The Nature of the Reasoning Intellect and the Attempt to Govern the Life-Energy of the Creation

The logical intellect, the power of reason, has a characteristic action that is linear and segmented.  It moves from step to step and does best with analytical functions where it reviews, categorizes and then tries to create a rules-based system for managing the variations it has understood.  The intellect divides and compartmentalizes and tends also to look at things as “either / or” in a “black and white” fashion.  The intellect has a much harder time comprehending and acting upon subtle complexities and interactions which do not fit into its logical schematic.

The life-energy, on the other hand tends to have a wild abandon that does not follow the rigid ideas or compartmentalized process that the intellect can handle.  There is a constant interplay of forces which brings about ever-new forms through that interaction.  Chaos theory in modern science has shown how even simple, fixed organized principles will create complex systems based on the interaction of different forces and their influences upon one another.

It is thus impossible for the logical intellect to gain total mastery or control over the developments of the life energy.  To a certain degree, some amount of organization and control is possible, but eventually, the life-energy spills out of the canals that the reason has created for it, and new complexities arise in the holistic, global environment within which life develops.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The whole difficulty of the reason in trying to govern our existence is that because of its own inherent limitations it is unable to deal with life in its complexity or in its integral movements; it is compelled to break it up into parts, to make more or less artificial classifications, to build systems with limited data which are contradicted, upset or have to be continually modified by other data, to work out a selection of regulated potentialities which is broken down by the bursting of a new wave of yet unregulated potentialities.  It would almost appear even that there are two worlds, the world of ideas proper to the intellect and the world of life which escapes from the full control of the reason, and that to bridge adequately the gulf between these two domains is beyond the power and province of the reason and the intelligent will.  It would seem that these can only create either a series of more or less empirical compromises or else a series of arbitrary and practically inapplicable or only partially applicable systems.  The reason of man struggling with life becomes either an empiric or a doctrinaire.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pg. 110

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The Potential and Progress of the Reason, and Its Ultimate Limitations

It is not sufficient to judge the failures of Reason to gain control over the life of society and organize it along lines that are consistent, harmonious and progressive to achieve the goals of human evolution.  Whenever a power must be applied across vast numbers of people in a complex societal structure, it suffers dilution of its potential as it must adjust to and compromise with the general level of human development.  When we turn our attention to the individual development of the power of reason, we can see a much more effective and efficient power that has scope far beyond what we see in general in the society.  The heights of human progress, whether in science, philosophy, ethics, aesthetic arts, have been explored and raised by the power of reason.  This brings us to the question as to whether this power can actually ferret out the deeper truths of existence and meaning for which humanity continues to seek.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In the modern era under the impulsion of Science this effort assumed enormous proportions and claimed for a time to examine successfully and lay down finally the true principle and the sufficient rule of process not only for all the activities of Nature, but for all the activities of man.  It has done great things, but it has not been in the end a success.  The human mind is beginning to perceive that it has left the heart of almost every problem untouched and illumined only outsides and a certain range of processes.  There has been a great and ordered classification and mechanisation, a great discovery and practical result of increasing knowledge, but only on the physical surface of things.  Vast abysses of Truth lie below in which are concealed the real springs, the mysterious powers and secretly decisive influences of existence.  It is a question whether the intellectual reason will ever be able to give us an adequate account of these deeper and greater things or subject them to the intelligent will as it has succeeded in explaining and canalising, though still imperfectly, yet with much show of triumphant result, the forces of physical Nature.  But these other powers are much larger, subtler, deeper down, more hidden, elusive and variable than those of physical Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 109-110

The Reason is Unable to Effectively Control and Manage Life and Society

Humanity believes that ideas, ideologies, religious dogmas, political or economic systems can bring human life under control and improve the lot of humanity.  Human history is a long tale of various systems attempting to organise and manage human society, and the eventual failure of each of those systems due to the failure to take into account various aspects of human life, needs, desires and aspirations, or due to an inflexible and limited implementation due to the restrictions of the powers of the human intellect.  Intellect is linear and focuses on “either or” thinking; whereas, humanity does not fit into neat and fixed compartmentalized solutions.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This is the cause why all human systems have failed in the end; for they have never been anything but a partial and confused application of reason to life.  Moreover, even where they have been most clear and rational, these systems have pretended that their ideas were the whole truth of life and tried so to apply them.  This they could not be, and life in the end has broken or undermined them and passed on to its own large incalculable movement.  Mankind, thus using its reason as an aid and justification for its interests and passions, thus obeying the drive of a partial, a mixed and imperfect rationality towards action, thus striving to govern the complex totalities of life by partial truths, has stumbled on from experiment to experiment, always believing that it is about to grasp the crown, always finding that it has fulfilled as yet little or nothing of what it has to accomplish.  Compelled by nature to apply reason to life, yet possessing only a partial rationality limited in itself and confused by the siege of the lower members, it could do nothing else.  For the limited imperfect human reason has no self-sufficient light of its own; it is obliged to proceed by observation, by experiment, by action, through errors and stumblings to a larger experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 108-109

Limitations of the Reason in the Field of Ideas

As the human individual develops the use of the power of the intellect, he can move his focus from fulfillment of the needs and desires of his life, to the field of ideas.  In and of itself, this is a form of progress of the human evolutionary urge, yet it too has its weaknesses and limitations, which particularly adhere the vital force of the life to an idea and make it a partisan event rather than a wholly disinterested effort devoted solely to understanding and expressing the truth of life.  There are those who say that more people have died in wars fought in the name of religion than of any other cause, which illustrates this limitation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But even the man who is capable of governing his life by ideas, who recognises, that is to say, that it ought to express clearly conceived truths and principles of his being or of all being and tries to find out or to know from others what these are, is not often capable of the highest, the free and disinterested use of his rational mind.  As others are subject to the tyranny of their interests, prejudices, instincts or passions, so he is subjected to the tyranny of ideas.  Indeed, he turns these ideas into interests, obscures them with his prejudices and passions and is unable to think freely about them, unable to distinguish their limits or the relation to them of other, different and opposite ideas and the equal right of these also to existence.  Thus, as we constantly see, individuals, masses of men, whole generations are carried away by certain ethical, religious, aesthetic, political ideas or a set of ideas, espouse them with passion, pursue them as interests, work to make them a system and lasting rule of life and are swept away in the drive of their action and do not really use the free and disinterested reason for the right knowledge of existence and for its right and sane government.”

The problem here is that each such idea is limited and circumscribed, and thus, even if it succeeds in gaining adherence and mastery for a time it can only do so either by making a pact with forces and ideas that dilute it, but which control the ground of human life; or else, they set up an opposition that seeks to bring other aspects into the view and the balance and thus eventually brings the idea down as circumstances evolve.

“Life escapes from the formulas and systems which our reason labours to impose in it; it proclaims itself too complex, too full of infinite potentialities to be tyrannised over by the arbitrary intellect of man.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 107-108

The Limitations of the Reason Based on Pre-Determined Framing of Its Action

One may observe that horses many times have their peripheral vision shielded with blinders in order to prevent them from going away from the intended path through any form of distraction.  The human reason is very much like this horse in the sense of creating walls within which the individual allows it to operate, generally related to specific tasks, goals or objectives in the material world that are sought to be achieved.  This type of exclusive concentration is very powerful, yet it has limitations for arriving at a greater truth or understanding a greater reality which lies outside the self-imposed limits.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The highest power of reason, because its pure and characteristic power, is the disinterested seeking after true knowledge.  When knowledge is pursued for its own sake, then alone are we likely to arrive at true knowledge.  Afterwards we may utilise that knowledge for various ends; but if from the beginning we have only particular ends in view, then we limit our intellectual gain, limit our view of things, distort the truth because we cast it into the mould of some particular idea or utility and ignore or deny all that conflicts with that utility or that set idea.  By so doing we may indeed make the reason act with great immediate power within the limits of the idea or the utility we have in view, just as instinct in the animal acts with great power within certain limits, for a certain end, yet finds itself helpless outside those limits.  It is so indeed that the ordinary man uses his reason — as the animal uses his hereditary, transmitted instinct — with an absorbed devotion of it to the securing of some particular utility or with a useful but hardly luminous application of a customary and transmitted reasoning to the necessary practical interests of his life.  Even the thinking man limits his reason to the working out of certain preferred ideas, he ignores or denies all that is not useful to these or does not assist or justify or actually contradicts or seriously modifies them, — except in so far as life itself compels or cautions him to accept modifications for the time being or ignore their necessity at his peril.”

“He follows most commonly some interest or set of interests; he tramples down or through or ignores or pushes aside all truth of life and existence, truth of ethics, truth of beauty, truth of reason, truth of spirit which conflicts with his chosen opinions and interests; if he recognises these foreign elements, it is nominally, not in practice, or else with a distortion, a glossing which nullifies their consequences, perverts their spirit or whittles down their significance.  It is this subjection to the interests, needs, instinct, passions, prejudices, traditional ideas and opinions of the ordinary mind which constitutes the irrationality of human existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 106-107

Insufficiencies of the Power of the Intellectual Reason

The intellect is a great power for human life, yet it has its limitations as well.  When it attempts to take charge of the life energy, it does so through attempts at developing rules of living, working from abstraction and attempting to overlay them over the life force, creating limitations and guidelines and suppressing wayward actions of the life energy as it tries to burst out and expand.  The intellect also has difficulty in perceiving and accepting the wider and deeper forces that are operative within the evolution of consciousness, as they fall in many cases outside the range and scope of the reason.

Sri Aurobindo observes that some hold the innate urge to express itself that exists in Life as the force that must be ascendant and the intellect should become a servant of this “Will to Life”.  “…the intelligence is only useful in so far as it serves that and that Life must not be repressed, minimised and mechanised by the arbitrary control of reason.  Life has greater powers in it which must be given a freer play; for it is they alone that evolve and create.  On the other hand, it is felt that reason is too analytical, too arbitrary, that it falsifies life by its distinctions and set classifications and the fixed rules based upon them and that there is some profounder and larger power of knowledge, intuition or another, which is more deeply in the secrets of existence.  This larger intimate power is more one with the depths and sources of existence and more able to give us the indivisible truths of life, its root realities and to work them out, not in an artificial and mechanical spirit but with a divination of the secret Will in existence and in a free harmony with its large, subtle and infinite methods.  In fact, what the growing subjectivism of the human mind is beginning obscurely to see is that the one sovereign godhead is the soul itself which may use reason for one of its ministers, but cannot subject itself to its own intellectuality without limiting its potentialities and artificialising its conduct of existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pg. 106

Are There Greater Powers Than Reason?

Through the evolution of humanity, various powers have asserted themselves as the leaders of human life and human progress.  At a certain stage, the vital force asserts that “might makes right” and thus, brute force trumps the power of reason as the arbiter of human affairs.  In the further development, the aesthetic sense, the moral sense, the religious faith, all claim ascendancy and attempt to set themselves up as alternatives to the rule of reason.  The poet John Keats famously wrote, for instance, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, clearly a call to the leading role for the aesthetic powers as opposed to the preeminence of reason.  Similarly, religion makes a call to faith to recognize truths that the reason cannot and does not grasp nor understand.  Even those who have grown under the banner of reason, the scientists and philosophers, have begun to question whether the power of reason can actually comprehend truths of reality that exist far outside the realm of reason, and we see arise lines of exploration such as quantum mechanics, chaos theory and the attempts, through processes of yoga and meditation to exceed the limits of the reason and move to the next higher evolutionary stage where new powers of consciousness become naturally active.  The Isha Upanishad and the Taittiriya Upanishad show us for instance that ancient Rishis in India were well aware of the higher levels of conscious awareness and they placed the reason in the middle, not at the top of the range.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…there has been a very noticeable revolt of the human mind against this sovereignty of the intellect, a dissatisfaction, as we might say, of the reason with itself and its own limitations and an inclination to give greater freedom and a larger importance to other powers of our nature.  The sovereignty of the reason in man has been always indeed imperfect, in fact, a troubled, struggling, resisted and often defeated rule; but still it has been recognised by the best intelligence of the race as the authority and law-giver.  Its only widely acknowledge rival has been faith.  Religion alone has been strongly successful in its claim that reason must be silent before it or at least that there are fields to which it cannot extend itself and where faith alone ought to be heard; but for a time even Religion has had to forego or abate its absolute pretension and to submit to the sovereignty of the intellect.  Life, imagination, emotion, the ethical and the aesthetic need have often claimed to exist for their own sake and to follow their own bent, practically they have often enforced their claim, but they have still been obliged in general to work under the inquisition and partial control of reason and to refer to it as arbiter and judge.  Now, however, the thinking mind of the race has become more disposed to question itself and to ask whether existence is not too large, profound, complex and mysterious a thing to be entirely seized and governed by the powers of the intellect.  Vaguely it is felt that there is some greater godhead than the reason.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pg. 105