In 1910, before the two World War,
Sri Aurobindo wrote some fictional letters
entitled “Epistles from Abroad”
about the modern European civilisation.
We propose here some excerpts...
Is this then the end of the long march of human civilisation, this spiritual suicide, this quiet petrification of the soul into matter? Was the successful business-man that grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving? After all, if the scientific view is correct, why not? An evolution that started with the protoplasm and flowered in the ourang-outang and the chimpanzee, may well rest satisfied with having created hat, coat and trousers, the British Aristocrat, the American capitalist and the Parisian Apache. For these, I believe, are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads. For these Augustus created Europe, Charlemagne refounded civilisation, Louis XIV regulated society, Napoleon systematised the French Revolution. For these Goethe thought, Shakespeare imagined and created, St. Francis loved, Christ was crucified. What a bankruptcy! What a beggary of things that were rich and noble! Europe boasts of her science and its marvels. But an Indian cannot content himself with asking like Voltaire, as the supreme question, “What have you invented?” His glance is at the soul; it is that into which he is accustomed to inquire. To the braggart intellect of Europe he is bound to reply, “I am not interested in what you know, I am interested in what you are. With all your discoveries and inventions, what have you become?”. […] It is a very pleasant inferno they have created in Europe, a hell not of torments but of pleasures, of lights and carriages, of balls and dances and suppers, of theatres and cafés and music halls, of libraries and clubs and Academies, of National Galleries and Exhibitions, of factories, shops, banks and Stock Exchanges. But it is hell all the same, not the heaven of which the saints and the poet dreamed, the new Jerusalem, the golden city. London and New York and the holy ciry of the new religion, Paris the golden Paradise of Pleasure. […] System, organisation, machinery have attained their perfection. Bondage has been carried to its highest expression […]. Darwin and Huxley and Haeckel had settled the Creator’s hash for Him; it was res judicata. It is wonderful how easily man tramples on one formula merely to bow reverently before another. […] A thousand newspapers vulgarise knowledge, debase aesthetical appreciation, democratise success and make impossible all that was once unusual and noble. The man of letters has become a panderer to the intellectual appetites of a mob or stands aloof in the narrowness of a cocoterie. There is plenty of brilliance everywhere, but one searches in vain for a firm foundation, the power or the solidity of knowledge. …In this brilliance there is no permanence, in this curiosity there is no depth. Cleverness has replaced wisdom and men are more concerned to be original in minutiae than to secure their hold upon large and permanent truths. New theories chase each other across a confused and distracted field resonant with the clash of hustling and disjected details and the mind is not allowed to rest calmly upon long investigation or confirm and purify an emerging truth. Everybody is in a hurry to generalise, to build immense conclusions upon meagre indications. No man but thinks he can perform the miracle of constructing the whole animal out of a single stray bone. But the result is more often a trick of intellectual legerdemain than any miracle of constructive knowledge. We in India think it better to rest calmly in our uncertainty than to clutch at premature conclusions — but the West is progressive and will no longer suffer so austere an eclipse of its brilliancy. No such rein shall be put on the galloping Pegasus of its scholastic and scientific fancy. The select seek paradox in order to distinguish themselves from the herd; a perpetual reiteration of some startling novelty can alone please the crowd. Each favourite is like an actor from whom the audience expect from day to day the usual passion or the usual farce. Paradox and novelty therefore thrive; but the select have an easily jaded appetite, the multitude are fickle and novelties have their hour. Therefore even the favourite palls. […] With the exception of a small minority full of a grotesque, superficial but genuine passion, nobody believes, nobody feels; opinion, convention, preference and habit are alive and call themselves religion, but the heart that loves God is not to be found. […] For only half a century the whole of Europe has not been able to produce a single poet of even secondary magnificence. One no longer looks for Shakespeare or Dante to return, but even Wordsworth or Racine have also become impossible. Hugo’s flawed opulence, Whitman’s formless plenty, Tennyson’s sugared emptiness seem to have been the last poetic speech of modern Europe. If poetical genius appears, it is at once taken prisoner by the applauding coterie or the expectant multitude and, where it began, there it ends, enslaved in ignoble fetters, pirouetting perpetually for their pleasure round a single accomplishment. Of all literary forms the novel only has still some genius and even that is perishing of the modern curse of overproduction. Learning and scholarship are unendingly active over the dead corpse of creative power as in Alexandria and with the later Rome before the great darkness. Eccentricity and the hunting after novelty and paradox play in it over an ostentatious precision and accuracy. Yesterday’s opinion is today exploded and discarded, new fireworks of theory, generalisation and speculation take the place of the old, and to this pyrotechnic rushing in a circle they give the name of progress. The possibility of a calm insight and wisdom seems to have departed from this brilliant mob of pushing, overactive intellects. Force there is, but force doomed to a rapid dissolution, of which the signs are already not wanting. […] O this Europe with its noise, its childish vanity, its barbarous material pomp and show, its puerile clashing of sabres and rattling of wheels, its foam and froth of a little knowledge, its mailed fist, its heart of lead, its tremulous, crying nerves, its sinews all unstrung with a luxury and debauch it is not great enough of soul to indulge itself in with the true ancient Titanism. One notes too its fear of the darkness of death, its clinging to life, its morbid terror of pain, its braggart tongue and coward action, its insincerity, dishonesty, unfaith, its romantic altruistic dreams so soon ended and changing into a selfish and cynical proclamation of interest, power and pleasure, — one sees its increasing brain, its perishing will. It is not in noble figures that she presents herself to my imagination, this sole enlightened continent, it is not fear or respect that they awaken in my mind, these civilised superior nations. I see a little girl wearing a new frock and showing herself off to Mamma and all the world, unable to conceal her pride and delight in the thought that never was a frock so new and nice or a little girl so pretty, — never was and never will be! I think of a very small boy to whom somebody has given a very big cane — one can see him brandishing it, executing now and then and exultant wardance, tormenting, tyrannising over and plundering of their little beginnings all the smaller boys he can get within his cane’s reach, not displeased if they show a little fight so that he can exhibit his heroic strength of arm by punishing them. And then he adorns himself with glittering Victoria crossed and calls on all his associates to admire his gallant and daredevil courage. Sometimes it reminds me of an old man, a man very early old, still strong in his decrepitude, garrulous, well-informed, luxurious, arrogant, intelligent, still busy toddling actively from place to place, looking into this, meddling into that, laying down the law dogmatically on every point under the sun, and through it all the clutch already nearing the brain, the shaking of the palsy already foreshadowed in tremulous movement and uncertain nerve. Very true, Europe, your frock is the cleanest and newest, for the present, your stick the biggest, your wardance a very frightening spectacle, — frightening even to yourselves — with Krupp and Mauser and machine gun what else it should be, you are indeed for a while the robust, enlightened oldster you seem. But afterwards? Well, afterwards there will be a newer frock, a bigger stick, a wardance much more terrible and a real Titan grasping at the earth for his own instead of the sham.
Europe prides herself on her practical and scientific organisation and efficiency. I am waiting till her organisation is perfect; then a child shall destroy her.
Thoughts and Aphorisms