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The Meaning of Nationalism

This post addresses the meaning of nationalism. What is the foundation of nationalism? What is the nation? How scholars define nationalism and the nation? How the meaning of nationalism has changed throughout history? Does the meaning of nationalism always remains the same or it changes according to a particular time, context and people?

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Scholars agree that the root of nationalism is the nation. But the meaning of nation is so complex, and has so many variations that it lacks a specific definition. What is certain is that the meaning of nation has changed over time, and varies according to the group of people that appropriated it and the historical time in where it is used. It is important to know first how the meaning of nation changed from its original definition to its modern version which associates it with the base foundation of nationalism.

Liah Greenfeld demonstrates best how the meaning of nation became related to the phenomenon of nationalism. Nation comes from the Latin word natio, meaning "something born". It was, however, defined in a demeaning way for it was used to elucidate the lower status of foreigners in Rome. During the Middle Ages, the word nation was utilized in universities to delimit groups of students that came from diverse places and spoke different languages. An example is the University of Paris, which was composed of the nations of France, Normandie, Picardie and the nation of Germanie. At this time, since the word was applied to students, it came to be associated with a "community of opinion and purpose". After the Council of Lyon in 1274, the word nation acquired a new additional meaning. Since the word was assigned to the different individuals who were part of the "ecclesiastical republic" and that represented different religious and secular rulers, it gained the connotation of embodying the cultural and political authorities of a social elite.

Greenfeld suggests that it was during the early sixteenth-century England that the word nation came to be the equivalent of the word "people". When the word was used to define the population of England, it indicated the appearance of the "first nation in the world" and "launched the era of nationalism." People began to be seen as the bearers of sovereignty. Finally, the word nation changed its meaning from "sovereign people" to that of "a unique sovereign people" when it was applied to other countries and groups of people, which had traits in common, such as territory, ethnicity, and politics. The only problem encountered in Greenfeld's argument is that she recognizes England as the first nation of the world, which is debatable since most scholars believe it was France. The importance of Greenfeld's demonstration of how the meaning of nation changed through time is that she showed that at a certain point in history it was associated with sovereign people, whether that point of history took place in England or France is another question altogether. For what is known about history is that ideas and events can develop in different parts of the world in a relatively same historical epoch.

Attention also must be paid to the complications and disputes concerning the meaning of nation. The word nation comes from the Latin word natio, which originated from the past participle of the verb nasci- to be born. As a result, the Latin noun, nationem connoted breed or race. According to Walker Connor, scholars widely restrain themselves from characterizing the nation as a kinship group and opposed the idea of common blood ties being essential in the composition of a nation. Evidence has shown that most groups of people, that affirm to be a nation, are a combination of diverse ancestry. Nevertheless, what is of significance at the end "is not what is but what people believe is." This means that scholars have to be very careful when defining a nation, and avoid equating the nation with race. Louis L. Snyder argues that racialists tend to see the concept of nation as a synonymous with race, and that most human beings find it difficult to believe in a common mentality when lacking common blood ties. Human beings associate deep solidarity with physical bonds comparable to those of a family. Another great problem of identifying nation with race is that the former's characteristics are historical and social, thus can be changed by society, while the latter implies the continuity of a specific kin and blood type. Snyder rightfully maintains, for example, that there was never in existence, nor is "a German or American race, but there are German and American nations."

Another significant issue involving the meaning of nation is that it does not have a particular meaning. The nation has been and still is defined in numerous ways. John Stuart Mill in one of his writings, Nationality (1861) defined the sentiment of belonging to a nation as an identification of the people with race and descent. The fact that a community shared the same language and religion may be an essential factor. Mill also argued that geographical delimitations are determinant. But he considered that the most powerful trait in the composition of nation was the "identity of political antecedents; the possession of a natural history, and consequent community of recollections." When a group of people share the same past and have the same memories, then there is a great probability of that group of people been a nation. Mill, however, believed that none of these traits is fundamental, or a requisite in the composition of a nation.

In his famous lecture at the Sorbonne University, What is the Nation? (1882), Ernest Renan argued that "a nation is a spiritual principle resulting from the profound complications of history, a spiritual family, and not a group determined by the configuration of land." Renan, like Mill, considered a common past essential for the base foundation of a nation. His concept of nation as a spiritual principle involved the past and the present. The past perceived as a common "legacy of memories" and the present conceived as "the will to continue to value heritage that has been received in common." Note that Renan put the will of a group of people to preserve the past and to continue making memories together above ...

Solution Summary

This solution is comprised of a detailed and long explanation of the meaning of nationalism. When this ideological phenomenon emerged? What eminent scholars have to say about nationalism? Has its meaning changed throughout history? Why? What is the importance of the nation?