In the Light of ...|Jun 27, 2004 6:44 AM| by:

A Psychological Approach to History

In our modern techno-commercial culture the study of history has lost its appeal for young minds. There are many reasons for this lack of interest in history among modern youth. The first reason is the lack of employment opportunities for the scholars of history. In our industrial age where education is no longer the great instrument of culture, but reduced to the status of an instrument of “economic growth” for  producing efficient, skilled and productive workers for industry and commerce, history is possibly the least “job-oriented” among the fields of knowledge. But even among students who are less job oriented and more inclined towards research and pursuit of knowledge, history holds no attraction because it is viewed as the knowledge of the past with little relevance for the present or future.

            But is this the value of history? Is it a mere record of the past with no value for the present or future? Does this flow of events, people, ideas, achievements, failures, calamities and euphoria of the past have any meaning at all or as one of the characters of Shakespeare contends, is it a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing? In this article we are presenting an approach and a vision of history based on Sri Aurobindo’s insights, which will make the study of history an exciting and meaningful intellectual voyage into the past experiences and the future destiny of humanity.

The Psychological History of Man

What is precisely the nature of history?

The angle of vision depends on our view of man and his progress on earth. The angle we want to explore in this issue views man as a living conscious organism seeking for progressive fulfillment or self-realisation, and in the process developing his potentialities and evolving towards his terrestrial destiny. Man is seeking, since the day he stood erect on earth, for some form of fulfillment and his history is the story of this eternal search. Thus, the human march through history is a record of this progressive seeking of man, his effort and struggle, his successes and failures, in his search for fulfillment of his body, mind and soul.

The first and the most primitive seeking of man is the effort towards survival and security and the fulfillment of his basic instincts and the needs of his body. This is the source of a large part of early economic history and the beginning of social history. When these basic needs of his body are to a certain extent fulfilled he seeks for a greater enjoyment of life. This is the other major motive behind the economic history of man especially of the modern age. The need for wealth is the more external expression of this inner need for enjoyment. For man seeks wealth not for its own sake but as the means for a better enjoyment of life. At present, this need for enjoyment has grown into a multi-billion dollar business in what is now called the leisure and entertainment industry.

As the human being progresses in his consciousness he becomes aware, successively or simultaneously, of two major clusters of needs for his life-force or vital being. First is the need for love and to be loved, and some form of mutually beneficial and harmonious relationship with others. This is the source of the latter part of social history. The second are the need for power, conquest, mastery, order, efficiency, expansion and progress. This is the source of political history and also much of economic history of the modern age.

Again, as the human being progresses further up in the evolutionary ladder, he becomes aware of the needs of his higher mind for knowledge, understanding of the higher values and aims of life and right living, which are the motives of our intellectual, ethical and aesthetic being. And finally comes the primal need of our soul or spiritual being for realizing the ultimate meaning and aim of life, which is the source of spiritual history.

This is in brief the psychological history of man. Thus the history of man is the outer expression of inner urges, needs, motives and aspirations of his four fold being: Body, Life, Mind and Soul. The first two parts or the levels of our being – our body, heart, life-force and will and their motives – are the inner source of the economic, social and political history. The other two higher parts – the higher mind and soul – are the source of the cultural and spiritual history of humanity. These four parts and their motives form an evolutionary hierarchy. The human being begins his evolutionary journey as a physical man governed by the needs of his body and goes on to become progressively the vital, mental and spiritual being. The actual process of development may not happen exactly in the order we have indicated; what we have indicated is only a broad pattern of progress effected through complex cycles of Nature. In the course of this progress all the powers, faculties and qualities of the various parts of our human organism are developed and the human consciousness is awakened to its highest destiny through progressive experiences, education, ideas and ideals.

A Possible Approach

Our approach to the study of world-history can possibly look at the march of human civilization from four perspectives: spiritual, psychological, developmental and futuristic.

First is the spiritual perspective. In our approach we consider our human individuality and the collectivity, in their essence, as a spiritual being, and a spark of the universal and transcendent Divine, and our life and mind as the instruments of our spiritual self. With this perspective we may look upon human history as the progressive working-out of the universal divine Will and its Purpose in human life through various stages and cycles of human evolution. But this working out of the divine will and purpose is not something arbitrary, disregarding altogether the human will; it is done through the inner being and outer life of man; using the human being and his will as the instrument; through the process of cosmic laws; and under the overarching guidance of the divine will and wisdom. So in our view the human being is not just a puppet of the divine will. Our human will and its choice and inclination is an important factor and instrument in the working out of the divine will. Our human will cannot alter the divine will but its choice and inclination has consequences for human life determined by cosmic laws. Our human thought and will by the nature of its choice and inclination can felicitate, accelerate or retard our evolution and progress to our goal depending on how much it is in harmony with or opposed to the cosmic law and the divine will.

The second is the psychological perspective. The outer history of humanity is the expression of our inner history. The outer events of history are the expression of the inner condition of the people. Every major achievement or advance in human history is the expression of some inner powers, qualities, potentialities, faculties and values of human consciousness and have helped to bring out, manifest and develop these inner potentialities in man. Similarly the negative or diabolic events of history may be the expression of some inherent defects, limitations or dark spots in human consciousness. So the outer events, achievements and failures of humanity cannot be understood fully without knowing their inner causes.

We tend to admire a hero like Gandhi or condemn a villain like Hitler as if they are individually and wholly responsible for what they have done. But they are only individual representatives of what we, as a human species, collectively hold within us and are capable of. The individual leader is only a channel through which the inner potentialities of a collectivity are released into the outer life. Thus in Indian history, Gandhi became the focal point around which the urge for freedom and the moral energies of a great nation, awakened by earlier leaders, were galvanized and released into action. Similarly with Hitler but in an opposite way. There cannot be a Gandhi or Hitler in the outer life unless the qualities they represent or the receptivity to the forces they represent are already within us.

But some of the apparently negative events or elements in history, when looked at from a deeper psychological perspective or one that reflects human development, may reveal some positive elements. For example frequent wars which dot the map of human history even up to this day indicate some inherent limitations in human consciousness. But wars have also helped to bring out positive human qualities like courage, endurance and heroism. In this psychological perspective we can look upon history as a progressive awakening of the human being to his highest and total potential through progressive experiences and self-expression of his body, life and mind.

The third is the developmental perspective. We may look at history in the light of an evolutionary vision of the inner and outer development of the human individual and collectivity and try to see what lessons it holds for the present and future evolution and development of humanity. But while the primary emphasis of the traditional historian is on the outer economic, social and political development of humanity, our predominant emphasis could be on the inner psychological and spiritual development of mankind through history.

And the fourth is the future perspective. The word “History” is so often associated with the past that the word has become almost synonymous with all that is gone and dead. Very rarely is history studied in relation to the living present and the emerging future. In our approach we can endeavour to look at the Past with the Eye of the Future.

These are the main features of a possible approach to history. Such an approach cannot obviously be of a specialist kind. It has to draw upon insights from many other disciplines like spirituality, philosophy, psychology and social sciences. The aim of study and research is not a specialist’s understanding of history but an attempt towards a holistic understanding of human life through history. In other words, history providing the context and occasion for a broader understanding of human life as a whole.