The individual in the global village

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.      

4 thoughts on “The individual in the global village

  1. Hi Nick, thanks for that comment. I hope you realize that the way you think is a minority view. In the Dutch newspapers, one may currently find many articles on how many Dutch people were injured in Haiti. The same happened for all previous disasters. For some reason, although the Netherlands is a small country, ‘we’ seem to be everywhere, and ‘we’ are especially concerned about the fate of our compatriots.

  2. Nice post Otto!
    My own feeling has always been that except for sports, where we have all been trained to be a bit jingoistic, my feeling of local community and solidarity only extends to a very narrow circle of people that I actually know, especially family and close friends. I never felt like my bond to the person who serves me in a restaurant or drives the local bus was any closer than with the guy who does the same when I’m on vacation in Thailand. Thus as interesting as I find the debate between local and global community to be, I find it operates at a level of abstraction that makes me uncomfortable. I find it very easy to divorce my emotional attachments to nearness from an intellectual commitment that sees a narrow national affiliation as problematic and potentially immoral. It seems like the anti-cosmopolitain philosophers you refer to would have a different attitude towards local versus foreign bus drivers, waiters, or restaurant servers, but I have a hard time relating to that. When I read about an earthquake in Haiti or a Tsunami, the first thing I think is “body count” and the last thing I think is “how many Canadians were there?”

  3. In the Netherlands, we are certainly not ‘whipped, beaten and murdered’ by any prosperous elite rulers, so I guess we are not one of those 200 nations you mentioned (I am pretty sure the figure is much lower than 200). The situation in the Netherlands is very similar to that in the US. We do not worship the Government, in fact: we criticize it constantly, comparing our Prime-Minister Balkenende with Harry Potter, because he looks like Harry Potter. As you say, the Government is there to make sure that we, as individuals, feel safe, secure, and thus free to make a living and a meaningful life for ourselves. That is why it is kind of scary if the Queen, which is formally our Head of State, calls for more neighborliness. I certainly hope she does not mean that the government will force us to be more neighborly!

  4. Is government at any level, invented, designed or fashioned for the purpose of providing justice or preventing injustice? For those who look to government as our nation’s highest authority, the dispensing of justice is its highest duty, instead of a nation based on freedom principles, where the people are the highest authority and government’s highest duty is to prevent injustice, usually closest to the people served. There is a major difference between justice given and injustice prevented, just like equality and inequality. Justice and equality inspire admiration, but preventing injustice and encouraging inequality made America the great nation it became. It is easy to decide which is best when comparing America’s prosperity to almost 200 other nations in the world where most starve, are whipped, beaten and murdered by their prosperous elite rulers.

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