A man who dedicated his life to “morality and action.”
He began life in the East, later moving to the west and then back to the east again. In France, he read and learned western philosophy and went on to create his philosophy of “action” in his homeland.
He was an intellectual who brought a new school of thought to Modern Turkey.
He once said to his students, “You are going to read, let people read behind lecterns, pulpits, in schools and universities. You are going to show the people that knowledge is the biggest worship in life.”
Meet one of the greatest Turkish philosophers of the 20th century: Nurettin Topçu.
Childhood in Istanbul
His grandfather was a great artillerist during the war against the Russians in the late 19th century. Because of this, the family gained the name Topçu, which means artillerist.
Topçu was born in Istanbul, on the 7th of November, 1909 – the same place his life would end years later. After his graduation in Istanbul High School he received a scholarship to study in France.
His schoolmate Sirri Tuzeer confessed that Topçu was a brilliant student who never took a break from reading. Tuzeer once claimed that “Nurettin was not sociable, and I was his only friend in secondary school.” It was Tuzeer who later introduced Topçu to the Sufi Abdülaziz Bekkine.
Outstanding Success in France
Topçu was soon to embark upon a 6-year journey in France, and it was in these 6 years that he met French intellectuals, such as Louis Massignon and Maurice Blondel.
Before receiving a bachelor’s degree in Art History at the University of Strasbourg, he went to Lycée de Bordeaux to learn French.
After Strasbourg, he went to the Sorbonne University in Paris, where, in 1934, he defended his PhD. He was the first Turk to study ethics in Europe and received a PhD in the discipline of philosophy. The topic of his thesis was “Conformism and Revolt.”
For his outstanding success, the University awarded him a golden watch and the opportunity to travel to North America. Instead of accepting this, he asked for the Turkish flag to be waved for 24 hours in the towers of Sorbonne. This historical moment was accepted by the administration.
Return to Turkey and a life of L’action
Topçu returned in 1934 to Turkey. His biggest dream was to teach philosophy in Universities, but that chance was never given to him.
While he was in Denizli, he met another great spiritual leader, Said Nursi. Topçu asked him if he could pray for him to accomplish his dream. Nursi’s answer was, “I will pray for the salvation of your faith.”
Many years later, Topçu said that he did not, at first, find the answer satisfactory, but later, he realized that it was the best prayer for a philosopher like him. He always felt his faith deep in his heart.
Upon his return to Turkey, he dedicated his life to teaching philosophy to young people. He taught in Istanbul, Izmir, and Denizli. During this time, he received the title of associate professor with his thesis on the founder of Intuitionism: Henri-Louis Bergson.
While he was in Izmir, in 1939, he wrote his journal “Hareket” (Action) until 1982.
Philosophy of Topçu
Topçu was one of the most important Turkish philosophers in the 20th century. His writings clearly show his greatest influence to be the French philosopher Maurice Blondel who was the founder of “philosophy of action”.
His thoughts on “action” can be summarized in the following way:
There is a world of thought, which takes the Anatolia as geography, the history of the Seldjuks and the Ottomans as a culture, and Islam and especially Sufism, which extends to the western world and human experience, as a wide and decisive circle. Topçu approaches matters through morality.
Among Turkish philosophers and intellectuals in the republic era, he has written the most articles on the topic of morality, as he continued to study this topic throughout his life.
Topçu is also known for his philosophy of “Conformism and Revolt.” He states that rebellion is at the base of morality. This is the rebellion of Allah in man, and it is the full commitment to love with free will.
This particular example of rebellion is not the rebellion associated with an anarchist, who defends individual, absolute freedom against the authority of the state; nor is it the rebellion associated with a Marxist, who opposes national sacrifices and leads people to bondage, even though Marxism was formed in reaction to the capitalist regime.
Topçu’s only, and best, friend Sirri Tuzeer invited him to meet Abdülaziz Bekkine, a spiritual leader of the Naqshbandiyya order in Turkey. Bekkine greatly influenced the thoughts of Topçu.
It can be said that his philosophical thoughts matured. He found inner peace and developed his view on Islamic Philosophy. Topçu’s writings and PhD thesis also show how he was influenced by the thoughts of Rumi and Yunus Emre.
His Last Visitors and His Death
The examples of the last visitors will give an excellent view of his devotion to his Sufi masters Bekkine and Rumi. Let us end this journey with the witnesses of his students and his sister:
One day before his death, his students visited him at the hospital.
They saw that Topçu did not look happy and asked him. Topçu said, no I am okay, but I didn’t see my master Bekkine in my dream last night. The day after, a couple of hours before he died, he looked happy and told his sister that he might leave the world that day because he saw Rumi in his dream.
Topçu said that he came from above with big wings and said, “Nurettin, the Prophet (PBUH) ordered me to take you with me.” Topçu said, “Absolutely, if that is the order”. With a life devoted to action and morality, Topçu was an intellectual who created a new school of thought. He died in Istanbul in 1975, due to cancer.