What is a Nation?

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What is a Nation? (Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?)[1] is an 1882 essay by French historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892), known for the statements that a nation is "a daily referendum", and that nations are based as much on what the people jointly forget, as what they remember. It is frequently quoted or anthologized in works of history or political science pertaining to nationalism. Renan wrote "What is a Nation" in order to symbolize the nationalism which was born in France as a result of the French Revolution of 1789. [2]

Nationhood in antiquity and in Renan's time[edit]

Renan begins his essay by noting that there is frequent confusion between the idea of nationhood and of racial or linguistic groupings, a form of confusion which he says can produce "the gravest errors". He promises to conduct an autopsy-like examination, "in an absolutely cold and impartial fashion" nations existing at the time of writing in 1882, such as France, Germany, England and Russia, will continue to exist for hundreds of years, and that any nation trying to dominate them will be quickly pushed back to its own borders, by a coalition of other nations. "The establishment of a new Roman empire, or a new empire of Charlemagne, has become impossible." Renan observes that the idea of a nation, as currently used, basical area there could be no real shared identity of its subjects.

Renan believed that nations developed from the common needs of the people, who consisted of different social groups seeking a "collective identity". He praises the eighteenth century for its achievements in regards to humanity and the restoration of the pure identity of man, one which was free from misconceptions and socially established variances. Renan discredits the theory that race is the basis for the unification of people. It is important to note that France was quite racially diverse during the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, but it nevertheless managed to set the stage for nationalism. Renan also asserts that neither language nor religion are basis for solidarity because language “invites people to unite, but does not force them to do so” and "religion has become an individual matter" For example, the United States and England both speak English but do not constitute a single, united nation and countries no longer operate on the notion of religions operating against each other, forcing people to choose between one or the other.

Renan noted that a unique element of the European nation-forming experience was the mixture of races, origins and religions, where conquering people often adopted the religion and manners, and married the women, of the peoples they conquered. He notes that France was quite racially diverse during the French Revolution. For example, "at the end of one or two generations, the Norman invaders were indistinguishable from the rest of the population". Nonetheless, they had a profound influence, bringing with them "a nobility of military habit, a patriotism" which did not exist before.

Forgetfulness[edit]

Renan then states what has become one of the most famous and enduring ideas of the essay. "Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation." Historical research, by revealing unwanted truths, can even endanger nationhood. All nations, even the most benevolent in later practice, are founded on acts of violence, which are then forgotten. "Unity is always achieved by brutality: the joining of the north of France with the center was the result of nearly a century of extermination and terror". He believes that people unite in their memories of suffering because alleviating grief requires a “common effort” which serves as a foundation for unity. Members of a community feel as though they have accomplished something great when they are able to survive in adverse conditions. He gives some examples of countries like Turkey and Bohemia where there is rigid stratification, or where different communities are played off against one another, and where the homogenization of different groups could not take place, resulting in a failure of nationhood. This leads to one of the most frequently quoted statements in the essay:

Now, the essence of a nation is that the people have many things in common, but have also forgotten much together. No French citizen knows if he is Burgundian, Alain, Taifale, Visigoth; every French citizen must have forgotten the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the massacres in the Midi in the 13th century.

Organising principles of nationhood[edit]

While many nations, such as France, begin with a feudal regime such as a monarchy, others, such as the United States and Switzerland, are formed by acts of consensual aggregation. France and many others, however, survived their feudal roots while maintaining their identity. Renan inquires what is the organizing principle? It can't be race, because France is "Celt, Iberian, German....The most noble countries, England, France and Italy, are the ones where the blood is most mixed." Language, by contrast, "invites us but does not force us, to unite". Countries which share the Spanish or English language don't merge with one another, while the people of Switzerland speak several languages. Modern nationhood also cannot be based on religion, which Renan observes, is currently practiced according to individual belief. "You can be French, English, German, yet Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or practicing no religion". Mutuality of interests is fine for corporations and their affiliates, but nationality is based on sentiment. Geography merely leads us astray, and often to violence: "Mountains don't know how to carve out countries".

A "spiritual principle"[edit]

Renan concludes that a nation is

a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which are really one, constitute this soul and spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other, the present. One is the possession in common of a rich trove of memories; the other is actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the undivided, shared heritage....To have had glorious moments in common in the past, a common will in the present, to have done great things together and to wish to do more, those are the essential conditions for a people. We love the nation in proportion to the sacrifices to which we consented, the harms that we suffered.

Continued consent[edit]

A very important element of nationhood, says Renan, is the desire to continue forming part of the nation. Renan's second frequently quoted statement is:

The existence of a nation (you will pardon me this metaphor) is a daily referendum,[3] just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.

This leads Renan to the conclusion that "A nation never has a veritable interest in annexing or keeping another region against the wishes of its people". In other words, areas such as states or provinces which wish to secede, should be permitted to do so. "If doubts arise about national borders, consult the population of the area in dispute. They have the right to an opinion on the issue."

Renan concludes that nationhood is not an eternal concept, but changes over time (like everything else in this world). "A European confederation will probably replace the nations of today". At the current time, however, the existence of separate nations serves to guarantee liberty, in a way which would be lost if the whole world served under one law and one master. "Each brings one note to the great concert of humanity..."

Legacy and criticism[edit]

Political historian Karl Deutsch, in a quote sometimes mistakenly attributed to Renan, said that a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours".[4]

Benedict Anderson's 1983 work Imagined Communities, which states that a nation is an "imagined political community", argues that Renan contradicts himself when he says French people must have forgotten the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, yet does not explain what it is. In other words, Renan assumes that all his readers will remember the very massacre he says they have forgotten. Anderson also points out that the reason many French citizens of Renan's time knew anything of these massacres was because they learned of them in state-run schools. Thus, the state itself preserved the knowledge which needed to be forgotten for national identity.[5]

In a 1995 book, "For Love of Country: an essay on patriotism and nationalism", Maurizio Viroli called Renan's essay "the most influential late nineteenth-century interpretation of the meaning of nation", because of its focus on the "spiritual principle" as opposed to race, religion or geography.[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ernest Renan, "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?", conference faite en Sorbonne, le 11 Mars 1882, Accessed January 13, 2011
  2. ^ Google Books search on "qu'est-ce qu'une nation?" http://www.google.com/search?q=%22Qu%27est-ce+gu%27une+nation&tbs=bks%3A1&tbo=1#sclient=psy&hl=en&tbo=1&tbs=bks:1&q=%22Qu%27est-ce+qu%27une+nation%22&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&pbx=1&fp=5350378400f9f42d Accessed January 13, 2011
  3. ^ Frequently translated as "daily plebiscite".
  4. ^ Nationalism and its Alternatives ISBN 0-394-43763-2
  5. ^ Anderson, Benedict R. O'G. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed. London: Verso, 1991) pp.. 199-201. ISBN 978-0-86091-546-1
  6. ^ Oxford:Oxford University Press 1995 p, 159, ISBN 0-19-829358-5 http://books.google.com/books?id=Y8crPCvAaNkC&pg=PA159&dq=%22Qu'est-ce+gu'une+nation&hl=en&ei=h14wTfaIFMnVgQfFlPC7Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CD8Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed January 13, 2011

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