Societal Progress and Nature’s Intention

Upon observation of the process of Nature, we find that progress, human growth, tends to take place initially in individuals, and over time, the pressure and influence of that progress may spread itself more broadly across the society.  Generally there are certain individuals who appear to be more receptive to the pressure of the Time-Spirit and they embody the principles either of progress, or resistance to progress, that the time calls for.  Certain individuals tend toward more experimental or forward-looking opportunities, while others tend toward a conservative view that seeks to maintain the status quo, or revert to a former status when there was less pressure of change.  In many cases, after a period of intensive development, we find a retrogression occurs to take back some of the apparent gains shown in one segment of society, but not shared generally as of yet.  Regardless of whether the movement is forward or back, we tend to see individuals at the center of the movement, giving it shape and voice.

For this basic reason, we find that the movement towards unity is always faced with obstacles that arise due to the different segments of the society, or the differing developmental stages or needs of various aggregated units that are trying to unify on any basis.  Within a society we find class differentiation and the results in terms of access to the wealth of the society and the levers of power as a major cause of division.  Societies also go through patterned changes as different groups or classes come to the fore to meet the needs of a specific time, whether forward-looking or to pull back a too-fast forward movement.

Sri Aurobindo formulates a basic rule to take into account for the progress towards human unity:  “The perfection of the individual in a perfected society or eventually in a perfected humanity — understanding perfection always in a relative and progressive sense — is the inevitable aim of Nature.  But the progress of all the individuals in a society does not proceed pari passu, with an equal and equable march.  Some advance, others remain stationary — absolutely or relatively, — others fall back.  Consequently the emergence of a dominant class is inevitable within the aggregate itself, just as in the constant clash between the aggregates the emergence of dominant nations is inevitable.  That class will predominate which develops most perfectly the type Nature needs at the time for her progress or, it may be, for her retrogression.  If she demands power and strength of character, a dominant aristocracy emerges; if knowledge and science, a dominant literary or savant class; if practical ability, ingenuity, economy and efficient organisation, a dominant bourgeoisie or Vaishya class, usually with the lawyer at the head; if diffusion rather than concentration of general well-being and a close organisation of toil, then even the domination of an artisan class is not impossible.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 2, The Imperfection of Past Aggregates, pp. 16-17


Historical Instances of the Attempt to Integrate Smaller and Larger Aggregations of Humanity

We may identify numerous examples throughout history of the attempt of smaller aggregations to unify into a larger whole.  Even those who share a considerable background of culture, language, religion find it difficult to create a living, working unity that functions harmoniously and effectively.  In many cases, the very closeness brings about acrimonious disputes based on relatively minor doctrinal or seemingly superficial differences.  Even attempts to join a number of tribes into a larger existence, a state or nation, have been frequently foiled by division and eventual separation.  Modern day examples such as the attempt to create a European Union or the experiment of the United States, show the stress and the weaknesses that remain and create a centrifugal force to try to break up the union that was created.  While the external form tries to hold these unions together, internal differences remain strong and threaten the fabric of the greater formation in a number of challenging ways.  This creates animosity, gridlock, and attempts to divide into smaller groups once again, unless and until the interaction between the different segments reaches its state of balance.    We see therefore that Nature frequently turns to the need to face an external threat, or brings in an overarching power to assimilate the smaller units.  For modern-day life, we could look upon the threats of climate change, polllution, inequality of resource allocation, and the global impact of wars with modern weaponry as the kind of external threats that Nature eventually relies upon to overcome relatively superficial differences.

Sri Aurobindo describes a number of examples that highlight the process of Nature in attempting to bring about larger unions while addressing the diversity and differences that remain in the smaller aggregates:  “We see the struggle towards the aggregation of tribes among the Semitic nations, Jew and Arab, surmounted in the one after a scission into two kingdoms which remained a permanent source of weakness to the Jewish nation, overcome only temporarily in the other by the sudden unifying force of Islam.”

“We see the failure of the city states and small regional peoples to fuse themselves in the history of Greece, the signal success of a similar struggle of Nature in the development of Roman Italy.”

“The whole past of India or the last two thousand years and more has been the attempt, unavailing in spite of many approximations to success, to overcome the centrifugal tendency of an extraordinary number and variety of disparate elements, the family, the commune, the clan, the caste, the small regional state or people, the large linguistic unit, the religious community, the nation within the nation.  We may perhaps say that here Nature tried an experiment of unparalleled complexity and potential richness, accumulating all possible difficulties in order to arrive at the most opulent result.  But int he end the problem proved insoluble or, at least, was not solved and Nature had to resort to her usual deus ex machina denoument, the instrumentality of a foreign rule.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 2, The Imperfection of Past Aggregates, pg. 16

Complexities in the Integration of the Individual and the Smaller and Larger Groupings of Humanity

The individual is born into or joins various groupings of humanity, which start with the family unit, but which may encompass yet larger groupings such as clan, tribe, community, town, village, state, country, region, but which may also include groupings based on affinity, such as teams, companies, religions, clubs, movements, etc.  All of these, and other forms of collectivity, are stages in the development of wider opening of the individual to the universal.  Each one creates an initial opportunity for growth through embracing the needs and opportunities posed by each wider group.  At the same time, a tremendous amount of complexity is generated as there is not a straight line development from smaller to larger, whereby the individual leaves the smaller groupings behind; rather, the individual may be called upon to respond to the needs of multiple different groups that may, in some cases, have conflicting goals or objectives.  Thus the issue is not simply one of the individual fitting into the whole of humanity, but one in which the individual and the various groups all have to find their right place in the whole and develop the complex harmony that allows them to live together and achieve their mutual objectives in a multifarious mix of creeds, ideals, needs and wants.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates:  “For the obstacles of space, the difficulties of organisation and the limitations of the human heart and brain have necessitated the formation first of small, then of larger and yet larger aggregates so that he may be gradually trained by a progressive approach till he is ready for the final universality.”

“…at every step humanity is confronted with various problems which arise not only from the difficulty of accord between the interests of the individual and those of the immediate aggregate, the community, but between the needs and interests of the smaller integralities and the growth of that larger whole which is to ensphere them all.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 2, The Imperfection of Past Aggregates, pp. 15-16

Defining Conditions for a Perfect Societal Organisation

Humanity has long struggled to find the proper balance between the institutions of the government, the rights and proper role of the society, and the role of individual fulfillment.  There have been experiments of human social organisation that featured the absolute rights of a small elite who could dispose of the lives and welfare of any members of the society.  There have also been social groupings that took a more egalitarian approach, while still placing the needs of the society ahead of those of any individual.  There have been experiments that have featured a focus on the fulfillment of the individual as being of primary concern, with the needs of the society placed within the context of how well it met the individual needs.  Of course, there have also been numerous intermediate experiments that attempted to balance these offsetting requirements along a continuum.  These basic directions are set in the development of the animal world and, over time, they become conscious efforts as humanity becomes more self-aware.  Each place on the continuum from absolute control by a centralised state, government or individual, to a balance between the needs of society and those of the individual, to more or less absolute individual liberty, has an underlying rationale and basic principle that needs to be recognised and taken into account in any eventual development of what we may call a perfect societal organisation.  Not all past ages have recognized the importance of the individual, and thus, we can see that this concept developed and evolved much more recently in human history.  During the 1700’s, in what has been called the “age of enlightenment” that followed the awakening of the Renaissance, the role of the individual came into focus.  The American and French Revolutions brought this concept into the formation of new directions of societal organisation.  The Declaration of Independence of the United States enunciates the role of the individual in relation to the formation of the government of society:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

This represents an evolution from earlier formulations where the individual was given worth only to the extent that he could benefit the society and its future, or the needs and desires of the ruling elite of the society of the time.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the needed balance:  “The whole process of Nature depends on a balancing and a constant tendency to harmony between two poles of life, the individual whome the whole or aggregate nourishes and the whole or aggregate which the individual helps to constitute.  Human life forms no exception to the rule.  Therefore the perfection of human life must involve the elaboration of an as yet unaccomplished harmony between these two poles of our existence, the individual and the social aggregate.  The perfect society will be that which most entirely favours the perfection of the individual; the perfection of the individual will be incomplete if it does not help towards the perfect state of the social aggregate to which he belongs and eventually to that of the largest possible human aggregate, the whole of a united humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 2, The Imperfection of Past Aggregates, pg. 15

Lessons Harvested from Review of the Roman Empire

Sri Aurobindo points out that the practice of Yoga is an accelerated version of what he calls “the Yoga of Nature”, which evolves consciousness to an ever-higher degree through vast periods of Time.  Within the processes of Yoga, there are periods of development and growth, which he terms “ascent”.  There are also periods where seemingly little advancement is taking place, but which in reality are opportunities to consolidate and solidify the gains of the prior ascent.  He calls these periods “integration”.  We can see an analogous process with societal organisation and development as well.  If we recognize the forward movement that accompanied the height of ascendency of the Greek city-states, we can also see that the later rise of the Roman Empire was one of integration and solidification more than upward development.

Sri Aurobindo notes regarding the Roman Empire:  “The advantages are admirable organisation, peace, widespread security, order and material well-being; the disadvantage is that the individual, the city, the region sacrifice their independent life and become mechanical parts of a machine; life loses its colour, richness, variety, freedom and victorious impulse towards creation.  The organisation is great and admirable, but the individual dwindles and is overpowered and overshadowed; and eventually by the smallness and feebleness of the individual the huge organism inevitably and slowly loses even its great conservative vitality and dies of an increasing stagnation.  Even while outwardly whole and untouched, the structure has become rotten and begins to crack and dissolve at the first shock from outside.  Such organisations, such periods are immensely useful for conservation, even as the Roman Empire served to consolidate the gains of the rich centuries that preceded it.  But they arrest life and growth.”

This provides us a clue as to the eventual result of an over-arching single world organisation, as seems to be the drive towards which current organisational trends are tending.  “A tremendous organisation would be needed under which both the individual and regional life would be crushed, dwarfed, deprived of their necessary freedom like a plant without rain and wind and sunlight, and this would mean for humanity, after perhaps one first outburst of satisfied and joyous activity, a long period of mere conservation, increasing stagnancy and ultimate decay.”  This is the key trend we find in the dystopian analyses of Orwell and Huxley.  We actually see, as a result of the more complex and immediate relationships that all people and countries now experience with one another, a rise of fear and a conservative reaction of drawing back and trying to minimize differences and uniqueness among individuals–with the trend towards more uniformity of thought, word and deed as the price to be paid for more security and safety in society.

“Yet the unity of mankind is evidently a part of Nature’s eventual scheme and must come about.  Only it must be under other conditions and with safeguards which will keep the race intact int he roots of its vitality, richly diverse in its oneness.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pp. 13-14

Two Observations About Comparative Human Progress Between Smaller and Larger Societal Groupings

If we peruse, generally, the historical development of a vibrant culture, and the progress of intellectual, artistic, scientific, philosophical and spiritual pursuits in civilisation, we can identify times and places where the intensity and result can be clearly differentiated from others.  For Sri Aurobindo, the pattern is obvious.  Large societal groupings, such as huge empires spanning vast areas, have tended to be less fruitful in terms of development than smaller nation states.  A second observation finds that even within these smaller organised groupings, the focus and development tended to take place in a highly concentrated atmosphere as found in an urban environment rather than in the less densely populated rural countryside.

We can see an illustration of a similar dynamic in physics.  Water, when heated in an open pan, simply evaporates with the energy being dispersed and having little effect.  However, if water is heated in a tightly enclosed space, the steam pressure builds up and power of action is generated.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…it is the groupments of smaller nations which have had the most intense life and not the huge States and colossal empires.  Collective life diffusing itself in too vast spaces seems to lose intensity and productiveness.  Europe has lived in England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the small States of Germany– all her later civilisation and progress evolved itself there, not in the huge mass of the Holy Roman or the Russian Empire.”

“…we note that in this organisation of nations and kingdoms those which have had the most vigorous life have gained it by a sort of artificial concentration of the vitality into some head, centre or capital, London, Paris, Rome.  By this device Nature, while acquiring the benefits of a larger organisation and more perfect unity, preserves to some extent that equally precious power of fruitful concentration in a small space and into a closely packed activity which she had possessed in her more primitive system of the city state or petty kingdom.  But this advantage was purchased by the condemnation of the rest of the organisation, the district, the provincial town, the village to a dull, petty and somnolent life in strange contrast with the vital intensity of the urbs or metropolis.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pp. 12-13

Defects of Smaller Forms of Societal Organization

While we may acknowledge that “bigger is not always better” in terms of societal organization, when it comes to the dynamic developmental force of the society, or the ability of the individual to grow and flourish, yet it does not follow that “small is beautiful” as an organizing principle for all of humanity either.  Smaller organized groups of humanity, such as tribes, villages and municipalities, etc.,  have their own issues, limitations and defects, which have historically led to the rise of the larger groupings of nations, regional alliances, commonwealths or empires.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Nevertheless, in this regime of the small city state or of regional cultures there was always a defect which compelled a tendency towards large organisations.  The defect was a characteristic of impermanence, often of disorder, especially of defencelessness against the onslaught of larger organisations, even of an insufficient capacity for widespread material well-being.  Therefore this earlier form of collective life tended to disappear and give place to the organisation of natinos, kingdoms and empires.”

In the modern world, there are additional limitations whereby the smaller groupings are unable to address the needs developed by the pressure of increasing population and resource utilization across the globe, as well as the inability to finance and manage the infrastructure required for what is now a “global village”.  Small village or tribal culture is simply unable to scope with the scale, the intensity of use or the interactive requirements of the current world and its technology.  It is thus impossible to simply go back, as some may desire, to a “simpler life and a simpler time.”

By recognizing both the advantages and disadvantages of both the larger societal organizational structures and the smaller, it is possible to identify key characteristics that can help to resolve the defects while enhancing the benefits of whatever new methods of organization need to emerge for the future.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pg. 12