The Enlightenment Against Nations and Peoples

Thomas Fleming

By

May 1, 2019

Long before there were nation-states, ethnic and national identities have been an almost universal phenomenon in human history. Like marriage and family, self-defense and revenge, the sense of ethnic identity is of a natural growth and fulfills natural needs.  By natural, I am not referring exclusively or even primarily to the simple impulses of natural needs that inspires some primitives to grub for roots, couple with abandon, and kill anyone who robs them of their roots or their women.  Roman  marriage law, French cuisine, and English justice are expressions just as natural—however they refined they be—as primitive customs they have improved upon.

As an ideological movement, however, nationalism is not a spontaneous growth or a natural development from the nation-state.  Ideological nationalism is a response, admittedly distorted, to internationalism, whose origins I sketched out in previous installments.  Although the roots of internationalism go back to the Stoic theory of world-citizenship and to the reality of Europe unified under the Roman Empire, modern internationalism is a more recent production, a political substitute for the unity of Christendom that was shattered by the Schism of the Church, the establishment of various national churches in England, Germany, Switzerland, and the rise of powerful national states.

Large nation states began to take shape in the later Middle Ages for different reasons.  One obvious reason is security: Anglo-Saxons unified their part of the island against the repeated invasions from which they suffered; Catholic Spaniards labored for centuries to unify their country against the Moorish Muslims who oppressed them.  In France, Bourbon kings of the 17th and 18th century worked to repress the religious feuds and the threat to their authority posed by powerful regional nobles.  

The internationalist movement, however, is almost as old.  Although it is often described as an expression of disgust with war and religious intolerance—and there is a large element of truth in that interpretation—the international ideology is also part of a more general tendency toward western self-loathing.  When a French intellectual looked in the mirror in 1600, he saw a Frenchman and a Christian where he would have liked to have seen a Greek pagan.  Since the Church was still powerful, few intellectuals were as mad as Giordano Bruno, who was justly burned at the stake in 1600, for his neopagan notions.  Instead, the intellectuals became sly and ironic.  From Montaigne on, intellectuals began subjecting Catholic France to imaginary visitors from Latin America, Persia, and China, all of whom expressed astonishment at the silly religion, false reverence to the king, and loyalty to the great nation.  

Of these philosophes, Voltaire was perhaps the most evil and the most seductive.  Outwardly proclaiming his rational allegiance to king, church, and nation, he was forever egging on his friends and followers to find ways of undermining faith in the “Consubstantiel (the incarnate Word) and loyalty to the crown.  His entry in the Philosophical Dictionary on “Patrie” is instructive:

A young journeyman pastry cook who had been to college, and who still knew a few of Cicero's phrases, boasted one day of loving his fatherland. "What do you mean by your fatherland'?" a neighbor asked him. "Is it your oven? Is it the village where you were born and which you have never seen since? Is it the street where dwelled your father and mother who have been ruined and have reduced you to baking little pies for a living? Is it the town hall where you will never be a police superintendent's clerk? Is it the Church of Our Lady where you have not been able to become a choirboy, while an absurd man is archbishop and duke with an income of twenty thousand golden louis?"

The journeyman pastry cook did not know what to answer. A thinker who was listening to this conversation, concluded that in a fatherland of some extent there were often many thousand men who had no fatherland.

Frenchmen, the intellectual argued, do not even know the different parts of their own country, while the exploiting classes—financiers, soldiers, the nobility all treat the people of the fatherland as enemies to ruin.  Your true fatherland is wherever you are comfortable, no matter what country you are in. Voltaire, who followed his own advice and went to live first in Prussia, then in Switzerland, concludes by saying: “He who should wish his fatherland might never be greater, smaller, richer, poorer, would be the citizen of the world.”

For Christians who have been misled by heretical pastors, globalism might seem to be a somewhat unrealistic aspiration to realizing the Kingdom of God in a fallen world.  For modern intellectuals, who trace their ancestry back to the Enlightenment, the origin is hatred:  Hatred of man made in the image of God, hatred of the God who took on human form, hatred of Christianity in all its more traditional forms, hatred of  all the institutions and traditions of the West that used to be known as Christendom.  In the end, they have to hate--without understanding why or how or even that they hate--of those three aspects our Lord declared:  The Way, the Truth, and the Life.  They must destroy the Way--the Scriptures and the Churches that rest on them--because they lead in the opposite direction from Marx and Rousseau.  They instinctively loathe the life given to babies, because that life reminds them of the responsibilities it entails.  And the truth--to the extent that they can perceive it--is the light shining into their darkness and dispersing it.

Next up:  "Adam Smith--The Father of Global Capitalism

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    The end of the last paragraph was cut off.