The Rise of the Nation and Issues That Arise

Individual growth, fulfillment and participation were hallmarks of the Greek city-state formation.  The rise of heterogeneous empires, such as the Roman Empire, suppressed these characteristics while attempting to create a larger formation of human unity.  The small, self-contained unit and the large, diverse empire both had their positive aspects, but each had also its own defects or weaknesses.  Nature continues to attempt to create a larger form of human societal organisation, while at the same time finding a way to support the needs of the individual for expression and meaning in his life.  The next experiment tried by Nature, therefore, was the formation of an intermediate stage between the small self-contained units and the imperial model, with the rise of the national unit of organisation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The creation of the national aggregate was therefore reserved for the millennium that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire; and in order to solve this problem left to it, the world during that period had to recoil from many and indeed most of the gains which had been achieved for mankind by the city states.  Only after this problem was solved could there be any real effort to develop not only a firmly organised but a progressive and increasingly perfected community, not only a strong mould of social life but the free growth and completeness of life itself within that mould.”

The rise of the nation implied that the smaller communities had to widen their acceptance of others and be willing to shift their adherence to that larger unit.  What had been formerly tense interactions had to be changed to cooperative ones between these smaller units, for the benefit of the new national aggregate.  In many cases, this was done through the rise of a strong leader, using methods that included military force and domination.  Over time, the model of the republic made up of numerous states arose and in the founding of the United States, a carefully drafted compromise relationship was developed initially to balance the rights of the individual smaller states with those pertaining to the federal entity; and with the bill of rights, to provide for individual liberty within the framework as well.   This balance was tested with the civil war and its aftermath, and, while the national principle gained sway, there remains even today a tension that has not yet been fully resolved between the rights of the States and the rights of the Nation.

With the development of corporate power and technological means, combined with the power of the centralised national unit, the independence and freedom of the individual citizens has also come under pressure.

It is important to recognize the implications of each of these attempts to expand the size and complexity of the societal model:  “This cycle we must briefly study before we can consider whether the intervention of a new effort at a larger aggregation is likely to be free from the danger of a new recoil in which the inner progress of the race will have, at least temporarily, to be sacrificed in order to concentrate effort on the development and affirmation of a massive external unity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 92-93

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The Failure of Small Societal Aggregates in Relations Between One Another

The advantages of the small societal aggregates, the community, the tribe, the clan, the village, the city-state, were the intimacy and involvement of its members in the entire life of the community.  This allowed the individuals to participate in a meaningful way, reduced any possible sense of alienation, and created a tight-knit social bond as well.   At the same time, this created something of a sense of isolation and separateness from other communities, with the unfortunate effect of making interaction with other groups either fearful or aggressive in most cases.  For the purpose of building a larger sense of human unity, this latter characteristic is obviously a hindrance and major obstacle that must be overcome.

Sri Aurobindo observes, with respect to the relations between the smaller societal groupings:  “War remained their normal relation.  All attempts at free federation failed, and military conquest was left as the sole means of unification.  The attachment to the small aggregate in which each man felt himself to be most alive had generated a sort of mental and vital insularity which could not accommodate itself to the new and wider ideas which philosophy and political thought, moved by the urge of larger needs and tendencies, brought into the field of life.  Therefore the old States had to dissolve and disappear, in India into the huge bureaucratic empires of the Gupta and the Maurya to which the Pathan, the Moghul and the Englishman succeeded, in the West into the vast military and commercial expansions achieved by Alexander, by the Carthaginian oligarchy and by the Roman republic and empire.  The latter were not national but supra-national unities, premature attempts at too large unifications of mankind that could not really be accomplished with any finality until the intermediate nation-unit had been fully and healthily developed.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pg. 92

Vital Defects: the Oppression of Women and the Subjugation of a Servant Class

While early societal forms had their advantages, they also suffered from certain major and essential defects.  Sri Aurobindo took up these issues:

“That early life had vital defects which it could not cure.  In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman.  In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners.  It is possible that these two great problems of economic serfdom and the subjection of woman might have been attacked and solved in the early community if it had lived longer, as it has now been attacked and is in process of solution in the modern State.  But it is doubtful; only in Rome do we glimpse certain initial tendencies which might have turned in that direction and they never went farther than faint hints of a future possibility.”

It must be noted that while there has clearly been progress with regard to both of these issues, the development of women’s suffrage, for instance, and the entry of women into educational and career opportunities, and leadership roles for them in various corporate and political institutions, we remain far from a complete solution of this vital defect, as there remain societies around the world where women are totally oppressed, and in most all the others, they are harassed, discriminated against and paid a sub-standard wage compared to their male counterparts.

With respect to slavery, while humanity today may accept in principle the outlawing of slavery, there remain also dark remnants of slavery, not only in the developing world, but even in the developed world.   In the most highly developed Western societies, the use of stratified access to the levers of power and financial opportunity, the unequal access to education, failure to pay a “living wage” for workers to support their families, and systematic discrimination have led to a form of slavery which may be called “economic slavery”, which imprisons people into relatively hopeless circumstances through the leverage of the societal machinery and social custom rather than through formal bondage and chains.  Those who try to survive or escape from this system are also frequently imprisoned and made to work as prison labor (slaves) under the control of the State.

We see here that the higher aspirations and ideals of humanity have begun to embrace and try to implement equality for women and the servant or worker classes, but that these changes have not been fully implemented as of this time.  Thus, there is progress but not a final result that can be called success.  This defect continues to undermine humanity today as it did in earlier times.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 91-92

The Dynamic, Vital, Creative Force of Smaller Societal Aggregates

There is a dynamic creative force that appears to manifest more powerfully in smaller societal groups than in larger ones.  It appears that the key factor is the ability of everyone in the community to participate in the issues facing the society and to interact closely with one another, thereby providing a forward impulsion based on a meaningful interaction.  The larger institutions tend to mechanise activities in order to manage them and coordinate large masses of people and groups within the society.  There is also a certain amount of anonymity that arises in the larger aggregates, and the frequent experience that many individuals feel a sense of alienation, a lack of connection, and they can be easily overlooked and put to the side.

In the Bhagavad Gita, there is an interesting verse which implies something of the difference between a smaller, tightly integrated group and a larger, more unwieldly group.  In Chapter 1, v. 10, Sri Aurobindo translates it:  “Unlimited is this army of ours and it is marshalled by Bhisma, while the army of theirs is limited, and they depend on Bhima.”  (Bhagavad Gita and Its Message, Sri Aurobindo, pg. 3)  What is not clearly stated in the translation, but which is implied in the subtlety of the terms “aparyaktam” and “paryaktam”, is the sense of one being unwieldly or undisciplined in its massive size, while the other is disciplined and coordinated in its compact form.  The sense is that the larger size is not necessarily an advantage when it loses its coherence and intimate connection between all the members of that group.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…everywhere the root of this free, generalised and widely pulsating vital and dynamic force, which the modern world is only now in some sort recovering, was amid all differences the same; it was the complete participation not of a limited class, but of the individual generally in the many-sided life of the community, the sense each had of being full of the energy of all and of a certain freedom to grow, to be himself, to achieve, to think, to create in the undammed flood of that universal energy.  It is this condition, this relation between the individual and the aggregate which modern life has tried to some extent to restore in a cumbrous, clumsy and imperfect fashion but with much vaster forces of life and thought at its disposal than early humanity could command.”

The challenge of developing a social order of the scale and complexity needed to address the many billions of people on the planet and meet their needs within the framework of the carrying capacity of the world, while at the same time creating the intimacy and involvement of the society to engage each individual, is one of the great challenges of the modern day world.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 90-91

Social Class Distinctions Developed With the Rise of Larger Societal Aggregates

Small communities have historically been made up of families or clans who know each other, are related to each other and are familiar with each other.  This supports a relatively “flat” social hierarchy that permits all people, regardless of their particular primary roles in the economic activity of the community, to interact with each other on a basis of relative equality.  Even the development of villages, and societal organisations such as the Greek city-state were relatively egalitarian in terms of social position and interaction.

As society itself became larger and more complex, division of labor led to separation of people from one another, and various forms of class status began to attach to specific roles.  This led to the development of class hierarchical systems, including the caste system, where the management and leadership class created a gulf between themselves and those who undertook trade, service or manual labor.    This naturally created not only social groups that were effectively divided from one another, but also turned the hierarchy into a more or less hereditary dominance through mutual support among the members of the class for one another and their children.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The natural social type of the small community is such as we see in Athens, where not only Cleon, the tanner, exercised as strong a political influence as the highborn and wealthy Nicias and the highest offices and civic functions were open to men of all classes, but in social functions and connections also there was a free association and equality.  We see similar democratic equality, though of a different type, in the earlier records of Indian civilisation.  The rigid hierarchy of castes with the pretensions and arrogance of the caste spirit was a later development; in the simpler life of old, difference or even superiority of function did not carry with it a sense of personal or class superiority: at the beginning, the most sacred religious and social function, that of the Rishi and sacrificer, seems to have been open to men of all classes and occupations.  Theocracy, caste and absolute kingship grew in force pari passu like the church and the monarchical power in mediaeval Europe under the compulsion of the new circumstances created by the growth of large social and political aggregates.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 89-90

The Concept of a Ruling Elite Developed with the Expansion Beyond Small Communities Into National and Imperial Structures

With an increasing scale and scope of a society comes an increasing complexity and the need for development of management layers to administer that complexity.  A small group, such as a family, clan, tribe or village unit, even if it has a dominant individual or small group, still has direct input to the direction and actions of that grouping from all its members to some degree.  Each individual has the opportunity to impact the society at that level.  As the next level of development took place, the city-state, we find that for the most part the societies tried to incorporate a considerable amount of individual input and freedom into most of those that developed, with Sparta being a notable exception.  The size and scope of the city-states were still manageable enough to permit this considerable amount of direct participation.

Once humanity moved to the next larger groupings of the unified nation and eventually the imperial form, however, there was a substantially greater complexity and management task confronting those who assumed leadership.  Numerous tasks were required in a vast array of fields, leading to divisions of labor, and the need to coordinate and administer the multitude of tasks required for an effective society in a larger form.  The added development of a regulatory or administrative structure, a policing function, military capability and interactions with other societal groupings on a constant basis added even more complexity.  As a result, humanity saw the rise of monarchies, religious leaders, emperors, and a political class that exercised the function of controlling and directing the society, whether through the rising up of a strong ruling elite, or through representative forms that chose leaders by some form of popular sufferance.

Sri Aurobindo describes the historical process:  “The tendency to a democratic freedom in which every man had a natural part in the civic life as well as in the cultural institutions of the State, an equal voice in the determination of law and policy and as much share in their execution as could be assured to him by his right as a citizen and his capacity as an individual, — this democratic tendency was inborn in the spirit and inherent in the form of the city state.  In Rome the tendency was equally present but could not develop so rapidly or fulfil itself so entirely as in Greece because of the necessities of a military and conquering State which needed either an absolute head, an imperator, or a small oligarchic body to direct its foreign policy and its military conduct…”

“In India the early communities were free societies in which the king was only a military head or civic chief; we find the democratic element persisting in the days of Buddha and surviving in small States in the days of Chandragupta and Megasthenes even when great bureaucratically governed monarchies and empires were finally replacing the free earlier polity.  It was only in proportion as the need for a large organisation of Indian life over the whole peninsula or at least the northern part of it made itself increasingly felt that the form of absolute monarchy grew upon the country and the learned and sacerdotal caste imposed its theocratic domination over the communal mind and its right Shastra as the binding chain of social unity and the binding link of a national culture.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 88-89

Larger Formations of Society Have Required Consolidation and Limitation of Freedoms

Historically, the development of a new larger formation of society requires that the smaller groupings being consolidated now move their center of focus and loyalty to the new entity.  This in turn requires changes to the life of the citizens to accomodate the needs of the new larger entity.   Habits of lifestyle and relationship that worked in a small, tight-knit community are challenged within an organisation that is many times the size and complexity, and in many cases, which incorporates heterogeneous groups with different customs, religious backgrounds, languages, and political and economic expectations.

Sri Aurobindo describes the formative steps that have taken place as the challenges of developing these larger groupings are recognised:  “To enforce its unity is its predominant impulse and to that paramount need it has to sacrifice the diversity, harmonious complexity, richness of various material, freedom of inner relations without which the true perfection of life is impossible.  In order to enforce a strong and sure unity it has to create a paramount centre, a concentrated State power, whether of king or military aristocracy or plutocratic class or other governing contrivance, to which the liberty and free life of the individual, the commune, the city, the region or any other lesser unit has to be subordinated and sacrificed.  At the same time, there is a tendency to create a firmly mechanised and rigid state of society, sometimes a hierarchy of classes or orders in which the lower is appointed to an inferior place and duty and bound down to a narrower life than the higher, such as the hierarchy of king, clergy, aristocracy, middle class, peasantry, servile class which replaced in Europe the rich and free existence of the city and the tribe or else a rigid caste system such as the one that replaced in India the open and natural existence of the vigorous Aryan clans.  Moreover, as we have already seen, the active and stimulating participation of all or most in the full vigour of the common life, which was the great advantage of the small but free earlier communities, is much more difficult in a larger aggregate and is at first impossible.  In its place, there is the concentration of the force of life into a dominant centre or at most a governing and directing class or classes, while the great mass of the community is left in a relative torpor and enjoys only a minimum and indirect share of that vitality in so far as it is allowed to filter down from above and indirectly affect the grosser, poorer and narrower life below.”

The result of this type of activity, witnessed in the attempts of the historical past, are to create an entitled, ruling class of people and a subordinated class that have far less opportunity, income, or access to the resources developed by the society.  This becomes in the long run one of the serious weaknesses of the larger groupings, and in the short term, represent a force of oppression which reduces freedom, growth and initiative among the vast majority of the citizens.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 87-88