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A Tale of Two Sources: Obligation and Aspiration

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

How often have we tried to aspire for big ideas and caught ourselves embedded in the world of obligation?

"I would love to, but..", "If only I could, …" are the phrases around which our life rotates. Occasionally, we even go further and blame the current times for our dilemma. We feel that the age of immense information and many choices is consuming our ability to act on our options. However, Henri Bergson, a Nobel prize-winning French Philosopher, believed that this dilemma is in-built in the structure of the society,

A Tale of Two Sources | MQ Learning
A Tale of Two Sources | MQ Learning

In his early 20th century masterpiece, "The two sources of morality and religion," he analyzed the sources of societal obligation and human aspiration in defining societies' structure. In the 21st century, we need a renewed perspective on his passionate and rigorous research for the age of mass individualizations and hyper-polarization. Where do we fit in, in "a closely knitted society of preservation and obligation" or in "an open society of pure aspirations."?

In this tale of two sources, where would we stand:

First Source: The Societal Obligation

Growing up, we are prepared by our parents and teachers on the intricacies of society's preferred behavior types. When we do something different, we are reminded of the necessity of societal obligations. "This is not how the society works," we might hear if we try to bask in the glory of being a maverick. In our rebellious teenage years, the pendulum might start moving in a direction that Carl Jung, a Swiss Psychologist, described as a separation phase; structurally, with passing years, our pendulum generally shifts back towards our habits of obedience.

The question arises: "Why are we so much bound to society?" Bergson believed that obligation is just like our habits, only even more deeply embedded. When we look for grounding, the laws of nature, the laws of society, and the laws of cultures & religions provide us a framework to operate. Just like the imitation of the natural order, social order binds us to the necessity of being together.

Our consciousness when we grow gets rooted in societal structures. Bergson wrote, "Obligation which we look upon as a bond between humans, first binds us to ourselves." Our individual ego gets linked to the social ego, with an individual being the center, and the society, the circumference. Like individual cells, we might want to outlive emancipation moments, but we are obliged to come back and work together in the whole system.

Just like the instincts of bees and ants, we know our position in the structure. Though we use our human intelligence to enjoy and move around the systems, mostly we have the intention or pressure of preserving the whole's shape. The power of obligation drives the relations and nurtures the actions, and provides the pleasures in day-to-day activities with overall well-being by engaging with the known.

Potentially this is why the closely knitted societies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa were still able to preserve the traditional practices. However, the question arises, "What if the individual human aspiration is different from society?"

Second Source: The Flame of Aspiration

Let us start with the most basic question: "What is being human?"

Before humans' arrival, most of the animals had instinctive evolutionary capabilities to work together with nature. Humans' appearance brought a new level of intelligence to the system. We remodeled nature through our symbolic language of words and arts and even aspired to outwit it. The desire to understand beyond what's is seen, the heroism to travel beyond the known shores, and the efforts to "tackle" aging or death have shown the human aspiration to reach out for new possibilities time and again. As Samuel Jackson said, "Our aspirations are our possibilities."