The Gulf Between the World of Ideas and the World of Life and Action

By the limitations of its very nature, the reasoning intelligence of man finds it difficult to hold two apparently contradictory ideas at the same time.  We tend towards formulations of “either/or” rather than an inclusive and holistic view that incorporates both.  This tendency helps to explain why the thinker, the idealist, the philosopher, the abstract scientist seems to have such a difficult time dealing with the complexity of the life energy, and why the practical man of action has little understanding for or patience with the abstractions of the ideal world of thought.  Yet both represent necessary elements in the human development.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…when it attempts a higher action reason separates itself from life.  Its very attempt at a disinterested and dispassionate knowledge carries it to an elevation where it loses hold of that other knowledge which our instincts and impulses carry within themselves and which, however, imperfect, obscure and limited, is still a hidden action of the universal Knowledge-Will inherent in existence that creates and directs all things according to their nature. … The idealist, the thinker, the philosopher, the poet and artist, even the moralist, all those who live much in ideas, when they come to grapple at close quarters with practical life, seem to find themselves something at a loss and are constantly defeated in their endeavour to govern life by their ideas.  They exercise a powerful influence, but it is indirectly, more by throwing their ideas into Life which does with them what the secret Will in it chooses than by a direct and successfully ordered action.  Not that the pure empiric, the practical man really succeeds any better by his direct action; for that too is taken by the secret Will in life and turned to quite other ends than the practical man had intended.  On the contrary, ideals and idealists are necessary; ideals are the savour and sap of life, idealists the most powerful diviners and assistants of its purposes.  But reduce your ideal to a system and it at once begins to fail; apply your general laws and fixed ideas systematically as the doctrinaire would do, and Life very soon breaks through or writhes out of their hold or transforms your system, even while it nominally exists, into something the originator would not recognise and would repudiate perhaps as the very contradiction of the principles which he sought to eternise.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 111-112

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Putting the Reason to Work in the Service of the Vital and Physical Life

Many are those who lower their sights with respect to the employment of the Reason, the Intelligent Will, so as to utilize it as a practical tool or aid in the service of the enhancement of the vital and physical life in the world.   For these individuals, the reason becomes a power of action and the more tightly focused it is on the vital life, the more power of success in can generate in that field of action.  Not for these people are the higher flights of the powers of the mind into the realm of philosophy, metaphysics or spirituality.  They remain firmly grounded and keep the reason chained to their grounded efforts.  This is however not the ultimate destiny of mankind.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Reason can indeed make itself a mere servant of life; it can limit itself to the work the average normal man demands from it, content to furnish means and justifications for the interests, passions, prejudices of man and clothe them with a misleading garb of rationality or at most supply them with their own secure and enlightened order or with rules of caution and self-restraint sufficient to prevent their more egregious stumbles and most unpleasant consequences.  But this is obviously to abdicate its throne or its highest office and to betray the hope with which man set forth on his journey.  It may again determine to found itself securely on the facts of life, disinterestedly indeed, that is to say, with a dispassionate critical observation of its principles and processes, but with a prudent resolve not to venture too much forward into the unknown or elevate itself far beyond the immediate realities of our apparent or phenomenal existence.  But here again it abdicates; either it becomes a mere critic and observer or else, so far as it tries to lay down laws, it does so within very narrow limits of immediate potentiality and it renounces man’s drift towards higher possibilities, his saving gift of idealism.  In this limited use of the reason subjected to the rule of an immediate, an apparent vital and physical practicality man cannot rest long satisfied.  For his nature pushes him towards the heights; it demands a constant effort of self-transcendence and the impulsion towards things unachieved and even immediately impossible.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 110-111

The Nature of the Reasoning Intellect and the Attempt to Govern the Life-Energy of the Creation

The logical intellect, the power of reason, has a characteristic action that is linear and segmented.  It moves from step to step and does best with analytical functions where it reviews, categorizes and then tries to create a rules-based system for managing the variations it has understood.  The intellect divides and compartmentalizes and tends also to look at things as “either / or” in a “black and white” fashion.  The intellect has a much harder time comprehending and acting upon subtle complexities and interactions which do not fit into its logical schematic.

The life-energy, on the other hand tends to have a wild abandon that does not follow the rigid ideas or compartmentalized process that the intellect can handle.  There is a constant interplay of forces which brings about ever-new forms through that interaction.  Chaos theory in modern science has shown how even simple, fixed organized principles will create complex systems based on the interaction of different forces and their influences upon one another.

It is thus impossible for the logical intellect to gain total mastery or control over the developments of the life energy.  To a certain degree, some amount of organization and control is possible, but eventually, the life-energy spills out of the canals that the reason has created for it, and new complexities arise in the holistic, global environment within which life develops.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The whole difficulty of the reason in trying to govern our existence is that because of its own inherent limitations it is unable to deal with life in its complexity or in its integral movements; it is compelled to break it up into parts, to make more or less artificial classifications, to build systems with limited data which are contradicted, upset or have to be continually modified by other data, to work out a selection of regulated potentialities which is broken down by the bursting of a new wave of yet unregulated potentialities.  It would almost appear even that there are two worlds, the world of ideas proper to the intellect and the world of life which escapes from the full control of the reason, and that to bridge adequately the gulf between these two domains is beyond the power and province of the reason and the intelligent will.  It would seem that these can only create either a series of more or less empirical compromises or else a series of arbitrary and practically inapplicable or only partially applicable systems.  The reason of man struggling with life becomes either an empiric or a doctrinaire.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pg. 110

The Potential and Progress of the Reason, and Its Ultimate Limitations

It is not sufficient to judge the failures of Reason to gain control over the life of society and organize it along lines that are consistent, harmonious and progressive to achieve the goals of human evolution.  Whenever a power must be applied across vast numbers of people in a complex societal structure, it suffers dilution of its potential as it must adjust to and compromise with the general level of human development.  When we turn our attention to the individual development of the power of reason, we can see a much more effective and efficient power that has scope far beyond what we see in general in the society.  The heights of human progress, whether in science, philosophy, ethics, aesthetic arts, have been explored and raised by the power of reason.  This brings us to the question as to whether this power can actually ferret out the deeper truths of existence and meaning for which humanity continues to seek.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In the modern era under the impulsion of Science this effort assumed enormous proportions and claimed for a time to examine successfully and lay down finally the true principle and the sufficient rule of process not only for all the activities of Nature, but for all the activities of man.  It has done great things, but it has not been in the end a success.  The human mind is beginning to perceive that it has left the heart of almost every problem untouched and illumined only outsides and a certain range of processes.  There has been a great and ordered classification and mechanisation, a great discovery and practical result of increasing knowledge, but only on the physical surface of things.  Vast abysses of Truth lie below in which are concealed the real springs, the mysterious powers and secretly decisive influences of existence.  It is a question whether the intellectual reason will ever be able to give us an adequate account of these deeper and greater things or subject them to the intelligent will as it has succeeded in explaining and canalising, though still imperfectly, yet with much show of triumphant result, the forces of physical Nature.  But these other powers are much larger, subtler, deeper down, more hidden, elusive and variable than those of physical Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 109-110

The Reason is Unable to Effectively Control and Manage Life and Society

Humanity believes that ideas, ideologies, religious dogmas, political or economic systems can bring human life under control and improve the lot of humanity.  Human history is a long tale of various systems attempting to organise and manage human society, and the eventual failure of each of those systems due to the failure to take into account various aspects of human life, needs, desires and aspirations, or due to an inflexible and limited implementation due to the restrictions of the powers of the human intellect.  Intellect is linear and focuses on “either or” thinking; whereas, humanity does not fit into neat and fixed compartmentalized solutions.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This is the cause why all human systems have failed in the end; for they have never been anything but a partial and confused application of reason to life.  Moreover, even where they have been most clear and rational, these systems have pretended that their ideas were the whole truth of life and tried so to apply them.  This they could not be, and life in the end has broken or undermined them and passed on to its own large incalculable movement.  Mankind, thus using its reason as an aid and justification for its interests and passions, thus obeying the drive of a partial, a mixed and imperfect rationality towards action, thus striving to govern the complex totalities of life by partial truths, has stumbled on from experiment to experiment, always believing that it is about to grasp the crown, always finding that it has fulfilled as yet little or nothing of what it has to accomplish.  Compelled by nature to apply reason to life, yet possessing only a partial rationality limited in itself and confused by the siege of the lower members, it could do nothing else.  For the limited imperfect human reason has no self-sufficient light of its own; it is obliged to proceed by observation, by experiment, by action, through errors and stumblings to a larger experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 108-109

Limitations of the Reason in the Field of Ideas

As the human individual develops the use of the power of the intellect, he can move his focus from fulfillment of the needs and desires of his life, to the field of ideas.  In and of itself, this is a form of progress of the human evolutionary urge, yet it too has its weaknesses and limitations, which particularly adhere the vital force of the life to an idea and make it a partisan event rather than a wholly disinterested effort devoted solely to understanding and expressing the truth of life.  There are those who say that more people have died in wars fought in the name of religion than of any other cause, which illustrates this limitation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But even the man who is capable of governing his life by ideas, who recognises, that is to say, that it ought to express clearly conceived truths and principles of his being or of all being and tries to find out or to know from others what these are, is not often capable of the highest, the free and disinterested use of his rational mind.  As others are subject to the tyranny of their interests, prejudices, instincts or passions, so he is subjected to the tyranny of ideas.  Indeed, he turns these ideas into interests, obscures them with his prejudices and passions and is unable to think freely about them, unable to distinguish their limits or the relation to them of other, different and opposite ideas and the equal right of these also to existence.  Thus, as we constantly see, individuals, masses of men, whole generations are carried away by certain ethical, religious, aesthetic, political ideas or a set of ideas, espouse them with passion, pursue them as interests, work to make them a system and lasting rule of life and are swept away in the drive of their action and do not really use the free and disinterested reason for the right knowledge of existence and for its right and sane government.”

The problem here is that each such idea is limited and circumscribed, and thus, even if it succeeds in gaining adherence and mastery for a time it can only do so either by making a pact with forces and ideas that dilute it, but which control the ground of human life; or else, they set up an opposition that seeks to bring other aspects into the view and the balance and thus eventually brings the idea down as circumstances evolve.

“Life escapes from the formulas and systems which our reason labours to impose in it; it proclaims itself too complex, too full of infinite potentialities to be tyrannised over by the arbitrary intellect of man.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 107-108

The Limitations of the Reason Based on Pre-Determined Framing of Its Action

One may observe that horses many times have their peripheral vision shielded with blinders in order to prevent them from going away from the intended path through any form of distraction.  The human reason is very much like this horse in the sense of creating walls within which the individual allows it to operate, generally related to specific tasks, goals or objectives in the material world that are sought to be achieved.  This type of exclusive concentration is very powerful, yet it has limitations for arriving at a greater truth or understanding a greater reality which lies outside the self-imposed limits.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The highest power of reason, because its pure and characteristic power, is the disinterested seeking after true knowledge.  When knowledge is pursued for its own sake, then alone are we likely to arrive at true knowledge.  Afterwards we may utilise that knowledge for various ends; but if from the beginning we have only particular ends in view, then we limit our intellectual gain, limit our view of things, distort the truth because we cast it into the mould of some particular idea or utility and ignore or deny all that conflicts with that utility or that set idea.  By so doing we may indeed make the reason act with great immediate power within the limits of the idea or the utility we have in view, just as instinct in the animal acts with great power within certain limits, for a certain end, yet finds itself helpless outside those limits.  It is so indeed that the ordinary man uses his reason — as the animal uses his hereditary, transmitted instinct — with an absorbed devotion of it to the securing of some particular utility or with a useful but hardly luminous application of a customary and transmitted reasoning to the necessary practical interests of his life.  Even the thinking man limits his reason to the working out of certain preferred ideas, he ignores or denies all that is not useful to these or does not assist or justify or actually contradicts or seriously modifies them, — except in so far as life itself compels or cautions him to accept modifications for the time being or ignore their necessity at his peril.”

“He follows most commonly some interest or set of interests; he tramples down or through or ignores or pushes aside all truth of life and existence, truth of ethics, truth of beauty, truth of reason, truth of spirit which conflicts with his chosen opinions and interests; if he recognises these foreign elements, it is nominally, not in practice, or else with a distortion, a glossing which nullifies their consequences, perverts their spirit or whittles down their significance.  It is this subjection to the interests, needs, instinct, passions, prejudices, traditional ideas and opinions of the ordinary mind which constitutes the irrationality of human existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 11,  The Reason as Governor of Life, pp. 106-107