Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Universality and National Identity

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Universality and National Identity

Article excerpt

University and national identity

'The nation," wrote the Abbe Sieyes, "is a group of associates living under a common system of laws and represented by a single legislature." (1) In making use of the term "associates" he wiped out with a single stroke of the pen the traditions of a thousand years and consigned France's national history to the waste-paper basket. The division of the people into "Three Estates" was abolished--there were no longer nobles, priests, judges, commoners or peasants, but only people enjoying the same rights and subject to the same responsibilities. With a word Sieyes pronounced the end of the hereditary system; anyone who claimed special legal status merely on the basis of ancestry was thereby excluded from the body of the nation.

Contradicting its own etymological roots, the revolutionary nation (the word "nation" comes from the Latin "nasci", meaning "to be born") thus uprooted individuals, redefining them in terms of their humanity rather than their birth. It was not a question of restoring a collective identity to human beings without status or social moorings; on the contrary, it was a matter of releasing them from all specific restrictive bonds and making a radical affirmation of their autonomy.

The nation: a free

and voluntary association

Not only were they freed from the shackles of their ancenstry but also from the spiritual power which had until then ruled over them. Liberated from God and from their sires, they were under the tutelage neither of heaven nor heredity. Associates and not subjects, they were, as Sieyes put it, represented by the same legislature. The source and legitimacy of the power to which they submitted lay in their decision to live together and to create institutions that were common to all. The exercise of that power, its limits and its nature, were defined by a pact. In short, the government was a property belonging to the whole nation and of which princes were never more than "ministers and trustees who held it in usufruct". If a king misused the authority contractually delegated to him and treated it as private property, the nation, as Diderot had already indicated in the Encyclopedie, was entitled to release him from his oath as though he were "a minor who had acted without full knowledge of the facts". (2) In other words, power no longer originated from heaven but from below, from the earth, the people, the union of wills that constituted the collective nation.

The concept of the "nation", therefore, burst upon the historical scene in opposition to both the privileges of the nobility and royal absolutism. The social hierarchy was based on birth and the monarchy on the divine right of kings. In place of this view of society and this conception of power, the French Revolution substituted the image of a free and voluntary association.

Herein, for the conservatives, lay the original sin, the fatal presumption of the revolutionaries. In coming together with the aim of establishing a constitution, they believed that they were reaffirming the primordial pact from which society had sprung. They took the social contract as their authority to establish rule by assembly. The defenders of traditional ways, however, responded that there had never been such a contract; a citizen, they maintained, did not belong to his nation by virtue of the decrees of his own sovereigh will. This notion was no more than a chimera.

Herder: universal values

vs. diversity

If the philophers challenged the power of custom, it was because they respected abstract, timeless principles. They did not hesitate "to ride roughshod over prejudice, tradition, seniority, popular consent, authority, in a word, all that rules the minds of the masses", (3) because, with Plato, they placed the Good above all that exists. To back up their assessment of the established order they referred to an absolute standard, an invariable, compelling notion of right. …

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