Since the age of enlightenment and the Renaissance, there has been a growing sense of the role of the individual in the growth and development of consciousness as well as being the lynch-pin of actual progress in specific fields of endeavour. Science, spirituality, philosophy, technological breakthroughs all occur through the efforts of specific individuals who are either inspired or, through dint of consistent effort, realize some new line of development and bring it to light. This is not to imply that the individual, without the support of the society within which he exists, would necessarily make the same breakthroughs; but it does highlight the need for individual creativity and inspiration to take advantage of the fertile ground provided by the time-spirit and the society’s opportunities.
This development of the visible role of the individual has worked to systematically challenge the previously unquestioned power of the social order to dominate and control the lives of men. The tension that has occurred as a result of the rise of the individual in relation to the previously absolute rights of the State, has led to the situation in the last century where there is a reaction and pushback to reassert the rights of the social order as against the freedom of the individual.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “In modern times the State idea has after a long interval fully reasserted itself and is dominating the thought and action of the world. It supports itself on two motives; one appeals to the external interest of the race, the other to its highest moral tendencies. It demands that individual egoism shall immolate itself to a collective interest; it claims that man shall live not for himself but for the whole, the group, the community. It asserts that the hope of the good and the progress of humanity lies in the efficiency and organisation of the State.”
This reassertion took the form of the rise of communism, socialism, national socialism, and democratic socialism, and has been even disguised in the democratic forms and in capitalist societies through the rise of the corporation and the regimentation of daily life through social peer pressure, marketing, and the pressure to bring about order through lawmaking and enforcement efforts “for the good of society”. The developing power of computers, “big data”, digital records, the internet and telecommunication technology has provided a tool for monitoring and controlling the actions of each individual to a degree not seen previously in our historical memory.
It is one of the processes of Nature to make an evolutionary step forward and then, the natural resistance of the status quo brings about a contrary reaction. The two forces in this dialectic then undergo a period of struggle for supremacy, eventually attaining some new result, which either leads to the complete domination, for a time, of one or the other of the forces at work, or else, leads to a new harmony and balance resulting from a reordering of the relations of these forces to one another.
Sri Aurobindo implies that this tremendous power now being exercised by the idea of the State to dominate the individuals completely has nevertheless its own weaknesses: “And yet the two ideas on which it bases itself are full of that fatal mixture of truth and falsehood which pursues all our human claims and assertions. it is necessary to apply to them the solvent of a searching and unbiassed thought which refuses to be cheated by words, if we are not to describe helplessly another circle of illusion before we return to the deep and complex truth of Nature which should be our light and guide.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 24-25