14 December 2010

A reflection on nation

The question of nation is one that has been troubling me throughout my left turn into Toryism, particularly in recent days, and I felt it was high time to dedicate a few lines here to the subject. A number of authors I have been reading of late have been dedicated patriots – Samuel Johnson, GK Chesterton and Mohandas Gandhi were all very much dedicated to national ideals, and very much believed that a nation embodied a certain set of ennobling values. Others, such as the Fürst von Metternich, regarded the idea of nation with disdain: to him, ‘nation’ was a means of dividing one people from another on the basis of language and ancestry, without reference to common values; for him, hope lay rather in the common ideals encouraged by Catholicism. Confucius, even though his legacy has been co-opted by later Chinese nationalist movements, seems to have anticipated Metternich more than Gandhi: the Analects describe that at one point he wished to live among foreigners (the Nine Yi 九夷), and one of his followers criticised him for the desire (‘陋,如之何?’ ‘They’re uncultured; how could you [want to live among them]?’) to which Confucius replied: ‘君子居之,如陋之有?’ ‘If a gentleman were to live among them, how could they possibly be uncultured?’ – Confucius thus believed that the virtue ethic he articulated was not limited to the Chinese*.

The modern temptation is to yield to either a simplistic, shallow universalism on the one hand (faulting nation for fostering parochial concerns and posing a barrier to a discourse between all human beings) or an even shallower liberal individualism on the other (faulting nation for articulating any kind of common cause that might ask individuals to commit to a moral vision beyond ‘rational’ self-interest). This twinned temptation should be resisted, even when the concept of nation is being critiqued and appraised. Nation is an extension of the family unit in a real sense, not merely by analogy. As the Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth had it (incorporating the pragmatist insights of George Herbert Mead and inadvertently following in near-perfect parallel Confucius’ concept of 推爱 extended affection), a child learns how to recognise and feel affection for other human beings by receiving the affection of her parents, and learns to apply that recognition negatively to others through interaction with playmates and friends. Solidarity – the form of recognition dialectically incorporating familial love and love between friends – can be extended across wide groups of people (nations) through the articulation of common values. I do not think that this natural wellspring of recognition is something that should be shut off or dammed up in favour of an abstracted notion of love. We should beware, however, that value-articulation is still necessary to make sure that this wellspring of recognition flows as powerfully and as broadly outward as possible (and is not misdirected into linguistic or ethnic exclusionism).

So what does this have to do with nation? I think the answer to this question lies in how these authors all perceive nation. Both Johnson and Chesterton loved England with an unquestionable burning ardour – this did not stop Johnson, however, from expressing eloquent sympathy for the plight of Africans and Native Americans, and excoriating his countrymen (including Americans) for their rapacious abuse of both; and it did not stop Chesterton from advocating an India for the Indians, rather than for the British. To them, to be ‘English’ was not to support English institutions or English progress or English might or English empire: as Chesterton put it, ‘[b]eing a nation means standing up to your equals, whereas being an empire only means kicking your inferiors’. It meant something deeper; what moved Johnson and Chesterton was a peculiarly English expression of the Good, but a Good no more or less good simply for being English. If this is what we mean by ‘nation’, then we could certainly use more of it.

The problem is that such expressions are all too often not contented with themselves. As soon as expressions of the Good begin crossing over into expressions of Right, we find ourselves making the Napoleonic turn, and getting into those notions of nation of which Metternich (very rightly) made himself a nemesis. It is sadly all too easy to move from the healthy expression of a vision of the good life peculiar to a certain tradition- or language-community, to elevating the privileges and rights of one group of people over another through official languages, loyalty tests and notions of exceptionalism; asserting the superiority of one nation over another; fostering competition and contention between and within nation-states; et cetera. It is almost certainly true that resisting these unhealthy and destructive notions of nation requires an existentially-healthy spiritual life. This was Metternich’s justification for proclaiming, in relation to the downfall of orderly states, that ‘religious belief, the first of virtues, is the strongest power’… though the good Fürst would likely find it appreciably ironic that a convinced Anglo-Catholic socialist, Fr Kenneth Leech, would come to nearly the exact same conclusion as he sought a basis for fighting far-right racism in Britain a good 150 years later!

In short, I believe that nations in the former sense are a healthy and a good thing. The world would be quite a boring place without them. They are at their best when they offer freely conceptions of the Good by which we can articulate commonalities. Sadly, the much more common form of nation, which expresses itself rather in terms of its own Right over and against other nations, is something to oppose, as did Metternich and Confucius before him, with every fibre we can summon.

* Mr James Legge, whose rather antiquated translation I am for the sake of my modern-day readers scrupulously avoiding, has in his footnotes that Confucius was here not expressing a sincere desire to live among the Nine Yi, but rather making a provocative comment to express his displeasure about not finding a broader audience in China. I do not think, however, that this interpretation negates the more literal layer of meaning in the text - Confucius would not say such a thing in the first place without subverting his audience’s assumption that the Nine Yi could not have among them ‘cultured’ men.

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