Citizens of Somewhere

At the height of his powers Pericles, the supreme statesman of classical Greece, persuaded Athens to adopt a new citizenship law. Henceforward to become a citizen by right a man needed to be born of two Athenian parents. That is, his father had to be a citizen and his mother the daughter of a citizen.

In the context of Athenian myth this made excellent sense. The original founders of the polis were devoutly believed to have been children of Gaia, Mother Earth. The land literally gave birth to the people who began the Athenian nation. Periclean citizens, then, were born on the land directly and born from the land through descent from their first ancestors. Athens therefore had a double lock on their allegiance and loyalty. This was vitally important for a reason we shall come to shortly.

Meanwhile if we fast forward about 2000 years we come to the French Revolution. Fuelled by Enlightenment Rationalism the revolutionaries had a wholly different vision of citizenship. Rights were extended to include all (male) persons who happened to live in the polis regardless of where they had been born. It was Reason not myth, ethnicity, or accident of birth that would attach people to the rational enterprise which was the self-aware National community (as embodied in the State.)

This French experiment was short lived and spawned few imitators. Most contemporary Western states adopt a hybrid position on citizenship. A person (male or female) becomes a citizen by right if they are born within the territory of the Nation (not always the same as the State) regardless of where their parents come from. This approach incorporates Periclean concerns about land and birth as well as Enlightenment unconcern about ethnicity.

So why have these two ancient factors, Land and Birth, persisted while a modern insistence on the power of Reason alone has faded? When it comes to citizenship the rubber hits the road during times of war. In any given society the number of those who are willing to accept in full the benefits of that society always exceeds the number of those willing to pay the ultimate price on its behalf.

There are few, if any, purely rational grounds for anyone to die (or kill) on behalf of a Nation as such. Yet such grounds *do* exist for a person to die on behalf of their family. If, then, citizens can be encouraged to feel towards their country, as such, the same type and intensity of emotion which they feel towards their family then they will be the more willing to make that patriotic self sacrifice.

Returning to Pericles. The Athens which he led was in an almost continual state of war. Enormous suffering frequently ending in death was the normal lot of its young men. The myths that tied them to Land and ancestry simply by virtue of being born in Athens to Athenian parents provided them with a powerful elemental impulse. Pericles was wily enough to see that his redefined citizenship law helped to make young ephebes willing participants in the bloody chaos of perpetual conflict.

Generally then, unaided Reason is a less powerful mobilising tool than emotional attachment for mythical reasons to the land of ones birth. Certainly history can show no end of examples of foreign-born soldier citizens dying for their adopted homeland. Before they can do this, however, they must undergo a conversion process and be born again through ritual and ceremony as a new person who has accepted a new mythos associated with their new land.

Adult conversions are by their nature exceptional events. In existential matters a State cannot rely upon the exceptional, it must depend on the normal. If during an invasion ‘normal’ citizens are unwilling to don a uniform or pick up a weapon it would require a quite extraordinary number of foreigners to do so on their behalf. In such circumstances it would be legitimate to ask if such a country positively deserved to survive.

In the contemporary era (2017) mass migration has made the unified ethnic identity of ancient Athens an impossibility. As an alternative States now propose the myth of ‘shared values.’ Many intellectuals deride such efforts, what, for example, is a uniquely ‘British value?’ Yet this myth is no more or less rational than the one it seeks to replace. States may comfort themselves with the thought that intellectuals rarely form the backbone of any military force.

The experience of the United States, whose historically unusual combination of circumstances impelled it to create a national identity which transcended dozens of particular ethnic identities, suggests that this ‘shared values’ option is a possibility open to all countries. More than that it shows that it is a necessity for any Nation which wishes to survive the actual challenges posed by migration and the potential challenges posed by war.

An ideal citizen then is a person who is willing to die for their country. A country, therefore, is an entity for which a sufficiently large number of citizens are willing to die. The experience of several millennia of human history is that this willingness to pay the ultimate price flows not so much from the benevolence or justice of the particular State which governs the country as it does from attachment of citizens to the land upon which they were born and what that particular blessed plot represents to them. And this attachment unto death is a product of the myths native to that specific piece of land which citizens are taught and which they accept to be emotionally if not factually true. The mere fact of birth in a particular locality makes one peculiarly receptive to just such mythology. Or, to put it more briefly, unless people are citizens of somewhere they will be defenders of nowhere.

(I hope to explore this topic further in a future post Citizens of Nowhere)

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is Catholic Scot

The picture is a 4th of July Parade in Jackson Hole, Wyoming 


2 thoughts on “Citizens of Somewhere

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  1. All this sheds a light on puzzling things.
    When all is said and done, however, I like the line in John Lennon`s song “Imagine” where he wishes there would be “nothing to kill or die for”.


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