Sri Aurobindo on the modern civilised society


But in a civilised society there is still the distinction between

the partially, crudely, conventionally civilised and the cultured. It

would seem therefore that the mere participation in the ordinary

benefits of civilisation is not enough to raise a man into the

mental life proper; a farther development, a higher elevation is

needed. The last generation drew emphatically the distinction

between the cultured man and the Philistine and got a fairly

clear idea of what was meant by it. Roughly, the Philistine was

for them the man who lives outwardly the civilised life, possesses

all its paraphernalia, has and mouths the current stock of opinions,

prejudices, conventions, sentiments, but is impervious to

ideas, exercises no free intelligence, is innocent of beauty and art,

vulgarises everything that he touches, religion, ethics, literature,

life. The Philistine is in fact the modern civilised barbarian; he

is often the half-civilised physical and vital barbarian by his

unintelligent attachment to the life of the body, the life of the

vital needs and impulses and the ideal of the merely domestic

and economic human animal; but essentially and commonly he

is the mental barbarian, the average sensational man. That is

to say, his mental life is that of the lower substratum of the

mind, the life of the senses, the life of the sensations, the life

of the emotions, the life of practical conduct—the first status

of the mental being. In all these he may be very active, very

vigorous, but he does not govern them by a higher light or seek

to uplift them to a freer and nobler eminence; rather he pulls the

higher faculties down to the level of his senses, his sensations, his

unenlightened and unchastened emotions, his gross utilitarian

practicality. His aesthetic side is little developed; either he cares

nothing for beauty or has the crudest aesthetic tastes which help

to lower and vulgarise the general standard of aesthetic creation

and the aesthetic sense. He is often strong about morals, far more

particular usually about moral conduct than the man of culture,

but his moral being is as crude and undeveloped as the rest of

him; it is conventional, unchastened, unintelligent, a mass of

likes and dislikes, prejudices and current opinions, attachment

to social conventions and respectabilities and an obscure dislike

—rooted in the mind of sensations and not in the intelligence—

of any open defiance or departure from the generally accepted

standard of conduct. His ethical bent is a habit of the sensemind;

it is the morality of the average sensational man. He has

a reason and the appearance of an intelligent will, but they are

not his own, they are part of the group-mind, received from his

environment; or so far as they are his own, merely a practical,

sensational, emotional reason and will, a mechanical repetition

of habitual notions and rules of conduct, not a play of real

thought and intelligent determination. His use of them no more

makes him a developed mental being than the daily movement

to and from his place of business makes the average Londoner

a developed physical being or his quotidian contributions to the

economic life of the country make the bank-clerk a developed

economic man. He is not mentally active, but mentally reactive,

—a very different matter.



The Philistine is not dead,—quite the contrary, he abounds,

—but he no longer reigns. The sons of Culture have not exactly

conquered, but they have got rid of the old Goliath and replaced

him by a new giant. This is the sensational man who has got

awakened to the necessity at least of some intelligent use of the

higher faculties and is trying to be mentally active. He has been

whipped and censured and educated into that activity and he

lives besides in a maelstrom of new information, new intellectual

fashions, new ideas and new movements to which he can

no longer be obstinately impervious. He is open to new ideas,

he can catch at them and hurl them about in a rather confused

fashion; he can understand or misunderstand ideals, organise to

get them carried out and even, it would appear, fight and die

for them. He knows he has to think about ethical problems,

social problems, problems of science and religion, to welcome

new political developments, to look with as understanding an

eye as he can attain to at all the new movements of thought

and inquiry and action that chase each other across the modern

field or clash upon it. He is a reader of poetry as well as a

devourer of fiction and periodical literature,—you will find in

him perhaps a student of Tagore or an admirer of Whitman; he

has perhaps no very clear ideas about beauty and aesthetics, but

he has heard that Art is a not altogether unimportant part of

life. The shadow of this new colossus is everywhere. He is the

great reading public; the newspapers and weekly and monthly

reviews are his; fiction and poetry and art are his mental caterers,

the theatre and the cinema and the radio exist for him: Science

hastens to bring her knowledge and discoveries to his doors

and equip his life with endless machinery; politics are shaped

in his image. It is he who opposed and then brought about the

enfranchisement of women, who has been evolving syndicalism,

anarchism, the war of classes, the uprising of labour, waging

what we are told are wars of ideas or of cultures,—a ferocious

type of conflict made in the very image of this new barbarism,—

or bringing about in a few days Russian revolutions which the

century-long efforts and sufferings of the intelligentsia failed to

achieve. It is his coming which has been the precipitative agent

for the reshaping of the modern world. If a Lenin, a Mussolini, a

Hitler have achieved their rapid and almost stupefying success,

it was because this driving force, this responsive quick-acting

mass was there to carry them to victory—a force lacking to

their less fortunate predecessors.

The first results of this momentous change have been inspiriting

to our desire of movement, but a little disconcerting to the

thinker and to the lover of a high and fine culture; for if it has to

some extent democratised culture or the semblance of culture, it

does not seem at first sight to have elevated or strengthened it by

this large accession of the half-redeemed from below. Nor does

the world seem to be guided any more directly by the reason and

intelligent will of her best minds than before. Commercialism is

still the heart of modern civilisation; a sensational activism is

still its driving force. Modern education has not in the mass

redeemed the sensational man; it has only made necessary to

him things to which he was not formerly accustomed, mental

activity and occupations, intellectual and even aesthetic sensations,

emotions of idealism. He still lives in the vital substratum,

but he wants it stimulated from above. He requires an army

of writers to keep him mentally occupied and provide some

sort of intellectual pabulum for him; he has a thirst for general

information of all kinds which he does not care or has not time

to coordinate or assimilate, for popularised scientific knowledge,

for such new ideas as he can catch, provided they are put before

himwith force or brilliance, formental sensations and excitation

of many kinds, for ideals which he likes to think of as actuating

his conduct and which do give it sometimes a certain colour.

It is still the activism and sensationalism of the crude mental

being, but much more open and free. And the cultured, the

intelligentsia find that they can get a hearing from him such as

they never had from the pure Philistine, provided they can first

stimulate or amuse him; their ideas have now a chance of getting

executed such as they never had before. The result has been to

cheapen thought and art and literature, to make talent and even

genius run in the grooves of popular success, to put the writer

and thinker and scientist very much in a position like that of

the cultured Greek slave in a Roman household where he has to

work for, please, amuse and instruct his master while keeping a

careful eye on his tastes and preferences and repeating trickily

the manner and the points that have caught his fancy. The higher

mental life, in a word, has been democratised, sensationalised,

activised with both good and bad results. Through it all the

eye of faith can see perhaps that a yet crude but an enormous

change has begun. Thought and Knowledge, if not yet Beauty,

can get a hearing and even produce rapidly some large, vague,

yet in the end effective will for their results; the mass of culture

and of men who think and strive seriously to appreciate and

to know has enormously increased behind all this surface veil

of sensationalism, and even the sensational man has begun to

undergo a process of transformation. Especially, new methods

of education, new principles of society are beginning to come

into the range of practical possibility which will create perhaps

one day that as yet unknown phenomenon, a race of men—not

only a class—who have to some extent found and developed

their mental selves, a cultured humanity.




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