The Vital Barbarism of an Age of Industry and Commerce

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, a seeker undertakes concentration in order to understand the nature of the Self.  He first determines that Matter is the Self, but after further concentration, he recognizes the Life-Energy as the Self.  As he continues his practice, he eventually moves to yet higher levels of realisation.  The point here, however, as it relates to the cycles of human civilisation, is that humanity first experiences the material well-being and the physical body as its focus and this brings about the material barbarism previously discussed.  As humanity continues to evolve and grow, however, it then moves to a form of vital barbarism, wherein its focus is on the expression and fulfillment of desire, and this brings the drive for the accumulation of wealth, and the ostentation that comes with vast wealth.  This is the phase that humanity has been going through since the industrial revolution and which has been supported and accentuated by the rise of Science, that “wish-fulfilling gem” of the modern age, with its wonders and powers of manifestation of vital fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This economic barbarism is essentially that of the vital man who mistakes the vital being for the self and accepts its satisfaction as the first aim of life.  The characteristic of Life is desire and the instinct of possession.  Just as the physical barbarian makes the excellence of the body and the development of physical force, health and prowess his standard and aim, so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim.  His ideal man is not the cultured or noble or thoughtful or moral or religious, but the successful man.  To arrive, to succeed, to produce, to accumulate, to possess is his existence.  The accumulation of wealth and more wealth, the adding of possessions to possessions, opulence, show, pleasure, a cumbrous inartistic luxury, a plethora of conveniences, life devoid of beauty and nobility, religion vulgarised or coldly formalised, politics and government turned into a trade and profession, enjoyment itself made a business, this is commercialism.  To the natural unredeemed economic man beauty is a thing otiose or a nuisance, art and poetry a frivolity or an ostentation and a means of advertisement.  His idea of civilisation is comfort, his idea of morals social respectability, his idea of politics the encouragement of industry, the opening of markets, exploitation and trade following the flag, his idea of religion at best a pietistic formalism or the satisfaction of certain vitalistic emotions.  He values education for its utility in fitting a man for success in a competitive or, it may be, a socialised industrial existence, science for the useful inventions and knowledge, the comforts, conveniences, machinery of production with which it arms him, its power for organisation, regulation, stimulus to production.  The opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organiser of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if often occult rulers of its society.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 79-80


The Positive Role Played by Science During Its Period of Negation of Philosophy, Religion and Art

The rise of Science and its triumphant march to the forefront of Western civilisation was accomplished through struggle against prevailing religious traditions and dogmas, and was seen as a threat which led to persecution, including torture or retraction under threat of torture, of scientific insights and ideas.  The result appears to have been to set up a conflict whereby Science used its strength of reliance of reproducible facts and the tremendous results it was achieving in the physical life and well-being of man, to beat down the power of Religion in order to rise up itself.  Thus was set up a dynamic whereby Science took on religion, philosophy, art and literature as not being realistic and not achieving the kind of results that Science could show.  Sri Aurobindo calls this a period of “negation” which set back these other disciplines enormously as they were being minimized in relation to the power of Science in its ascendancy.  Some of this was also due to the fact that over time these disciplines had become far too abstract and divorced from the reality of life and its meaning to a great degree.  The period of negation helped to return each of these disciplines to their original basis and roots and thus, provided a new strength for the to rise anew in a more powerful and effective form.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “in its war against religious obscurantism Science almost succeeded in slaying religion and the religious spirit.  But philosophy had become too much a thing of abstractions, a seeking for abstract truths in a world of ideas and words rather than what it should be, a discovery of the real reality of things by which human existence can learn its law and aim and the principle of its perfection.  Poetry and art had become too much cultured pursuits to be ranked among the elegances and ornaments of life, concerned with beauty of words and forms and imaginations, rather than a concrete seeing and significant presentation of truth and beauty and of the living idea and the secret divinity in things concealed by the sensible appearances of the universe.  Religion itself had become fixed in dogmas and ceremonies, sects and churches and had lost for the most part, except for a few individuals, direct contact with the living founts of spirituality.  A period of negation was necessary.  They had to be driven back and in upon themselves, nearer to their own eternal sources.  Now that the stress of negation is past and they are raising their heads, we see them seeking for their own truth, reviving by virtue of a return upon themselves and a new self-discovery.  They have learned or are learning from the example of Science that Truth is the secret of life and power and that by finding the truth proper to themselves they must become the ministers of human existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 78-79

Science Represents the Mental Consciousness Attempting to Understand and Apply the Laws of Physical and Supraphysical Nature

Science has often been set in contradiction to religion because it focuses first and foremost on the physical world of matter and attempts to understand and apply the laws of physical nature.  Science represents the rise of the mental capacity of the human being turning its first focus on the basis upon which human life is founded, the physical body and world, and the vital nature of life.  It is frequently said that religion treats of principles that go beyond the physical world, or what we may call “supraphysical” nature.  Science and religion however are actually not in conflict with one another; eventually science, as it delves ever-deeper into the workings of the material world, must turn its attention on the supra-physical world that actually governs the world of matter.   In fact, having started with Matter, Science eventually discovered that all Matter is Energy.  Going further, however, Science is now on the threshold of acknowledging that Energy is Consciousness.  The ultimate nature of Consciousness brings us into the realm that Religion has made its own.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “It is true that the first tendencies of Science have been materialistic and its indubitable triumphs have been confined to the knowledge of the physical universe and the body and the physical life.  But this materialism is a very different thing from the old identification of the self with the body.  Whatever its apparent tendencies, it has been really an assertion of man the mental being and of the supremacy of intelligence.  Science in its very nature is knowledge, is intellectuality, and its whole work has been that of the Mind turning its gaze upon its vital and physical frame and environment to know and conquer and dominate Life and Matter.”

“Life and Matter are after all our standing-ground, our lower basis and to know their processes and their own proper possibilities and the opportunities they give the human being is part of the knowledge necessary for transcending them.  Life and the body have to be exceeded, but they have also to be utilised and perfected.  Neither the laws nor the possibilities of physical Nature can be entirely known unless we know also the laws and possibilities of supraphysical Nature; therefore the development of new and the recovery of old mental and psychic sciences have to follow upon the perfection of our physical knowledge, and that new era is already beginning to open upon us.  But the perfection of the physical sciences was a prior necessity and had to be the first field for the training of the mind of man in his new endeavour to know Nature and possess his world.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 77-78

The Role of Science in the Generalization of Intellectual Development in the Modern World

If we look back even just a couple of hundred years, we would find that educational opportunity was strictly limited to an elite class of people, while the vast mass were unable to read or write, and had very little, if any, opportunity to develop their intellectual faculties.  This elite class also consisted primarily of men.  With the rise of science and the establishment of a strong mental presence in humanity, we find that virtually concurrently the idea of a broad-based educational system arose, and, systematically, education was extended to include women and others who had formerly been oppressed as manual laborers or slaves.  Today we see, almost everywhere in the world, the aspiration for an education active and inspiring people in all walks of life and from all classes of society.  This change represents the establishment of the mental culture of humanity as a fixed principle across the entire race, and it was supported and encouraged with the rise of science and the experience of the wonderful opportunities that appeared to arise from the practice of scientific inquiry and discipline.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The ideal of general education, at least to the extent of some information of the mind and the training of capacity, owes to it (n.b. science), if not its birth, at least much of its practical possibility.  It has propagated itself everywhere with an irresistible force and driven the desire for increasing knowledge into the mentality of three continents.  It has made general education the indispensable condition of national strength and efficiency and therefore imposed the desire of it not only on every free people, but on every nation that desires to be free and to survive, so that the universalisation of knowledge and intellectual activity in the human race is now only a question of Time; for it is only certain political and economic obstacles that stand in its way and these the thought and tendencies of the age are already labouring to overcome.  And, in sum, Science has already enlarged for good the intellectual horizons of the race and raised, sharpened and intensified powerfully the general intellectual capacity of mankind.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pg. 77

The Need to Generalize the Spread of Knowledge for the Development of Civilization

The rise of civilisation around the world has been accompanied by an increasing intellectual development.  Early on in this evolution intellectual development and the concentration of knowledge was very much limited to specific individuals or classes of individuals, whether through natural processes of development, or through various forms of stratification that withheld knowledge and education for the vast mass of society while supporting it in a ruling elite or a religious leadership.  In India, for instance, the Brahmin caste developed and focused the intellectual learning of the society within that group; while others received only specialized training in the specific areas of their action, such as, for the Kshatriya, the science of warfare, government and practice of the physical culture of arms.  For the Vaishya there was a focus on business and the necessary capacities related thereto, such as measurement, money management, and the intricacies of trade and exchange.  In the West a similar system obtained, and the ability to read was tightly focused on the religious orders, and in certain parts of government where such powers were required.  The vast mass of society remained uneducated on an intellectual level.  This allowed those with education to manipulate and control and direct the mass of people without the training in thought, logical reasoning and language skills, and who also did not possess the factual basis that could be acquired through education, so as to be able to understand and analyze complex issues.

With the development of the printing press, the renaissance, and the industrial revolution, it became useful and necessary for larger segments of society to obtain an intellectual education, at least to some limited degree and eventually mass education systems arose.  Ruling elites needed educated people to run ever more complex systems and processes, and with the development of the digital age, this became even more necessary.  However, the down side, which they soon experienced was that an educated populace is less easy to manipulate and control, so counter-movements have arisen in the modern day to try to reduce the educational access and manipulate people through mass media and digital information feeds, thereby concentrating the power in the hands of the ruling elite more tightly once again after the experiment with widespread education had been tried.  It is not possible however to actually develop civilisation over the long term without a broadening of the base of education and the increasing of the amplitude of the intellectual growth.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Civilisation can never be safe so long as, confining the cultured mentality to a small minority, it nourishes in its bosom a tremendous mass of ignorance, a multitude, a proletariate.  Either knowledge must enlarge itself from above or be always in danger of submergence by the ignorant night from below.  Still more must it be unsafe, if it allows enormous numbers of men to exist outside its pale uninformed by its light, full of the natural vigour of the barbarian, who may at any moment seize upon the physical weapons of the civilised without undergoing an intellectual transformation by their culture.”

“Knowledge must be aggressive, if it wishes to survive and perpetuate itself; to leave an extensive ignorance either below or around it, is to expose humanity to the perpetual danger of a barbaric relapse.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 76-77

The Development of Man, the Mental Being

We can trace the rise of the appreciation for the mind as the essential characteristic which separates man from the vital world of the animal kingdom by the famous dictum expressed by the Western philosopher Rene Descartes:  “I think, therefore I am.”  When we look at the history of Western education of the last couple of hundred years, in particular, we see an over-emphasis on intellectual, mental education and training.  This is defined as “getting an education”.  While there are elements of physical education and to some degree vital or aesthetic elements, it is clear that the mind is the focus.  If we look to the East, we also find that Buddhism in particular has a strong focus on development of the mind and its systematic training.  Historically, when we look at the educational background in Upanishadic India, there is also a recognition of the central role of the mind in the life of humanity.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates on this subject:  “The idea of the necessity of general education means the recognition by the race that the mind and not the life and the body are the man and that without the development of the mind he does not possess his true manhood.  The idea of education is still primarily that of intelligence and mental capacity and knowledge of the world and things, but secondarily also of moral training and, though as yet very imperfectly, of the development of the aesthetic faculties.  The intelligent thinking being, moralised, controlling his instincts and emotions by his will and his reason, acquainted with all that he should know of the world and his past, capable of organising intelligently by that knowledge his social and economic life, ordering rightly his bodily habits and physical being, this is the conception that now governs civilised humanity.  It is, in essence, a return to and a larger development of the old Hellenic ideal, with a greater stress on capacity and utility and a very diminished stress on beauty and refinement.  We may suppose, however, that this is only a passing phase; the lost elements are bound to recover their importance as soon as the commercial period of modern progress has been overpassed, and with that recovery not yet in sight but inevitable, we shall have all the proper elements for the development of man as a mental being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 75-76

Evolving Beyond the Mentality of the Barbarian

Fixation on the strength and predominance of the physical body as a primary characteristic for determining human advancement and preeminence, is a sign of what Sri Aurobindo calls “the mentality of the barbarian”.  Physical strength and bodily prowess is the key indicator that judges the rank of individuals in that realm.  Brute force and physical might are prized.  Every human being has a fixation on the needs and development of the physical body in the early formative years of childhood, but later, as the vital personality and the mind development, most are able, in today’s world, to move beyond such a fixation.  We see the development of the vital being as man becomes more concerned with relations and with economic activities, and then the development of the mental faculties for those who are moving towards a focus on the mind and its powers as characteristic of human life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The time is passing away, permanently — let us hope — for this cycle of civilisation, when the entire identification of the self with the body and the physical life was possible for the general consciousness of the race.  That is the primary characteristic of complete barbarism.  To take the body and the physical life as the one thing important, to judge manhood by the physical strength, development and prowess, to be at the mercy of the instincts which rise out of the physical inconscient, to despise knowledge as a weakness and inferiority or look on it as a peculiarity and no necessary part of the conception of manhood, this is the mentality of the barbarian.”

“Man is ceasing to be so much of a physical and becoming much more of a vital and economic animal.  Not that he excludes or is intended to exclude the body and its development or the right maintenance of and respect for the animal being and its excellences from his idea of life; the excellence of the body, its health, its soundness, its vigour and harmonious development are necessary to a perfect manhood and are occupying attention in a better and more intelligent way than before.  But the first rank in importance can no longer be given to the body, much less that entire predominance assigned to it in the mentality of the barbarian.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 8, Civilisation and Barbarism, pp. 74-75