Readings in Chapter XVI
The Problem of Uniformity and Liberty
In Chapter XVI of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo tries to understand why it is difficult to balance between uniformity and liberty in a modern age where Reason is the governor of life. In fact, he reiterates that mere rationality cannot guarantee "a reasonable mind and a harmonious spirit" for the very fact that 'reason' itself can be used 'much more commonly to justify strife and mutual contradiction than to arrive at a wise agreement".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 409)
The inborn animal propensity is to dominate for only then the liberty of the one who dominates can be secure. The assertion of human dignity and freedom of the masses has only been "acquired by long evolution and painful endeavour" (Ibid, pg 405) but as the masses and the less powerful nations are always susceptible to be oppressed and dominated, any repression of common liberties is a retrograde step. In the past, unification of human groupings has always meant suppression of the principle of liberty, both individual and collective, in humanity's spiritual, political and social spheres raising the predicament that progression proceeds by retrogression.
It is in this background that Sri Aurobindo assesses the modus operandi of human unity that could be conceived at the end of World War I and discusses several options:
1. The Germanic gospel of increasing domination of the world by one fit empire, nation, race -- destiny ruled out this possibility.
2. The attempt to Europeanise the less developed races initially by beneficial regimes but it is a psychological fact that such beneficial attitudes cannot be endured. With the growth of Asia and later of other hitherto downtrodden nations this possibility became irrelevant though it has lately surfaced through the commercial attempt of westernizing the global psyche in a market economy.
3. A formal unification of the human race by a combination of free nations and empires and if "the principle of free national or cultural grouping within a unified mankind"(Ibid, pg 408) could be adopted, the danger of retrogression could be diminished. However, the "principle of liberty offers a natural obstacle to the growth of uniformity and, although perfectly reconcilable with a true order and easily coexistent with an order already established into which it has been fitted, is not so easily reconciled as a matter of practice with a new order which demands from it new sacrifices for which it is not yet psychologically prepared". (Ibid, pg 409) A new adjustment needs time to settle but that can be usurped easily and what has been achieved through toil and friction can be overshadowed by the impulse of self-assertion becoming tyrannical.
It is difficult to foster an ideal equation between uniformity and liberty. "The principle of authority and order will attempt a mechanical organization; the principle of liberty will resist claim a more flexible, free and spacious system. The two ancient enemies will struggle for the control of the growing form of the nation". (Ibid, pg 410) Moreover, the end of World War I witnessed a new phenomenon that was to be inimical to human liberty, freedom and dignity-"the shadow of the State idea".(Ibid) Sri Aurobindo predicted that under the pernicious shadow of the State idea, the principle of liberty could be eclipsed or enter a long state of stupor, coma and hibernation. The constriction and mechanization of the unifying process would be accompanied by the constriction and mechanization of liberty within each constituent unit. Subsequent world-events proved the validity of this phenomenon.
The question that rises is how can the principle of liberty exist in a world progressing towards unity and in the process cannot dispense entirely the mechanization that follows uniformity. Sri Aurobindo answers that a new integer of liberty, a new paradigm of freedom, a new formulation of unity and a new perspective of reviewing conventional ideas is needed. The traditional way of conceiving liberty in social and political terms have to be supplemented "by a new powerful movement spiritual or intellectual of the human mind which will reconcile individual liberty with the collective ideal of a communal life and the liberty of the group-unit with the new-born necessity of a more united life for the human race". In fact, his exploration of the ideal of human unity is aimed to construct a consciousness perspective of global unity that gives due weightage to social, political, psychological and spiritual variables for an integral unity.
In the clash between the principles of unification and liberty, there are three important areas to be considered:
(a) The future of the principle of nationality,
(b) The phenomenon of uniformity,
(c) The organization of political and administrative methods.
The future of the principle of nationality
The nation is at present 'the firm group-unit of human aggregation to which all other units tend to subordinate themselves' (Ibid, pg 411). The nation exists not only for the passion and pride of nationalism, not only for the urge of domination and expansion (that has often instilled the spirit of imperialism in nations), but also for the more down-to-earth motivations of "land hunger, money hunger, commodity hunger, the vital, intellectual, cultural aggressiveness of powerful and prosperous nations", though this "does not secure the nation-unit from eventual dissolution in a larger principle of aggregation". (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo hinted at two possible outcomes, either the gradual dominance despite setbacks of the idea of the sans-patrie, the citizen of the world that runs counter to the nation-idea or the persistence of the nation with vigorous particularism within a larger unity (Ibid, pg 412). Finally, the nation may persist "but with a reduced and subjected vitality, or even without real vitality or any living spirit of particularism or separatism, as a convenience, an administrative rather than a psychological fact like a French department or an English county". (Ibid) Yet the reduced vitality of the nation can retain sufficient mechanical distinctness to re-assert itself again if the unification is mechanical and does not reflect the spiritual oneness of mankind (Ibid).
The phenomenon of uniformity
The difficulty to reconcile unity with liberty paves the way for the phenomenon of uniformity to gain precedence. A global uniformity in all spheres of life may usher an uniform culture. Sri Aurobindo envisaged several eventualities:
(1) "The one barrier left against a dead level of complete uniformity would be the barrier of language; for language creates and determines thought even while it is created and determined by it, and so long as there is difference of language there will always be a certain amount of free variation of thought, of knowledge and of culture......But..a universal language once created or once adopted may end by killing out the regional languages as Latin killed out the languages of Gaul, Spain or Italy or as English has killed out Cornish, Gaelic, Erse and has been encroaching on the Welsh tongue".(Ibid, pg 412-413)
(2) "On the other hand, there is a revival nowadays due to the growing subjectivism of the human mind, of the principle of free variation and refusal of uniformity. If this tendency triumphs, the unification of the race will have so to organize itself as to respect the free culture, thought, life of its constituent units". (Ibid, pg 413)
(3) "But there is also the third possibility of a dominant uniformity which will allow or even encourage such minor variations as do not threaten the foundations of its rule. And here again the variations may be within their limits vital, forceful, to a certain extent particularist though not separatist, or they may be quite minor tones and shades, yet sufficient to form a starting-point for the dissolution of uniformity into a new cycle of various progress".(Ibid)
The organization of political and administrative methods
It is a natural tendency for the political and administrative functioning to enforce the principle of uniformity through a rigid authoritarian regimentation that would proceed by "suppressing all individual and regional liberty". It might be argued that such regimentation would be impractical with a growing global population and the variegated social, cultural and religious diversity that characterizes the essence of civilization. However, Sri Aurobindo points out two important factors that could overrule the diversity of humanity:
(1) The growth of Science, and
(2) The principle of State control and direction which is the essence of Socialism.
Science offers easy manipulation of huge masses, a perspective that was witnessed during the World Wars ( and which is now witnessed differently in a global consumerist culture powered by information technology ). Scientific planning and organization aided by "annihilation of space difficulties and numerical difficulties" could also facilitate a trend towards international socialization. However, Sri Aurobindo with his remarkable insight forewarned as early as 1916, in a language bold and precise:
"..it is possible that after a cycle of violent struggle between the ideal of regimentation and the ideal of liberty the socialistic period of mankind might prove comparatively of brief duration like that of monarchical absolutism in Europe and might be followed by another more inspired by the principles of philosophic Anarchism, that is to say, of unity based upon the completest individual freedom and freedom also of natural unforced grouping. A compromise might also be reached , a dominant regimentation with a subordinate freedom more or less vital, but even if less vital, yet a starting-point for the dissolution of the regime when humanity begins to feel that regimentation is not its ultimate destiny and that a fresh cycle of search and experiment has become again indispensable to its future". (Ibid, pg 414)
Subsequent events that began unfolding towards the end of 20th century validated his foresight.
The political and administrative unification of mankind is a dominant drift of World-Nature. "It is not likely to take perfectly ,until a probably much later period of our collective evolution, the form of a federation of free and equal nations or adopt as its motive a perfect harmony between the contending principle of nationalism and internationalism". (Ibid, pg 405)
Date of Update: 20-Sep-22
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu