Our species, being a product of organic evolution, developed a complex social structure that reflects the biological structure of the human brain. The progression of this social structure is illustrated by both primate behavior and the archaeological record. Driven by biological and environmental factors, the development of culture became a decisive, and often divisive, adaptation. Within this cultural domain, primitive seeds of nationalism took forms of divisions based on shared phenotypic expressions and crude ideologies. Wealth and social status reinforced this social structure. With the development of new technologies, nationalism became more than a solidifying process; it became an aggressive political ideology based on the conceptual term of race.
The primary base of nationalism is the nation state. The concept of nation, defined as a population whose common identity creates a psychological bond and a political community, is often referred to in terms of state or country. Although nations, states, and countries may be comprised of various genetic populations, nationalism focuses on the commonality of language, ethnicity, and history. It is this nationalistic identity that promotes a psychological bond and a justified political community. This process can be seen in the philosophy of ancient Greece and the Greeks’ influence on Western thought for centuries.
There are many postulated theories concerning the origin and development of the state. The writings of both Plato (c. 428-348 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) had an important influence on the development of basic ideologies in nationalism. Essentially, the form of government is a reflection of the individual; individuals gather for the purpose of security and have a share in the common good that would enable an individual to attain the good life. Whether it was Plato’s philosopher king or Aristotle’s benevolent monarch, the developmental structure and political ends were to secure domestic prosperity at the expense of the “barbaric world” around them. For example, Plato stated that the development of the stratified state, reflecting parts of the soul (for example, appetites and rationality), provided an illusionary utopia with a justified class system. Although this philosophical class system was an idealized society, the political implications were a justification of class structure of their society. In this manner, the highest form of government being aristocracy would eventually decay into timocracy, then plutocracy, democracy, and despotism. Aristotle had similar, yet different political ideas. True forms of governments that are recognized were monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, whereas the perverse forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Acknowledging the inequality within the individual, the state would also reflect this inequality. Essentially, the state becomes an entity that enables individuals to perfect themselves and attain the good life. Ironically, the desire for equality was seen as the chief cause of revolutions and war. The basis of nationalism is to create an arena whereby these rigid social structures were maintained and protected. With the introduction of Christian theology by the theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), nationalism incorporated the logistics of Greek philosophical thought with divine revelation (for example, divine right of kings).
Aquinas, viewing humankind’s order as a reflection ofa divine order, held that our species is a social species; therefore, the social hierarchy must exhibit the same qualities depicted in other social animals, but more importantly, the hierarchy that exists in the heavens. Justifying both political and ecclesiastical structure, the rule by one, whether king or pontiff, can be the only form by which a government should operate. In this manner, religion attempted to overcome ethnicity by stressing the unity of humankind by one creator. In Aquinas’s view, the king, especially a just king approved by Rome, becomes the social enforcer, just as the church becomes the spiritual enforcer, of the Kingdom of God on earth. Ironically, with each principality claiming God’s sovereign charge (the Crusades), the outcome is reduced to those who have the greatest amount of holy favor. Dominions and conquest would fuel this form of nationalism during the age of imperialism.
During the age of imperialism, exploration of the known world led to the discovery of the new world. Prompted by economics and nationalism, the acquisition of new territories led to subjugation of their inhabitants and the demise of cultural aspects. At this point, one can argue that nationalism became more destructive, justifying, both scientifically and theologically, the enslavement of the “inferior” peoples of the world. In these conquered territories, or colonies, the aboriginal peoples were good enough to convert and work, yet not good enough to share in the prosperity of the empire. With the rise of imperialism, the rise of the middle class became problematic for the monarchy. The desire for equality, as Aristotle would state, led to a constitutional monarchy and representative forms of government. Problems for the church-state also arose, causing schisms and, ultimately, the Reformation. Although philosophical attempts, such as those by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, tried to reaffirm that the political role between a sovereign authority and subjects of the commonwealth by degree was of issue, the idea of a social contract, nationalistic pride, and newly acquired freedom turned nationalism in a new direction.
The Age of Enlightenment provided a fertile ground for new philosophical and political thought. With political unrest and civil revolutions common, economic and social stability was shaken. The expanding middle class and greater need for political freedom created the setting for acceptance of the influential writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Acknowledging the inequalities of individuals and societies, Rousseau saw each society as developing its own political structure, via social contract, for procuring the “general will” of the society at large. Viewing society as an entity in flux, this social progression was removed from the theological domain to the social domain. Governing was moved toward a democratic form of government, whereby a just society with the common good would yield the greatest freedom for each citizen. Morality for this society would be just as independent from theology as the governing body (politics). Although nationalism would be analyzed critically and perhaps rejected, the critical inquiry and scientific revolutions continued to influence both nationalism and the developing state. With greater civil freedoms and economic independence, nationalism continued to adapt to the changing political and economic framework. However, with the discovery of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the rise of nationalism can be evaluated within an evolutionary framework.
The greatest interpretation of social evolution was given by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer, whose philosophical interpretation of social evolution incorporated the “survival of the fittest” motto, viewed society as an organism in flux. He saw societies as units that span the spectrum from simplistic to complex, with each society viewed as being in an ongoing progression from the most rudimentary form to the modern age. Society, paralleling an organism, consists of interdependent parts that function as a whole. The degree of complexity (for example, simple, compound, doubly compound, and trebly compound) was seen in terms of the degree of internal regulation and external conflict. As a society increases in complexity, as in industrial societies, external conflicts are necessitated by changing internal regulations within societies. Stemming from this process found in industrialized societies is the outgrowth of a militant structure. Although complexity is not dependent upon the industrial/militant dichotomy, societies rarely, if ever, fit into Spencer’s categorization of society. In terms of “survival of the fittest,” rugged individualism and aristocratic classes exclude any sense of shared equality. The intensity of nationalism would act as an imputed aggregate. When applied to promote internal cohesion, conflict arising from alienation can be skillfully reduced or eliminated. The functionality of individuals and society form a cohesive unit, nationalism pitting one race against another in terms of survival.
Because of the advancements made in both anthropology and biology, our species can state with scientific certainty that we have differences only at the phenotypic level. Race, in itself, is a social construct. Yet the evolution from family to clan, tribe, city-state, nation, and empire is well documented. As depicted by James Frazer (1854-1941), cultural aspects encompass a distinctive dialect, organizations, religious beliefs, magical practices, artistic expressions, and mores/laws. Stemming from this evolutionary process, including many aspects depicted by Herbert Spencer, the evolution of sedimentary tribes from traditional hunters and gatherers gave rise to economic prosperity that stimulated trade. Nationalism, in some crude form, became a protective mechanism that spurred economic growth and regulated tribal interaction. The need for raw material and possible access to greater amounts of natural resources became both a source of conflict and a basis for internal unity.
With the advent of superior weapons and skills, dominant tribes would absorb or assimilate weaker tribes into their cultures. Because of an increased internal pressure caused by foreign influx or foreign pressure, the subordinate political system would be controlled by an influential person based on either military power or hereditary succession. This individual was given complete or near-complete authority over communal matters.
The influence of religion (magic) and mythology plays an important part in the creation of the nationalist state. Magical practices, taboos, superstitions, and rituals (sometimes based on mythology) can influence political roles and individual destinies. The crude belief in witches and sorcerers restrained or promoted a leader’s position. Eventually, theocratic governments came to power (for example, Egypt, and Rome under Caesar). Although the relationship between religious and political domains was disrupted by the Reformation and the French Revolution, religious overtones have always remained a factor in maintaining the nationalist state.
With the rise of nations, commanding trade centers and regional resources prompted expansion and conflict with other states, such as Carthage and Rome. In the acquisition of provenances, population groups were incorporated into the mainstream cultural identity. For example, nationalism is the basis of what it meant to be Roman in the Roman Empire. Although imperialism and the Industrial Revolution would revolutionize the economic structure and create a middle class, the power structure would be transferred from one individual to a selected few. Safeguarding their country’s interest is a primary issue, and the state would control access to resources. Although not necessarily a totalitarian state of existence, nationalism can bring about a state-controlled system. Re-echoing the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, regulation of social and economic systems is necessary for the procurement of the common good. Yet conflict, both internal and external, will never be eliminated. Corruption and incompetence are the Achilles’ heel of the nationalistic state. Legitimizing the suppression of natural tendencies for the sake of the state is the hallmark of the ultimate decline of empires, as can be seen in the decline of the Roman Empire. Although far from the ideal or utopian society, the psychological manifestation of alienation is as real as the system that produced it.
As can be seen thus far, the creation of the state has certain attributes that become necessary by the state’s very existence. Pressures from the environment, population, and newly created technologies make cohesion necessary for the procurement of both internal and external stability. Concepts of race, ethnicity, religion, and economic prosperity can be a source of both unity and division. Nationalism uses these concepts to create an unwavering patriotic stance. In advanced degrees of nationalism, ethics become utilitarian in nature. Unity in history and stately pride increase this sense of nationalism. Forms of alienation incurred by the individual are expected, all in the name of the state. This process can be illustrated by the conflict between Nazi and communist factions within Germany during the first half of the 20th century. The outcome of this conflict can produce one certainty; communism is the antithesis of the nationalistic state.
Recognizing the social strife caused by the Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx (1818-1883) understood the economic underpinnings of social life. Taking a holistic approach concerning social interaction, the mode of production was seen as a critical pivot for interpersonal relationships among members of a society. With the increase in technological advancements (for example, new modes of production), the stress produces alienation. This process is experienced by those individuals who partake in the segmented process of production. Production’s failure to complete or provide a sense of fulfillment leads these individuals to become alienated from their work, from themselves, and from their fellow workers. When taken to the economic level, alienation and economic control produce conflict between class interests. The fundamental principles established by Adam Smith (1723-1790) were seen as part of an evolutionary-based process by which the workers will eventually rid themselves of their “false consciousness” (nationalistic tendencies) for a communal or communistic life. However, Marx failed to realize the true nature of our species. If he had taken both biology and history more seriously, including the critical analysis of his own philosophy, Marx would have come to the conclusion that communism is a utopia that can never be actualized.
In the final analysis of nationalism, it would be extremely difficult to declare any modern society free of any degree of nationalism. Whether by social contract or necessity, our species evolved into a complex social structure that had its fundamental principles rooted in our evolutionary biological past. Indeed, we are a social animal. The emergence of culture has provided our species with both the capability to populate the globe and a distinct identity. When used properly, nationalism can provide necessary psychological security and well-being for a population. This can, in fact, enrich the cultural experience as an aesthetic experience that could diffuse across territorial boundaries. However, political and economic systems rarely seek the “golden mean” when implementing policies.
Extreme forms of nationalism have caused more conflicts than any other “justified” reason. Patriotism (pride), ethnicity, religion, and economics are primary factors in stimulating greater degrees of nationalism. Stimulating the psychological euphoria created by manipulating mythological/religious fervor, justifications for atrocities become ad absurdum. In this manner, marginalized and venerable individuals can fall victim to the overwhelming onslaught of the ruling class. Essentially, the greatest expressions of our humanity revert and become perverse. Examples of this process can be seen throughout history; Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin all represent the zenith of unchecked power. War, greed, power, racism, and state-sanctioned criminal activity become rampant and call for a reevaluation of values.
Perhaps, to a certain degree, Plato and Aristotle were correct. Because nationalism is ingrained in our social structure, the leaders who are in control of society must have the proper aptitude and training for such a position. Although this creates philosophical questions concerning the attainment of a true democracy, the cultivation of virtues and seeking the proper mean can only serve to augment the greatest aspects of our humanity. Public and international policies governed by proper rational thought can reduce the amount of conflict, but can never eliminate its cause. Although not necessarily utopian, the degree of personal fulfillment for citizenry and peaceful resolutions for the global community are possible. Respect for sovereignty and human dignity (rights) can diffuse tensions in the global community. Furthermore, it is the duty of every nation, by which freedom and tolerance are upheld, to defend against any aggressive actions by perverse tyrants who wish to enslave members of our species. In terms of the global community, nationalism can do what biology has already done—unite our species as one species, with each expression of culture viewed as accidental rather than essential. Once and for all, the barbarians are transformed into the unexpected—a reflection of our own modern humanity.
- (1995). Nichomachean ethics and politics. In S. M. Cohen, P. Curd, & C. D. C. Reeve (Eds.), Readings in Ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
- Hobbes, T. (1988). The leviathan. Amherst, MA: Prometheus.
- Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Amherst, MA: Prometheus.
- (1995). Republic. In S. M. Cohen, P. Curd, & C. D. C. Reeve (Eds.), Readings in Ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1988). Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men. In A. Ritter & J. C. Bondanella (Eds.), Rousseau’s political writings. New York: Norton.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1988). On the social contract, or principles of political right. In A. Ritter & J. C. Bondanella (Eds.), Rousseau’s political writings. New York: Norton.