The Harmony of Virtue
Early Cultural Writings — 1890-1910
Beauty in the Real
I had ridden down by Shelsford thro' the glittering lustre of an afternoon in March and as I was returning somewhat cold and tired, saw at a distance the pink hat1 and heavy black curls of Keshav Ganesh and with him Broome Wilson and Prince Paradox. As I trotted up Prince Paradox hailed me. “Come round and have tea with me,” he said, “we are speculating at large on the primitive roots and origins2 of the universe, and I know your love for light subjects.” “I shall be a delighted listener,” I said, and was genuine in the assurance, for I had many a while listened with subtle delight to the beautiful and imaginative talk of Keshav Ganesh. I rode to the stables and returned to the College and quickly changing my apparel repaired to Chetwind3 Court, but found them already drinking tea with the liberality of artists. “A cup of nectar,” I cried, “ere the bowl be empty!” “It seems that Pegasus is blind,” said Wilson, “or he would not see the drink of Gods in the brown tincture of tea-leaves and the chased bowls of Hephaestus in a common set of China.” “If not the drink of Gods,” I replied, “it is the nectar of poets and women.” “And that is a more splendid title,” put in Prince Paradox. “You are right,” said Keshav, “poets and women are the efflorescence of being and the crowning rapture of creation, and if poets are roses in their delicate texture and have the crimson luxury and the heavy fragrance and the petalled sublimity of a blowing rose, women are moulded as fine4 material but are flowers perpetually in the bud and are only seen in a glint of peeping splendour and not in the consummated outburst of glory, which is only fostered by the living waters of culture and the nurturing warmth of independence.” Broome interposed, “No more of that,” he said, “if you escape into a byway, Keshav, you will never be wooed back into the high road.” “But what is the high road?” I inquired. Broome Wilson, who was gifted with a retentive memory undertook to inform me. “I understand,” I said when he had finished, “and am pleased to see my own ideas garbed in the beautiful dialect of poetical analogy, but have you not finished or is there more wine to be pressed from the cluster?” “There is more to be pressed,” he answered. Then began an amusing scene, for Broome baited his hook for the argument and kept throwing the line repeatedly, but Keshav was the wariest fish that ever cheated an angler and if he ever appeared to bite, was seen, as the line went flying up, to dart away into some fine thought or voluptuous image. At last when we least expected it, he plunged into the argument.
And so on the gnarled brow of Pisgah we stand and look down on a land flowing with milk and honey. Now whether is it wiser to descend and take the kingdom of heaven by violence or to linger here and feel on our temples the breath of the winds wafting us hints of the beauty we relinquish? Below there are truculent peoples to conquer and strong cities to storm and giants, the sons of Anak, to slaughter, but above the stainless heavens and the sweet, fresh morning and one lingering star.
“Let us go down,” I said, “and enjoy the full meaning of the beauty below us.”
“Yes,” added Broome eagerly, “leave hints to the spiritually indolent.”
Treneth threw in a paradox.
“I love the pleasure of anticipation better than the pain of enjoyment.”
“We are very far from the enjoyment,” said Keshav, “for we have yet to make the descent of Pisgah.”
“But what is Pisgah?” I asked.
“In thought, the knowledge of virtue, and, in action, the purpose of evolving the inborn qualities and powers native to our personality.”
“Shall I let you off, Keshav,” said Broome, “or are you ready to answer my inquiries?”
“Pray do not,” he said, “for like Gorgias I profess to answer any question and not be at a loss however strange the inquiry.”
“I am glad to hear it, and I hope you will answer and tell me why you have ignored the qualities that are native neither to our human nature nor to our personality but to a more subtle part of us.”
“I see,” he replied with a smile, “you shy at the spectre of heredity. Well, we will lay the spectre.”
“And a spectre it is, or rather a scarecrow,” put in Prince Paradox, “for it seems to me neither beautiful as an idea nor sound as a theory but merely the last resource of bad psychologists.”
“I see the lovers of the past as iconoclastic5 from regret as the lovers of the future from aspiration. We are then agreed that our first step will be to reject or accept heredity?”
We all assented.
“And now, Prince Paradox,” he cried6, “will you tell me that you do not believe in race?”
“And you agree with me that an Aryan is various from a non-Aryan and a Teuton from a Celt and a Celt from a Hindu, and a Rajput from a Mahratta and that this is fine as an idea and sound as a theory and consonant with Nature, which is fond of sphering harmony within harmony.”
“Yes, I agree with all that.”
“And by origin the Saxon varies from the Celt, and is meant for the drudgery of life and not for its beauty and splendour, just as by origin the thistle varies from the rose and is not glorious nor wonderful but simply decent and useful and good diet for donkeys.”
“That is true.”
“Then if race divergences result from origin, and origin is heredity, is it not? — is not heredity real and not a sciolism?”
“Yes, in broad masses, but not in the individual. What is sauce for the goose abstract is not sauce for the positive gander.”
“It would take a positive goose to deny that. But synthesis is the secret of Philosophy and not analysis, and we err widely when we work from without rather than from within. Let us rectify our methods or we shall arrive at incomplete results. I trust some7 of you are proficient in text-book Psychology?”
We all disclaimed the text-book.
“That is fortunate, for I can now make ridiculous mistakes without fear of ridicule. This is the theory of race as I conceive it. Temperament is the basis or substratum of character and the character built on anything other than temperament is an edifice rooted in the sea-waves which in a moment will foam away into nothing or tumble grovelling under the feet of fresh conquerors. Indeed it will8 be more apt to call temperament the root of character, and the character itself the growing or perfect tree with its hundred branches and myriads of leaves. And temperament is largely due to race, or, in another phrasing, varies with the blood, and if the blood is quick and fiery the temperament is subtle and sensitive and responds as promptly to social influences and personal culture as a flower to sunlight and rain, and shoots up into multitudinous leaves and branches, but if the blood is slow and lukewarm, the temperament is dull and phlegmatic and will not answer to the most earnest wooing, but grows up stunted and withered in aspect and bald of foliage and miserly of branches and altogether unbeautiful. On the blood depends the sensitiveness of the nerves to impressions and the quick action of the brains and the heat of the passions, and all that goes to the composition of a character, which if they are absent, leave only the heavy sediment and dregs of human individuality. Hence the wide gulf between the Celt and the Saxon.”
“You are the dupe of your own metaphors, Keshav,” said Broome, “the quick nature is the mushroom, but the slow is the gradual and majestic oak.”
“If the Athenians were mushrooms and the lowland Scotch are oaks, the mushroom is preferable. To be slow and solid is the pride of the Saxon and the ox, but to be quick and songful and gracile is the pride of the Celt and the bird. There is no virtue in inertia, but only absence of virtue, for without growth there is no development and the essence of growth and the imperative need of the spirit is movement, which, if you lose, you lose all that separates the human from the brute.”
Broome avowed that in9 our theory of virtue the remark was convincing. “And do we all recognize,” said he, “blood as the seed of temperament and temperament as the root of character?”
We all signified assent.
“Then, Prince Paradox, does it not follow that if our ancestors had quick blood, we shall have quick blood and a quick temperament, and if they had slow blood, we shall have slow blood and a slow temperament, and if they had some of both characters, we shall have the elements of either temperament, and either they will amalgamate, one predominant and the other subordinate or driven under, or they will pervert our souls into a perpetual field of battle?”
“Obviously,” he assented.
“Then here we have heredity in the individual as in the broad masses.”
“But only a racial heredity and to that I do not object, but what I loath is to be told that my virtues are mere bequests and that I am not an original work but a kind of anthology of ancestral qualities.”
“But if I called you a poem, in which peculiar words and cadences have been introduced and assimilated and blended in a new and beautiful manner, would you loath to be told that?”
“Dear me, no: it quite reconciles me to the idea.”
“And it is the more accurate comparison. Nature does not go to work like a mere imitator of herself, as modern poets do, but transplants the secrets of her old poems and blends them with new secrets, so as to enrich the beauty of her new poem, and however she may seem to grow grapes from thistles, is really too wise and good to do anything so discordant, and only by her involved and serpentine manner gives an air of caprice and anarchy to what is really apt and harmonious. She often leaves the ground fallow for a generation and the world is surprised when it sees spring from Sir Timothy Shelley, Baronet and orthodox, Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet and pioneer of free-thought, but learns in a little while that Percy Shelley had a grandfather and marvels no longer. Could we trace the descent of Goethe and Shakespeare we should find the root of the Italian in the one and the Celt in the other, but the world did not then and does not now appreciate the value of genealogies to philosophy. We are vexed and are sceptical of harmony in nature, when we find Endymion a Londoner, but look back a step and learn that his parents were Devonshire Celts and recover our faith in the Cosmos. And why should we exclaim at the Julian emperors as strange products for stoical virtue-ridden Rome, when we know that Tiberius was a Claudius10, one of the great Italian houses renowned for its licence, cruelty, pride and genius, and Calligula11 the son and Nero the grandson of Germanicus, who drew his blood from Mark Antony. Science is right in its materialist data, though not always in the inferences it draws from them and when she tells us that nothing proceeds from nothingness and that for every effect there is a cause and for every growth a seed, we must remember that her truths apply as much to the spiritual as to the material world. Mommsen has said rightly that without passion there is no genius. We shall not gather beauty from ugliness, nor intellect from a slow temperament, nor fiery passion from disciplined apathy, but in all things shall reap as we sow, and must sow the wind before we can reap the whirlwind.”
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volume 1.- Early Cultural Writings (1890 — 1910).- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003.- 784 p.
1 Tentative reading.
2 2003 ed.: origin
3 2003 ed.: Chetwynd
4 2003 ed.: moulded of as fine
5 2003 ed.: past are as iconoclastic
6 2003 ed.: said
7 2003 ed.: none
8 2003 ed.: would
9 2003 ed.: on
10 2003 ed.: Clausus
11 2003 ed.: Caligula