Stages of the Development of the Reason’s Approach to Society: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The intelligent reason, as it develops and attempts to take charge of, guide and direct humanity in an attempt to surpass the infrarational vital stage of development, passes through several stages of its own.  Sri Aurobindo has identified them as based on the underlying principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.  The reason itself is an intermediate term, between the infrarational and the suprarational, and thus, does not appear to have the final resolution within its scope.  It may fall back into some form of infrarational sleep state, ossifying the ideas that were novel when they appeared into tradition, creed, cult and habitual action.  It may proceed to widen itself and open to the higher spiritual truths of the nature and thus, exceed its own natural action.  Otherwise, within its own frame of reference, it can never be totally satisfied and thus, never reach a final settled result.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “If we may judge from the modern movement, the progress of the reason as a social renovator and creator, if not interrupted in its course, would be destined to pass through three successive stages which are the very logic of its growth, the first individualistic and increasingly democratic with liberty for its principle, the second socialistic, in the end perhaps a governmental communism with equality and the State for its principle, the third — if that ever gets beyond the stage of theory — anarchistic in the higher sense of that much-abused word, either a loose voluntary cooperation or a free communalism with brotherhood or comradeship and not government for its principle.  It is in the transition to its third and consummating stage, if or whenever that comes, that the power and sufficiency of the reason will be tested; it will then be seen whether the reason can really be the master of our nature, solve the problems of our interrelated and conflicting egoisms and bring about within itself a perfect principle of society or must give way to a higher guide.  For till this third stage has its trial, it is Force that in the last resort really governs.  Reason only gives to Force the plan of its action and a system to administer.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 193-194


The Phases of Societal Development in the Modern Age

The history of the last couple of hundred years reveals a series of “-isms” that have captured the minds and hearts of a portion, possibly even a large portion, of humanity and driven social change at an unprecedented pace as the reason tries to insert itself into the process of society and gain ascendancy over the infrarational foundation that has historically ruled societal organisation and response.  Capitalism, communism, socialism, darwinism, fascism, are all examples of idea-sets that have battled for the hearts and minds of humanity during this period of time.

Sri Aurobindo has identified a pattern or cycle of development within which societal forms and ideals are born, rise up, gain strength and take a position in civilisation, and eventually bring about disillusionment and decay, which leads to the start of the next cycle with the newest idea current at that time.

“This series seems to follow always a typical course, first a luminous seed-time and a period of enthusiastic effort and battle, next a partial victory and achievement and a brief era of possession, then disillusionment and the birth of a new idea and endeavour.  A principle of society is put forward by the thinker, seizes on the general mind and becomes a social gospel; brought immediately or by rapid stages into practice, it dethrones the preceding principle and takes its place as the foundation of the community’s social or political life.  This victory won, men live for a time in the enthusiasm or, when the enthusiasm sinks, in the habit of their great achievement.  After a little they begin to feel less at ease with the first results and are moved to adapt, to alter constantly, to develop more or less restlessly the new system, — for it is the very nature of the reason to observe, to be open to novel ideas, to respond quickly to new needs and possibilities and not to repose always in the unquestioning acceptance of every habit and old association.  Still men do not yet think of questioning their social principle or imagine that it will ever need alteration, but are intent only to perfect its forms and make its application more thorough, its execution more sincere and effective.  A time, however, arrives when the reason becomes dissatisfied and sees that it is only erecting a mass of new conventions and that there has been no satisfying change; there has been a shifting of stresses, but the society is not appreciably nearer to perfection.  The opposition of the few thinkers who have already, perhaps almost from the first, started to question the sufficiency of the social principle, makes itself felt and is accepted by increasing numbers; there is a movement of revolt and the society starts on the familiar round to a new radical progression, a new revolution, the reign of a more advanced social principle.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 192-193

Understanding the Present Age of Mankind in the Evolutionary Progression of the Race

We live in a time of constant, intense and radical change.  Technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, and it changes the way people interact with one another.  We have been rather suddenly thrust into a world of instantaneous, global information flow and interaction.  Speed has forced people to adapt and respond at a pace never seen before.  At the same time, we see a tremendous increase in awareness and mental development, as well as a vast broadening of mental action through universal educational programs around the world.  All of this implies that the intelligence is trying to gain ascendancy over the vital, infrarational stage of human development as it attempts to usher in an age of reason.  In addition, we find that along the way traditional ways of life, traditional social norms, traditional world-views are being challenged and disrupted, put to the test and in many cases, people are being left with no solid basis of understanding what their lives are about within all the flux and change they experience.  There is a tremendous clash of ideas and world-views which further increases the tensions of our modern day world.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The present age of mankind may be characterised from this point of view of a graded psychological evolution of the race as a more and more rapidly accelerated attempt to discover and work out the right principle and secure foundations of a rational system of society.  It has been an age of progress; but progress is of two kinds, adaptive, with a secure basis in an unalterable social principle and constant change only in the circumstances and machinery of its application to suit fresh ideas and fresh needs, or else radical, with no long-secure basis, but instead a constant root questioning of the practical foundations and even the central principle of the established society.  The modern age has resolved itself into a constant series of radical progressions.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pg. 192

The Precursors to the Development of the Rational Age of Society

As with everything in the world, there is a process that occurs as the evolutionary force moves from the infrarational phase to the rational phase of development.  The rational stage does not overtake the entire society instantly, but is something that appears in individuals, who over time exercise influence commensurate with the power of rationality.  There are limitations to the action of the reason in a society based on the infrarational, vital principle, yet it continues to exert pressure to widen, to change, to grow, to adopt rational principles over time.  Inertial forces work to pull the individuals back down, but they work to find ways to protect their progress and spread the benefit of the rational action.  This leads to a stage where the contending forces impact one another and progress is variable and volatile.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But even within the communities themselves reason and spirituality at this stage are always hampered and endangered by existing in a milieu and atmosphere not their own.  The elite, the classes in charge of these powers, are obliged to throw them into forms which the mass of human ignorance they lead and rule will accept, and both reason and spirituality tend to be stifled by these forms, to get stereotyped, fossilised, void of life, bound up from their natural play.  Secondly, since they are after all part of the mass, these higher enlightened elements are themselves much under the influence of their infrarational parts and do not, except in individuals, arrive at the entirely free play of the reason or the free light of the spirit.  Thirdly, there is always the danger of these elements gravitating downward to the ignorance below or even collapsing into it.  Nature guards herself by various devices for maintaining the tradition of intellectual and spiritual activity in the favoured classes; here she makes it a point of honour for them to preserve and promote the national culture, there she establishes a preservative system of education and discipline.  And in order that these things may not degenerate into mere traditionalism, she brings in a series of intellectual and spiritual movements which by their shock revivify the failing life and help to bring about a broadening and an enlarging and to drive the dominant reason or spirituality deeper down into the infrarational mass.  Each movement indeed tends to petrify after a shorter or longer activity, but a fresh shock, a new wave arrives in time to save and regenerate.  Finally, she reaches the point when, all immediate danger of relapse overcome, she can proceed to her next decisive advance in the cycle of social evolution.  This must take the form of an attempt to universalise first of all the habit of reason and the application of the intelligence and intelligent will to life.  Thus is instituted the rational age of human society, the great endeavour to bring the power of the reason and intelligence to bear on all that we are and do and to organise in their light and by their guiding force the entire existence of the race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 18, The Infrarational Age of the Cycle, pp. 190-191


The Struggle to Establish a Rational or Spiritual Society in an Infrarational World

We see that when an individual or small group of individuals develops the powers of the mind or the spirit in a society based, in the main, in the infrarational, vital and physical domains of life, those individuals are frequently pressured or harassed by the mass that feels threatened by the new powers and ideas that come to play.  Such individuals are frequently scapegoated as ideas, disruptive of the way of life of that society as constituted, come into vogue.  We see the martyrdom of Socrates, or of Jesus, as examples of a society rejecting new ideas or directions that threatened the status quo.

Yet the evolutionary direction of Nature appears to be to bring about an ever-increasing force of reason and spirituality, and this involves a process of development.  What starts with some individuals eventually has to capture a good portion of a society and eventually must become the guiding force of a civilisation.  We then can point to periods in history when such new powers were clearly at work, for instance, the time of ancient Greece or the Vedic period of India.  Just as we see with individuals however, these societies are surrounded by others that either do not understand, or which try to gain control of the more developed society by use of the greater willingness to use brute force and the size of the mass of undeveloped humanity that can be brought to bear.  With evolutionary development we see a general weakening of the vital-physical force that allows such a result to occur.  It then takes considerable time and effort to bring this new, wider society into the new direction.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…while she (Nature) originally developed thought and reason and spirituality by exceptional individuals, now she develops them in the mass by exceptional communities or nations, — at least in the relative sense of a nation governed, led and progressively formed and educated by its intellectually or spiritually cultured class or classes.  But the exceptional nation touched on its higher levels by a developed reason or spirituality or both, as were Greece and later Rome in ancient Europe, India, China and Persia in ancient Asia, is surrounded or neighbored by enormous masses of the old infrarational humanity and endangered by this proximity; for until a developed science comes in to redress the balance, the barbarian has always a greater physical force and unexhausted native power of aggression than the cultured peoples.  At this stage the light and power of civilisation always collapses in the end before the attack of the outer darkness.  Then ascending Nature has to train the conquerors more or less slowly, with long difficulty and much loss and delay to develop among themselves what their incursion has temporarily destroyed or impaired.  In the end humanity gains by the process; a greater mass of the nations is brought in, a larger and more living force of progress is applied, a starting-point is reached from which it can move to richer and more varied gains.  But a certain loss is always the price of this advance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 18, The Infrarational Age of the Cycle, pp. 189-190

The Process of Transitioning a Society from the Infrarational to the Rational Stage of Development

The character of any society is seen by the general way that society responds to its life-situations and the goals it sets before it.  This does not mean that every individual in that society is limited within the strict bounds of the society’s frame; rather, there is a general frame and there may be at any time an individual or a number of individuals who exceed that frame and become forerunners or who represent some entirely different value set from the generality.  If they represent the evolutionary trend of the society’s development, these forerunners help to lead, guide and direct the people of that society towards the evolutionary direction they will eventually take.  If they are especially motivational they may even color the tendency of the society for a time; but if they are appearing at a time when the general mass of humanity is not ready, that inspiration will be short-lived and fade again, with the impact then becoming a subtle texturing of the mind and heart of humanity for a progress yet reserved for the future.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For a time the new growth and impulse may seem to take possession of a whole community as in Athens or in old Aryan India.  But these early dawns cannot endure in their purity, so long as the race is not ready.  There is a crystallisation, a lessening of the first impetus, a new growth of infrarational forms in which the thought or the spirituality is overgrown with inferior accretions or it is imbedded in the form and may even die in it, while the tradition of the living knowledge, the loftier life and activity remains the property of the higher classes or a highest class.  The multitude remains infrarational in its habit of mind, though perhaps it may still keep in capacity an enlivened intelligence or a profound or subtle spiritual receptiveness as its gain from the past.  So long as the hour of the rational age has not arrived, the irrational period of society cannot be left behind; and that arrival can only be when not a class or a few but the multitude has learned to think, to exercise its intelligence actively — it matters not at first however imperfectly — upon their life, their needs, their rights, their duties, their aspirations as human beings.  Until then we have as the highest possible development a mixed society, infrarational in the mass, but saved for civilisation by a higher class whose business it is to seek after the reason and the spirit, to keep the gains of mankind in these fields, to add to them, to enlighten and raise with them as much as possible the life of the whole.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 18, The Infrarational Age of the Cycle, pp. 188-189

The Development of Rational and Spiritual Motives in the Infrarational Base of Human Society

As the evolutionary development takes place to move humanity beyond the infrarational stage, the activity of the rational intellect, or the suprarational spirit begins to infiltrate and influence the infrarational vital energy of the society.  There can be a movement of broader intellectual action that disseminates the insights of the deep thinkers, or there can be a broader development of spiritual purpose, albeit still confused and obscured by the vital basis upon which it is asked to build.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The mystics become the sowers of the seed of an immense spiritual development in which whole classes of society and even men from all classes seek the light, as happened in India in the age of the Upanishads.  The solitary individual thinkers are replaced by a great number of writers, poets, thinkers, rhetoricians, sophists, scientific inquirers, who pour out a profuse flood of acute speculation and inquiry stimulating the thought-habit and creating even in the mass a generalised activity of the intelligence, — as happened in Greece in the age of the sophists.  The spiritual development, arising uncurbed by reason in an infrarational society, has often a tendency to outrun at first the rational and intellectual movement.  For the greatest illuminating force of the infrarational man, as he develops, is an inferior intuition, an instinctively intuitional sight arising out of the force of life in him, and the transition from this to an intensity of inner life and the growth of a deeper spiritual intuition which outleaps the intellect and seems to dispense with it, is an easy passage in the individual man.  But for humanity at large this movement cannot last; the mind and intellect must develop to their fullness so that the spirituality of the race may rise securely upward upon a broad basis of the developed lower nature in man, the intelligent mental being.  Therefore we see that the reason in its growth either does away with the distinct spiritual tendency for a time, as in ancient Greece, or accepts it but spins out around its first data and activities a vast web of the workings of the intelligence, so that, as in India, the early mystic seer is replaced by the philosopher-mystic, the religious thinker and even the philosopher pure and simple.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 18, The Infrarational Age of the Cycle, pp. 187-188