Though Morality Commands Conformity,
All Moral Progress is Due to Nonconformists
Mr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975)
Mr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan wrote several
significant books on Indian philosophies, and helped
expand the cultural bridge between Eastern and
Western views. His books have a number of points in
common with the original theosophy of Helena P. Blavatsky.
The following text is reproduced from “An Idealist
View of Life”, Unwin Books, London, first published
in 1932, fourth impression, 1970, 280 pp. (See pp. 155-157)
At the closing of the fragment, Radhakrishnan says: “The
lives of heroes like Buddha and Jesus are not merely truthful
and austere but beautiful beyond all dream.” In fact, the
traditional narratives of the lives of Buddha and Jesus are
both legendary and not historical. Yet they are most truthful
in their teachings, and Mr. Radhakrishnan’s sentence is
perfectly correct from the theosophical viewpoint. Ancient
mystical legends are profound expressions of universal
truth, although they require a deeper reading than the literal one.
After discussing in previous pages Art from the point
of view of intuition, and having said that “Art as the
disclosure of the deeper reality of things is a form of
knowledge” (p. 152), Radhakrishnan goes on to examine Ethics.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
In our ethical life also, intuitive insight is essential for the highest reaches. The hero who carves out an adventurous path is akin to the discoverer who brings order into the scattered elements of a science or the artist who composes a piece of music or designs a building.
Mere mechanical observance of rules or imitation of models will not take us far. The art of life is not a barren rehearsal of stale parts. “The man that is not an artist”, cried Blake in one of his most arresting paradoxes, “is not a Christian”. Life is a game which ends only when one retires. It calls for the exercise of skill and adventure. The player of mettle is a master of technique. When he grasps the position, with a sure insight he moves forward. In the chessboard of life, the different pieces have powers which vary with the context and the possibilities of their combination are numerous and predictable. The sound player has a sense of the right and feels that, if he does not follow it, he will be false to himself. In any critical situation the forward move is a creative act. It springs from the self by the laws of its nature. There is a secret, organic, inevitable fatality about it.
The moral hero follows an inner rhythm which goads him on and he has the satisfaction of obeying his destiny, fulfilling his self. By following his deeper nature, he may seem to be either unwise or unmoral to those of us who adopt the conventional standards. But for him the spiritual obligation is of more consequence than social tradition. The inward constraint is more important than the law imposed from without.
He craves for inward truthfulness, utter sincerity, and not conventional propriety. He is fighting for the reshaping of his society on sounder lines. His behaviour might offend the sense of decorum of the cautious conventionalist and it is sad to feel that men of vision and creativeness have suffered at the hands of social leaders, though not always without justification. They illustrate the tragic truth that when any one grows better than his fellow men, he incurs their hatred. Crucifixion is the way in which we honour our supreme guides and teachers.
The cold calculating men who are careful of appearances will never fall grievously low, though they will not soar high. Only the deeply sincere can make fools of themselves. The Gospel of Jesus is antinomian as compared with pharisaism. “Love and do what you like”. Love takes us to the deeper secrets of life and gives us a more integrated view than intellectual subtlety and a few plain moral rules can do. Though morality commands conformity, all moral progress is due to nonconformists.
Society judges all acts according to well-known common standards. It assumes that everything is susceptible of scientific or impersonal treatment. It regards men as machines and reduces every personal problem to general terms and decides the moral worth of individual acts in the light of typical situations and moral formulas. We are slaves of a mechanical system of ideas. Rationalist codes of morality sacrifice flexibility and richness to correctness and consistency. Professing to act on principles, our intellectuals are cut off from the deeper sources of vitality and their souls are at strife with their minds. Life, love and suffering cannot be so easily handled.
No two events or conjunctions of events are alike. We must look at each of them as a unique situation, as an absolutely free and living adjustment to the circumstances and not a mechanical adaptation to a preconceived end. Only men with a delicate conscience and deep love, who have found themselves on a higher level, whose minds are guided by a deep sense of realities, and who have developed a sense for the right and the true can understand other people’s feelings and problems. They are the souls who are able to endure the evil even though they do not succeed in removing it. They have a knowledge of the foundations; they have seen into the seeds of time.
It is only in moments of supreme freedom that we are or get near to the deepest self in us. In daily life we act on useful conventions devised for the normal situations, and even in great crises most of us are uncapable of grasping the opportunity to respond with our whole self. But there is no work, however lowly, no drudgery, however toilsome, no passion, however vile, that cannot engage the self in us and yield this serene content if only the individual is spiritually alive.
Virtue, said Socrates, is knowledge; only it is not intellectual knowledge that is teachable. It is knowledge which springs from the deeper level of man’s being. It is acquired by the raising of one’s mind, the growth of one’s consciousness. The deeper a man is rooted in spirit, the more he knows directly. To one of ethical sensitiveness, the path of duty is as clear as any knowledge we possess. In its perception we come as near to absolute certainty as it is possible for us to do. We have in it a case of intuitive apprehension, though later reflection may discover reasons for its truth.
He whose life is directed by insight expresses his deeper consciousness not in poems and pictures as the artist does but in a superior type of life. He leaves behind the world of claims and counter-claims. He is indifferent to the morality which is a matter of checks and balances, for the highest morality which is not law but love is a necessity of his being. The lives of heroes like Buddha and Jesus are not merely truthful and austere but beautiful beyond all dream.
 Actually, Plutarch wrote an excellent essay showing that virtue can and must be taught. (See “Can Virtue Be Taught?”, in “Moralia”, Plutarch, vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, translated by W.C. Helmbold, 1939, 2005, 528 pp., pp. 4-13.) But virtue must be taught in deeper ways than by words only. It can also be taught by example, to those who are apt to learn. Radhakrishnan is right in saying it cannot be taught in mere words. (CCA)
 Cp. Bradley: “We know what is right in a particular case by what we may call an immediate judgement or an intuitive subsumption”. [Ethical Studies, 22nd edition, (1927) p. 124.] (Note by S. Radhakrishnan)
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