Nations: Grown or Imagined?
November 25, 2022

Romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder, developed an organic conception of nationhood. For Herder, a nation is an extended family, and so a perfect nation, the most natural state, is “one nation, an extended family with one national character." (I rely on this essay by Richard White.)

People have a visceral connection with their native land: “Some sensitive people feel so intimately close to their native country, and so much attached to its soil, that they can scarcely live if separated from it.” This is connected with Herder’s understanding of artistic genius: An artist must be rooted in or attuned to the spirit of his people, and his genius lies in the fact that he gives expression to national genius. Each of the nations is an expression of a more general human nature, of humanitat, the human essence.

Specifically, a nation is a people that shares a common tradition, a way of life and a collective memory, and especially a common language. Language is the power that integrates people into a particular community: “For every distinct community is a nation, having its own national culture as it has its own language. The climate, it is true, may imprint on each its peculiar stamp, or it may spread over it a slight veil, without destroying, however, its original national character.”

Because each national culture and language is different, it’s virtually impossible to impose an alien culture on a people. It shouldn’t be attempted. Nations should live peaceably with their differences: “Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purpose of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one sceptre. A human sceptre is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it. Such states are but patched-up contraptions, fragile machines, appropriately called state-machines, for they are wholly devoid of inner life, and their component parts are connected through mechanical contrivances instead of bonds of sentiment.”

Herder was skeptical of the universal claims of Enlightenment, and the cosmopolitan political aspirations that often went with it. Reason, he argued, cannot be so universal: “After dozens of attempts, I find myself unable to comprehend how reason can be presented so universally as the single summit and purpose of all human culture, all happiness, all good. Is the whole body just one big eye? Would it not suffer if every part, the hand and the foot had to serve as the eye and the brain? Reason, too carelessly, too uselessly diffused, may well weaken desires, instincts and vital activity—in fact, has already done so.”

Along similar lines, Herder wrote that the savage with his particular loves was actually more humane and hospitable than the cosmopolitan: “The savage who loves himself, his wife, and child, with quiet joy, and glows with limited activity for his tribe as for his own life, is, in my opinion, a more real being than that cultivated shadow, who is enraptured with the love of the shades of his whole species, that is of a name. The savage has room in his hut for every stranger, whom he receives as his brother with calm benevolence, and asks not whence he comes. The deluged heart of the idle cosmopolite is a hut for no-one” (quoted in Elie Kedouri, Nationalism, 57).

This has proven to be a powerful argument. The Nazis claimed Herder's thought as a source for their own racial program. Kedouri (Nationalism, 72) writes that the “Nazis only simplified and debased the ideas implicit in the writings of Herder and others.” In fact, multiculturalists (anthropologists and other social scientists as well) have a better claim to be heirs to Herder. His intent was to describe the uniqueness of each national culture, not to promote any notion of cultural superiority.

Yet Herder’s views on national cultures are historically and theoretically questionable. He didn’t give sufficient attention, as White points out, to the internal diversity of the national cultures he describes. He instead depicts them as homogenous entities. Further, he describes national cultures as being organic products of organic growth over time and not as the result of conscious choices and plotting by interested elites.

Benedict Anderson gives a very different outlook on the development of nationalism in his Imagined Communities. As Anderson points out, nations are imagined communities in a quite literal sense: We cannot ever see the nation all at once, so we have to imagine the nation as a community: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).

Nations are also imagined as “limited.” A nation isn't coextensive with mankind. Only a portion of the human race qualifies as nation. It is imagined as sovereign. It is imagined as a community because “the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,” despite the fact that it is a complex of hierarchies and classes (7).

Anderson isn't offended by this imagination of nations. He doesn’t think this makes nations false or pretend. Nations are fabricated, products of human action and decision, and also human imagination. That's just the way nations are.

Language, which Herder identified as the key distinguishing mark of a national culture, is one of the clear and obvious places where human choice and imagination comes in is in the realm of language. National languages aren’t permanent fixtures. National languages are political, artificial, entities.

In many cases, national languages emerge initially as languages of state, as administrative languages. Anderson writes,

“Prior to the Norman Conquest, the language of the court, literary and administrative, was Anglo-Saxon. For the next century and a half virtually all royal documents were composed in Latin. Between about 1200 and 1350 this state-Latin was superseded by Norman French. In the meantime, a slow fusion between this language of a foreign ruling class and the Anglo-Saxon of the subject population produced Early English. The fusion made it possible for the new language to take its turn, after 1362, as the language of the courts - and for the opening of Parliament. Wycliffe's vernacular manuscript Bible followed in 1382. It is essential to bear in mind that this sequence was a series of ‘state,' not ‘national,' languages; and that the state concerned covered at various times not only today's England and Wales, but also portions of Ireland, Scotland and France. Obviously, huge elements of the subject populations knew little or nothing of Latin, Norman French, or Early English. Not till almost a century after Early English’s political enthronement was London’s power swept out of ‘France’” (41).

French became the language of the courts of justice in 1539.

During the nineteenth century, language became even more overtly a political concern, as nineteenth century dynasts fought off incursions of competing languages into their realms. The languages that ultimately became national languages weren’t simply languages of convenience or administration. They were imposed on an often unwilling population.

(Anderson recognizes the complications: There are nations where only a small portion of the population speaks the language of print and power on a daily basis, and there are nations that share a print language with other nations—English-speaking nations share a print language though they're different national units.)

Neither in the late medieval period, nor in the nineteenth century, did language grow up from the soil of a nation in the way that Herder imagined. Since national languages emerge from this complex, interested, political process, it's implausible to think the national cultures expressed by these languages are the product of “natural” growth.

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