Pleasure or Satisfaction Is Not the Standard for the Ethical Being of Man

There are many people who have put forth the standard of living a life for the sake of pleasure or self-satisfaction.  They hold that we have a natural right to enjoyment and thus, seeking that enjoyment in our actions represents virtue and is thus, ethical conduct in their eyes.  There is a deeper truth behind this idea, in that bliss or delight of existence is the secret wellspring of life, as the Taittiriya Upanishad has explained.  “He concentrated himself in thought and by the energy of his brooding He knew Bliss for the Eternal. For from Bliss alone, it appeareth, are these creatures born and being born they live by Bliss and to Bliss they go hence and return. This is the lore of Bhrigu, the lore of Varouna, which hath its firm base in the highest heaven.” (translated by Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads).  Yet, as we see with other aspects of life when taken up from the limited and focused standpoint of the human perspective, it is only at the level where the highest form of ethical standard can completely manifest that it is united without conflict with the highest form of the bliss of existence.  Indeed, the ethical impulse tends, at the human level, to constantly struggle with the contrary impulse of the seeking after pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction in life.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…virtue comes to the natural man by a struggle with his pleasure-seeking nature and is often a deliberate embracing of pain, an edification of strength by suffering.  We do not embrace that pain and struggle for the pleasure of the pain and the pleasure of the struggle; for that higher strenuous delight, though it is felt by the secret spirit in us, is not usually or not at first conscious in the conscient normal part of our being which is the field of the struggle.  The action of the ethical man is not motivated by even an inner pleasure, but by a call of his being, the necessity of an ideal, the figure of an absolute standard, a law of the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 150-151



The Goal of the Ethical Being Is the Expression of the Good of All

We run into difficulties when we try to judge an aspect of our being on the basis of some other aspect or principle.  Thus, the attempt to judge the ethical being and its principles on the basis of perceived utility in life is bound to lead us astray.  Utility is in the eye of the beholder, and bases itself on the specific desires, needs or predilections of those who are the judge of utility.  Utility, in this general sense, also does not really care about ethical or moral issues, as long as it looks like the specific goal in front of one is to be achieved, without necessarily any regard for consequences or long-term impacts.  Ethical principles, on the other hand try to achieve what may be called “the good” and in the widest application, it would be the good of all, which would take into account the entire universal existence and the harmony and balance of all beings and their environment.  Interim steps may not go this far, but in the end, this is the goal of the ethical drive.  This also turns out to be the place where the ethical motive unifies with the drive toward utility, as this would represent, in the ultimate scheme of things, the highest utility if all beings of the universal creation are able to achieve their highest “good”.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Utility is a fundamental principle of existence and all fundamental principles of existence are in the end one; therefore it is true that the highest good is also the highest utility.  It is true also that, not any balance of the greatest good of the greatest number, but simply the good of others and most widely the good of all is one ideal aim of our outgoing ethical practice; it is that which the ethical man would like to effect, if he could only find the way and be always sure what is the real good of all.  But this does not help to regulate our ethical practice, nor does it supply us with its inner principle whether of being or of action, but only produces one of the many considerations by which we can feel our way along the road which is so difficult to travel.  Good, not utility, must be the principle and standard of good; otherwise we fall into the hands of that dangerous pretender expediency, whose whole method is alien to the ethical.  Moreover, the standard of utility, the judgment of utility, its spirit, its form, its application must vary with the individual nature, the habit of mind, the outlook on the world.  Here there can be no reliable general law to which all can subscribe, no set of large governing principles such as it is sought to supply to our conduct by a true ethics.  Nor can ethics at all or ever be a matter of calculation.  There is only one safe rule for the ethical man, to stick to his principle of good, his instinct for good, his vision of good, his intuition of good and to govern by that his conduct.  He may err, but he will be on his right road in spite of all stumblings, because he will be faithful to the law of his nature.  …  the law of nature of the ethical being is the pursuit of good; it can never be the pursuit of utility.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 149-150

Ethical Principles Are Not Essentially Constructs of Reason–They Arise from the Divine Impulses in Man

Standards of conduct that are developed by the reasoning intelligence are generally measured by some outer form of success or satisfaction, and are set up with a set of rules or guidelines imposed by the reason, but not relating necessarily to the actual life-actions.  Some standards hold up the idea of worldly success as a measure of ethical rightness, while others may hold up moral precepts that fail to stand the test of life.  Many codes have arisen, such as the code of Hammurabi, the Laws of Manu, the Ten Commandments, and rules of conduct set down by Confucius to name just a few.  In today’s world we even see a basic rule that exonerates conduct if it leads to great accumulation of wealth, adopted by some as self-justifying, while opposed by others on grounds of immorality in the acquiring of that wealth.  Even rules that the mind holds dear, such as a prohibition against lying, killing, adultery are disregarded by most people in daily life, with that disregard justified by situational ethics.  There are even conflicting standards where actions held as unethical or immoral by one societal group are accepted as perfectly fine by another.  The mind cannot therefore determine the ultimate ethical development of humanity.  As with religion and art, so with ethics, the mental capacity cannot grasp and integrate the complexity of life within its fixed rule-making process.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The ethical being escapes from all these formulas: it is a law to itself and finds its principle in its own eternal nature which is not in its essential character a growth of evolving mind, even though it may seem to be that in its earthly history, but a light from the ideal, a reflection in man of the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 148-149

There Is No Separation Between the Outer Life and the Divine Reality

The exclusive concentration we place upon the needs and desires of our body, life and mind, the outer being, prevents us from recognizing easily that all life is One and expressive of the divine Reality.  Through the drawing back of our focus on that outer life, whether through religious practices, meditation, art, music or spending time in Nature, or through contemplation about existence, we may come into contact with the Oneness of creation, with the deeper significance of life, which we ordinarily fail to appreciate.  The dichotomy here, however, is purely artificial.  There is no separation between the life of the outer being and the life of the inner being, between the day to day focus in our attempts to provide for our existence and meet our needs and desires and the spiritual purpose of the universal creation.  All is One and indivisible, and at some point, we need to come to appreciate that unity in all ways of action.  As Sri Aurobindo has stated in The Synthesis of Yoga, ‘All Life is Yoga’.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… we find this difficulty because there especially, in all our practical life, we are content to be the slaves of an outward Necessity and think ourselves always excused when we admit as the law of our thought, will and action the yoke of immediate and temporary utilities.  Yet even there we must arrive eventually at the highest truth.  We shall find out in the end that our daily life and our social existence are not things apart, are not another field of existence with another law than the inner and ideal.  On the contrary, we shall never find out their true meaning or resolve their harsh and often agonising problems until we learn to see in them a means towards the discovery and the individual and collective expression of our highest and, because our highest, therefore our truest and fullest self, our largest most imperative principle and power of existence.  All life is only a lavish and manifold opportunity given us to discover, realise, express the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pg. 148

The Value of Religion and Art to the Human Spirit

For most people, the vast majority of our time, and the primary focus of our attention, is spent on material needs and desires and human relationships, in other words, the details of life in the world.   The power of the mind that has yielded such incredible results in these worldly affairs is one of exclusive concentration, whereby the mind focuses in on one issue or concern and loses sight, temporarily, of other aspects, issues or needs.  This is the operation of Maya, the creative power, and by definition it tends to hide, distort or make us forget the universal, the Absolute, the Infinite of which each of the fragmented parts is an aspect.  While we act in the world, we treat each thing as if it is separated from everything else; yet the spiritual reality integrates all together into a complete and inter-related whole.  It is when we turn our attention to things outside the normal daily life needs that we can remind ourselves of the Oneness of existence, of the Infinite, of the Eternal.  It is in the fields of religion and art that we are most likely to turn our attention to the Reality behind the details of our daily lives.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This truth comes most easily home to us in Religion and in Art, in the cult of the spiritual and in the cult of the beautiful, because there we get away most thoroughly from the unrestful pressure of the outward appearances of life, the urgent siege of its necessities, the deafening clamour of its utilities.  There we are not compelled at every turn to make terms with some gross material claim, some vulgar but inevitable necessity of the hour and the moment.  We have leisure and breathing-time to seek the Real behind the apparent: we are allowed to turn our eyes either away from the temporary and transient or through the temporal itself to the eternal; we can draw back from the limitations of the immediately practical and re-create our souls by the touch of the ideal and the universal.  We begin to shake off our chains, we get rid of life in its aspect of a prison-house with Necessity for our jailer and utility for our constant taskmaster; we are admitted to the liberties of the soul; we enter God’s infinite kingdom of beauty and delight or we lay hands on the keys of our absolute self-finding and open ourselves to the possession or the adoration of the Eternal.  There lies the immense value of Religion, the immense value of Art and Poetry to the human spirit; it lies in their immediate power for inner truth, for self-enlargement, for liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 147-148

Seeking for the Ultimate Reality That Unifies All Differences in Oneness

It is one of the unique characteristic powers of the human mind to be able to distinguish differences and treat objects, beings and forces as if they are independent of one another.  This exclusive concentration on the details of existence has helped create all the technology and societal organization that we experience in our lives.  In the course of humanity exploring the limits of this differentiating power, however, it has frequently lost sight of the unifying Oneness of which all these are fragments and constituent parts.  Without this unifying understanding, humanity experiences confusion and lack of a clear sense of the purpose of life and its role in carrying out that purpose.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The seeking for God is also, subjectively, the seeking for our highest, truest, fullest, largest self.  It is the seeking for a Reality which the appearances of life conceal because they only partially express it or because they express it from behind veils and figures, by oppositions and contraries, often by what seem to be perversions and opposites of the Real.  It is the seeking for something whose completeness comes only by a concrete and all-occupying sense of the Infinite and Absolute; it can be established in its integrality only by finding a value of the infinite in all finite things and by the attempt — necessary, inevitable, however impossible or paradoxical it may seem to the normal reason — to raise all relativities to their absolutes and to reconcile their differences, oppositions and contraries by elevation and sublimation to some highest term in which all these are unified.  Some perfect highest term there is by which all our imperfect lower terms can be justified and their discords harmonised if once we can induce them to be its conscious expressions, to exist not for themselves but for That, as contributory values of that highest Truth, fractional measures of that highest and largest common measure.  A One there is in which all the entangled discords of this multiplicity of separated, conflicting, intertwining, colliding ideas forces, tendencies, instincts, impulses, aspects, appearances which we call life, can find the unity of their diversity, the harmony of their divergences, the justification of their claims, the correction of their perversions and aberrations, the solution of their problems and disputes.  Knowledge seeks for that in order that Life may know its own true meaning and transform itself into the highest and most harmonious possible expression of a divine Reality.  All seeks for that, each power feels out for it in its own way: the infrarational gropes for it blindly along the line of its instincts, needs, impulses; the rational lays for it its trap of logic and order, follows out and gathers together its diversities, analyses them in order to synthetise; the suprarational gets behind and above things and into their inmost parts, there to touch and lay hands of the Reality itself in its core and essence and enlighten all its infinite detail from that secret centre.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 146-147

The Great Secret of Life

As we examine the roots of human activity, the drives that propel humanity forward, we begin to see a pattern which Sri Aurobindo has described in the first chapter of his magnum opus, The Life Divine.  He describes there the human aspiration for God, Light, Freedom, Immortality as the hidden wellspring of human growth and development.  If we scratch the surface of human actions in the fields of religion or the seeking for and creation of beauty, we see this aspiration at work.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “We begin to see, through the principle and law of our religious being, through the principle and law of our aesthetic being, the universality of a principle and law which is that of all being and which we must therefore hold steadily in view in regard to all human activities.  It rests on a truth on which the sages have always agreed, though by the intellectual thinker it may be constantly disputed.  It is the truth that all active being is a seeking for God, a seeking for some highest self and deepest Reality secret within, behind and above ourselves and things, a seeking for the hidden Divinity: the truth which we glimpse through religion, lies concealed behind all life; it is the great secret of life, that which it is in labour to discover and to make real to its self-knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pg. 146

The Search for Beauty Is a Search for the Divine

As with other aspects of human life, the individual tends to fixate upon the outer form in an attempt to define beauty.  There are even proverbs that reinforce this idea such as “beauty is only skin deep”.  In reality, the true beauty manifests when it reveals something of the soul, something deeper, higher, more powerful than just the outer form.  In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo alludes to this deeper connection when he indicates:  “Matter shall reveal the Spirit’s face.”

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…that which we are seeking through beauty is in the end that which we are seeking through religion, the Absolute, the Divine.  The search for beauty is only in its beginning a satisfaction in the beauty of form, the beauty which appeals to the physical senses and the vital impressions, impulsions, desires.  It is only in the middle a satisfaction in the beauty of the ideas seized, the emotions aroused, the perception of perfect process and harmonious combination.  Behind them the soul of beauty in us desires the contact, the revelation, the uplifting delight of an absolute beauty in all things which it feels to be present, but which neither the senses and instincts by themselves can give, though they may be its channels, — for it is suprasensuous, — nor the reason and intelligence,  though they too are a channel, — for it is suprarational, supra-intellectual, — but to which through all these veils the soul itself seeks to arrive.  When it can get the touch of this universal, absolute beauty, this soul of beauty, this sense of its revelation in any slightest or greatest thing, the beauty of a flower, a form, the beauty and power of a character, an action, an event, a human life, an idea, a stroke of the brush or the chisel or a scintillation of the mind, the colours of a sunset or the grandeur of the tempest, it is then that the sense of beauty in us is really, powerfully, entirely satisfied.  It is in truth seeking, as in religion, for the Divine, the All-Beautiful in man, in nature, in life, in thought, in art; for God is Beauty and Delight hidden in the variation of his masks and forms.  When, fulfilled in our growing sense and knowledge of beauty and delight in beauty and our power for beauty, we are able to identify ourselves in soul with this Absolute and Divine in all the forms and activities of the world and shape an image of our inner and our outer life in the highest image we can perceive and embody of the All-Beautiful, then the aesthetic being in us who was born for this end, has fulfilled himself and risen to his divine consummation.  To find highest beauty is to find God; to reveal, to embody, to create, as we say, highest beauty is to bring out of our souls the living image and power of God.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 144-145

The Limited Role of Reason in the Appreciation of Beauty

Just as we find that reason is unable to grasp and fully understand the spiritual or religious impulse and experience, so also reason is unable to grasp and fully understand the manifestation of beauty and our reaction to it.  The arrogance of the reasoning faculty of man in attempting to take credit for being the highest manifestation of consciousness in human life is quickly and effectively challenged when it comes up against all of the powers, motives, ideas and experiences that fall outside the narrow range within which the reason acts.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “What has been said of great creative art, that being the form in which normally our highest and intensest aesthetic satisfaction is achieved, applies to all beauty, beauty in Nature, beauty in life as well as beauty in art.  We find that in the end the place of reason and the limits of its achievement are precisely of the same kind in regard to beauty as in regard to religion.  It helps to enlighten and purify the aesthetic instincts and impulses, but it cannot give them their highest satisfaction or guide them to a complete insight.  It shapes and fulfils to a certain extent the aesthetic intelligence, but it cannot justly pretend to give the definitive law for the creation of beauty or for the appreciation and enjoyment of beauty.  It can only lead the aesthetic instinct, impulse, intelligence towards a greatest possible conscious satisfaction, but not to it; it has in the end to hand them over to a higher faculty which is in direct touch with the suprarational and in its nature and workings exceeds the intellect.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 143-144

Beauty Can Be Fully Appreciated By the Intuitive Intelligence, Not the Reasoning Intelligence

Art critics who pick apart a work of art to try and analyze its component elements, its technique, its perfection of implementation use the rational intellect in their appreciation of the art.  This turns into a dry and limited appreciation however, compared to the response of the soul to the soul-expression of any true work of art.  The greatest works of art move us inwardly without necessarily engaging the intellect at all.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “For the conscious appreciation of beauty reaches its height of enlightenment and enjoyment not by analysis of the beauty enjoyed or even by a right and intelligent understanding of it, — these things are only a preliminary clarifying of our first unenlightened sense of the beautiful, — but by an exaltation of the soul in which it opens itself entirely to the light and power and joy of the creation.  The soul of beauty in us identifies itself with the soul of beauty in the thing created and feels in appreciation the same divine intoxication and uplifting which the artist felt in creation.  Criticism reaches its highest point when it becomes the record, account, right description of this response; it must become itself inspired, intuitive, revealing.  In other words, the action of the intuitive mind must complete the action of the rational intelligence and it may even wholly replace it and do more powerfully the peculiar and proper work of the intellect itself; it may explain more intimately to us the secret of the form, the strands of the process, the inner cause, essence, mechanism of the defects and limitations of the work as well as of its qualities.  For the intuitive intelligence when it has been sufficiently trained and developed, can take up always the work of the intellect and do it with a power and light and insight greater and surer than the power and light of the intellectual judgment in its widest scope.  There is an intuitive discrimination which is more keen and precise in its sight than the reasoning intelligence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pg. 143