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The Individual and the World Today

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by Sangharakshita

... - the Axial Age. The Axial Age, a sort of crucial turning point in human history - hence the term axial - is - or was - a three-hundred-year Lecture 139: The Individual and the World Today: Page 4 period extending very roughly from about 800 BC to about 500 BC, and these true individuals, who started appearing during that period, in relatively large numbers, appeared in Palestine, in Greece, Persia, India, and China, in fact in nearly all the great centres of civilization of that time. And some of them were great thinkers, others were prophets and mystics, others again were poets, sculptors, and founders of religions. In Palestine we have such figures as the prophets Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Amos, as well as the author - the unknown author - of the book of Job. In Greece we have Pythagoras, and the great philosopher Plato, we have the Attic dramatists, we have the great poet Pindar, we have the sculptor Pheidias, and so on. In Persia the prophet Zoroaster, in India the Upanishadic sages like Yagnavalkya. We have Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, we have the Buddha, and in China we have Confucius and Lao Tse, the two most important individuals to arise in the whole history of Chinese culture.

So the Axial Age was a period of efflorescence of the individual in this sort of way, of true individuals, and some of these true individuals went far beyond self consciousness or self-awareness merely, some of them at least developed what I*ve sometimes called Transcendental consciousness, and even Absolute consciousness. So from the Axial Age onwards, we see at work in history - in human history - in cultural history - religious history - spiritual history if you like - two factors. On the one hand there*s the individual and on the other there*s the group. The true individual and the group. And also various free associations of true individuals, but that again is another story, and I*m not going into it tonight.

And between the individual - the true individual - and the group, there was always a sort of tension.

The group pulling in one way, in the direction of conformity, the individual pulling in the opposite direction, in the direction of nonconformity, or freedom, or originality, or spontaneity. So that there was a sort of tension, even, we may say, a sort of creative tension. Or we may say again that there was a sort of dialectical relationship between the individual - the true individual - and the group. The group provided the individual with his raw material - so to speak. We find this for instance in Greek literature, in Greek drama. We find that Greek myth, Greek legend, which was a collective product (Jung might say a product of the collective unconscious), provided the dramatists with stories, which they adapted in such a way as to give expression to their own unique, their own highly individual, vision of life, vision of existence. On the other hand the individual influenced the group, reacted upon the group, so to speak, and raised it, at least momentarily, to a higher level. That is to say raised statistical individuals, belonging to the group, to a higher level, brought them nearer to true individuality, at least momentarily.

And this sort of dialectical relationship, between the true individual and the group, the group and the true individual, the one acting on - reacting on - the other, continued, or was in force, for about - broadly speaking - two thousand years. And it was a lively, a healthy, sort of relationship, we may say, this dialectical relationship between the pair of them. Though sometimes it broke down, as when for instance the medieval Catholic Church started persecuting heretics, that is to say those who dared to think differently from the church. The church of course by this time was no longer a spiritual community as it originally had been - at least to some extent - but simply a religious group, that is to say a sort of ecclesiastical power structure. On the whole, however, such exceptions, such regrettable exceptions apart, for about two thousand years the relation between the true individual and the group continued fairly healthy, generally speaking the group at least tolerated the individual, provided he didn*t impinge too uncomfortably, or in too gadfly-like a fashion, on the group. But during the last two hundred years, we may say, a change has taken place. A change has taken place to such an extent that a serious imbalance now prevails. An imbalance between the individual - the true individual - and the group. And there are various reasons for this. I can only summar some of the more important of them. First of all, the population of the world, the population of practically every country, has greatly increased in recent years, even during the last hundred years, even during the last forty years.

While I was in India, twenty years, the population of India doubled. Doubled. That*s quite a thought.

So because we*ve got all these more people in the world, almost everywhere, it*s become much more Lecture 139: The Individual and the World Today: Page 5 difficult to get away from one*s fellow men. However much you may love your fellow men, you like to get away from them at least sometimes, but it*s nowadays much more difficult to get away from your fellow men, much more difficult to get away from the group. And this is especially the case in small densely populated countries like Holland, and like the United Kingdom.

Not so long ago I had a quite interesting conversation with a friend of mine - an old friend of mine - whom I happened to meet in Sydney after many years - who was born in Holland. And for some reason or other, somehow or other, we got talking about the aggressiveness of Dutch people. I happened to mention that lots of Dutch psychotherapists whom I had met were very aggressive people, and she said, Oh yes, lots of the Dutch clergy who came to see her husband who was a bishop, Swedish, were also rather aggressive she felt, and she said being Dutch herself, she could understand that, and she thought she knew why it was. She said she thought it was because Holland was such a little, tiny country, with so many people - I believe there are fourteen million of them now - cooped up so to speak in this little tiny country - they*re so close together, so tightly packed, they get rather irritable, they get rather aggressive. They have to assert themselves. And the very same thing actually was mentioned in a letter I got from a Dutch Friend (with a capital F) only a few days ago.

She said how lovely it was to go to England and have so much space! But even England is getting crowded, even England is cramped, because England is so small, and the population has grown. It is so small. As the Americans say, if you*re not careful you fall off the edge of it! Because the Americans are used to a great big country. So this is what has happened. The population of the world has so greatly increased, it*s much more difficult to get away from your fellow man, especially in these small densely populated countries like Holland and the United Kingdom, and some smaller areas in some of the bigger countries. Of course this is not a problem that you have in New Zealand. I believe in New Zealand if anything, according to today*s paper, your problem is likely to be rather the opposite, you*re likely to have more room than you really care to have, and fewer people, perhaps, than you care to have. But even if you are a true individual to that extent that you even have to get away from your fellow New Zealanders, well, you can always go to the west coast, the west coast of South Island, which I saw myself only a week or two ago, and which is certainly not very densely populated.

So this is the first factor. Increase of population. And then secondly, there*s increase in the power of the corporate state. The corporate state we may say, nowadays, is the group par excellence. The corporate state controls so many aspects of our lives. I need not enlarge on this, I*m sure you*re all well aware of that fact. And in most states, in most countries of the world, this control, on the part of the state, the corporate state, is increasing rather than decreasing. It*s increasing - I was almost going to say - every day. But not only that. These corporate states now divide the whole world between them. There*s no portion of the Earth, the Earth*s land surface, which is not controlled by one or another corporate state. They*ve even started staking out claims to the sea. So you can't get away from the corporate state. There used to be spaces, nice empty spaces, terra incognita, in between corporate states, where you could go if you wanted to get away from the state. But those spaces no longer exist. The corporate states have extended their boundaries until their boundaries come right up against one another, and there are no spaces in between, there are no spaces anywhere in the world, where no state exercises any authority. So every individual has to belong to a state, whether you like it or not. There a few wretches, unfortunate miserable people, who*ve been declared stateless. Well, this condition of statelessness of the individual is considered a terrible calamity, because you*ve just got to belong to a state. You*ve got to have a passport. You*ve got to have a visa. Without these things you can*t travel from one state to another. And this is a fairly recent development. Passports, it seems, came into general use only after the First World War. Before that it wasn*t necessary, at least not so necessary, to have but now they are really indispensable.

And then thirdly there*s the growth of modern technology. This is in many ways a good thing, but it has its disadvantages, because it means that among other things the state, the corporate state, can keep track of its citizens more efficiently. Many states now have what are called ...

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