Daily Archives: October 23, 2010

What makes a nation?

Man is designed by Nature to live in small groups (even today most of the world’s population live in small settlements despite millennia of urban settlement). Human beings are very large mammals which naturally seek a diet containing a good proportion of meat. Large mammals which rely on a substantial intake of meat are near the top of the food chain. They are necessarily few in number because the food they require is scarce. Hence, large agglomerations of humans are impossible without the greatly enhanced supplies of food produced by farming. The archaeological evidence supports this reasoning. Evidence of large human settlements is not found beyond, at best, 10,000 years ago (for example Jericho). The remains of large human settlements dated before 4000 BC are very rare.

Why have human beings formed larger groups than those in which they naturally lived for hundreds of millennia? The fact that Man is a social animal is, as our philosophical friends say, a necessary but not sufficient condition for such behaviour. It does not mean that men take easily to living in large groups, but it does provide the possibility of such social engagement. But because living in large groups is not natural to Man in the sense that his evolutionary history did not include such behaviour and because the complexity of life is greatly enhanced in large communities, he result is always imperfect. In a tribe of 500 it is easy to see how a sense of belonging and identity exists, because everyone will have a personal relationship of some sort with everyone else. In a group of 10,000 that is not possible in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, in a group of 10,000 the individual can still be practically aware of the group, for example through public meetings. With a group of a million the relationship between the group members becomes intellectual rather than personal or practical. That is when the problems start.

Man  can  create  such an  intellectual  sense  of  belonging  because he is self-conscious.  However,  this   consciousness also  provides the means to create distinctions between groups  of people. Hence war, tribalism, nationalism  and racism.

To  create  very  large  agglomerations  of  people  who  see themselves as part of a whole requires a core of values which are  accepted by generality of the population.  These  values may be religious,  as in the case of the mediaeval church and  Islam.  Then the sense of belonging is supranational,  indeed supracultural. But such feelings have always bowed before the   demands of family,  tribe, feudal lordship and nation.  Hence  the  failure  of the mediaeval church’s claim  to  supremacy;  hence the mutual antipathy of many Muslim peoples  throughout       history.   National identity does not consist of  clone  like  similitude,  but  it does require  a sense of  belonging,  an          instinctive   recognition  of  those  included   within   the  parameters of a national group.

 Taking the evidence of history as a whole,  it is  reasonable to conclude that  there is an inherent tendency within  human  society to  attempt to create ever larger units of  political  authority.   However,  like all behavioural  traits   in  the  natural world, it is no more than a tendency and there is  an  opposed    tendency   for  large   political   groupings   to  disintegrate  if  sufficient cultural  homogeneity  does  not  exist.  It is noteworthy that empires have been markedly less durable  than  nations throughout  history.  Nations  survive defeat, enslavement and centuries of oppressions. Empires may mutate as the Russian  did from Tsarist to Soviet,  but  they  cannot  withstand successful conquest. Then they  always  die and stay dead.

The components of national identity

National  identity  is most commonly presented  in  terms  of  such  banalities as “national dress” (often  a mark  of  past  servitude),  food  and crafts or in the  more  demanding  but still  narrow  world  of  High  Art.    Both  are  inadequate   explanations because they touch only a small portion of human existence.   To  find  the  answer  to  a  people’s  national  identity  one  must  look to   their  general  culture  which includes  at  its most  sophisticated,  science,  technology,    politics,   education,   sport,  history,   morals,   humour,  language. 

 From  the  general  culture comes what might  be  called  the secondary  human personality,  which is developed by  and  is  continually   developing  the  components  of   culture.   By  secondary  personality  I mean  a nurtured   overlay  on  the   innate  personality.  The  range of  basic  human  traits   –   aggressiveness,   placidity,  timidity, extroversion  and  so  forth  –  are universal.   But those qualities are  the  mere  skeletons  of minds.  Above them stand the  modifications  of  experience.   From   experience    develops   the   secondary  personality.  The social context of that experience  and  the  reflection   of   that  experience  through   the   secondary  personality creates culture,  is culture.

All  of  this  is not to say that the  material  and  mundane accoutrements  of a man’s life are completely unimportant  to the foundation of national identity. There are certain things which  are such a part of the warp and weft of  life  over  a  long  period  that  they acquire true  symbolic  value.  For example,   The wilful  destruction  in England  of their  historic  measures  which  arose  naturally  from man’s  everyday  needs   and  a coinage more than a thousand years old,  has helped undermine  the self confidence of a people who retained such things  not  out of backwardness,  but from a sense of national worth  and  importance.

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