By Otto Spijkers
One of my favorite topics to think about is the place of the individual in the world. It seems I am not the only one who does so. In fact, in her 2009 Christmas address, the Queen of the Netherlands warned ‘her’ people about the increasing individualism in Dutch society. According to our Queen, there is a real danger that the Dutch are slowly alienating themselves from the local community, from the warm bonds of neighborliness, and instead turn into isolated, cynical, and cold-hearted individuals. And the social networks on the internet (Facebook, Hyves, etc.) only accelerate this process, said the Queen, because they replace ‘real’ connections with ‘unreal’, or virtual connections.
The Queen’s speech has been criticized, especially for not taking into account the negative aspects of neighborliness. Indeed, one of the proudest achievements of the Netherlands is the level of tolerance that we have achieved. There is no ‘neighborhood watch’ anymore, to comment on other people’s lifestyles. This personal freedom is something to cherish, and to defend, because it is extremely fragile, especially when under attack by our own Queen.
So what has this Dutch trend of individualization to do with the rest of the world? Well, it is often said that it is the consequence of globalization. Indeed, both trends, i.e. individualization and globalization, started around 400 BC, with Diogenes. Diogenes is considered to be the first cosmopolitan philosopher, and he was also one of the first champions of personal freedom (see a previous post for more about Diogenes). Diogenes’ version of cosmopolitanism can be labeled cynical cosmopolitanism. According to this version of cosmopolitanism, being a citizen of the world means being all alone. In other words: Diogenes rejected local, patriotic ties but did not replace them with global ties.
This type of cosmopolitanism is generally seen as something negative. People are social beings, after all, and the joy of being free citizens, traveling the globe, can never replace the joy of being good neighbors and playing one’s part in the local community. The ‘selfish’ aspect of cynic cosmopolitanism has often been pointed out. For example, in the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 4th Edition (1762), cited in Professor Kleingeld’s magnificent inaugural lecture on cosmopolitanism, one can find the following definition of ‘cosmopolite’:
Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie. Un Cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.
To be free is not only selfish, it can also be a lonely state of existence. This too has often been pointed out. An illustrative example from the past is Jean-Louis Fougeret de Montbron (Kleingeld also used him as an example here). The first lines of his book Le Cosmopolite ou Le Citoyen du Monde are as follows:
L’univers est une espèce de livre dont on n’a lu que la première page, quand on n’a vu que son pays. J’en ai feuilleté un assez grand nombre que j’ai trouvé presque également mauvaises.
The Dutch writer Gerard Reve may serve as a more recent example. He wrote in Op Weg Naar het Einde (the original is in Dutch, and the translation is my own):
See here, to start at the beginning, the truth that made me free, but not at all contented. I suspected it for a long time, but now I know for certain: that I will never, no matter where, no matter how old I have become, find peace, and that I shall never see a region or city, which is not exhaustive because of its familiarity, since I will have seen everything, without exception, once before.
We might also refer to the Diogenes Club, a fictional club introduced in The Greek Interpreter, one of the Sherlock Holmes stories included in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1894. Sherlock’s brother is a member of this club. Holmes explains to his sidekick, Dr. Watson that ‘there are many men in London [..] who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.’ Besides shy people and misanthropists, cynic cosmopolites might also wish to join this club.
Another example is Houellebecq (see a previous post for more about him). Michel Houellebecq has described extreme forms of individualist lives, especially in his works Les Particules Elémentaires and La Possibilité d’une Ile. None of these individualists seem particularly happy.
So what is the alternative? Another version, the more positive version, of cosmopolitanism is stoic cosmopolitanism, defended for example by emperor Marcus Aurelius (for more on the two different versions of cosmopolitanism, see Kleingeld’s inaugural lecture). According to this version, all people of the world share a common rationality and common values, despite their different cultural backgrounds. The Stoics have described their version of cosmopolitanism as follows:
All the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but [..] we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and [..] we should have a common life and an order common to us all, as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field.
This version of cosmopolitanism is perhaps more positive: it emphasizes the togetherness of all men, as one giant flock of sheep. It can provide a basis for modern theories of global responsibility, such as the theories of Charles Beitz or Thomas Pogge. According to this form of cosmopolitanism, the world is one big neighborhood, or a ‘global village,’ as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it in his report We, the Peoples. Of course, if the world really is one big neighborhood, it is an abstract neighborhood. And thus it provides only abstract bonds between people, and is thus also a quite lonely affair. We must therefore conclude that to be only a cosmopolite, and play no part in the life of any local community, is a lonely business, regardless of whether one is a cynic or a stoic cosmopolite. This was nicely described by Nussbaum in her article Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism, first published in the Boston Review, Vol. XIX No. 5 (October/November 1994), as follows:
Becoming a citizen of the world is often a lonely business. It is, in effect, as Diogenes said, a kind of exile — from the comfort of local truths, from the warm nestling feeling of patriotism, from the absorbing drama of pride in oneself and one’s own. In the writings of Marcus Aurelius (as in those of his American followers Emerson and Thoreau) one sometimes feels a boundless loneliness, as if the removal of the props of habit and local boundaries had left life bereft of a certain sort of warmth and security. If one begins life as a child who loves and trusts its parents, it is tempting to want to reconstruct citizenship along the same lines, finding in an idealized image of a nation a surrogate parent who will do one’s thinking for one. Cosmopolitanism offers no such refuge; it offers only reason and the love of humanity, which may seem at times less colorful than other sources of belonging.
And thus, in the end both forms of cosmopolitanism cannot replace the solidarity within local communities. But must they be considered a threat to such local solidarity and neighborliness? The stoic version does not exclude local solidarity, but only intends to add global solidarity to local solidarity. The absolute freedom of Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism, however, does pose a threat to local solidarity. In other words, both within the global community and within the local community, the challenge is to keep the balance between personal freedom and solidarity a steady one. This is true both on a domestic and on a global level. The Queen tipped the domestic scales by focusing too much on neighborliness, and Diogenes tipped the global scales by focusing too much on the joy of personal freedom.