Saturday, November 15, 2008


 Defining the Indefinable, "Self-Subsisting"

 By John Taylor; 2008 Nov 15, 12 Qudrat 165 BE

 As soon as a person becomes a Baha'i and learns the short obligatory prayer, they run across the compound term, "self-subsisting." Evidently somebody tried to look it up in a dictionary, did not find it, and complained to the Universal House of Justice. As always, the supreme institution handed the answer off to its research department. The researcher replied,

 "In your second letter, you have stated that the term `self-subsisting', which Baha'u'llah often uses to characterize God, `means nothing' in the English language. It is likely that this term signifies in some way a basic concept of the Faith; namely, that creation is an emanation from God, without Whose continuing bounty and grace it would cease to exist.
 "The term thus underscores the immense contrast between our reality, which is related to the contingent world, and His reality which is independent of any cause and which entirely transcends the world of being. Indeed, the point is that He is the Cause of being itself. There is a way to deduce such a meaning, however, solely from the common meaning of the words." (letter from UHJ Research Department, 21 January 1993,

 In other words, then, the dictionaries available at the World Centre apparently do not have the term "self-subsisting" in them either. The UHJ RD's anonymous author simply looks up the separate words "self" and "subsist."

 "According to its primary dictionary definition, "to subsist" means to have existence, to persist or continue. The addition of "self" makes it reflexive. Knowing just these two things, can we not then say that if God is self-subsisting it means that there is nothing other than Himself upon which He depends for His continuing existence? In other words, He exists in and of Himself without being dependent on any other cause: He has no creator and there is nothing prior to Him."

 Fortunately, we have better tools available now than way back in 1993. A microsecond after I typed "define: self-subsisting" into Google, a dictionary entry responded: "see self-subsistent." As soon as you look up `self-subsistent' an overwhelming cornucopia of definitions fills your screen. The Guardian's choice of the present participle apparently throws people off the scent, even at the World Centre. A cursory look at the definition reveals that "self-subsistent" is the English form of an ancient philosophic term going back to Aristotle and beyond. It means quite a bit more than just "self" and "subsist" stuck together, even reflexively.

 We get the word "substance," for example, from the scholastic term, "Res Ex Tensa," literally, thing reaching out, or more commonly, extended matter. From that we get "substance," literally standing under, the reality that holds up what the senses perceive. Subsistence, in short, is part of an extremely complex and sophisticated set of concepts that, like modern physics I forget several seconds after I learn it, if in fact I understand it in the first place. Could it be that Shoghi Effendi chose that confusing present participle "self-subsisting" to emphasize a self-subsistent beyond the bounds of time that transcends past and future? As it has been understood historically, subsistence does refer more to matter than to time, and since Einstein we know that space and time are two sides of one coin.

 At the end of this post, I will include the balance of the UHJ RD's letter. Briefly, it warns that spiritual understanding does not depend on scholarly learning. Then, strangely in view of the fact that the enquirer is challenging the Guardian's choice of terminology, it goes on to talk about overcoming the difficulties that the average person has with his literary style.

 I am hardly qualified to talk about a specialist term of metaphysics authoritatively, but I want to look over how "self-subsistent" has been used by some great thinkers. In his Physics, Aristotle says,

 "Some, as the Pythagoreans and Plato, make the infinite a principle in the sense of a self-subsistent substance, and not as a mere attribute of some other thing."

 Aristotle's reference to his predecessors points to a difference between self-subsistent as a term in itself and certain other synonyms such as "principle" or "independent." Self-subsistent is something that does not have substance -- other things standing under it, or standing under other things -- it is in fact it own substance or essence. This was brought out by Plato's dalliance with forms, things in themselves. In the sixth chapter of the Republic, for example, pictures the Good as a sun that illuminates the world -- ordinary substance is the flickering light in the cave, while self-subsistence radiates all with its own light. Good with a capital "g" is a different order of existence from good with a small "g". This is the difference between having an attribute of goodness and being the essence of Good itself. Aristotle refers to this indirectly in the Nichomachean Ethics,

 "Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these as well." (paragraph 5)

 Plato dropped calling the self-subsistent by the inanimate sounding word "form," perhaps because once you get this high above us on the chain of being it is counterproductive to think of it as an "it" rather than a "He" or a "She." For example, Baha'u'llah personifies it when He says,

 "Tear asunder the veils of human learning lest they hinder thee from Him Who is My name, the Self-Subsisting." (Summons, 56, 1.106)

 Aristotle brings up "self-subsistent" at least four times in the Metaphysics, but I am so intimidated by that book that will leave it aside. It would only strain my brain, tire my readers and bring us further from where we wish to be with this.

 Self-subsistence plays a central role in Cartesian philosophy, and I must admit that that is where I was familiar with the term. I did not realize until today how important it was in Greek philosophy too.

 Ever since I read Descartes I understood the short obligatory prayer as having me declare that God, as a Self-Subsisting Being, is His own substance, His own cause, the ground of His own Being. The Godhead is thus utterly unlike all other kinds of stuff, whose base of being is always external. In prayer, I mirror that condition of being too, where my thought reflects and is the outcome of my own essence. Hence the Hidden Word, which would have us turn unto ourselves and "find God standing within, Mighty, Powerful and Self-Subsisting." (AHW 60) I remember being annoyed when, back in the 1980's, a Creole translation of the Short Obligatory prayer said "Self-Sustaining" instead of Self-Subsisting.

 A bit more about the Cartesian idea of self-subsistence.

 Descartes agreed with the schoolmen, who on other points opposed him, that the mind is a "thinking substance," and the external world an "extended substance." Spinoza held that strictly speaking, though, the self of God is the only real substance, since the word "substance" itself means standing under or outside.

 "In Spinoza's view, Descartes came close to a correct understanding of God when he said that, strictly speaking, he was the only substance, since he was the only being which was entirely self-subsistent (or cause of itself in Spinoza's terminology). But for Spinoza, we must always speak strictly, and it is not good enough to say that (an) extended thing and thinking thing are substances in some secondary sense. They are not substances at all, if substance is defined in terms of its self-subsistence. Consequently, it makes no sense to say that God created two substances (or kinds of substance) characterised by the attributes of thought and extension, which are somehow existentially separate from him, even if still dependent on him for their continued existence. Instead we have to say that thought and extension are attributes of God himself." (

 The Quran, distinctively from the Western philosophic tradition, emphasizes creation as an act of Will. The Bab and Baha'u'llah follow this lead. Seeing creation as willed means that "self-subsisting" is God's condition of willing existence out of His own Nature.

 This is a different kind of Self-Subsisting.

 In an essay I wrote on 24 June, 2006, called "Notes on an Unnamed Tablet of the Bab, Inner meaning of the principle of Oneness of God" I talked about how important self-subsistence is for the Bab's concept of "Manifestation." Another essay on this Badi' Blog talked about "self-subsisting" in the Writings of the Bab, where it seems to express the birthing or fruition period between the creative missions of the Manifestations,

 The Bab also began the Book of Names with a tree metaphor ... He carried it further, even calling himself by the appellation "Tha," the first letter in 'Thamarih' or fruit, following through on this idea that each Revelation is the fruit or consummation of the tree of all previous Teachings. He addresses Baha'u'llah, the first "manifester," as opposed to prophet, in the following terms,
 "This is an epistle from the letter 'Tha' unto Him Who will be made manifest through the power of Truth -- He Who is the All-Glorious, the Best Beloved -- to affirm that all created things as well as myself bear witness for all time that there is none other God but Thee, the Omnipotent, the Self-Subsisting; that Thou art God, there is no God besides Thee and that all men shall be raised up to life through Thee." (The Bab, Selections, 2)
 In a word, the Bab taught that what is past is prophesy, what is future is Manifest. ("Some Primal Points About Trees," 21 September, 2004)


 From the UHJ RD's answer to a question about "self-subsistent" in the Writings:

 "A few comments may serve to provide a perspective in which to view the issues you have raised. First, it is essential to recall that, as we are told in the Writings, the comprehension of the Sacred Writings is not dependent upon scholarship or learning. This should encourage every believer, no matter what his attainments, to delve into the Revelation with determination and confidence. In the Book of Certitude, Baha'u'llah says:
 "The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent upon human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit."
 "But, in addition to needing the proper spirit, it requires concentration and meditation to unravel the meanings which lie enshrined in the Revealed Word. Nowadays, however, the lives of most people are busy and crowded with distractions, so it requires great discipline to devote the time, attention and care necessary to study the Teachings in the way they deserve. Deepening is like a skill or art which must be acquired through effort. And, just as there are millions of Christians who would not trade the King James Version of the Holy Bible, once one has caught the flavor of the English translations done by Shoghi Effendi -- or done in the style he developed -- the beauty and power of expression become appealing and inspiring. One comes to fall in love with that style.


John Taylor


1 comment:

Carl said...

Thank you very much.
Read it all.

​And now I think that the present participle of To Subsist (Subsisting) makes it clear that this is eternal and ongoing, not just an adjective about something that may have occurred at some point, Subsistent.