The Development of the Individualistic Age in the West and a Comparison with the East

When we think about the Age of Reason, we clearly identify that stage in the life of Europe where a new opening to intellectual investigation, science, and challenging of long-established norms took place, with the Renaissance, and the rise of the value of the individual in the eyes of society as steps along the way.  This opening brought to an end the “Dark Ages” of Mediaeval Europe and quickly brought forth an awakening of individuals in fields of science, art, music, political science and even an attempt to reform the institutions of the day, which brought about the Protestant Reformation.  Conventional ideas were challenged with new insights in astronomy and other sciences, changing the entire worldview based on scientific observation and reasoning, while the individuals who embodied this development were in many cases charged with heresy as they disputed the habitual viewpoints current at the time.  Over several hundred years, a new political philosophy developed and we saw the rise of the individualistic spirit in the rise of capitalism and the creed of individual accomplishment which led to the explosive growth and development of the Western world in affairs of material well-being and vital fulfillment, and mental progress.  The East, with a different world-view, responded more slowly, but inevitably did respond, to the push for new directions, a challenge that continues to pressure the traditional cultures of Asia even today.  None of these transitions occur overnight, so there may remain substantial resistance of conventional views or ideas even when the spirit of the age is becoming more individualistic.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…it is to its passion for the discovery of the actual truth of things and for the governing of human life by whatever law of the truth it has found that the West owes its centuries of strength, vigour, light, progress, irresistible expansion.  Equally, it is due not to any original falsehood in the ideals on which its life was founded, but to the loss of the living sense of the Truth it once held and its long contented slumber in the cramping bonds of a mechanical conventionalism that the East has found itself helpless in the hour of its awakening, a giant empty of strength, inert masses of men who had forgotten how to deal freely with facts and forces because they had learned only how to live in a world of stereotyped thought and customary action.  Yet the truths which Europe has found by its individualistic age covered only the first more obvious, physical and outward facts of life and only such of their more hidden realities and powers as the habit of analytical reason and the pursuit of practical utility can give to man.  If its rationalistic civilisation has swept so triumphantly over the world, it is because it found no deeper and more powerful truth to confront it; for all the rest of mankind was still in the inactivity of the last dark hours of the conventional age.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 15-16