Exploring Traditional Views About the Interaction Between Individual and Society

The view promulgated by history and social science about the interaction between the social order and the individual is not entirely undisputed.  There are long traditions from around the world that speak of a former “golden age” of humanity where the individual lived in freedom without the binding strictures of social customs or laws, and yet interacted with others in a harmonious and balanced manner, based on some internal guidance.  The historians would make it seem that the only possible such prior existence, on the contrary, would be one that treats the individual as a type of “lone wolf”, surviving on his own and only after time and experiencing, coming to the idea of a social grouping as a survival mechanism.  Both of these views tend to contradict the historical record we can point to, and yet, somehow they seem to be anchored in some form of “racial memory”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the various options regarding this “race memory”:  “But the tradition is rather that of a golden age in which he was freely social without society.  Not bound by laws or institutions but living by natural instinct or free knowledge, he held the right law of his living in himself and needed neither to prey on his fellows nor to be restrained by the iron yoke of the collectivity.  We may say, if we will, that here poetic or idealistic imagination played upon a deep-seated race-memory; early civilised man read his growing ideal of a free, unorganised, happy association into his race-memory of an unorganised, savage and anti-social existence.”

There is however another option which Sri Aurobindo explores: “But it is also possible that our progress has not been a development in a straight line, but in cycles, and that in those cycles there have been periods of at least partial realisation in which men did become able to live according to the high dream of philosophic Anarchism, associated by the inner law of love and light and right being, right thinking, right action and not coerced to unity by kings and parliaments, laws and policings and punishments with all that tyrant unease, petty or great oppression and repression and ugly train of selfishness and corruption which attend the forced government of man by man.”  The legends of annihilation of societies and the new development of mankind thereafter, such as we find in the world-wide legends of world-inundating floods, or in the story of the ancient civilisation of Atlantis, or in the discussions of the various ages found in the Indian Puranas, would all tend towards some such cause.

Sri Aurobindo continues with another option:  “It is even possible that our original state was an instinctive animal spontaneity of free and fluid association and that our final ideal state will be an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity of free and fluid association.  Our destiny may be the conversion of an original animal association into a community of the gods.  Our progress may be a devious round leading from the easy and spontaneous uniformity and harmony which reflects Nature to the self-possessed unity which reflects the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 21-22