Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XII Part I

The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building –The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building

Expansion versus Consolidation

In Chapter XII of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo traces the journey from the ancient cycle of prenational empire-building to the modern cycle of nation-building. In fact, the true nation-unit was not achieved in the ancient world though the foundation was laid through the formation of classical culture-units. The culture-unit evolved as the human collectivity moved through the tribe, the city-state, the clan, the small regional state to culminate in loose yet distinctive cultural and geographical aggregations. ‘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 most difficult and its solution, when made, tended to be more illusory’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 364) In other words, a nation which evolves by incorporating, harmonizing and amalgamating multiple culture units will find it difficult to deal with a particular culture-unit if the latter has achieved a remarkable uniqueness and distinct identity. The modern nation finds it difficult even today to tackle this crisis amicably. Thus, Pakistan could not hold itself as a united nation primarily because the cultural uniqueness of its Eastern counterpart could not be overshadowed by political maneuvering, administrative measures or religious binding.

The ancient world tried to solve the issue of amicable amalgamation of diverse culture-units through two major means:

(a) Firstly, ‘by the hard discipline of subjection to a foreign yoke’ (Ibid)as in Judea and probably in Egypt;

(b) Secondly, where the nation-unit was attempted primarily from within ‘through the conquest of all the rest by one strong clan, city, regional unit such as Rome, Macedon, the mountain clans of Persia’ (Ibid, pg 365), the new State typically embarked on an expansionist spree and through military might tried to form a larger empire-aggregate.

The expansionist zeal in ancient times was a military adventure that not only served political interests, brought material riches but also expanded knowledge-fields. However such ventures were invariably undertaken before the nation -unit could be optimally consolidated in the psyche of the people. As a result the unity could not be made durable leading to the collapse of the larger and rather artificial aggregate. Sri Aurobindo explains, ‘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. These empires, therefore, could not endure’ (Ibid).

Though the ancient empires could not endure, some lasted longer than others. It is interesting to note that durability was present if an expansionist programme was followed by a phase of consolidation, where a mighty warrior was succeeded by a great administrator. ‘One who first founds on a large scale and rapidly, 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’ (Ibid). Indeed, despite being the greatest military leader of antiquity, Alexander’s (356BC – 323BC) dream of racial fusion to form a superior Persian-Macedonian race collapsed even before his untimely demise though his empire extended from Thrace to Egypt and from Greece to the Indus valley. On the other hand, Augustus Caesar’s (63BC – AD14) vision and administrative skill led to a two and half centuries of unbounded peace and prosperity in the Greco-Roman world, a feat unparalleled in history.

These reflections prompted Sri Aurobindo to make a case-study of the Roman Empire before shifting his focus from the ancient cycle of prenational empire-building to the modern cycle of nation building.

Date of Update: 21-Nov-12

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu