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

An Appropriate Role for the Intellectual Faculties in the Review and Appreciation of Beauty in Art

Every faculty of man has its role somewhere in the development of a complete and balanced human individual.  Having spent considerable effort reviewing the limitations and weaknesses of the intellect in relation to art and its appreciation, it is now possible to find and clarify a proper role for the intellect in the artistic process.  The natural function of the intellect is analytical, and this implies that it is not able to drive the creative process.  Because of its limitations as to both scope and the fragmentary nature of its process, it needs to recognize that it cannot be the ultimate judge of things.  With these points in mind, however, the true role of the intellect can reveal itself to us:

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In its earliest stages the appreciation of beauty is instinctive, natural, inborn, a response of the aesthetic sensitiveness of the soul which does not attempt to give any account of itself to the thinking intelligence.  When the rational intelligence applies itself to this task, it is not satisfied with recording faithfully the nature of the response and the thing it has felt, but it attempts to analyse, to lay down what is necessary in order to create a just aesthetic gratification, it prepares a grammar of technique, an artistic law and canon of construction, a sort of mechanical rule of process for the creation of beauty, a fixed code or Shastra.  This brings in the long reign of academic criticism superficial, technical, artificial, governed by the false idea that technique, of which alone critical reason can give an entirely adequate account, is the most important part of creation and that to every art there can correspond an exhaustive science which will tell us how the thing is done and give us the whole secret and process of its doing.  A time comes when the creator of beauty revolts and declares the charter of his own freedom, generally in the shape of a new law or principle of creation, and this freedom once vindicated begins to widen itself and to carry with it the critical reason out of all its familiar bounds.  A more developed appreciation emerges which begins to seek for new principles of criticism, to search for the soul of the work itself and explain the form in relation to the soul or to study the creator himself or the spirit, nature and ideas of the age he lived in and so to arrive at a right understanding of his work.  The intellect has begun to see that its highest business is not to lay down laws for the creator of beauty, but to help us to understand himself and his work, not only its form and elements but the mind from which it sprang and the impressions its effects create in the mind that receives.  Here criticism is on its right road, but on a road to a consummation in which the rational understanding is overpassed and a higher faculty opens, suprarational in its origin and nature.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 142-143

Reason Analyzes the Creation of Beauty From Outside; a Higher Insight Is Required to Grasp the Inner Sense

The power of the intellectual reason is based on its essential ability to analyze, to break down into component parts, and to categorize.  These powers can help the viewer of a work of art to pay more attention to the details and see the external form and the elements of its creation.  This power of fragmentation has been instrumental in much of the reshaping of the outer world of life and matter, but one thing it cannot do is to create and infuse a deeper spirit or sense into what it tries to create.  Such action comes from a different power, whether one calls it inspiration, intuition, spiritual light or psychic insight.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The business of the intellect is to analyse the elements, parts, external processes, apparent principles of that which it studies and explain their relations and workings; in doing this it instructs and enlightens the lower mentality which has, if left to itself, the habit of doing things or seeing what is done and taking all for granted without proper observation and fruitful understanding.  But as with truth of religion, so with the highest and deepest truth of beauty, the intellectual reason cannot seize its inner sense and reality, not even the inner truth of its apparent principles and processes, unless it is aided by a higher insight not its own.  As it cannot give a method, process or rule by which beauty can or ought to be created, so also it cannot give to the appreciation of beauty that deeper insight which it needs; it can only help to remove the dullness and vagueness of the habitual perceptions and conceptions of the lower mind which prevent it from seeing beauty or which give it false and crude aesthetic habits: it does this by giving to the mind an external idea and rule of the elements of the thing it has to perceive and appreciate.  What is farther needed is the awakening of a certain vision, an insight and an intuitive response in the soul.  Reason which studies always from outside, cannot give this inner and more intimate contact; it has to aid itself by a more direct insight springing from the soul itself and to call at every step on the intuitive mind to fill up the gap of its own deficiencies.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 141-142

The Inability of the Critical Intellect to Guide the Creative Process

Whenever the intellectual faculty becomes active in the appreciation of art, it remains bound by its own limitations.  These are the development of rules or guidelines appeal to the intellect, which in itself is not the creative factor, but more of a critic trying to evaluate something that it cannot quite grasp with a set of criteria that it has developed, but which has no other inherent reality or truth to it.  This is not to say that the creative energy should simply act in an untrammeled manner or without any reference to fitness or adherence of the form of the artwork to the inner spirit of the work.  On the contrary, there is and should be a power of insight in artistic creation that harmonizes the inner and the outer, the spirit and the form, in a way that is balanced and true to the inner values being expressed.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “All artistic work in order to be perfect must indeed have in the very act of creation the guidance of an inner power of discrimination constantly selecting and rejecting in accordance with a principle of truth and beauty which remains always faithful to a harmony, a proportion, an intimate relation of the form to the idea; there is at the same time an exact fidelity of the idea to the spirit, nature and inner body of the thing of beauty which has been revealed to the soul and the mind, its svarupa and svabhava.  Therefore this discriminating inner sense rejects all that is foreign, superfluous, otiose, all that is a mere diversion distractive and deformative, excessive or defective, while it selects and finds sovereignly all that can bring out the full truth, the utter beauty, the inmost power.  But this discrimination is not that of the critical intellect, nor is the harmony, proportion, relation it observes that which can be fixed by any set law of the critical reason; it exists in the very nature and truth of the thing itself, the creation itself, in its secret inner law of beauty and harmony which can be seized by vision, not by intellectual analysis.  The discrimination which works int he creator is therefore not an intellectual self-criticism or an obedience to rules imposed on him from outside by any intellectual canons, but itself creative, intuitive, a part of the vision, involved in and inseparable from the act of creation.  It comes as part of that influx of power and light from above which by its divine enthusiasm lifts the faculties into their intense suprarational working.  When it fails, when it is betrayed by the lower executive instruments rational or infrarational, — and this happens when these cease to be passive and insist on obtruding their own demands or vagaries, — the work is flawed and a subsequent act of self-criticism becomes necessary.  But in correcting his work the artist who attempts to do it by rule and intellectual process, uses a false or at any rate an inferior method and cannot do his best.  He ought rather to call to his aid the intuitive critical vision and embody it in a fresh act of inspired creation or recreation after bringing himself back by its means into harmony with the light and law of his original creative initiation.  The critical intellect has no direct or independent part in the means of the inspired creator of beauty.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 140-141

The Creative Wellsprings of Classical, Romantic and Realistic Art-Forms

Sri Aurobindo takes issue with the idea that art which is based on reason and intellectual rules or developed technique represents true classical art; rather he treats this as an imitation of classical art.  He defines the source of inspiration and focus of each of the three major lines he discusses, classical, romantic and realistic.  The first finds its source in the expression of the universal through the art; the second tries to express the uniquely individual elements of life, and the third works to portray the external form, albeit with an attempt to express through this form the inner spirit or sense that the form represents.

“The spirit of the real, the great classical art and poetry is to bring out what is universal and subordinate individual expression to universal truth and beauty, just as the spirit of romantic art and poetry is to bring out what is striking and individual and this it often does so powerfully or with so vivid an emphasis as to throw into the background of its creation the universal, on which yet all true art romantic or classical builds and fills in its forms.  In truth, all great art has carried in it both a classical and a romantic as well as a realistic element, — understanding realism in the sense of the prominent bringing out of the external truth of things, not the perverse inverted romanticism of the ‘real’ which brings into exaggerated prominence  the ugly, common or morbid and puts that forward as the whole truth of life.  The type of art to which a great creative work belongs is determined by the prominence it gives to one element and the subdual of the others into subordination to its reigning spirit.  But classical art also works by a large vision and inspiration, not by the process of the intellect.  The lower kind of classical art and literature, — if classical it be and not rather, as it often is, pseudo-classical, intellectually imitative of the external form and process of the classical, — may achieve work of considerable, though a much lesser power, but of an essentially inferior scope and nature; for to that inferiority it is self-condemned by its principle of intellectual construction.  Almost always it speedily degenerates into the formal or academic, empty of real beauty, void of life and power, imprisoned in its slavery to form and imagining that when a certain form has been followed, certain canons of construction satisfied, certain rhetorical rules or technical principles obeyed, all has been achieved.  It ceases to be art and becomes a cold and mechanical workmanship.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 139-140