The Subjective Viewpoint on Life and Living

Whereas the objective viewpoint looks upon existence as some kind of machinery subject to various laws that we can understand and apply to succeed at life, the subjective viewpoint looks at existence as an organic, growing, self-actualizing reality to be known and grasped, not by the analytical powers of the intellect, but by an inner connection to the totality of our existence.  The reason, as a power of the being, certainly can play a role in the increasing awareness and realisation process, but it is a subsidiary power that has its uses in a practical external sense but is unable to fully contain or grasp the completeness of the being or of our existence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the subjective viewpoint:  “Subjectivism proceeds from within and regards everything from the point of view of a containing and developing self-consciousness.  The law here is within ourselves; life is a self-creating process, a growth and development at first subconscious, then half-conscious and at last more and more fully conscious of that which we are potentially and hold within ourselves; the principle of its progress is an increasing self-recognition, self-realisation and a resultant self-shaping.  Reason and will are only effective movements of the self, reason a process in self-recognition, will a force for self-affirmation and self-shaping.  Moreover, reason and intellectual will are only a part of the means by which we recognise and realise ourselves.  Subjectivism tends to take a large and complex view of our nature and being and to recognise many powers of knowledge, many forces of effectuation.  Even, we see it in its first movement away from the external and objective method discount and belittle the importance of the work of the reason and assert the supremacy of the life-impulse or the essential Will-to-be in opposition to the claims of the intellect or else affirm some deeper power of knowledge, called nowadays the intuition, which sees things in the whole, in their truth, in their profundities and harmonies while intellectual reason breaks up, falsifies, affirms superficial appearances and harmonises only by a mechanical adjustment..  But substantially we can see that what is meant by this intuition is the self-consciousness feeling, perceiving, grasping in its substance and aspects rather than analysing in its mechanism its own truth and nature and powers.  The whole impulse of subjectivism is to get at the self, to live in the self, to see by the self, to live out the truth of the self internally and externally, but always from an internal initiation and centre.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pp. 58-59

The Objective Viewpoint on Life and Living

The age of individualism, the development of Science,  and the industrial revolution have created a way of looking at life and the functioning of the world and man’s role within society that works to externalize that life and the reactions that arise from the individual.  The world is looked at as an object to be seen, analyzed, manipulated and controlled.  One can study the laws of action in the outer world, apply them and achieve success.

Sri Aurobindo describes the objective viewpoint:  “But objectivism proceeding by the analytical reason takes an external and mechanical view of the whole problem.  It looks at the world as a thing, an object, a process to be studied by an observing reason which places itself abstractly outside the elements and the sum of what it has to consider and observes it thus from outside as one would an intricate mechanism.  The laws of this process are considered as so many mechanical rules or settled forces acting upon the individual or the group which, when they have been observed and distinguished by the reason, have by one’s will or by some will to be organised and applied fully much as Science applies the laws it discovers.  These laws or rules have to be imposed on the individual by his own abstract reason and will isolated as a ruling authority from his other parts or by the reason and will of other individuals or of the group, and they have to be imposed on the group itself either by its own collective reason and will embodied in some machinery of control which the mind considers as something apart from the life of the group or by the reason and will of some other group external to it or of which it is in some way a part.  So the State is viewed in modern political thought as an entity in itself, as if it were something apart from the community and its individuals, something which has the right to impose itself on them and control them in the fulfilment of some idea of right, good or interest  which is inflicted on them by a restraining and fashioning power rather than developed in them and by them as a thing towards which their self and nature are impelled to grow.  Life is to be managed, harmonised, perfected by an adjustment, a manipulation, a machinery through which it is passed and by which it is shaped.  A law outside oneself, — outside even when it is discovered or determined by the individual reason and accepted or enforced by the individual will, —  this is the governing idea of objectivism; a mechanical process of management, ordering, perfection , this is its conception of practice.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pp. 57-58

A New Ideal of Human Universalism

The process of change does not occur overnight, and it generally occurs with a certain amount of back and forth straining as it works to overcome past habits and tendencies, while setting forth a new direction.  In many cases the process results from a perceived limitation or weakness in the existing status quo, and in others, it comes about when there are several conflicting principles trying to achieve domination or at least a working balance or harmony within the society.  We can trace the process through the changes from a social order that left the vast mass of humanity under the domination and control of a small and powerful elite, whether in a feudal society or some kind of autocratic rule, or some other mechanism of control.  Over time the status of the individual began to take on a more important role and there arose the concept of individual liberty which obviously conflicted with the status quo ante.  Later it became clear that an untrammeled individual freedom was unworkable, and a movement to integrate and partially subordinate the individual within the collectivity arose.  A similar dynamic occurred on the national and international level as nations wanted to exercise their independence while in many cases at the same time attempting to dominate other nations.  As the world became more complex, particularly with the rise of concern for resource allocation and use, pollution, climate change and the relation between disruption of a country’s internal integrity through war, slavery, exploitation, etc. and impacts on the global community, such as streams of refugees, warfare, terrorism, etc., a new paradigm became necessary.  The tension between liberty and cooperation gives rise to new ways of developing the relationship of the individual to the nation, and of the nation to the rest of the human family.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But behind this conflict between the idea of a nationalistic and imperialistic egoism and the old individualistic doctrine of individual and national liberty and separateness, there is striving to arise a new idea of human universalism or collectivism for the race which, if it succeeds in becoming a power, is likely to overcome the ideal of national separatism and liberty as it has overcome within the society itself the ideal of individual freedom and separate self-fulfilment.  This new idea demands of the nation that it shall subordinate, if not merge and sacrifice, its free separateness to the life of a larger collectivity, whether that of an imperialistic group or a continental or cultural unity, as in the idea of a united Europe, or the total united life of the human race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pg. 57

Scientific Truth Underlies Modern Collectivism

Darwin’s findings about the survival of the fittest, falsely adapted to human society in an extreme form of social darwinism, was not the only scientific finding that has impacted modern ideas about society.  An important aspect of Nature reveals the subordinate importance of the individual in relation to the survival and success of the group, which seems to have a higher level of importance in the natural world than any individual of a species.  Once again, taking one aspect of life to its extreme without the balance of other equally importance aspects, leads to inaccurate interpretation and extreme conclusions which have, in some cases, horrific implications.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “On the other hand, Science investigating life has equally discovered that not only is the individual life best secured and made efficient by association with others and subjection to a law of communal self-development rather than by aggressive self-affirmation, but that actually what Nature seeks to preserve is not the individual but the type and that in her scale of values the pack, herd, hive or swarm takes precedence over the individual animal or insect and the human group over the individual human being.  Therefore in the true law and nature of things the individual should live for all and constantly subordinate and sacrifice himself to the growth, efficiency and progress of the race rather than live for his own self-fulfilment and subordinate the race-life to his own needs.  Modern collectivism derives its victorious strength from the impression made upon human thought by this opposite aspect of modern knowledge.  We have seen how the German mind took up both these ideas and combined them on the basis of the present facts of human life; it affirmed the entire subordination of the individual to the community, nation or State; it affirmed, on the other hand, with equal force the egoistic self-assertion of the individual nation as against others or against any group or all the groups of nations which constitute the totality of the human race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pp. 56-57

Social Darwinism

It is a characteristic of the human mind that, when it seizes on an idea, it frequently tries to carry that idea to some ultimate conclusion by denying the validity of other ideas which would modify, or dilute, the impact of that idea.  As Darwin published his research on the origin of species and enunciated the principles of “survival of the fittest”, it is quite certain that he had no idea that his ideas would be applied in human society as some kind of validation for wanton use of violence, brute force, deception, and reckless actions to allow certain individuals to dominate the rest of society and inflict endless suffering and destruction on others to aggrandise themselves and their immediate adherents.  To reach such conclusions one would have to disregard other findings of Science that would show that cooperation, balance and harmony yield better results for everyone (and for the planet and its environment) than untrammeled egoistic and aggressive “dog eat dog” tactics espoused by the social darwinists who extracted their theories from Darwin’s published research on animal evolution.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Science investigating life discovered that the root nature of all living is a struggle to take the best advantage of the environment for self-preservation, self-fulfilment, self-aggrandisement.  Human thought seizing in its usual arbitrary and trenchant fashion upon this aspect of modern knowledge has founded on it theories of a novel kind which erect into a gospel the right for each to live his own life not merely by utilising others, but even at the expense of others.  The first object of life in this view is for the individual to survive as long as he may, to become strong, efficient, powerful, to dominate his environment and his fellows and to raise himself on this strenuous and egoistic line to his full stature of capacity and reap his full measure of enjoyment.  Philosophies like Nietzsche’s, certain forms of Anarchism, — not the idealistic Anarchism of the thinker which is rather the old individualism of the ideal reason carried to its logical conclusion, — certain forms too of Imperialism have been largely influenced and strengthened by this type of ideas, though not actually created by them.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pg. 56

Liberty and Responsibility for Individuals and Nations

We have experienced, and continue to experience, the implications of an age of individualism.  Prominent thinkers and political philosophers of the 18th century enunciated the philosophy of individual liberty, whereby each individual had an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (as the American Declaration of Independence declared).  The idea of individual freedom led to the concept that the individual had the right to do as he pleased, but of course, this right could not be untrammeled because at some point, an individual’s “freedom” would begin to interfere with another individual’s “freedom”.  Thus there developed a body of social or civil law within the society to govern how this freedom was to be interpreted in relation to the needs of others and the society as a whole.  The idea of the responsibility of the individual in society was thereby defined in relation to the idea of liberty.  Similarly, when applied to the relations of nations, there developed a concept of freedom and a concept of responsibility to be governed by international law, although in practice neither the individuals in the society, nor the nations in the international community have yet adapted themselves to this dual principle of freedom and responsibility, to the idea that each individual, and each nation, has equal rights and should therefore have its freedom respected by others on the basis of equality.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The  principle of individualism is the liberty of the human being regarded as a separate existence to develop himself and fulfil his life, satisfy his mental tendencies, emotional and vital needs, and physical being according to his own desire governed by his reason; it admits no other limit to this right and this liberty except the obligation to respect the same individual liberty and right in others.  The balance of this liberty and this obligation is the principle which the individualistic age adopted in its remodelling of society;  it adopted in effect a harmony of compromises between rights and duties, liberty and law, permissions and restraints as the scheme both of the personal life and the life of the society.  …  In this idea of life, as with the individual, so with the nation, each has the inherent right to manage its own affairs freely or, if it wills, to mismanage them freely and not to be interfered with in its rights and liberties so long as it does not interfere with the rights and liberties of other nations.  As a matter of fact, the egoism of individual and nation does not wish to abide within these bounds; therefore the social law of the nation has been called in to enforce the violated principle as between man and man and it has been sought to develop international law in the same way and with the same object.”

Powerful nations have however worked to subvert the rule of equality in international relations and thus, international law has not yet been made a wholly effective tool in managing affairs between nations.  We begin to see the real limitations of the individualistic idea as we become more aware of the way the actions of individuals and nations impact the entire world, through environmental destruction, resource depletion and massive suffering brought about through the egoistic aggrandisement of individuals and of nations at the expense of all other values on the planet.  These issues are becoming more prominent and are driving humanity towards new solutions and the passing of the age of individualism.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pp. 55-56

The Root of the German Error

Our analysis of the rise of German subjectivism and the implications and impacts of the errors made in this development during the early 20th century has shown us the horrific potential consequences of a new evolutionary process when it has not fully appreciate and understood both the purpose and the potential dangers of any misapplication.  In the case of Germany both the internal situation, with the control of the citizenry, the subjection of numerous citizens to arrest, deportation, forced labor or even execution, and the external situation, with the rise or German militarism and its attempt to achieve domination over the world, were due to the misunderstanding of the true role of the individual and the nation in relation to other individuals and other nations.  Evolution is intended to liberate and increase the potential of the individual’s growth, not suppress it in the name of efficiency and organisational process in the society.  Similarly, the unique role and contribution of each nation is not intended to destroy or suppress the other national groupings and their unique contributions to human civilisation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But the whole root of the German error lies in its mistaking life and the body for the self.  It has been said that this gospel is simply a reversion to the ancient barbarism of the religion of Odin; but this is not the truth.  It is a new and modern gospel born of the application of a metaphysical logic to the conclusions of materialistic Science, of a philosophic subjectivism to the objective pragmatic positivism of recent thought.  Just as Germany applied the individualistic position to the realisation of her communal subjective existence, so she applied the materialistic and vitalistic thought of recent times and equipped it with a subjective philosophy.  Thus she arrived at a bastard creed, an objective subjectivism which is miles apart from the true goal of a subjective age.  To show the error it is necessary to see wherein lies the true individuality of man and of the nation.  It lies not in its physical, economic, even its cultural life which are only means and adjuncts, but in something deeper whose roots are not in the ego, but in a Self one in difference which relates the good of each, on a footing of equality and not of strife and domination, to the good of the rest of the world.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 5, True and False Subjectivism, pp. 53-54

“Karma Is Not a Jest”

We may try to pretend, and rationalize, the German approach witnessed in the 20th Century and its impacts, both internally and externally, as something that is confined to Germany somehow and that the rest of humanity did not share responsibility for what occurred.  This however would be a false reading of history and thus, a misleading conclusion to draw from the experience.  The Germans, with their systematic and logical minds, took the concepts that underpinned their actions to extremes, but they did not invent these ideas.  They have shown us the falsity of these ideas in the very attempt to carry them out with a completeness and finality that was not easily visible to us previously.  Witness the genocidal actions of the Americans towards the First Nations people of the North American continent, the “smallpox blankets”, the decimation of the buffalo, and the driving of the First Nations’ people along a “trail of tears” to desolate and barren lands so that the Americans could fulfill their “manifest destiny”.  Witness the harsh subjugation of India by the British, or the use of opium to try to subjugate the Chinese by these same British empire-builders, or the Christian Crusades into the Middle East and the torture, rape and pillage that occurred as elements of those crusades, and the European/American exploitation of resources and the slave trade and its horrific impact on Africa and Africans as just a few examples in history that show the Germans were not a unique case without precedents.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The theory of inferior and decadent races was loudly proclaimed by other than German thinkers and has governed, with whatever assuaging scruples, the general practice of military domination and commercial exploitation of the weak by the strong;  all that Germany has done is to attempt to give it a wider extension and more rigorous execution and apply it to European as well as to Asiatic and African peoples.  Even the severity or brutality of her military methods or of her ways of colonial or internal political repression, taken at their worst, … was only a crystallising of certain recent tendencies towards the revival of ancient and mediaeval hardheartedness in the race.  The use and even the justification of massacre and atrocious cruelty in war on the ground of military exigency and in the course of commercial exploitation or in the repression of revolt and disorder has been quite recently witnessed in the other continents, to say nothing of certain outskirts of Europe.  From one point of view, it is well that terrible examples of the utmost logic of these things should be prominently forced on the attention of mankind; for by showing the evil stripped of all veils the choice between good and evil instead of a halting between the two will be forced on the human conscience.  Woe to the race if it blinds its conscience and buttresses up its animal egoism with the old justifications; for the gods have shown that Karma is not a jest.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 5, True and False Subjectivism, pg. 53

The Internal and the External Implications of the German Experiment of the 20th Century

Sri Aurobindo analyzes the implementation of the ideas that Germany accepted during the early 20th Century by looking at their implications both internally in the form they took within the nation and with respect to the citizenry, and externally in the form that the German State took in its view of international relations with other States and Nations of the world, and the impact of those ideas on the other nations in their view of relations..  There was a clear shift away from any concept of individual fulfillment taking precedence as the idea arose that the individual was to be valued for his ability to contribute to the progress and greatness of the nation.  Similarly, the idea of military domination over others who were less competent or capable or advanced clearly gained ascendancy in the post-war period following World War I.  To be sure, such ideas of control by conquest or domination was not new to the Germans, as history evidenced attempts at empire-building in the past a number of times; yet it was with a certain moral sense of superiority and their leading role in human evolution that the German experiment proceeded, while former empire-building appears to have been more or less based on vital and material aspects to enhance the conqueror and provide access to goods, labor, services, and markets.  The strength of the ideas underlying the German experiment led to a “battle of ideas” on the world stage, which appears to show the development of these ideas throughout the world even after the war was lost by Germany.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The unsparing compulsion as against the assistance of the individual by the State — for his and the common good, of course, but who professes to compel for harm? — is almost everywhere either dominant or else growing into a strong and prevailing current of opinion; the champions of individual freedom are now a morally defeated and dwindling army who can only fight on in the hope of a future reaction or of saving something of their principle from the wreck.  On the external side, the international, the battle of ideas still goes on, but there were from the beginning ominous signs; and now after the physical war with its first psychological results is well over, we are already able to see in which direction the tide is likely to flow.  War is a dangerous teacher and physical victory leads often to a moral defeat.  Germany, defeated in the war, has won in the after war; the German gospel rearisen in a sterner and fiercer avatar threatens to sweep over all Europe.”

In actuality, Sri Aurobindo’s prediction became all too true with the rise of the Third Reich and the cataclysm of the Second World War.  If we stretch out further we can also see that the subordination of the individual to the needs of the State, and the regimentation of the citizenry for the increased power and efficiency of the State seems to have become a dominant theme even among the erstwhile opponents of Germany in that second war, with both internal and external impacts aligned with the ideas espoused by Germany in its initiation of the experiment of the 20th Century.


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 5, True and False Subjectivism, pg. 52

Understanding the Dynamics of a Society’s Adoption of an Ideology in the Development of Human Evolution

It is easy, and quite usual, to try to blame an entire people for attitudes and the conceptual framework that leads to catastrophic events.  It may be useful to appreciate several concepts from the field of sociology to recognise that it is neither necessary, nor common, for an entire people to consciously hold specific ideas, such as the extreme views we have been reviewing, for the society to take the course that in fact has been witnessed by the history of the 20th century.  In their book The Social Construction of Reality, sociologists Berger and Luckman show how a society internalises certain concepts and norms without necessarily taking them up as a conscious thought-process.  Sociology also refers to the development of key a minority of  “opinion leaders” who take up an idea, focus its force, and drive it into the social body, gaining the acquiescence, either through active general agreement, or through passive acceptance, of a body of people within the society, at least sufficient to bring the idea into an active form.  With this background we can take up Sri Aurobindo’s explanation of the situation in 20th Century Germany and the extreme lengths to which they brought the concepts of human evolution in society and the need, in the minds of those leading the movement, to subordinate, eliminate or enslave those racial groups not capable (in their minds) of achieving the heights of human development.

“We need not suppose that all Germany thought in this strenuous fashion, as it was too long represented, or that the majority thought thus consciously; but it is sufficient that an energetic minority of thinkers and strong personalities should seize upon the national life and impress certain tendencies upon it for these to prevail practically or at the least to give a general trend subconsciously even where the thought itself is not actually proposed in the conscious mind.  And the actual events of the present hour seem to show that it was this gospel that partly consciously, partly subconsciously or half articulately had taken possession of the collective German mind.  It is easy to deride the rigidity of this terrible logic or riddle it with the ideas and truths it has ignored, and it is still easier to abhor, fear, hate and spew at it while practically following its principles in our own action with less openness, thoroughness and courage.  But it is more profitable to begin by seeing that behind it there was and is a tremendous sincerity which is the secret of its force, and a sort of perverse honesty in its errors; the sincerity which tries to look straight at one’s own conduct and the facts of life and the honesty to proclaim the real principles of that conduct and not — except as an occasional diplomacy — profess others with the lips while disregarding them in the practice.  And if this ideal is to be defeated not merely for a time in the battle-field and in the collective person of the nation or nations professing it, as happened abortively in the War, but in the mind of man and in the life of the human race, an equal sincerity and a less perverse honesty has to be practiced by those who have arrived at a better law.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 5, True and False Subjectivism, pp. 51-52