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What is a Nation?

In his essay What is a Nation?, Ernest Renan makes this statement: “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”[1]. Renan’s argument is simple: there are many factors that unify a group of people, but only the combination of a common glory and common will have a permanent, unifying force. If Renan’s contention is correct, then a group that lacks those two elements cannot be considered a nation. But it seems to me that Renan’s definition is only valid if you believe that a nation is the product of certain factors, like a common glory and common will. I contend that a nation is the not the product of these factors. Rather, these factors are the product of a nation. A nation arises naturally, and it is only within a naturally formed nation that Renan’s factors are realized. Therefore, it is impossible to define a nation by simply listing its distinguishing elements.

Renan begins his argument by acknowledging that there are a myriad of ideas regarding the definition of a nation. He notes that some political theorists say that a nation is a dynasty, formed by wars, marriages, and treaties. Renan refutes this contention by counterexample, citing nations like Switzerland and the United States, who do not have a dynastic background. Therefore, a nation can exist without a dynastic principle.[2] Another common belief, Renan declares, is that nations are derived from race. Again Renan uses counterexamples like England, France, and Italy, where “the blood is most mixed,” to dispute this claim.[3] Language, Renan adds, is just like race in that it “invites people to unify, but does not force them to do so”.[4] These factors cannot be the basis of a nation, for while they might unite a group for a time, they cannot permanently unite the group.

According to Renan, a nation is a spiritual principle, which is composed of two elements.[5] The first is the possession of memories, which Renan calls a common glory in the past. Renan says, “The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion”.[6] These shared experiences, whether they are joyous celebrations or mournful suffering, are the heritage of the people group. Not only that, but they have a unifying power.[7] His assertion does not need much support, for we regularly see its ramifications. More often than not, two people who share an experience form a common bond, a bond that unifies them. In the same way, a shared experience between many people unifies that body. War, for example, has a unifying force. People who have experienced grief are likely to unite with one another, as their grief acts as a common bond. In the same way, shared experiences are necessary to unify the people of a nation.

The second element of a nation is the existence of a common will among the people. The common will, Renan says, is linked to the common heritage. The people who sacrificed together in the past must agree to sacrifice together in the future.[8] There must be an agreement among the people to continue to uphold the same principles that they upheld in the past. In short, the common will is the consent of the individuals to continue to live together under the same principles. Speaking of the concept of nation, Renan states, “it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life”.[9] Renan contends that if a people group does not have a desire to live together under the same principles, it is not a nation; therefore, wherever there is a nation, there must be a common will.

Assuming that Renan’s definition is sufficient, it is possible to explore cases in which a group of people is not considered a nation. Renan contends that a nation must have both a common glory in its past and common will for the future. Naturally then, if a people group lacks one or both of those principles, it is not a nation. As I reflect on the formation of the United States, I notice that it does not represent Renan’s image of a nation. The citizens of the United States do not necessarily share a long history of glory. Aside from the French and Indian War, the colonists did not have a rich heritage in which to take pride. They seem to be missing the common glory that Renan emphasizes so firmly. And yet, the colonists unified and formed a nation.

Furthermore, the citizens that comprise the nation of the United States today do not necessarily share a common heritage. The United States is known as a melting pot for good reason, as it is comprised of people from many different ethnic, cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. While some individuals may share common heritages, there is enormous diversity and, therefore, it is hard to find common glory in the past. Yet, despite the lack of common heritage, we would still conclude that the United States is a thriving nation.

The United States is just one example of a people group that does not meet Renan’s definition, yet is still considered a nation. Therefore, a nation must be more than just a common glory and common will. It seems to me that the problem is not that Renan lacks a solid argument, but that he is misguided in supposing that he can articulate the definition of a nation by simply pointing out its characterizing features. An alternative to Renan’s definition of a nation arises out of Aristotle’s idea of the natural formation of the state. For Aristotle, the nation is more than a list of elements; it is the natural end of humans.[10] A nation is the result of an evolutionary process beginning with the most basic form of society, the family, and terminating in the epitome of society, the nation.[11] This is a natural process, as humans naturally strive to reach their ends.[12] Unlike Renan’s proposal, this process does not depend on any unifying factors.

In light of Aristotle’s understanding of a nation, it seems that a group of people does not need to have certain elements, like common glory or common will, to be a nation. A nation exists naturally apart from any specific factors. The factors, then, are a result of the nation. It is because of the presence of the nation that elements like common glory or a common will exist. While Renan does a good job of pointing out the distinguishing characteristics of many nations, his lack of consideration for the natural formation of a nation prevents him from defining the concept further.

[1] Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha et al. (London: Routledge, 1990), 19.
[2] Ibid. 13.
[3] Ibid. 14.
[4] Ibid. 16.
[5] Ibid. 19.
[6] Ibid. 19.
[7] Ibid. 19.
[8] Ibid. 19.
[9] Ibid. 19.
[10] Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. 2001. The basic works of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 1129.
[11] Ibid. 1128-1129.
[12] Ibid. 1129.
Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. 2001. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library.
Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” In Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha, translated by Martin Thom, 8-21. London: Routledge, 1990.