We have seen in the course of history that there are the two primary trends that seem to develop. The first focuses on the benefit to the collectivity, the community, the society. The role played by the individual is to be a contributing member of that society, to subordinate his own ideas, dreams, aspirations to the demands of the society. In such societies, a premium is placed on order, regimentation or at least, a strict collective sense of common effort and purpose.
At other times and in other places, a premium has been placed on individual development, growth and initiative, even if it is somewhat disruptive to the collective harmony. This may take the form of a seer, thinker or visionary, or it may be an inventor, a charismatic leader, or even an artist or musician.
When we view the historical record of these unique individuals we find a frequent theme that they were not highly sociable, that they were disruptive to the established order, that they were outcasts, loners or, in some cases, the leaders who inspired the society to take a new turn or direction.
These two main themes can be seen as primary distinguishing factors of various societies through time and history. There also appears to be something akin to what we may call a “time spirit” where one of these two seems to be the primary thread of various societies during a particular time frame.
These two actually represent major aspects of the overall development process. There is a need for individual creative effort to make a major progress for humanity. Once the progress has been achieved, it needs to be solidified, expanded and generalised. These two movements Sri Aurobindo has elsewhere termed “ascent and integration”.
When applied to the relationship of the individual to society, we find that they are frequently taken to extremes and thereby distorted in their true sense. Then we either have a time of widespread individual freedom of action or a time of extreme regimentation and control.
Sri Aurobindo takes the following position on this point: “It is evident that all this conflict of standards is a groping of the mental Ignorance of man seeking to find its way and grasping different sides of the truth but unable by its want of integrality in knowledge to harmonise them together. A unifying and harmonising knowledge can alone find the way, but that knowledge belongs to a deeper principle of our being to which oneness and integrality are native. it is only by finding that in ourselves that we can solve the problem of our existence and with it the problem of the true way of individual and communal living.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 28, “The Divine Life”