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

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