From Heathen to Sub-Human – A Genealogy of the Influence of the Decline of Religion on the Rise of Modern Racism, Part 1 (Oludamini Ogunnaike)

The following is the first part of an article that appeared in July 2016 in Open Theology 2:2016 785-203It is republished here with the permission of the author.  The second and third installments will be published in the coming weeks.

The medieval European world… knew the black man chiefly as a legend or occasional curiosity, but still as a fellow man… The modern world in contrast, knows the Negro chiefly as a bond slave in the West Indies and America. Add to this the fact that the darker races in other parts of the world have, in the last four centuries lagged behind the flying and even feverish footsteps of Europe, and we face today a widespread assumption throughout the dominant world that color is a mark of inferiority.

W.E.B. DuBois. The Negro

Western European Civilization is unique among world civilizations for many reasons, most obviously because it was the birthplace of the modernity within which nearly every human on the planet now lives and works and thinks. It also is unique because it is the birthplace of two important intellectual/social perspectives or trends: the secular and the racist.

Limited materialist and “secularist” movements can be found in classical Indian, Chinese, and especially the late Greek and Roman civilizations, but these perspectives were always marginal, and never achieved the intellectual prominence and indeed dominance that the secular perspective enjoyed and enjoys in post-Enlightenment Western Civilization and the modernity it spawned. It was in the post-medieval Western Europe where the schism between reason and religion, philosophy and faith, science and mysticism that characterizes modern and post-modern thought was fully realized.1

Similarly, it seems fair to claim that every society in the history of humankind has stereotyped and denigrated outsiders to one degree or another, but modern racism, defined here as racial essentialism coupled with a hierarchal ranking of races, is a phenomenon that appears to have arisen only in post- Enlightenment Europe. For example, many prominent Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed that the Greeks were superior to all other people in the world, whom they designated as barbarians, but this Greek/barbarian distinction was less essential and biological and more linguistic and cultural, so that a barbarian could become a Greek and vice-versa.

In this article I would like to examine the role of the first trend, that is, the shift from a religious, hiero- or theocentric perspective to the modern secular, anthropocentric perspective, played in the rise of the second trend, modern racism. I will argue that the latter took place within the former, and that the decline of religion in the West was sine qua non for the rise of modern racism.

From the outset, it should be recognized that the emergence of modern racism is a many-faceted, and exceedingly complex intellectual, social, and economic phenomenon, and that I only intend to examine one among the many influential factors that contributed to the rise of this uniquely troubling element of modernity. Furthermore, in asserting that racism did not exist in non-Western, non-modern societies, I am in no way proposing that prejudice, discrimination, and violence against groups did not exist.

On the contrary, history is replete with such examples. However, since the concept of race as a biological, essential, and static entity was born in post-Enlightenment Europe, modern racism, the classification and discrimination amongst groups based on race, could only arise out of this particular intellectual climate.2

Man in the Image of God to God in the Image of Man

The most relevant aspect of the secularization of the Western intellectual tradition is the effect the schism between the rational and the religious had upon the intellectual theories of the nature of man.3 This shift is best summarized as a move from the perspective of man as imago Dei to the modern perspective of God as an invention of man, and the humanist position of the inherent dignity and worth of all people by virtue of their humanity in and of itself, not because of their deiform nature. Although the nature of man in medieval European thought was complex and varied, the prevailing perspective is summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae:

Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature. Now the intellectual nature imitates God chiefly in this, that God understands and loves Himself. Wherefore we see that the image of God is in man in three ways.

First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men.

Secondly, inasmuch as man actually and habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace.

Thirdly, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. Wherefore on the words, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us” (Psalm 4:7), the gloss distinguishes a threefold image of “creation,” of “re-creation,” and of “likeness.” The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed.4

There are three important elements of this perspective: first is its definition of man as a fundamentally theomorphic being, second the location of the essence of this theomorphism, and thus the nature of man himself with the intellectual faculty, and thirdly, the ranking of humanity based on the degree of theomorphism (all men, the just, and the blessed).5 Naturally, these three elements played a significant role in the reconfiguration of the image of man in general, and of certain groups of humanity in particular which resulted in racism.

The 13th century scholastic Lully further elucidated this first concept of theomorphism in his Compendium Artis Demonstrativae, “The likenesses to the divine nature are imprinted upon every creature according to that creature’s receptive capacities, greater or less in each case… thus every creature carries, more or less, the sign of its Maker.”6 This description of the graded theomorphism of creation is an example of the cosmological perspective of “The Great Chain of Being” which enjoyed great prominence, if not eminence throughout the history of Western thought, from the classical period, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and well into the modern period.7

A. Lovejoy’s definitive work on the subject, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, locates its beginning in the Platonic dialogue Timaeus, wherein the issue of theodicy, or the origin of evil in the world given the Absolute nature of the Platonic “Good” or God, is explained by appeal to the simultaneously Infinite nature of this Supreme Entity. Being infinite, the Good must manifest itself in all possible ways, and this is the origin of the creation of the universe from the gods on down to gross matter.

All creation is a manifestation of the single Divine Principle, which by its Infinite nature must manifest itself in all possible forms, including those forms which are ugly, evil, or bad. These ugly/evil/bad forms are “privations” of the Principle the way shadows are a privation of light, but they must exist, otherwise the Divine Principle would be lacking in plenitude, and would not be perfect. Thus the imperfections of the world are the result of the perfection of plenitude of the Principle.

The Timaeus dialogue sets up a model of the Universe with the expansive Good presiding above a vague hierarchy of creation, graded according to the presence of the Good in the various forms of manifestation, or inversely, the degree of privation of these forms. Although Aristotle rejected the principle of plenitude inherent in this model, his insistence of the continuity of nature was to be combined with the Platonic principle of plenitude to complete the picture of the hierarchy outlined in Timaeus. Furthermore, Lovejoy argues that it was Aristotle “who chiefly suggested to the naturalists and philosophers of later times the idea of arranging (at least) all animals in a single graded scala naturae according to their degree of ‘perfection’.”8

The Great Chain of Being found its fullest classical exposition in the work of Plotinus, the most prominent figure or even founder of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus unites the principles of plenitude and continuity in his elaborate ontology which explains the creation of the Universe as a series of emanations from the perfect, self-sufficient, infinite, Absolute. “The One is perfect because it seeks for nothing and possesses nothing, and has need of nothing; and being perfect it overflows, and thus its superabundance produces an Other.”9

This first emanation from the hypostasis of the One is described as a result of its self-contemplation

Plotinus
Plotinus

producing an image of itself, which is the second hypostasis of the Nous or Universal Intellect of the supra-sensible world of the Forms. The nous’ contemplation of its origin, the One, empowers and “impregnates” it, allowing its self-contemplation to give rise to a second emanation and hypostasis, the Psyche or the dynamic “Universal Soul.” The Psyche is also not content “to remain within itself” but, “first looking back upon that from which it proceeded, it is thereby filled full and then going forward in the opposite direction, it generates an image of itself,”10 which is itself the sensible world. The sensible world is so removed from the One (the source of all) that it possess neither the faculty of self-contemplation nor the contemplation of its origin, and thus the chain of emanations ends in the sensible world of barely or non-sentient matter.11

This process of emanation is driven, governed, and limited only by the laws of logical necessity. Anything that is must be, and anything that can be is. Furthermore, all of existence is part of a grand hierarchy, ranked according to its participation in the nature of the Good. “The world is a sort of Life stretched out to an immense span, in which each of the parts its own place in the series, all of them different, and yet the whole continuous, and that which precedes never wholly absorbed in that which comes after.”12

This is the cosmological perspective which the medieval scholars, particularly the Neo-Platonists, adopted and used as a foundation for their own theories and doctrines. The clear resonances, if not genealogical relationship, between the theomorphism of Lully and Aquinas and Plotinus’ “participation in the nature of the Good” is sufficiently obvious to require no further comment here. Lovejoy quotes Macrobius, a 5th century CE Roman Neo-Platonist who provides a fundamental summary of the doctrine in Latin,

Since from the Supreme God Mind arises, and from Mind, Soul, and since this in turn creates all subsequent things and fills them all with life and since this single radiance illumines all and is reflected in each, as a single face might be reflected in many mirrors placed in a series; and since all things follow in continuous succession, degenerating in sequence to the very bottom of the series, the attentive observer will discover a connection of parts, from the Supreme God own to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without break. And this is Homer’s golden chain, which God, he says, bade hang down from heaven to earth.13

With the necessary Christian modifications, this became the dominant medieval cosmological doctrine, wherein every aspect of nature, from different types of metals to species of plants and animals to different types of men,14 could be assigned a place in the cosmic hierarchy. Lovejoy writes, “The result was the conception of the plan and structure of the universe which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and indeed most educated men, were to accept without question – the conception of the universe as a ‘Great Chain of Being’.”

Since this was the dominant view of the intellectuals who first formulated secular philosophy and science in general, and racial essentialism and hierarchy in particular, the place that man occupied in this hierarchy is of particular relevance. For Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists in general,

Man has come into existence, a living being but not a member of the noblest order; he occupies by choice an intermediate rank; still, in that place in which he exists, Providence does not allow him to be reduced to nothing; on the contrary he is ever being led upwards by all those varied devices which the Divine employs in its labour to increase the dominance of moral value…. Man is, therefore, a noble creation, as perfect as the scheme allows; a part, no doubt, in the fabric of the All, he yet holds a lot higher than that of all the other living things of earth.15

The medieval scholastics generally followed the classical neo-Platonists in ranking man as the highest living creature on earth, “a little lower than the angels”16 (the celestial realm of the angels took the place of the Platonic world of forms in Christian Platonism) and above the beasts of the air, land, and sea. But what are we to make of these “varied devices?” of the Divine and what of the hierarchy of men within humankind? People clearly differ from each other and as Lovejoy explains, in the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, “Difference of kind is treated as necessarily equivalent to difference of excellence, to diversity of rank in a hierarchy.”17

To answer these questions we must turnto themicrocosmic or psychological dimensions of this doctrine. In Plotinus’ exposition, the individual human soul is a fragment of Psyche, the third hypostasis or Universal Soul, but this fragment is further divided hierarchically into three related but distinct elements or faculties. The Irrational or Animal soul is limited to physical desires and emotional passions and occupies the lowest rung of this hierarchy. Above it sits the Rational Soul, which is the highest level of the ordinary  human psyche, but it is limited to discursive reason and speculation.

At the summit of the soul is the Intellect or nous, identified with the second hypostasis of the same name, it is unfallen and does not descend into the sensory world, but remains in perpetual contemplation of the eternal and universal Nous (indeed the former is the latter’s self-contemplation), which in turn is in eternal contemplation of the One.18 This view was popular amongst Muslim and Christian Platonists, neo-Platonists, and mystics alike during the Middle Ages, and even influenced the understandings of Aristotle, particularly Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna’s) and his school.

In De Anima (III.3-5), Aristotle divides the soul (psyche in Greek and anima in Latin) into the vegetative soul which has the capacity for self-nourishment and reproduction, the animal soul which has the capacity for sensory perception and self-movement, and the intellect (nous in Greek and intellectus in Latin), which unlike the other two souls can exist apart from a body, and has the capacity for intuition, rational thought and memory.

Aristotle further divides the nous into an active intellect (nous poietikos / intellectus agens) which is separate, immortal, and eternal, and a passive intellect (nous pathetikos / intellectus possibilis) a term whose meaning has been subject to extensive debate since the time of Aristotle himself, but which is generally held to be associated with the rational and mental faculties which are affected by knowledge. In medieval Scholasticism this view was combined with neo-Platonic doctrines to produce the distinct concepts of the intellect (intellectus), a divine, sometimes uncreated, faculty of human beings through which they directly perceive God and divine truths, and the rational faculty (ratio), the seat of reason and discursive thought (dianoia), ranked lower than the intellect.

Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, author of the most famous medieval commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus, somewhat blurred the distinction between the active and passive intellect, and posited that both were universal, existing as one outside of individual human beings, in contrast to Ibn Sina who posited that only the active intellect was universal, the passive intellect being individual. Averroes was also more of a pure Aristotelian than Avicenna, and eliminated the angelic world from his cosmology. Although his work did not become popular in the Muslim world, he was held in great reverence by Dante, and in scholastic tradition he was known simply as “The Commentator,” so extensive was the influence of his commentaries upon Aristotle (they formed the basis of much of Thomas Aquinas’ work).

7fd9fcc1c4d2179d1a16383f6da91aafSome have linked the influence of Averroes’ Aristotelian thought in 12th century Europe to the increasing rational and this-worldly, and even secular turn of thought leading up to the 17th century in contrast to the markedly other-worldly and Platonic/neo-Platonic thought which characterized the early Middle Ages. The validity of this argument is outside of the scope of this article,19 but the overall trend in thought is highly significant, and we will return to it shortly.

Returning to the hierarchy of human beings, Aquinas had previously given us the tripartite distinction between all men, the just, and the blessed, based on their knowledge, love, and likeness to God. Conforming with the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, an individual human’s place on the hierarchy of existence is determined by his participation in the nature of the Good, that is the degree to which he conforms to the image of God. In medieval neo-Platonic Christian thought, the participation of the nature of the Good in man is accomplished through the intellect (nous), often identified with the immanent Holy Spirit, and it is the degree to which the soul is governed by and identified with the intellect that determines man’s place on the hierarchy.

Aquinas provides a summary of the more Aristotelian version of this view, “While in all creatures there is some kind of likeness to God, in the rational creature alone we find a likeness of “image” as we have explained above (1,2); whereas in other creatures we find a likeness by way of a “trace.” Now the intellect or mind is that whereby the rational creature excels other creatures; wherefore this image of God is not found even in the rational creature except in the mind.”20 Given that an individual (and indeed everything else) is ranked on this version of the Chain of Being according to his likeness to God, it is the degree of intellect, the image of God in man, which determines one’s ranking in the cosmic hierarchy.

Here, in contrast to the more Platonic and Neo-Platonic strands of thought, we see that the rational faculty or “mind” also plays a prominent role in this account. This will be significant for the future of the Chain of Being in the rational Enlightenment. But even more significant is the degree to which the body or any physical characteristic of an individual is downplayed or completely ignored. Aquinas writes further, “Man is called to the image of God; not that he is essentially an image; but that the image of God is impressed on his mind; as a coin is an image of the king, as having the image of the king. Wherefore there is no need to consider the image of God as existing in every part of man.”21

This lack of attention to the physical and material aspects of both man and nature was characteristic of much of medieval Christian thought, and was highly influential in the course of Western Civilization. Here however, it significance merely lies in the fact that the dominant ontological hierarchy of humans of medieval Europe downplayed if not ignored the physical aspects of humans and focused on the spiritual/ intellectual sphere where the imago Dei was located. The greater the likeness to God or Christ, as achieved through acceptance of Christian doctrine, orthodox practice, and grace, the higher on the Chain of Being one was.

Thus saints occupied the places on the chain nearest the angels, and sinners the levels nearest the beasts. Dante’s cosmology, as elaborated in his Divine Comedy, placed respected heathens such as Cicero, Averroes, Aristotle, and Plato in Limbo since they conformed to the image of God insofar as it was deemed possible through the “natural revelation” of their own natures and the natural world. Thus, it can be seen why a hierarchical ordering of human beings based on physical characteristics was impossible in this intellectual climate—the physical characteristics of human beings, and matter in general, simply didn’t matter enough.

All of this changed however with the advent of the Renaissance and the rise of humanism. Humanism began as a mode of learning opposed to the medieval scholastic method of resolving contradictions between commentaries and authors, humanists would study ancient texts in the original, and appraise them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence. Although a markedly diverse movement, early humanism has been characterized as “the movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome”22 in Western Europe which focused on the “the genius of man … the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind,” in the words of the early Florentine humanist Gianozzo Mannetti.

It is significant that these words were written in a 1452 work entitled De dignitate et excellentia hominis libri IV (“On the Dignity and Excellence of Man in Four Books”), a direct response to Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humane conditionis (On the Misery of the Human Condition). This strong reaction if not rebellion against church authority characterized much of European intellectual activity from the late 15th century until the late 18th century, when the Western European intellectual tradition had virtually broken free of the dominion of the Roman Catholic church.

During the late Middle Ages (13th and 14th century) the Roman Catholic Church reached the height of its political power and established its hegemony over the Western intellectual tradition through the institution of the centralized Papal Inquisition in 1233 and the rigid enforcement and adoption of Aristotelianism as official Church doctrine on matters philosophical and natural. Perhaps as a result of the endorsement of Aristotelian philosophy, particularly those forms influenced by Averroes,  this period is characterized by a marked exteriorization of thought: a transition from the preoccupation with the spiritual or internal world associated with the intellect and the noetic world of Forms/angelic realities to a  focus  on  the external, physical world associated with the rational faculty and sensory perception.

The French cultural anthropologist and literary critic Gilbert Durand describes it thusly, “In the thirteenth century…the Church established its temporal hegemony and Avicenna’s philosophy was replaced by that of Averroes. This made it possible for Aristotelian physics to become the prescientific way of knowing the world of res as separate from the world of voces. This consequently cut Western  man off from direct access to transcendence,”23   in  Platonic  and  Neo-Platonic  doctrines,  this  direct  access  to  transcendence  was  the  nous  or  Intellect.

However, during this period and the Early Modern/Renaissance period which followed it, the concept of the supra-rational intellect and its direct perception of philosophical/spiritual forms and truths declined, and was eclipsed by the more Aristotelian notion of a united rational faculty/intellect. Finally, by the time the humanists of the Renaissance were translating classical texts from the original Greek and Latin, the intellect had all but disappeared behind the rational faculty.24

The elimination of the intellect from the anthropology of man was of tremendous significance in philosophy, religion, and science. It was a short philosophical step from the proto-rationalism of the late Aristotelians and Renaissance humanists to the rationalism and empiricism which characterized the 17th century Age of Reason, epitomized by the philosophies of Descartes and Bacon. Descartes and the rationalists focused on the rational faculty (by this point a conglomeration of late Aristotelian and revived Stoic ideas) as the primary source of knowledge, whereas the empiricists, led by Bacon, focused on the sensory faculty as the primary source of knowledge. Except among a small school of Italian neo-Platonists and Hermeticists,25 the supra-rational Intellect was no longer considered the primary source of knowledge.

Naturally, the loss of this faculty in the microcosm was accompanied by the loss of the level of reality to which it corresponded in the macrocosm, and thus the elaborate angeologies and cosmologies of medieval Europe disappeared from mainstream intellectual life and thought. Furthermore, the rational faculty replaced the nous as the imago Dei in man in late Aristotelianism and the early modern period.26 But as God himself was no longer directly perceived by the nous, but abstracted from sensory data and the rational faculty, his role in Western intellectual thought became more and more vague and distant, culminating in the 19th-century view that he was an invention of the mind of man.27 Naturally, this trend was concurrent with the gradual separation of theology and philosophy.

These shifts, however, did not do away with the paradigm of the Great Chain of Being, rather, as Lovejoy records, it remained an important concept around which philosophers and scientists continued to organize the universe. However, with the disappearance of the intellect/nous, and the noetic realms of reality perceivable only by it (the Divine and an angelic realms or world of Platonic Forms), Western man found himself in the curious position of being atop the Great Chain of Being. To be sure, God and heaven still lurked in the background or up in the clouds somewhere, but in terms of the knowable, perceivable, intelligible universe of philosophers and scientists, man was at the summit. Lovejoy records the general program of the Royal Society written by its first historian in 1667, which captures this novel zeitgeist:

Such is the dependence amongst all the orders of creatures; the animate, the sensitive, the rational, the natural, the artificial; that the apprehension of one of them is a good step towards the understanding of the rest. And this is the highest pitch of human reason: to follow all the links of this chain till all their secrets are open to our mind and their works advanc’d or imitated by our hands. This is truly to command the world; to rank all the varieties and degrees of things so orderly upon one another; that standing on the top of them, we may perfectly behold all that are below, and make them all serviceable to the quiet and peace and plenty of Man’s life.28

Here the “highest pitch” of human thought is not the contemplation of angelic forms or the Divine Essence above, but the external exploration and exploitation of all that lies below. It is not coincidental therefore, that this transition from inward, spiritual contemplation to outward, physical investigation and exploration coincided with the European Age of Exploration.

Backtracking a bit, this increase in interest in the physical world seems to have had its origins in the lategreat_chain_of_being_2 13th century and this was unfortunately combined with the hardening of Catholic philosophical dogma, so that many natural philosophers who attempted to systematically observe the natural world found themselves on the wrong side of the official dogma and victims of a long and often painful Inquisition process. More relevant to the topic at hand however, is the effect that Western man’s ascent to the top of the Chain of Being had for his views of the physical world in general, and the physical beauty of bodies in particular.

With the gradual disappearance of the intellect from Western discourse in the early Modern Period/ Renaissance (1300s-1600s), the immaterial became more and more immaterial, and partly in reaction to Medieval Scholasticism’s neglect and/or denigration of the physical world in general and the body in particular, this period saw the revival of the Greco-Roman cult of the body, partly in conjunction with the trend of increased interest in the material world, and strongly motivated by the Renaissance’s self- conscious re-interpretation or revival of classical Greek and Roman heritage.

The this-worldly humanist art of this period epitomized by Giotto, Da Vinci and Raphael in its early phases (1300-1500-the Early and High Renaissance), and Michelangelo, El Greco, and Rembrandt in its later phases (1500-1700-the Mannerist an Baroque period) and finally culminating in the neoclassical movement of the mid-18th epitomized by David and Ingres, stands in sharp contrast to the other-worldly and iconic medieval art which proceeded it, and demonstrates this newfound interest in and even worship of the human form. The religious paintings of these artists also foretell and demonstrate the philosophical shift from man being made the image of God to God literally being created in the image of man in works such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This movement culminated in the Enlightenment wherein God was replaced by universal reason   or man’s own rational faculty, and contemplation of the angelic and Divine beauties was replaced by contemplation of physical beauty, particularly the beauty of the human form. It is significant that it was Western Man who seated himself atop of the Chain of Being, because as he replaced God, his image, both physical and mental, replaced the imago Dei as the discriminating factor determining classification on the cosmic hierarchy. Thus, the overall trend can be described as one in which the Intellect is replaced or eclipsed by the rational faculty, God is replaced by Universal Reason or the being in possession of   it, and the world of the forms or angels is eclipsed by the world of physical form, particularly human physical form.

Thus the elaborate angelologies of medieval Europe were replaced by the elaborate racial hierarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas in the Middle Ages, humanity was judged by participation in or proximity to a transcendent spiritual, Divine ideal (Christ or God), the secularization process of the early Modern Period and the Enlightenment resulted in humanity being judged by proximity to the immanent ideal of rational, enlightened European man. The elevation of man to the top rung of the Chain of Being (or alternatively, his elimination of all that stood above him) is the philosophical foundation of the modern anthropocentric perspective, in which rational man, in and of himself, is the measure of all things, and an end unto himself.

Seminal scholar of Islamic Studies and Historian of Science Seyyed Hossein Nasr designates this seismic shift in the image of man as the transformation from “pontifical man” or man as bridge between heaven and earth (as evidenced by his central place on the Chain of Being), to “Promethean man,” man as a defiant rebel against heaven who seeks to make the world in his own image.29

Having summarized this transition from the perspective of man being created in the image of God to God being created in the image of man, and highlighted some important theoretical conclusions and corollaries, I will now turn to the shift from traditional ethnocentrism to modern racism in late Medieval and early Modern Europe, referring back to this section as necessary to illuminate the relationship between the development of modern racism and the rise of the anthropocentric position described above.

Oludamini Ogunnaike is a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University and a scholar of  African, Islamic, and religious studies, with a focus on the intellectual and artistic dimensions of West African Sufism and Ifa, an indigenous Yoruba religious tradition. His work examines the postcolonial, colonial, and precolonial Islamic and indigenous religious traditions of West Africa, seeking to understand the philosophical dimensions of these traditions by approaching them and their proponents not merely as sources of ethnographic or historical data, but rather as distinct intellectual traditions and thinkers, and even as sources of theory and possible inspirations for methods of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.  Oludamini is also working on an online database of West African Sufi Poetry and, along with Ayodeji Ogunnaike, is working on a similar database for the Odu Ifa (the sacred orature of Ifa).  He is a graduate of Harvard College and earned his PhD from Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies.


1 See Asad, Formations of the Secular; King, Orientalism and Religion, and Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred for a more detailed account of the emergence of the category of the “secular” in Western thought and life, and the uniqueness of this phenomenon.

2 See Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, and Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History for complementary and thorough analyses of the history of race and racism in the classical, medieval, and modern Western worlds.

3 Used here and throughout the rest of the paper in the sense of the androgynous Greek anthropos or the Arabic insān, that is, referring to the totality of humanity, male and female.

4 Aquinas, Summa Theologicae 93.4.

5 These three features are commonly found in definitions of man in religious intellectual traditions ranging from the Islamic to the Hindu to the Taoist/Neo-Confucian. See Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s “Who is Man? The Perennial Answer of Islam,” in Needleman (ed.) The Sword of Gnosis, 203-17, and the chapter “Man as Microcosm” in Toshiko Izutsu’s Sufism and Taoism.

6 Compendium Artis Demonstrativae III, 74 quoted in Wiener, Dictionary of the History of Ideas, 327.

7 Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being.

8 It should be noted, however that Aristotle himself rejected such an idea, pointing out that a creature which may be superior to another in respect of one characteristic, can be considered inferior to it in respect to another characteristic, and thus he did not advance any single exclusive scheme of classification, but rather several different schemes of classification and hierarchy depending on the characteristic in See Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 56.

9 Plotinus, Enneads V, 2, 1-2.

10 Ibid.

11 Sometimes Plotinus adds a further hypostasis, phusis or nature, as the lowest projection of soul and the dim consciousness within plants, between soul and the sensible world.

12 Ibid.

13 Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 63.

14 It is important to note the “types” of men discussed in Plato and Aristotle have little to do with race or ethnicity, and much more to do with natural These types are outlined in Plato’s Republic ranging from the philosopher-kings to the men who are driven by their baser, animal instincts. Although Aristotle seems to draw some connections between barbarian nature and the base or slave nature in his Politics, he explicitly mitigates this tendency, writing, “for it must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere” Politics I 6.

15 Plotinus, Enneads III, 2.9.

16 Psalm 8:5.

17 Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 64.

18 This perspective, an extension of the supra-rational (nous/noiea) rational, discursive (logos/dianoia) soul/knowledge divide of Plato, was later fused with the vegetative, animal, and rational soul-levels of Aristotle by Islamic philosophers to produce a neo-Platonic Aristotelian synthesis upon which the Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus based their work.

19 Indeed Ibn Rushdwasdeeply concernedwiththereconciliationof reasonandrevelation. See G. Durand’s On The Disfiguration of the Image of Man in the West for an argument linking his influence with the increased rationalism of late Medieval thought.

20 Aquinas, Summa Theologicae I.93.6.

21 Ibid.

22 Burke, “The spread of Italian humanism,” 2.

23 Durand, On the Disfiguration of the Image of Man in the West.

24 For a more thorough description of this transformation see Durand, On the Disfiguration of the Image of Man the West and Nasr Religion and the Order of Nature. Furthermore, the error of translating nous/intellectus as rational faculty or mind that arose during the late Renaissance became endemic throughout the modern period as modern thinkers read their own rationalist tendencies into classical authors, see Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?.

25 Marsilio Ficino, Pico di Mirandella, Giordano Bruno, and Angelus Silesius and Paracelsus in Northern Europe, and other mystics were notable for their revival or continued adherence to the neo-Platonic concept of a nous at once transcendent and immanent.

26 Thus whole groups of men came to be judged and ranked by their apparent rationality or lack thereof, as we will see when we turn to the Enlightenment’s version of the Great Chain of Being.

27 See Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity.

28 Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 232.

29 Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, Chapter 5.

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