The Age of Individualism Has Raised Up the Intrinsic Value and Role of the Individual in Human Development

For much of human history, the importance of the individual, per se, has been overshadowed and minimised.  Of course, individuals with particular skill sets or predilections were valued, but within the framework of the societal roles they played.  It took the evolutionary step of the Age of Individualism to establish that the individual has certain “inalienable rights” (as the US Declaration of Independence termed them), to quote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”   While this is not the first, nor the only exposition of the basic value and importance of the individual, it clearly sets forth the principle.  The development of a clear understanding and importance for the role of the individual, as an individual, inserted two master ideas into the evolutionary direction of humanity.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The first of these, now universally accepted, is the democratic conception of the right of all individuals as members of the society to the full life and the full development of which they are individually capable.  It is no longer possible that we shall accept as an ideal any arrangement by which certain classes of society should arrogate development and full social fruition to themselves while assigning a bare and barren function of service alone to others.  It is now fixed that social development and well-being mean the development and well-being of all the individuals in the society and not merely a flourishing of the community in the mass which resolves itself really into the splendour and power of one or two classes.  This conception has been accepted in full by all progressive nations and is the basis of the present socialistic tendency of the world.  But in addition there is this deeper truth which individualism has discovered, that the individual is not merely a social unit; his existence, his right and claim to live and grow are not founded solely on his social work and function.  He is not merely a member of a human pack, hive or ant-hill; he is something in himself, a soul, a being, who has to fulfil his own individual truth and law as well as his natural or his assigned part in the truth and law of the collective existence.  He demands freedom, space, initiative for his soul, for his nature, for that puissant and tremendous thing which society so much distrusts and has laboured in the past either to suppress altogether or to relegate to the purely spiritual field, an individual thought, will and conscience.”

“If he is to merge these eventually, it cannot be into the dominating thought, will and conscience of others, but into something beyond into which he and all must be both allowed and helped freely to grow.  That is an idea, a truth which, intellectually recognised and given its full exterior and superficial significance in Europe, agrees at its root with the profoundest and highest spiritual conceptions of Asia and has a large part to play in the moulding of the future.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 24-25


The Awakening of the East and its Impact on The Evolution of Society Throughout the World

James Joyce in his famous work Finnegan’s Wake, made the following observation:  “The silent cock shall crow at last.  The west shall shake the east awake.  Walk while ye have the night for morn, …”    Sri Aurobindo also notes that the force of the rise of the West during the Age of Reason has awakened the East, and it is not likely that the East will wind up following exactly the same cycle of development that pertained in Europe and America; rather, the cultural, economic and political background and systems of Asia will certainly be impacted, but will modify the results in unforeseen ways.  We may note the same cycle in the development of technology whereby developing countries have in some cases “leapfrogged” the West as new possibilities made older methods obsolete.  Cell phone technology has largely overpassed the need for land lines in developing lands, while Europe and America are still very much living off of embedded technology and thus, less adaptable as new tools arise.  In the sphere of societal development, it is likely that the Asiatic cultures, even if infected by Western materialism to some degree, will eventually work to find a balance that respects their traditional values while integrating the powers of modern life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…the West in its triumphant conquest of the world has awakened the slumbering East and has produced in its midst an increasing struggle between an imported Western individualism and the old conventional principle of society.  The latter is here rapidly, there slowly breaking down, but something quite different from Western individualism may very well take its place.  …  the signs are that the individualistic period in the East will be neither of long duration nor predominantly rationalistic and secularist in character.  If then the East, as the result of its awakening, follows its own bent and evolves a novel social tendency and culture, that is bound to have an enormous effect on the direction of the world’s civilisation; we can measure its probably influence by the profound results of the first reflux of the ideas even of the unawakened East upon Europe.  Whatever that effect may be, it will not be in favour of any re-ordering of society on the lines of the still current tendency towards a mechanical economism which has not ceased to dominate mind and life in the Occident.  The influence of the East is likely to be rather in the direction of subjectivism and practical spirituality, a greater opening of our physical existence to the realisation of ideals other than the strong but limited aims suggested by the life and the body in their own gross nature.”

The enormous interest in Yoga, Ayurveda, spirituality, Eastern religions, mindfulness practices of India, China, Tibet, Japan and other Asian cultures, that has arisen in the West over the last 75 years or more, makes it clear that a new paradigm, along the lines suggested by Sri Aurobindo, is in fact operative.


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 23-24

Factors Tending to Development of a Subjective Age Rather than a New Conventionalism

If we were to follow the trend-line of the individualistic age as it has developed thus far, we could easily wind up with the result that Sri Aurobindo described in the prior post; namely, that increasing reliance on the findings of physical Science and the universal principles and laws that it exposes would inevitably lead toward some kind of State Socialism that would suppress individual freedom and creativity and eventually fail due to stagnation.  Sri Aurobindo, however, points to some incipient trends which could result in a radically different outcome, and lead to the development of a Subjective Age of humanity.

“On the other hand, there are in operation forces which seem likely to frustrate or modify this development before it can reach its menaced consummation.  In the first place, rationalistic and physical Science has overpassed itself and must before long be overtaken by a mounting flood of psychological and psychic knowledge which cannot fail to compel quite a new view of the human being and open a new vista before mankind.  At the same time the Age of Reason is visibly drawing to an end; novel ideas are sweeping over the world and are being accepted with a significant rapidity, ideas inevitably subversive of any premature typal order of economic rationalism, dynamic ideas such as Nietzsche’s Will-to-live, Bergson’s exaltation of Intuition above intellect or the latest German philosophical tendency to acknowledge a suprarational faculty and a suprarational order of truths.  Already another mental poise is beginning to settle and conceptions are on the way to apply themselves in the field of practice which promise to give the succession of the individualistic age of society not to a new typal order, but to a subjective age which may well be a great and momentous passage to a very different goal.  It may be doubted whether we are not already in the morning twilight of a new period of the human cycle.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 22-23

The Risk that Western Reliance on Science Will Eventually Overturn the Individualistic Ideology of Western Society

It was the individualistic impulse responding to the stifling conventionalism of Mediaeval Europe that led to the development of Science, as an objective standard for defining our relation to the world and our mode and means of action in the world.  However, as Science gains its own ascendancy, and enforces the power of its laws, principles and guidelines, it leads to a new conventional organisation of society based on scientific principles.  This in turn can yield control of the State to a new technocratic elite, or at least to those political actors who harness the technocratic elite, armed in this case with laws and rules that have proven their efficacy in the material world, and with new tools of control and enforcement that science and technology have made possible.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “For this discovery by individual free-thought of universal laws of which the individual is almost a by-product and by which he must necessarily be governed, this attempt actually to govern the social life of humanity in conscious accordance with the mechanism of these laws seems to lead logically to the suppression of that very individual freedom which made the discovery and the attempt at all possible.  In seeking the truth and law of his own being the individual seems to have discovered a truth and law which is not of his own individual being at all, but of the collectivity, the pack, the hive, the mass.  The result to which this points and to which it still seems irresistibly to be driving us is a new ordering of society by a rigid economic or governmental Socialism in which the individual, deprived again of his freedom in his own interest and that of humanity, must have his whole life and action determined for him at every step and in every point from birth to old age by the well-ordered mechanism of the State.  We might then have a curious new version, with very important differences, of the old Asiatic or even of the old Indian order of society.  In place of the religio-ethical sanction there will be a scientific and rational or naturalistic motive and rule; instead of the Brahmin Shastrakara the scientific, administrative and economic expert.”

The consequences of this would imply an ossification of society without the safety valves provided by the Indian system, such as the freedom of the individual to “opt out” in favor of the renunciation of a spiritual seeking.  The conventional controls, starting with youth education, work life and management of each person’s role in society, would lose the dynamic and adventurous energy which led to the discoveries in the first place, until such time as the conventional system breaks down once again through its too rigid formalism.

“And quite certainly this static order would at long last be broken by a new individualist age of revolt, led probably by the principles of an extreme philosophical Anarchism.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 21-22

European Reliance on Science to Provide Objective Validation

With the rise of individualism and the challenges made to conventional organisation of society, as well as religious and economic dogma of the time, Europe was confronted with the need to establish some kind of independent, non-subjective approach to validating the individual insights that arose during the process.  It was at this point that Science promised to provide independent, verifiable and reproducible results and thus, it became a centerpiece of an approach to validation that captivated the mind of Europe for the last several centuries.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Science seemed to it to fulfil impeccably its search for the two supreme desiderata of an individualistic age.  Here at last was a truth of things which depended on no doubtful Scripture or fallible human authority but which Mother Nature herself had written in her eternal book for all to read who had patience to observe and intellectual honesty to judge.  Here were laws, principles, fundamental facts of the world and of our being which all could verify at once for themselves and which must therefore satisfy and guide the free individual judgment, delivering it equally from alien compulsion and from erratic self-will.  Here were laws and truths which justified and yet controlled the claims and desires of the individual human being; here a science which provided a standard, a norm of knowledge, a rational basis for life, a clear outline and sovereign means for the progress and perfection of the individual and the race.  The attempt to govern and organise human life by verifiable Science, by a law, a truth of things, an order and principles which all can observe and verify in their ground and fact and to which therefore all may freely and must rationally subscribe, is the culminating movement of European civilisation.  It has been the fulfilment and triumph of the individualistic age of human society; it has seemed likely also to be its end, the cause of the death of individualism and its putting away and burial among the monuments of the past.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 20-21

An Individualistic Age Needs to Address the Requirement for Some Verifiable Truths and a Stable Societal Framework

The advent of an individualistic age is a reaction to a social order that is hide-bound in conventions that no longer speak to the inner spirit that led to their development originally.  It takes the curiosity and motivation of individuals to take on the task of breaking down these conventional ways and finding new ways that have an inner life and spirit.  Yet there is also the danger that individuals, without a framework or method of external verification, will develop new directions which are in reality fulfillment of egoistic desire and with enough different approaches, it is difficult to sift out those that represent a truth to be cherished from those that must eventually be discarded.

Additionally, the breakdown of conventional systems leaves the society in an uncertain position as individuals, looking to their own fulfillment or desires to determine how to interact within society, may not regard the importance of fulfilling a societal role or order as highly as may be needed to ensure a stable basis for societal interaction.

These two issues, then, are areas of focus to be addressed during any age of individualism.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Manifestly, the unrestrained use of individual illumination or judgment without either any outer standard or any generally recognisable source of truth is a perilous experiment for our imperfect race.  it is likely to lead rather to a continual fluctuation and disorder of opinion than to a progressive unfolding of the truth of things.  No less, the pursuit of social justice through the stark assertion of individual rights or class interests and desires must be a source of continual struggle and revolution and may end in an exaggerated assertion of the will in each to live his own life and to satisfy his own ideas and desires which will produce a serious malaise or a radical trouble in the social body.”

“Therefore on every individualistic age of mankind there is imperative the search for two supreme desiderata.  It must find a general standard of Truth to which the individual judgment of all will be inwardly compelled to subscribe without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority.  And it must reach too some principle of social order which shall be equally founded on a universally recognisable truth of things; an order is needed that will put a rein on desire and interest by providing at least some intellectual and moral test which these two powerful and dangerous forces must satisfy before they can feel justified in asserting their claims on life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pp. 19-20

The Graeco-Roman Cultural Legacy Helped Shape the Renaissance and the Rise of Individualism in Europe

Students of European history recognize that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a difficult period of stagnation, known generally as the “Dark Ages”.  A religious elite dominated Europe with its strict interpretation of scriptural authority and its unwillingness to accept freedom of thought or belief.  At the same time, a feudal system kept the majority of people enslaved and illiterate.  Learning was concentrated in the clergy and was focused on enforcing Christian orthodoxy rather than looking at the world with open eyes and a questing mind.  After a long period of this stagnation, the Protestant Reformation and the secular Renaissance began a period that began to break down the strict conventionalism of the Mediaeval Age.  We saw then an outflowering of science, music and art, the development of a broader access to education and printed books, the search for new relations to alter the stifling feudal system, and a breaking down of the walls in almost every field of life that had hemmed in the entire society in narrow bonds of convention.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For, eventually, the evolution of Europe was determined less by the Reformation than by the Renascence; it flowered by the vigorous return of the ancient Graeco-Roman mentality of the one rather than by the Hebraic and religio-ethical temperament of the other.  The Renascence gave back to Europe on one hand the free curiosity of the Greek mind, its eager search for first principles and rational laws, its delighted intellectual scrutiny of the facts of life by the force of direct observation and individual reasoning, on the other the Roman’s large practicality and his sense for the ordering of life in harmony with a robust utility and the just principles of things.  But both these tendencies were pursued with a passion, a seriousness, a moral and almost religious ardour which, lacking in the ancient Graeco-Roman mentality, Europe owed to her long centuries of Judaeo-Christian discipline.  It was from these sources that the individualistic age of Western society sought ultimately for that principle of order and control which all human society needs and which more ancient times attempted to realise first by the materialisation of fixed symbols of truth, then by ethical type and discipline, finally by infallible authority or stereotyped convention.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pg. 19