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Home  > Nations & Nationalism > What is a nation? - Ernest Renan, 1882

Nations & Nationalism

What is a Nation?
(Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?)

Ernest Renan
[Lecture at Sorbonne, 11 March 1882
in Discours et Conferences, Paris, Calman-Levy, 1887, pp.277-310; also in 
Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny , ed. 1996. Becoming National: A Reader. 
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996: pp. 41-55. ]

 “The piece in this volume to which I attach the greatest importance is the lecture ‘What is a a nation?’ I weighed each part with greatest care. It is my profession of faith regarding human affairs, and I hope that these twenty pages will be recalled when modern civilization flounders as a result of the disastrous ambiguity of the words: nation, nationality, race.” Ernest Renan in the Introduction to his Collected Speeches

" I intend to analyze with you an idea which seems simple and clear but which lends itself to the most dangerous misunderstandings. . . . In our day one commits a serious error: one confounds nation and race, and one attributes to ethnographical or rather linguistic groups a sovereignty analogous to that of real peoples. Let us try for some precision in these difficult questions where the slightest confusion about the meaning of words, which are at the basis of our reasoning, can produce the most disastrous errors.

Since the end of the Roman Empire, or rather since the dissolution of the empire of Charlemagne, Western Europe seems to be divided into nations. At certain times some of them have sought to exercise a hegemony over the others, without being able to arrive there in an enduring fashion. What Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon I could not achieve, nobody, probably, will be able to do in the future. The establishment of a new Roman Empire or a new empire of Charlemagne has become impossible. The division of Europe is too great for an attempt at universal domination not to provoke with speed a coalition which puts the ambitious nation back within its natural limits. .

Nations in this sense are something new in history. What characterizes these various nations is the fusion of the populations which compose them. Nothing similar exists in Turkey, where the Turk, the Slav, the Greek, the Armenian, the Arab, the Syrian, the Kurd, are today as distinct as they were on the day of the conquest. . . . Even by the tenth century all the inhabitants of France are French. The idea of a difference of races in the population of France has completely disappeared with the French writers and poets after Hugues Capet. The distinction between the noble and the serf is highly emphasized, but this distinction is in no way an ethnic distinction.

These great laws of the history of Western Europe become obvious if we contrast them with the events in Eastern Europe. Under the crown of St. Stephan, the Magyars and the Slavs have remained as distinct today as they were 800 years ago. In Bohemia, the Czech and the German elements are superimposed as water and oil in a glass.. The Turkish policy of separating nationalities according to religion has had the most serious consequences: it caused the ruin of the Middle East. For, the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common but it must also have forgotten many things. Every French citizen must have forgotten the night of St. Bartholemew and the massacres in the thirteenth century in the South. There are not ten families in France who could prove their Frankish origin, and such a proof would be deficient because thousands of unknown mixed breedings could derange all genealogical systems....

According to certain political theorists, the nation is above all the work of a dynasty representing an ancient conquest which was first accepted and later forgotten by the mass of people...  Has such a law absolute validity?  Certainly not. Switzerland and the United States, which arose as agglomerations of successive additions, have no dynastic basis. . . . One must therefore admit that a nation can exist without the dynastic principle, and even that nations which were formed by dynasties can separate themselves from them without losing their identity thereby. Against dynastic rights, the right of nationality has emerged. On what tangible fact could it be based?

I. Some people say that it could be. based upon race. The artificial divisions created by the feudal past, by princely marriages and diplomatic congresses have lapsed. What remains firm and permanent is the race of the people. It constitutes a legitimate right. According to this theory the Germans have the right to take back the scattered members of the Germanic family, even if these members do not seek annexation. Thus one creates a primordial right analogous to that of the divine right of kings. This is a very great fallacy whose dominance would ruin European civilization...

To base one’s policy on an ethnographical analysis means to establish it on a chimera. The noblest countries - England, France, Italy - are those where the blood is most mixed. Germany is no exception. . . . Race as we historians understand it is something which is formed by history and undone by history. The study of race is of great importance for the study of the history of mankind, but it has no place in politics. . . . Will the Germans, who have raised the banner of ethnography so high, not see one day the Slavs analyze the names of the villages of Saxony and of Lusatia, seek the traces of populations long dead, and ask for an account of the massacres and the mass enslavement to which the Germans under their Ottonian emperors subjected their ancestors? It is good for all of us to know how to forget.

II. What we have said of race is as true of language. Language may invite us to unite, but it does not compel us to do so. . . . Languages are historical formations, which tell us very little about the race of those who speak them. In any event, they should not fetter human freedom when it concerns the fate of the group with whom we wish to unite for life or death.

One abandons the great air which one breathes in the large camp of humanity in order to shut oneself up in conventicles of compatriots. Nothing could be worse for the mind; nothing could be more troublesome for civilization. Let us not abandon the fundamental principle that man is a rational and moral being before he is penned up in this or that language, before he is a member of this or that race, before he adheres to this or that culture. Above the French, German, or Italian culture, there is a human culture. Look at the great men of the Renaissance. They were neither French, Italian or German. By their intimacy with the spirit of antiquity, they had found the secret of the true education of the human mind, and they devoted themselves to it with all their heart. How well they acted!

III. Nor could religion offer a sufficient foundation for the establishment of a modern nation. . . . One can be a Frenchman, an Englishman or a German, by being a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew or an agnostic. Religion has become something individual; it concerns the conscience of each person...

IV. The community of interests is certainly a strong tie among men. But are interests sufficient to create a nation? I do not believe it. The community of interests creates commercial treaties. Nationality is something sentimental too; it is body and soul at the same time; a custom-union is not a fatherland.

V. Geographhy, or as one says, the natural frontiers certainly plays a considerable part in the division of nations. . . . Can we say, however, as certain people believe, that the frontiers of a nation are marked on the map, and such a nation has the right to adjudicate to itself what it regards as necesary to round off its contours. to reach some mountain or some river, to which credits a kind of a priori quality? I do not know of any doctrine which would be more arbitrarily disastrous. With it one can justify all violence. One speaks of strategic reasons. Nothing is absolute; clearly, certain concessions must be made to necessity. But these concessions should not go too far. Otherwise everybody would demand what is strategically convenient to and a war without end would ensue. ..

...A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, 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. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. 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, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is 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. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one has handed down. The Spartan song-"We are what you were; we will be what you are" -- is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every patrie.

More valuable by far than common customs posts and frontiers conforming to strategic ideas 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. These are the kinds of things that can be understood in spite of differences of race and language. I spoke just now of "having suffered together" and, indeed, suffering in common unifies more than joy does. 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, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine right and less brutal than so called historical right. According to the ideas that I am outlining to you, a nation has no more right than a king does to say to a province: "You belong to me, I am seizing you." A province, as far as I am concerned, is its inhabitants; if anyone has the right to be consulted in such an affair, it is the inhabitant. A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will. The wish of nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criterion, the one to which one must always return.

We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics. What then remains? Man, with his desires and his needs. The secession, you will say to me, and, in the long term, the disintegration of nations will be the outcome of a system which places these old organisms at the mercy of wills which are often none too enlightened. It is clear that, in such matters, no principle must be pushed too far. Truths of this order are only applicable as a whole in a very general fashion. Human wills change, but what is there here below that does not change? 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.

Through their various and often opposed powers, 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. Isolated, each has its weak point. I often tell myself that an individual who had those faults which in nations are taken for good qualities, who fed off vainglory, who was to that degree jealous, egotistical, and quarrelsome, and who would draw his sword on the smallest pretext, would be the most intolerable of men. Yet all these discordant details disappear in the overall context. Poor humanity, how you have suffered! How many trials still await you! May the spirit of wisdom guide you, in order to preserve you from the countless dangers with which your path is strewn!

Let me sum up, Gentlemen. Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. 

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. This recommendation will bring a smile to the lips of the transcendants of politics, these infallible beings who spend their lives deceiving themselves and who, from the height of their superior principles, take pity upon our mundane concerns. "Consult the populations, for heaven's sake! How naive! A fine example of those wretched French ideas which claim to replace diplomacy and war by childishly simple methods." Wait a while, Gentlemen; let the reign of the transcendants pass; bear the scorn of the powerful with patience. It may be that, after many fruitless gropings, people will revert to our more modest empirical solutions. The best way of being right in the future is, in certain periods, to know how to resign oneself to being out of fashion..."

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