WHAT IS A NATION ?
Ernest RenanAbout - Ernest Renan
WHAT IS A NATION ?
...A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present- day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion.
Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are.
A heroic past, great men, and glory constitute the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more-these are the essential conditions for being a people.
More valuable is the fact of sharing, in the past, a glorious heritage and regrets, and of having, in the future, [a shared] programme to put into effect, or the fact of having suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.
A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation's existence is the result of a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.
The nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very probably replace them. But such is not the law of the century in which we are living. At the present time, the existence of nations is a good thing, a necessity even. Their existence is the guarantee of liberty, which would be lost if the world had only one law and only one master.
Nations participate in the common work of civilization; each sounds a note in the great concert of humanity, which, after all, is the highest ideal reality that we are capable of attaining.
A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist.
If doubts arise regarding its frontiers, consult the populations in the areas under dispute. They undoubtedly have the right to a say in the matter.
Renan's idea is mentioned in chapter one CBSE Class X book of history.
Deendayal Upadyaya (September 25, 1916 - February 11, 1968)
WHAT IS A NATION ?
WHEN a group of persons lives with a goal, an ideal, a mission, and looks upon a particular piece of land as motherland, it constitutes a nation. If either of the two-and ideal and a motherland-is not there, then there is no nation.
(The source of national feeling is not staying in a particular piece of land, but it is the goal to be achieved by living together).
A nation too has a soul. There is a technical name for it. In the "Principles and Policies" adopted by Jana Sangh, this name is mentioned. The word is chiti. According to McDougal, it is the innate nature of a group. Similarly every society has an innate nature.
WHAT is A NATION? - William McDougalWilliam McDougall (22 June 1871 – 28 November 1938)
For a brief history of the nation-state the reader may be referred to Prof. Ramsay Muir's Nationalism and Internationalism, London, 1917.
In the work mentioned above Prof. Ramsay Muir writes " What do we mean by a Nation?
It may be provisionally defined as a body of people who feel themselves to be naturally linked together by certain affinities which are so strong and real for them that they can live happily together, are dissatisfied when disunited, and cannot tolerate subjection to peoples who do not
share these ties ." The provisional definition has the merit of recognising that nationhood is essentially a mental condition and must be defined in psychological terms.
The author goes on to inquire "What are the ties of affinity which are necessary to constitute a nation?"
He then considers the following conditions:
(i) "occupation of a defined geographical area,"
(2) "unity of race,"
(3) "unity of language,"
(4) "unity of religion,"
(5) "common subjection, during a long stretch of time, to a firm and systematic government,"
(6) "community of economic interest, with the similarity of occupations and outlook which it brings," (7) " the possession of a common tradition, a memory of sufferings endured and victories
won in common, expressed in song and legend, in the dear names of great personalities that seem to embody in themselves the character and ideals of the nation, in the names also of sacred places
wherein the national memory is enshrined."
Of the last he says
that it is "the most potent of all nation-moulding factors, the one
indispensable factor"; thus showing his sense of the essentially
psychological nature of nationhood. But of all the other six ' factors '
enumerated, he shows that they are unessential. After reaching this
negative conclusion, that nationhood cannot be defined by any one
of these marks or factors, he writes : " Nationality, then, is an elusive
idea, difficult to define. It cannot be tested or analysed by formulae,
such as German professors love. Least of all must it be interpreted
by the brutal and childish doctrine of racialism. Its essence is a
sentiment, and in the last resort we can only say that a nation is
a nation because its members passionately and unanimously believe
it to be so. But they can only believe it to be so if there exist among
them real and strong affinities; if they are not divided by any arti-
ficially maintained separation between the mixed races from which
they are sprung; if they share a common basis of fundamental moral
ideas, such as are most easily implanted by common religious beliefs;
if they can glory in a common inheritance of tradition; and their
nationality will be all the stronger if to these sources of unity they
add a common language and literature and a common body of law.
If these ties, or the majority of them, are lacking, the assertion of
nationality cannot be made good. For, even if it be for the moment
shared by the whole people, as soon as they begin to try to enjoy
the freedom and unity which they claim in the name of nationality,
they will fall asunder, and their freedom will be their ruin.
What, then, is the essential condition for lack of which any such
people would fall short of nationhood ? What is the factor which
has escaped the analysis of Prof. Ramsay Muir? The answer must
be organisation; not material organisation, but such mental organi-
sation as will render the group capable of effective group life, of
collective deliberation and collective volition. The answer to the
riddle of the definition of nationhood is to be found in the conception
of the group mind. A nation, we must say, is a people or popula-
tion enjoying some degree of political independence and possessed
of a national mind and character, and therefore capable of national
deliberation and national volition.
Others maintain that the great men of a nation, who are the
principal agents in moulding its destiny, are in some mystical sense
the products and expressions of the ' unconscious soul* of the people,
that they are the means by which its ideas are realised, through
which they become effective; and they usually make the assertion,
altogether unwarranted by history, that the moment of great need
in the life of a people always produces a great man or hero to lead
the people through the crisis. That is, or may appear to be, true of
those peoples that have survived to pass into history. But what of
those peoples that have gone down, leaving no trace of all their
strivings, beyond some mounds of rubble, some few material monu-
ments, or some strange marks on brick or stone or rock?
It is the weight of the entire history to
which the individual is subjected in his relations with his fellow
citizens. Just, then, as the nation, as a certain social group, has an
existence different from (though not separable from) the existence
of the individuals, so the national character implies that particular
combination of mental forces of which the national life is the external
manifestation 1 / 1 That is a precise and admirable statement of what
we are to understand by national mind and character.
The social environment of any civilised people is, then, very
largely the result of a long continued process of selection, comparable
with the natural selection by which, according to the Darwinian
theory, animal species are evolved; a constant favouring of certain
elements, a constant rejection of others. We may in fact regard
each distinctive type of civilisation as a species, evolved largely by
selection; and the selective agency, which corresponds to and plays
a part analogous to the part of the physical environment of an animal
species, is the innate mental constitution of the people. The sum of
innate qualities is the environment of the culture-species, and it
effects a selection among all culture variations, determining the
survival and further evolution of some, the extermination of others.
And, just as animal species (especially men) modify their physical
environment in course of time, and also devise means of sheltering
themselves from its selective influence, so each national life, each
species of civilisation, modifies very gradually the innate qualities
of the people and builds up institutions which, the more firmly they
are established and the more fully they are elaborated, override and
prevent the more completely the direct influence of innate qualities
on national life.
On the other hand, India is peopled by many different stocks,
and, although these are geographically much mixed, they are but
very little blended, owing to the prevalence from early times
of the caste system. The light coloured intellectual Brahman lives
side by side with small black folk, as different physically and
mentally as the Englishman and the Hottentot; and there are also
large numbers of other widely differing racial stocks, including some
of yellow race. Hence an extreme diversity of social environment,
save in the case of the Moslem converts, who, however, being
scattered among the rest, do but increase the endless variety of
custom, creed, and social environment. Hence the people of India
have never been bound together in the slightest degree, save purely
externally by the power of foreign conquerors, the Moguls and the
British; and hence, even though nations have begun at various
times to take form in various areas, as e.g. the Sikh nation, they
have never achieved any high degree of permanence and stability
and are restricted in area and numbtrs.
The most striking exception is afforded by the people of the
United States of America, or the American nation. There we see
a great area populated by immigrants from every part and race of
Europe in times so recent that, although they are pretty well mixed,
they are but little blended by crossing; a considerable part of the
population still consisting of actual immigrants and their children.
Here, then, there can be no question of any homogeneity as regards
innate mental qualities. Nevertheless, the people is truly a nation
and, perhaps, further advanced in the evolution of national conscious-
ness, thought, and action than many other of the civilised peoples.
This we must attribute to homogeneity of mental qualities which
is in the main not innate but acquired, a uniformity of acquired
qualities, especially of all those that are most important for national
Following Miinsterberg's recent account of The Psychology of
the American People we may recognise as individual character-
istics, almost universally diffused, a spirit of self-direction and self-
confidence, of independence and initiative of a degree unknown
elsewhere, a marvellous optimism or hopefulness both in pnvate
and public affairs, a great seriousness tinged with religion, a
humourousness, an interest in the welfare of society, a high degree
of self-respect, and a pride and confidence in the present and still
more in the future of the nation; an intense activity and a great
desire for self-improvement ; a truly democratic spirit which regards
all men (or rather all white men) as essentially or potentially equal,
and a complete intolerance of caste.
Such high degree of acquired homogeneity of individual qualities
seems to be due in about equal parts to uniformity of social and of
physical environment, both of which make strongly in the same
direction. The physical environment consists in a great and rich
territory, still only partially developed, a fairly uniform climate,
and a uniformity of the physical products of human labour resulting
from the immense development of the means of communication. The
importance of the physical uniformity we may realize on reflecting
that the one great divergence of physical conditions, the sub-tropical
climate of the southern States, gave rise to the one great and
dangerous division of the people which for a time threatened the har-
monious development of the national life; that is to say, the civil war
was due to the divergence of the social system and economic interests
of the southern States resulting from their sub-tropical climate.
FREEDOM OF COMMUNICATION AS A CONDITION OF NATIONAL LIFE
LET us consider now very briefly in relation to the life of a nation
a second essential condition of all collective mental life namely,
that the individuals shall be in free communication with one another.
This is obviously necessary to the formation of national mind and
character. It is only through an immense development of the
means of communication, especially the printing press, the railway
and the telegraph, that the modern Nation-State has become possible,
and has become the dominant type of political organism.
Without this freedom of communication the various parts of the
nation cannot become adequately conscious of one another; and the
idea of the whole must remain very rudimentary in the minds of
individuals; each part of the whole remains ignorant of many
other parts, and there can be no vivid consciousness of a common
welfare and a common purpose. But, more important still, there
can be none of that massive influence of the whole upon each of
the units which is of the essence of collective mental life. Of these
means of reciprocal influence the press is the most important; though,
of course, its great influence is only rendered possible by the railway
and the telegraph.
The same is true in much higher degree of nations. If a people
is to become a nation, it must be capable of producing personalities
of exceptional powers, who. will play the part of leaders; and the
special endowments of the national leader require to be more pro-
nounced and exceptional, of a higher order, than those required
for the exercise of leadership over a fortuitous crowd.
Such personalities, more effectively perhaps than any other factors,
engender national unity and bring it to a high pitch.
These indications are borne out by a review of the history of
any nation that has achieved a considerable development. Every
such people has its national heroes whom it rightly glorifies or
worships; for to them it owes in chief part its existence.
Let us try to imagine the fifty leading minds in each great
department of activity suddenly removed from among us. That will
help us to realise the extent to which the mental life of the'nation
is dependent on them. Clearly, we should be reduced to intellectual,
moral, and aesthetic chaos and nullity in a very short time.
We see in most of the leading European nations the predominance
of certain forms of genius. Modern Italy boasts chiefly men great
in religion and art, perhaps owing to the predominance of Homo
Mediterraneus; Spain in pictorial art and military conquest;
England in poetry and administration and science; Germany in
music and philosophy. Nevertheless, each of these peoples has pro-
duced men of the greatest power in all or several kinds;
THE WILL OF THE NATION 1
ROUSSEAU, in his famous treatise, Le Contrat Social, wrote "There is
often a great difference between the will of all and the general will ;
the latter looks only to the common interest; the former looks to
private interest, and is nothing but a sum of individual wills; but
take away from these same wills the plus and minus that cancel
one another and there remains, as the sum of the differences, the
general will." " Sovereignty is only the exercise of the general will."
That is to say, a certain number of men will the general good, while
most men will only their private good; the latter neutralise one
another, while the former co-operate to form an effective force.
we must maintain that a
population seeking only individual ends cannot form or continue to
be a nation, though all the other conditions we have noticed be
present; that a nation is real and vigorous in proportion as its con-
sciousness of its self is full and clear. In fact national progress and
power and success depend in chief part upon the fulness and the
extension, the depth and width of this self-consciousness the accu-
racy and fulness with which each individual mind reflects the whole;
and upon the strength of the sentiments which are centred upon it
and which lead men to act for the good of the whole, to postpone
private to public ends. And the same holds good of all the many
forms of corporate life within the nation. Each individual's sense of
duty, in so far as it is a true sense of duty, and not a fictitious sense
due merely to superstitious fear or to habit formed by suggestion
and compulsion, is chiefly founded upon the consciousness of
the society of which he forms a part, upon the group spirit that
binds him to his fellows and makes him one with them. And the
nations in which this national self-consciousness is strongest and
most widely diffused will be the successful nations.
Surely, if in any nation the national consciousness could inspire and
maintain all classes of its people in all relations of life to this high
level of strenuous self-sacrifice for the* welfare of the nation, that
nation would soon predominate over all others, and be impregnably
strong, no matter what defects of individual and national character
it might display.
The idea of the nation is, then, a bond between its members
over and above ail those bonds of custom, of habit, of economic
interdependence, of law and of self-interest, of sympathy, of imita-
tion, of collective emotion and thought, which inevitably arise among
a homogeneous people occupying any defined area; and it is the
most powerful and essential of them all. As Fouill6e put it, the
essential characteristic of human society is that "it is an organism
which realises itself in conceiving and in willing its own existence.
Any collection of men becomes a society in the only true sense of
the word, when all the men conceive more or less clearly the type
of organic whole which they can form by uniting themselves and
when they effectively unite themselves under the determining in-
fluence of this conception. Society is then an organism which exists
because it has been thought and willed, it is an organism born of
an idea V In this sense Society has never yet been perfectly realized,
but it is the ideal towards which social evolution tends.
Now material and formal continuity is, as we said, the
essential presupposition of all the other main conditions
of development of the collective mind. On it depends the
Jstrength of custom and tradition and, to a very great
I extent, the strength of national sentiment. It is, therefore,
' a principal condition of national stability; from it arise all
the great conservative tendencies of the nation, all the
forces that resist change; accordingly, the more complete
and long enduring such continuity has been in the past,
the greater is the prospect of its prolongation in the future.
It is owing to the unbroken continuity of the English
nation through so long a period that its organisation is so
stable, its unwritten constitution so effective, at once
stable and plastic, its national sentiment so strong, its
complex uncoded system of judge-made law so nearly in
harmony with popular feeling and therefore so respected.
National organisation resting upon this basis of custom
and traditional sentiment is the only kind that is really
stable, that is not liable to be suddenly overthrown by
internal upheavals or impacts from without. For it alone
is rooted in the minds of all citizens in the forms of habit
and sentiment. All other organisation is imposed by
National group self-consciousness plays, then, an all-
important part in the life of nations, is in fact the actual,
the most essential constitutive factor of every nation; and
nationhood or the principal of nationality is the dominant
note of world history in the present epoch; that is to say,
the desire and aspiration to achieve nationhood, or to
strengthen and advance the life of the nation, is the most
powerful motive underlying the collective actions of
almost all civilised and even of semi-civilised mankind;
The all-dominant influence of the idea of the nation, I
insist, is not a theory or a speculative suggestion, it is a
literal and obvious fact. Let every other one of the
favouring conditions of nationality, the geographical,
historical, economic be realised by a population; yet, if
that population has no collective self-consciousness, is not
strongly actuated to collective volition by the group spirit,
it will remain not a nation, but a mere aggregate of in-
dividuals, having more or less organic unity due to the
differentiation and interdependence of its parts, but lack-
ing that higher bond of unity which alone can ensure its
stability and continuity, and which, especially, can alone
enable it to withstand and survive the peaceful pressure
\ or the wariike impact of true nations.
Hence national self-consciousness can never developfcj
except in the form of an idea of strong affective tone, that Ij ^
is to say a sentiment. Hence, whenever we speak of
national self-consciousness or the idea of the nation as a
powerful factor in its life, the sentiment is implied, and I
have implied it when using these expressions hitherto.
This national sentiment, which, if we use the word in its
widest sense, may be called patriotism, is, like all the other
group sentiments, developed by way of extension of the
self-regarding sentiment of the individual to the group,
and may be further complicated and strengthened by the
inclusion of other tendencies. A point of especial impor-
tance is that this great group sentiment can hardly be
developed otherwise than by way of extension of senti-
ments for smaller included groups, the family especially.
For the idea of the nation is too difficult for the grasp of the
child's mind, and cannot, therefore, become the object of
a sentiment until the intellectual powers are considerably
developed. Hence the development of a family sentiment,
or of one for some other small easily conceived group, is
essential for the development in the child of those modes
of mental action which are involved in all group feeling
and action. For this reason the family is the surest,
perhaps essential, foundation of ' national life; and
national self -consciousness is strongest, where family life
"The family is the surest, perhaps essential, foundation of ' national life; and national self -consciousness is strongest, where family life is strongest."
We have seen that the idea of the nation, present to the
minds of the mass of its members, is an essential condition
of the nation's existence in any true sense of the word na-
tion; that the idea alone as an intellectual apprehension
cannot exert any large influence; that it determines judg-
ment and action only in virtue of the sentiment which
grows up about this object — a sentiment which is trans-
mitted and fostered from generation to generation, just
because it renders the nation an object of value. The
consideration should be obvious enough; but it has com-
monly been ignored by philosophers of the intellectualist
school. They treat the individual mind as a system of
ideas; they ignore the fact that it has a conative side which
has its own organisation, partially distinct from, though
not independent of, the intellectual side; and consequently
they ignore equally the fact that the national mind has its
conative organisation. (Conative organisation is the entity that guides behavior.)
Imagine a people in whom anti-nationalism (in the form
of cosmopolitanism, syndicalism, or philosophic anarchism)
had spread, until this attitude towards the nation-state
as such had become adopted by half its members, while the
other half remained patriotic. Then there would be acute
conflict and discussion, and the idea of the nation would
be vividly present to all minds; but the nature of the
sentiment attached to it would be different and opposite
in the two halves; one of attachment and devotion in the
one half; of dislike, aversion, or at least indifference (i.e.
lack of sentiment) in the other half. And the efforts of
the one half to maintain the nation as a unit^ would be
antagonised and perhaps rendered nugatory by the in-
difference or opposition of the other half, who would
always seek to break down national boundaries and
would refuse co-operation in any national action, and who
would league themselves with bodies of similar inter-
ests and anti-national tendencies in other countries.
Then, even though all might be well-meaning people
desiring the good of mankind, the nation would be very
greatly weakened and probably would soon cease to exist
And, as the organisation of a nation becomes less de-
pendent upon outer authority and upon mere custom and
the unreasoning acceptance of tradition, and more and
more upon free consent and voluntary contract, the nation
does not cease to be an organism; it retains that formal
and informal organisation which has developed in large
part without the deliberate guidance of the collective will
and which is essential to its collective life; the national
mind, as it grows in force and extension and understanding
of its own organisation, accepts those features which it
finds good, and gradually modifies those which appear less
good in the light of its increasing self-knowledge; and so it
tends more and more to become a contractual organism,
which, as Fouillee has insisted, is the highest type of society.
It should be noticed that this ideal of the contractual
organism synthesises the two great doctrines or theories of
society which have generally been regarded as irreconcil-
able alternatives : the doctrine of society as an organism,
and that of society as founded upon reason and free will.
They have been treated as opposed and irreconcilable
doctrines, because those who regarded society as an organ-
ism, taking the standpoint of natural science, have laid
stress upon its evolution by biological accidents and by
the interaction and conflict of many blind impulses and
purely individual volitions, in which collective volition,
governed by an ideal of the form to be achieved, had no
part. While, on the other hand, the idealist-philosophers,
describing society or the nation as wholly the work of
reason and free will, have been guilty of the intellectualist
fallacy of regarding man as a purely rational being; they
have ignored the fact that all men, even the most intel-
lectual, are largely swayed and moulded by processes of
suggestion, imitation, sympathy, and instinctive impulse,
* in quite non-rational ways; and they have ignored still
more completely the fact that the operation of these non-
rational processes continues to be not only of immense
influence but also inevitable and necessary to the mainte-
nance of that organic unity of society upon which as a basis
the contract-unity is superimposed as a bond of a higher,
more rational, and more spiritual quality.
Only a synthesis of the two in the doctrine of the con-
tractual organism can reconcile them and give us the ideal
of a nation in which the maximum and perfection of or-
ganisation shall be combined with the maximum of liberty,
because in it each individual will be aware of the whole and
his place and functions in it, and will voluntarily accept
that place and perform those functions.
The highest, most perfectly organised and effective na-
tion is, then, not that in which the individuals are disposed
of, their actions completely controlled, and their wills
suppressed by the power of the State. It is, rather, one
in which the self-consciousness and initiative and volition
of individuals, personality in short, is developed to the
highest degree, and in which the minds and wills of the
members work harmoniously together imder the guidance
and pressure of the idea of the nation, rendered in the
highest degree explicit and full and accurate.
Men are not swayed exclusively by considerations of
material self-interest, as the older school of economists
generally assumed; nor even by spiritual self-interest, as
too much of the religious teaching of the past has assumed ;
nor even by consideration of the welfare of the social
groups of which they are members. Many of the great
events of history have been determined by ideas that have
had no relation to individual welfare, but have inspired a
collective enthusiasm for collective action, for national
effort, of a distinterested kind; and the lives of some na-
tions have been dominated by some one or two such ideas.
These ideas are first conceived and taught by some great
man, or by a few men who have acquired prestige and
influence; they then become generally accepted by sugges-
tion and imitation, accepted more or less uncritically and
established beyond the reach of argument and reasoning.
The four ideas, liberty, equality, progress, and human
solidarity or universal responsibility, seem to be the lead-
ing ideas of the present era, the ideas which, in conjunc-
tion with national sentiments, are more than any other,
fashioning the future of the world.
But with those persons in whom great abilities are na-
turally combined with moral disposition the case is very
different. The moral disposition is essentially altruistic;
it is concerned for the welfare of others, of men in general.
Hence such a man deliberately applies his abilities to in-
fluence the minds of others. The exertion of such influ-
ence is for him an end in itself. He seeks and finds his
chief satisfaction in exerting an influence, as wide and
deep as possible, over the minds of men; not merely in
evoking fear or admiration of himself, but in inspiring in
them the same elevated sentiments and sympathies
which he finds within himself.
We have distinguished a formal and an informal organ-
isation of the national deliberative processes, the latter
expressing itself as pubHc opinion. These two organisa-
tions co-exist and are, of course, not altogether indepen-
dent of one another; yet they may be to a considerable
extent independent; though the more intimate the func-
tional relations and the greater the harmony between them
the healthier will be the national life.
Updated 23 October 2017, 21 October 2017