What is so important about the existence of nations? Throughout history, humans have formed groups of various kinds around criteria that are used to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. One such group is the nation. Many thousands, indeed millions, have died in wars on behalf of their nation, as they did in World Wars I and II during the 20th century, perhaps the cruellest of all centuries. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to understand what a nation is: this tendency of humanity to divide itself into distinct, and often conflicting, groups.
Evidence of humans forming large, territorially distinct societies can be observed from our first written records. Writings from the Sumerian civilization of the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from approximately 2500 BCE record beliefs that distinguished the ‘brothers of the sons of Sumer’, those of Sumerian ‘seed’, from foreigners. During the 16th century BCE, Egyptians thought themselves to be distinct from both the ‘Asiatics’ to their east and the Nubians to their south.
I [the Egyptian Pharaoh Ka-mose] should like to know for what purpose is my strength . . . I sit here
while both an Asiatic and a Nubian have his slice of Egypt . . . A man cannot dwell properly when despoiled by the taxes of the savages. I will grapple with him, and rip open his belly. My wish is to save Egypt and to smite the Asiatics.From a speech of Pharaoh Ka-mose
In the early Chinese writings from the period of the Warring States (481–221 BCE) to the Qin and Han Periods (221 BCE to 220 CE), distinctions were drawn between the self-described superior Chinese and those who were viewed by them to be less than human aliens, the Di and the Rohn. In the tenth chapter of the book of Genesis, there is recognition of territorial and linguistic divisions of humanity into what the ancient Israelites called gôyim.
These are the sons of Shem according to their clans and languages, in their lands according to their nations (gôyim). These are the clans of the sons of Noah according to their lineage in their nations (gôyim).Genesis 10:31–32
In the 5th century BCE, the historian Herodotus asserted a ‘common Greekness’ among the Hellenes.
Then there is our common Greekness: we are one in blood and one in language; those shrines of the gods belong to us [both the Spartans and the Athenians] all in common, and the sacrifices in common and there are our habits, bred of a common upbringing.Herodotus, The History
Plato and Aristotle divided humanity between Hellenes and bárbaroi, the barbarian peoples from Asia Minor. The Greek ‘bárbaros’ may have its origin as an onomatopoeic designation for the foreign speech of the peoples from Asia Minor that was incomprehensible to the Hellenes. However, in the aftermath of Greek wars with Persia, it acquired a tone of contempt that continues to this day in our use of the term ‘barbarian’. Moreover, in his description of the ideal republic, Plato described a familiarity that bound together all those born as Hellenes, as if they were all members of the same familial household. As a consequence, he thought the barbarians were not only foreign to the Hellenes but also their enemies by ‘nature’.
I assert that the Greek stock (génos) is, with respect to itself, its own [as if of the same household] and akin; and with respect to the barbarian, foreign and alien. Then when Greeks fight with barbarians and barbarians with Greeks, we’ll assert that they are at war and are enemies by nature.Plato, The Republic
Such divisions, where one group differentiates itself from and opposes another, continue at the beginning of the 21st century: both Chechens and Ukrainians consider themselves to be different from Russians; Kurds distinguish themselves from both Iraqis and Turks; the Taiwanese seek an existence separate from mainland China; Slovaks and Czechs have separated, forming distinct national states; Kashmir is considered by some not to be part of India; and so on.
Having recognized this, it must also be acknowledged that human beings exhibit another tendency, when they engage in activities in which it seems not to matter who were their parents, where they where born, or what language they speak. These activities, rather than asserting divisions within humanity, bring people together. For example, scientists are concerned with understanding the physical facts of the universe, such as the nature of light. Light itself is not English, French, or German; and there is no English, French, or German scientific method. There is only science. To speak of a supposedly racial or national scientific method, as when the Nazis insisted that there was an ‘Aryan science’, is to betray the character of science by introducing considerations that have no place in understanding the physical aspects of the universe. Other notable examples of activities and their corresponding conceptions that bring humans together are the monotheistic religions and commerce. Furthermore, throughout history, empires, such as the Roman and Ottoman, have sought to unify their peoples as a political alternative to nations. Thus, while an individual often understands himself or herself as a member of a particular nation, one may also recognize oneself as a part of humanity.
If a proper examination of the question ‘what is a nation?’ requires consideration of the tendency of humans to assert distinctions, then it must also take into account those activities that unify humanity.
To fail to do so will only result in a misapprehension of the significance of the nation in human affairs. We are concerned, above all, with the question ‘what does the existence of nations tell us about human beings?’ But what is a nation, and what is nationalism?
Many wrongly use the term ‘nationalism’ as a synonym for ‘nation’. Nationalism refers to a set of beliefs about the nation. Any particular nation will contain differing views about its character; thus, for any nation there will be different and competing beliefs about it that often manifest themselves as political differences.
Some may view their nation as standing for individual liberty, while others may be willing to sacrifice that liberty for security. Some may welcome immigrants, and support policies that make it easy for them to become citizens; while others may be hostile to immigration. To take another example, consider disputes today in India. Some members of that nation have a narrow, intolerant view
of their country by insisting that it should have only one religion, Hinduism; while others think that there should be freedom of religion such that Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are rightly members of the nation.
Distinctive of nationalism is the belief that the nation is the only goal worthy of pursuit – an assertion that often leads to the belief that the nation demands unquestioned and uncompromising loyalty. When such a belief about the nation becomes predominant, it can threaten individual liberty. Moreover, nationalism often asserts that other nations are implacable enemies to one’s own nation; it injects hatred of what is perceived to be foreign, whether another nation, an immigrant, or a person who may practise another religion or speak a different language. Of course, one need not view one’s own nation and its relation to other nations in such a manner. In contrast to nationalism, the nation is a particular kind of society.