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A reader asked us “Is it wrong to strive for financial success, or doing your best at something to make yourself better than anyone else at it?”
When I first read this interesting query, I thought it must have come from someone with a sensitive soul. Obviously concerned with the impact success has on the unsuccessful, he wants to know, essentially, how the Baha’i teachings deal with social Darwinism’s concept of the survival of the fittest. The concept—which has penetrated the consciousness of the modern era—sanctions cut-throat economic and social competition, and has been used to justify war, racism, colonialism and the domination of all economic classes by the wealthy.
In other words, his question has a heart. Here’s the whole question, verbatim:
Is it wrong to strive for financial success, or doing your best at something to make yourself better than anyone else at it? I feel like I know the answer to this lies in your attitude after you are successful, as I know Abdu’l Baha commended Andrew Carnegie for his good deeds with his vast wealth, but for some reason this knowledge hasn’t been enough to settle my mind on the matter.
First, the Baha’i teachings say that everyone should learn and practice a craft, trade or profession:
O my servants! Ye are the trees of My garden; ye must give forth goodly and wondrous fruits, that ye yourselves and others may profit therefrom. Thus it is incumbent on every one to engage in crafts and professions, for therein lies the secret of wealth, O men of understanding! For results depend upon means, and the grace of God shall be all-sufficient unto you. Trees that yield no fruit have been and will ever be for the fire. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 50-51.
Second, all of us should strive to do our best in any endeavor or profession—but most importantly, in our moral character:
Make ye a mighty effort till you yourselves betoken this advancement and all these confirmations, and become focal centres of God’s blessings, daysprings of the light of His unity, promoters of the gifts and graces of civilized life. Be ye in that land vanguards of the perfections of humankind; carry forward the various branches of knowledge, be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts. Endeavour to rectify the conduct of men, and seek to excel the whole world in moral character. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 128.
Third, no matter how successful anyone becomes, the Baha’i teachings warn against forgetting “the things of the soul:”
If a man is successful in his business, art, or profession he is thereby enabled to increase his physical wellbeing and to give his body the amount of ease and comfort in which it delights. All around us today we see how man surrounds himself with every modern convenience and luxury, and denies nothing to the physical and material side of his nature. But, take heed, lest in thinking too earnestly of the things of the body you forget the things of the soul: for material advantages do not elevate the spirit of a man. Perfection in worldly things is a joy to the body of a man but in no wise does it glorify his soul.
It may be that a man who has every material benefit, and who lives surrounded by all the greatest comfort modern civilization can give him, is denied the all important gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is indeed a good and praiseworthy thing to progress materially, but in so doing, let us not neglect the more important spiritual progress, and close our eyes to the Divine light shining in our midst. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 62-63.
Finally, the Baha’i teachings tell us, the concept of social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest applied not to biology but to sociology, is “the origin of all difficulties:”
In the world of nature the greatest dominant note is the struggle for existence—the result of which is the survival of the fittest. The law of the survival of the fittest is the origin of all difficulties. It is the cause of war and strife, hatred and animosity between human beings.
In the world of nature there is tyranny, egoism, aggression, overbearance, usurpation of the rights of others, and other blameworthy attributes which are the defects of the animal world. Therefore so long as the requirements of the natural world play paramount part among the children of men, success and prosperity are impossible. For the success of the human world depends upon the qualities and virtues with which the reality of humanity is adorned; while the exigencies of the natural world work against the realization of this object.
Nature is warlike, nature is bloodthirsty, nature is tyrannical, nature is unaware of His Highness the Almighty. That is why these cruel qualities are natural to the animal world.
Therefore His Highness the Lord of mankind, having great love and mercy, has caused the appearance of the prophets, and the revelations of the holy books, so that through divine education the world of humanity may be released from the corruption of nature and the darkness of ignorance; be confirmed with ideal virtues, the susceptibilities of consciousness, and the spiritual attributes, and become the dawning place of merciful emotions. This is divine civilization. Today in the world of humanity material civilization is like unto a lamp of the utmost transparency, but this lamp—a thousand times alas—is deprived of light. This light is divine civilization, which is instituted by the holy divine Manifestations. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 15.
Baha’is believe that human beings must find ways to rise up past the competitiveness of the “dog-eat-dog” natural world; and build a more spiritual civilization, one that emphasizes cooperation and treating others as we would like to be treated. So no, it’s not wrong to strive for success—as long as that success benefits others, and not just yourself. Abdu’l-Baha put it this way:
Man is he who forgets his own interests for the sake of others. His own comfort he forfeits for the well-being of all. Nay, rather, his own life must he be willing to forfeit for the life of mankind. Such a man is the honor of the world of humanity. Such a man is the glory of the world of mankind. Such a man is the one who wins eternal bliss. Such a man is near to the threshold of God. Such a man is the very manifestation of eternal happiness …
Consider how the greatest men in the world—whether among prophets or philosophers—all have forfeited their own comfort, have sacrificed their own pleasure for the well-being of humanity. They have sacrificed their own lives for the body politic. They have sacrificed their own wealth for that of the general welfare. They have forfeited their own honor for the honor of mankind. Therefore, it becomes evident that this is the highest attainment for the world of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 312.