Every major culture has achieved exceptional results and produced exceptional individuals, whether viewed from within the culture itself or from outside it. Yet each culture, however variegated, has its own character, its own temperament, not necessarily superior or inferior, but different, that guides the mass of its adherents. In their large sweep, cultures are said broadly to fall under the categories of Occidental and Oriental. In essence, western cultures give primacy to matter while eastern ones give it to spirit, and a debate rages on the relative merit of their positions. It should be clear that there is, through an intrinsic quest for completeness and through long association, already a mixture if not a true synthesis of material and spiritual pursuits in both eastern and western cultures. Yet we may hold with due fairness that there exists an essential dichotomy in their emphasis, of one on matter, of the other on spirit. Let us discuss then their relative capabilities and limitations and ultimately their synthesis.
Dynamism, stability, humanness and aspiration are the attributes of cultures that one should study to gauge at this broad level their relative merits. For surely if a culture is not vibrant and creative enough to survive or stable enough to persevere then in the long trajectory of human progress its contributions will be a mere ripple. Creative vibrancy and stability are inherently opposed, one dynamic and the other conservative, one seeking the harmony of interaction with other cultures and the other seeking an intrinsic and internal harmony, one exhausting the other and the other constraining the first. The balance of dynamism and stability is the first characteristic that one should identify in a culture. Of necessity, humanness is fundamentally involved in a culture, for culture is a mode of human society, and the vision of the human condition promulgated by a culture is the dominant characteristic of its merit. But even more pressing is the aspiration of a culture—what it hopes to be, to accomplish, to realise, to manifest—its very reason for existence; and in the final analysis this is the paramount characteristic of a culture.
Clearly, eastern cultures have survived; Indian culture has certainly survived. It has brought forth not only rich classical cultures but also has effloresced into thriving contemporary cultures expressed through more than a dozen widely spoken languages, concomitant literature, idiom, theatre, cinema, cuisine and several arts, all woven into the fabric of a common Indian spirituality and world-view. More surprisingly, ancient Indians who forged the Indian archetype created such a dynamic and resilient culture that it withstood and assimilated extremely hostile attacks, intermittent for twenty five hundred years (since Alexander), and continuous for a thousand years, embodied in Moghul and European occupation. It could also create and assimilate internal perturbations such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and many others. For survival a culture constantly adapts to other cultures it interacts with, and with its creative energy brings forth a rich multitude of forms, revealing its dynamism. Thus, surely we shall see reflections of western cultures in modern eastern ones alongside the reflections of their ancient forms. Western culture itself is relatively young and dynamic and agile, and shall adapt too to eastern cultures which are certain to survive through their dynamism and stability.
At present, western culture does not seem to be sustainably stable. This is due to its model of growth which relies on relatively unfettered individual freedom and predominantly two uses of technology: imperialism and consumerism. Imperialism relies on maintaining artificial differentials in availability of markets and suppliers to the advantage of the imperialist, through the use of superior military technology. Consumerism relies on universalisation of technological advances by which tools and conveniences are brought to each individual. Though consumerism at home and imperialism abroad is a good formula as evidenced in US, we are also seeing both imperialism and consumerism abroad in the Japanese strategy. But more and more, imperialism cannot succeed against the large and independent societies of China and India. Further, consumerism inherently reduces the differentials that imperialism raises. Given the powerful universalising capability of technology, we shall increasingly see a level playing field. Since there are no Americas left to discover, we have to keep making difficult choices in resource allocations. Hence, we shall more and more see unbridled individualism failing as a sustainable culture. Sharing, interdependence, give-and-take shall become important features of a stable culture. In fact, one often equates these qualities with culture. On the other hand, eastern cultures have had a long training on the frontier of their capabilities. In their youth approximately five thousand years ago, they expanded into virgin territories full of conquest and glory. However, for more than two thousand years now they have been on a fairly constant frontier, honing their culture through difficult choices in interdependence and sharing. Now, acquiring newer technology and expanding into an expanding frontier, they have a relatively sure compass and instinct for stability and sustainability.
Humanness, one must admit, one finds only with difficulty in western culture as it is. To industry, a person is a unit of labour, a more or less recalcitrant factor of production; to the political machinery, a person is a vote; to the economic machinery, a person is a consumer, to the social machinery, a person is a social unit to be listed in statistics and reluctantly to be cared for when down. Why, I ask, doesn’t one feel like a cow, its straw fed, its udders milked, occasionally scrubbed or petted, and of course, under capitalism free to roam the meadow? In communism you may not so roam. Secular humanism strives to fill this vacuum and propounds a very necessary baseline of human social conduct, but it is moralistic and mechanical, and cannot suffice. Of course, there are spots of brightness when one comes in contact with real persons, humans. But on the whole, this is despite the system and not within it. On the other hand, one could fault the eastern cultures for too much humanness, to the extent that society becomes inefficient and even humanism becomes perverse. And in as much as world cultures are set in a jostle of competition, this inefficiency directly affects their ability to compete with western cultures.
Aspiration of a culture characterises its higher goal, its very reason for existence. Efficiency seems to be one aspiration of western culture—and this has certainly raised the stakes for sheer survival. But this cannot be a goal in itself: it can only be a means. Arts and the general pleasure of life seems to be another goal. And this indeed has been a redeeming feature of western culture, imparting it some humanness. But again, hedonism alone doesn’t seem to be a satisfying motive for civilisation. Philosophy and intellectual pursuit could be the leading principle of culture. But it is too dry for the mass of humanity and provides no sustaining motive. Religion and mysticism, too, have been a strong quest of all human cultures. But in the west it is said that the overt influence of mystic religion on life has diminished. To sum up, the west presents satisfaction of desires through efficient material means assisted by a keen intellect as the goal of civilisation and culture. All these are innate human tendencies. However, in the east in addition to these the spiritual quest has been recognised as the imperative and overarching motive of existence. Most, it is said, follow the leisurely pace of normal life—through its vicissitudes, yearnings, satisfactions and play, and some at an accelerated pace, so to speak, through yoga. These latter have been hailed by these cultures as seers who could found and propagate civilisation. They were not reclusive hermits but dominant teachers and guides—directing kings and their affairs and wars, building, organising and propagating knowledge, imparting supreme vision and wisdom, and setting the keel of civilisation’s vessel, charting its course and unfurling its sails to be filled by the breath of the Lord. Certainly, in India the quest was of union with the divine, here on earth, and if not here then in other domains. In completely unambiguous terms full plenitude of life, and indeed, immortality itself was laid down as the goal for man—attested by the Upanishads. In measure as the “here on earth” was ignored by its culture, India lapsed and was susceptible to external attacks and now needs to assimilate respect for matter. But in its aspiration it is supreme, unmatched by any other culture.
The Basis of a Rational Society
In as much as the east-west cultures are in opposition about the primacy of spirit or matter, the synthesis of a new world-culture is also based on a synthesis of spirit and matter. A culture based exclusively on the spirit is bound to fail here on earth. But let us also explore the foundations and the limitations of an exclusively materialistic and rational culture, and then look for a fulfilling synthesis of matter and spirit.
The fundamental issue of the human individual in society is that of a balance between liberty and fairness. All modes of social power, whether political organisation, ownership of resources, production, trade, science and technology, religion or spirituality, when applied to the individual in society go back to the questions of liberty and fairness. Fairness itself can be traced to the concept of equality: a given situation between two individuals is fair if neither is averse in principle to a reversal of their roles. In essence, the sum of social power along with the balance between liberty and equality is captured in the concept of social welfare. The question that a rational society poses to itself is, “does there exist a rational constitution by which all of society could abide so that individual liberties are guaranteed in a socially fair manner while welfare is maximised?” The constitution, should it exist, resolves conflicts of individual preferences in a fair and rational manner. Let us make more precise the notions of liberty, fairness and rationality. Consider a society that faces more than two mutually exclusive states of the world. Each individual in this society expresses a partial order of personal preferences over these states of the world. The constitution, based on these subjective choices, then proposes a preference ordering over the states of the world that all individuals follow. In order to guarantee individual liberties, the constitution must permit individuals in society to express any preference ordering that they choose. Further, in order to be fair, the constitution must not project any single individual’s preference onto the whole society. To ensure that the constitution is rational, we require two further conditions of it: first, if all individuals prefer a given choice to some other, then the constitution must also prefer that given choice over the other, for otherwise it would be perverse, and second, when a new state of the world becomes possible, if all individuals continue to have the same preference ordering over the previous states, then the constitution’s preference over previous states must be the same, for otherwise it would be inconsistent.
In Arrow’s thesis on the impossibility theorem on which this discussion is based, the above conditions on the constitution are called, respectively, “universal domain,” “no dictatorship,” “pareto optimality” and “independence of irrelevant alternatives.” “Universal domain” captures liberty of individuals, “no dictatorship” captures fairness to or equality of individuals, while “optimality” and “independence” capture rationality of the constitution. Based on these assumptions, Arrow proves the Impossibility Theorem which states that a constitution that satisfies these conditions may not exist. Arrow’s theorem points out that a rational constitution that guarantees fair individual liberties and social welfare may not exist. There is a fundamental limitation in the ability of rational social organisation to reconcile and harmonise liberty and equality.
Faced with this impossibility, society can take several paths. For one, it could limit itself to at most two choices in the possible states of the world. But this is not realistic for even the most rudimentary societies. For another, society could relax the rational conditions of optimality and independence on the constitution. But this could lead to sub-optimal choices that make society inefficient. Some societies “choose” to have a dictator, or rather, have one forced on them. But this violates fairness and equality of society. Worse yet, in a theocracy, neither liberty nor equality is permitted. Another possibility is for society to account for the intensity of preference that each individual feels for available choices. This relies on subjective criteria which cannot be precisely verified, but with greater communication and discussion, social understanding of diverse points of view could improve, leading to possible consensus. However, this could lead to conflict as well. A final possibility is for society to limit, voluntarily or forcibly, individual liberties to the extent that a relatively fair constitution emerges through compromise and consensus or through coercion. In essence, these options—discussion and consensus—are adopted by pragmatic non-authoritarian societies. The mechanisms for implementing the restriction of individual liberties along with the extent of this restriction, and for gauging the intensity of preferences, varies from society to society. Yet, what this implies is that an underlying commonality of world-view, or of cultural imperatives, or essentially, fraternity is inescapable in a free and harmonious social organisation. In this matter, rationality can identify the various minimal necessary commonalities amongst individuals, but rationality cannot mould or dictate the form and direction that commonality should take. It is not reason but faith on which this coherence can be based. And given the dynamics of human societies, no narrow faith or creed or dogma or morality can suffice for this necessary coherence of world-view, but a broad and inclusive synthesis alone can suffice, for in the end, the oneness of the human spirit is the only enduring fraternal principle in the world.
Basis for a Future World
Secular humanism and the pursuit of human rights display the modern press for a fraternal principle to bind all humanity. It is a lofty blend of several intellectual, moral, cultural and religious imperatives of western culture. Pursuit of secular practices by all political states is a necessary minimal condition for world union. But finally, secular humanism lies only on the foundation of liberty and equality alone, and does not introduce an independent dimension that could resolve the crisis of rational society. While secular humanism for the state is necessary, it is not a sufficient basis for all modes of society.
The rational society has cast an analytical basis for the world, factoring each individual into social, cultural, religious, political, economic, industrial and military units, all sailing along the river of utility in the vessel of secular humanism. This factoring is important since it discovers the essential nature of each principle involved in the whole. From these factors, an efficient mechanism of society is then assembled in a rational society. But the assembled whole after this process is lesser than the original whole. While such a factoring enables efficiency of the social mechanism, an assembled society loses the subtle spirit of an organic whole. The apparatus of the state, while being secular and rational, must realise that it can never seize this organic spirit of society in the cloisters of law and constitution. Secular humanism of the state, while being the necessary baseline for social conduct, must not deny the spiritual possibility of the individual and society. Within the framework of a secular and rational state a spiritual humanism can seize and harmonise all modes of society and the world.
The basis of a future world comprises principles that emanate from the deep core of the spirit and extend continuously to the extreme corpus of matter—a seeking after, organisation and propagation of physical and spiritual knowledge; dynamism and organisation of life, society and polity, striving for ideals and their protection, a largeness and nobility in wielding power; harmony of relationships and being, beauty of form and environment, culture, communication and consensus, distribution and balance of wealth and power and well-being; perfection in works, attention to detail and maintenance, usefulness and creativity in production, service and work, a solid and sustained stability of life and existence. These imply for the individual, inwardly a simultaneous and integrated pursuit of vision, will, expression and action, and outwardly a simultaneous and integrated pursuit of knowledge, power, harmony and service; and for society, organisation and institutions that enable and fulfill these pursuits of all individuals. In particular, social institutions are needed that pursue and impart physical knowledge and spiritual guidance, education of the mind and life and body and spirit; institutions that invite commitment and participation of individuals in organised society and that distribute responsibility to them for planning and action at local, state, national and international levels; institutions that promote culture and communication and consensus, that open and increase trade and commerce, and create and sustain beauty and harmony of the environment; institutions that provide opportunity for production and service and work that is valued, encourage detailed perfection, creativity, diligence and stability. A repeated interaction of such individuals through such institutions will define the character of society. Of necessity, a social organisation with such individuals, institutions and interactions will lead to organic communities, each dynamic and harmonious, and together weaving the larger communities of the nation and the world through a rich and multifaceted interchange.
The practise of a broad, enlightened rationality and secular humanism by nation-states and play of the inclusive synthesis of spiritual humanism through organic communities and their world-wide interaction shall constitute the basis of the future world. This basis is not a radical alteration of existing institutions, for events have ever steadily pressed towards world-union, but rather is a heightening of their aim and orientation and a widening of their purpose and methods. As the first steps towards this new basis, nation-states must increasingly step back from narrow ideological espousal—whether of capitalism or communism or religion or any other—and move towards fulfilling the freedom and potential of their individuals in an orderly and united environment, and towards greater cooperation amongst themselves to increase opportunities and well-being. Individuals must move from their current factored existence towards greater integration of their personalities and beings based on the foundation of inner spiritual seeking and expressed through diverse fields of action. And finally organisations must move from their current exclusive emphasis such as on business or politics or religion, towards a greater diversification of their activities and an integrated approach to education, technology, business and culture, displaying commitment to holistic individuals and organic environments, thereby becoming the nuclei of future communities. In its ultimate fulfillment such a basis shall not lapse into some foreordained homogeneity, but rather shall richly express the diverse character and nature of diverse peoples, each taking its place in a harmonious and multifaceted whole. Such an emergent culture shall be dynamic through its freedom and movement and globalisation, stable through its communication and consensus and unity, human through its ideal of organic spiritual humanism and supreme in its aspiration for the fulfillment of the human spirit.