Role of Individuality in Social Development

By Ashok Natarajan

When man left his hunter-gatherer origins behind him and tried to settle down for a civilised way of life, the transition led to an amorphous form of society that had to take some steps to shape itself into a viable integrated form. Once some organized form emerged, society got a strength of its own and would not allow any disturbance that might harm that integrity. Even harmless variations were discouraged and only a stereotyped unity was allowed. By such iron-fisted authority society ensured its survival. Once such a survival had been assured, society lapsed into a subconscious mode of functioning by which whatever growth and progress and variation were achieved came about only in a subconscious, erratic and spontaneous manner rather than through a conscious and organized and systematic manner. Once the major aim of survival had been accomplished, other activities grew without conscious supervision or direction by the collective.

Even during this subconscious way of functioning society’s knowledge kept collecting at the subconscious level for centuries and when the time was ripe burst forth into conscious social awareness by being given conscious formulation by enlightened pioneers and visionaries. The European Renaissance that burst upon the European scene after centuries of inactivity described as dark ages was such a flowering of subconscious knowledge into conscious awareness. Advances in information technology kept gaining momentum at the subconscious level till a CERN Scientist gave conscious expression to the possibility of forming the World Wide Web by developing the hypertext form of communication. These developments did not spring out of the blue. They kept gaining strength at the subconscious level of the society by the gradual and ever increasing subconscious accumulation of knowledge till some conscious individuals emerged to give concrete expression.

When the subconscious accumulation is full and ripe it leads to the emergence of conscious individuals in the form of pioneers who can give expression to it. If the social milieu is fully in tune with the emerging pioneer he is received warmly and his innovative ideas and actions are welcomed. The political leader who leads a revolution, the social reformer and prophet who eliminate many wrong customs and practices in the society, the entrepreneur who starts a new type of business or industry and the scientist and inventor who announces a new discovery or who develops a new machine are all examples of pioneers who help society forge ahead. Such pioneers who emerge as conscious embodiments of ripening subconscious knowledge can be described as true individuals. Each has a unique impact on society by formulating his or her unique form of idea and action. But all draw their strength only from the vast subconscious reservoir of knowledge that society has in store for its members. If the pioneer arrives at the right time his ideas and actions are bound to spread fast and wide among members of the society just as seeds sown at the right season sprout and seedlings emerge in vast numbers.

The European Renaissance led to mental creativity and mental individuality but its full expression was stifled by the oppressive and restrictive social atmosphere that prevailed in that continent in 14th and 15th and 16th centuries. Galileo who endorsed the theories of Copernicus about the earth revolving around the sun was so intimidated by the church authorities that he led the rest of his life under house arrest. The new world with its vast open territories, absence of established social structures and lack of political authority proved conducive to the flowering of true individualistic and creative thinking and functioning. So what began in Europe as mental creativity emerged in the new world as creative and individualistic action in an atmosphere of freedom.

The flowering of individuality is far from complete. Social pressure for conformity still remains as a huge impediment to originality of ideas and functioning. Scientists who come up with new and original ideas are hesitant to voice them if the leaders in the field do not agree. Politicians are hesitant to speed up the progress of their countries by introducing radical reforms if conservative sections of the population oppose out of vested interest. The same is true of the global scene where many worthwhile initiatives are sapped of support due to fear of conservative backlash. The world needs courageous individuals to emerge on the global scene who can give a powerful push to such constructive proposals as total nuclear disarmament, democratization of the U.N, saving the environment from global warming and developing a global currency and forming world government etc.