The End Goal of the Action of the Reason in Mankind and Society

The limitations of the reason to the finite, and the impossibility of it grasping the entire sense and purpose of the Infinite, makes it clear that the reason is not the vehicle to achieve a complete understanding either of an individual’s life and purpose, nor that of the collective action of humanity in the society we formulate.  There are a number of issues surrounding the application of reason to life, and it is essential to appreciate the areas where the action of the reason is to be supported, and those areas where the reason must abdicate its action so that other powers, more appropriate to the larger need and situation, can take over.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The reason cannot arrive at any final truth because it can neither get to the root of things nor embrace the totality of their secrets; it deals with the finite, the separate, the limited aggregate, and has no measure for the all and the infinite.  Nor can reason found a perfect life for man or a perfect society.  A purely rational human life would be a life baulked and deprived of its most powerful dynamic sources; it would be a substitution of the minister for the sovereign.  A purely rational society could not come into being and, if it could be born, either could not live or would sterilise and petrify human existence.  The root powers of human life, its intimate causes are below, irrational, and they are above, suprarational.  But this is true that by constant enlargement, purification, openness the reason of man is bound to arrive at an intelligent sense even of that which is hidden from it, a power of passive, yet sympathetic reflection of the Light that surpasses it.  Its limit is reached, its function is finished when it can say to man, ‘There is a Soul, a Self, a God in the world and in man who works concealed and all is his self-concealing and gradual self-unfolding.  His minister I have been, slowly to unseal your eyes, remove the thick integuments of your vision until there is only my own luminous veil between you and him.  Remove that and make the soul of man one in fact and nature with this Divine; then you will know yourself, discover the highest and widest law of your being, become the possessors or at least the receivers and instruments of a higher will and knowledge than mine and lay hold at last on the true secret and the whole sense of a human and yet divine living.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 122-123


The Role and Benefit of the Reason for Human Progress

One might well think, when one considers all of the fallibility of the human reason, its ability to justify anything for anyone and to even justify conflicting views, that the reason is such a flawed instrument that it has no real or ultimate value in the quest for a greater truth of life.  Yet, it is this very quality of the reason that makes it valuable and even essential in the growth and development of humanity in its evolution.  It is not the role of the reasoning faculty to grasp ultimate, absolute Truth, but to fasten onto so much of the truth as is necessary for the immediate action before one.  The very narrow limitations of the power of the reason allows it to use its power of exclusive concentration to make progress in any specific field to which its attention has been turned, while not being distracted by the complexity and infinity of the full truth of existence.  It is this power that has led to the advancements we see in human life with the advent of the reasoning intellect, and, while it must eventually be surpassed, it has a serious and meritorious role to play at this stage of human progress.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… it is the legitimate function of the reason to justify to man his action and his hope and the faith that is in him and to give him that idea and knowledge, however restricted, and that dynamic conviction, however narrow and intolerant, which he needs in order that he may live, act and grow in the highest light available to him.  The reason cannot grasp all truth in its embrace because truth is too infinite for it; but still it does grasp the something of it which we immediately need, and its insufficiency does not detract from the value of its work, but is rather the measure of its value.  For man is not intended to grasp the whole truth of his being at once, but to move towards it through a succession of experiences and a constant, though not by any means a perfectly continuous self-enlargement.  The first business of reason then is to justify and enlighten to him his various experiences and to give him faith and conviction in holding on to his self-enlargings.  It justifies to him now this, now that, the experience of the moment, the receding light of the past, the half-seen vision of the future.  Its inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining opposite views are the whole secret of its value.  It would not do indeed for it to support too conflicting views in the same individual, except at moments of awakening and transition, but in the collective body of men and in the successions of Time that is its whole business.  For so man moves towards the infinity of the Truth by the experience of its variety; so his reason helps him to build, change, destroy what he has built and prepare a new construction, in a word, to progress, grow, enlarge himself in his self-knowledge and world-knowledge and their works.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 121-122

The Reason Can Be Made to Justify Any Idea, Philosophy or Action

The limitations of the Reason mean that once it engages itself to the service of any force or direction, it finds ways to marshall the powers of logic and argument to justify whatever it is being asked to justify.  When the desire-will of the vital nature chooses a path, the reason comes forward to prove the rightness of that direction.  When any particular ideal, religious notion, or philosophy engages the reason, once again, it is able to justify that path.  The reason is no ultimate arbiter of truth and right, but is realistically nothing more than a powerful minister or servant.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…reason is in its nature an imperfect light with a large but still restricted mission and that once it applies itself to life and action it becomes subject to what it studies and the servant and counsellor of the forces in whose obscure and ill-understood struggle it intervenes.  It can in its nature be used and has always been used to justify any idea, theory of life, system of society or government, ideal of individual or collective action to which the will of man attaches itself for the moment or through the centuries.  In philosophy it gives equally good reasons for monism and pluralism or for any halting-place between them, for the belief in Being or for the belief in Becoming, for optimism and pessimism, for activism and quietism.  It can justify the most mystic religionism and the most positive atheism, get rid of God or see nothing else.  In aesthetics it supplies the basis equally for classicism and romanticism, for an idealistic, religious or mystic theory of art or for the most earthy realism.  It can with equal power base austerely a strict and narrow moralism or prove triumphantly the thesis of the antinomian.  It has been the sufficient and convincing prophet of every kind of autocracy or oligarchy and of every species of democracy; it supplies excellent and satisfying reasons for communism or against communism and for State socialism or for one variety of socialism against another.  It can place itself with equal effectivity at the service of utilitarianism, economism, hedonism, aestheticism, sensualism, ethicism, idealism or any other essential need or activity of man and build around it a philosophy, a political and social system, a theory of conduct and life.  …  there being any number of possible combinations or harmonies, it will equally well justify the one or the other and set up or throw down any one of them according as the spirit in man is attracted to or withdraws from it.  For it is really that which decides and the reason is only a brilliant servant and minister of this veiled and secret sovereign.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 120-121

Knowledge Can Be Applied for Good or Ill in Life

As the intellect works to understand the deeper forces and truths of our existence, the fruits of its effort are then applied to life.  Every advance in human understanding, every invention, once loosed from the mind into the world, becomes an opportunity for positive or negative results.  Even those things which seem to be the most focused on achieving benefits for humanity, the advances of healing science, the spiritual insights expressed by major religious figures, masterful organization of society and the economy, can and have been turned to negative uses as well as positive.  The Third Reich in Germany turned their enormous progress in technical efficiency into a vast killing machine.  Religions, which should bring people to higher aspirations and unity have been used to turn people against each other and have been the excuse of numerous wars and genocidal action.  Advances in the healing sciences have been used to create biological weapons.  No matter how pure the intention of the intellectual, the scientist, the leader in any number of fields, the actual use put to his contribution is out of his control.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates this subject:  “…even if the intellect keeps itself as impartial and disinterested as possible, — and altogether impartial, altogether disinterested the human intellect cannot be unless it is content to arrive at an entire divorce from practice or a sort of large but ineffective tolerantism, eclecticism or sceptical curiosity, — still the truths it discovers or the ideas it promulgates become, the moment they are applied to life, the plaything of forces over which the reason has little control.  Science pursuing its cold and even way has made discoveries which have served on one side a practical humanitarianism, on the other supplied monstrous weapons to egoism and mutual destruction; it has made possible a gigantic efficiency of organisation which has been used on one side for the economic and social amelioration of the nations and on the other for turning each into a colossal battering-ram of aggression, ruin and slaughter.  It has given rise on the one side to a large rationalistic and altruistic humanitarianism, on the other it has justified a godless egoism, vitalism, vulgar will to power and success.  It has drawn mankind together and given it a new hope and at the same time crushed it with the burden of a monstrous commercialism.  Nor is this due, as is so often asserted, to its divorce from religion or to any lack of idealism.  Idealistic philosophy has been equally at the service of the powers of good and evil and provided an intellectual conviction both for reaction and for progress.  Organised religion itself has often enough in the past hounded men to crime and massacre and justified obscurantism and oppression.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pg. 120

The Cause of Error and Confusion in the Action of the Intellectual Power

The human reason has its primary action  as the search for the truth of existence, whether in the abstract, or in the details of the manifested existence.  It can turn its focus on the larger issues of how and why we exist, with no specific attempt to turn this into something useful for day to day life; or it can turn its attention to an attempt to help the individual understand and succeed at various intermediate goals of his life and daily activity.  The pure effort of reason may not achieve the complete understanding of the complex truth of existence, particularly because that is beyond the powers assigned to the intellect, but it remains a pure attempt  when doing so, as it is not simply trying to assert a specific viewpoint or achieve a specific goal.  It is when the reason turns its attention to the needs of life and worldly action, that the various demands of the physical nature, the vital mode of desire, emotional attachment and adherence to specific mental formulations begins to divert the intellect from its purest form of action.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “We have seen that the intellect has a double working, dispassionate and interested, self-centred or subservient to movements not its own.  The one is a disinterested pursuit of truth for the sake of Truth and of knowledge for the sake of Knowledge without any ulterior motive, with every consideration put away except the rule of keeping the eye on the object, on the fact under enquiry and finding out its truth, its process, its law.  The other is coloured by the passion for practice, the desire to govern life by the truth discovered or the fascination of an idea which we labour to establish as the sovereign law of our life and action.  We have seen indeed that this is the superiority of reason over the other faculties of man that it is not confined to a separate absorbed action of its own, but plays upon all the others, discovers their law and truth, makes its discoveries serviceable to them and even in pursuing its own bent and end serves also their ends and arrives at a catholic utility.  Man in fact does not live for knowledge alone; life in its widest sense is his principal preoccupation and he seeks knowledge for its utility to life much more than for the pure pleasure of acquiring knowledge.  But it is precisely in this putting of knowledge at the service of life that the human intellect falls into that confusion and imperfection which pursues all human action.  So long as we pursue knowledge for its own sake, there is nothing to be said; the reason is performing its natural function; it is exercising securely its highest right.  In the work of the philosopher, the scientist, the savant labouring to add something to the stock of our ascertainable knowledge, there is as perfect a purity and satisfaction as in that of the poet and artist creating forms of beauty for the aesthetic delight of the race.  Whatever individual error and limitation there may be, does not matter; for the collective and progressive knowledge of the race has gained the truth that has been discovered and may be trusted in time to get rid of the error.  It is when it tries to apply ideas to life that the human intellect stumbles and finds itself at fault.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 119-120

The Complex and Experimental Nature of Human Growth and Development

A major challenge for human growth and self-realisation lies in the complexity of the being and the disparate tendencies of the various parts of the nature.  Yet it is not simply the differing motivations of the physical being from the vital nature from the mental being, from the emotional responses.  Within each of these there are also contradictory and opposing tendencies which makes the achievement of a harmonious result even more difficult.  Sri Aurobindo describes it thus:

“In this ethics he is divided by different moral tendencies, justice and charity, self-help and altruism, self-increase and self-abnegation, the tendencies of strength and the tendencies of love, the moral rule of activism and the moral rule of quietism.  His emotions are necessary to his development and their indulgence essential to the outflowering of his rich humanity; yet is he constantly called upon to coerce and deny them, nor is there any sure rule to guide him the perplexity of this twofold need.  His hedonistic impulse is called many ways by different fields, objects, ideals of self-satisfaction.  His aesthetic enjoyment, his aesthetic creation forms for itself under the stress of the intelligence different laws and forms; each seeks to impose itself as the best and the standard, yet each, if its claims were allowed, would by its unjust victory impoverish and imprison his faculty and his felicity in its exercise.  His politics and society are a series of adventures and experiments among various possibilities of autocracy, monarchism, military aristocracy, mercantile oligarchy, open or veiled plutocracy, pseudo-democracy of various kinds, bourgeois or proletarian, individualistic or collectivist or bureaucratic, socialism awaiting him, anarchism looming beyond it; and all these correspond to some truth of his social being, some need of his complex social nature, some instinct or force in it which demands that form for its effectuation.  Mankind works out these difficulties under the stress of the spirit within it by throwing out a constant variation of types, types of character and temperament, types of practical activity, aesthetic creation, polity, society, ethical order, intellectual system, which vary from the pure to the mixed, from the simple harmony to the complex; each and all of these are so many experiments of individual and collective self-formation in the light of a progressive and increasing knowledge.  That knowledge is governed by a number of conflicting ideas and ideals around which these experiments group themselves; each of them is gradually pushed as far as possible in its purity and again mixed and combined as much as possible with others so that there may be a more complex form and an enriched action.  Each type has to be broken in turn to yield place to new types and each combination has to give way to the possibility of a new combination.  Through it all there is growing an accumulating stock of self-experience and self-actualisation of which the ordinary man accepts some current formulation conventionally as if it were an absolute law and truth, — often enough he even thinks it to be that, — but which the more developed human being seeks always either to break or to enlarge and make more profound or subtle in order to increase or make room for an increase of human capacity, perfectibility, happiness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 117-119

The Process of Moving from Instinct to Idea and from Impulse to Intelligent Will

The evolutionary movement that brings forth a mental being as a development from the physical and vital life involves a process of trial and error, mixing, sorting and refining which helps explain the apparently confused and seemingly chaotic ways that individuals grow and respond.  The mental intelligence cannot simply succeed by imposing itself on the physical habits or vital nature.  Even if this appears to succeed for a time, it eventually fails to accomplish the goal.  The complexity of nature implies therefore a series of experiments, a variety of approaches to bring along the vital and physical nature to a higher, more refined expression based on the guidance and insight of the mental nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process:  “The individual and social progress of man has been thus a double movement of self-illumination and self-harmonising with the intelligence and the intelligent will as the intermediaries between his soul and its works.  He has had to bring out numberless possibilities of self-understanding, self-mastery, self-formation out of his first crude life of instincts and impulses; he has been constantly impelled to convert that lower animal or half-animal existence with its imperfect self-conscience into the stuff of intelligent being, instincts into ideas, impulses into ordered movements of an intelligent will.  But as he has to proceed out of ignorance into knowledge by a slow labour of self-recognition and mastery of his surroundings and his material and as his intelligence is incapable of seizing comprehensively the whole of himself in knowledge, unable to work out comprehensively the mass of his possibilities in action, he has had to proceed piecemeal, by partial experiments, by creation of different types, by a constant swinging backward and forward between the various possibilities before him and the different elements he has to harmonise.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pg. 117

The Intellect as the Intermediary Between the Higher and Lower Powers of Consciousness

The unique position held by the intellectual reason in the evolutionary process is defined by its ability to not only focus on and impact the outer life of the vital and physical nature, but to also refocus its attention on higher principles and ideals which it can receive from a plane of awareness above its own capacities and position in the evolutionary development.  The intellect in this case acts something like a “step-down transformer” which takes the insight and power of the higher awareness and turns it into intellectual insights which are capable of then being translated, albeit imperfectly, into the ideals, ideas, forces and specific lines of action which bring about action and change in the outer world of life.  This function allows those higher principles to begin to permeate and influence life in an indirect manner, raising up the possibilities and bringing before the awareness ideals and principles that otherwise are not part of the daily experience of the vital world.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “It has also an upward and inward eye and a more luminous functioning by which it accepts divinations from the hidden eternities.  It is opened in this power of vision to a Truth above it from which it derives, however, imperfectly and as from behind a veil, an indirect knowledge of the universal principles of our existence and its possibilities; it receives and turns what it can seize of them into intellectual forms and these provide us with large governing ideas by which our efforts can be shaped and around which they can be concentrated or massed; it defines the ideals which we seek to accomplish.”

“Only the forms we give these ideas are intellectual; they themselves descend from a plane of truth of being where knowledge and force are one, the idea and the power of self-fulfilment in the idea are inseparable.  Unfortunately, when translated into the forms of our intelligence which acts only by a separating and combining analysis and synthesis and into the effort of our life which advances by a sort of experimental and empirical seeking, these powers become disparate and conflicting ideals which we have all the difficulty in the world to bring into any kind of satisfactory harmony.  Such are the primary principles of liberty and order, good, beauty and truth, the ideal of power and the ideal of love, individualism and collectivism, self-denial and self-fulfilment and a hundred others.  In each sphere of human life, in each part of our being and our action the intellect presents us with the opposition of a number of such master ideas and such conflicting principles.  It finds each to be a truth to which something essential in our being responds, — in our higher nature a law, in our lower nature an instinct.  It seeks to fulfil each in turn, builds a system of action round it and goes from one to the other and back again to what it has left.  Or it tries to combine them but is contented with none of the combinations it has made because none brings about their perfect reconciliation of their satisfied oneness.  That indeed belongs to a larger and higher consciousness, not yet attained by mankind, where these opposites are ever harmonised and even unified because in their origin they are eternally one.  But still every enlarged attempt of the intelligence thus dealing with our inner and outer life increases the width and wealth of our nature, opens it to larger possibilities of self-knowledge and self-realisation and brings us nearer to our awakening into that greater consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 115-117

The Role of Reason in the Progress of Human Development

The central position occupied by the Reason in the development of human consciousness and evolutionary growth is based on several distinct powers that it exercises.  Its ability to at least partially distance itself from the drives and instincts of the physical, vital and developing mental powers of life gives it the ability to provide guidance and clarity to the motives and actions of these lower members of the being.  Its ability to analyze and categorize is what provides this guidance and clarity.  It tries to develop a set of guidelines or rules of living based on what it perceives to be the issues and the needs for overpassing the wayward or counter-productive actions of these lower parts of the being.  But perhaps one of the most important functions is to not become ultimately satisfied with what has been achieved, but to always push forward beyond the frontiers through the power of questioning the status quo, even one that has been ultimately formed through its own action.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “It takes first the lower powers of his existence, each absorbed in its own urge, each striving with a blind self-sufficiency towards the fulfilment of its own instincts and primary impulses; it teaches them to understand themselves and to loo through the reflecting eyes of the intelligence on the laws of their own action.  It enables them to discern intelligently the high in themselves from the low, the pure from the impure and out of a crude confusion to arrive at more and more luminous formulas of their possibilities.  It gives them self-knowledge and is a guide, teacher, purifier, liberator.  For it enables them also to look beyond themselves and at each other and to draw upon each other for fresh motives and a richer working.”

“At the same time it plays the part of a judge and legislator, seeks to fix rules, provide systems and regularised combinations which shall enable the powers of the human soul to walk by a settled path and act according to a sure law, an ascertained measure and in a balanced rhythm.  Here it finds after a time that its legislative action becomes a force for limitation and turns into a bondage and that the regularised system which it has imposed in the interests of order and conservation becomes a cause of petrifaction and the sealing up of the fountains of life.  It has to bring in its own saving faculty of doubt.  Under the impulse of the intelligence warned by the obscure revolt of the oppressed springs of life, ethics, aesthetics, the social, political, economic rule begin to question themselves and, if this at first brings in again some confusion, disorder and uncertainty, yet it awakens new movements of imagination, insight, self-knowledge, and self-realisation by which old systems and formulas are transformed or disappear, new experiments are made and in the end larger potentialities and combinations are brought into play.  By this double action of the intelligence, affirming and imposing what it has seen and again in due season questioning what has been accomplished in order to make a new affirmation, fixing a rule and order and liberating from rule and order, the progress of the race is assured, however uncertain may seem its steps and stages.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 114-115

The Intellectual Reason Is Not the Highest Power of Knowledge and Action

It is easy to see, if we take an evolutionary perspective, the intermediate station occupied by the intellectual reason, and the fact that there are lower terms of consciousness in the creation, and also higher terms.  The action of the reason, powerful as it is, is always limited by its incapacities and its rigidity of action.  Reason is unable therefore to grasp and manage the complexity of life and the evolving consciousness which manifests in the world.  It is a secondary power.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The rational or intellectual man is not the last and highest ideal of manhood, nor would a rational society be the last and highest expression of the possibilities of an aggregate human life, — unless indeed we give to this word, reason, a wider meaning than it now possesses and include in it the combined wisdom of all our powers of knowledge, those which stand below and above the understanding and logical mind as well as this strictly rational part of our nature.  The Spirit that manifests itself in man and dominates secretly the phases of his development, is greater and profounder than his intellect and drives towards a perfection that cannot be shut in by the arbitrary construction of the human reason.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pg. 114