The Opposition Between the Ethical and the Aesthetic in Human Development

One of the real issues facing humanity stems from natural differences of temperament that each represent a serious aspect of human development.  These two appear to be at odds with one another, and they seem to work at cross purposes, such that we can see large segments of humanity divide along the fault lines of these temperamental differences.  The one side represents the side of mental development that focuses on right living, and develops ethics, law and moral codes as its natural consequence.  The other side represents the side of mental development that focuses on the development, appreciation and creation of beauty and delight.  This artistic temperament frequently finds the rules and laws enacted by the ethical temperament to be unduly restrictive and feels they depress the growth and enhancement of that beauty and delight which is the object of their seeking.  Each of these temperaments appears to be part of the natural human capacity, and humanity continues to focus on one, then the other, without as yet having found a solution that can integrate them both into one harmonious whole.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The aesthetic man tends to be impatient of the ethical rule; he feels it to be a barrier to his aesthetic freedom and an oppression on the play of his artistic sense and his artistic faculty; he is naturally hedonistic, — for beauty and delight are inseparable powers, — and the ethical rule tramples on pleasure, even very often on quite innocent pleasures, and tries to put a strait waistcoat on the human impulse to delight.  He may accept the ethical rule when it makes itself beautiful or even seize on it as one of this instruments for creating beauty, but only when he can subordinate it to the aesthetic principle of his nature, — just as he is often drawn to religion by its side of beauty, pomp, magnificent ritual, emotional satisfaction, repose or poetic ideality and aspiration, — we might almost say, by the hedonistic aspect of religion.  Even when fully accepted, it is not for their own sake that he accepts them.  The ethical man repays this natural repulsion with interest.  He tends to distrust art and the aesthetic sense as something lax and emollient, something in its nature undisciplined and by its attractive appeals to the passions and emotions destructive of a high and strict self-control.  He sees that it is hedonistic and he finds that the hedonistic impulse is non-moral and often immoral.  It is difficult for him to see how the indulgence of the aesthetic impulse beyond a very narrow and carefully guarded limit can be combined with a strict ethical life.  He evolves the puritan who objects to pleasure on principle; not only in his extremes — and a predominant impulse tends to become absorbing and leads towards extremes — but in the core of his temperament he remains fundamentally the puritan.  The misunderstanding between these two sides of our nature is an inevitable circumstance of our human growth which must try them to their fullest separate possibilities and experiment in extremes in order that it may understand the whole range of its capacities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 95-96


A Positive and Inclusive Definition of the Concept of Culture

The tendency of the human mind to analyze and categorize comes into play when we look at the question of what constitutes culture for the developed minds of humanity.  This becomes a debate of “either/or” when it should be a more inclusive formulation of “both/and”, which however, has not been the historical pattern of humanity when confronted with complex issues.  Sri Aurobindo illustrates the need for an inclusive view while examining two specific cultures, the ancient Hebrew, and the ancient Hellenic, to illustrate their widely different approaches to the concept we define as “culture”.

“The opposition which puts on one side the pursuit of ideas and knowledge and beauty and calls that culture and on the other the pursuit of character and conduct and exalts that as the moral life must start evidently from an imperfect view of human possibility and perfection.  Yet that opposition has not only existed, but is a naturally strong tendency of the human mind and therefore must answer some real and important divergence in the very composite elements of our being.  It is the opposition which Arnold drew between Hebraism and Hellenism.  The trend of the Jewish nation which gave us the severe ethical religion of the Old Testament, — crude, conventional and barbarous enough in the Mosaic law, but rising to undeniable heights of moral exaltation when to the Law were added the Prophets, and finally exceeding itself and blossoming into a fine flower of spirituality in Judaic Christianity, — was dominated by the preoccupation of a terrestrial and ethical righteousness and the promised rewards of right worship and right doing, but innocent of science and philosophy, careless of knowledge, indifferent to beauty.  The Hellenic mind was less exclusively but still largely dominated by a love of the play of reason for its own sake, but even more powerfully for a high sense of beauty, a clear aesthetic sensibility and a worship of the beautiful in every activity, in every creation, in thought, in art, in life, in religion.  So strong was this sense that not only manners, but ethics were seen by it to a very remarkable extend in the light of its master idea of beauty; the good was to its instinct largely the becoming and the beautiful.  In philosophy itself it succeeded in arriving at the conception of the Divine as Beauty, a truth which the metaphysician very readily misses and impoverishes his thought by missing it.  But still, striking as is this great historical contrast and powerful as were its results on European culture, we have to go beyond its outward manifestation if we would understand in its source this psychological opposition.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 94-95

The Ideal of a True Culture and Beginning of an Accomplished Humanity

The development of the practical intelligence that can respond to impressions and can carry out the conventional patterns of the society is an intermediate step through which humanity passes as it develops beyond the instinctive behavior of the animal and begins to flex the mental capacities of which it is eventually capable.  The mind so organized is hemmed in on all sides and does not have a truly free and open intellectual activity.  Opinion, custom, prejudice, convention all act to circumscribe the intelligence within a narrow range.  Sri Aurobindo likens this to an imprisonment and asserts that this is just a stage which must eventually be overcome to achieve the true and destined realizations of a liberated humanity:

“In the range of the mind’s life itself, to live in its merely practical and dynamic activity or in the mentalised emotional or sensational current, a life of conventional conduct, average feelings, customary ideas, opinions and prejudices which are not one’s own but those of the environment, to have no free and open play of mind, but to live grossly and unthinkingly by the unintelligent rule of the many, to live besides according to the senses and sensations controlled by certain conventions, but neither purified nor enlightened nor chastened by any law of beauty, — all this too is contrary to the ideal of culture.  A man may so live with all the appearance or all the pretensions of a civilised existence, enjoy successfully all the plethora of its appurtenances, but he is not in the real sense a developed human being.  A society following such a rule of life may be anything else you will, vigorous, decent, well-ordered, successful, religious, moral; but it is a Philistine society; it is a prison which the human soul has to break.”

“Not to live principally in the activities of the sense-mind, but in the activities of knowledge and reason and a wide intellectual curiosity, the activities of the cultivated aesthetic being, the activities of the enlightened will which make for character and high ethical ideals and a large human action, not to be governed by our lower or our average mentality but by truth and beauty and the self-ruling will is the ideal of a true culture and the beginning of an accomplished humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 93-94

Exploring the Meaning of the Concept of Culture in a Society

When we evaluate a society, one of the factors we try to determine is the level of culture to which that society has attained.  A society can be highly developed technologically, industrially, economically or politically, and yet, based on the sense we have that culture relates to the higher developments of the human capacities as evolved through the mind or even higher capacities, we may find it deficient in terms of cultural advancement.

Sri Aurobindo begins to define precisely what is meant by culture, by first describing what is not meant by the term:  “The unmental, the purely physical life is very obviously its opposite, it is barbarism; the unintellectualised vital, the crude economic or the grossly domestic life which looks only to money-getting, the procreation of a family and its maintenance, are equally its opposites; they are another and even uglier barbarism.  We agree to regard the individual who is dominated by them and has no thought of higher things as an uncultured and undeveloped human being, a prolongation of the savage, essentially a barbarian even if he lives in a civilised nation and in a society which has arrived at the general idea and at some ordered practice of culture and refinement.  The societies or nations which bear this stamp we agree to call barbarous or semi-barbarous.  Even when a nation or an age has developed within itself knowledge and science arts, but still in its general outlook, its habits of life and thought is content to be governed not by knowledge and truth and beauty and high ideals of living, but by the gross vital, commercial, economic view of existence, we say that that nation or age may be civilised in a sense, but for all its abundant or even redundant appliances and apparatus of civilisation it is not the realisation or the promise of a cultured humanity.  Therefore upon even the European civilisation of the nineteenth century with all its triumphant and teeming production, its great developments of science, its achievement in the works of the intellect we pass a certain condemnation, because it has turned all these things to commercialism and to gross uses of vitalistic success.  We say of it that this was not the perfection to which humanity ought to aspire and that this trend travels away from and not towards the higher curve of human evolution.  It must be our definite verdict upon it that it was inferior as an age of culture to ancient Athens, to Italy of the Renascence, to ancient or classical India.  For great as might be the deficiencies of social organisation in those eras and though their range of scientific knowledge and material achievement was immensely inferior, yet they were more advanced in the art of life, knew better its object and aimed more powerfully at some clear ideal of human perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 92-93

The Democratization of Culture and the Long-Term Impacts of This Change

Throughout most of history, civilisation has been bifurcated between those who possessed strong intellectual capacity, whether expressed in the logical action of the Reason, the intelligent will, or through the development of art, music and culture with the refinement that comes from a true mental culture, and those who had very little opportunity to exercise and develop their intellectual capacities, who carried out the tasks of society, but did not participate in the higher life of the intellect or any cultural efflorescence.  With the advent of the printing press, the publishing of books in the common languages, the movement towards universal education and the development of society to require a certain amount of training of the intellect, we have seen a broadening of the influence of the mental capacity, although for the most part, it has not resulted in a deepening or heightening of these powers, but in a shallow and wide veneer of intellect covering over the still dominant physical and vital impulses that have ruled human society.

Sri Aurobindo describes the situation:  “The first results of this momentous change have been inspiriting to our desire of movement, but a little disconcerting to the thinker and to the lover of a high and fine culture; for if it has to some extent democratised culture or the semblance of culture, it does not seem at first sight to have elevated or strengthened it by this large accession of the half-redeemed from below.  Nor does the world seem to be guided any more directly by the reason and intelligent will of her best minds than before.  Commercialism is still the heart of modern civilisation; a sensational activism is still its driving force.  Modern education has not in the mass redeemed the sensational man; it has only made necessary to him things to which he was not formerly accustomed, mental activity and occupations, intellectual and even aesthetic sensations, emotions of idealism.  He still lives in the vital substratum, but he wants it stimulated from above.  …  It is still the activism and sensationalism of the crude mental being, but much more open and free.  And the cultured, the intelligentsia find that they can get a hearing from him such as they never had from the pure Philistine, provided they can first stimulate or amuse him; their ideas have now a chance of getting executed such as they never had before.  The result has been to cheapen thought and art and literature, to make talent and even genius run in the grooves of popular success, to put the writer and thinker and scientist very much in a position like that of the cultured Greek slave in a Roman household where he has to work for, please, amuse and instruct his master while keeping a careful eye on his tastes and preferences and repeating trickily the manner and the points that have caught his fancy.  The higher mental life, in a word, has been democratised, sensationalised, activised with both good and bad results.  Through it all the eye of faith can see perhaps that a yet crude but an enormous change has begun.  Thought and Knowledge, if not yet Beauty, can get a hearing and even produce rapidly some large, vague, yet in the end effective will for their results, the mass of culture and of men who think and strive seriously to appreciate an to know has enormously increased behind all this surface veil of sensationalism, and even the sensational man has begun to undergo a process of transformation.  Especially, new methods of education, new principles of society are beginning to come into the range of practical possibility which will create perhaps one day that as yet unknown phenomenon, a race of men — not only a class — who have to some extent found and developed their mental selves, a cultured humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 90-91

Treading Slowly on the Path from Barbarism to Civilisation

The modern world is attempting, to some degree successfully, to move beyond the exclusive concentration on the physical and vital wants and needs to now incorporate at least a modicum of cultural development of the mind.  For the vast mass of humanity, imperfectly educated, and still very much concerned with the issues of physical life and survival, this represents an influence and an appreciation of some amount of cultural development.  Yet, there is still lacking a truly free and independent development of the reason and the intelligent will as we may see developed in the relatively small number of people, throughout the world, who have achieved serious growth and expression of the higher powers of the mind.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Philistine is not dead, — quite the contrary, he abounds, — but he no longer reigns.  The sons of Culture have not exactly conquered, but they have got rid of the old Goliath and replaced him by a new giant.  This is the sensational man who has got awakened to the necessity at least of some intelligent use of the higher faculties and is trying to be mentally active.  He has been whipped and censured and educated into that activity and he lives besides in a maelstrom of new information, new intellectual fashions, new ideas and new movements to which he can no longer be obstinately impervious.  He is open to new ideas, he can catch at them and hurl them about in a rather confused fashion; he can understand or misunderstand ideals, organise to get them carried out and even, it would appear, fight and die for them.  He knows he has to think about ethical problems, social problems, problems of science and religion, to welcome new political developments, to look with as understanding an eye as he can attain to at all the new movements of thought and inquiry and action that chase each other across the modern field or clash upon it.  …  he has perhaps no very clear ideas about beauty and aesthetics, but he has heard that Art is a not altogether unimportant part of life. …  He is the great reading public; the newspapers and weekly and monthly reviews are his; fiction and poetry and art are his mental caterers, the theatre and the cinema and the radio exist for him.  Science hastens to bring her knowledge and discoveries to his doors and equip his life with endless machinery; politics are shaped in his image.  It is he who opposed and then brought about the enfranchisement of women, who has been evolving syndicalism, anarchism, the war of classes, the uprising of labour, waging what we are told are wars of ideas or of cultures, — a ferocious type of conflict made in the very image of this new barbarism, — or bringing about in a few days Russian revolutions which the century-long efforts and sufferings of the intelligentsia failed to achieve.  It is his coming which has been the precipitative agent fort the reshaping of the modern world.  If a Lenin, a Mussolini, a Hitler have achieved their rapid and almost stupefying success, it was because this driving force, this responsive quick-acting mass was there to carry them to victory — a force lacking to their less fortunate predecessors.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 89-90

A Picture of the Modern Civilised Barbarian

Sri Aurobindo defines civilisation as consisting of true mental culture, in contradistinction to what he terms “barbarian” as living primarily in the physical, vital and lowest levels of the mental development.  With this definition, he then proceeds to point out that just living or surviving in the framework of a modern, technologically advanced society does not make an individual “civilised”; rather, many individuals would qualify as only partly civilised or even, represent a form of “modern civilised barbarian”.

Sri Aurobindo describes the qualities that represent such a civilised barbarian:  “The last generation drew emphatically the distinction between the cultured man and the Philistine and got a fairly clear idea of what was meant by it.  Roughly, the Philistine was for them the man who lives outwardly the civilised life, possesses all its paraphernalia, has and mouths the current stock of opinions, prejudices, conventions, sentiments, but is impervious to ideas, exercises no free intelligence, is innocent of beauty and art, vulgarises everything that he touches, religion, ethics, literature, life.  The Philistine is in fact the modern civilised barbarian; he is often the half-civilised physical and vital barbarian by his unintelligent attachment to the life of the body, the life of the vital needs and impulses and the ideal of the merely domestic and economic human animal; but essentially and commonly he is the mental barbarian, the average sensational man.  That is to say, his mental life is that of the lower substratum of the mind, the life of the senses, the life of the sensations, the life of the emotions, the life of practical conduct — the first status of the mental being.  In all these he may be very active, very vigorous, but he does not govern them by a higher light or seek to uplift them to a freer and nobler eminence; rather he pulls the higher faculties down to the level of his senses, his sensations, his unenlightened and unchastened emotions, his gross utilitarian practicality.  His aesthetic side is little developed; either he cares nothing for beauty or has the crudest aesthetic tastes which help to lower and vulgarise the general standard of aesthetic creation and the aesthetic sense.  He is often strong about morals, far more particular usually about moral conduct than the man of culture, but his moral being is as crude and undeveloped as the rest of him; it is conventional, unchastened, unintelligent, a mass of likes and dislikes, prejudices and current opinions, attachment to social conventions and respectabilities and an obscure dislike — rooted in the mind of sensations and not in the intelligence — of any open defiance or departure from the generally accepted standard of conduct.  His ethical bent is a habit of the sense-mind; it is the morality of the average sensational man.  He has a reason and the appearance of an intelligent will, but they are not his own, they are part of the group-mind, received from his environment; or so far as they are his own, merely a practical, sensational, emotional reason and will, a mechanical repetition of habitual notions and rules of conduct, not a play of real thought and intelligent determination.  His use of them no more makes him a developed mental being than the daily movement to and from his place of business makes the average Londoner a developed physical being or his quotidian contributions to the economic life of the country make the bank-clerk a developed economic man.  He is not mentally active, but mentally reactive, — a very different matter.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 87-89

The Concept of Civilisation Redefined

The usual understanding of the concept of civilisation involves a complex society with an organized structure, generally a hierarchy of some sort with a division of labor and some methodology for portioning out the fruits of the societal structure to its members.  There are generally codes of behavior and enforcement mechanisms.   The European/American model, with its focus on gaining ascendancy through technology and economic and military might, has proclaimed itself as the highest developed civilisation in the world, although Western society does recognize that the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India, China, Japan, and Persia, as well as the Greek and Roman Empires, represented developed civilisations.  They tend to minimize the civilisations of peoples they have subjugated, or which have not taken the same turn of mechanical, economic, military and technical development or the creation of a dominating power structure.

Sri Aurobindo, however, looks at civilisation from a totally different perspective.  He looks at the development of the mental culture as the hallmark of civilisation, while those societies that have focused primarily on the satisfaction of physical and vital needs could be considered barbaric.  Even civilised cultures in today’s world can only claim, by this definition, a partially civilised culture, as there remain strong elements of barbarism in the most highly developed of the modern-day powers in the world.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…barbarism is the state of society in which man is almost entirely preoccupied with his life and body, his economic and physical existence, — at first with their sufficient maintenance, not as yet their greater or richer well-being, — and has few means and little inclination to develop his mentality, while civilisation is the more evolved state of society in which to a sufficient social and economic organisation is added the activity of the mental life in most if not all of its parts; for sometimes some of these parts are left aside or discouraged or temporarily atrophied by their inactivity, yet the society may be very obviously civilised and even highly civilised.  This conception will bring in all the civilisations historic and prehistoric and put aside all the barbarism, whether of Africa or Europe or Asia, Hun or Goth or Vandal or Turcoman.  It is obvious that in a state of barbarism the rude beginnings of civilisation may exist; it is obvious too that in a civilised society a great mass of barbarism or numerous relics of it may exists.  In that sense all societies are semi-civilised.  How much of our present-day civilisation will be looked back upon with wonder and disgust by a more developed humanity as the superstitions and atrocities of an imperfectly civilised era!  But the main point is this that in any society which we can call civilised the mentality of man must be active, the mental pursuits developed and the regulation and improvement of his life by the mental being a clearly self-conscious concept in his better mind.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 86-87

Issues Arising from the Complexity of the Mental Nature

The human mind is subject to considerable contradiction, confusion and internal opposition due to various aspects of the being each serving up their demands or desire to be met, needs to be addressed, or insights and ideas to be adopted and implemented.  Despite the tangle that this creates for any individual, there are certain broad principles or concepts which rule even the contradictions in detail.  These overarching ideas are based on the way the human mind works; whichever side of an issue the mind accepts in a particular circumstance, it is governed generally by the framework thus imposed.

Sri Aurobindo describes this in detail:  “All the hostile distinctions, oppositions, antagonisms, struggles, conversions, reversions, perversions of his mentality, all the chaotic war of ideas and impulses and tendencies which perplex his efforts, have arisen from the natural misunderstandings and conflicting claims of his many members.  His reason is a judge who gives conflicting verdicts and is bribed and influenced by the suitors; his intelligent will is an administrator harassed by the conflicts of the different estates of his realm and by the sense of his own partiality and final incompetence.  Still in the midst of it all he has formed certain large ideas of culture and the mental life, and his conflicting notions about them follow certain definite lines determined by the divisions of his nature and shaped into a general system of curves by his many attempts to arrive either at an exclusive standard or an integral harmony.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 85-86

A Higher Aspect of Consciousness Can Act in the Human Intellect

Throughout the world, and through history, we have evidence of a different state of awareness than the normal mental consciousness that provides a self-evident form of authenticity and illumination.  The experience of this state of consciousness makes itself known through a sense of rightness in the awareness, a special feeling of connectedness and a sense of light informing the mentality.  Religious and spiritual traditions treat this as an experience to be sought and brought into constant action within the being.

Sri Aurobindo describes the action of this power of consciousness on the human being:  “But the intelligence of man is not composed entirely and exclusively of the rational intellect and the rational will; there enters into it a deeper, more intuitive, more splendid and powerful, but much less clear, much less developed and as yet hardly at all self-possessing light and force for which we have not even a name.  But, at any rate, its character is to drive at a kind of illumination, — not the dry light of the reason, nor the moist and suffused light of the heart, but a lightning and a solar splendour.  It may indeed subordinate itself and merely help the reason and heart with its flashes; but there is another urge in it, its natural urge, which exceeds the reason.  It tries to illuminate the intellectual being, to illuminate the ethical and aesthetic, to illuminate the emotional and the active, to illuminate even the senses and the sensations.  It offers in words of revelation, it unveils as if by lightning flashes, it shows in a sort of mystic or psychic glamour or brings out into a settled but for mental man almost a supernatural light a Truth greater and truer than the knowledge given by Reason and Science, a Right larger and more divine than the moralist’s scheme of virtues, a Beauty more profound, universal and entrancing than the sensuous or imaginative beauty  worshipped by the artist, a joy and divine sensibility which leaves the ordinary emotions poor and pallid, a Sense beyond the senses and sensations, the possibility of a diviner Life and action which man’s ordinary conduct of life hides away from his impulses and from his vision.  Very various, very fragmentary, often very confused and misleading are its effects upon all the lower members from the reason downward, but this in the end is what it is driving at in the midst of a hundred deformations.  It is caught and killed or at least diminished and stifled in formal creeds and pious observances; it is unmercifully traded in and turned into poor and base coin by the vulgarity of conventional religions; but it is still the light of which the religious spirit and the spirituality of man is in pursuit and some pale glow of it lingers even in their worst degradations.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 84-85