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Abdu’l-Baha on individuality

Posted by Sen on March 23, 2010

Portrait of Abdu'l-Baha in Badayi'u'l-athar

The following talk given by Abdu’l-Baha, on individuality and personality, is of interest both for understanding how he thought about the human person, and for its relevance to individualism in Bahai belief. It is authentic Bahai scripture, albeit in an early translation, because it is translated from Persian notes taken at the time. Abdu’l-Baha’s practice was to check and correct the Persian notes of his talks, so — assuming that was done in this case, which is a safe bet — the text below has the same status as Some Answered Questions and Memorials of the Faithful, which were produced in the same way. The talk was published in Star of the West vol 4, no2, April 9 1913 from page 38.


Address by Abdul Baha, February 14, 1913, at 30 rue St. Didier, Paris
From Persian notes; translated by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab

Today one of those present asked a question on personality. From what source does it come? What are its attributes? What are its characteristic features or aspects?

Personality is one of two kinds. One is the natural or God-given personality which the Western thinkers call individuality. Individuality is the inner aspect of man which is not subject to change. The second is personality. Personality is the acquired virtues and perfections, with which man is adorned.

When the individuality of man, i.e., his God-given natural virtues, is adorned with acquired virtues and perfections then we have character. When the infinite effulgences of God are revealed in the individual, then divine perfections which are invisible in all creation will become manifest in him.

For instance, one man is the manifesto of knowledge, i.e. divine knowledge is revealed to him. Another man is the dawning place of power, a third is wealthy, another is generous. Again a person is faithful, and another with whom you come in touch, is merciful. All these attributes are God given and natural in man.

These are the manifestations of the unchangeable individuality. All of them are praiseworthy, because they are divine in origin. All these qualifications are created by God, they are loved by every one, for they are the significances of His names and attributes. The rays of His names and attributes have illumined the very essence of these qualifications.

As regards the personality which is the result of acquired virtues, that is also good. For instance, this mirror had once an individuality of rock. The rock going through the processes of purification, has reached to its present status of transparency. Now the rock in its original state was praiseworthy, but having acquired the second state, which is personality, it has become a mirror. In the beginning it was a piece of black stone, now it has become a pure looking glass.

Therefore you can easily see that the personality or the acquired virtue has become the means of the appearance of greater perfections which perfections are clearly visible in the mirror.

The rock was endowed by God with a distinct individuality. It acquired personality through the process of education. The individuality of all people is laudable, for every thing God creates is based upon divine wisdom. In the creation of God there is no defect. However, personality has no element of permanence in it, it is a shifting, changeable quality in man which can be turned either way.

For instance, when man is the manifestor of virtues it strengthens the individuality, and suffers his hidden forces to come into active play. But if he acquires defects the beauty and simplicity of the individuality will be lost, and its God-given qualities will be stifled in the foul atmosphere of these imperfections. It is self-evidently manifest that every human being created by God is original; that is, those heavenly attributes which are the distinguishing features of the individuality are created by God and deposited in man.

But if later on the personality acquires sciences, he will become a wise man. If he is engaged in praiseworthy deeds he will be appreciated. If he strives in the study of knowledges he will become perfect. If, on the contrary, he runs after blameworthy vices he will be adorned with exactly the same attributes.

For instance, God has created man to be just; if he does not practice justice, he has gone against the attributes of his individuality. God has created man to be merciful, but he becomes a tyrant. God has created man to be kind to all the children of men; on the contrary he is inimical and hateful. God has created man to confer life, but he becomes conducive to the destruction of life.

All of these are the perversions of the characteristics of the individuality and they are blameworthy, and disliked by all.

Personality is obtained through the effort of man, and through training and education. If a fruitless tree comes under the influence of a wise gardener, through the process of training it becomes fruitful.

If a piece of rock comes under the hand of a sculptor it will become a beautiful piece of statuary. The ruined places are built up by captains of industry. The ignorant children learn the secrets of phenomena under the tutorship of a wise teacher. The crooked branch becomes straight through the influence of the gardener.

Consequently it is evident that we have two modes for the expression of life – Individuality and Personality.

The former is the handiwork of God and the latter that of man. In short, the personality of some people is illumined, that of others is dark – the personality of some is the manifestation of divine justice, while that of others is the embodiment of infinite tyranny. The personality of some is guidance, while that of others is error. That which was hidden in the capability of these souls has been manifest. For instance, when you sow a seed, that which is hidden in the reality of that seed will become revealed and unfolded – the trunk, the branches, the leaves and the blossoms and the fruits which are in the seed as potentialities.

When pupils are being trained under the tutorship of a teacher, education will bring opt what is hidden in their beings. The clouds pour down, the sun shines, and all that which was hidden in the bosom of the earth will come forth.

Therefore the personality of man is developed through education, while the individuality, which is divine and heavenly, is praiseworthy in origin.

God has created poison and has shown that it is harmful to man. On the other hand sweet things are created by Him and are enjoyed by man. Thus it is in the nature of man to be harmed by poison, and to find enjoyment in sweets; but he changes his nature to such an extent that he takes poison, such as opium and arsenic in the form of a drug, and he accustoms himself to it to such an extent that if he does not receive it he may die.

Therefore man is capable of subjecting his individuality to such a degree that poison which was the means of death, becomes the means of life. His nature becomes so degraded and his individuality so distorted that he will long for the poison if it is not given to him in time.

What is the cause of the change in the individuality? It is the acquirement of evil habits.

God benignly endows man with an individuality which enjoys the sweet and shuns the poison, but man through evil habits changes the creation of God, and transforms the divine illumination into satanic darkness.

So long as man is a captive of nature, submerged in the sea of materialism, pursuing the dictates of self and desire, he is vanquished and defeated. This passionate ego takes the reins from his hands, and changes him into an animal. He will fall so low that he will be unable to judge good from evil. He will not be able to distinguish light from darkness, neither will he be able to behold the angelic attributes.

Therefore this acquired individuality which is the result of evil customs becomes the dominant note of his life.

I hope that all of you may be freed from these dangers, delivered from the world of nature, enter into the realm of light, and be come divine, radiant, merciful, Godlike and confirmed.

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3 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha on individuality”

  1. A Mother said

    This passage is very helpful when applied to the task of teaching and raising children. Each has such a unique individuality which manifests at a young age. Before reading this passage, I always thought the permanent and natural qualities a child possesses are what make up their ‘personality’, but this refers to the natural potential as ‘individuality’. Some are naturally stubborn, curious, meek, or energetic. Some excel at logic, others at creativity, but the areas they excel at are by no means boundaries to their potential. It is at times difficult to impart guidance which enhances ‘personality’ without stifling ‘individuality’. I believe each child’s education should be so tailored to their uniqueness that it serves to accentuate their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses, but standards of morality and and justice should be applied universally. This is a difficult thing to accomplish. Helping a child develop their personality through guidance, love and education is every parent’s responsibility but can be at times an overwhelming task. It is however, amazing to see them as they develop their own individual personality.

  2. The description of ‘Abdu’l-Baha has been amply confirmed by modern controlled studies, such as those comparing (genetically) identical twins with the (genetically diverse) general population. Across the board, regarding attributes of personality (extravert-introvert, dominant-submissive, and so forth) as well as “intelligence” in conventional IQ measures, statistical analysis reveals that about half of all variance among individuals is due to “nature” (genetics) and the other half to “nurture” — that is, the environoment, education, experiences and the like. In short, more or less exact agreement with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s description.

  3. Sen said

    I once edited a study of educational achievement using siblings which found the same mix of determinants: roughly 50% genetics, 50% environment

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