The Debate About Individual Freedom and Societal Control

Whether it is 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World, or numerous other dystopian novels, the issue revolves around the attempt of an all-powerful state using various methods, including drugs, psychological programming, propaganda, censorship, mob psychology, fear, artificial creation of desires and their satisfaction, or planned scarcity to keep people under control.   We witness the attempt of individuals to break free of the limitations on thought and free expression of ideas, and the ruthless methods used by the State to suppress this freedom.

The control exercised by society is not always as extreme or as bleak as these portrayals, but we nevertheless see an attempt by society to set forth norms, patterns of behavior and modes of thought that are acceptable and whether through some forms of legal or religious authority, or through the exercise of moral authority, or even peer pressure within social and work environments, the goal is to exercise practically total control over individual freedom.  Such control makes it, in theory, easier to control a population and manage without too many disruptions.  Yet it brings about stagnation and lack of dynamic growth and development, as these are functions of individual progress and initiative, which eventually get carried over to the society when they have become well-established in a broader range of individuals.

Sri Aurobindo observes in The Synthesis of Yoga:  “There is the demand of the group that the individual should subordinate himself more or less completely or even lose his independent existence in the community, the smaller must be immolated or self-offered to the larger unit.  He must accept the need of the society as his own need, the desire of the society as his own desire; he must live not for himself but for the tribe, clan, commune or nation of which he is a member.  The ideal and absolute solution from the individual’s standpoint would be a society that existed not for itself, for its all-overriding collective purpose, but for the good of the individual and his fulfilment, for the greater and more perfect life of all its members.  Representing as far as possible his best self and helping him to realise it, it would respect the freedom of each of its members and maintain itself not by law and force but by the free and spontaneous consent of its constituent persons.”

“And in the present balance of humanity there is seldom any real danger of exaggerated individualism breaking up the social integer.  There is continually a danger that the exaggerated pressure of the social mass by its heavy unenlightened mechanical weight may suppress or unduly discourage the free development of the individual spirit.  For man in the individual can be more easily enlightened, conscious, open to clear influences; man in the mass is still obscure, half-conscious, ruled by universal forces that escape its mastery and its knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 43-44


The Dynamic Tension Between the Individual and the Societal Standards of Conduct

Without the structure and expectations of the standards set by a society, the individual acts from his own internal impulses.  At a certain stage this is bound up with fulfillment of his material needs and his impulses of desire.  As individuals meet each other, and try to fulfill their somewhat conflicting desires and needs, hostility and aggression can and does break out.  This leads to the concept of “might makes right” and the individual simply asserts his individual power to dominate and get what he wants, regardless of the results or costs to others.

As the individual begins to interface with a community, whether it is a family, tribe or larger societal grouping, however, he begins to recognise that he cannot simply assert his will at all times without any consequences, and he begins to negotiate some form of interchange and balance.  At some point the society establishes norms of conduct that govern the relationship of individuals who are interacting with one another and this becomes over time, the foundations of the moral and ethical code of that society.  People know, in general, what to expect in their dealings with others.  When someone goes outside the framework, he can be called to account within whatever framework or resolution mechanism has been set up, limited only by the relative power exercised by any individual in the society and the intensity of the risk of allowing the individual’s will to overturn the societal norm.

This framework helps to educate the individual and helps him grow beyond the limitations of his own personal egoistic demands on life.  This allows him to widen and extend his view, which is an aid in his growth until such time as he has reached the limits of that growth and must go beyond to a new higher standard.  At that point, the individual once again comes into a state of dynamic tension with the society and must prove that his new standard is progressive, over time.

In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo writes:  “Man has in him two distinct master impulses, the individualistic and the communal, a personal life and a social life, a personal motive of conduct and a social motive of conduct.  The possibility of their opposition and the attempt to find their equation lie at the very roots of human civilisation and persist in other figures when he has passed beyond the vital animal into a highly individualised mental and spiritual progress.”

“The existence of a social law external to the individual is at different times a considerable advantage and a disadvantage to the development of the divine in man.  It is an advantage at first when man is crude and incapable of self-control and self-finding, because it erects a power other than that of his personal egoism through which that egoism may be induced or compelled to moderate its savage demands, to discipline its irrational and often violent movements and even to lose itself sometimes in a larger and less personal egoism.  It is a disadvantage to the adult spirit ready to transcend the human formula because it is an external standard which seeks to impose itself on him from outside, and the condition of his perfection is that he shall grow from within and in an increasing freedom, not by the suppression but by the transcendence of his perfected individuality, not any longer by a law imposed on him that trains and disciplines his members but by the soul from within breaking through all previous forms to possess with its light and transmute his members.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 42-43

The Power of the Community’s Needs in Determining the Actions and Morality of Its Individual Members

As long as the human individual lives in a community or society, whether a small family or tribal grouping, or a larger highly organised societal structure such as a modern day nation state or major religious grouping, there is a certain level of tension between what the individual desires or aspires to, and what the society demands of the individual as a price for participation in that society.  While the society can only make progress through the progress of its individual members, it nevertheless exercises dominant control over its members through the sheer weight of its influence and power.  Thus, the individual is frequently restricted, held back or constrained by the societal order and its expressed or implied needs.

Add to this a dynamic that is frequently overlooked, namely, the power of what we now can term “mob psychology” whereby individuals are frequently overpowered and emotionally drawn or coerced into supporting things in a mob setting that they would not ever dream of supporting in their own individual life and “one on one” actions.  Many authoritarian societies work to harness this power to control the members of its society.  Anyone who does not go along will be branded as an outsider, and the power of the mob, both in terms of potential exclusion or ostracism, as well as incarceration or threats of bodily harm or death, make people go along, either overtly and outwardly vocal in their support, or at least silently acquiescing in things that they disagree with.

Morality and ethics therefore take on the general tone and direction of the society within which they develop, and in some cases are developed as a control mechanism over its members, while of course in others, they represent true growth and development of a wider understanding slowly impressing itself on the individual members of the society.

In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In itself this seemingly larger and overriding law is no more than an extension of the vital and animal principle that governs the individual elementary man; it is the law of the pack or herd.  The individual identifies partially his life with the life of a certain number of other individuals with whom he is associated by birth, choice or circumstance.  And since the existence of the group is necessary for his own existence and satisfaction, in time, if not from the first, its preservation, the fulfilment of its needs and the satisfaction of its collective notions, desires, habits of living, without which it would not hold together, must come to take a primary place.  The satisfaction of personal idea and feeling, need and desire, propensity and habit has to be constantly subordinated, by the necessity of the situation and not from any moral or altruistic motive, to the satisfaction of the ideas and feelings, needs and desires, propensities and habits, not of this or that other individual or number of individuals, but of the society as a whole.  This social need is the obscure matrix of morality and of man’s ethical impulse.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 41-42

The First Standards of Conduct Are Individual Need and Desire and the Benefits for the Community

To understand the evolution of standards of conduct and the eventual overriding of a prior standard with a new, wider or higher, standard, it is useful to look at the basis and origin of standards of conduct.  Over time, humanity develops a successively layered matrix of standards.  The first standard is simply the desire or need of the individual.  There is hunger, so the individual reaches out for food.  Whatever gets in his way is subject to the drive of the individual trying to fulfill his need.  The second standard is an extension of the first, in that it applies a similar principle to the family, tribe, group, community within which the individual lives and interacts.  There is no question here of the principles of ethics, morality or anything other than what is perceived to meet the needs of the individual or the collective grouping.

Sri Aurobindo notes in The Synthesis of Yoga:  “There are four main standards of human conduct that make an ascending scale.  The first is personal need, preference and desire; the second is the law and good of the collectivity; the third is an ideal ethic; the last is the highest divine law of the nature.”

“The true business of man upon earth is to express in the type of humanity a growing image of the Divine; whether knowingly or unknowingly, it is to this end that Nature is working in him under the thick veil of her inner and outer processes.  But the material or animal man is ignorant of the inner aim of life; he knows only its needs and its desires and he has necessarily no other guide to what is required of him than his own perception of need and his own stirrings and pointings of desire.  To satisfy his physical and vital demands and necessities before all things else and, in the next rank, whatever emotional or mental cravings or imaginations or dynamic notions rise in him must be the first natural rule of his conduct.  The sole balancing or overpowering law that can modify or contradict this pressing natural claim is the demand put on him by the ideas, needs and desires of his family, community or tribe, the herd, the pack of which he is a member.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pg. 41

From Darkness to Light, from Light to Greater Light in Our Standards of Conduct

When we recognise that standards of conduct are influenced greatly by the time and circumstance, and are thus not all eternal truths to remain constant for all time, it becomes possible for us to conceive of an evolving standard.  We would then adopt and utilize the standard of the time until the opportunity arises, through our inner growth of knowledge, both individually and within our society, to put forth a new standard.

An example of an evolving standard is illustrated in the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The Old Testament calls for justice to be meted out as “an eye for an eye” and certain “sins” were to be treated by stoning the sinner to death.  The New Testament however, calls for the exercise of restraint and compassion, “turning the other cheek” and puts aside the judgment and stoning of a “sinner” by asking “he who is without sin” to cast the frist stone, essentially saving the sinner from the painful death by stoning.

We see numerous examples that show that standards of conduct can and should evolve through time.  Child labor, once common, was outlawed in many countries over the last several hundred years.  The slave trade was outlawed in the UK and eventually in the USA and other countries after flourishing for a considerable time.  Treating women as property used to be the norm in Europe, but eventually women were recognised as having equal rights and access to society and its rights and duties, including voting and participating in government.

In the end, spiritual growth and development opens up our understanding to the Oneness of all creation, brings forth new ways of relating to people and the environment from this standpoint of oneness, and thereby does away with fixed mental rules in favor of spiritual insight.  This is not a license to simply disregard the progress of the past with some kind of vital aggrandisement of the ego, but a movement forward to the point where no such rules are needed because the relationship, fixed in Oneness, automatically undertakes the right action at the right time through right knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo observes in The Synthesis of Yoga:  “This, then, stands fixed for us that all standards by which we may seek to govern our conduct are only our temporary, imperfect and evolutive attempts to represent to ourselves our stumbling mental progress in the universal self-realisation towards which Nature moves.  But the divine manifestation cannot be bound by our little rules and fragile sanctities; for the consciousness behind it is too vast for these things.  Once we have grasped this fact, disconcerting enough to the absolutism of our reason, we shall better be able to put in their right place in regard to each other the successive standards that govern the different stages in the growth of the individual and the collective march of mankind.  At the most general of them we may cast a passing glance.  For we have to see how they stand in relation to that other standardless, spiritual and supramental mode of working for which Yoga seeks and to which it moves by the surrender of the individual to the divine Will and, more effectively, through his ascent by this surrender to the greater consciousness in which a certain identity with the dynamic Eternal becomes possible.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 40-41

Progressively Evolving Standards of Conduct

Most people require a framework within which to act in society.  Set standards of conduct may it easier to understand and negotiate one’s way through life.  An individual knows exactly how to respond in situations that are likely to arise, and will be aware of the consequences of action outside of that framework.  This creates, however, a static model of morality and ethics that cannot easily adapt to new circumstances.  This makes it difficult for people who are locked into these fixed rules of conduct to understand, appreciate or adapt themselves to new ways of acting in the world.  Those who follow a different pattern, whether it be due to following a different religious persuasion or philosophical belief system, or whether it be due to an intelligent understanding of the need of the situation that does not fit neatly into the rule-book, are perceived as a threat, evoke fear, and then anger (and potentially violence) in those who are bound to a fixed, narrow set of rules.  At the extreme we find the fanatic who wants to force everyone to follow his guidelines and who will be willing to kill or destroy to achieve his results.  Such fanaticism has been a causal factor in the history of warfare, as well as being the cause of significant interpersonal harm in a local community where those who are “different” are cast out, tortured to recant,  or sacrificed so that the standard upheld by the majority of the community can exist without opposition or threat.  Of course, it is through the progress of individuals, who see a larger, higher, diviner way forward, that humanity itself eventually can grow and evolve in its moral standards.

In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo writes:  “To those who can act only on a rigid standard, to those who can feel only the human and not the divine values this truth may seem to be a dangerous concession which is likely to destroy the very foundation of morality, confuse all conduct and establish only chaos.  Certainly, if the choice must be between an eternal and unchanging ethics and no ethics at all, it would have that result for  man in his ignorance.  But even on the human level, if we have light enough and flexibility enough to recognise that a standard of conduct may be temporary and yet necessary for its time and to observe it faithfully until it can be replaced by a better, then we suffer no such loss, but lose only the fanaticism of an imperfect and intolerant virtue.  In its place we gain openness and a power of continual moral progression, charity, the capacity to enter into an understanding sympathy with all this world of struggling and stumbling creatures and by that charity a better right and a greater strength to help it upon its way.  In the end where the human closes and the divine commences, where the mental disappears into the supramental consciousness and the finite precipitates itself into the infinite, all evil disappears into a transcendent divine Good which becomes universal on every plane of consciousness that it touches.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 39-40

Standards of Good and Evil Vary Over Time in the Development of Humanity

The Spartans of ancient Greece reportedly placed weak or deformed babies out on the hills to die.  They considered this approach to be both moral and necessary to build a society that was strong and able to protect its citizens and way of life.  In today’s world, such actions would, in most places, be considered to be highly immoral and reprehensible.  Yet even today, there remain adherents of this approach, who prefer to kill off those weak or poor rather than aid them and help them succeed in spite of any adversity they experience.

In certain ages and cultures, women were held to standards of dress and roles in society that made them clearly subordinate to males, who were held to different standards.  This was considered right and moral in those times and places.  In other times and places, women were treated as equals, with even-handed treatment in their participation in the society, at least, under the prevailing moral code in the land, if not in actual fact in all instances, and in some places, women were granted a superior role in terms of governance, respect or inheritance.  In their own time and place, each of these positions was considered right and moral and the opposite was considered immoral.

Similarly, child labor and human slavery have been considered right and moral in certain times and societal settings, while in others, they are seen as immoral and unacceptable.  Today we look upon both of these as past stages out of which humanity has evolved, again, in the prevailing moral code if not entirely in practice.  Some societies believed that a community of people shared its resources for the benefit of all and private ownership was immoral and unhealthy as it led to greed and inequality and created consequences based on division and separation; other societies believed that morality lay in private ownership and use of wealth and power to dominate and control, at the expense of those who have neither the drive, the social positioning, nor the training to succeed in such a system.

In the teachings of the major religions, certain actions are set forth as defining the code of morality for their adherents.  Some of these codified rules are clearly transient manifestations of the society from which they arose, while others define longer-term principles that stem from a divine Truth not yet fully realised in humanity.

Nietzsche spoke of a concept he called “beyond good and evil”.  The superior man was supposed to not be bound by arbitrary standards erected in one society or another as the arbiters of right and wrong.  His philosophy was used, albeit grossly distorted, by the leadership of the Third Reich in Germany in the mid-20th century and led to abuses of killing, torture, slavery and destruction not seen in modern times. The concept was accompanied by the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the vital being of man, rather than being based in the true spiritual relationship to the Divine from which such a concept arises.

In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo observes:  “If we are to be free in the Spirit, if we are to be subject only to the supreme Truth, we must discard the idea that our mental or moral laws are binding on the Infinite or that there can be anything sacrosanct, absolute or eternal even in the highest of our existing standards of conduct.  To form higher and higher temporary standards as long as they are needed is to serve the Divine in his world march; to erect rigidly an absolute standard is to attempt the erection of a barrier against the eternal waters in their outflow.  Once the nature-bound soul realises this truth, it is delivered from the duality of good and evil.  For good is all that helps the individual and the world towards their divine fullness, and evil is all that retards or breaks up that increasing perfection.  But since the perfection is progressive, evolutive in Time, good and evil are also shifting quantities and change from time to time their meaning and value.  This thing which is evil now and in its present shape must be abandoned was once helpful and necessary to the general and individual progress.  That other thing which we now regard as evil may well become in another form and arrangement an element in some future perfection.  And on the spiritual level we transcend even this distinction, for we discover the purpose and divine utility of all these things that we call good and evil.  Then we have to reject the falsehood in them and all that is distorted, ignorant and obscure in that which is called good no less than in that which is called evil.  For we have then to accept only the true and the divine, but to make no other distinction in the eternal processes.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pg. 39

A Change in Human Life Requires a Change in Human Nature

When we review the history of the attempts to perfect human life and human interactions in society, we find that neither religious belief, intellectual attainment, nor technology have succeeded in creating a harmonious and effective human society, nor a perfected human being.  It has not been accomplished with moral or ethical training, with physical culture and discipline, with suppression of vital drives or with acquired learning or rules for living.  There is no doubt that each of these directions has played a role in bringing humanity to its current state, but as we look around, we can see not only the progress, but the failures.  These failures now threaten to destroy the very existence of humanity, as the increase in powers and leverage provided by developments of technology have created far higher risks and dangers than we see in less outwardly developed societies of the past.  The ability of humanity to control and manage the technological powers we have unleashed is clearly not keeping up.

Sri Aurobindo’s view is that real change can only occur when human nature itself can be changed.  This cannot be accomplished, as we have seen through repeated experiences throughout history, by the present configuration of body, life, emotions, and mental framework that we possess.  A new expression of consciousness is required to bring understanding and harmony, as well as to redirect the focus of human existence.  This would be an unattainable solution if we deny such a possibility; yet, the seeds of this new expression of consciousness can be identified and the first clear signs of its development can be observed.

Sri Aurobindo notes in The Life Divine:  “… to hope for a true change of human life without a change of human nature is an irrational and unspiritual proposition; it is to ask for something unnatural and unreal, an impossible miracle.  But what is demanded by this change is not something altogether distant, alien to our existence and radically impossible; for what has to be developed is there in our being and not something outside it: what evolutionary Nature presses for, is an awakening to the knowledge of self, the discovery of Self, the manifestation of the self and spirit within us and the release of its self-knowledge, its self-power, its native self-instrumentation.  It is, besides, a step for which the whole of evolution has been a preparation and which is brought closer at each crisis of human destiny when the mental and vital evolution of the being touches a point where intellect and vital force reach some acme of tension and there is a need either for them to collapse, to sink back into a torpor of defeat or a repose of unprogressive quiescence or to rend their way through the veil against which they are straining.  What is necessary is that there should be a turn in humanity felt by some or many towards the vision of this change, a feeling of its imperative need, the sense of its possibility, the will to make it possible in themselves and to find the way.  That trend is not absent and it must increase with the tension of the crisis in human world-destiny; the need of an escape or a solution, the feeling that there is no other solution than the spiritual cannot but grow and become more imperative under the urgency of critical circumstance.  To that call in the being there must always be some answer in the Divine Reality and in Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Three, The Present Evolutionary Crisis, pp. 37-38

Organised Religion Has Not Provided the Solution to the Transformation and Uplifting of Human Life and Society

When we recognise the inability of intellectual attainment and education to effect the transformation of human existence, we might assume that the answer lies in organised religion, and that the secular attempts at perfection were missing exactly what religion has to offer.  Human history, however, tells another story, namely, that organised religion also is unable to effect the changes needed to truly transform human life.  When religion becomes entrenched, it tends to make compromises with the habitual life of the people it serves, and thus, becomes an institution rather than a purely spiritual flame.  It may still, of course, provide spiritual inspiration and guidance in a very real sense for those who practice and adhere to the core teachings, but this does not represent the power of societal transformation that religions have sought.  In many cases, religion has tried to “convert” people to their cause, using either threat (or actual use) of force, material benefits or a promise of being saved after death, and in other cases, religion has been the driving force behind suppression of thought and new directions in spiritual practice that do not agree with the specific creed or dogma of the religion.  Thus, once entrenched, it has in many cases become a force of retrogression rather than progress.

Sri Aurobindo notes in The Life Divine:  “…organised religion, though it can provide a means of inner uplift for the individual and preserve in it or behind it a way for his opening to spiritual experience, has not changed human life and society; it could not do so because, in governing society, it had to compromise with the lower parts of life and could not insist on the inner change of the whole being; it could insist only on a credal adherence, a formal acceptance of its ethical standards and a conformity to institution, ceremony and ritual.  Religion so conceived can give a religio-ethical colour or surface thing, — sometimes, if it maintains a strong kernel of inner experience, it can generalise to some extent an incomplete spiritual tendency; but it does not transform the race, it cannot create a new principle of the human existence.  A total spiritual direction given to the whole life and the whole nature can alone lift humanity beyond itself.”

“Another possible conception akin to the religious solution is the guidance of society by men of spiritual attainment, the brotherhood or unity of all in the faith or in the discipline, the spiritualisation of life and society by the taking up of the old machinery of life into such a unification or inventing a new machinery. This too has been attempted before without success; it was the original founding idea of more than one religion: but the human ego and vital nature were too strong for a religious idea working on the mind and by the mind to overcome its resistance.  It is only the full emergence of the soul, the full descent of the native light and power of the Spirit and the consequent replacement or transformation and uplifting of our insufficient mental and vital nature by a spiritual and supramental Supernature that can effect this evolutionary miracle.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Three, The Present Evolutionary Crisis, pp. 36-37

Education and Regulation of Life Cannot Alone Transform Human Existence and Accomplish the Evolutionary Purpose

The world has seen a number of experiments aimed at uplifting the education level of individuals and at finding ways to upgrade the relationship of people in society.  While there have clearly been advantages and benefits garnered from these attempts, it has become abundantly clear that neither of these approaches actually address the core issues.  Self-dealing, self-aggrandisement, greed, lust, hunger for power and the exercise of power over others all are not only essentially unchanged, but utilize the enhanced powers that education and societal systems provide to enlarge the impact of individual actions, thus increasing the “success” of the greed, lust or power-hunger rather than tamping down on them.

We thus see highly educated people attaining success in the world, accumulating many billions of dollars, while their employees in many cases have trouble making ends meet or retiring at the end of their working life with sufficient income to live comfortably.  We see educated individuals using the tools to exploit the environment and harm the balance and thereby the health and well-being of people world-wide while enriching themselves or working to increase their own personal wealth or success.  We see highly educated people implementing social systems that include manipulation of data, highly targeted messaging and propaganda, and manipulation of emotions to get and maintain control over others, to enforce regimentation and structure on people to make them easier to control, and thus, reduce the value of human life to that of an economic cog or a consumer whose role is to purchase products and services, with little other concern arising for the development of their spiritual, mental, emotional, vital and physical needs and concerns, or for the development and maintenance of a balance in the interaction of the society with the world environment.

Sri Aurobindo notes in The Life Divine:  “But it has not been found in experience, whatever might have once been hoped, that education and intellectual training by itself can change man; it only provides the human individual and collective ego with better information and a more efficient machinery for its self-affirmation, but leaves it the same unchanged human ego.  Nor can human mind and life be cut into perfection, — even into what is thought to be perfection, a constructed substitute, — by any kind of social machinery; matter can be so cut, thought can be so cut, but in our human existence matter and thought are only instruments for the soul and the life-force.  Machinery cannot form the soul and life-force into standardised shapes; it can at best coerce them, make soul and mind inert and stationary and regulate the life’s outward action; but if this is to be effectively done, coercion and compression of the mind and life are indispensable and that again spells either unprogressive stability or decadence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Three, The Present Evolutionary Crisis, pp. 35-36