The Harmony of Virtue is a fictional story written by Sri Aurobindo.
In this story, Keshav Ganesh and Broome Wilson are friends. They both are undergraduate students working towards the completion of their Tripos exam. Broome comes to visit Keshav one evening and Keshav is very happy to see him and asks why he hadn’t come the past fortnight. For which Broome replies that he had been preparing for the Tripos exams.
Keshav asks Broome to postpone his studies until tomorrow and invites him to talk. Keshav says that he has cigarettes, coffee, cake and biscuits for them to eat and share. Wilson is very pleased with this arrangement.
Wilson asks Keshav if he is still working in his room. Keshav gives a humorous reply that life is too precious to be wasted in labor and the hour after dinner is the perfect time to be idle. Keshav adds on saying that he bears the hard work of the past 12 hours just to enjoy and be idle during the 1 hour after dinner.
Wilson is amused and calls Keshav a living paradox as he has turned indolence into the aim of life.
For which, Keshav asks what other aim life can have. Broome replies perhaps “duty” is the aim of life.
Keshav responds skeptically that he would only accept this answer if he knew the meaning of duty.
Wilson sneers that may be he is doomed to an evening of metaphysics. He says that duty is something we ought to be doing.
Keshav asks a question of how can we know we are doing what we ought to be doing?
Wilson replies that we ought to do what the society requires of us.
Keshav asks if we have to do what the society requires of us even if it is not in alignment with our nature and beliefs. For which Wilson replies in the affirmative. Keshav asks if we have to sacrifice our children or let the widow burn herself if society says so. Wilson replies saying that we should only do what is just and good. Then Keshav concludes that our “duty” is not really dictated by society but by something else. Keshav asks Wilson to pick a different reason for why we should do our duty.
Wilson picks “morality” as the reason for doing our duty. Keshav asks Wilson to explain to him what “morality” means. Wilson responds saying that morality is the conduct dictated by our ethical principles. Then Keshav asks if these ethical principles are personal and not universal. Wilson says “yes” and adds that different places will have different ethics. So Keshav concludes that we must act in accordance to the code of ethics given by the society we move in. Wilson answers yes. Keshav points out that they are back to the previous argument of following the society’s rules and which they found not be the right answer for what should be one’s duty in life.
Wilson now changes his idea and says that we must do what our personal sense of right and justice requires us to do.
Keshav continues the conversation. He argues that if his personal sense of right and justice asks him to lie then he should lie to the best of his ability. For which Wilson answers that it is not so. Keshav quotes examples of how personal sense of right and justice is also prone to error and thus it cannot be the compass used to direct our “duty”.
Keshav asks Wilson to come up with an alternative reason for how we can discern the difference between right and wrong. Wilson comes up with “religion” as the answer. He says that if we use “religion” as the basis of our life then morality based on either personal sense of right or society’s sense of right need not be our guide instead the law of God would be our guide.
Keshav continues the argument that even religion cannot be the basis for our duty because each religion has its own set of moral principles. Wilson gives up his effort to find an answer to the question of what should drive our duty and he instead hands over the responsibility of finding an answer to Keshav.
Keshav says that instead of using the word “duty” which is the opposite of pleasure, he will use the word “virtue” and try to find the motivation that drives human beings to become virtuous. He says that the inherent meaning of virtue is ‘manliness’, in other words the virtue of a human being is the perfect evolution of his inborn qualities and powers native to his humanity.
Keshav also says that there is no perfect morality which can distinguish between good and evil. But Wilson argues that we can say that good is desirable and evil is undesirable. This is an utilitarian position.
Wilson explains his utilitarian position with the help of the example of chastity and license. He says that chastity is the basis of marriage and society and hence it is good and license leads to unchastity and bad for the society. He also adds on saying that if only Rome was not corrupt she would not have fallen to the barbaric tribes. The rampant spread of license in Rome made her corrupt. Keshav asks if Rome fell not because she was weak but because the barbaric tribes were stronger. The same thing happened in Vikramaditya’s India. It was the golden age of Indian art, poetry, sculpture and philosophy. Keshav says that the highest philosophy was expressed by the Indian mind during this time. Yet merely five centuries later the invasion of the Muslims, crippled the nation and made her lose her originality. However he says that if not for the Athens of Plato, the Rome of Caesars and the India of Vikramaditya, the world would have been very different.
Keshav says that the utilitarian arrives at a arbitrary distinction between good and bad. This mistake often happens to the Benthams. For eg: Bentham justifies the subjugation of women without which marriage would not be possible. He also condemns the theft by a starving man a heinous crime as it disturbs the security of the society. Bentham should have simply said that marriage is a desirable effect or that property is more valuable than life.
Keshav disagrees with the utilitarians because the description of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are so ambiguous that he wishes that these words were removed from the dictionary.
Keshav suggests that should morality as generally understood or faith without reason be considered the principle of life? But Wilson does not accept the above two principles.
So Keshav moves onto find the true principle of life. Keshav gives two options to Wilson: 1. justice or 2. beauty as the main principle of life. Wilson first wants to explore justice.
Keshav says that whenever someone has tried to explore the route of ‘justice’ they have been taken to a different destination just as Columbus went to a different location. There was an Irish navigator who explored the route of ‘beauty’ as the principle of life but he covered his travellers tales with so much wit and humor that none of the English people considered it to be serious.
Wilson however still chooses to explore ‘justice’. Keshav explains ‘justice’. Keshav describes ‘justice’ as the forbearance from interfering with the rights of others. Keshav adds that so long as we don’t know what are the rights of the others it is no use describing ‘justice’. Wilson asks if they could explore as to what are the rights of others. Keshav replies that everyone has been trying to find the meaning of ‘justice’ for the last three thousand years and yet he feels it has not been discovered with much success.
Then they both have no other option but to explore ‘beauty’ as the main principle of life. Keshav believes that ‘beauty’ would open to them many hopeful possibilities.
Keshav begins the discovery of the topic by saying that beauty is something that fills us with a sense of satisfying pleasure and perfect fitness. Wilson likes this description. But the both of them agree that ‘beauty’ is still a relative term. They then take the example of a rose and try to describe what are the common characteristics of something that is ‘beautiful’.
Keshav says that the beauty of the rose lies in its symmetry. There are three elements of beauty which Nature has blended in harmonious proportion in the rose: colour, perfume and the form. A thing may be beautiful if it possesses just one or two of the above elements. For example, sculpture where form in its separate existence finds a complete expression and is blended harmoniously with perfume – for character or emotion is the perfume of the human form just as sound is the perfume of poetry and music.
In some cases,beauty may seem to have only one of the above elements. For example, the incense frankincense and music which seem to be perfume only, but in reality we shall find that they have one or both of the elements. Incense would not be half so beautiful if we did not see the curling folds of smoke floating over the air, nor would music be music if it did not blend harmoniously with colour and form, in this case, technique and meaning.
There are also cases where beauty has only one of the three elements: for examples scents such as myrrh, eucalyptus and others that have no color or form, isolated hues such as green, purple and violet painted on the floor and walls by the afternoon sun and architectural designs which have no beauty but the isolated beauty of form.
(To be contd…)