The Major Weakness of Empires Built Upon Conquest

When an empire is formed through conquest, there is an inherent bias towards predatory behavior rather than a drive towards unity and mutuality.  While this provides the vital force required to conquer and thereby grow an empire, it has the built-in weakness that eventually, unless it could find a way to transform itself into one that respects, supports and provides equality to all its conquered peoples, it will simply react as a predator to its prey and devour the energy of the conquered people.  This may involve resource allocation, but may also include absorbing the best and highest powers of intellect, mind and creativity into the imperial core at the expense of the extremities.  Eventually, the creativity and dynamism are used up, and the empire weakens and dissolves.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The weakness of the old empire-unities created by conquest was that they tended to destroy the smaller units they assimilated, as did imperial Rome, and to turn them into food for the life of the dominant organ. … In such a method, however, the exhaustion of the life in the subject parts must end by leaving the dominant voracious centre without any source for new storage of energy.  At first the best intellectual force of the conquered provinces flowed to Rome and their vital energy poured into it a great supply of military force and governing ability, but eventually both failed and first the intellectual energy of Rome and then its military and political ability died away in the midst of the general death.  Nor would Roman civilisation have lived even fro so long but for the new ideas and motives it received from the East.  …  When the Roman grasp loosened, the world which it had held so firmly constricted had been for long a huge, decorous, magnificently organised death-in-life incapable of new origination or self-regeneration; vitality could only be restored through the inrush of the vigorous barbarian world from the plains of Germany, the steppes beyond the Danube and the deserts of Arabia.  Dissolution had to precede a movement of sounder construction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 98-99


Issues of Vital Assimilation in the Development of Larger Societal Aggregates

We can look at the example of the interaction of living beings with one another as a way of approaching the interaction of societal aggregates as they try to grow and unify smaller units.  Life interactions are about an interchange of energy.  In some cases, a being acquires the energy from another being by devouring that being.  The famous Upanishadic dictum “the eater eating is eaten” expresses the relation of all living beings to one another and emphasizes that each being is part of the universal food chain.  But devouring as a form of assimilation of energy is not the only way that beings exchange energy with each other.  There can be energy exchanges on the vital level.  There are also shared interactions, emotional bonding, mutual support to work together as a team, a pack, a herd, a flock, or, in human terms, a family, a clan, a tribe, a village.  The beings who join together through shared interaction all get their needs met without simply devouring one another physically.

Sri Aurobindo describes the principle and the application to the development of larger societal units:  “In unification of life, on the other hand, an assimilation is possible which goes beyond this alternative of either the devouring of one by another or of a continued separate distinctness which limits assimilation to a mutual reception of the energies discharged by one life upon another.  There can be instead an association of units consciously subordinating themselves to a general unity which is developed in the process of their coming together.  Some of these, indeed, are killed and used as material for new elements, but all cannot be so treated, all cannot be devoured by one dominant unit; for in that case there is no unification, no creation of a larger unity, no continued greater life, but only a temporary survival of the devourer by the digestion and utilisation of the energy of the devoured.  In the unification of human aggregates, this then is the problem, how the component units shall be subordinated to a new unity without their death and disappearance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 97-98

The Development of Larger and More Complex Unities of Societal Development

At each level of development, a somewhat similar process repeats itself, with larger size units and more complexity involved.   Families gathered into clans, clans into tribes, tribes into villages, etc.  Each time there came about eventually, after the physical and vital unification took place, a process of developing a psychological unity, which looked inward toward achieving an internal harmony, and looked outward to see other similarly situated groups outside who were perceived as “outsiders” and potentially hostile to the vital interests of the particular group.  Over time, however, as the drive toward larger unities continued, these “outsiders” became part of a larger community that led to the next larger form of unity, and the process repeated itself, until eventually there were nation-states who are today struggling to find ways to develop some kind of unified response to the challenges that face all of us on a planet-wide basis.  Each level posed the issue of developing an internal psychological unity and finding ways to interface with, coexist with and (eventually) find a way to join with other neighboring units.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “The contained units are larger and more complex than before, the containing unity is also larger and more complex than before, but the essential position is the same and a similar problem presents itself for solution.  Thus in the beginning there was the phenomenon of city states and regional peoples coexisting as disunited parts of a loose geographical and cultural unity, Italy or Hellas, and there was the problem of creating the Hellenic or Italian nation.  Afterwards there came instead the phenomenon of nation-units formed or in formation coexisting as disunited parts of the loose geographical and cultural unity, first, of Christendom, then, of Europe, and with it the problem of the union of this Christendom or of this Europe which, though more than once conceived by individual statesmen or political thinkers, was never achieved nor even the first steps attempted.  Before its difficulties could be solved, the modern movement with its unifying forces has presented to us the new and more complex phenomenon of a number of nation-units and empire-units embedded in the loose, but growing life-interdependence and commercial close-connection of mankind, and the attendant problem of the unification of mankind already overshadows the unfulfilled dream of the unification of Europe.”

As we have seen, even while the drive towards a larger unification of humanity has been accentuated by the global issues of climate change, weapons of mass destruction, pollution, resource allocation and unequal access to resources (and more), there is still movement on the smaller unities which includes things like the development of the European Union, and the creation of other regional cooperative arrangements and trade or mutual defense alliances.  Multiple different levels are thus active concurrently, each trying to resolve obstacles to the development of a larger unification of mankind.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pg. 97

The Developmental Formation of a Societal Aggregate

Sri Aurobindo draws an analogy to the development of an individual life-form when describing the formative stages of a societal unit.  The individual life-form has a physical body, a vital-nervous sheath, and (to whatever extent the form permits it) a mental power, all organized around the psychological unity, which, when it becomes self-aware can be called ego, or when further refined, can be seen as the soul of the being.

“The administrative, political, economic organisation of mankind in aggregates of smaller or greater size is a work which belongs at its basis to the same order of phenomena as the creation of vital organisms in physical Nature.  It uses, that is to say, primarily external and physical methods governed by the principles of physical life-energy intent on the creation of living forms, although its inner object is to deliver, to manifest and to bring into secure working a supraphysical, a psychological principle latent behind the operations of the life and the body.”

“In this process, as we have seen, first smaller distinct units in a larger loose unity are formed; these have a strong psychological existence and a well-developed body and vital functioning, but in the larger mass the psychological sense and the vital energy are present but unorganised and without power of definite functioning, and the body is a fluid quantity or a half-nebulous or at most a half-fluid, half-solidified mass, a plasm rather than a body.  This has in its turn to be formed and organised; a firm physical shape has to be made for it, a well-defined vital functioning and a clear psychological reality, self-consciousness and mental will-to-be.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 96-97

The Central Weakness of Imperial Overreach

There are a number of examples of the impatient attempt to create an empire before a solid foundation of national unity was achieved.  The vital force which led to the first conquests of local groups drove the conqueror to attempt to subjugate ever-larger territories, thereby incorporating peoples and cultures who were heterogeneous to the core group of the first phase.  The speed of the action, and the complexity of the resultant administrative issues represented a central weakness that eventually led to their dissolution.  Every rapid movement eventually requires a period of consolidation during which issues, potential contradictions or conflicts, and systems and protocols can be worked out and thus, provide a field for the development of a psychological unity.  Where such a consolidation period is missing, the seeds of dissolution are able to germinate and grow.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “One who first founds on a large scale and raplidly, needs always as his successor a man with the talent or the genius for organisation rather than an impetus for expansion.  A Caesar followed by an Augustus meant a work of massive durability; a Philip followed by an Alexander an achievement of great importance to the world by its results, but in itself a mere splendour of short-lived brilliance.

Even the relatively long-lived Roman Empire suffered from the defect of failing to consolidate the Italian nation before trying to assimilate the diverse peoples of the extended empire.  “Therefore she had to face a much more difficult problem of assimilation, that of nation-nebulae and formed or inchoate cultures different from her own, before she had achieved and learned to apply to the new problem the art of complete and absolute unification on a smaller and easier scale, before she had welded into one living national organism, no longer Roman by Italian, the elements of difference and community offered by the Gallic, Latin, Umbrian, Oscan and Graeco-Apulian factors in ancient Italy.  Therefore, although her empire endured for several centuries, it achieved temporary conservation at the cost of energy of vitality and inner vigour; it accomplished neither the nation-unit nor the durable empire-unity, and like other ancient empires it had to collapse and make room for a new era of true nation-building.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 95-96

The Peril of Attempting Empire-Building Without a Solid and Unified National Foundation

When military conquest is involved in the unification of local small units into a larger societal grouping, there is a tendency for the leadership, whether vested in a powerful personality or a ruling group, to overextend themselves , using their success at one level as a springboard and indicator of success at the next level.  This very normal human tendency to overreach has consequences when there has not been a period of consolidation to firm up the political, economic and psychological unity of the core group; namely, the development of a more complex society, with heterogeneous cultural, language and social groups does not have the cohesiveness required to stay together and eventually the larger imperial unit breaks down and dissolves.

Sri Aurobindo contrasts several instances where an internal unity was achieved by related clans or tribes, with instances where force was used to create the larger unity.  “In Egypt and Judaea it was successfully found even in that ancient cycle of historical evolution; but in the latter instance certainly, in the former probably, the full result came only by the hard discipline of subjection to a foreign yoke.  Where this discipline was lacking, where the nation-unity was in some sort achieved from within,– usually through the conquest of all the rest by one strong clan, city, regional unit such as Rome, Macedon, the mountain clans of Persia,– the new State, instead of waiting to base firmly its achievement and lay the foundations of the national unity deep and strong, proceeded at once to overshoot its immediate necessity and embark on a career of conquest.  Before the psychological roots of the national unity had been driven deep, before the nation was firmly self-conscious, irresistibly possessed of its oneness and invincibly attached to it, the governing State impelled by the military impulsion which had carried it so far attempted immediately to form by the same means a larger empire-aggregate.”

A number of examples in history bear out the eventual weakness of this attempt:  “Assyria, Macedon, Rome, Persia, later on Arabia followed all the same tendency and the same cycle.  The great invasion of Europe and Western Asia by the Gaelic race and the subsequent disunion and decline of Gaul were probably due to the same phenomenon and proceeded from a still more immature and ill-formed unification than the Macedonian.  All became the starting-point of great empire-movements before they had become the keystone of securely built national unities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 94-95

Factors in the Development Beyond the Smallest Societal Units

The smallest societal groupings were families and clans, consisting of individuals sharing a common ancestry, language, culture and customs.  As the groupings expanded in size, they incorporated extended families and close neighbors, again sharing customs, language and experience.  As these distinct small groups shared a local geographic area with other groups, inevitably interaction occurred, sometimes through rivalry or battle, frequently through intermarriage, and many times through mutual defense, there grew up a commonality of culture, language and custom in an expanded area among various small groups, which provided a foundation for the development of political and economic unities to naturally evolve.  These groups found they had a common self-interest, in addition to their shared language and cultural backgrounds,  in finding ways to join together.  At the same time, the proximity also tended in many instances to accentuate small differences among those with a common general background.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Thus Greece, Italy, Gaul, Egypt, China, Medo-Persia, India, Arabia, Israel, all began with a loose cultural and geographical aggregation which made them separate and distinct culture-units before they could become nation-units.  Within that loose unity the tribe, clan or city or regional states formed in the vague mass so many points of distinct, vigorous and compact unity which felt indeed more and more powerfully the divergence and opposition of their larger cultural oneness to the outside world but could feel also and often much more nearly and acutely their own divergences, contrasts and oppositions.  Where this sense of local distinctness was most acute, there the problem of national unification was necessarily more difficult and its solution, when made, tended to be more illusory.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pg. 94