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New Lamps for Old
Page 5

WE HAVE then to appreciate the actual conditions of English progress, in their sound no less than their unsound aspects: and it will be to our convenience to have ready some rough formulae by which we may handle the subject in an intelligible way. To this problem Mr. Surendranath Banerji, a man who with all his striking merits, has never evinced any power of calm and serious thought, proffers a very grandiloquent and heart-stirring solution. "We rely," he has said, "on the liberty-loving instincts of the greatest representative assembly in the world, the palladium of English Liberty, the sanctuary of the free and brave, the British House of Commons" and at this inspiriting discharge of oratory there was, we are told, nor do we wonder at it—a responding volley of loud and protracted applause. Now when Mr. Banerji chooses to lash himself into an oratorical frenzy and stir us with his sounding rhetoric, it is really impracticable for anything human to stand up and oppose him: and though I may hereafter tone down his oriental colouring to something nearer the hue of truth, yet it does not at present serve my purpose to take up arms against a sea of eloquence. I would rather admit at once the grain of sound fact at the core of all this than strip off the costly integuments with which Mr. Banerji's elaborate Fancy chooses to invest it. But when Mr. Banerji's words no longer reverberate in your ears, you may have leisure to listen to a quieter, more serious voice, now unhappily hushed in the grave,—the voice of Matthew Arnold, himself an Englishman and genuine lover of his country, but for all that a man who thought deeply and spoke sanely. And where according to this sane and powerful intellect shall we come across the really noteworthy outcome of English effort? We shall best see it, he tells us, not in any palladium or sanctuary, not in the greatest representative assembly in the world, but in an aristocracy materialised, a middle class vulgarised and a lower class brutalised: and no clear-sighted student of England will be insensible to the just felicity with which he has hit off the social tendencies prevailing in that country. Here then we have ready rough formulae by which we may, at the lowest, baldly outline the duplicate aspect of modern England: for now that we have admitted Mr. Banerji's phrase as symbolic of the healthy outcome creditable to English effort, we can hardly be shy of admitting Matthew Arnold's phrase as symbolic of the morbid outcome discreditable to it. But it is still open to us to evince a reasonable doubt whether there is any way of reconciling two items so mutually destructive: for it does seem paradoxical to rate the produces of institutions so highly lauded and so universally copied at a low grade in the social ladder. But this apparent paradox may easily be a vital truth; and in establishing that, as I hope to establish it, I shall have incidentally to moot another and wider theorem. I would urge that our entire political philosophy is rooted in shallow earth, so much so indeed that without repudiation or radical change we cannot arrive at an attitude of mind healthily conducive to just and clear thinking. I am conscious that the argument has hitherto been rather intangible and moved too largely among wide abstract principles. Such a method is by its nature less keenly attractive to the general readers than a close and lively handling of current politics, but it is required for an adequate development of my case, and I must entreat indulgence a step or two further, before I lay any grasp on the hard concrete details of our actual political effort.

Now the high value at which Mr. Mehta appraises history as our sole available record of human experience in the mass will clearly be endorsed by every thoughtful and judicious mind. But to sustain it at that high level of utility, we must not indulge in hasty deductions based on a very partial scrutiny, but must group correctly and digest in a candid spirit such data as we can bring within our compass. If we observe this precept, we shall not easily coincide with his opinion that European progress has been of a single texture. We shall rather be convinced that there run through it two principles of motion distinct in nature and adverse in event, the trend of whose divergence may be roundly expressed as advance in one direction through political methods and in another direction through social methods. But as the use of these time-worn epithets might well promote misconception and drag us into side-issues, I will attempt a more delicate handling and solicit that close attention without which so remote and elusive a subject cannot come home to the mind with proper force and clearness.

In bringing abstractions home to the human intelligence, it is perhaps best to dispel by means of near and concrete specimens that sense of remoteness which we shrink from in what is at all intangible. Hence I shall attempt to differentiate by living instances the two principles which I suggest as the main motors of progress. The broadcast of national thought in England prevalent from very early times, may not inappropriately stand for the sort of progress that runs after a political prize. The striking fact of English history—the fact that dwarfs all others—is, without doubt, the regular development from certain primordial seeds and the continuous branching out, foliation and efflorescence of the institution which Mr. Banerji has justly termed the greatest representative assembly in the world. This is highly typical of the English school of thought and the exaggerated emphasis it lays on the mould and working of institutions. However supreme in the domain of practical life, however gifted with commercial vigour and expansive energy, the English mind with its short range of vision, its too little of delicacy and exactness, its inability to go beyond what it actually sees, is wholly unfit for any nice appraisal of cause and effect. It is without vision, logic, the spirit of curiosity, and hence it has not any habit of entertaining clear and high ideals, any audacity of experiment, any power of finding just methods nicely adopted to produce the exact effect intended:—it is without speculative temerity and the scientific spirit, and hence it cannot project great political theories nor argue justly from effect to cause. All these incapacities have forced the English mind into a certain mould of thought and expression. Limited to the visible and material, they have put their whole force into mechanical invention; void of curiosity, they have hazarded just so much experiment and no more, as was necessary to suit existing institutions to their immediate wants; inexact, they have never cared in these alterations to get at more than an approximation to the exact effect intended; illogical and without subtlety, they have trusted implicitly to the political machines for whose invention they have a peculiar genius, and never cared to utilise mightier forces and a subtler method. Nor is this all: in their defect of speculative imagination, they are unable to get beyond what they themselves have experienced, what they themselves have effected. Hence, being unscientific and apt to impute every power to machinery, they compare certain sets of machines, and postulating certain effects from them, argue that as this of their own invention has been attended by results of the highest value, it is therefore of an unique excellence and conserves in any and every climate its efficiency and durability. And they do not simply flaunt this opinion in the face of reason, but, by their stupendous material success and vast expansion, they have managed to convince a world apt to be impressed by externals, that it is correct, and even obviously correct. Yet it is quite clear that this opinion, carefully analysed, reduces itself to a logical absurdity. By its rigid emphasising of a single element it slurs over others of equal or superior importance: it takes no account of a high or low quality in the raw material, of variant circumstances, of incompatibilities arising from national temperament, and other forces which no philosophical observer will omit from his calculations. In fact it reduces itself to the statement, that, given good machinery, then no matter what quality of materials is passed through it, the eventual fabric will be infallibly of the most superior sort. If the Indian intellect had been nourished on any but English food, I should be content with stating the idea in this its simplest form, and spare myself a laborious exegesis; but I do not forget that I am addressing minds formed by purely English influences and therefore capable of admitting the rooted English prejudice that what is logically absurd, may be practically true. At present however I will simply state the motive principle of progress exemplified by England as a careful requisition and high appraisal of sound machinery in preference to a scientific social development.

But if we carry our glance across the English Channel, we shall witness a very different and more animating spectacle. Gifted with a lighter, subtler and clearer mind than their insular neighbours, the French people have moved irresistibly towards a social and not a political development. It is true that French orators and statesmen, incapacitated by their national character from originating fit political ideals, have adopted a set of institutions curiously blended from English and American manufactures; but the best blood, the highest thought, the real grandeur of the nation does not reside in the Senate or in the Chamber of Deputies; it resides in the artistic and municipal forces of Parisian life, in the firm settled executive, in the great vehement heart of the French populace—and that has ever beaten most highly in unison with the grand ideas of Equality and Fraternity, since they were first enounced on the banner of the great and terrible Republic. Hence though by the indiscreet choice of a machine, they have been compelled to copy the working of English machinery and concede an undue importance to politics, yet the ideals which have genuinely influenced the spirit which has most deeply permeated their national life are widely different from that alien spirit, from those borrowed ideals. I have said that the French mind is clearer, subtler, lighter than the English. In that clarity they have discerned that without high qualities in the raw material excellence of machinery will not suffice to create a sound and durable national character,—that it may indeed develop a strong, energetic and capable temper, but that the fabric will not combine fineness with strength, will not resist permanently the wear and tear of time and the rending force of social problems:—through that subtlety they divined that not by the mechanic working of institutions, but by the delicate and almost unseen moulding of a fine, lucid and invigorating atmosphere, could a robust and highly-wrought social temper be developed:—and through that lightness they chose not the fierce, sharp air of English individualism, but the bright influence of art and letters, of happiness, a wide and liberal culture, and the firm consequent cohesion of their racial and social elements. To put all this briefly, the second school of thought I would indicate to my readers, is the preference of a fine development of social character and a wide diffusion of happiness to the mechanic development of a sound political machinery. Here then as indicated by these grand examples we have our two principal motors of progress; a careful requisition for the sake of evolving an energetic national character and high level of capacity, of a sound political machinery; and the ardent, yet rational pursuit, for its own sake, of a sound and highly-wrought social temper.

It may be worth while here to develop a point I have broadly suggested, that with these distinct lines of feeling accord distinct types of racial character. The social ideal is naturally limited to peoples distinguished by a rare social gift and an unbounded receptivity for novel ideas along with a large amount of practical capacity. The ancient Athenian, pre-eminent for lightness of temper and lucidity of thought, was content with the simplest and most nakedly logical machinery, and principally sought to base political life on equality, a wide diffusion of culture, and a large and just social principle. Moreover, as the subtlest and hence the most efficient way of conserving the high calibre of his national character, he chose the infusion of light, gaiety and happiness into the common life of the people. Clear in thought and felicitous in action, he pursued an ideal strictly consonant with his natural temper and rigidly exclusive of the anomalous: and so highly did he attain, that the quick, shifting, eager Athenian life, with its movement and colour, its happy buoyancy, its rapid genius, or as the Attic poet beautifully phrases it, walking delicately through a fine and lucid air, has become the admiration and envy of posterior ages. The modern Frenchman closely allied by his clear habit of mind to the old Athenian, himself lucid in thought, light in temper and not without a supreme felicity of method in practical things, evinces much the same sentiments, pursues much the same ideals. He too has a happily-adjusted executive machinery, elaborated indeed to fit the needs of a modern community, but pervaded by a thoroughly clear and logical spirit. He also has a passionate craving for equality and a large and just social principle, and prefers to conserve the high calibre of his national character by the infusion of light, gaiety and happiness into the common life of the people. And he too has so far compassed his ideal that a consensus of competent observers have pronounced France certainly the happiest, and, taken in the mass, the most civilised of modern countries. But to the Englishman or American, intellect, lucidity, happiness are not of primary importance: they strike him in the light of luxuries rather than necessities. It is the useful citizen, the adroit man of business, the laborious worker, whom he commends with the warmest emphasis and copies with the most respectful emulation. Such a cast of mind being entirely incompatible with social success, he directs his whole active powers into the grosser sphere of commerce and politics, where practical energy, unpurified by thought, may struggle forward to some vulgar and limited goal. To put it in a concrete form, Paris may be said to revolve around the Theatre, the Municipal Council and the French Academy, London looks rather to the House of Commons and New York to the Stock Exchange. I trust that I have now clearly elucidated the exact and intimate nature of those two distinct principles on which progress may be said to move. It now remains to gauge the practical effect of either policy as history indicates them to us. We in India, or at any rate those races among us which are in the van of every forward movement, are far more nearly allied to the French and Athenian than to the Anglo-Saxon, but owing to the accident of British domination, our intellects have been carefully nurtured on a purely English diet. Hence we do not care to purchase an outfit of political ideas properly adjusted to our natural temper and urgent requirements, but must eke out our scanty wardrobe with the cast-off rags and thread-bare leavings of our English Masters and this incongruous apparel we display with a pompous self-approval which no unfriendly murmurs, no unkind allusions are allowed to trouble. Absurd as all this is, its visible outcome is clearly a grave misfortune. Prompted by our English instruction we have deputed to a mere machine so arduous a business as the remoulding of our entire destinies, needing as it does patient and delicate manual adjustment and a constant supervising vigilance—and this to a machine not efficient and carefully pieced together but clumsy and made on a rude and cheap model. So long as this temper prevails, we shall never realise how utterly it is beyond the power of even an excellent machine to renovate an effete and impoverished national character and how palpably requisite to commence from within and not depend on any exterior agency. Such a retrospect as I propose will therefore be of peculiar value, if it at all induces us to acknowledge that it is a vital error, simply because we have invented a clumsy machine, to rest on our oars and imagine that expenditure of energy in other directions is at present superfluous.

Contd. Page 6

Indu Prakash, October 30, 1893
- Sri Aurobindo

Let the divine doors swing wide open for him who is not attached,
who increases in himself the Truth.
- Sri Aurobindo