The Stifling Pressure of the Conventional Phase of Society and the Rise of the Phase of Individualism

The focus on the outer forms at the expense of the inner truth and spirit that underpins those forms eventually leads to a rigidity in society that becomes intolerable to those who are moved by the inner spirit or whose intellect or hearts are awake and who therefore suffer under the formal limitations in the society.  Thus, eventually reform or awakening movements take place when a particularly powerful personality arises to take on the conventional powers that be.  Unfortunately, they tend to be swallowed up in the larger conventional framework until the society reaches what might be seen almost as a breaking point due to the obvious dislocation between form and spirit, and this then ushers in the next phase, an age of individualism, an age of freedom, an age of reason.  We can trace several such periods in European history, when reformers took on the established powers of the Church or the State and, for a time, brought about a fresh wind up change, only to see them subside within the overall conventional framework.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For always the form prevails and the spirit recedes and diminishes.  It attempts indeed to return, to revive the form, to modify it, anyhow to survive and even to make the form survive; but the time-tendency is too strong.  This is visible in the history of religion; the efforts of the saints and religious reformers become progressively more scattered, brief and superficial in their actual effects, however strong and vital the impulse.  We see this recession in the growing darkness and weakness of India in her lat millennium; the constant effort of the most powerful spiritual personalities kept the soul of the people alive but failed to resuscitate the ancient free force and truth and vigour or permanently revivify a conventionalised and stagnating society; in a generation or two the iron grip of that conventionalism has always fallen on the new movement and annexed the names of its founders.  We see it in Europe in the repeated moral tragedy of ecclesiasticism and Catholic monasticism.  Then there arrives a period when the gulf between the convention and the truth becomes intolerable and the men of intellectual power arise, the great “swallowers of formulas”, who, rejecting robustly or fiercely or with the calm light of reason symbol and type and convention, strike at the walls of the prison-house and seek by the individual reason, moral sense or emotional desire the Truth that society has lost or buried in its whited sepulchres.  It is then that the individualistic age of religion and thought and society is created; the Age of Protestantism has begun, the Age of Reason, the Age of Revolt, Progress, Freedom.  A partial and external freedom, still betrayed by the conventional age that preceded it into the idea that the Truth can be found in outsides, dreaming vainly that perfection can be determined by machinery, but still a necessary passage to the subjective period of humanity through which man has to circle back towards the recovery of his deeper self and a new upward line or a new revolving cycle of civilisation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 13-14