Individual growth, fulfillment and participation were hallmarks of the Greek city-state formation. The rise of heterogeneous empires, such as the Roman Empire, suppressed these characteristics while attempting to create a larger formation of human unity. The small, self-contained unit and the large, diverse empire both had their positive aspects, but each had also its own defects or weaknesses. Nature continues to attempt to create a larger form of human societal organisation, while at the same time finding a way to support the needs of the individual for expression and meaning in his life. The next experiment tried by Nature, therefore, was the formation of an intermediate stage between the small self-contained units and the imperial model, with the rise of the national unit of organisation.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “The creation of the national aggregate was therefore reserved for the millennium that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire; and in order to solve this problem left to it, the world during that period had to recoil from many and indeed most of the gains which had been achieved for mankind by the city states. Only after this problem was solved could there be any real effort to develop not only a firmly organised but a progressive and increasingly perfected community, not only a strong mould of social life but the free growth and completeness of life itself within that mould.”
The rise of the nation implied that the smaller communities had to widen their acceptance of others and be willing to shift their adherence to that larger unit. What had been formerly tense interactions had to be changed to cooperative ones between these smaller units, for the benefit of the new national aggregate. In many cases, this was done through the rise of a strong leader, using methods that included military force and domination. Over time, the model of the republic made up of numerous states arose and in the founding of the United States, a carefully drafted compromise relationship was developed initially to balance the rights of the individual smaller states with those pertaining to the federal entity; and with the bill of rights, to provide for individual liberty within the framework as well. This balance was tested with the civil war and its aftermath, and, while the national principle gained sway, there remains even today a tension that has not yet been fully resolved between the rights of the States and the rights of the Nation.
With the development of corporate power and technological means, combined with the power of the centralised national unit, the independence and freedom of the individual citizens has also come under pressure.
It is important to recognize the implications of each of these attempts to expand the size and complexity of the societal model: “This cycle we must briefly study before we can consider whether the intervention of a new effort at a larger aggregation is likely to be free from the danger of a new recoil in which the inner progress of the race will have, at least temporarily, to be sacrificed in order to concentrate effort on the development and affirmation of a massive external unity.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 92-93