A nation should be like fulfilling marriage, one is free to leave it but can also choose to stay
12 months ago, 29 Dec 23:05
French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan’s 1882 lecture, “What is a Nation?”, is an influential text in the study of nationalism, as provocative as it is prescient. Renan anticipates the Third Reich and the European Union. His central idea is that nations are best defined not by force of circumstance (ethnicity, shared territory or interests), but by the will that sustains desire to live together. A nation, he writes, is “a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.” A nation, he contends, ought to be a “daily plebiscite” (referendum) by which he means that it must prove its worth to its people on an ongoing basis. A nation’s worth is proved when people are free to leave, but choose to strive on — for better or worse. In short, a nation is a fulfilling marriage. As the recipient of considerable opprobrium for espousing similar views, I delight in Renan’s last word on the subject: “At certain moments, the best way to be right in the future is to know how to resign oneself to being out of fashion.” MISUNDERSTANDINGS Today, I propose to analyse with you an idea which, though apparently clear, lends itself to the most dangerous misunderstandings. The forms of human society are of the greatest variety. They include great agglomerations of men after the fashion of China, Egypt and ancient Babylonia; tribes such as the Hebrews and the Arabs; city-states on the Athenian and Spartan model; communities such as the Israelites and the Parsis, lacking a country and maintained by religious bonds; nations like France, England, and most other modern, autonomous polities; confederations after the fashion of Switzerland and America; the great families that race, or rather language, has established between the different branches of Germans, the different branches of Slavs. Such are the types of groupings that exist, or rather existed, and that one confuses only at the price of the most serious inconvenience. At the time of the French Revolution, many believed that the institutions of small independent cities such as Sparta and Rome could be applied to our great nations of 30 or 40 million souls. ERROR In our days, a yet greater error is committed: one confounds the idea of race with that of the nation and attributes to ethnographic, or rather linguistic, groups a sovereignty analogous to that of actually existing peoples. Nations are something rather new in history. Antiquity did not know them: Egypt, China, and ancient Chaldea were in no sense nations. There were no Egyptian citizens, no more than there were Chinese ones. Classical antiquity had its republics and its municipal kingdoms, its confederations of local republics, its empires; it hardly had a nation in the sense that we understand it. Prior to their absorption into the Roman Empire, Gaul, Spain, and Italy were assemblages of peoples, often comprising leagues between themselves but without central institutions or dynasties. If one is to follow certain political theorists, a nation ...
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