The Necessary Role of the Individual in Societal Progress

One of the big issues that comes up in every social aggregate is finding the right balance between the needs and independence of the individual and the needs and structure of the community within which he exists.  Careful observation shows that progressive development tends to focus itself through individual insight and action, although there is no doubt that the society has a role in helping to create a fertile environment for such progress to manifest.

It is the individual plant that bears the fruit, but without the contribution of the sun, the rain, the soil, the climatic conditions and in many cases the proximity of other similar plants (particularly for cross-pollination) and insects to carry out much of the pollination activity, there would be serious issues facing both the survival and fruitfulness of the sole plant.  We may see here an analogy to the role of the individual within the society.  Any society that tries to regiment the individuals into a fixed pattern will have issues with respect to developing and progressing at any speed.  Such societies tend to stagnate and represent for the most part periods of consolidation of prior gains rather than upward spurts of growth.  Societies that tend towards the fulfillment of the individual without taking into account general needs, may lead to serious progress, but just as likely one would find extreme patterns of income inequality and social imbalance.  Such patterns may work in the short term, particularly in a time that needs forward movement on many fronts, but over the long term, they tend to deteriorate and are followed by a consolidation phase characterized by control and regimentation.

What is needed is to find a reasonable balance between these two types of needs and create a social setting that allows the individual to grow and develop, while at the same time ensuring the soundness and balance within the society at large.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “but even if the unity within is made as perfect as social, administrative and cultural machinery can make it, the question of the individual still remains.  For these social units or aggregates are not like the human body in which the component cells are capable of no separate life apart from the aggregate.  The human individual tends to exist in himself and to exceed the limits of the family, the clan, the class, the nation; and even, that self-sufficiency on one side, that universality on the other are the essential elements of his perfection.  Therefore, just as the systems of social aggregation which depend on the domination of a class or classes over others must change or dissolve, so the social aggregates which stand in the way of this perfection of the individual and seek to coerce him within their limited mould and into the rigidity of a narrow culture or petty class or national interest, must find their term and their day of change or destruction under the irresistible impulsion of progressing Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 2, The Imperfection of Past Aggregates, pp. 18-19