Resolving the Dynamic Tension Between Law and Liberty

The human mind’s tendency to create apparently mutually exclusive options sets up a barrier to resolving the dynamic tension between the concept of law and that of liberty.  Those who come down on the side of liberty assert the inalienable right of individuals to virtually absolute freedom without taking serious account of the impact on others or the society as a whole.  The only real limitation here would be the feedback that the environment provides to the individual exercising his liberty.  Those who come down on the side of law or regulation believe that society can only function effectively if there is order and a limitation on the exercise of individual freedom.  They cite the efficiency and organizational controls that make regulation essential, and they point out that the exercise of virtually unlimited individual freedom can create serious problems when an individual chooses to use his freedom to bully or attempt to control others, or to create circumstances that would lead to harm to others or the environment.

Sri Aurobindo observes that there is a solution to this apparently irreconcilable opposition:  “Nature does not manufacture, does not impose a pattern or a rule from outside; she impels life to grow from within and to assert its own natural law and development modified only by its commerce with its environment.  All liberty, individual, national, religious, social, ethical, takes its ground upon this fundamental principle of our existence.  By liberty we mean the freedom to obey the law of our being, to grow to our natural self-fulfilment, to find out naturally and freely our harmony with our environment.  The dangers and disadvantages of liberty, the disorder, strife, waste and confusion to which its wrong use leads are indeed obvious.  But they arise from the absence or defect of the sense of unity between individual and individual, between community and community, which pushes them to assert themselves at the expense of each other instead of growing by mutual help and interchange and to assert freedom for themselves in the very act of encroaching on the free development of their fellows.  If a real, a spiritual and psychological unity were effectuated, liberty would have no perils and disadvantages; for free individuals enamoured of unity would be compelled by themselves, by their own need, to accommodate perfectly their own growth with the growth of their fellows and would not feel themselves complete except in the free growth of others.  Because of our present imperfection and the ignorance of our mind and will, law and regimentation have to be called in to restrain and to compel from outside.  The facile advantages of a strong law and compulsion are obvious, but equally great are the disadvantages.  Such perfection as it succeeds in creating tends to be mechanical and even the order it imposes turns out to be artificial and liable to break down if the yoke is loosened or the restraining grasp withdrawn.  Carried too far, an imposed order discourages the principle of natural growth which is the true method of life and may even slay the capacity for real growth. … And all repressive or preventive law is only a makeshift, a substitute for the true law which must develop from within and be not a check on liberty, but its outward image and visible expression.  Human society progresses really and vitally in proportion as law becomes the child of freedom; it will reach its perfection when, man having learned to know and become spiritually one with his fellow-man, the spontaneous law of his society exists only as the outward mould of his self-governed inner liberty.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 17, Nature’s Law in our Progress — Unity in Diversity, Law and Liberty, pp. 155-156