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Volume 15, Issue 3: Historia

Nations vs. Neighbors

Chris Schlect

One of the unfortunate developments of modernity is the nation. When Europeans abandoned a medieval view of men and society, the nation took its place. Many modernists presume that nation-building is the social and political epitome of what men have gone about doing since Adam's day; forming nations is what people do when they get together. So what is a nation?

Ernest Renan attempted a definition in 1882: "A nation is a grand solidarity constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again." Renan's key to nationhood is the solidarity wrought by nationalist sentiment. In other words, a nation exists wherever those who make it up believe one does—in fact, making one up by simply believing. Some have tried to define nation by pointing to such concrete factors as common territory, common language, or common economic interests. But these qualities fail, for too many "nations" seem to exist which defy one or more of these criteria. Appreciating this difficulty, Max Weber attempted a broader definition: "A nation is a community which normally tends to produce a state of its own." Weber's attempt is so broad that it is of little use in explaining human society.
A medieval person would wonder at all this. Perhaps that's because a medieval person understood social groups to be personal organisms, rather than impersonal ones. What Renan, Weber, and others have in common, and what would jump out to a medieval, is that modern "nations" are social structures that lose track of individual, flesh-and-blood people: Tom, Dick, and Harriet. The "nation" is an abstract, ethereal, impersonal, and immaterial concept.
Contrast the modern nation against medieval society. Medievals knew of no such crime as treason against an abstract, impersonal "nation." But they understood a breach of good faith against a living, breathing person. Feudal society knew no such virtue as citizenship, for citizenship contemplates allegiance to an impersonal, abstract body politic that has an existence of its own, like a Platonic form, independently of any people who comprise it. In place of impersonal citizenship, feudal society praised the personal virtue of faithfulness. A good citizen of a modern nation fights for his country—whatever that is—whereas a good vassal fights for a person he knows personally, whose family he knows, and to whom he is personally obligated. In biblical ethics, we remember that there is no greater love than to die . . . not for a body politic, but for a friend.
The modern nation obliterates the traditional concept of neighbor, downgrading the term to mere fellow-citizen. Our categories of self and other, of us and them, are tied to the nationalist paradigm. Whenever we address another society, we have to look for a head of state of some sort, a figurehead who holds an office—and this is key: the office itself is greater than the person of the office-holder. In the nationalist mentality, there are no real people, only offices.
This brings us to another modernist notion, human rights. Edmund Burke objected to the French Revolution because of its basis in abstract, ahistorical ideals that were pulled out of thin air and not based in French culture and history. Thomas Paine defended the Revolution against Burke's attack by urging Burke go back in time beyond French foundations, all the way back to man at creation—the "essential man." Paine rejected historical, customary rights in favor of the "Rights of Man." But Paine's man is an office, a theoretical abstraction; he is not a real, flesh-and-blood person. His notion of society, therefore, was a collective of indistinct automatons, whose roles in society were fundamentally indistinct from one another. This kind of individualism always reduces to a tyrannical call for conformity. Robespierre and Stalin worked out this idea: any person who does not submit to the purported "common good" is either guillotined or sent to Siberia.
The recent War on Terrorism has messed with our concepts of self and other when we try to identify our "enemy." We long for the bygone era when our enemies were nations: Japan or the USSR. These were enemies we could make sense of because they were the same kind of political organisms that we are. In twentieth-century wars, we (an impersonal political abstraction) fought against them (another impersonal political abstraction).
But today's enemies have reduced our nationalist mentality to absurdity. Today we war against Osama and Hussein—persons, not offices. This may lead us to look inward, to our sense of self. The heroic fire-fighters in New York did not return into the World Trade Center to save the United States of America. They were motivated, whether consciously or unconsciously, to save real people. Likewise, the men who died on Okinawa died for their wives and their parents and their children and their friends. They did not die for "freedom," nor did they give their lives "to make the world safe for democracy." Firefighters and warriors act heroically when they serve what the Bible calls "neighbors," for whom they lay down their lives. The Enlightenment rejected this medieval view of people and ushered in the idea of nation. And so they have taken heroism away from real heroes by claiming that they gave their lives not for other persons, but for an impersonal abstraction called America, that nation of men, whatever that means.

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