“There is today no philosophy of nature”
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933-) is a contemporary scholar and philosopher who calls for the revival of humankind’s sense of connection to nature and the cosmos.
He wrote in his book Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man: “Today, almost everyone living in the urbanised centres of the Western world feels instinctively a lack of something in life.
“This is due directly to the creation of an artificial environment from which nature has been excluded to the greatest possible extent. Even the religious man in such circumstances has lost the sense of the spiritual significance of nature”. (1)
He added: “There is today no philosophy of nature… One can say with even greater regret that there is also no theology of nature which could satisfactorily provide a spiritual bridge between man and nature”. (2)
Nasr’s philosophy is completely odds with the industrial capitalist concept of “progress” which regards ever-increasing production, consumption and, therefore, destruction as the only aim worth pursuing.
He wrote: “The sense of domination over nature and a materialistic conception of nature on the part of modern man are combined, moreover, with a lust and a sense of greed which makes an ever greater demand upon the environment.
“Incited by the elusive dream of economic progress, considered as an end in itself, a sense of the unlimited power of man and his possibilities is developed, together with the belief, particularly well developed in America, of boundless and illimitable possibilities within things, as if the world of forms were not finite and bound by the very limits of those forms”. (3)
With the physical reality of industrialism had come the mechanistic conception of the universe which took the Western world totally away from “the holistic and organic interpretation of things”. (4)
Nasr noted that calls to address the environmental crisis often mentioned changing means of transport, cutting the use of fossil fuels and so on: “Few ask, however, why it is that modern man feels the need to travel so much… Why must modern man consume so much and satiate his so-called needs only outwardly? Why is he unable to draw from any inward substance?” (5)
Born in Tehran, Nasr comes from a family of Sufis. One of his ancestors was Mulla Seyyed Muhammad Taqi Poshtmashhad, a famous saint of Kashan, according to The Nasr Foundation. (6)
For many years a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC, he follows the perennialist tradition, which sees a universal human spirituality beneath the surface level of the world’s religions.
He was greatly influenced in this direction by being introduced to the work of René Guénon, the Sufi metaphysician and leading critic of Western industrial capitalist society.
He also had access, in the USA, to the library bequeathed by Ananda Coomaraswamy, the anti-imperialist and anarchist scholar.
The works he discovered there also led him to meet other exponents of the philosophia perennis, including Frithjof Schuon.
Like them, Nasr regards spiritual connection as the key to restoring humankind’s harmonious relationship with nature.
He stressed: “The metaphysical knowledge pertaining to nature must be revived and the sacred quality of nature given back to it once again”. (7)
Nasr sees in the Chinese tradition of Taoism “a devotion to nature and a comprehension of its metaphysical significance that is of the greatest importance”. (8)
But he argues that Islam, the ‘green’ religion, is more environmentally orientated than other faiths.
He said in a 2015 radio interview: “The Qur’an addresses not only human beings, but also the cosmos. It is much easier to be able to develop an environmental philosophy. Birds are called communities in the Qur’an. Human beings, bees, it is so easy to develop an authentic Islamic philosophy of the environment”. (9)
In Man and Nature he wrote that the aim of the sage was to be in harmony with nature “for through this harmony comes harmony with men and this harmony is itself the reflection of harmony with heaven”. (10)
In Islam, said Nasr, “man is the channel of grace for nature; through his active participation in the spiritual world, he casts light into the world of nature. He is the mouth through which nature breathes and lives”. (11)
Nasr, who studied the metaphysics of Georg Hegel, agrees with the German philosopher that one of the problems with modernity is its fragmented view of reality, which lacks any understanding of an all-embracing whole.
He interprets the Vedic idea of Maya, usually translated as illusion, to refer to the separation which hides from our sight the greater holistic reality.
Nasr explained in the essay ‘Scientia Sacra’: “Maya is the source of all duality even on the principial level causing the distinction between Essence and the Qualities.
“It is also the source of the dualism between subject and object even on the highest level beyond which there is but the One, in which knower and known, or subject and object, are one”. (12)
Video link: Seyyed Hossein Nasr – Can Many Religions All Be True? (3 mins)
Audio links: Seyyed Hossein Nasr – Islam and the Environment (54 mins)
The Metaphysical and Cosmological Roots of the Ecological Crisis (1hr 30 mins)
1. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (Chicago: ABC International Group, Inc, 1997), p 17.
2. Nasr, Man and Nature, pp. 36-37.
3. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 19.
4. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 70.
5. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 4.
7. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 14.
8. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 83.
9. Islam and the Environment, CBC Radio,
10. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 85.
11. Nasr, Man and Nature, p. 96.
12. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘Scientia Sacra’, The Underlying Religion, An Introduction to the Perennial Philosophy, ed. Martin Lings and Clinton Minaar (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2007) p. 126.