Cosmopolitanism Revisited

I often meet people whose experience is restricted to their immediate community, their homes, families, places of work, everything that is familiar. They might go on a package tour or a cruise to an exotic place, but strictly as a tourist observing life from outside. I travel a lot less these days than when I was a young student, but the experience has marked me. I also remember my pain as a child feeling locked into a system of family life and school. In the end, I have only been to the USA four times for brief visits and to a few European countries, spending extended times in France, Italy and Switzerland. Am I qualified to discuss cosmopolitanism? I was born in a fairly small northern market town at the gateway to the Lake District. What a beautiful part of the country, and how privileged I was! On the other hand I was dismayed at the closed attitude of many people, concerned as they were only with the immediate and familiar.

A part of our current divided mind is the question of the European Union. From the 1970’s when we joined the Common Market, I was intrigued that we were beginning to open up to other parts of the world, not just to buy and sell, do business, but also to open ourselves to new experiences. My family began to venture out to summer holidays of the Continent, at least every two years. Each time we travelled, passport control and customs checks became increasingly relaxed – except when we returned to England. When I went to France for the first time on my own in 1982, I noticed that we didn’t even have our passports checked, and I was as much at home in France as in England. Of course, I had to learn the language. It was the beginning of a complete transformation of my life, certainly at the cost of feeling increasingly rootless.

This Sehnsucht for lands and experiences beyond our own was a characteristic of the English Romantics as they ventured beyond our shores. Shelley perished at sea off the Italian coast. Keats died from consumption in Rome and Byron passed away from illness as he stood with the Greeks against Turkish barbarity. On the other hand, Friedrich von Hardenberg was born and died in the same area of Saxony, and was one of the most outspoken of the Romantics for cosmopolitanism.

As we see the resurgence of nationalism and populism, we can appeal to Kant and the notion of human rights together with the urgent task of uniting nations. The Enlightenment gave us a notion of the universal, being better off united than divided and in conflict. Cosmopolitanism would go a step further and give us citizenship of the world rather than restrict us to our nation or tribe. Pauline Kleingeld, who wrote about Christenheit oder Europa by Novalis[1], also wrote an important article on cosmopolitanism in late eighteenth-century Germany[2]. The subject is quite complex as it spans political, philosophical and human / spiritual considerations. I recognise all the themes – moral, reform in the political and legal order, cultural pluralism, economics and a free market for all and the Romantic notion of humanity united by faith and love – in the present founding ideas of the European Union.

It is fairly accurate to describe Romanticism as a re-humanising and re-spiritualising of the Enlightenment. We are brought to think of John Keats and his early days as a medical student, and how he forsook the notion of the human body as a mere machine and gave priority to the notion of imagination. This is what we today would call consciousness. To be fully human, we need love, emotional bonds, beauty, faith and hope in humanity. The Romantics embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment: the individual person, freedom, limitations to authority and equality. However, these ideas had been reduced to an extremely intellectual and legalistic dimension. There needed to be a generous and human interpretation of these ideals.

Much of the Romantic reaction to the collapse of the old order and the Enlightenment led to a nationalistic aspiration, but not universally. The famous Christenheit oder Europa by Novalis Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801) appeared to be a naïve apologia for integralist Roman Catholicism, but contains a subtle cosmopolitan message. The central theme was Romantic to the core, an emphasis on emotion, spirit and imagination in the place of pure rationality and materialism. For this reason, the image of the European medieval period is a kind of parable to convey a longing for a cosmopolitan, global, spiritual community. Before Schlegel and Novalis, Kant saw a role in cosmopolitanism for preventing war, the very founding notion of the European Union. He mentioned the “principle of universal hospitality”, the earth and its resources belonging to the entire human race. Here I would object to such a notion because nature has rights and is not intrinsically property. We will find a strong emphasis on nature in English Romanticism.

Romanticism sought to promote the idea of a new world, a new utopia without too much thought for “reality”. In Novalis’ mind, the cosmopolitan utopia could not be separated from Christian eschatology and the spiritual dimension. It is not something we can “push” on other people, but one that can guide our own innermost vision. This is the kind of cosmopolitanism I would like to discuss in this essay. Philosophically, cosmopolitanism goes back much further than Romanticism or the Enlightenment, among the Stoics of ancient Greece. We find a “circle” model of identity by which we understand ourselves, our families, our local community, our country and finally the world of humanity as a whole. Saint Paul in the Christian tradition affirmed that we are brothers, sons of God, not foreigners. We are citizens of one world. This is a vital consideration in the Christian understanding of a universal Church.

Like in Romanticism in general, there was always in cosmopolitanism a spiritual and Christian notion and the revolt of men like Keats, Shelley and Byron. Could cosmopolitanism be a kind of “secular eschatology”? Maybe cosmopolitanism fulfils a part of the role played by religion and nationalism. We search for meaning in flawed and tragic humanity. Cosmopolitanism is often associated with secularism, the idea that religion declines as society modernises. One study that leans on this idea is M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism[3]. Does religion depend on nationalism and parochialism, or inversely, does cosmopolitanism depend on the absence of religion or at least a critical distance? Abrams sought to read a kind of spiritualised humanism into Romanticism, a reaction against modernity and the excesses of the Enlightenment. Could Romanticism be something marked by difference, tension and contestation at the level of ideology? He saw modernity as alienating and sought a way to restore culture without resorting to the particularism of religion. This aspiration would take the form of an earthly apocalypse, an eschatological view of a new age.

The subject of cosmopolitanism as with any other social structuring of humanity in nationalism, parochialism, tribalism and others is vast, but one to which I am strongly attracted through my own experience of life. It is partly motivated by the current emergence and mainstreaming of nationalism and populism as a reaction against mainstream party politics in Europe and other parts of the world. Perhaps I am writing from the “wrong side” of history as we face a very different world than what we have known since the end of World War II.

The idea is simple to express in that some people think or feel that they belong to a single “world city”, κοσμοπολίτης in Greek rather than a nation, tribe or more local kind of society. The difference becomes more pronounced in the rise of populism and accusations levelled against globalism portrayed as a kind of Orwellian dystopia and the world owned by a few billionaires. It is for this reason that I felt the need to reduce the extent of my work and limit myself to a more philosophical and theological dimension rather than attempt to penetrate into the world of politics and economics.

One thing I have discovered in life is that anything taken to its extreme consequences or logical limit loses credibility and validity. This caricaturing of positions is usually at the root of political polemics and debate, and little progress can be made. Each of us will certainly contain elements of both an aspiration to universality and loyalty to the local society of our origins. When that local society begins to stifle us through parochialism and bigotry, we feel driven to escape. When we find ourselves rootless, we become nostalgic for our origins.

Cosmopolitanism is also found in modern French Deconstructionalism and the foundation of ethics being our response to the Other. That sounds very abstract, but philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida might be alluding to empathy and our capacity of feeling the needs and sufferings of another human being. On the surface, that seems to be a good foundation. Derrida like Kant emphasised hospitality, welcoming another person into our home. We immediately recoil from the risk of accepting someone who would rob us, kill us, cause harm to our families. At the same time, isolation is no solution. How do we accept the other and prudently determine conditions to protect ourselves from evil? The most fundamental conditions would seem to be that the person is a citizen of his own country and that he is being allowed to stay as a guest or a visitor.

As mentioned, the European ideal came out of the Romantic and Idealist reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and was strengthened by the victory over Nazi barbarianism and crimes against humanity. The first concern of the cosmopolitan is to end war and bring about peace between us all. Cosmopolitanism must be essentially philosophical before it branches off into politics and economics. Otherwise its meaning becomes distorted and incomprehensible and self-contradicting. I have the impression that the philosophical dimension was largely lacking in the communal and anarchist movements of the 1960’s. It can also be a question of individual philosophy and social theory, and it become complex and opaque.

The Romantics were among the first to begin travelling the world in search of other cultures and ways of life. It was a preserve of the wealthy in those days. There was always a difference between going to live abroad and visiting places as a tourist. Modern mass tourism isolates the tourists from the local culture that earns its living from entertaining them. What happens when “they” come and live in Europe and we find ourselves in a multi-cultural world? Was ancient Israel not cosmopolitan when many people gathered for the Pascha at the Temple? Does not the same thing happen at Christian places of pilgrimage?

It is my hope that this short piece will revive something of our aspirations in the 1960’s and a vision of something greater than ourselves. I fear that a revival of nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and fanaticism will win out. The future is uncertain as Christianity and other religions are assimilated by such ideologies.

[1] Pauline Kleingeld, Romantic Cosmopolitanism: Novalis’s “Christianity or Europe” in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 46, no. 2 (2008), pp 269–84.

[2] Pauline Kleingeld, Six varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany in: Journal of the History of Ideas, 60 (1999), pp 505-524.

[3] M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, New York 1971.

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4 Responses to Cosmopolitanism Revisited

  1. Stephen K says:

    I have the impression that the philosophical dimension was largely lacking in the communal and anarchist movements of the 1960’s.

    I don’t know why you would have that impression. There was a frequent common thread of opposition to capitalism and social inequality, no doubt inspired by communist and re-visionist Christianity. There was definitely a philosophy to ‘love, peace and brother/sisterhood”.

    I came across a reference to an abstract of a PhD thesis at

    Lee, Sangdon (2016) The Commune Movement during the 1960s and the 1970s in Britain, Denmark and the United States. PhD thesis, University of Leeds. – “…….. Challenging existing interpretations which have understood the communal revival as an alternative living experiment to the nuclear family, or as a smaller part of the counter-culture, this thesis argues that the commune participants created varied and new experiments for a total revolution against the prevailing social order and its dominant values and institutions, including the patriarchal family and capitalism. Communards embraced autonomy and solidarity based on individual communes’ situations and tended to reject charismatic leadership. Functioning as an independent entity, each commune engaged with their local communities designing various political and cultural projects. They interacted with other social movements groups through collective work for the women’s liberation and environmentalist movement. As a genuine grass root social movement communal activism became an essential part of Left politics bridging the 1960s and 1970s.

    Philosophy is not the exclusive domain of traditionalists – which, put like that, could be thought somewhat oxymoronic!

    • I am always open to being convinced to the contrary. I was only a small boy in the 1960’s and had a taste of this kind of culture in 1971 when I went to Wennington School in Yorkshire. I do think that many of the themes came from Romanticism. Byron’s little group of poets in Switzerland in the gloomy summer of 1816 was the equivalent of a little Hippie commune, except with a little more money. Coleridge smashed his brain out with drugs and sensations. Traditional authoritarian Christianity makes an absolute of the nuclear family, but when things go wrong in families, they really go wrong. The commune to replace the family is an interesting idea, but, again, it can go very wrong when strong personalities find their way to achieve power and money. Revolutions are wonderful until the Jacobins get into power! Then heads roll…

      The intentional community is the present-day version. See Diggers and Dreamers. It’s great until the wrong people get involved, like unsuitable people in religious communities. How do you avoid the need for an authoritarian and charismatic leader to whom everyone owes complete obedience? Many such communities do operate like totalitarian cults, but not all. The best communities are those that are not open to new members or which have a very long “novitiate” system.

      There are communities and communities. Some are more intellectual. Others are simply concerned for growing food and simple living with as little bullshit as possible.

      • Stephen K says:

        No argument with anything you say My point was simply to maintain that those not set up cynically by petty tyrants were underpinned by a genuine philosophy.

      • The problem is not only in the leadership. I went to visit a very pleasant English gentleman in his château in France who is working towards this kind of ideal. There was one of the most unpleasant men I have ever come across in my life staying there. I think he was probably a schizophrenic, and the château owner took years to ascertain that this person was an extremely harmful influence. It takes one person to ruin everything, just like in a nuclear family. It seems you just can’t get round human nature! “Là où Dieu a son Eglise, le Diable a sa chapelle” or in the original English form: “Where God hath his Church, the Devil will have his chappel“.

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