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

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