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

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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

The Complex Nature of the Mental Action of the Human Being

The mental activity of man is generally identified with the action of thought and the realms of logic, science, philosophy, ethics and art.  This view, however, unduly restricts our understanding of the range and nature of the mental action, which develops from the first stirrings of mind as it emerges from the purely vital reactions of the life-force, and which then moves into a space of analysis, insight and planned action upon the material life we lead, and eventually can inhabit a stratosphere where the mind is grappling with purely conceptual notions.  Even here, we can see that there are realms beyond those of mental conceptualisation where the mind can taken on the powers of an intelligent will, and beyond that, there is the higher range of conscious existence, or as Sri Aurobindo terms it, consciousness-will, chit-shakti.  

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…our mental existence is a very complex matter and is made up of many elements.  First, we have its lower and fundamental stratum, which is in the scale of evolution nearest to the vital.  And we have in that stratum two sides, the mental life of the senses, sensations and emotions in which the subjective purpose of Nature predominates although with the objective as its occasion, and the active or dynamic life of the mental being concerned with the organs of action and the field of conduct in which her objective purpose predominates although with the subjective as its occasion.  We have next in the scale, more sublimated, on one side the moral being and its ethical life, on the other the aesthetic; each of them attempts to possess and dominate the fundamental mind stratum and turn its experiences and activities to its own benefit, one for the culture and worship of Right, the other for the culture and worship of Beauty.  And we have, above all these, taking advantage of them, helping, forming, trying often to govern them entirely, the intellectual being.  Man’s highest accomplished range is the life of the reason or ordered and harmonised intelligence with its dynamic power of intelligent will, the buddhi, which is or should be the driver of man’s chariot.”

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

Appreciating and Integrating the Higher Purposes of Human Existence

Much of human life is focused on the material and vital aspects of living, so it becomes easy for some people to accept an idea that holds that humanity exists only to enjoy our physical existence, and that self-aggrandisement, the fulfillment of desire, and the seeking to meet physical wants and needs is what life is all about.  Yet, we can see that there is another aspect of human existence, one that addresses values other than the strictly material, including the fields of art, science, philosophy, religion, morality and ethics, and harmonious relationships of balance with others and within the framework of Nature.  This aspect relies on the development of the true mental capacities of which humanity is capable, and it shows us that life is not solely restricted to the seeking of comfort and satiation on the physical and vital levels.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “To be is for him not merely to be born, grow up, marry, get his livelihood, support a family and then die, — the vital and physical life, a human edition of the animal round, a human enlargement of the little animal sector and arc of the divine circle; rather to become and grow mentally and live with knowledge and power within himself as well as from within outward is his manhood.  But there is here a double motive of Nature, an insistent duality in her human purpose.  Man is here to learn from her how to control and create; but she evidently means him not only to control, create and re-create in new and better forms himself, his own inner existence, his mentality, but also to control and re-create correspondingly his environment.  He has to turn Mind not only on itself, but on Life and Matter and the material existence; that is very clear not only from the law and nature of the terrestrial evolution, but from his own past and present history.  And there comes from the observation of these conditions and of his highest aspirations and impulses the question whether he is not intended, not only to expand inwardly and outwardly, but to grow upward, wonderfully exceeding himself as he has wonderfully exceeded his animal beginnings, into something more than mental, more than human, into a being spiritual and divine.  Even if he cannot do that, yet he may have to open his mind to what is beyond it and to govern his life more and more by the light and power that he receives from something greater than himself.  Man’s consciousness of the divine within himself and the world is the supreme fact of his existence and to grow into that may very well be the intention of his nature.  In any case the fullness of Life is his evident object, the widest life and the highest life possible to him, whether that be a complete humanity or a new and divine race.  We must recognise both his need of integrality and his impulse of self-exceeding if we would fix rightly the meaning of his individual existence and the perfect aim and norm of his society.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 83-84

The Ascending Cycle of Development for Man, the Mental Being

The concept of evolution, as enunciated by Darwin and fleshed out thereafter, focuses primarily on the physical evolution of species.  Sri Aurobindo takes the concept of evolution to an entirely different level when he describes the systematic increasing evolution of consciousness which is the secret sense behind the ascending series of species arising out of the inconscient material basis of the world.  As we know from our exploration of species, everything that exists has a predecessor or precursor, so that we can identify a line of evolution in the world of Matter and Life.  The tree grows from the seed, and the seed contains the DNA that provides instructions that build the future tree out of the necessary components when placed in a supportive environment.  The evolution of consciousness, similarly, cannot develop unless it is already “involved” in Matter from which it evolves.  With this understanding we can quickly appreciate Sri Aurobindo’s insights about the stage of evolution and the role of man in that evolution.

“Nature starts from Matter, develops out of it its hidden Life, releases out of involution in life all the crude material of Mind and, when she is ready, turns Mind upon itself and upon Life and Matter in a great mental effort to understand all three in their phenomena, their obvious action, their secret laws, their normal and abnormal possibilities and powers so that they may be turned to the richest account, used in the best and most harmonious way, elevated to their highest as well as extended to their widest potential aims by the action of that faculty which man alone of terrestrial creatures clearly possesses, the intelligent will.  It is only in this fourth stage of her progress that she arrives at humanity.  The atoms and the elements organise brute Matter, the plant develops the living being, the animal prepares and brings to a certain kind of mechanical organisation the crude material of Mind, but the last work of all, the knowledge and control of all these things and self-knowledge and self-control, — that has been reserved for Man, Nature’s mental being.”

“That he may better do the work she has given him, she compels him to repeat physically and to some extent mentally stages of her animal evolution and, even when  he is in possession of his mental being, she induces him continually to dwell with an interest and even a kind of absorption upon Matter and Life and his own body and vital existence.  This is necessary to the largeness of her purpose in him.  His first natural absorption in the body and the life is narrow and unintelligent; as his intelligence and mental force increase, he disengages himself to some extent, is able to mount higher, but is still tied to his vital and material roots by need and desire and has to return upon them with a larger curiosity, a greater power of utilisation, a more and more highly mental and, in the end, a more and more spiritual aim in the return.  For his cycles are circles of a growing, but still imperfect harmony and synthesis, and she brings him back violently to her original principles, sometimes even to something like her earlier conditions so taht he may start afresh on a larger curve of progress and self-fulfilment.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 82-83

Distinguishing the True Role of the Vital Activity of Human Society from Vital Barbarism

The vital force of life, within both the individual and the society, is a necessary element of our existence.  The imbalance of raising this Life-Force up to be the end goal to be fixated upon leads to a wide variety of problems both for the individual and in the setting of the society.  Greed, self aggrandisement at the expense of others, the desire to exercise power over others, and all the dishonesty that flows from the force of desire attempting to achieve its ends regardless of means, are the flaws, the errors of the vital development.

There are those who, in understanding these deformations of the vital force, counsel a course of avoidance, as they believe the vital energy is unable to be set into its right course and taking up this energy in life implies acceptance of these issues.  This has led to the legions of monks, sannyasins, anchorites and hermits, as well as those who preach a simple lifestyle abandoning the course of life-development of the human race, to seek an individual salvation or fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo takes a different approach.  While recognizing the problems associated with over-emphasis on the vital life energy and its fulfillment, he also acknowledges that there is a true role and need for a strong, vibrant and effective action of the life-energy.

“The essential barbarism of all this is its pursuit of vital success, satisfaction, productiveness, accumulation, possession, enjoyment, comfort, convenience for their own sake.  The vital part of the being is an element in the integral human existence as much as the physical part; it has its place but must not exceed its place.  A full and well-appointed life is desirable for man living in society, but on condition that it is also a true and beautiful life.  Neither the life nor the body exist for their own sake, but as vehicle and instrument of a good higher than their own.  They must be subordinated to the superior needs of the mental being, chastened and purified by a greater law of truth, good and beauty before they can take their proper place in the integrality of human perfection.  Therefore in a commercial age with its ideal, vulgar and barbarous, of success, vitalistic satisfaction, productiveness and possession the soul of man may linger a while for certain gains and experiences, but cannot permanently rest.  If it persisted too long, Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion.  Like the too massive Titan it will collapse by its own mass, mole ruet sua.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 80-81