The one and the many is a classical philosophical struggle that goes back to the most ancient of times. Which idea takes supremacy: the one, or the many? Which should we strive for: unity, or diversity? The problem’s still with us: politics, writing styles, religion, economics, and more. Even Star Wars. Here are some modern examples that show how this unresolved dilemma still plagues us today.
What’s more important, the individual characters and their development or the plot? Plot-driven narratives are more concerned with external conflict and big decisions that effect lots of people. Character-driven narratives focus more on characterization by exploring and developing their internal thoughts and feelings and their personal desires, goals, and emotions.
Some authors prefer one over the other. Stephen King, for example, favors a character-driven story: “I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.”
But which is superior? Character-driven stories tend towards the many: a cast of many individuals each with their own internal struggles to overcome. Plot-driven stories tend towards the one: one big plot purpose that swaddles all of the individuals together and tosses them into a stream of externally-driven events. The story is more important than the characters’ individual thoughts and feelings on the matter (think Hunger Games).
The one or the many? The event or the people?
NATURE OF REALITY
It shows up in questions regarding the nature of reality. Is reality made up of one substance? Is it made up of two substances, like Kantian dualism claims? Or is it made up of an infinite number of substances, atomic in nature, as modern materialism asserts?
It shows up in religion. What’s the nature of god?
Is god in everything, which is another way of asking “Is everything god?”
Are all the distinctions of reality, including people, actually an illusion? Is there a spark of divinity in all of us? Is everyone ultimately connected in oneness (monism) as in Hinduism, which teaches that we will all one day be united together as one drop of water splashing into a boundless ocean?
Or is god actually many different gods, as in the Greek Olympians? For the Greeks there was no ultimate one god, just a pantheon of several different gods.
Within the cults of Christianity, the same problem surfaces. Jehova’s Witnesses propose a single god who is rather distant from his creation and challenged to communicate directly to its inhabitants.
At the other extreme is mormonism, which proposes that everybody can be a god. There are many gods and many worlds. The father and the son are but two out of countless multitudes of gods.
The conflict between the one and the many shows up in politics. Which is supreme, the State or the individual?
Does governmental unity (the one) matter most, or does individual liberty (the many)?
A policy of emphasizing the State over the individual (statism) leads to totalitarianism and tyranny. On the other hand, a policy of emphasizing the individual over the State (Libertarianism) leads logically to anarchy: every man for himself without any unifying governmental structure whatsoever.
On one hand, we tend toward total liberty. On the other, we tend toward total tyranny.
Is there a balance to be struck between the two? How much of one must be ceded to the other? If we determine that’s possible, then we are faced with a serious question: by what standard do we draw the lines between where state power stops and individual liberty begins?
It shows up in economics. Does macroeconomics (the one) and the working of the entire economy together matter most, or does microeconomics and the realm of individual human action (the many)?
Is it the grand action of the entire economy which should receive our focus, or rather the personal choices made by the individual economic players (the many)? Which is fostered at the expense of the other?
Keynesians say it’s macroeconomic policy (the one) that matters most; Austrians say it’s microeconomic policy (the many) that matters most. An emphasis on the One leads logically to socialism and its unified, collectivist society; an emphasis on the Many leads to anarcho-capitalism, where every man does what is right in his own eyes.
AN EXAMPLE FROM THE MOVIES
Maybe the best movies that so vividly illustrate this great battle are the Star Wars movies.
The fictional universe created by Star Wars is bound by the Force, which has a light side and a dark side. The Dark Side is embraced by the Sith Lords, whose chief representative is Emperor Palpatine. The Light Side is embraced by the Jedi, who is represented by Luke Skywalker.
The goal of Palpatine is to destroy the Jedi and gain control over all the universe by wielding absolute, centralized political power. The civil order manifested by this power impulse is the tyrannical Galactic Empire, ruled from the top by Emperor Palpatine. Everything either conforms to Palpatine’s desires (the One) or else it is destroyed. Justice suffers.
The goal of the Jedi is to promote liberty. The civil order manifested by this goal is the Republic, which gives every planet and every people their own voice (the Many) in the Intergalactic Senate. Justice flourishes.
In the first three movies, the Light Side is dominant, featuring a galaxy full of Jedi warriors. By the beginning of the second trilogy, the Jedi have been destroyed and two Sith lords rule the galaxy. By the second trilogy’s end, the two Sith lords have been defeated by the remaining Jedi warrior. His evangelism was successful in converting a Sith lord from the Dark Side to the Light.
Presumably, the Imperial tyranny gives way to the New Republic.
But is that the end? Or does this conflict between light and dark, tyranny and republicanism, swing like a pendulum between two extremes forever, without progressing toward a final consummation?
UNRESOLVED BY HUMANISTIC PHILOSOPHY
All humanistic thought, for all of mankind’s history, has been swallowed up in the great conflict of the one and the many. It is the most ancient of debates, and its problems are real. They surface in reality and affect our lives in ways we probably haven’t thought about. The Greek philosophers couldn’t resolve the problem. Neither have any humanistic philosophers since then.
In previous articles we looked at conflicting views of the nature of reality. There was Hume, with his nominalism in which reality is created by the individual. Then there was Reid‘s realism, where everyone is connected innately by some mysterious intuition which gives rise to our “common” sense which binds us all to a single reality.
This represents the conflict between the one (Reid) and the many (Hume). It’s nothing more than a more modern form of the ancient philosophical conflict between Parmenides and Heraclitus. There has been no humanistic resolution. There won’t be. This conflict between the one and the many is fundamental to human life. It shows up in every aspect of culture.