Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XII Part III

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

The European Cycle of Nation-Building

The collapse of the ancient Empires in Europe paved the way for a new cycle of nation-building. It is interesting to study that state of flux following the collapse of the Roman Empire and prior to the initiation of the new cycle of nation-building. Sri Aurobindo notes the key features of this phase:

1. Firstly, ‘the old clan-nation perished’, especially in those areas of Western Europe where the erstwhile Roman hold was strong. This was a forward step as the clan-nation would be a real obstacle to national unification and ‘the work done by the Roman rule was so sound that even the domination of the Western countries by the tribal nations of Germany failed to revive the old strongly marked and obstinately separative clan-nation. It created in its stead the regional kingdoms of Germany and the feudal and provincial divisions of France and Spain; but it was only in Germany, which like Ireland and the Scotch highlands had not endured the Roman yoke, that this regional life provided a serious obstacle to unification’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 371).

2.Secondly, wherever the Roman pressure was absent in Western Europe, the old clan-nations persisted and offered resistance to any effort towards national unification. Such obstinate resistance to unification ‘prevented Ireland from evolving an organized unity and the Highland Celts from amalgamating with the Anglo-Celtic Scotch nation until the yoke of England passed over them and did what the Roman rule would have done if it had not been stayed in its expansion by the Grampians and the Irish seas’ (Ibid, pg 370).

3.Thirdly, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the city state and regional nations revived as elements of a new construction and ordinarily offered no resistance to the process of national unification. In some places, the city-units revived as free or half-free municipalities as in medieval France, Flanders and Germany, provided a subconscious basis for unification and simultaneously encouraging a new orientation in arts and thought that transcended ‘the medieval tendency to intellectual uniformity, stagnation and obscuration’ (Ibid).

4.Fourthly and ironically, in an exceptional instance, the city state in Italy itself retained its uniqueness that had contradictory implications. On one hand it resisted unification that was disastrous to the nation-life of Italy. On the other hand, ‘as the city-life of Greece had originally created, so the city-life of Italy recovered, renewed and gave in a new form to our modern times the art, literature, thought and science of the Graeco-Roman world’ (Ibid). How could the city state retain its uniqueness in Italy? ‘We may ascribe its strong resuscitation in Italy to two circumstances, first, to the premature Roman oppression of the ancient free city-life of Italy before it had realised its full potentialities and, secondly, to its survival in seed both by the prolonged civil life of Rome itself and by the persistence in the Italian municipia of a sense of separate life, oppressed but never quite ground out of existence as was the separate clan-life of Gaul and Spain or the separate city-life of Greece (Ibid).

5. Fifthly, while the process of nation- building and unification followed different courses in Europe itself, many regional configurations that were initially stubborn in resistance later towed the line of unity and actually enriched the cultural life of the nation through diversity. ‘In France it seemed for a time to prevent it, but in reality it resisted only long enough to make itself of value as an element of richness and variation in the final French unity. The unexampled perfection of that unity is a sign of the secret wisdom concealed in the prolonged process we watch through the history of France which seems to a superficial glance so miserable and distracted, so long an alternation of anarchy with feudal or monarchic despotism, so different from the gradual, steady and much more orderly development of the national life of England. But in England the necessary variation and richness of the ultimate organism was otherwise provided for by the great difference of the races that formed the new nation and by the persistence of Wales, Ireland and Scotland as separate cultural units with a subordinate self-consciousness of their own in the larger unity’ (Ibid, pg 371).

The collapse of the Roman Empire demonstrated that the new cycle of nation-building could not afford to neglect the necessary intermediary aggregate. Instead of steam-rolling the intermediate units through a bland uniformity or crushing them out of existence or forcibly imposing an alien culture on them, their diversity could be welded into a cultural matrix enriched by variation. Sri Aurobindo differentiates three significant stages of the new European era of nation-building that that followed the collapse of the ancient prenational era of Empire-building:

1. The first stage had to continuously counter the forces that eyed the effort to unification with suspicion. Hence it had to progress ‘through a long balancing of centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in which the feudal system provided a principle of order and of a loose but still organic unity (Ibid).

2. The second stage had to supplement the movement of UNIFICATION with the trend towards UNIFORMITY in a manner that would not be reminiscent of the aggressive methods of the imperial system of ancient Rome. ‘It was marked first by the creation of a metropolitan centre which began to draw to it, like Rome, the best life-energies of all the other parts. A second feature was the growth of an absolute sovereign authority whose function was to impose a legal, administrative, political and linguistic uniformity and centralisation on the national life. A third sign of this movement was the establishment of a governing spiritual head and body which served to impose a similar uniformity of religious thought and intellectual education and opinion’ (Ibid, pg 371-372).

3. A third stage became necessary where the identity and dignity of regional configurations would not be obliterated by the movement towards unity and uniformity or else the pressure of the unifying force would not sustain its vitality leading to disenchantment with the growing unity and disruption of the instruments needed for uniformity. Thus came ‘a third stage of revolt and diffusion which broke or subordinated these instruments, feudalism, monarchy, Church authority as soon as their work had been done and substituted a new movement directed towards the diffusion of the national life through a strong and well-organised political, legal, social and cultural freedom and equality. Its trend has been to endeavour that as in the ancient city, so in the modern nation, all classes and all individuals should enjoy the benefits and participate in the free energy of the released national existence’ (Ibid, pg 372).

The third stage therefore acted as a cross-check where the impulse towards unity and uniformity would not blot out the richness of cultural variation. It built the nucleus of what later would evolve as the right to self-determination. It provided a basis for the recognition that the individual and the collectivity need to be realigned for a true harmony. If this third stage did not exist we would not have witnessed the rise of creative movements like Post colonialism. But what is more important is that the third stage allowed gradations of national progress that eventually leads to

(a) The idea of FEDERALISM (federated nation or federal empire) based securely upon a fundamental and well-realised psychological unity (something which was achieved in a simple type in Germany and America) (Ibid);

(b) The movement towards partial decentralization through ‘subordinate governments, communes and provincial cities which may help to cure the malady of an excessive metropolitan absorption of the best national energies and facilitate their free circulation through many centres and plexuses (ibid);

(c) The organised use of the State machinery ‘intelligently representative of the whole conscious, active, vitalized nation as a means for the perfection of the life of the individual and the community’ (Ibid).

The post-imperial modern nation that is federal in structure provides a reasonably rational basis for global unity. However, Sri Aurobindo cautions that if the problems of imperialism were ‘wider’, the problems created by the growing cultural unity and commercial and political interdependence of all mankind would be ‘still vaster’ (Ibid, pg 373) ; necessitating a new paradigm of working through.


Date of Update: 18-Jan-13

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu