The Vital Barbarism of an Age of Industry and Commerce

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, a seeker undertakes concentration in order to understand the nature of the Self.  He first determines that Matter is the Self, but after further concentration, he recognizes the Life-Energy as the Self.  As he continues his practice, he eventually moves to yet higher levels of realisation.  The point here, however, as it relates to the cycles of human civilisation, is that humanity first experiences the material well-being and the physical body as its focus and this brings about the material barbarism previously discussed.  As humanity continues to evolve and grow, however, it then moves to a form of vital barbarism, wherein its focus is on the expression and fulfillment of desire, and this brings the drive for the accumulation of wealth, and the ostentation that comes with vast wealth.  This is the phase that humanity has been going through since the industrial revolution and which has been supported and accentuated by the rise of Science, that “wish-fulfilling gem” of the modern age, with its wonders and powers of manifestation of vital fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This economic barbarism is essentially that of the vital man who mistakes the vital being for the self and accepts its satisfaction as the first aim of life.  The characteristic of Life is desire and the instinct of possession.  Just as the physical barbarian makes the excellence of the body and the development of physical force, health and prowess his standard and aim, so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim.  His ideal man is not the cultured or noble or thoughtful or moral or religious, but the successful man.  To arrive, to succeed, to produce, to accumulate, to possess is his existence.  The accumulation of wealth and more wealth, the adding of possessions to possessions, opulence, show, pleasure, a cumbrous inartistic luxury, a plethora of conveniences, life devoid of beauty and nobility, religion vulgarised or coldly formalised, politics and government turned into a trade and profession, enjoyment itself made a business, this is commercialism.  To the natural unredeemed economic man beauty is a thing otiose or a nuisance, art and poetry a frivolity or an ostentation and a means of advertisement.  His idea of civilisation is comfort, his idea of morals social respectability, his idea of politics the encouragement of industry, the opening of markets, exploitation and trade following the flag, his idea of religion at best a pietistic formalism or the satisfaction of certain vitalistic emotions.  He values education for its utility in fitting a man for success in a competitive or, it may be, a socialised industrial existence, science for the useful inventions and knowledge, the comforts, conveniences, machinery of production with which it arms him, its power for organisation, regulation, stimulus to production.  The opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organiser of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if often occult rulers of its society.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 79-80