Updated: Nov 13
With this new group of chapters, we descend from the level of Supermind and Mind to that of Life. The guiding idea is the same: to analyse the nature of the phenomenon of Life in order to understand how it can operate as a medium between matter and Mind, and more generally as an intermediary principle in the cosmic evolution and expression of the Absolute. Sri Aurobindo takes up a seemingly common or ordinary definition of Life and progressively tries to expand its scope and implications, by thus making it more encompassing.
Chapter 19 criticizes, for instance, the anthropocentric view that identifies the peculiar qualities of Life with the kind of life that is more typical of human (or animal) life. In order to abandon the standard articulation of human-animal-vegetal-mineral phenomena, Sri Aurobindo draws from a not better identified ‘great Indian physicist’ who “has pointed attention to the response to stimulus as an infallible sign of the existence of life” (Ch 19, 191). Based on this definition, Sri Aurobindo suggests that “there is no break, no rigid line of demarcation between the earth and the metal formed in it or between the metal and the plant” (Ch 19, 191). In other words, Life is a continuum that includes also what is commonly called ‘inanimate matter’ but that in reality reveals a more archaic, rigid, and less developed expression of the same Life-principle.
Building on this broader understanding, Sri Aurobindo then reconnects Life with the basic qualities of the Absolute that we discussed in previous chapters (Will, Force, Consciousness). We encounter then several other definitions of Life, which seem to approximate a more intuitive understanding. “Life is the dynamic play of a universal Force” (Ch 19, 193), and this entails that the fact of being consciously aware of this play is in fact only one way in which Life manifests, but not necessarily an essential aspect of it. In other words, even unconscious sensations should count as a symptom of Life and as a form of consciousness, and they can be ascribed to anything that actually partakes in the ‘play of universal force’. In this respect, Sri Aurobindo seems to argue for a form of ‘panpsychism’ and defends a principle of sentiency and aliveness not only in plants but also in minerals.
This brings to what is perhaps the most interesting definition introduced in the chapter: “Life is a scale of the universal Energy in which the transition from inconscience to consciousness is managed” (Ch 19, 196). This definition introduces the idea of a constant evolution of Life out of Matter and towards Mental (and eventually Supramental) consciousness, which will be deepened in the next chapters.
Chapter 20 discusses the marks of individualized Life. Life as such is a general and universal principle, but as a result of Ignorance, Life too (like Mind) becomes individualized. Life as such is the manifestation of an All-Force, but due to Ignorance, this Force appears as concentrated in a finite centre of agency. Due to this ‘fall’
death is imposed on the individual life […] For the individual life is a particular play of energy specialized to constitute, maintain, energise and finally dissolve when its utility is over, one of the myriad forms which all serve, each in its own place, time and scope, the whole play of the universe. (Ch 20, 204).
Death should thus be understood not as the opposite or enemy of life, but as part of the “process of Life. […] Death is necessary because eternal change of form is the sole immortality to which the finite living substance can aspire” (Ch 20, 206). In other words, the All-Force seeks to enjoy its own eternity, but as soon as it assumes itself to be an individual living agent, that aspiration for eternity is translated in a never-ending cycle of creations and dissolutions, a constant change of form, in which Death is as essential as Birth.
Another limitation of finite life-forms is Desire (reminiscent of the hunger, thirst, craving often discussed in various Indian contemplative traditions). Sri Aurobindo explains this in a similar vein:
As this mask of Death which Life assumes results from the movement of the finite seeking to affirm its immortality, so Desire is the impulse of the Force of Being individualised in Life to affirm progressively in the terms of succession in Time and of self-extension in Space, in the framework of the finite, its infinite Bliss, the Ananda of Sachchidananda. (Ch 20, 208)
By a similar reasoning, also the ‘incapacity’ or the difficulties that individual life encounters in the process of asserting itself and defending its sustenance can be explained as a ‘mask’, a reduced form of the infinite as it appears clothed as a finite thing.
Considering thus Life as an evolving process, we can imagine that this evolution will progress away from these limitations (Death, Desire, and Incapacity) towards a state of freedom from them (akin to an embodied enjoyment of the Supermind). This is precisely what is suggested by Chapter 21.
Here, Sri Aurobindo mentions explicitly the Darwinian theory of evolution, but he also seeks to correct an overly-selfish and egoistic interpretation of it (social Darwinism was indeed a raising phenomenon across nineteenth and twentieth centuries). His phrasing suggests that Darwin himself might not be culpable for the selfish interpretation of evolution. In any case, Sri Aurobindo joins here (perhaps surprisingly) a view defended also by other thinkers of his time (like Peter Kropotkin, 1842-1921, a generation older than Sri Aurobindo and working from a very different, materialist-anarchic background). He writes:
Precisely because the struggle for survival, the impulse towards permanence is contradicted by the law of death, the individual life is compelled, and used, to secure permanence rather for its species than for itself; but this it cannot do without the co-operation of others; and the principle of co-operation and mutual help, the desire of others, the desire of the wife, the child, the friend and helper, the associated group, the practice of association, of conscious joining and interchange are the seeds out of which flowers the principle of love. (Ch 21, 212)
In his elaboration on this topic, Sri Aurobindo attempts to show how the logic of love and co-operation emerges naturally out of the apparently selfish necessitarism of natural evolution. Although this form of love is yet quite far from a sense of cosmic consciousness and Supermental Life, it shows the dialectical bridge to move towards them. Yet, this vital love is still not enough. It first needs Mind in order to overcome the initial divisiveness, and to experience love equally in the act of receiving the other as in the act of giving oneself to the other. In this process, the goal aimed at is the goal of perfect unity-within-difference. But since Mind can experience and understand this unity only to some extent and in a limited form (because Mind is a principle of limitation, after all, as discussed in previous chapters), it is inevitable that the evolutionary tendency towards unity will have eventually to move beyond Mind itself into Supermind:
a fourth status of life in which the eternal unity of the many is realised through the spirit and the conscious foundation of all the operations of life is laid no longer in the divisions of body, nor in the passions and hungers of the vitality, nor in the groupings and the imperfect harmonies of the mind, nor in a combination of all these, but in the unity and freedom of the Spirit. (Ch 21, 218-219)
This consideration is used in Chapter 22 in order to articulate a dilemma for the understanding of the role of humanity in the scheme of evolution. After summarizing the stages of Matter, Life and Mind in the general evolutionary arch, and having pointed out the tendency towards the Supra-mental domain as the natural next step in this process, Sri Aurobindo states:
Either man must fulfil himself by satisfying the Divine within him or he must produce out of himself a new and greater being who will be more capable of satisfying it. He must either himself become a divine humanity or give place to Superman. (Ch 22, 222).
The rest of the chapter is mostly devoted to provide arguments for the fact that humanity, as a species walking in the path of evolution, cannot be taken to be an ultimate point or a supreme achievement. In this respect, Sri Aurobindo mentions three main limitations that show the still incomplete and perfectible nature of humanity: (1) the limited consciousness that human beings have of their whole being (which remains mostly unconscious or subconscious); (2) the separation of human finite experience from the infinite background from which that experience originates; (3) the division between Force and Consciousness, resulting in the experience of an unconscious Force acting and a Conscious sentience deprived of operative power.
In all these cases, Sri Aurobindo suggests that a Supermental principle is involved and somehow hidden in its lower expressions, and yet Supermind is also always present ‘above’ each of them, and only by reaching it, these limitations will be overcome.
A few questions emerged during the reading group:
What are the reasons for extending the definition of life to 'inanimate' or 'lifeless' entities, such as matter and minerals?
To what extent Aurobindo's interpretation of Darwin is directed by a vitalistic view?
Who is the unnamed 'great Indian physicist'?
How does the idea of individual immortality square with Aurobindo's metaphysical monistic system?
Does the process of evolution move towards an endless advancement, or is the embodiment of Supermind the final point of it?
What is the relation between Aurobindo's idea of the 'super-man' and Nietzsche's own concept?