Appreciating the Dichotomy of Ethical and Aesthetic Culture in the Societal Setting

The temperamental differences we observe in individuals may also affect the temperament of an entire society, if people in that society adhere to a similar temperamental standpoint.  Looking back through history it then becomes possible to identify societies which represented, more or less, the one or the other approach.  Sri Aurobindo cautions us, however, to realize that some societies, outwardly appearing as being ethical or aesthetic in tendency, do not truly represent these patterns, but take on an outer veneer with an underlying basis that is either an abandonment to our vital nature and enjoyment, or a religious strictness that does not regard ethics for the sake of the principle, but as a means or a characteristic of a religious temperament.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “We must not take as an instance of the ethical turn the middle-class puritanism touched with a narrow, tepid and conventional religiosity which was so marked an element in nineteenth-century England; that was not an ethical culture, but simply a local variation of the general type of bourgeois respectability you will find everywhere at a certain stage of civilisation, — it was Philistinism pure and simple.  Nor should we take as an instance of the aesthetic any merely Bohemian society or such examples as London of the Restoration or Paris in certain brief periods of its history; that, whatever some of its pretensions, had for its principle, always, the indulgence of the average sensation and sensuous man freed from the conventions of morality by a superficial intellectualism and aestheticism.  Nor even can we take Puritan England as the ethical type; for although there was there a strenuous, an exaggerated culture of character and the ethical being, the determining tendency was religious, and the religious impulse is a phenomenon quite apart from our other subjective tendencies, though it influences them all; it is sui generis and must be treated separately.”

“To get at real, if not always quite pure examples of the type we must go back a little farther in time and contrast early republican Rome or, in Greece itself, Sparta with Periclean Athens.  For as we come down the stream of Time in its present curve of evolution, humanity in the mass, carrying in it its past collective experience, becomes more and more complex and the old distinct types do not recur or recur precariously and with difficulty.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 96-97

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