Ancient Versus Modern Emphasis of the Central Purposes of Life

Modern man is highly fixated on the development and perfection of the outer life of the physical and vital existence.  The basic necessities of living, together with the development of a societal framework for the success in acquiring those basic necessities of living, represent the first and the primary activity and goal of humanity in modern times.  Questions of higher development, spiritual realisation, or aesthetic development are treated as secondary and of lower importance, to be pursued only when and if the primary functions leave time and resources available to do so.  This represents something of a major change from the way ancient humanity looked at life.  It is true that they recognised the necessity of caring for the needs of the body and the development of the societal framework; yet they still placed these lower in the scale of ultimate importance as goals or purposes of living compared to the development of the aesthetic, religious, spiritual or knowledge aspects of life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The ancients regarded this life as an occasion for the development of the rational, the ethical, the aesthetic, the spiritual being.  Greece and Rome laid stress on the three first alone, Asia went farther, made these also subordinate and looked upon them as stepping-stones to a spiritual consummation.  Greece and Rome were proudest of their art, poetry and philosophy and cherished these things as much as or even more than their political liberty or greatness.  Asia too exalted these three powers and valued inordinately her social organisation, but valued much more highly, exalted with a much greater intensity of worship her saints, her religious founders and thinkers, her spiritual heroes.  The modern world has been proudest of its economic organisation, its political liberty, order and progress, the mechanism, comfort and ease of its social and domestic life, its science, but science most in its application to practical life, most for its instruments and conveniences, its railways, telegraphs, steamships and its other thousand and one discoveries, countless inventions and engines which help man to master the physical world.  That marks the whole difference in the attitude.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 158-159