14 The National Question from the Moral Point of View

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_15

[308]Chapter 14 The National Question from the Moral Point of View

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

C] This chapter originally appeared in 1895 under the title “Nationality from the Moral Point of View.” In B, this, the 11th chapter, spans pp. 359–389.

In addition to personal passions and vices, the ingrained forms of collective evil, which act endemically, hamper the task of embodying perfect morality in the collective whole of humanity. Despite the undisputed, though sluggish, progress of human social life,1 this evil even now, just as it did in antiquity, takes the form of a threefold enmity, a threefold immoral relation, viz., between different nations, between society and the criminal, and between the different social classes. All we need do is listen to how the French speak about the Germans, the Portuguese about the Dutch, the Chinese about the English and the Americans about the Chinese. Pay attention to the feelings and thoughts of the spectators at a criminal trial or the behavior of a lynch mob in America or our own lynching of sorcerers and horse thieves here in Russia. Finally, hear or read the exchanges of socialist workers in meetings, assemblies and in the newspapers with representatives of the bourgeoisie. It then will become clear that, apart from the anomalies of the personal will, we must still consider the power of superpersonal, collective enmity in its three forms. National, criminal and socio-economic questions have, apart from considerations of domestic or international politics, a special significance for moral awareness. From this point of view, the answer to them is all the more pressing, because to the distress of a hereditary moral infirmity is now added a worse evil, viz., a reckless attempt to treat the ailment by preaching a passive disintegration of humanity into its individual elements, on the one hand, and new forms of social violence, on the other.2,3


In our day, the human attitude towards nationality is categorized in our social consciousness4 in two ways: as nationalistic and as cosmopolitan. In the realm of feelings and tastes, there can be transitions and nuances, but in this matter there are only two clear and definite points of view before us. The first can be reduced to the formulation: We must love our nation and serve its good with all the means available to us, but towards other nations we have a right to be indifferent. In the case of a conflict between their national interests and ours, we ought to deal with these other nations in a hostile manner. The essence of the other, the cosmopolitan point of view is this: Nationality is only a natural fact, devoid of any moral significance. We have no obligations to the nation as such (neither to our own, nor to others) but only to particular individuals without any distinction of nationality.

It is easy to see at once that neither of these views expresses the proper attitude towards the fact of national differences. The first view ascribes to this fact an unconditional significance, which cannot belong to it, whereas the second withholds any significance to it. It is also easy to note that each of the two views finds its justification solely in the negative aspect of the opposing view.5

Certainly every sensible cosmopolitan reproaches adherents of nationalism not because they love their nation, but only because they consider it permissible, and in other cases even obligatory, to hate and despise aliens and foreigners. In precisely the same way, the most ardent nationalist, who is not devoid of reasoning, attacks the cosmopolitans not because they demand justice for foreigners, but only because they are indifferent to their own nation. That is, in each of these views even its direct opponents tacitly distinguish a good side from the bad, and naturally the question arises whether these two sides are necessarily connected. That is, (1) Does it follow from the love for one’s own nation that for the sake of its interests all means are permissible and that an indifferent and hostile attitude towards foreigners should be lawful? (2) Does it follow from standing in an identical moral relation [310]to all people that there should be an indifference towards nationality in general and to one’s own in particular?

The first question can easily be answered if only we would analyze what is contained in the idea of true patriotism, or love for a nation. The need for such an elementary investigation should be recognized by everyone, because everyone will admit that there happens to exist an irrational patriotism, which instead of the desired benefit results in harm and6 leads the nation to ruin. Everyone will also admit that there happens to exist an empty patriotism , which expresses only an unfounded pretension and, finally, that there happens to exist a patently false patriotism, which serves only as a guise for base, self-interested motives. What, then, is genuine, or true, patriotism?

Genuine love for someone is expressed in the fact that we wish and seek to give this loved one all good things, not only moral but also material, the latter, however, certainly on condition of the former. Furthermore, to everyone whom I love I wish material well-being, provided, of course, only that it is attained by honest means and used well. If my friend is in need and I, for this reason, help him to acquire a fortune by fraudulent means even though he has a guarantee of impunity for his crime, or if he is a writer and I advise him to enhance his literary fame by successful plagiarism, everyone would rightly consider me either a madman or a scoundrel, but by no means a good friend.

Therefore, it is clear that the good things that love makes us desire for another person differ not only in their external attributes but also in their intrinsic significance for the will. By their very idea, spiritual goods exclude the possibility of being acquired in some evil manner, since moral dignity cannot be stolen, justice obtained through robbery nor human love through a lawsuit. These goods are unconditionally desirable. On the other hand, material goods, which by nature allow for evil means, are desirable on 7 the condition that such means are not used, i.e., on the condition that material goals are subordinate to the moral goal.

To a certain extent, everyone agrees with this elementary truth. Everyone agrees that it is impermissible to enrich oneself, a friend, one’s family, the friend’s family, [311]or even one’s own city or the entire region in which one lives through crime. However, this clear-as-day moral truth suddenly becomes dim and murky as soon as it becomes a matter of one’s own nation. When it is a matter of the nation’s supposed good or in the service of its supposed interests, everything suddenly turns out to be permissible, the end justifies the means, black becomes white, a lie is preferred to the truth, and violence is extolled as valor. Nationality here becomes the unconditional and ultimate goal, the highest good and the criterion of the moral good for human activity. Such an unwarranted exaltation is merely illusory and, in fact, amounts to an abasement of nationality. Since the highest human goods cannot be attained by immoral means, by accepting the use of evil means in our service to the nation and legitimizing them, we limit the national interest to only those lower material goods that can be obtained and retained by evil and false8 means. This is, above all, an insult to the very nationality we wish to serve. It is a transference of the center of gravity of a nation’s life from a higher sphere to a lower one. Under the guise of service to the nation, it is only a service to national egoism . The moral bankruptcy of such nationalism is also revealed by history, which loudly enough shows that nations prosper and are praised only as long as they do not take themselves as an end but serve higher, universal ideal goods. Moreover, history also shows that the very idea of the nation or of nationalities as the basic and definitive bearers of the collective life of humanity is, in fact, groundless.9,10


The segregation of the human race into definite and stable groups with national characteristics is not a universal and original fact. Leaving aside those savages and barbarians who even up to now live in separate tribes, gentes and roving bands, national divisions have never exclusively predominated in the civilized part of humanity, not even in the era of the state way of life, when the “gens” ultimately ceded its place to the “city” or “country.”11 The fact is that, although country and nation are more or less mutually connected, they do not completely coincide. [312]In antiquity, we almost never encounter a clear division by nationality.12 There, we see either independent civic communities, i.e., groups much smaller than nations united not nationally, but only politically, such as the cities in Phoenicia, Greece, and Italy. Or, on the contrary, we find larger groupings than nations, namely, the multinational states or so-called “world empires,” from the Assyro-Babylonian to the Roman. These are crude precursors of a panhuman union, in which ethnic distinctions have merely a material, but not a decisive significance.13 The principle14 of nationality as the supreme principle of life was applied at almost no time or place in antiquity. The contrast between one’s own people and others existed in that era even more powerfully and ruthlessly than now, but it was not determined by nationality. In the kingdom of Darius and Xerxes, people of different tribes and countries looked on these kingdoms as their own, as equally subject to one common power and one supreme law. Foreigners and enemies were, for them, only those people who had not yet submitted to the “great emperor.” On the other hand, although the Greek Athenians and Spartans spoke one language, had identical gods and clearly had a sufficient awareness of their national community, this did not prevent them throughout the course of their entire history from regarding each other as foreigners and even mortal enemies. Similar attitudes also existed between other cities or civic communities in Greece. Only once in a thousand years did a genuine national or pan-Greek patriotism actually appear, namely, at the time of the Persian invasion. However, this coincidence (and, incidentally, it was only an approximate one)15 between practical solidarity and national peculiarity did not even last 40 years and gave way to the long16 and bitter slaughter of the Greeks by the Greeks in the Peloponnesian War. This state of bloody struggle between small communities within one nation, which was considered quite normal, continued right up to the moment when all these communities together lost their independence. However, this loss was not for the sake of national unity, but only so that, out of political division and under the authority of foreign rulers, the Greek nation could immediately turn to the role of cultural unifier of the whole world at the time. The opposition between fellow citizens and foreigners (i.e., between inhabitants of another, albeit also Greek, city) now lost all its significance [313] (in the sense of a supreme practical principle). However, an opposition between their own nation and that of the foreigner’s did not replace it. There remained another, a broader opposition, namely, that between Hellenism and barbarism, by which membership in the former was certainly not determined by one’s birth or even by one’s language, but only by assimilating the higher intellectual-aesthetic culture. Certainly even the most pretentious of the Greeks did not regard Horace and Virgil, Augustus and Maecenas as barbarians. Indeed, before this, the Macedonian kings Phillip and Alexander,17 the founders of the Hellenic “world monarchy,” were not ethnically Greek. It was thanks to these two foreigners that the Greeks passed directly from a narrow, parochial patriotism of separate civic communities to a universal-cultural self-consciousness, without ever returning to the time of the national patriotism of the Persian wars.

As for Rome, all of Roman history was an uninterrupted transition from the politics of the city to the politics of a world monarchy —ab urbe ad orbem 18—without pausing at a purely national moment. When Rome defended itself against the Punic invasion, it was still only the strongest of the Italian cities, but when it destroyed its adversary, it imperceptibly crossed the ethnographic and the geographic frontiers of the Latin world and recognized itself as a world-historical force, anticipating by two centuries the poet’s reminder:

Remember your fate, O Rome, to rule over nations mightily,to give protection humbly, subduing the proud by arms.19

Roman citizenship soon became generally accessible, and the formulation “Rome for the Romans” seduced no one on the banks of the Tiber: Rome was for the world.

While the Alexanders and the Caesars politically abolished the insecure national frontiers in the East and the West, cosmopolitanism as a philosophical principle was elaborated and disseminated by representatives of the two most popular schools—the wandering Cynics and the imperturbable Stoics. They preached the supremacy of nature and reason, that a single essence underlies all that exists and the insignificance of all artificial and historical divisions and borders. They taught that the human being by one’s very nature, consequently any human being, has a higher dignity and purpose, [314]which lies in freedom from external attachments, delusions and passions, in the unflinching valor of the man, who

Were the vault of heaven to break and fall upon him, its ruins would smite him undismayed.20, 21

Hence, we have the inevitable recognition of all externally given divisions—civic, national, and so forth—as conditioned and illusory. In its sphere and from its point of view, Roman jurisprudence supported this philosophical idea of a natural, and therefore universal, reason, of virtue the same for all and of equal rights.22, 23 And, as a consequence of this collective intellectual labor, the concept “Roman” became identified with the concept of the “world” not only in its outward extension, but also in its inner intension.24


By the time of Christianity’s appearance within the borders of the ancient cultural world, the Jewish nation alone had manifested a strong national consciousness. However, here it was indivisibly connected with a religion, with a correct feeling of the intrinsic superiority of their religion, and with the presentiment of its25 world-historical purpose. The national consciousness of the Jews found no realistic satisfaction; it lived on hopes and expectations. The brief greatness of David and Solomon was idealized and transformed into a golden age. However, the enduring historical sense of the nation that had created the first philosophy of history in the world (in the book of Daniel concerning world monarchies and the kingdom of the truth of the Son of Man26) did not allow it to rest on an embellished image of the past. Instead, the Jewish nation was forced to put off its ideal into the future. This ideal, however, having from the outset several traits of world significance, which [315]the inspiration of the prophets carried forward, were decisively free of everything of narrowly national significance. Isaiah already proclaims the Messiah as the banner around which all the nations have to gather,27 and the author of the book of Daniel fully adopts the point of view of universal history.

However, this messianic universalism , which expressed the true national self-consciousness28 of the Jews as the blossom of the highest ideal of the national spirit, was held only by select sages, and when the banner predicted by the prophets was raised in Galilee and Jerusalem for all nations, the majority of the Jews with their official leaders (the Sadducees) and partly also with the unofficial teachers (the Pharisees) turned out to be on the side of national religious exclusivity against the highest realization of the prophetic ideal. The inevitable conflict and break between these two aspirations, as though between the “two souls”29 of the Jewish nation, adequately explains (from a purely historical point of view) the great tragedy of Golgotha, out of which Christianity arose.30

It would be, however, an obvious error to associate the principle of cosmopolitanism with Christianity. There was no occasion for the Apostles to preach the idea of non-nationality. The harmful, immoral aspect of national divisions, namely, mutual hatred and malicious31 struggle, no longer existed within the borders of the then “universe”32—the “Roman Peace” (pax Romana) abolished the warring of nations. The spearhead of Christian universalism was directed against other, deeper divisions, which retained all their practical force despite the ideas of the prophets, philosophers and jurists. A religious division remained in force between Judaism and paganism; then there was the cultural division between Hellenism (which also included educated Romans) and barbarism; and finally, there was the worst division, a socioeconomic one, between slave and the free, which retained its full force in real life despite [316]the theoretical protests of the Stoics.33 These divisions were in direct contradiction with the moral principle, which was not at all the case with the national differences of the time (these were as innocent in the Roman Empire as, for example, the provincialism in Brittany and Gascogne is in contemporary France). There was a denial of any solidarity between Jews and pagans, between Hellenes and barbarians, between slaves and those who were free. It was an opposition of superior to inferior beings, in which the inferior were deprived of moral dignity and human rights.34 This is why the Apostle had to proclaim that in Christ there is neither Jew nor pagan, neither Hellene nor barbarian, neither free human being nor slave, but a new creation.35 A new creation, however, and not a simple reduction of the old to one denominator.36 The Apostle replaces the negative Stoic ideal of the dispassionate human being who is indifferent to the ruin of the world with the positive ideal of the human being who commiserates and is in accord37 with all of creation. A man who, having adopted as his own the sufferings and death that were endured by the universal man, Christ, for the world, now participates in His triumph over death and in the salvation of the entire world. In Christianity, consciousness passes from the abstract38 man in general of philosophers and jurists, to the real panhuman being , and with this the old enmity and alienation between different categories of people is completely abolished. Any person, if only he or she will allow “Christ to be formed” in oneself,39 i.e., if he or she is imbued with the spirit of the perfect human being40 and determines one’s entire life and activity by His image as the ideal norm, will come to participate in the Deity by the power of the Son of God abiding in oneself. For a person in this reborn state, individuality—like nationality and all other particularities and distinctions—41 ceases to be a boundary but becomes the basis of a positive unification with a collective panhumanity or the church (in its true sense) which complements him. According to a well-known saying of the apostle Paul,42 a peculiarity in the structure and function of a certain organ, for example, the eye, distinguishes it from other organs. This does not, however, separate that organ from the others or from the entire body. On the contrary, it [317] constitutes the basis of its definite,43 positive participation in the life of the entire body and its unique significance in relation to all the other organs and to the entire organism. Likewise, in the “body of Christ” individual peculiarities do not separate each of us from all others but unite each of us with all others, it being the basis of its special significance for all and of the positive interaction with all others. However, the same thing obviously applies to nationality.44 Panhumanity (or that church which the apostle preached) is not an abstract idea but the harmonious plenitude of all positive attributes of the new or reborn creation, i.e., not only of personal attributes but of national ones as well. The body of Christ, as a perfect organism, cannot consist of simple cells alone but must include more complex and larger organs, which are naturally represented here by different nationalities. National character differs from individual character not by something fundamental, but by its larger scope and by the stability of its bearer.45 If Christianity does not require the absence of individuality, it cannot require an absence of nationality. The spiritual rebirth or renewal that it actually demands of persons and of nations46 is not an elimination of natural attributes and powers, but only a transformation of them, a communication of new content and direction to them. After their rebirth with the Spirit of Christ, Peter and John [318]retained the positive aspects and distinctive features of their characters. Likewise, they were by no means deprived of their individuality; on the contrary, their individuality was strengthened and developed. In the same way must it be with entire nations that accept Christianity.

The actual adoption of the true religion with the unconditional principle that it contains47 should eliminate much in national (as well as in personal) life. However, not all that is subject to elimination by virtue of a higher principle constitutes a positive attribute or characteristic. Historical sins, which weigh on the national conscience, occur, as does an evil collective will and an erroneous direction in national life and activity. It is necessary to be liberated from all this, but such liberation can only reinforce a nationality, and strengthen as well as enlarge the expression of its positive character.

Since there were almost no clearly defined, independent and self-conscious nationalities on the historical stage at the time, the first preachers of the Gospel had no reason to concern themselves with the question of nationalities, which had not yet entered the life of humanity. Nevertheless, we find in the New Testament ­definite48 indications of a positive attitude towards nationality. In his words to the Samaritan woman, “salvation is of the Jews,”49 and in a preliminary admonition to his disciples, go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,50, 51 Christ sufficiently displays love for His own nation, and His final command to the apostles, “Go and teach all nations,”52 gives us to understand that for the future He thought not only in terms of separate individuals, but also of whole nationalities outside of Israel.53 Furthermore, having become the apostle of tongues, Paul did not thereby turn into a cosmopolitan. Having distanced himself from the majority of his countrymen in the all-important matter of religion, he did not become indifferent to his nation and its special purpose: “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish [319] that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all,…. Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.”54


Before they could realize the ideal of a panhumanity within themselves, nations had to be themselves established and take shape as independent bodies. Let us look at this process in particular55 where it was fully achieved, namely, in Western Europe. The Apostolic successors, to whom the command to teach all nations was passed, soon had to deal with nations in their infancy, nations that were in need of an elementary education before they could really be taught. The Church reared them conscientiously and did so with much self-sacrifice. And later, continuing its tutelage, the Church forced them to pass through what was not a bad schooling, even though it was somewhat one-sided. The historical adolescence and youth of the Germano-Romantic nations under the tutelage of the Catholic Church—the so-called Middle Ages—came to an end but by no means correctly. For the spiritual authorities failed to notice the advancing maturity of their pupils and, out of natural human weakness,56 insisted on preserving the former attitudes. The anomalies and revolutions that occurred after this have no bearing on our subject. What is important for us is the one phenomenon that reoccurred in the national development of every European nation, notwithstanding the most diverse and, in other respects, antithetical conditions. Thus, this phenomenon undoubtedly indicates some general57 ethico-historical law.

For obvious reasons, Italy acquired a national self-consciousness before all other European nations. The Lombard League in the first half of the twelfth century indicates this obvious58 national awakening. However, this external struggle was only a jolt that called to life the true forces of the Italian genius. At the beginning of the next century, the newborn Italian language on the lips of St. Francis already expressed feelings and thoughts of world significance, equally understandable to both the Buddhist and the Christian. At this time, Italian painting began [320](Cimabue), and later (at the beginning of the 14th Century) appeared the all-embracing59 work of Dante , which alone would be enough to make Italy great. In this and the following centuries (up until the 17th Century), Italy, torn apart by antagonistic cities and local rulers, by pope and emperor, by French and Spanish, produced everything that makes Italy significant and valuable to humanity, and of which the Italians could rightfully be proud. All these immortal philosophical and scientific works, as well as works of poetic and cultural genius, had the same value for other nations, for the whole world, as it did for the Italians themselves. The creators of Italy’s true greatness were, without doubt, its genuine patriots; they attached the highest significance to their fatherland. However, this was not, on their part, an empty pretense that led to false and immoral demands—they actually embodied in works of unconditional value the supreme significance60 of Italy. They did not consider the affirmation of themselves and of their nationality as something true and beautiful. Rather, they directly affirmed themselves in the true and beautiful. These works were not good because they glorified Italy, but, on the contrary, they glorified Italy because they were in themselves good—good for everyone. Under such conditions, patriotism has no need of defense and justification. In fact, in appearing as a creative force and not as a sterile reflection of “an irritation of idle thought,” it justifies itself. The wide dissemination of the Italian element corresponded to the intrinsic intensity of the creative process in this fruitful epoch. Its cultural influence in Europe extended from the Crimea in the east to Scotland in the northwest. The first European to break through to Mongolia and China was the Italian Marco Polo. Another Italian discovers the New World and a third, extending this discovery, leaves it his name. For several centuries, the literary influence of Italy predominates in all of Europe. The Italians are imitated in epic literature, lyric poetry, and the novel. Shakespeare takes from them the subjects and the form of his dramas and comedies; the ideas of Giordano Bruno stir philosophical thought both in England and in Germany; the Italian language and Italian fashions dominate everywhere in the higher strata of society. During all this flowering of national creativity and influence, the Italians obviously were not concerned that Italy be kept for themselves (it was, on the contrary, for anyone who liked it), but only that what they make be something also for others and [321]add universal significance to it. That is, they worried about those objective ideas of beauty and truth, which through their national spirit received new and worthy expressions. What conception of nationality logically follows from this? With the national history of Italy in our hands one cannot claim that nationality is something that exists by itself and is self-contained, living in itself and for itself. For this glorious nationality turns out to be in fact only a particular form of universal content, living in that content, suffused with it and embodying it not for itself alone, but for everyone.61

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