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Modernity and Individual Responsibility


M. M. Agrawal

In today’s world, the consolidated effect of modernity, the picture of man as the rational autonomous individual endowed with free will, is complete. The individual is individualistic: self-interested, egoistic, clamouring for more and more power, wealth and social status. He has stopped thinking about life considered as a whole. There is no overall spiritual meaning to life. His life is divided between purposes which are contingently thrust upon him by his environment, requiring fulfilment with a speed and efficiency which occlude any evaluation of their meaning for life as a whole. Indeed, he finds it difficult to apprehend life as a whole, to consider it as a unity, except chronologically. As MacIntyre in his most perceptive discussion of the contemporary scene observes:

Modernity partitions each human life into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behaviour. So work is divided from leisure, private life from public life, the corporate from the personal. So both childhood and old age have been wrenched away from the rest of human life and made over into distinct realms. And all these separations have been achieved so that it is the distinctness of each and not the unity of the life of the individual who passes through those parts in terms of which we are taught to think and to feel.1

Moreover, the very character of the social has changed so much, as many post-modern thinkers have emphasized, that the individual need not even bother about the unity of life and its overall inclusive end to provide a teleological framework for his endeavours. The social no longer demands conduct in which human relationships are informed by virtues. Indeed, most social institutions of the past which provided for the cultivation of virtues and qualities of character in the individual have either totally disappeared or have been rendered underdetermined by the vast changes in the character of relationships sought by individuals. This is the age of shifting relations of interdependencies, where even the most basic forms of human bonds — pair relations, sexuality, family, kinship and friendship, for example — have become institutionally underdetermined. The individual is faced with the stark reality of a communitarian alienation and competitive insecurity. The notion of rational autonomous subject has been taken to its ridiculous limits — freedom into anarchy, individualism into self-centred egoism, rejection of the substantial self into total fragmentation. The blemishes that have warped our ethical consciousness and disfigured our conscience are many, but perhaps the most serious one emerges, ironically though unselfconsciously, from what must be considered the virtue of modernity. Modernity which brought freedom from the unthinking callous authority of various non-secular traditions went too far and liberated the hidden greed lying curled up in the human heart.

But surely, in the culture of greed-satisfaction there is no hope for peace — peace as a cultural realization must manifest itself first in the social spaces of interpersonal attitudes, intentions and relationships.

The extent of degeneration in the values of interpersonal relationships is obvious when we realize that today we have come to need a justification for treating others equally and impartially — the rational precept which could provide the underpinnings for law. And philosophers have discussed the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ And if we need to discriminate protectively in favour of those who are severely marginalized, we need a veil of ignorance about their real human status so that we can be convinced in our hearts that we are not being unfair to ourselves in going out of our way to help the needy. In this extraordinary situation we find that the ethics of compassion, love and caring has suddenly ceased to be relevant. There may be no basic ‘given’ (eternal) structure of human relations but, under the surface of sophistication, it certainly seems to have become what Hegel’s famous image of ‘master-slave’ anticipated. Even the most ardent believer in human freedom, Sartre, succumbed to its temptations.

While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me. We are by no means dealing with unilateral relations with an object-in-itself, but with reciprocal and moving relations . . . within the perspective of conflict. Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others.2

We need not accept this verdict upon the nature of interpersonal attitudes as a description of the fundamental, ontological structure of human relationships, but as a correct representation of what has become of it, it is surely undeniable. We face one another with the motive to prevail over the other, in a moving situation of perpetual conflict.

The individual is oriented towards ends which are discrete, unrelated, making for no coherent ethos or even style of life. But what is most frightening is the ethical and aesthetic dislocation of sensibility. The aesthetic consciousness is ingrown, has lost communion with nature and the life of the universe as a whole. It is churning out stuff in the name of self-expression, as though self-expression were the highest form of a characteristically human achievement. It has forgotten to take note of what has become of the human self (a social product, conditioned in its virtues and vices), which has grown on the stage of conflict and which has accumulated all the filth of consumerist modernity. There is a point where the line between life and death is too thin, just as the line between art and vulgarity, but the line all the same is there. That we fail to recognize it only shows that we have forgotten what it means to be an Artist on Life.

The world of human relationships has lost its intrinsic worth. The world is my world in which everything is organized instrumentally for the satisfaction of some undefined, intangible need of personal security and individual fulfilment. The fragmented life of this divided individual is glowing with the feeling, the fear, of being left out of the race — an insecurity whose origin and character he is blissfully totally ignorant of. Man is lost in the wilderness of a civilization of his own cultivation.

The loss of the ethical perspective upon life both in thought and in social action is evident enough. For the former, modernity having admirably freed the moral agent from the stifling hold of the esoteric authority of ‘revelation’ and the blind precepts of superstition, landed him into the hands of another, equally esoteric authority of ‘rational intuition’. God may have died (as per Nietzsche) but man could not have killed him. Perhaps He committed suicide in utter disillusionment and frustration over his proud creation. And again, having unhooked the understanding of the moral agent from the mysteries of ‘foundationalism’ and ‘essentialism’, modernity has thrown him into the hands of the unmerciful loneliness and uncertainty of his subjectivity. The modern moral agent, devoid of any inner spiritual strength, dependent upon externals and lacking reference to the ultimate worth of his activities, is constantly afraid of losing, or being too late to collect, the visible and immediately affective pleasures of life. He is left with no choice but to continue to struggle in the pursuit of his own personal achievements with a sustained drive, greed and competitiveness so characteristic of the contemporary engagement with life. And such choice, in turn, has landed us into deeper crises. The by now familiar environmental crisis is nothing but an outer aspect of an inner crisis of meaninglessness in the ethical consciousness.

As for the loss of the ethical perspective in social action, the degenerate state of the relationship between culture and politics is amply in evidence. Cultural politics has turned into the politics of culture. Moreover, the fragmentation and short-sightedness of political enterprise the world over exposes the ethically ambivalent inner state of mankind.

On the one hand being egoistic, and realizing that everyone is trying to get there (God knows where) first and possess as much as he can, he must submit, in a quasi-Hobbesian manner, to the rule of law, apparently based on the moral idea of equality. On the other hand, being impelled by the desire to dominate over others, (as we saw in the primary structure of human face-to-face) he must try to seek power in all forms and ways accessible to him. He must then (unconsciously perhaps) introduce loopholes in the systems of society, in particular in the laws, and hope to retain control over them through a system which has all the pretensions of equality but is inherently open to subversion by the cleverer and stronger. He thus submits to the rule of law (allows the law to take its own course) only to ensure a smooth transition to his desired inequality. His purposes are perhaps best served in the installation of modern liberal democracy.

The social ideals of justice and democracy which the Western Enlightenment admirably struggled to realize is inherently aporetic, based upon a deep contradiction in the modern consciousness. We are content to believe that though liberal democracy is not perfect, it is the best that can be realized. Or those who are not so pessimistic contend with the thought that human rationality will one day find a solution. But even if a rational solution could be found it will be limited and short-lived, we cannot install the gains of reason into new institutions. The old institutions are fast losing their grip on reality, if not already dead or rendered ineffective. And the new would need infinite flexibility and versatility to cope with the infinite disorder in the fragmented but fast reshaping river of all consciousness. Shattered beings can best represent reality in bits and pieces.3 The resolution of the conflict cannot come from the ready-made ‘objective’ social morality, from determinate moral rules to be followed or virtues to be cultivated, or from the calculations of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’. For, as Zygmint Bauman has observed,

morality is endemically and irredeemably non-rational — in the sense of not being calculable, hence not being presentable as following impersonal rules, hence not being describable as following rules that are in principle universalizable. The moral call is thoroughly personal; it appeals to my responsibility, and the urge to care thus elicited cannot be allayed or placated by the awareness that others do it for me, or that I have already done my share by following to the letter what others used to do. Being moral means abandoned to my freedom.4

Today we are faced with making a resolute choice between getting swallowed up by a culture thrust upon us by the dictates of a technocratic capitalism, and working towards creating a culture sensitive to the spiritual dimensions of human existence which respects nature and life in all things. This choice cannot be made by the collective: it is not a politico-economic choice. It can be made only by a ‘true’ individual, who, unfortunately, somehow lost his way in the new industrial metropolises.

Contemporary critics tend to overidentify the ills of capitalist modernization, which encouraged monopolization and misuse of power, which distorted knowledge to suit manipulative techniques for economic subordination, with the rather honest and noble intention of intellectual modernization to create a rational and scientific approach to knowledge and social progress, and consequently wrongly identify the aggressive individualism encourage by the former with the essentially ethical individualism of the latter. The intellectual modernity rejected the grounding of practical reason in blind ‘authorities’ of occult subjectivity both in matters of morals and in objective truth. And by and large it (notwithstanding the claim of ‘rational intuition’) placed a premium on the honest, dispassionate and unprejudiced judgement of the individual, in the final analysis. But the spirit of the enterprise left all judgements open to revision, though no doubt always aiming at objective finality. In this attempt they, perhaps inappreciatively, invoked the authority of the ‘ethical’ in final adjudications of all truth claims. The individual had to feel responsible for his truths and social commitments, and had to arrive at them through honest impartial consideration. Such individualism is not dictatorial or idiosyncratic. It is another matter that this healthy individualism lost its battle for humanizing culture against ruthless capitalism, and irresponsibly grew into a ‘fat and selfish’ egoism.

The upshot of this brief reflection on the odds and evens of some contemporary myths and insights is to invite us to give the devil his due, to face ourselves to realize that any programme of social action for cultural regeneration stipulated by seminarists curls up upon the participants considered as individuals. It is the individual human being in whom alone there lies, first and foremost, the creative energy needed for cultural transformation. He must somehow realize that he is responsible for the way the world is today — violent, uncaring, unsharing and unloving; not he alone nor he collectively, but he individually. And this means that social action must begin from action upon himself, the action of making ourselves integrated beings, whole and true individuals. This would require the discipline of self-knowing, of understanding oneself as a total process.

The process-view of the self that I am invoking here recognizes that the self, though a unitary centre of consciousness, is not a totally separate psychological or psycho-physical entity, cut off as it were from the rest of being. At every stage of the living process, it is embedded, sustained and carried over by the extraordinary life of the whole. Today this view has been made available to us by the insights of scientists into the way living systems sustain themselves and support one another and move forward together in evolution. Their participation in the whole is a form of mutual cooperation. The realization of total interconnectedness and interdependability can promote an almost mystical sense of unity with the whole, with the consequence that the consciousness of separateness is rendered insignificant and is even ontologically incinerated. But perhaps more to the point is the fact that the sense of unity with the whole is sufficiently real for the individual.

What we are saying is nothing but a retrieval of an aspect of the Indian spiritual heritage central to which is a holistic perspective upon life. In the holistic vision of life there is also the ending of the fragmentation of life. And in the ending of fragmentation there is the ending of conflict within. Such a conflict-free individual, the true individual, is the proper foundation for peace in the world. We have experimented with impersonal objective approaches to ending conflict ‘outside’, but without success. It is not enough to see conflict ‘out-there’ and offer pragmatic solutions for immediate relief. Such an approach can only control tensions temporarily. But a non-erupting volcano is not a land of flowers. If the individual is conflict-ridden on the inside, if he is fragmented and feels separated from the world, he is bound to project it upon the collective. Greedy, envious, egoistic, pleasure-hunting individuals will inevitably produce wars and fragmentation. Only conflict-free individuals can neither be manipulated not will desire to manipulate others.

The ever-present feeling of insecurity due to the consciousness of separateness on the one hand and the consciousness of the essential unabidingness of the self on the other, constantly pushes the individual to seek salvation in various forms of the collective. The being of the individual needs to be protected. But it is not easy to do so when each one has set himself in competition with the others. The collective offers the power of the state, of legislation. But who is to wield this power? Obviously, individuals of the same kind as those who need protection — scared, insecure, lonely, and therefore aggressive, possessive and manipulative. Is it surprising, then, that everywhere in the world state power tends to acquire an oppressive personality of its own? In the typical consciousness of oneself as a necessarily acquisitive and consumerist self — an essentially separate entity which nevertheless continues to retain its personal identity throughout its history of seeking satisfaction of the vagaries of desire — there can be no peace.

To transform the acquisitive culture of conflict and aggression into a culture of peace and care, man must return to himself, perceive the hidden motivational springs of his action and in knowing himself thus and so, discover the sacredness of life, of nature and the wholeness of his interrelatedness with it. As it is, the culture we have created, which in turn has conditioned us, is the result of our constant endeavour to succeed and dominate, to acquire personal power in one form or another, as separate beings. It is a sad story of human misery and suffering and endless conflict. Each one of us is composed of these cultural universals. One has to realize, not only intellectually but experientially in the structures of one’s consciousness, perceive the truth that ‘we are the world and the world is us’. ‘The world is in each of us; to feel that, to be really committed to it and to nothing else, brings about a feeling of great responsibility and an action that must not be fragmentary, but whole.’5

The culture of peace is the way of life of individuals who have put themselves on the road to total freedom — freedom from the conditioned dictates of the acquisitive culture. Such individuals do not succumb to pressures for the blind run for what glitters like gold but alas! melts away like wax. The promised land of happiness through single-minded devotion to material (industrial) growth is a mirage whose true nature one fails to see in the culture which has given us the unquenchable thirst for more. We must assume the responsibility for regenerating the culture of peace through re-making ourselves into integrated wholes, beings that are at peace with themselves; and then the spiritual quality of the feeling of the unseparateness of the ‘me’ would enable us, naturally and quite spontaneously, to relate to others in love, freedom and understanding.


This is not to suggest that no institutional action is needed on the ‘outside’, in society. Creativity is necessary for a robust culture of peace. Such a culture must keep blossoming, comprehending the contemporary ethos, it must be reappropriating its resources towards a meaningful telos. In its aspect of creativity, a living dynamic culture, as I have argued elsewhere,6 must be seen as a quest for (to put it generously) the ‘holy trinity’ of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, which signify the three generic perspectives upon life available to man. The goals of a ‘quest’, in contrast to those of a ‘search’, cannot and should not be given determinate definitions. We understand them and move towards them through the negation of what are empirically known to be their opposites. For example, we embrace non-violence by the negation of violence. ‘Non-violence’ does not represent a being, but violence is recognizably actual. Non-violence is a way of being in the world without violence.

If cultural processes signify a creative quest for the meaning and truth of life, then their logical relationship with educational processes is evident enough. Holistically speaking, education must awaken the integrated intelligence of the learner rather than encouraging conformity to patterns of canonised knowledge, education should enable the individual to comprehend himself as freedom, understanding and creativity. Educational processes have lamentably become merely informative processes. True, there is always a considerable amount of technical, factual data and concrete utility-skills to be transferred from the teachers to the taught, but surely to exhaust the meaning of ‘education’ in solely ‘that’, is a vulgarization of a form of life which the ancients rightly considered sacred and which they approached with great humility.

But today educational institutions have turned most violent — the violence, for example, of ideological brain-washing and the marginalization of those who refuse to surrender to power relations of dominant epistemic discourse, or of those who simply cannot afford to buy it. The system and its operations are imbued with the egoistic, acquisitive and domineering character of modern man so characteristic of the ‘liberal individual’ of contemporary culture. His ruthless pursuit of a notion of truth which is laboriously constructed on utilitarian foundations, on what may be called the ‘pragmatics of material advancement’, and the notion of goodness signifying manipulative success, and of beauty that lures and earns, offers only a sad caricature of the educational process.

Surely it will be generally agreed that when we behold education in all its beauty, depth and richness, we see it as the power which liberates, and enables and inspires man to live creatively. This power is freedom — freedom from the fear and insecurity of non-conformity and non-‘success’. Education, particularly in the humanities, must awaken the integrated intelligence of the learner; instead of encouraging conformity to patterns of canonized knowledge, education should enable the individual to comprehend himself as a total process. Thus, self-knowing must be a simultaneous and non-cognitive (i.e. without the subject-object separation) accompaniment of knowing the external, the objective.

To live creatively, no doubt one needs a matrix of facts, knowledge and techniques. But though such a framework is logically necessary, it is not sufficient. To live creatively one needs to be perpetually transcending the ‘given’, the conditioned and determined. In the spontaneity of freedom and the insights of understanding of life as a whole, one is always going beyond the literal meanings of traditions, enriching them with newness and thus carrying them forward. Creativity is the very dynamic of living, and living is an artful quest of the meaning of life.


1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Duckworth, 1981, p.190.

2. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, New York, 1956, p. 474.

3. To echo Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Shattered beings are best represented by bits and pieces’.

4. Postmodern Ethics, Blackwell, 1993, p. 60.

5. J. Krishnamurti, Unconditionally Free, KFI, 1995, p. 34.

6. Manascharya, Vol.1, No.1, 1995, pp.1-10.


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