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New Lamps for Old
Page 6

THAT this intimate organic treatment of which I speak is really indispensable, will be clearly established by the annals of ancient Rome. The Romans were a nation quite unique in the composition and general style of their character; along with a predilection for practical energy, a purely material habit of mind, and an indifference to orderly and logical methods which suggest a strong affinity to the Anglo-Saxon temperament, they possessed a robust and clear perception, and a strong practical contempt for methods pronounced by hard experience to be ineffectual, which are entirely un-English and allied rather to the clarity and impatience of the Gaul. Moreover their whole character was moulded in a grand style, such as has not been witnessed by any prior or succeeding age—so much so that the striking description by which the Greek ambassador expressed the temper of the Roman Senate, might with equal justice be transferred to the entire people. They were a nation of Kings: that is to say, they possessed the gift of handling the high things of life in a grand and imposing style, and with a success, an astonishing sureness of touch, only possible to a natural tact in government and a just, I may say a royal instinct for affairs. Yet this grand, imperial nation, even while it was most felicitous abroad in the manner and spirit in which it dealt with foreign peoples, was at home convulsed to a surprising extent by the worst forms of internal disorder:—and all for the want of that clear, sane ideal which has so highly promoted the domestic happiness of France and Athens. At first, indeed, the Romans inexpert in political methods, were inclined to repose an implicit trust in machinery, just as the English have been inclined from the primary stages of their development, and just as we are led to do by the contagious influence of the Anglomaniac disease. They hoped by the sole and mechanic action of certain highly lauded institutions to remove the disorders with which the Roman body politic was ailing. And though at Rome no less than among ourselves, the social condition of the poor filled up the reform posters and a consequent amelioration was loudly trumpeted by the popular leaders, yet the genuine force of the movement was disposed, as is the genuine force of the present Congress movement, to the minimising of purely political inequality. But when the coveted institutions were in full swing, a sense gradually dawned on the people that the middle class had the sole enjoyment of any profit accruing from the change, as indeed it is always to the middle class alone that any profit accrues from the elimination of merely political inequality; but the great Roman populace untouched by the change for which they had sacrificed their ease and expended their best and highest energies, felt themselves pushed from misery to misery and broke out again in a wild storm of rebellion. But to maintain a stark persistence in unreason, to repose an unmoved confidence in the bounded potency of a mechanic formula, proved ineffectual by the cogent logic of hard experience; they had no thought, or if they had the thought, they being a genuinely practical race, and not like the English straining after practicality, had not the disposition. Hence that mighty struggle was fought out with perplexed watchwords, amid wild alarms and rumours of battle and in a confused medley of blood, terror and unspeakable desolation. In that horror of great darkness, the Roman world crashed on from ruin to ruin, until the strong hand of Caesar stayed its descent to poise it on the stable foundation of a sane and vigilant policy rigorously enforced by the fixed will of a single despotic ruler. But the grand secret of his success and the success of those puissant autocrats who inherited his genius and his ideals, was the clear perception attained to by them that only by social equality and the healing action of a firm despotism, could the disorders of Rome be permanently eradicated. Maligned as they have been by those who suffered from their astuteness and calm strength of will, the final verdict of posterity will laud in them that terrible intensity of purpose and even that iron indifference to personal suffering, which they evinced in forcing the Caesarian policy to its bitter but salutary end. The main lesson for us however is the pregnant conclusion that the Romans, to whom we cannot deny the supreme rank in the sphere of practical success, by attempting a cure through external and mechanic appliances entailed on themselves untold misery, untold disorder, and only by a thorough organic treatment restored the sanity, peace, settled government and calm felicity of an entire world.

But perhaps Mr. Mehta will tell me "What have we to do with the ancient Romans, we who have an entirely modern environment and suffer from disorders peculiar to ourselves?" Well, the connection is not perhaps so remote as Mr. Mehta imagines: I will not however press that point, but rather appeal to the instance of two great European nations, who also have an entirely modern environment and suffer or have suffered from very similar maladies—and so end my long excursion into the domain of abstract ideas.

As the living instances most nearly suggesting the diversity of impulse and method, which is my present subject, I have had occasion to draw a comparison between these two peoples, whom, by a singular caprice of antithesis, chance has put into close physical proximity, but nature has sundered as far as the poles in genius, temper and ideals. Whatever healthy and conservative effects accrue from the close pursuit of either principle, whatever morbid and deleterious effects accrue from the close pursuit of either principle, will be seen operating to the best advantage in the social and political organism of these two nations. The healthy effects of the one impulse we shall find among those striking English qualities which at once catch the eye, insatiable enterprise, an energetic and pushing spirit, a vigorous tendency towards expansion, a high capacity for political administration, and an orderly process of government; the morbid effects are social degradation and an entire absence of the cohesive principle. The better qualities have no doubt grown by breathing the atmosphere of individualism and been trained up by the habit of working under settled and roughly convenient forms; but after all is said, the original high qualities of the raw material enter very largely into the credit side of the account. Even were it not so, we are not likely, tutored by English instruction, to undervalue or to slur over the successful and imposing aspect of English attainment. Hence it will be more profitable for us, always keeping the bright side in view, to concentrate our attention on the unsounder aspects which we do not care to learn, or if we have learned, are in the habit of carefully forgetting. We may perhaps realise the nature of that unsounder aspect, if we amplify Matthew Arnold's phrase:—an aristocracy no longer possessed of the imposing nobility of mind, the proud sense of honour, the striking pre-eminence of faculty, which are the saving graces—nay, which are the very life-breath of an aristocracy; debased moreover by the pursuit, through concession to all that is gross and ignoble in the English mind, of gross and ignoble ends:—a middle class inaccessible to the influence of high and refining ideas, and prone to rate every thing even in the noblest departments of life, at a commercial valuation:—and a lower class equally without any germ of high ideas, nay, without any ideas high or low; degraded in their worst failure to the crudest forms of vice, pauperism and crime, and in their highest attainment restricted to a life of unintelligent work relieved by brutalising pleasures. And indeed the most alarming symptoms are here; for it may be said of the aristocracy that the workings of the Time-Spirit have made a genuine aristocracy obsolete and impracticable, and of the middle class, that, however successful and confident, it is in fact doomed; its empire is passing away from it; but with the whole trend of humanity shaping towards democracy and socialism, on the calibre and civilisation of the lower class depends the future of the entire race. And we have seen what sort of lower class England, with all her splendid success, has been able to evolve—in calibre debased, in civilisation nil. And after seeing what England has produced by her empiricism, her culture of a raw energy, her exaltation of a political method not founded on reason, we must see what France has produced by her steady, logical pursuit of a fine social ideal: it is the Paris ouvrier with his firmness of grasp on affairs, his sanity, his height of mind, his clear, direct ways of life and thought,—it is the French peasant with his ready tact, his power of quiet and sensible conversation, located in an enjoyable corner of life, small it may be, but with plenty of room for wholesome work and plenty of room for refreshing gaiety. There we have the strong side of France-, a lucid social atmosphere, a firm executive rationally directed to insure a clearly conceived purpose, a high level of character and refinement pervading all classes and a scheme of society bestowing a fair chance of happiness on the low as well as the high. But if France is strong in the sphere of England's weakness, she is no less weak in the sphere of England's strength. Along with and militating against her social happiness, we have to reckon constant political disorder and instability, an alarming defect of expansive vigour, and entire failure in the handling of general politics. France, unable to conceive and work out a proper political machinery, has been reduced to copy with slight variations the English model and import a set of machinery well suited to the old English temper, but now unsuited even to the English and still more to the vehement French character. Passionate, sensitive, loquacious, fond of dispute and apt to be blown away by gusts of feeling, the Gaul is wholly unfit for that heavy decorum, that orderly process of debate, that power of combining anomalies, which still exist to a great extent in England, but which even there must eventually grow impossible. Hence the vehement French nation after a brief experience of each alien manufacture has grown intensely impatient and shipped it back without superfluous ceremony to its original home. Here is the latent root of that disheartening failure which has attended France in all her brief and feverish attempts to discover a stable basis of political advance,—of that intense consequent disgust, that scornful aversion to politics which has led thinking France to rate it as an indecent harlequin-show in which no serious man will care to meddle. But if this were all, a superficial observer might balance a defect and merit on one side by an answering merit and defect on the other, and conclude that the account was clear; but social status is not the only department of success in which England compares unfavourably with France. There is her fatal incoherency, her want of political cohesion, her want of social cohesion. A Breton, a Basque, a Provencal, though no less alien in blood to the mass of the French people than the Irish, the Welsh, the Scotch to the mass of the English people, would repel with alarm and abhorrence the mere thought of impairing the fine solidarity, the homogeneity of sentiment, which the possession of an agreeable social life has developed in France. And we cannot sufficiently admire the supreme virtue of that fine social development and large diffusion of general happiness, which has conserved for France in the midst of fearful political calamities her splendid cohesive-ness as a nation and as a community. In England on the other hand we see the sorry spectacle of a great empire lying at the mercy of disintegrating influences, because the component races have neither been properly merged in the whole nor persuaded by the offer of a high level of happiness to value the benefits of solidarity. And if France by her injudicious choice of mechanism, her political incapacity, her refusal to put her best blood into politics, has involved herself in fearful political calamities, no less has England by her exclusive pursuit of machinery, her social incompetence, her prejudice against a rational equality, her excessive individualism, entered on an era of fearful social calamities. It is a suggestive fact that the alienation of sympathy, the strong antipathetic feelings of Labour towards Capital, are nowhere so marked, the quarrel between them is nowhere so violent, sustained and ferocious as in the two countries which are proudest of their institutions and have most systematically neglected their social development—England and America. It is not therefore unreasonable to conclude—and had I space and leisure, I should be tempted to show that every circumstance tends to fortify the conclusion and convert it into a certaint—that this social neglect is the prime cause of the fearful array of social calamities, whose first impact has already burst on those proud and successful countries. But enough has been said, and to discuss the matter exhaustively would unduly defer the point of more direct importance for ourselves:—I mean the ominous connection which these truths have with the actual conditions of politics and society in India.

Contd. Page 7

Indu Prakash, November 13, 1893
- Sri Aurobindo

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