On Conservative and Progressive Intellectuals

An excerpt from a longer essay titled “On Intellectuals and Thinkers” from the Matriwords ebook:

On Intellectuals and Thinkers, and Other Musings on India in the Light of Sri Aurobindo

Inner Light for the Intellect

“People in ordinary speech do not make any distinction between intellect and intelligence, though of course it is quite true that a man may have a good or even a fine intelligence without being an intellectualBut ordinarily all thinking is attributed to the “intellect”; an intellectual therefore is a man whose main business or activity it is to think about things a philosopher, a poet, a scientist, a critic of art and literature or of life, are all classed together as intellectuals. A theorist on economy and politics is an intellectual, a politician or a financier is not, unless he theorises on his own subject or is a thinker on another.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 31, pp. 16-17)

As we read further and reflect more, we see that Sri Aurobindo also points to a deeper way to explore the question – who is an intellectual. He invites us to look beyond the ordinary sense of the word. But in order to do that we must first accept that reason is not the only way to know or to create knowledge.

According to Sri Aurobindo, in a finer distinction, “an intellectual or intellectual thinker will then be one who is a thinker by his reason or mainly by his reason” (CWSA, Vol. 31, p. 17). He gives the examples of Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw in this category. And he distinguishes them with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and C. R. Das, who, he says, would not qualify as intellectuals but rather as “thinkers and creators” in this finer distinction. In his words, 

“Tagore thinks by vision, imagination, feeling or by intuition, not by the reason—at least that is true of his writings. C. R. Das himself would not be an intellectual; in politics, literature and everything else he was an “intuitive” and “emotive” man. But, as I say, these would be distinctions not ordinarily current. In ordinary parlance Tagore, Das and everybody else of the kind would all be called intellectuals. The general mind does not make these subtle distinctions: it takes things in the mass, roughly and it is right in doing so, for otherwise it would lose itself altogether. (ibid, p. 17)”

He continues further and explains that most of whom we classify today as ‘professionals’ – such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, administrators, etc. – may or may not be intellectuals or even thinkers in their field, despite their rigorous academic training, experience and success in their line of work.

But there is more.

And this is where we begin to get real answers. Answers that caution us so that we don’t go on making “mistakes of the mind.” Answers that have deep implication for where we turn to when we really need to know. Just as merely having intelligence doesn’t make one an intellectual, so does merely having a highly developed intellect not necessarily lead one to right thinking, right conclusions or right choice of action. 

“The point is that people take no trouble to see whether their intellect is giving them right thoughts, right conclusions, right views on things and persons, right indications about their conduct or course of action. They have their idea and accept it as truth or follow it simply because it is their idea. Even when they recognise that they have made mistakes of the mind, they do not consider it of any importance nor do they try to be more careful mentally than before.

“In the vital field people know that they must not follow their desires or impulses without check or control, they know that they ought to have a conscience or a moral sense which discriminates what they can or should do and what they cannot or should not do; in the field of intellect no such care is taken.

“Men are supposed to follow their intellect, to have and assert their own ideas right or wrong without any control; the intellect, it is said, is man’s highest instrument and he must think and act according to its ideas. But this is not true; the intellect needs an inner light to guide, check and control it quite as much as the vital. There is something above the intellect which one has to discover and the intellect should be only an intermediary for the action of that source of true Knowledge.” (CWSA, Vol. 31, pp. 13-17, emphasis added)

Thus, it may be said that a true intellectual not only recognises the limits of the intellect but also accepts that true Knowledge has its source in “something above the intellect which one has to discover.” He or she is always seeking that inner light which will guide the intellect to think right and come to right conclusions.

Conservative or Progressive?

This is another key question of our times. What makes one a progressive thinker in the real sense of the world? And who is a conservative in a true sense? It is important to get a clearer understanding of this if we need to walk away from the pop-sociologist’s ideologically narrow understanding of these words, which has led to deep socio-cultural conflicts in the Indian polity.

Sri Aurobindo’s essay titled “Conservation and Progress,” first written for the journal Arya almost a hundred years ago, provides great insights to anyone interested in understanding the deeper psychological forces working behind the mindset that we ordinarily speak of as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive.’

The deeply grounded and rich analysis presented by Sri Aurobindo makes one reflect upon the truth that a true independent thinker is not bound by any such conflicts or dualities of a ‘conservative being stuck in the past’ and a ‘progressive being only future-oriented.’ A true thinker rather strives to see the past, present and the unknown future as part of an overall march of the divine movement, not fixed in outward details and forms, but as an attempt to work out the spirit of things and a progressively greater self-fulfilment of humanity, of the nation, of the individual.

Such a thinker, a true intellectual, will have some essential characteristics. Sri Aurobindo describes them beautifully in the last paragraph of this essay. (Again, the points are listed below separately for ease of understanding whereas in the original text we find them all as part of one long sentence). Such a thinker, according to Sri Aurobindo:

“will strive to understand the greatness and profound meaning of the past without attaching himself to its forms, for he knows that forms must change and only the formless endures and that the past can never be repeated, but only its essence preserved, its power, its soul of good and its massed impulse towards a greater self-fulfilment;

“…will accept the actual realisations of the present as a stage and nothing more, keenly appreciating its defects, self-satisfied errors, presumptuous pretensions because these are the chief enemies of progress, but not ignoring the truth and good that it has gained;

“…will sound the future to understand what the Divine in it is seeking to realise, not only at the present moment, not only in the next generation, but beyond,

“and for that he will speak, strive, if need be battle, since battle is the method still used by Nature in humanity, even when all the while he knows that there is more yet beyond beside which, when it comes to light, the truth he has seized will seem erroneous and limited.

“Therefore he will act without presumption and egoism, knowing that his own errors and those which he combats are alike necessary forces in that labour and movement of human life towards the growing Truth and Good by which there increases shadowily the figure of a far-off divine Ideal.” (CWSA, Vol. 13, pp. 131-132).

That’s quite a high ideal for anyone who wants to become a true thinker, a true intellectual. Such an ideal requires not only a mental notion of what it means to apply one’s intellect and what it means to think, but it also necessitates that a true thinker recognises the limits of the intellect and the faculty of mental reasoning. It compels that the thinker must begin to develop an inner faculty to ‘see’ things, to see deeply and beneath the surface of the happenings, events and phenomena.

This ideal necessitates that if we want to be truly progressive thinkers, we don’t confine ourselves to the narrow mental prisons of past, present and future, but rather learn to see things as part of an evolving, growing Truth that is trying to express and manifest itself in many different forms. It requires that we learn to develop a deeper sense, a deeper faculty of discernment, an intuitive capacity to distinguish between the outer forms and the real, deeper essence of things, a capability to be able to sense the inner forces driving the outer events and phenomena.

This ideal compels us to stand up and act, act aggressively if need be, but without “presumption and egoism.”

It also compels us to ask the difficult question – do we see any such thinker, any such intellectual today?

But before asking that question, we must ask an even more fundamental question – What does it mean to think? Or better yet, how do I know whether I am really thinking?

To read the full essay, download the Kindle Edition of the book HERE.

Cover-On Intellectuals and Thinkers

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