Social Class Distinctions Developed With the Rise of Larger Societal Aggregates

Small communities have historically been made up of families or clans who know each other, are related to each other and are familiar with each other.  This supports a relatively “flat” social hierarchy that permits all people, regardless of their particular primary roles in the economic activity of the community, to interact with each other on a basis of relative equality.  Even the development of villages, and societal organisations such as the Greek city-state were relatively egalitarian in terms of social position and interaction.

As society itself became larger and more complex, division of labor led to separation of people from one another, and various forms of class status began to attach to specific roles.  This led to the development of class hierarchical systems, including the caste system, where the management and leadership class created a gulf between themselves and those who undertook trade, service or manual labor.    This naturally created not only social groups that were effectively divided from one another, but also turned the hierarchy into a more or less hereditary dominance through mutual support among the members of the class for one another and their children.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The natural social type of the small community is such as we see in Athens, where not only Cleon, the tanner, exercised as strong a political influence as the highborn and wealthy Nicias and the highest offices and civic functions were open to men of all classes, but in social functions and connections also there was a free association and equality.  We see similar democratic equality, though of a different type, in the earlier records of Indian civilisation.  The rigid hierarchy of castes with the pretensions and arrogance of the caste spirit was a later development; in the simpler life of old, difference or even superiority of function did not carry with it a sense of personal or class superiority: at the beginning, the most sacred religious and social function, that of the Rishi and sacrificer, seems to have been open to men of all classes and occupations.  Theocracy, caste and absolute kingship grew in force pari passu like the church and the monarchical power in mediaeval Europe under the compulsion of the new circumstances created by the growth of large social and political aggregates.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 89-90

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