Limitations of the Ethical Temperament in the Development of Society

As a major developed tendency of the human mind, the ethical temperament clearly has a role to play in the evolutionary process of humanity.  Yet, taken to its more extreme formulations, it can be seen to have serious limitations that were exemplified in the ancient societies of Sparta and ancient Rome.  Without the necessary balance provided by other major tendencies, such as the aesthetic temperament, the ethical culture can become too strict and thereby limit free expansion, experimentation and development, which are all necessary parts of human progress.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Early Rome and Sparta were barren of thought, art, poetry, literature, the larger mental life, all the amenity and pleasure of human existence; their art of life excluded or discouraged the delight of living.  They were distrustful, as the exclusively ethical man is always distrustful, of free and flexible thought and the aesthetic impulse.  The earlier spirit of republican Rome held at arm’s length as long as possible the Greek influences that invaded her, closed the schools of the Greek teachers, banished the philosophers, and her most typical minds looked upon the Greek language as a peril and Greek culture as an abomination: she felt instinctively the arrival at her gates of an enemy, divined a hostile and destructive force fatal to her principle of living.  Sparta, though a Hellenic city, admitted as almost the sole aesthetic element of her deliberate ethical training and education a martial music and poetry, and even then, when she wanted a poet of war, she had to import an Athenian. … The end of these purely ethical cultures bears witness to their insufficiency.  Either they pass away leaving nothing or little behind them by which the future can be attracted and satisfied, as Sparta passed, or they collapse in a revolt of the complex nature of man against an unnatural restriction and repression, as the early Roman type collapsed into the egoistic and often orgiastic license of later republican and imperial Rome.  The human mind needs to think, feel, enjoy, expand; expansion is its very nature and restriction is only useful to it in so far as it helps to steady, guide and strengthen its expansion.  It readily refuses the name of culture to those civilisations or periods, however noble their aim or even however beautiful in itself their order, which have not allowed an intelligent freedom of development.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 98-99