The Tension Between Fulfillment of the Individual and the Demand of the Social Order

A tension arises between the desire of the individual to achieve his own advancement and achievement of his goals and desires, and the focus of a society on subordinating the individual entirely to the goals and needs of the social order. At one extreme, the individual looks upon society as a support that is there solely to aid him in his own fulfillment; at the other, the society looks upon itself as the essential basis of continuity and progress, with individuals as the asset of the society. In the one, the benefit to the individual is paramount; in the other, the individual counts for very little while the benefit to the social order is the major factor. No society can actually embody either extreme, but there have been examples throughout history where one or the other perspective was in the ascendancy and we can see echoes of these differences in the historical perspective of the USA as favoring individual freedom and that of various communist states as favoring the collective progress. Of course, nowadays, these lines have been very substantially blurred as society the world-over becomes more complex and becomes more uniform in fact, if not in ideology.

Sri Aurobindo explores this question: “The ideal and absolute solution from the individual’s standpoint would be a society that existed not for itself, for its all-overriding collective purpose, but for the good of the individual and his fulfilment, for the greater and more perfect life of all its members. Representing as far as possible his best self and helping him to realise it, it would respect the freedom of each of its members and maintain itself not by law and force but by the free and spontaneous consent of its constituent persons.”

Inasmuch as the desires and drives of the individual needed to be tempered and widened in the evolutionary process of Nature, it is clear that a certain element of societal claim needs to be recognised. “A general but not complete domination of the society over the individual is the easier way and it is the system that Nature from the first instinctively adopts and keeps in equilibrium by rigorous law, compelling custom and a careful indoctrination of the still subservient and ill-developed intelligence of the human creature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 184-185