the whole of Humanity

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