The Individual and The World

Contents List:

The Individual
An Ethical Basis for Social Mores
Confession to Maat
Personal Responsibility
Personal Inter-Action
The Need for Community
Community Size
Community Politics
Liberty and Dictatorship
The Root of Dictatorship
Remedy for Dictatorship
The Task

Return to:

World Views
Ardue Site Plan

See Also:

Personal Responsibility
Life as a Game

The Individual

Perhaps the most important hypothesis put forward in the Ardue Temple is that the individual human person is the most significant unit on Planet Earth. Endowed with consciousness, imagination, and a modicum of free will, the person is capable of deliberate purposeful action to effect changes both in the person's own nature and in the external environment. The free exercise of this capability is the crowning glory of creation. It opens up an infinite range of possibilities and promises inexhaustible variety of experience and expression.

However, the successful exercise of personal power requires restraint. We live on the surface of a finite globe with countless other persons, each of whom is endowed with similar powers to a greater or lesser degree. It is therefore likely that in the search for variety, the changes desired or brought about by one person will be opposed or nullified by another—whether deliberately or accidentally. Because we share a common environment, we inevitably interact with each other. If we are to realise our full collective potential, creating as much as possible while interfering as little as possible with the creative activity of Nature and other persons, it is imperative that we treat each other and our shared environment with respect.

An Ethical Basis for Social Mores

In religious societies, adherence to some sort of faith provides a commonly accepted ethical basis for social behaviour. In a formerly religious society which has broken down (as in many Western countries), there is no longer any commonly accepted ethos for social behaviour: hence a deep feeling of social insecurity, mutual distrust, and an inclination on the part of some people to replace ethics by legislation. Paradoxically, there being no longer an ethical or rational basis for legislation, ethics and laws tend to be based on nothing better than sentimentality — which may only be an expression of longing for a common ethic which is no longer available.

I propose a simple ethical basis for all legislation everywhere: recognition of, and respect for, the common spirit which animates all mankind. The practical expression of such recognition and respect would be acknowledgement in all forms of legislation that the individual is personally responsible for all of his or her words and deeds, i.e. that the individual is sovereign. This would immediately cut the ground from under the would-be dictators who 'sell' their enslaving regulations as being designed to 'protect' individuals from the natural consequences of their own actions. Nature assuredly does not need that sort of help.

Confession to Maat

Consider the following 'Confession' to Maat, the Egyptian concept of law, truth, and justice:

"Homage to thee, O Great God, Thou Master of All Truth!
I have come to Thee, O my God, and have brought myself hither, that I may be conscious of Thy decrees.
I know Thee, and am attuned with Thee and Thy Two-and-Forty laws which exist with Thee in this Chamber of Maat.
In truth have I come into Thine attunement, and I have brought Maat in my mind and Soul.

I have not done evil to mankind.
I have not oppressed the members of my family.
I have not wrought evil in the place of right and truth.
i have had no intimacy with worthless men.
I have not demanded first consideration.
I have not decreed that excessive labour should be performed for me.
I have not brought forward my name for exaltation to honours.
I have not defrauded the oppressed of property.
I have made no man to suffer hunger.
I have made no one to weep.
I have caused no pain to be inflicted upon man or animal.
I have not defrauded the Temples of their oblations.
I have not diminished from the bushel.
I have not encroached upon the fields of others.
I have not filched away land.
I have not added to the weights of the scales to cheat the seller.
I have not misread the pointer of the scales to cheat the buyer.
I have not kept the milk from the mouths of children.
I have not turned back the water at the time when it should flow.
I have not extinguished the flame when it should burn.
I have not repulsed God in His manifestations.

Do these statements not immediately meet with your approval? Do you not find them 'right' and 'proper'? If so, is it not because Maat is deeply embedded in your own psyche, in your own mind and soul—because Maat is just the personification of a spiritual quality with which you are endowed as a person? If this is true for you, why should it not be true for every other human being?

Note that all the statements in the confession are negative: they refer to acts that the confessor has voluntarily refrained from because they would be harmful to the confessor or to other people in the community. We may not understand their full significance in the cultural context in which they were made, but it does not require much imagination to appreciate that the details of the confession would vary with the circumstances of the confessor's community and his or her role in it. Given such a degree of personal responsibility throughout a population, there would be little need for restrictive legislation.

Personal Responsibility

Responsibility implies voluntarily refraining from doing anything we know to be harmful or have reason to suspect might be harmful, whether to ourselves, to another, or to the environment. Of course, most of us are not omniscient and we make mistakes, i.e. we do things that are seen in retrospect to have been harmful or in some way wrong. Mistakes are what we learn from. And I suggest that our greatest single personal responsibility is to learn from our mistakes. It is therefore vitally important that we be free to make mistakes so that we can learn. That is why rigid legalistic regimes which seek to place arbitrary limits on personal freedom should be strenuously resisted.

The extent to which each of us has mastered the art of self-examination and gained self-knowledge through appreciation of the results of personal error is the acid test of personal responsibility. A highly-honed capacity for self-criticism together with humility in acknowledging personal error are foremost among the qualities that make individuals worthy of trust. Trustworthiness is not something we are born with. It is developed only by interaction with the world and reflection upon the inward feelings and outward consequences arising out of that interaction. That is how we learn to become responsible and to keep changing ourselves for the better.

Nobody else can change us against our will; we must improve ourselves. Compulsion and threats of punishment may produce outward compliance in some: but they will produce resistance in others and inward resentment in all. Any form of persuasion that is not based on mutual respect is bound to be ineffective.

One of the things we learn with experience is that for all its infinite variety, there is a sense in which non-human Nature is very consistent: it is no respecter of money, possessions, position, titles, degrees, diplomas, or other 'status symbols'. These things carry weight only with those human beings who value them. They do not by themselves make any individual more responsible or trustworthy than any other.

Personal Inter-Action

It is important to realise that mutual respect is most meaningful at the level of interaction between two persons. Just as the individual person is the irreducible unit of responsibility, so the pair is the irreducible unit of both friendship and enmity.

Friendship arises naturally out of love, the law of attraction. It is constructive, life-enhancing, and enjoyable. Friends voluntarily seek each other's company, encourage one another, co-operate with each other, share each other's joys and sorrows, and help each other avoid pitfalls and learn from mistakes. They complement one another and do not seek to re-make each other in their own image.

Enmity arises out of fear. It is destructive, life-threatening, and hateful. Enemies seek to lure each other into mistakes in order to damage, or even destroy, each other.

In a person-to-person relationship, the responsible individual will always maintain the intention to be friendly and disposed to overcome enmity—regardless of relative differences in perceived cultural or political status. There seems to be a law of Nature that, in the long run, goodwill always prevails over malevolence. As Abraham Lincoln put it: "I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend." It is unfortunate that too many people are still too impatient to wait for the long run.

The Need for Community

It is through community that the individual person relates to the wider world.

John Donne (1571-1631) saw this very clearly. He wrote: "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminisheth me because I am involved in Mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

It was in some ways easier in Donne's time to appreciate the essential inter-connectedness of Man and Nature because the necessities of physical life were in the main generated locally, involving personal effort in co-operation with other persons and with Nature. Direct person-to-person interaction was clearly essential for material and spiritual subsistence. The material and the spiritual aspects of life were closely inter-woven; the harvest festival was a spiritual expression of thankfulness that seedtime and harvest had not failed. In the age of air cargo and supermarkets, the economic facts of life are not very obvious and this tends to foster the illusion that the individual who has plenty of money is independently viable. I once heard Frank Field MP wisely draw attention to the inadequacy of "a Welfare State that just paid people money and forgot about them".

Man does not live by bread (or money) alone. Think about the things you most enjoy and I'm pretty sure you will find that they all imply some sort of interaction with other people. If you are a gourmet, would you really enjoy buying ingredients, cooking them up, and eating them all alone? Would your enjoyment of a visit to a cinema or theatre not be enhanced by sharing it with a human companion rather than occupying a solitary anonymous seat? Is your experience of life not enriched by friendly interchange with quite a large number of people, not just one or two? Even the girl and boy 'in love' with each other need the occasional break offered by a wider circle of friends and friendly acquaintances by way of relaxation from the intensity of mutual infatuation.

Community Size

Looking around, is it not clear that happy people are social people? Is there not something pathetic about the friendless old couple huddled together in their self-contained house, waiting for death to part them; and is the pathos not intensified when the parting actually occurs and the survivor is left alone? Would the unitary family of husband, wife and 2.4 children, living in a flat in a high-rise block, not benefit from day-to-day encounters with a few friends and neighbours other than the telly to help relieve the tensions which inevitably arise when a small number of people are contained within too small a social compass?

It takes quite a few people to constitute a community in which all age groups are represented and which caters adequately for their spiritual, as well as their physical, needs. The actual minimum number required for a viable community will vary with circumstances, probably being larger in town than in a rural environment. A general idea of the number and mix required may be gathered from the number of characters commonly used in a television soap opera, but probably with the addition of a few more children.

Community Politics

Both friendship and enmity are modified as soon as more than two people enter into consideration. Friendship becomes progressively diluted: "Two's company; three's a crowd." Enmity, on the other hand, increases in energy and ferocity as more and more people are sucked into conflict, and thus there is no telling when a minor disagreement may be blown up into a major war.

The larger the group, the less likely it is that any one member will correctly appreciate and respect the interests of every other member, and the greater the likelihood of making mistakes. The epitome of true friendship is rarely attainable among all members of a group because it requires mutual voluntary exchange of trust and confidence. Group dynamics provide the incentive and the laboratory in which the individual member can learn to become responsible. And the truly responsible person can always unilaterally avoid enmity by refraining from aggressive actions.

In any community, friendship between any two members is likely to be perceived as beneficial to the group as a whole. Enmity, on the other hand, is contagious, disruptive, and inimical to group cohesion because it virtually compels individuals to take sides. Hence the need for a simple system of laws for any group that is intended to have a long-term existence—because the perceived interests of the individual may at times conflict with the common interests of the group. Group control must be exercised when self-restraint fails to prevent actions that threaten group stability. The larger the group and the more irresponsible its members, the greater the need for a system of laws and sanctions against antisocial behaviour. Conversely, the more responsible the individual member, the less need there will be to place arbitrary limits upon individual discretion. This calls for a careful balance between laissez-faire and prescription, i.e. between liberty and dictatorship.

Because laws and sanctions must be expressed in language, it is important for the members of the group to share a common language as well as common interests. Otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to arise from differences in interpretation.

Liberty and Dictatorship

So far, I have been thinking mainly of groups of comprehensible size. As more people are added to a group, the possible number of interpersonal interactions increases exponentially. If you are totally honest with yourself, I think you will find on reflection that even in a group that runs only into double figures, you are unlikely to be able to accurately gauge the effect of your actions on every other member. If you are truly responsible, you will refrain from doing anything that might have unforeseeable effects on anyone in the group or on any other group which might have legitimate interests in the same area of endeavour.

Most people will readily acknowledge that there are a few types of action (such as murder or poisoning a water supply) that are universally unacceptable. It is therefore reasonable for a society to enact laws forbidding the performance of such acts and imposing some penalty (such as limitation of freedom) upon individuals who persistently defy the laws. Such laws are essentially 'liberal' because they arise from a natural sense of justice with which every human being seems to be innately endowed and they are intended only as a last resort for use when personal responsibility has failed. They seek to impose no limitations beyond those which the responsible individual would not voluntarily exceed, and their punishments help the individual to learn to become responsible.

Liberal laws must be distinguished from dictatorial laws which prescribe how individuals are required to behave whether they want to or not and whether or not behaving in other ways would be generally harmful. Prescriptive laws are always drawn up to further the interests of a favoured minority at the expense of the majority. They are inimical to the development of personal responsibility—and so tend to produce irresponsible societies. They can be enforced only through fear of punishment—and so tend to destroy social confidence.

Democracy (government of the people by the people) is supposed by some to be an effective antidote to dictatorship, but it is obvious that true democracy is possible only in the context of a group small enough to be a community which is generally comprehensible by all its members. When the democratic unit is incomprehensibly large, as is invariably the case in a nation state, the democratic ideal becomes impractical. There are more than enough examples of oppressive legislation by supposedly democratic states in the present-day world to show that occasional resort to the ballot box is insufficient to guard against debilitation of a large society by dictatorial politicians, whether elected or not. The larger the society, the more difficult it becomes to combat dictatorship.

Fortunately, there will always be people who will not allow their spiritual values to be subordinated to physical comfort and desire for 'a quiet life'. Without the whole-hearted support of the overwhelming majority of the freedom-loving individuals comprising a group, group laws will be flouted with the tacit approval of the majority, and the cohesion of the group will be destroyed. The larger (and therefore the less comprehensible) the group, the more important it is that its laws should command the respect of virtually all group members. Laws should therefore be few in number, be clearly expressed, and be in accordance with the natural spiritual laws (Maat) which govern human psychology. Unless a legal system meets these criteria, dissent will sooner or later lead to break-up of the group. In the case of a state, that means civil war. Hence it is vitally important for group cohesion and continuity that its administrative system make adequate provision for self-expression by its individual members. As Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) put it, "Ill can he rule that cannot reach the small".

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote that "Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot last long". Only a strong sense of personal responsibility can prevent corruption. And nothing erodes personal responsibility so quickly as laws made by dictatorial law-makers who set examples of irresponsibility in their own actions and reduce the opportunity for citizens to learn from their own mistakes. That is why figures of dictatorial authority, such as clergymen and leading politicians, must be seen either as paragons of personal virtue or as hypocritical figures of fun and contempt. If they do not themselves practise what they attempt to compel others to practise, why should their laws carry any moral weight? Perhaps if the confession of the would-be law-maker included the sentence, "I have not make any law which might harm the spirit of any person to whom it applies", people might become more tolerant of his or her little peccadilloes. But that would require humility, a quality which is rarely associated with the professional politician.

The Root of Dictatorship

What makes some individual persons wish to impose legislation which seeks to limit the creativity of other individual persons even before these persons have shown any tendency to destructive behaviour? I think it can ultimately only be fear of what free individuals might do if they were 'allowed' to. And what makes individual persons willing to submit to such legislation? It can only be fear of punishment arbitrarily imposed by the political minority who have by some means acquired the power to punish. Thus dictatorship arises out of irrational fear.

I think the root of much of this fear, at least in the West, is the religious doctrine of original sin by which the Church sought to keep its sheep in submission for upwards of fifteen centuries. This doctrine has spread its pernicious influence throughout Western civilisation and, perhaps subconsciously, still influences the materialistic politicians who have now seized the reins of power from the Church. Being grounded in fear, prescriptive legislation relies on fear to make it work. It defines crimes, thus creating criminals, and prescribes punishments which seek to fetter the free spirit. But it is doomed to fail in the long run because the spirit cannot be fettered, irrespective of the restrictions and cruelties which may be inflicted upon the physical body. When spirited individuals find themselves oppressed, they will rise in revolt against their oppressors, even to the point of bloody civil war or its modern equivalent, urban terrorism.

This may seem like justification for the fear which inspired the oppression: but it isn't. Fear feeds on itself. It seems to be another spiritual law of Nature that acting in fear automatically provides a mechanism whereby the imagined fear is realised. Revolt is a natural response to bad law.

Remedy for Dictatorship

It seems to me that the first requirement for a free, just, and democratic society is abandonment of the pessimistic doctrine of original sin without replacement by any other assumption. Why not take other people as we find them, just like ourselves, subject to the forces of love as well as fear, and capable of becoming personally responsible? Would that not bring about a shift of emphasis from crime and the punishment of old lags to play and the encouragement of young people to become responsible for themselves and their actions?

The second requirement for a truly democratic society is that the democratic unit be small enough to be comprehensible by its members. Hence the fundamental unit cannot be the State, which is generally far too large and complex to be comprehended by anyone lower than a deity. I think it likely that with the ever-increasing pressure of 'globalisation', the state or 'nation' will gradually give way to a variety of self-determining and self-governing democratic units or communities voluntarily formed through free association of individual persons. Among such units might be the extended family, the neighbourhood, the social club, the trade association, the religious society, and many others.

In a world in which virtually every individual can be linked with every other individual by means of the internet, it is likely that there will be a profusion of interspersed global communities set up for all sorts of purposes. The individual person could simultaneously participate in any number of such interspersed units as long as he or she was willing to be bound by their rules. These rules, containing any detailed restrictions necessitated by technical or local environmental conditions, would automatically be appropriate to the circumstances and interests of the members of the community; if they were not, the members would either have them amended or leave the community and join or form another community. Thus laws would result from the interaction of individual persons, and not be imposed from above.

In case you think this impossibly Utopian, I can assure you that it is not. I can see no reason why laws imposed by remote, out-of-touch, and invariably arrogant legislators should be considered preferable to those devised by a community for its own benefit. At various times in my life, I have been involved with the administration of many voluntary associations. I am completely confident that, as long as they remain small and tightly knit by a genuine community of interest, such groups develop a community spirit which can greatly enhance individual freedom and enjoyment of life. As communities get too large, they become unwieldy and there is a natural and healthy tendency for them to break up into smaller groups, thus avoiding excess. The optimum size for any voluntary community depends on the main purpose or circumstance which led to its formation; but once membership of any community is numbered in thousands, it is probably already too large to be adequately comprehended by its individual members.

The Task

I recognise that one of the chief obstacles to establishing community rule will be resistance by the large, impersonal, organisations which have been developed to further the interests of certain classes of people. These organisations include trade unions, professional bodies, churches, political parties, government departments, and commercial companies which are generally much too large and specialised to function as genuine communities and all of which provide opportunities for dictatorial personalities to rise to prominence and thus represent threats to true democracy. Such groups are irresponsible because their activities are too complexified to be directly attributable to any one person. Hence the need for scapegoats — individuals who are singled out to take all the blame for the failures of the organisation with which they have the misfortune to be associated.

The problems posed by the dependency of present-day society on organisations which are, to all practical intents and purposes, beyond any system of law, are too complex to be discussed in this essay; I hope to return to the theme in due course. My principal aim in this essay is to highlight the significance of the individual person as the irreducible unit of responsibility, and to suggest that the voluntary community is the most promising building block for a responsible world society.

Perhaps the chief task confronting the advocate of community rule is to persuade enough people that in a social environment consisting of self-governing communities whose members are in regular contact with one another, there would be little need for large, impersonal, organisations. I believe this is a task that urgently needs to be undertaken if the world is to be saved from dictatorships and the wars which result from them. I invite you to join me in attempting to promote awareness of the urgent need to explore practical ways and means of establishing the voluntary community as the principal vehicle for personalising the use, and thus preventing the abuse, of economic and political power.