γνῶθι σεαυτόν  |  Know thyself

What was the Greek conception of life?

At the very start of the classic work ‘The Human Cycle’, in an essay titled ‘The Age of Individualism and Reason’, Sri Aurobindo makes a remark on one of the determining characteristics that enabled 14th century Europe to be reborn and recast into the modern age.

 “The Renaissance gave back to Europe the free curiosity of the Greek mind, its eager search for first principles and rational laws, its delighted intellectual scrutiny of the facts of life by the force of direct observation and individual reasoning..” [1]The Age of Individualism and Reason, The Human Cycle: Ch.2, Sri Aurobindo

To me, the most striking words here were ‘..gave back to Europe..’, for they suggest a golden age of Greece, of science, of Aristotle and numerous others, reborn in the genius of da Vinci and other renaissance masters, who embodied even more completely the ‘eager search for first principles and rational laws’ of the ancient Greek.

I did not realize at first, but we ‘moderns’ have a lot in common with the ancient Greeks. What is widely considered as the ‘ideal man’ of our present day and age is but an extension of the old Hellenic culture. Still more remarkably, this ideal appears to be equally applicable across geographies it is almost a ‘universal’ ideal.

“The intelligent thinking being, moralised, controlling his instincts and emotions by his will and his reason, acquainted with all that he should know of the world and his past, capable of organising intelligently by that knowledge his social and economic life, ordering rightly his bodily habits and physical being, this is the conception that now governs civilized humanity.

It is, in essence, a return to and a larger development of the old Hellenic culture, with a greater stress on capacity and utility and a very diminished stress on beauty and refinement. We may suppose, however, that this is only a passing phase; the lost elements are bound to recover their importance as soon as the commercial period of modern progress has been overpassed..” [2] Civilisation and Barbarism, The Human Cycle: Ch.8, Sri Aurobindo

But in what way do we moderns differ from the Greeks? We clearly don’t sculpt like the Greeks anymore, but more fundamentally, perhaps our age has traded wideness for specialization? In the passage that follows, Sri Aurobindo contrasts the ancient Greek and Modern mind, their particular dispositions and tendencies.

“The Hellenic ideal was roughly expressed in the old Latin maxim, a sound mind in a sound body. And by a sound body the ancients meant a healthy and beautiful body well-fitted for the rational use and enjoyment of life. And by a sound mind they meant a clear and balanced reason and an enlightened and well-trained mentality,—trained in the sense of ancient, not of modern education. It was not to be packed with all available information and ideas, cast in the mould of science and a rational utility and so prepared for the efficient performance of social and civic needs and duties, for a professional avocation or for an intellectual pursuit; rather it was to be cultured in all its human capacities intellectual, moral, aesthetic, trained to use them rightly and to range freely, intelligently and flexibly in all questions and in all practical matters of philosophy, science, art, politics and social living. The ancient Greek mind was philosophic, aesthetic and political; the modern mind has been scientific, economic and utilitarian. The ancient ideal laid stress on soundness and beauty and sought to build up a fine and rational human life; the modern lays very little or no stress on beauty, prefers rational and practical soundness, useful adaptation, just mechanism and seeks to build up a well-ordered, well-informed and efficient human life.” [3]Reason and Religion, The Human Cycle: Ch.13, Sri Aurobindo

The shock of a time-traveling Greek

We are aware of our reactions and impressions when we visit foreign places; but we could equally reverse the gaze, and ask ourselves how a Greek from the time of Socrates may react on seeing the modern industrial & commercial age. This passage also helped me appreciate what Greek civilisation and culture may have been like :

“Western civilisation is proud of its successful modernism. But there is much that it has lost in the eagerness of its gains and much which men of old strove towards that it has not even attempted to accomplish. There is much too that it has wilfully flung aside in impatience or scorn to its own great loss, to the injury of its life, to the imperfection of its culture. An ancient Greek of the time of Pericles or the philosophers suddenly transported in time to this century would be astonished by the immense gains of the intellect and the expansion of the mind, the modern many-sidedness of the reason and inexhaustible habit of inquiry, the power of endless generalisation and precise detail. He would admire without reserve the miraculous growth of science and its giant discoveries, the abundant power, richness and minuteness of its instrumentation, the wonder-working force of its inventive genius. He would be overcome and stupefied rather than surprised and charmed by the enormous stir and pulsation of modern life. But at the same time he would draw back repelled from its unashamed mass of ugliness and vulgarity, its unchastened external utilitarianism, its vitalistic riot and the morbid exaggeration and unsoundness of many of its growths. He would see in it much ill-disguised evidence of the uneliminated survival of the triumphant barbarian. If he recognized its intellectuality and the scrupulous application of thought and scientific reason to the machinery of life, he would miss in it his own later attempt at the clear and noble application of the ideal reason to the inner life of the mind and the soul. He would find that in this civilisation beauty had become an exotic and the shining ideal mind in some fields a debased and exploited slave and in others a neglected stranger.” [4]The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo

A clue to a still greater synthesis

In contrasting the modern mind with the ancient Greek, we discover a still wider conception of life that contains and exceeds them both :

“..Both take it that man is partly a mental, partly a physical being with the mentalised physical life for his field and reason for his highest attribute and his highest possibility. But if we follow to the end the new vistas opened by the most advanced tendencies of a subjective age, we shall be led back to a still more ancient truth and ideal that overtops both the Hellenic and the modern levels. For we shall then seize the truth that man is a developing spirit trying here to find and fulfil itself in the forms of mind, life and body; and we shall perceive luminously growing before us the greater ideal of a deeply conscious self-illumined, self-possessing, self-mastering soul in a pure and perfect mind and body.” [5]Reason and Religion, The Human Cycle: Ch.13, Sri Aurobindo   

We return, in a sense to the profound Vedic and Upanishadic truth, echoed in the Greek maxim

γνῶθι σεαυτόν  |  Know thyself


1 The Age of Individualism and Reason, The Human Cycle: Ch.2, Sri Aurobindo
2 Civilisation and Barbarism, The Human Cycle: Ch.8, Sri Aurobindo
3, 5 Reason and Religion, The Human Cycle: Ch.13, Sri Aurobindo
4 The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo