We, the servants and tenants of Earth


"Man nature" (detail), aquarelle on paper by Angolan-French artist Franck Lundangi
© Franck Lundangi / Сourtesy of Galerie Anne de Villepoix

To meet the challenge that the global ecological crisis presents today, there is an urgent need to draw on humanity’s philosophical and spiritual repertoire – because it teaches us valuable lessons on the importance of taking care of life in all its forms. Souleymane Bachir Diagne draws on this source here, by blending the philosophical novel of a twelfth-century Andalusian scholar, African words of wisdom and thoughts from Western philosophers. We are not nature’s masters and owners, the Senegalese philosopher warns us.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

My intention is to think about a major crisis – the ecological crisis, which we agree, defines the era we are living in − by showing how the history of philosophy can shed light on it and give us guidance on the actions we must take to deal with it. More precisely, I would like to show how there is continuity between the way philosophy helps us to consider a policy of humanity and the way it illuminates a policy of the “humanization of the Earth”, in the words of the French philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). I use this expression as signifying the duty and the responsibility that the human has to act accordingly, from the moment he understands that nature is entrusted to him and to humanity in the future. It forbids me to consider myself as “nature’s master and owner”, to cite the well-known phrase by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, René Descartes.

On this point, regarding a philosophy that is simultaneously spiritual and ecological, I would like to evoke the ideas of the Andalusian scholar Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185). They are masterfully expressed in his magnum opus, the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzān. He presents the idea that humans realize their humanity fully only when they reach ecological consciousness − which allows them to simultaneously understand the evolution of their own becoming and the responsibility which is incumbent on them to protect life on earth. 

Homo perfectus

The Arabic philosophical fable, after its translation into Latin in 1671, under the title Philosophus autodidactus, and later into English, was a source of inspiration for many writers, including the English writer, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, the Andalusian philosopher’s novel is the story of the survival of Hayy, a child abandoned on an island that has never known a human presence, and who is rescued, protected and fed by a doe. When the animal dies, he learns to use his hands, his practical and then theoretical intelligence, in an ontogeny (the origin and development of the individual organism, from conception to death) that recapitulates phylogeny (evolution of the species over the ages): the child develops into homo perfectus, the insān kāmil of Islamic mysticism. In other words, he becomes an accomplished human who rediscovers not only the essence of civilization (and especially fire), but also the sense of transcendence that leads him to the idea, and then to the experience of the divine.

We find an echo of the Philosophus autodidactus in the philosophical debate about the tabula rasa, the clean slate that represents our ability to know before experience begins to record our knowledge on it. Thus we have underlined the continuity between the idea illustrated by the novel about Hayy and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke.

We should note, in passing, that the teaching of the history of philosophy as it is presented in most textbooks leaves little room for a work as important as Ibn Tufayl’s, or for the intellectual tradition to which it belongs − this calls for another way of teaching the history of philosophy, which does not make it a purely European matter.

"Man nature", aquarelle on paper by Angolan-French artist Franck Lundangi.

The caliph of God on Earth

The first shock that sets in motion the practical and theoretical intelligence of the child is the question that confronts him, plunging him into suffering and incomprehension, at the moment his mother, the doe, dies − what is this thing, life, which has left the body of the mother and made her forever deaf to her child's calls? To answer this question, Hayy devotes himself to the practice of dissecting dead animals, and then attempts to surprise the vital principle in living animals by performing vivisections on them − not seeing, in his ignorance and his innocence, the cruelty of his actions. He abandons this research, again because of failure. Later, when he attains full awareness of self, God, Creation and his own place within it and responsibility for it, Hayy will understand his responsibility to be the guardian of life, in all its forms. He will take from nature only what is necessary for his sustenance, ensuring that the capacity for renewal of life is perfectly preserved, and that nature reconstitutes what it gives him.

Ibn Tufayl's insistence on Hayy's ecological consciousness is a philosophical illustration of Koranic anthropology that defines the human as “the caliph of God on Earth”. The word caliph, which means substitute, and the best translation for which is no doubt lieutenant – or more precisely lieu-tenant, place-holder, in French etymology – teaches humans what they have to be and defines their responsibility to watch over their environment, namely the Earth. Moreover, this word caliph, in spite of what we hear today, has in the Koran only this meaning, denoting the destination of the human. An important message from Ibn Tufayl’s book is, therefore, that the human is guardian of the Earth for her/himself and for the generations to come, because the human is originally the depository of what makes him the placeholder of God on Earth. Today, we need more than ever to heed this responsibility, without it being necessarily linked to a religious meaning.

Making humanity together

I'll sum up my point in one word: ubuntu. This Bantu word gained worldwide fame when it was used by South Africans Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. It literally means “to make humanity together” − to create, thanks to other people, the human that I have to become, and at the same time, create “one humanity” with others.

To be the receptacle of what makes me a placeholder of God on Earth makes me understand that “making humanity together” is the opposite of depredation.  It gives me the duty to look after life in general − to think that although animals, for instance, do not themselves formulate rights that must be recognized as declared, these are not any less real to me, because my humanity obligates me to them.

In my opinion, I am not one of those people who go overboard in their efforts to bring down anthropocentrism – and for whom the different kingdoms should be self-represented in a sort of “natural contract” replacing the social contract. It is not necessary to dissolve humanity to forbid it to behave, as another seventeenth-century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, wrote, “like an empire in an empire” − to make humans understand that they are not free nor separate from natural necessities. On the contrary, we must affirm our humanity, but affirm it as ubuntu. Ubuntu is a philosophical concept with universal scope and it seems to me that it encompasses the meaning and the role of the humanities − in particular, the philosophical humanities. By showing how these can enlighten us, I want to emphasize their contribution, even their “utility”. But it is not a matter of exaggerating what philosophy can do, nor of giving in to the imperative of the profitability of knowledge, considered solely from the point of view of its technical implementation – by insisting on the use to be made of it.

Instead, when it comes to the thought and action required by the major crises of our time, I want to show that we can, we must, rely just as much on a philosophical novel written in the twelfth century in Muslim Spain as on Western philosophical thought, or African words of wisdom. To meet the challenges of changing times, we need to revitalize ourselves by delving into what humans have thought all around the world and at different times.

In other words, I want to recall that philosophy, and the humanities in general, are what give meaning to an education aimed towards the total, complete human −the homo perfectus – who is able to  use the knowledge of history to invent a future we must build all together.

With this article, the UNESCO Courier marks the celebration of the International Day for Biological Diversity, 22 May.

Read also the issue Man and animals, UNESCO Courier, Fébruary 1988


Franck Lundangi

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

A philosopher and historian of mathematical logic, Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Senegal) is a professor at Columbia University in New York. He has written numerous books on the history of logic and philosophy, Islam and African societies and cultures. In 2011, he was awarded the Edouard Glissant Prize in recognition of his work.