Three Types of Relationship Between Societal Organisation and the Individual

Sri Aurobindo describes three different potential modes or types of relationship between the individual and the societal grouping.  These are essentially a continuum from total subordination of the individual to the needs and control of the society; a partial control that provides some freedom to the individual within the framework of the greater needs of the state; and a state that conceives of itself as existing for the benefit of the optimum life and growth of the individual.  Experiments have taken place through time with varying attempts to balance the needs of the state with the desires of the individual; and as the individual became more aware of his individuality, we see a greater polarization occurring between proponents of one view or the other.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…history and sociology tell us only…of man as an individual in the more or less organised group.  And in the group there are always two types.  One asserts the State idea at the expense of the individual,– ancient Sparta, modern Germany (editors note: he was referring to Germany in the early 20th century here); another asserts the supremacy of the State, but seeks at the same time to give as much freedom, power and dignity as is consistent with its control to the individuals who constitute it,– ancient Athens, modern France.  But to these two has been added a third type in which the State abdicates as much as possible to the individual, boldly asserts that it exists for his growth and to assure his freedom, dignity, successful manhood, experiments with a courageous faith whether after all it is not the utmost possible liberty, dignity and manhood of the individual which will best assure the well-being, strength and expansion of the State.”

Sri Aurobindo cites England as the example of this third type, “England rendered free, prosperous, energetic, invincible by nothing else but the strength of this idea within her, blessed by the Gods with unexampled expansion, empire and good fortune because she has not feared at any time to obey this great tendency and take the risks of this great endeavour and even often to employ it beyond the limits of her own insular egoism.”   He points out that the limitations of the human ego and social development did not permit the full and free expression of this last formation.   He foresaw the eventual breakdown of this model in the need to keep up with the attainments of the countries that stressed efficiency and discipline, such as the Germany of the early 20th Century, and in retrospect we can see that what he envisioned came to pass as England had to organize itself on more traditional lines focusing on the needs of the State to take on the threat of the Third Reich of Hitler’s Germany.

Sri Aurobindo asks whether another solution would have been possible to continue and enhance the success of this third model:  “One may well ask oneself whether it was really necessary, whether, by a more courageous faith enlightened by a more flexible and vigilant intelligence, all the desirable results might not have been attained by a new and freer method that would yet keep intact the dharma of the race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 22-23