The Ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Various societies have focused on one or another of the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  As a result, we can see results that are imperfect and out of balance, since the concepts, when taken to their extremes individually, deny the underlying truth of the other ideals.  The ideal of liberty, taken to extreme, creates a fully fragmented and egoistic view of the individual’s position in society and can lead to expressions of greed and self-dealing that deny the concepts of equality or fraternity.  Similarly, when the term equality has come to the fore on its own, it has generally worked to suppress liberty and create uniformity as its solution.

Sri Aurobindo explores the inter-relations of these terms and the focus and values of the societal systems that need to embody them:  “For liberty is insufficient, justice also is necessary and becomes a pressing demand; the cry for equality arises.  Certainly, absolute equality is non-existent in this world; but the word was aimed against the unjust and unnecessary inequalities of the old social order.  Under a just social order, there must be an equal opportunity, an equal training for all to develop their faculties and to use them, and, so far as may be, an equal share in the advantages of the aggregate life as the right of all who contribute to the existence, vigour and development of that life by the use of their capacities.  As we have noted, this need might have taken the form of an ideal of free cooperation guided and helped by a wise and liberal central authority expressing the common will, but it has actually reverted to the old notion of an absolute and efficient State– no longer monarchical, ecclesiastical, aristocratic but secular, democratic and socialistic– with liberty sacrificed to the need of equality and aggregate efficiency. …  Perhaps liberty and equality, liberty and authority, liberty and organised efficiency can never be quite satisfactorily reconciled so long as man individual and aggregate lives by egoism, so long as he cannot undergo a great spiritual and psychological change and rise beyond mere communal association to that third ideal which some vague inner sense made the revolutionary thinkers of France add to their watchwords of liberty and equality,– the greatest of all the three, though till now only an empty word on man’s lips, the ideal of fraternity or, less sentimentally and more truly expressed, an inner oneness.  That no mechanism social, political, religious has ever created or can create; it must take birth in the soul and rise from hidden and divine depths within.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pg. 113