The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi allegorical story written by Attar about multiple birds quest to find God.
Each bird represents a certain type of person with certain virtues or vices. The birds are greedy, lazy, fearful, arrogant, and so on.
Attar’s poem is a mirror which we can use to see parts of ourselves and others.
Attar’s hope was that his birds quest could serve as a mirror we can use to become more self aware. Here is Attar’s verse at the poems conclusion:
I, with my words,
Have shown to sleeping men their souls as birds.
And if these words can prompt one heart to wake
From lifelong stupor for their mystery’s sake,
I’ll know, I’ll have no doubt, that all my pain
And grief are over, and were not in vain-
I will have been a lamp, a candle’s light
That burns itself, and makes the whole world bright.1
Attar’s poem is a mirror for cultivating self awareness.
Attar’s poem begins with the birds electing the Hoopoe as their guide. As soon as the journey begins so do the birds excuses, doubts, and questions. The Hoopoe answers each bird with 3-4 allegorical stories. This pattern of question and multiple stories as an answer repeats and makes up most of the Conference of the Birds.
For example, one bird fears death. So the Hoopoe tells a story about Socrates:
When Socrates lay close to death, a youth-
Who was his student in the search for Truth-
Said: ‘Master, when we’ve washed the man we knew
And brought your shroud, where should we bury you?’
He said: ‘If you can find me when I’ve died,
Then bury me wherever you decide.-
I’ve never found myself; I cannot see
How when I’m dead you could discover me.
Throughout my life not one small particle
Had any knowledge of itself at all!’2
[Crito said] ‘how shall we bury you?’ ‘In any way you like,’ said Socrates, ‘if you can catch me and I do not escape you.’ And laughing quietly, looking at us, he said: ‘I do not convince Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me.’3
Platonic echo aside, Attar’s Conference of Bird’s also resembles Dante’s Inferno; both stories are framed as journeys to God which explore human virtues and vices for listener and or readers benefit.
Like Dante, Attar had a soft spot for the virtuous of other religious traditions. As we’ve seen for example, noble non-Muslims such as Socrates are approved of by Attar.
But despite this soft spot for specific virtuous Greek philosophers, such as as Socrates, Attar condemns Greek philosophy in general:
How will you know the truths religion speaks
While your’re philosophizing with the Greeks?
How can you be a man of faith while you’re still wrapped in their philosophic lore?
If someone traveling on love’s Way should say
‘Philosophy’, he doesn’t know loves way; […]
Philosophy, though, snares you with its ‘why’s
And ‘how’s, and it mostly ensnares the wise. […]
Medina’s wisdom is enough, my friend,
Throw dirt on Greece, and all that Greece might send.4
Attar sees that love is the true path to wisdom and God, and that Greek philosophy leads us away from love.
I have to disagree with Attar.
Generally, Greek philosophers saw love and the proper practice of it as the key to self awareness and self improvement.
Take Plato for example, he thought that the sight of beauty quickens love which through the use of reason leads to the truth. Philosophy, is after all, a love of wisdom.
Generally speaking, proper reason mirrors proper love in the Greek philosophical tradition; one cannot reason well without love or love well without reason; reason and love act in harmony when either is done well.
But Attar, unlike his Greek predecessors, sees reason as always in opposition to love. As he puts it so eloquently:
My book’s all madness, Reason won’t appear
Within it’s pages, she’s a stranger here,
And till the soul breathes in this madness she
Remains a stranger to eternity.5
I’ve spent too much time philosophizing with the Greeks to be able to agree with Attar’s complete rejection of reason.
But, thankfully, we don’t need to agree with Attar entirely to see how we can use his poem as a mirror to ritually channel our awareness for the sake of self improvement.
We simply need to be very clear about why Attar distrusts reason…
What’s the reason Attar distrusts ‘reason’?
I think we all can benefit from taking Attar seriously here, especially if you’re the kind of person attached to seeing themselves as ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ rather than ’emotional.’
It would be easy, boring and lazy to dismiss Attar’s distrust of reason as complete nonsense. More to the point, such a lazy dismissal would make it much harder to enjoy or benefit from Attar’s Conference of Bird’s.
Whether or not we agree with Attar’s reasons for distrusting reason we need to understand them to understand him, or give a real reason why he might be wrong.
Here’s what I think Attar is up to…
Now, I’m certain you’ve noticed at some point in your life that you can rarely -if ever- convince people to believe something based on pure logic, reason, or empirical claims.
That’s because a more reliable way -perhaps the only reliable way- to change someone’s mind is telling them stories that appeal indirectly to them.
This is of course, exactly what Attar does.
Attar’s poem is a bunch of stories, not a bunch of systematic ‘reasons.’
Still, there is a recurring pattern behind most of Attar’s enjoyable stories, one which amounts to a kind of reasoned argument when we examine his poem as a whole.
In Attar’s stories, usually a lover falls in love with someone they are perceived as being unworthy to love: a beggar for a prince, an ascetic for a princess, a Sufi for God, etc,
Generally, the pattern in Attar’s poem is that a social inferior falls in love with a social superior. This love is usually seen as scandalous, and as a rule of thumb the lovers love for the beloved is questioned and challenged by society.
Most of Attar’s stories end badly for the social inferior. Often in death.
But this ‘death’ is shown as a metaphor for our egos death and changes in our self understanding. Death is seen as only a kind of change, and change as a kind of death.
This is why Attar’s and Plato’s Socrates laughs when his followers desire to bury ‘him.’ ‘Socrates’ won’t be around after death. Nor will ‘Socrates’ experience his own death. In other words, death is not an event ‘we’ experience in life.
There’s some wisdom in distrusting reason in favor of intuitive love.
For it is only when we let go of who we think we are -and what we are attached to thinking we look like to others- that we can become more aware of who we truly are, which is the first step in any process of self improvement.
The problem with Attar, as I see it, is that I doubt he would be satisfied with this conclusion, he would want more of us than ‘just’ cultivating our self awareness for the sake of self and societal improvement.
Attar would want us to go even further, to dissolve our Self and loyalty to others into a mystic rapture of ‘oneness’ with the world; by submitting to a true and un-reasoned intuitive and spontaneous love for God, the universe, and everyone in it.
Here’s why I think Attar would want us to go one step farther:
Certain of the beliefs central to Sufism seem to engage Attar’s imagination more than others.
Two themes in particular are diffused throughout the whole poem -the necessity for destroying the Self, and the importance of passionate love.
Both are mentioned in every conceivable context and not only at the ‘appropriate’ moments in the narrative.
The two [themes] are connected: the Self is seen as an entity dependent on pride and reputation, there can be no progress until the pilgrim is indifferent to both, and the surest way of making him indifferent is the experience of overwhelming love.6
Attar’s stories show again, and again, and again, that through the right kind of love we over come our selfish vanity and find the nature of god, the universe, and ourselves as more interrelated than we imagined.
Attar wishes us to see that we are the universe witnessing itself -that we are all ‘god’- and that the right kind of love is indiscriminate, universal, and impartial to all ‘differences.’ After all, if ‘we’ are ‘everything’ and all ‘god’ then preferring to love some people or things more than others is downright foolish, because all we are doing is rejecting ‘ourselves.’
This is why the Conference of the Birds ends the way it does.
At the very end of the story, the birds that persevered throughout the poem and heard all of the Hoopoes stories find themselves looking into a pond. Within it, they see God within themselves reflected, the very thing they started their journey in search of.
Attar’s prologue succinctly states what we are to take away from that scene and the Conference of the Birds as a whole:
The things you seek and know are you, and so
It’s you a hundred ways, you’re forced to know.7
I think this is the reason why Attar distrusts reason in general.
Reasoning with others always creates conceptual differences between things, otherwise we can’t speak of one thing being different than another. And if we are the universe witnessing itself, then ‘reason,’ as well as language, merely creates false categories and abstractions, enslaving us to concepts, blinding us to how interconnected everything and everyone is.
While I think this is all a fine metaphor we benefit from learning, I don’t think it’s literally true and I also think this metaphor creates just as many problems as it solves.
Let me first explain where I think Attar is right, and helpful to us all, before I move on to places where he creates problems for us if we value social relationships, friendship, or family.
We can all agree that I am not the same person I was when I was 10.
The only reason I think of there being a continuity between 10 year old me and present day me is because I automatically use the concept of the Self.
As I imagine Attar might wisely say: I am a fool if I out of loyalty to 10 year old me, I refuse to try a new activity because I want to be ‘true to myself.’
For example, 10 year old me thought that skateboarding was something dumb punks did because 10 year old me recited the opinions of his Catholic grandma. Spongebob Squarepants was also suspect, for her, and thus for me, just in case you were wondering.
Anyway, years later, I only realized how silly my suspicion of Spongebob and skateboarding was as friends of mine told me stories about their love of Spongebob and skateboarding.
These friends opened up new (and truer) ways of seeing the world for me.
My reasons to distrust Spongebob and skateboarding were ridiculous, but if someone had tried to reason or argue me out of them, I likely wouldn’t have listened. My ‘reasons’ came from a foolish, if understandable, loyalty to the opinions of a loved one.
Attar is, like a good friend, excellent at telling us stories which help us get rid of silly ideas we get from ourselves and others about who we really are, can be, and whether Spongebob is corrupting the youth.
Sometimes ‘reason’ is just a convenient and socially respected cudgel we -or society- use on ourselves and others as a means of creating a conformity as meaningless as it is misguided or damaging. This is Attar’s concern, and why he can help us.
Attar is great at helping us see and imagine who we really are, and could become, because his stories constantly remind us how fluid who we are really is.
So that’s what sound about Attar’s distrust of reason, and why he’s especially worth a read, but here’s the rub.
Attar doesn’t distrust reason in specific cases; he doubts reason is ever useful. Because if we are the universe witnessing itself, reason can only ever divide and blind us into partial, foolish, and selfish love.
From Attar’s way of seeing things, my 10 year old preferential beliefs about skateboarding and Spongebob are as delusional as my preferential love for close friends and family.
After all, where do we usually get get our reasons from, and who do we usually address them to?
While we can marginally reason on our own, we primarily do so because of, with, and for others we have social relationships with.
Reason is primarily a social tool, like storytelling, that we use to renew, repair, and reform our social relationships and society.
This is why Attar’s categorical distrust of reason leads to a categorical distrust all social relationships.
From Attar’s way of seeing things, both reason and social relationships imprison us into a partial, limited, and distinct sense of self apart from the universe as a whole.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t find this side of Attar helpful, and want to pinpoint where he went wrong, especially because he’s so helpful at freeing us from foolishly hating things, such as Spongebob.
Plato can help us answer Attar.
Plato’s answer is one Attar might not agree with, but Plato’s answer will let us read, enjoy, and make sense of Attar whether or not we fully agree with Attar’s categorical distrust of reason.8
Plato has Socrates argue that a categorical distrust of reason is as foolish, misguided, and silly as hating all humanity.
SOCRATES: We must not become haters of reason as people become haters of humanity. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. A hatred of reason and a hatred of humanity arise in the same way.
A hatred of humanity comes when someone without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone else and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy.
Then a short time afterwards, they find him to be wicked and unreliable. Then this happens in another case. When this happens enough, especially with those you believed to be close friends, then in the end, after many such blows, people come to hate all humanity and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all.
Such a hatred of humanity comes most easily to those that have little experience and skill in social relationships. For great experience would lead one to believe -what is in fact true- that the very good and the very wicked are both quite rare, and that most people are between these two extremes.9
A complete distrust of reason, verging on hatred, arises when we have frequently been let down by arguments. Or when someone else’s words no longer match their conduct; when someone lies to us.
Yet, if we find ourselves constantly let down by others, or their arguments, this means we have something to learn, not that we should give up on our ability to learn.
Plato compared the hatred of reason to the hatred of humanity for a very good reason.
For Plato, and much of the rest of Greek philosophy, reason was primarily something you did by speaking with others – it was more of a social act than a private mental discussion.
Thus, to give up on reason did not mean giving up on your own ability to think or speak, but giving up on our collective ability to clearly discuss things, learn, and have plans and relationships with each other.
Reason and love, on this view, are mean’t to harmonize with each other, however exactly that harmony works out…10
I think, with Plato, that we should not hate everyone else, or all reason, but take courage, and eagerly question and wonder -in the company of trusted friends and storytellers- what led us to mistaken love or reason in the first place.
Still, whether we prefer to see love and reason like Plato or Attar, we can benefit from the Conference of the Birds by using it’s stories as a mirror for cultivating self awareness. His poem, is like a journal, a way of regularly ritually reviewing the direction of our life.
Attar’s stories are enjoyable and useful with or without us fully agreeing with his views on love, reason, or God.
Just please don’t give up on reason or humanity because of a few bad apples.
Thanks for reading.
Please comment, criticize, or ask questions below…
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