History is filled with examples of outstanding individuals who have changed the world around them. Often they had to act on their own, opposed by the powers that be and establish new centers of power to achieve their objectives. Ashoka, Socrates, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Gorbachev carried the stamp of individuality and the power it confers for evolutionary or revolutionary change. Imagine a nation of such individuals and we glimpse the magnificent creative potentials of humanity’s future. That may be a distant dream to be fulfilled in some future century, but the process has already begun. We find it most pronounced in Europe and North America where individuality has been recognized and proclaimed as a sacred human value.
Man is by nature a collective animal and his first instinct is to follow the herd. Our entire upbringing is designed to teach us to be, feel, think and act as others do. We are taught to behave properly, feel appropriately, act with decorum, and think within the bounds of ‘reason’, which means within the boundaries and according to the precepts of those who have thought before us. Society fosters and insists on this conformity and punishes offenders by rebuke, ridicule, ostracism or even persecution.
Yet without individuals society cannot progress. Individual deviation is essential for social evolution in the same manner as mutant genes are required for biological evolution. Individuals are the catalysts of social development. It is the pioneers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, inventors, and original thinkers who break out of the traditional mold to do, think or say something new that ultimately changes the way society as a whole speaks, thinks, works and lives.
Jane Austen depicts the process of emerging individuality and its role in social evolution with brilliant insight in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. The setting for the story is rural England at the beginning of the 19th Century. Across the English Channel, French society is being wrecked and razed by violent revolution, destroying the old aristocracy to break down the rigid boundaries between classes that protect a small elite aristocracy by denying rights and privileges to the lower classes. The same revolutionary battle cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ is spreading throughout Europe and threatening the existence of the aristocracy everywhere. England strives for a way to avoid the violence by a more peaceful evolutionary process. The events in Austen’s story depict at the micro level the subconscious process by which England converts revolutionary fervor into evolutionary social change.
Darcy is one of England’s wealthiest landowning aristocrats. It has been expected since his birth that he will marry his aunt’s sickly daughter in order to maintain the purity of his ancient bloodline and retain his vast wealth within the close family circle. Raised as lord of a magnificent estate, he has learned to maintain a respectable social distance and distaste for those who are below him in rank and wealth.
Mr. Bennet is an English gentleman who has married a lawyer’s daughter and used her dowry to raise his five daughters on their modest estate and limited income. His marriage to a businessman’s daughter reflects the evolutionary change in social attitudes that is already bridging the distance between aristocracy and middle class, creating a peaceful path for socially aspiring achievers and a source of renewed vigor for a declining landed gentry. Though socially permissible, the intermix of classes is far from smooth and easy. The differences in culture between Mr. Bennet and his wife are a constant source of embarrassment to him and his two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, who take after their father in terms of education and breeding, while the two youngest daughters, Kitty and Lydia, have inherited their mother’s lack of manners and self-restraint.
At first sight Darcy dismisses Elizabeth as too ordinary in appearance and low in social origin for his attentions, while Elizabeth rejects him as offensively arrogant and aloof. Unknown and unsought by Elizabeth, Darcy learns to admire her fine eyes, intelligent wit, self-confidence and forthright demeanor. Despite his proud behavior and sense of superior breeding and his revulsion for the vulgarity of her mother and younger sisters, he inadvertently falls in love with her. Torn by a conflicting sense of attraction and repulsion, he eventually proposes. His words express the inner conflict he feels, resulting in a proposal that is clumsy and almost insulting. So confident is he of the attractions of his person, his position and his wealth that he is stunned by Elizabeth’s refusal. He is shocked to learn that she regards him with contempt as proud, selfish and mean-tempered. She abuses him for interfering with Jane’s marriage to his friend Bingley and for what she believes to be his unjust treatment of his steward’s son, Wickham.
Following her refusal, Darcy writes her a letter, which exonerates him of Wickham’s accusation by disclosing Wickham’s devious attempt to elope with Darcy’s unwitting younger sister. His letter leaves Elizabeth more appreciative of Darcy and more painfully conscious of the uncultured behavior of her own family members. Darcy too reflects deeply on his own attitudes and behavior. He comes to regret his proud aloofness and look down on his own actions as selfish and mean. Out of love for Elizabeth he vows to repent and change himself.
For months they have no further contact until Elizabeth is invited by her aunt and uncle to a tour of the countryside near Darcy’s family estate, Pemberley. When Elizabeth experiences the magnificent grandeur of the place and hears further testimony to Darcy’s inherent goodness and generosity, she regrets her former attitude toward him. Within moments life responds to her change in attitude. Darcy arrives back from London unexpectedly and they meet cordially. He displays a warm, kind behavior toward both her and her relatives which both surprises and pleases her immensely.
Just when they are on the verge of a reconciliation that might quickly lead to an engagement, news comes that Lydia has eloped with Wickham. The disgrace associated with this event threatens to ruin the entire Bennet family and firmly convinces Elizabeth that Darcy will have nothing further to do with her. Unknown to herself and her family, Darcy overcomes his deep resentment for Wickham and his distaste for Lydia’s vulgarity and intervenes to save her reputation by persuading Wickham to marry her. He does so on condition that his role will not be disclosed to Elizabeth, but the secret comes out. She then realizes how much Darcy has sacrificed of his former pride in order to save her and her family. When he proposes marriage a second time, she accepts with gratitude and delight.
While the story is rich with insights into life and human nature, the most striking theme is the subconscious transformation of Darcy from a social character into a psychological individual. Darcy makes a progress in consciousness at the psychological level akin to that achieved in yoga at the spiritual level. He renounces the false or artificial sense of self-importance he derives from his social position and seeks to become a true, generous and self-giving person worthy of Elizabeth’s personal admiration. He gives up social values in favor of human values. Darcy becomes a true psychological individual in the sense that he no longer relies or depends on society to define what is good or reputable. He not only changes his behavior, giving up that which was offensive to Elizabeth, but goes to the other extreme of completely reversing it by embracing that which was previously repulsive to him. So real and great is his change of consciousness, that he acquires the magnanimity to accept a vulgar Mrs. Bennet, a wanton Lydia and a rogue Wickham as his own relatives and refuses to acknowledge, even to himself, their past sins or present unworthiness.
Darcy’s individual transformation becomes a catalyst for social evolution in England. By his own life and actions, he bridges the gap between the classes that was bridged only by the guillotine in revolutionary France. He is a representative pioneer whose actions usher in a future of greater freedom and equality for his countrymen.
The emergence of individuality is spreading around the world, but it remains at a nascent stage in India. What does it mean to be an individual in India today? Here are a few criteria by which one can evaluate himself and foster the evolution of Indian society.
An individual thinks for himself and forms his own opinions of every social and national issue. He accepts an idea because he understands it to be right, not because it is spoken or endorsed by socially-important people or generally believed by others.
An individual decides what is right on the strength of his own mental judgment, not on the basis of what others think and say, and he does what he knows to be right, not what others do or approve.
An individual relies on himself rather than expecting others to support him and accepts from others only what is due to him.
An individual judges himself in terms of what he knows himself to be as a human being, not on the basis of his wealth, occupation, status or what others say or think of him.
An individual respects the individuality of those who disagree with him. When others criticize him, an individual takes it as the other person’s personal opinion and impartially evaluates the truth of the criticism, rather than taking it as an abuse that evokes his anger, defensiveness or resentment.
Becoming an individual is the highest human achievement short of spiritual realization, the most direct path to highest accomplishment in life, and a pioneering, patriotic service to the country.
This article was originally published in Consecration Magazine, Vol.3, Issue 3, Jul-Aug 2006, pg.11, Emergence of the Spiritual Individual Part 4
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