Cosmopolitanism Revisited

This word, like many others ending with “ism”, describes an ideology according to which we all belong to a single “world city”, κοσμοπολίτης in Greek. This idea would transcend the differences that exist between cultures and languages through some form of “natural law” or common morality.

There may be some difficulty in distinguishing cosmopolitanism from globalism. As words often cause an emotional reaction, we are often concerned that globalism would set out to destroy all culture and identity for the sake of enslaving humanity in a dystopia. The twentieth century taught us that there was actually very little difference between international and national socialism, both causing millions of deaths and ruined lives.

It can be a notion that describes something other than a political agenda or a notion of making human beings compete against each other for their very lives. In this posting, I may be using words that have been seized and abused by agendas that appear to do very little to further the cause of human dignity and happiness. I will use them all the same, as I would use the word “gay” to mean joyful, bright, happy or any number of other synonyms. One word I will use is “inclusive” to mean consideration and respect for people of different cultures and ethnical origins. I would certainly also have to consider matters like homosexuality and gender dysphoria, but I will not allow them to dominate or crush the finer points I am trying to discern.

Cosmopolitanism as a shared idea is found in towns and cities more than in the countryside. I sought it in York when I lived in Kendal, and in London when I lived in York, and in Europe when I lived in London. In my own thought and personality, it accompanied my attraction to traditional liturgical Christianity, and there entered another conflict with narrow conservatism and nationalism. Living in a city introduces other constraints, in particular the need for much more money and the conditions for earning it. One enters another paradigm of conformity and narrowness. Cosmopolitanism is often dismissed by conservatives as “political correctness”, alluding to the dystopian novels of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. In the end, it is not a matter of living in some mega-city and its ugliness with the basest of human nature – but something that is within us. It seems to be a part of that nobility of spirit I see in certain twentieth century minds rather than some elusive social reality.

As an ideology, it seems to have developed in the Enlightenment era and was criticised by the Romantic movement. Some elements of the latter sought for a reinterpretation of cosmopolitanism rather than rally to the cause of nationalism. In reaction to the more legalistic and abstract notions, Schlegel and Novalis approached almost an anarchistic idea of fraternity without coercive laws. How could such a republic work? Novalis came up with his Christenheit oder Europa, an essay that looked to some like an apologia for integralist Roman Catholicism, but contains a subtle cosmopolitan message. The central theme was Romantic to the core, an emphasis on emotion, spirit and imagination in the place of pure rationality and materialism. For this reason, the image of the European medieval period is a kind of parable to convey a longing for a cosmopolitan, global, spiritual community. Romanticism sought to promote the idea of a new world, a new utopia without too much thought for “reality”. In Novalis’ mind, the cosmopolitan utopia could not be separated from Christian eschatology and the spiritual dimension. It is not something we can “push” on other people, but one that can guide our own innermost vision.

The ideal is a new society based on personal transformation, an aspiration to peace, harmony, tolerance, inclusion and understanding rather than competition and the lust for money and power. In the political world after World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, cosmopolitanism was certainly at the root of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. Again we are faced with the choice of it being about humanity or the brutality of the strongest over the whole world. Globalism can be something very frightening, but so can nationalism and parochialism.

It goes back much further than Romanticism or the Enlightenment, among the Stoics of ancient Greece. We find a “circle” model of identity by which we understand ourselves, our families, our local community, our country and finally the world of humanity as a whole. Saint Paul in the Christian tradition affirmed that we are brothers, sons of God, not foreigners. We are citizens of one world. Before Schlegel and Novalis, Kant saw a role in cosmopolitanism for preventing war, the very founding notion of the European Union. He mentioned the “principle of universal hospitality”, the earth and its resources belonging to the entire human race. Here I would object to such a notion because nature has right and is not intrinsically property.

Cosmopolitanism is also found in modern French Deconstructionalism and the foundation of ethics being our response to the Other. That sounds very abstract, but philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida might be alluding to empathy and our capacity of feeling the needs and sufferings of another human being. On the surface, that seems to be a good foundation. Derrida like Kant emphasised hospitality, welcoming another person into our home. We immediately recoil from the risk of accepting someone who would rob us, kill us, cause harm to our families. At the same time, isolation is no solution. How do we accept the other and prudently determine conditions to protect ourselves from evil? The most fundamental conditions would seem to be that the person is a citizen of his own country and that he is being allowed to stay as a guest or a visitor.

As mentioned, the European ideal came out of the Romantic and Idealist reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and was strengthened by the victory over Nazi barbarianism and crimes against humanity. I heartily recommend seeing the film Nuremberg made in 2000. That trial taught us not only that those who wage aggressive war will be personally punished for it, but also that we have a responsibility for all mankind. The first concern of the cosmopolitan is to end war and bring about peace between us all.

Some feel aware of a positive identity as world citizens and the need to harmonise all local cultures and practical needs. As we see the number of international organisations that exist since 1945, we begin to understand that globalism tends to narrow everything down to money and trade and forgets culture and human needs. This is also the unfortunate tendency of the European Union that causes concern. One cause of warfare and atrocity is the banalisation of evil and the refusal of the quality of humanity in the other for whatever reason. The same result is obtained by depriving a person or a community of their livelihood through greed and corruption.

We live at a time when (we are told) thousand and millions of refugees and immigrants are entering Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Most are Muslims and their paradigm of life is similar to our pre-Enlightenment way in Europe. Infidels must be killed so that nothing may come in the way to submission to Allah. Seventeenth century Christian Puritanism was no different, any more than the Inquisition “cleaning out” Cathars and reverts to Islam and Judaism. Are all Muslims attached to such a paradigm? I don’t think so, and I must emphasise that my criticism concerns their philosophy of life, and not their race or right to practice their religion in a free world. What do we do when they fail to respect us, when they commit acts of violence? These are issues at the root of the current resurgence of nationalism, populism and even forms of neo-Nazism in some places.

A challenge we have to face is seeing through prejudice caused by inaccurate news reports and to venture into the unknown. As a seminarian, I often wandered into the “Arabic” (Algerian or Moroccan in reality) districts of Marseilles. This was in the early 1990’s, and I found that they respected the cassock, something like the thobe they wear. I bought spices and other things in their shops and was quite fascinated by this other way of life in a French city. I have known Brick Lane and the Pakistani community in London, the West Indians of Brixton, and felt stimulated. It was something else that drove me to Europe. I have always known that when those people need to live in Europe, it is because Europe ruined the lives they led in their places of origin.

Could cosmopolitanism be itself a form of colonisation by European values, along with democracy and Christianity, over other parts of the world? It is a good question. The problem is that it is moulded against a backdrop of nationalism and the sovereign state. Is there an alternative, like an alternative to the traditional family of husband, wife and their biological offspring? What about anarchism, the freedom of the individual and the absence of coercion and interference – except in cases of violence? Where are the lines drawn? Humans can be very clever at cheating and stealing without appearing to be doing so! This problem of limits often justifies the curtailing of freedom of religions, native languages and culture. Brexit is now threatening the free movement of people in Europe that accompanies the border-free use of the Internet by which ideas are sent and received across the world instantly. I am increasingly sceptical about the nation-state. What do we replace it with? Tribes? Cantons like in Switzerland? How do we keep corruption and evil out of big institutions like the UN or the EU?

I think we need to travel and see more of the world for ourselves, not as tourists looking into the cages of a zoo, but living among the peoples of the world. My brother has been to Nepal and India, but I have only been to some European countries and to the USA for four short visits. Travel is expensive and can be dangerous, and most of us are not nineteenth-century dilettantes. Flying is one of the most painful experiences I have had, not so much from the possibility the plane might crash, but from the invasive security procedures at airports and people being treated like cattle for processing. We can go to “foreign” districts of our own cities with an open and respectful mind, and we might learn something.

What about multiculturalism? That idea seems to presuppose that we still have a culture. Our Christianity has nearly died out. Many of us are afraid of being replaced by Muslims and everything reverting to a way of life like in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, women treated as chattel, public executions being a routine part of life, abolition of music and alcohol, etc. Since the advent of Romanticism, the notion of the individual has taken over, and this has brought both good and bad. Jacques Maritain along with other French philosophers integrated such ideas into his integral humanism. Maritain reacted away from nationalist integralism as had François Mitterand in his time. Maritain had a considerable amount of influence on Pope Paul VI, whilst Mitterand turned to Socialism. We find here the quest for individual rights and human dignity as the building block of the society that was no longer Christian, but keeping some of the tenets like the intrinsic value of the person even when that person is weak.

What of the world state, a “new world order” which is a subject of discussion among conspiracy theorists? Is it something that is inevitable and has to be influenced by good rather than evil? We have to remember that as much evil can corrupt the nation state, and become a reason for declaring war to protect peaceful and democratic countries.

At the risk of imposing European philosophy worldwide, there are certain questions that cannot be negotiated, such as the intrinsic value of the human person and human dignity. How can these notions be understood in different cultures, value systems and religious doctrines? There is also the integrity of the natural world and its rights, with which we share our life. Are western values the only yardstick? What is obviously needed is for us to understand each other whilst respecting all systems of values and culture and being ourselves.

I see a danger in the rise of populism because I have read the history (cf. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany) of what happened between 1919 and 1933, the year when Hitler got elected as Chancellor of Germany. The whole scenario was made possible by the consequences of World War I and a cultural background going back centuries. Nuremberg had to mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new cosmopolitanism. The British Empire evaporated and France lost Algeria. We baby boomers contested everything in the 1960’s even if some of us were no more than spoiled brats. At this very day, I feel at a watershed between the two ways the world can go – back to the era of the dictatorships or seeing the achievements of the past becoming shitholes and post-apocalyptic scenes of misery.

I could see the nation-states in Europe being something like the Cantons of Switzerland, keeping local culture and language, but reinforcing the federal union. The reality of the European Union is incredibly complex, and it leaves me confused. Criticisms of it are contradictory and biased. I am not sure that political cosmopolitanism would ever be good and lead to a better world, any more than nation-states at war with each other and stealing other countries to make their empires.

I fear that nationalism and populism will win out, and we face more suffering like in Europe a hundred years ago. The appearance will not be the same, any more than the technology. Even Orwell’s nightmare will be outdated, and the evil will ooze into our lives from where we don’t expect it. For my own part, I can only be myself and express what I believe, and maybe someone will kill me for it. The dream must continue even when it is opposed and annihilated by sin and the self-styled Ubermensch. I end this piece with a note of sadness as autumn begins to rob our days of light. Hope can only begin with within, just like the Kingdom of God.

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