When I first learned about Socrates and Aristotle, I wondered: what’s the difference between a prophet and a philosopher?
Did you ever think about that question? I mean, like prophets, the world’s learned philosophers bring humanity great, penetrating wisdom. Their teachings last thousands of years. They have long-term impacts on our thinking, our views of life, even our governmental structures. We teach their insights to our children and name entire schools of thought and rubrics of education after them. The Socratic Method—the way we teach just about every attorney—is just one example out of hundreds.
But we don’t worship philosophers.
We worship prophets. We follow their Faiths. We build houses of worship to venerate and honor them. We pattern our lives after their lives. We read their writings consistently. We pray to become like them. We not only teach their insights to our children, we also tell our children to follow their moral examples.
The Baha’i teachings make a very interesting distinction between prophets and philosophers:
Some men and women glory in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds. A philosopher’s thought may, however, in the world of progress and evolution, translate itself into the actions of other people, even when they themselves are unable or unwilling to show forth their grand ideals in their own lives. To this class the majority of philosophers belong, their teachings being high above their actions. This is the difference between philosophers who are Spiritual Teachers, and those who are mere philosophers: the Spiritual Teacher is the first to follow His own teaching; He brings down into the world of action His spiritual conceptions and ideals. His Divine thoughts are made manifest to the world. His thought is Himself, from which He is inseparable. When we find a philosopher emphasizing the importance and grandeur of justice, and then encouraging a rapacious monarch in his oppression and tyranny, we quickly realize that he belongs to the first class: for he thinks heavenly thoughts and does not practise the corresponding heavenly virtues.
Referring to prophets of God, Abdu’l-Baha says something remarkable: “His thought is Himself, from which He is inseparable.” In the life of a true prophet, thought and action are unified.
We all have lofty thoughts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could always live up to those thoughts? We all have nobility and high ideals inside us. Can you imagine what the world could be like if we all demonstrated those noble ideals in our daily lives?
That’s why we respect, revere, worship and venerate the prophets of God—because they exemplify their nobility in action. They serve as the best imaginable examples of what a human being can aspire to and become. They exemplify love, kindness and compassion. They actually are their best thoughts. When Christ turned the other cheek; when Moses led his people out of bondage; when Buddha detached himself from his wealth; when Baha’u’llah went to prison for his progressive principles and high ideals, they inspired, energized and motivated all of us to be better human beings:
It is evident, then, that the proofs of the validity and inspiration of a Prophet of God are the deeds of beneficent accomplishment and greatness emanating from Him. If He proves to be instrumental in the elevation and betterment of mankind, He is undoubtedly a valid and heavenly Messenger. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 366.
Baha’is believe that these heavenly messengers, the greatest educators of humanity, serve as channels between God and man:
Let us study the condition of the Jews for a moment. When they were in Egypt they were captives; they were poor; they were prisoners in the hand of Pharaoh; they were ignored; they were a dependent people, they were surrounded by all kinds of troubles and vicissitudes; the people looked down upon them; they were considered as outcasts. Then Moses came. He gathered them together; inspired them with the power of unity; imparted to them new life; taught them the laws of God encouraging them in the morals and virtues of humanity; delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh; freed them from the bondage of captivity; educated them, trained them and carried them away from the land of darkness into the holy of holies of light. Their power was increased; their majesty became refulgent; their fame was spread throughout the world, until they were enabled to found the Solomonic sovereignty. In philosophy and art they attained such heights that the philosophers of Greece and Rome travelled long distances to learn from them. Now is it possible to say that to revere and respect these souls is equivalent to the worshipping of idols? We must respect Moses because he achieved a work which no one else could do. It is an evident fact that His Holiness Moses was a channel between God and man. No further proof is required for this. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 2, pp. 6-7.
That’s the difference between a philosopher and a prophet—a philosopher might change your mind, but a true prophet changes the world:
The philosophers are also teachers but all they could do was to teach themselves and a few other souls. But the prophets of God taught the whole world. They trained all the children of men in morals and ethics. – Ibid., p. 8.