Thoughts on Empires and Nations

Thoughts on Empires and Nations

In 2013-2014, a year during which I was discerning with the Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph, I started to pray the liturgy of the hours regularly. In the psalms and in New Testament hymns especially the Benedictus and the Magnificat, the Church calls itself a nation, invokes Abraham and the patriarchs as its fathers, and sees itself as the true Israel. This excited my imagination and caused me to reflect on the kind of political unity that the Catholic Church was supposed to be. A nation, but a nation called out of every nation, starting from the birth of the Church on Pentecost, when Jews from every nation were present in Jerusalem due to the feast of Shavuot and heard each in his own tongue the preaching of the apostles. So, what kind of political unity fit the Church, I asked myself?

One classic answer that I quickly came to embrace then was Empire. An “empire” in this understanding is a supernational political unity that unites many nations under it. This fits the Christian message, insofar as it is supposed to be a universalization of the religion of the Jewish people, the end of the dividing wall between gentile and Jew. Many German thinkers in the early XXth century reflected on this under the heading of the concept of a “Reich”, taking advantage of how the term can mean both “Empire” but also “Kingdom”. They argued that in a Reich nations would be united organically, functionally, with each nation fulfilling its own mission or destiny amongst the peoples of the empire. Their arguments, however, can often seem to be arguments not for the unity of nations, but for the dominion of one nation over others, especially when they argue that Germany must “take on the burden” of the governing or ruling function amongst the nations… And indeed, defenses of empire often end up sounding like defenses of imperialism.

Here is an interesting argument for empire. I thought I had read it in Dante’s Monarchia, but upon consulting the text I think I actually read it into Dante:

• A human being is only free when they act for their own sake, and not for the sake of another.
• A member of a political community acts for the sake of that political community.
• An empire is the political community that encompasses all human beings.
• A partial political community is one that does not encompass all human beings, and furthermore, is not part of an empire.
• Therefore, if a human being is a member of a partial political community, they act for the sake of that smaller political community and not for the sake of all human beings.
• Therefore, a human being who is not the member of an empire does not act for the sake of themselves qua human being. So, they are not free.
• In conclusion, if a human being is free and is member of a political community, they are a member of an empire, either directly or by belonging to a small community contained within an empire.

Such an argument upsets the very notion of a “national right to self-determination.” A nation is necessarily a political community that does not encompass all human beings and furthermore a sovereign nation-state is not part of an empire. According to this argument, the citizens of a nation state are not free because they do not act for the sake of themselves as human beings, but only as members of their nationality. This becomes clear in cases of war, where the citizens of two nations are unfree human beings as the enmity between their nations violently keeps them from the peace they desire qua humans.

There is no national-right to self-determination, then, because nations are communities of human beings and human beings in a sovereign nation-state are not free human beings, i.e., not self-determining human beings. That is, the right does not exist because there are no rights to impossible things, and a self-determining nation is akin to a self-determining atomic individual, a chimera. No man is an island and no nation is a continent. Only in a community can a human being be free, for only in a community can they not only survive, but flourish in good hap. And only in a community of all mankind can a human being live well as a human being, and not as a German or a Brazilian.

So only an empire can be self-determining. This need not be an empire in act, however – it can be potentially an empire. That is, it need not be a political community that actually encompasses all of mankind, it can also be just a political community that could encompass the human species in all its diversity. The Catholic Church is one example of this, but the Jewish people is not. However, if we consider a community including not only the Jews, but also “the Noahides”, the Gentiles that follow the seven laws of Noah, then this is a community that can potentially encompass all of humanity, as all the non-Jews can become either Jews or simply be Noahide.

It is only such a human group open to all that can determine itself, because only in it are people free to determine themselves as human beings. It is a certain version of humanity – Christian humanity or Jewish humanity in the examples given above. What does this mean? This means that there are different possible ways of flourishing for a human being, different ways of ordering our highest values, such as wisdom, faith, beauty and truth. It is in order to realize one certain constellation of these ultimate goods that we gather into political communities, this just is what a polis is. Seeking any particular conception of human flourishing is difficult, and it requires not only avoiding evils opposed to happiness, but furthermore, preferring some goods to others, it requires laws that reward and facilitate the search for some goods, restrict the availability of others and punish some ends that are seen as evil. For all goods to be equally available would be detrimental to any moral pursuit and furthermore it is impossible because the opposition of goods is inscribed in their nature: the easy availability of addicting pleasures makes spiritual goods more difficult to obtain, for instance.

Consider however, that a group of people seeks to fulfill a certain ideal of humanity in a given place and time. They set up laws towards this end. Over time language and art develops to express and contemplate these values, laws and customs are refined. As the ends of human action they also determine in what way the very natural environment is seen as useful or beautiful and the bare physical space becomes imbued with meaning, as do the available food and drink. The circumstances can also affect the ideal adapting it to what is possible for the group. Ultimately, the group, although committed to a universal human ideal, becomes through its adaptation to the ideal a particular human group. It becomes a nation, in fact.

It would seem therefore that an imperial human project fosters a nation at its center. And the members of this nation are actually privileged in the empire. Naturally so. Though anyone can adhere to the human ideal of the empire, this is easier for the members of the imperial nation. They are in a situation analogous to what Catholics call “state of perfection” – the additional rules and customs that they take on themselves make it easier for them to fulfill their universal human ideal. This does not mean that they are any closer to this ideal than anyone else, but they are better situated to attain it in virtue of their way of life. Naturally, if such an empire is ordered towards assisting people in fulfilling this human ideal, it will privilege the members of its core nationality. That one nation therefore should be above others seems to be part of the imperial idea.

These thoughts end up by challenging both of the examples given above. The Catholic Church indeed proposes a universal human idea – but can Catholics point to a Catholic nation at its core? Religious Zionists can point to a state and a nation that strives for their ideal – but where is their universal outreach?

Header image credit: The Tower of Babel, Alexander Mikhalchyk

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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