The Phases of Societal Development in the Modern Age

The history of the last couple of hundred years reveals a series of “-isms” that have captured the minds and hearts of a portion, possibly even a large portion, of humanity and driven social change at an unprecedented pace as the reason tries to insert itself into the process of society and gain ascendancy over the infrarational foundation that has historically ruled societal organisation and response.  Capitalism, communism, socialism, darwinism, fascism, are all examples of idea-sets that have battled for the hearts and minds of humanity during this period of time.

Sri Aurobindo has identified a pattern or cycle of development within which societal forms and ideals are born, rise up, gain strength and take a position in civilisation, and eventually bring about disillusionment and decay, which leads to the start of the next cycle with the newest idea current at that time.

“This series seems to follow always a typical course, first a luminous seed-time and a period of enthusiastic effort and battle, next a partial victory and achievement and a brief era of possession, then disillusionment and the birth of a new idea and endeavour.  A principle of society is put forward by the thinker, seizes on the general mind and becomes a social gospel; brought immediately or by rapid stages into practice, it dethrones the preceding principle and takes its place as the foundation of the community’s social or political life.  This victory won, men live for a time in the enthusiasm or, when the enthusiasm sinks, in the habit of their great achievement.  After a little they begin to feel less at ease with the first results and are moved to adapt, to alter constantly, to develop more or less restlessly the new system, — for it is the very nature of the reason to observe, to be open to novel ideas, to respond quickly to new needs and possibilities and not to repose always in the unquestioning acceptance of every habit and old association.  Still men do not yet think of questioning their social principle or imagine that it will ever need alteration, but are intent only to perfect its forms and make its application more thorough, its execution more sincere and effective.  A time, however, arrives when the reason becomes dissatisfied and sees that it is only erecting a mass of new conventions and that there has been no satisfying change; there has been a shifting of stresses, but the society is not appreciably nearer to perfection.  The opposition of the few thinkers who have already, perhaps almost from the first, started to question the sufficiency of the social principle, makes itself felt and is accepted by increasing numbers; there is a movement of revolt and the society starts on the familiar round to a new radical progression, a new revolution, the reign of a more advanced social principle.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 192-193