Birth of Nation as a political form…

Acemgolu/Robinson duo (and many others) look at reasons for why nations fail? However, why and how did this idea of nation come about? History tells you there were two predominant political forms- city-state and Empires. So where did nation come from?

Pierre Manent a French political scientist, looks at this very interesting question:

The motor of human history turns on the question of political form. In the ancient world, two such forms prevailed: the city-state and the empire. Indeed, the history of the ancient world is essentially the history of the interplay of these two forms, whether through war (as in the Greek cities’ war against the Persian Empire) or through a city’s becoming an empire. Athens was an imperialistic city, but it didn’t succeed in becoming—or at least in maintaining—an empire. It was Alexander, who came from the periphery of the Greek world, who established the Greek empire. From then on, an imperial Greek space existed that was soon occupied by a newcomer: Rome, which made the almost unbelievable effort of transforming itself from a little city into a world empire (see “City, Empire, Church, Nation,” Summer 2012).

These are elementary historical facts, and yet, on close inspection, they reveal a remarkable intelligibility. The city is the smallest human association capable of self-government, while the empire is the most extensive possible grouping under a single sovereign. Thus we have two conceptions of humanity, two ways of crystallizing the fact of being human. Not only might we say that the ancient order was based on these two great political forms and their interrelations; we might add that this ancient order was the “natural” order of human things, as both forms developed spontaneously, without any previous idea or conception—unlike the modern state.

The persistence of empire in European history after the fall of Rome is striking: the Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, the German Empire, and now the European Union, which some call an empire. Yet empires didn’t determine the form of Europe. Nor was European life organized mainly in city-states, though the city saw some remarkable developments in such places as Italy, Flanders, and the Rhineland. Why did Europe gradually abandon the two natural forms of human association? And why did a third form, for which there was no equivalent in the ancient world, finally prevail?

He says Cicero was the first one to think on idea of a nation:

To understand the modern nation’s displacement of the ancient city and empire, one should start with Cicero, who was the first to confront the problem of the city’s viability and of its passage into another political form. Trained in Greek philosophy, Cicero had learned and accepted the classical interpretation of the republican government under which he lived: the notion that the best regime was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But that framework no longer made sense in the context of a Rome that was stretching beyond the limits of the city. Cicero was thus caught between old notions—in fact, notions that he had undertaken to explain to his compatriots—and the rise of something new. For something unprecedented was happening in Rome: for the first time, a city, the most compact and dense political form, was expanding in an effort to encompass the whole world. Herein lay a challenge for thought and for political action.

As for action, Cicero, of course, lost his life in that effort. But what especially interests us is the way he tried to adapt old categories to a new world. A careful reading of Cicero’s political works shows that they subject Greek philosophy to a profound transformation and contain certain doctrines or themes that we associate with modern political philosophy. One example of these innovations is that Cicero defines the magistrate as the “bearer of the public person.” But this notion of the public person—as abstracted at once from the particular judgment of the magistrate and from any immediate choice on the part of the citizen body—was unknown to the Greek city. Another example: his statement that the protection of property is the function of the political order—again, a foreign concept to the Greeks. A third: Cicero emphasizes the particularity of each person, distinguishing between the nature common to human beings and the nature proper to an individual person; he invites the individual not only to follow nature, as Greek philosophy would have it, but to follow his ownnature.

He goes on to mix religion, political development and idea of a nation. I could not understand the article fully as have very limited understanding of all these developments. Though found the whole idea around birth of nation really interesting..


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