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

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