Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XI Part II

The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity

The small free unit typified in the early Greek, Roman and Indian city-states and clan-nations had a certain ‘vividness of life and dynamic force of culture and creation’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 360) which could not be sustained with the same tenacity in the later larger national aggregates. It is interesting to note how that freedom of thought gave rise to two dimensions that created the foundation of the European culture; the aesthetic-philosophical and the ethical-political:

(a) ‘The cultural and civic life of the Greek city, of which Athens was the supreme achievement, a life in which living itself was an education, where the poorest as well as the richest sat together in the theatre to see and judge the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides and the Athenian trader and shopkeeper took part in the subtle philosophical conversations of Socrates, created for Europe not only its fundamental political types and ideals but practically all its basic forms of intellectual, philosophical, literary and artistic culture’(Ibid, pg 360-361).

(b) ‘The equally vivid political, juridical and military life of the single city of Rome created for Europe its types of political activity, military discipline and science, jurisprudence of law and equity and even its ideals of empire and colonisation’(Ibid, pg 361).

That freedom of thought and expression was a hall-mark of the free social groupings in consonance with their cultural connotations. Thus, in India, ‘it was that early vivacity of spiritual life of which we catch glimpses in the Vedic, Upanishadic and Buddhistic literature, which created the religions, philosophies, spiritual disciplines that have since by direct or indirect influence spread something of their spirit and knowledge over Asia and Europe’ (Ibid). Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the uniqueness of the free unit 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’ (Ibid).

The Woman and the Worker

The early free life in the old city states and clan-nations had certain incurable vital defects culminating in unpardonable injustice to the woman and the working class both in the West and in the East. Sri Aurobindo succinctly explains, ‘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’ (Ibid, pg 361-362).

These problems were not resolved in ancient times except some half-hearted initial attempts in Rome ‘but they never went farther than faint hints of a future possibility’ (Ibid, pg 362). It was imperative therefore that a realignment of the modern society should focus rightfully on economic serfdom and the subjugation of woman which were ‘the master tendencies of the hour’ (Ibid, pg 356).  It was necessary for the historical forces to progress ‘rapidly towards a rigorous State socialism and equality’ (Ibid) that would  equitably reinstate the value of the woman and the worker. When Sri Aurobindo was writing this chapter in July, 1916, the feminist movement in the West was vigorously campaigning for the women’s right to vote. That right was granted to some women in Britain in 1918 and to all women in 1928 while in the USA, the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 granted all women the right to vote. On the other hand, the Communist Manifesto (1848) had already given the clarion call to unite all workers of the world and this was inscribed on Marx’s tombstone. The 1917 October revolution institutionalized this slogan which subsequently became the USSR State motto finding its place in the Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union, in 1919 Russian SF SR banknotes and on Soviet coins from 1921 to 1934. As for slavery, it was as late as 10th December, 1948 that the United Nations General

Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wherein Article 4 prohibited slave trade in all forms though it still persists covertly under the garb of debt bondage and human trafficking.

However, in the same breath, Sri Aurobindo had cautioned that new social tendencies would again appear and there would be a possibility of a ‘revolt of the human spirit against a burdensome and mechanical State collectivism’ (Ibid) and perhaps there could emerge ‘a gospel of philosophic anarchism missioned to reassert  man’s incredible yearning for individual liberty and free self-fulfilment’  (Ibid) or else there could be ‘unforeseen religious and spiritual revolutions’  (Ibid) diverting mankind to a different denouement. Subsequent events unfolded all the possibilities he had envisaged in some form or the other long before a century could elapse.

Unity of small aggregates

One cardinal problem with early forms of human society was the difficulty in uniting different communities. ‘War remained their normal relation. All attempts at free federation failed, and military conquest was left as the sole means of unification’ (Ibid, pg 362). Sri Aurobindo dwells upon the mind-set behind this phenomenon: ‘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….’(Ibid)

History therefore necessitated the creation of the national aggregate in the millennium that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Obviously this had a negative impact in certain areas of life and a resolution of conflicts was needed before ‘any real effort to develop not only a firmly organized 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’ (Ibid, pg 363). Sri Aurobindo advocates to study that cycle so that the lessons of history help the effort towards a yet larger aggregation without ‘the danger of new recoil’ (Ibid) that may be temporarily inevitable but in the long run would not disrupt the ‘affirmation of a massive external unity’ (Ibid).

Date of Update: 16-Oct-12

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu