For much of mankind’s existence, the need to survive, and thus the need for collective life in one form or another, has been the predominant characteristic. The individual was not seen so much as a separate and liberated person, but as part of a family, clan, tribe, community, religion, nation, etc. The “whole” was always seen as greater than the “sum of the parts” and the needs of the many always outweighed the needs of the one. The small cadre of individuals who felt a need of separation, due to their inner development, or their spiritual leanings, tended to go out and undertake the life of the anchorite, the Yogin, the Sannyasin, the solitary seeker on a vision quest, etc.
As societies began to develop which could provide the individual a greater power of action and freedom, the idea of individual fulfillment came to be more commonly recognized and accepted and with the occurrence of events like the Renaissance, and the rise of the economic system of capitalism, and what has been called “the age of enlightenment”, the idea that the individual could, and should, have the fulfillment of his own inner motivations as a core value for his life, gained its own level of supremacy.
The two tendencies, one towards a collective life and one towards individual fulfillment separate from the collective, and having an equal justification for existence, are now involved in a world-wide struggle, with one to achieve absolute supremacy, or a new balance to be developed out of this societal dialectic.
During the last century, these two tendencies took on extreme forms with the rise of communism on one side, and the development of individualism to the extremes we saw in the rise of what has been called the “me generation”. At certain points the tendencies became so widely divergent that attention was called to the issue, as when President Kennedy famously stated: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This, in the country which had developed individualism to the greatest extent as a key value of the society! On the other side, dystopian novels appeared that spoke to the horrors that can arise from too strict an adherence to the tendency towards collectivism, with novels such as 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley gaining immense interest. Philosophies, such as that of “objectivism” touted by Ayn Rand, created a philosophical impulsion for individualism that remains highly active today, particularly in the United States. The imbalances we see in terms of increasing income inequality, the extreme wealth held by a small elite minority and the excesses of poverty and destitution suffered by huge swaths of humanity and lack of regard for the needs of society, the needs of the community and the protection of the environment of the planet, stem from the excess emphasis on the one term without the necessary balance provided by the other.
Sri Aurobindo notes that the question remains open: “…between man and humanity, between the self-liberating Person and the engrossing collectivity.” This as yet unresolved tension obviously involves “…deep-rooted human tendencies, individualism and collectivism.” Finding the proper balance between the two is essential for the future of humanity as a whole, and the individuals who embody the separate faces of that humanity.
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 20-21