Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Revised draft of the Readings of Chapters

Readings in Chapter XII

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 pre-national 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.


The Dissolution of Rome and other Empires

Sri Aurobindo attempts to understand how the mighty Roman Empire could not automatically transform into a durable nation-unit. He finds that the imperial set-up subsisted by turning the assimilated units 'into food for the life of the dominant organ' (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 368). As a result the annexed cultural units lost their essence, uniqueness and meaning and at a certain point in time could no longer supply fresh intellectual stimulation and physical input necessary to maintain the vitality of the unifying centre in the absence of which any further progress is arrested. 'Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt were thus killed, turned into dead matter and their energy drawn into the centre, Rome; thus the empire became a great dying mass on which the life of Rome fed for several centuries. In such a method, however, the exhaustion of the life in the subject parts must end by leaving the dominant voracious centre without any source for new storage of energy. At first the best intellectual force of the conquered provinces flowed to Rome and their vital energy poured into it a great supply of military force and governing ability, but eventually both failed and first the intellectual energy of Rome and then its military and political ability died away in the midst of the general death' (Ibid).

Sri Aurobindo also points out that the Roman civilization would have ended earlier unless it had an interchange with the East from where it received new ideas and motives. However as fresh inputs from Rome ceased, the flow needed for an ongoing interchange could no longer be maintained. 'When the Roman grasp loosened, the world which it had held so firmly constricted had been for long a huge, decorous, magnificently organized death-in-life incapable of new origination or self-regeneration; vitality could only be restored through the inrush of the vigorous barbarian world from the plains of Germany, the steppes beyond the Danube and the deserts of Arabia. Dissolution had to precede a movement of sounder construction' (Ibid, pg 368-369).

There is an important point to be noted. The Roman Empire banked on a bland uniformity at the cost of the richness of the wide diversity of its annexed units but that did not mean that it wanted to annihilate totally the identity of the cultural units as like religious zealots who annexed culture-units with the motive of religious conversion and forceful imposition of an alien culture on the conquered people. 'The crushing domination of Roman uniformity was a device, not to kill out permanently, but to discourage in their excessive separative vitality the old smaller units , so that when they revived again they might not present an insuperable obstacle to the growth of a true national unity '(Ibid, pg 369).

A dissolution of the ancient cycle of Prenational Empire building had to take place before the modern cycle of nation-building could start. The Roman Empire dissolved from within. Other Empires also had to undergo the process of dissolution demanded by the Time-Spirit but Nature followed different ways to achieve that goal. In India, 'the Maurya, Gupta, Andhra, Moghul empires, huge and powerful and well-organized as they were, never succeeded in passing a steam-roller over the too strongly independent life of the subordinate unities from the village community to the regional or linguistic area. It has needed the pressure of a rule neither indigenous in origin nor locally centered, the dominance of a foreign nation entirely alien in culture and morally armoured against the sympathies and attractions of India's cultural atmosphere to do in a century this work which two thousand years of a looser imperialism had failed to accomplish'(Ibid).

Thus the old Empire-unities whether organized around consolidated imperialism as in Rome or based on a loose imperialism as in India had to be destroyed to pave the way for the modern nation based on broader universal principles . In the process, old institutions have to be broken, 'for Nature tired of the obstinate immobility of an age-long resistance seems to care little how many beautiful and valuable things are destroyed so long as her main end is accomplished: but we may be sure that if destruction is done, it is because for that end the destruction was indispensable' (Ibid). In the passage of history, Nature had to shift the focus from the cry of the vanquished to the right of self-determination, from the conflict between the monarch and serfdom to the harmony between the individual and the collectivity. The modern nation needs to act as a template for refined universalism.


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: 23-May-22

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu