239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

August 11, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

On Cows and Materialist Philosophy

“THEY SAY THAT had there been a spiritual world they would have sensed it,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remarked at the Dublin Inn on August 5, 1912. He was talking about modern materialist philosophers. “If inability to sense constitutes proof of perfection,” he joked, “the cow must be the greatest philosopher, for she does not realize anything beyond the animal world.”


Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s take on materialist philosophy that day was jovial, he generally treated the subject with great seriousness. The philosophical schools he appeared to be addressing were the materialists of the Enlightenment, the German dialectical materialists of the nineteenth century, and perhaps empiricism and naturalism which were influential in Anglo-American philosophy.

French materialist philosophers like Denis Diderot (1713–1784) postulated a universe consisting of nothing but matter. Knowledge and reason were to be built on what could be acquired through direct perception by the five senses; religion was a dangerous fiction. A century later, German Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) characterized God as a projection of human consciousness, of human needs, and of human nature. In his magnum opus, The Essence of Christianity, he wrote: “God is man writ large.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá disagreed. On June 9, 1912, at Russell Conwell’s Baptist Temple in Philadelphia, he argued that “There have been two pathways in the world of humanity, one the natural or materialistic, the other the religious or spiritual.” The materialistic, he said, “is the pathway of the animal realm.” “One of the strangest things witnessed is that the materialists of today are proud of their natural instincts and bondage.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá founded his argument on bold dichotomies between humankind and the natural world: “Nature is inert; man is progressive. Nature has no consciousness; man is endowed with it. . . . Nature is incapable of discovering mysteries or realities, whereas man is especially fitted to do so.” “Man can voluntarily discontinue vices,” he said, “nature has no power to modify the influence of its instincts.” “How strange then it seems that man, notwithstanding his endowment with this ideal power, will descend to a level beneath him.”

In New York, back on April 19, Kate Carew of the New York Tribune had asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá if he thought the attention Americans paid to material things signaled a lack of social development. “Your material civilization is very wonderful,” he had answered. “If only you will allow divine idealism to keep pace with it there is great hope for general progress.”

But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was far less complimentary toward the Parisians. During his visit to France in 1911 he made the incessant materialism he saw there the subject of one of his final speeches in the city. He lamented that “Men are becoming like unto beasts that perish, for we know that they have no spiritual feeling — they do not turn to God, they have no religion. These things belong to man alone, and if he is without them he is a prisoner of nature, and no whit better than an animal.”

After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá finished his talk in Dublin, New Hampshire, on August 5, a group of friends invited him to ride in their automobile. They were driving through the rolling hills surrounding the town when a herd of cattle ran into the road. The cows saw the car, and then fled in all directions. Those riding in the car with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cried out: “Oh Master, see the crowd of philosophers. How frightened they are running away from us.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it was reported, laughed so hard that he tired himself out.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736563072 Michael Alcorn

    Brilliant observation – humerous too!

  • James Holmlund

    What a delightful account of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s attitude towards both material and spiritual civilisation!

  • Nick

    > Little by little, wean yourself.
    > This is the gist of what I have to say.
    > From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
    > move to an infant drinking milk,
    > to a child on solid food,
    > to a searcher after wisdom,
    > to a hunter of more invisible game.
    > Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
    > You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
    > There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
    > and orchards in bloom.
    > At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
    > the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”
    > You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
    > in the dark with eyes closed.
    > Listen to the answer.
    > There is no “other world.”
    > I only know what I’ve experienced.
    > You must be hallucinating.
    — Jalal al-Din Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

  • Dean Hedges

    “Spiritual and materialistic conceptions of the nature of reality are irreconcilable with one another and lead in opposite directions.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/1203381202 Pascal Molineaux

    The spiritual and material dimensions of life are complementary, not opposed. As one explores one, it helps us to understand the other. As one delves into the hidden realities in the material world, with an open mind, it helps us understand the spiritual world. As one submerges oneself in the Holy Writings, so rich in metpahors taken from the natural world, one comes to appreciate the majestic beauty and absolute interdependence of life. They are, together, components of one reality. So our soul and aour body. May we take great and loving care of both the spiritual and material worlds.

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  • Riaz Mowzoon-Mogharrabi Age 11

    While Abdu’l-Baha was in Dublin, He said that there are two paths in the world of humanity.” One path is materialistic and the other spiritual.” He also said that the first path goes to the animal realm.
    I went on the second path when I was sick last week because I demonstrated commitment and perseverance. Although I was sick, I still did my homework for school.

    • Nahzy Buck

      Dear Riaz, you are a shinning star!