Out of many, one. The phrase on the Great Seal of the United States is an explicit reference to the realization of those who are idolized by today’s extreme individualists that we are not ultimately a mere collection of individuals or states, but rather each a part of a greater unity.
Those today who claim to be the standard bearers of the Constitution and of our original national ideology implicitly chant, instead, ”E Unus Pluribum” (Out of the one, many). They constantly denounce recognition of human interdependence, and the responsibilities that come of membership in a society. They claim the Constitution which was drafted to unite us is the authority of division, that all sense of mutual obligation implemented through political agency is a travesty against the anarchy that they imagine is our highest ideal. They return us to the days of Social Darwinists rationalizing indifference to human suffering, and reverence for gross inequalities and injustices. They not only are the preachers of ignorance, but of centuries old ignorance.
But there are wisdoms more ancient than their ignorance. “E Pluribus Unum” is not just a political motto, but also a spiritual one. Hinduism codified the wisdom that individualism is an illusion, that we are each god pretending “he” is the Many, while in fact we all are merely faces of the One. It doesn’t require a deep spiritual revelation, or even enormous reflection, to realize the essential truth of this: We each think in languages, concepts, and forms that are not ours alone, that were produced by the many over time, and that merely combine in marginally unique ways with marginally unique balances to create our individuality very much on the margins of reality, with our commonality being by far the more basic fact of our existence.
The same that is true of us cognitively and culturally is true of us biologically: We are comprised of almost entirely shared genetic material, with only some marginal variation of how that material is combined creating some very marginal biological individuation. We are, biologically as well mentally, far, far, far more similar than we are different.
Our essential, pre-political unity is not just a function of similarity, but also of interdependence. Nature, sometimes misconceptualized as fundamentally an arena of competition, is at least as fundamentally an arena of cooperation, of interdependence, of an ecological unity (even, according to James Lovelock in his book Gaia, a geological/atmospheric/ecological unity).
Nature in general, and humanity in particular, consists of fields of coherence and variance, or individuation, within that coherence. The coherence is both temporal and spatial; there is a continuity of natural history, of human history, of the two in combination; there is a continuity among people in their families and communities, of families and communities in their states and nations; of states and nations in global humanity; and of all of this in the natural contexts (geological, ecological, and physical) in which we are embedded. The One is comprised of many, many elements, but they are all ultimately woven into a single dynamical tapestry in almost unlimited ways, on almost unlimited levels.
Individuation is neither the ultimate goal, nor a mere means to another goal, nor a useless illusion (despite the wisdom of Hindu thought); it is, rather, one small, beautiful, and powerful aspect of a vast coherent reality. We can celebrate it, admire it, enjoy it, utilize it, and analyze it, but we should not reify it, we should not turn it into an ultimate and immutable reality defining the limits of what we are and what we are capable of being.
Like many things in life, the relationship between the One and the Many, between the individual and the society, is a dialectic, with each serving the other, in order that the other may be of better service in return. The individualism of markets is a robust generator of wealth, while the social contract required to frame and regulate markets so that they continue to function both ever-more efficiently and ever-more fairly is our collective commitment both to that robust social institution, and to the individuals that it serves.
When minds gravitate to one extreme or the other, they diminish both their collective wisdom and their collective utility, and both individuals and the collectivity to which they belong suffer. We should neither subordinate individuals to some collective, nor collectives to some unbalanced ideal of individualism: We should instead explore our shared existence, complete with the vibrancy of individual liberty, both as a people and as individuals, working together to enrich all of our lives.