Global Citizenship

The Western articulation of the idea of world-citizenship begins with Diogenes’s idea of the κόσμου πολίτης. Since, for fourth-century Greeks, a πολίτης came from a πολίς, the Cynic philosopher must have meant the idea to be paradoxical, since the thought was that you could have the universe as your hometown. A modern oxymoron that does a similar job, I suppose, is the idea of the global village. But that doesn’t quite get it, since the πολίς, unlike a village, was the highest unit of government … a “city-state,” we would now say. Πόλεις could join in alliances, leagues—as Homer’s Achaeans did—but they were constitutionally independent. Because Diogenes’ phrase was an oxymoron, we have to assume that he took it figuratively: he knew there was no world-state of which he could be a citizen. So ancient cosmopolitans, like modern ones in the world since the Enlightenment, have mostly not aimed at the construction of a world government, or at becoming literal citizens of one cosmic society. This makes these Western traditions somewhat different from ancient Chinese ideals: Confucians thought all those under heaven—tianxia (天下)—should properly be ruled by the Emperor who had the mandate of heaven, so their “cosmopolitanism” did imply a universal empire. Western cosmopolitans, in contrast, have thought of the whole human community as bound together by an ethical bond rather than a political one, with each human being having a call on the moral concern of every other. Furthermore, far from supposing that everyone should live in the same way, joining a uniform universal civilization, they’ve tended to favor the recognition that human beings live best in many diverse ways in disparate societies, each with languages and literatures, laws, arts and traditions of its own. That’s why a modern cosmopolitan is likely to display an interest in literature and arts from many places, to be keen on visiting the Great Wall, the Pyramids, Pompeii and Machu Picchu, and to be in the audience for world music and a great variety of global cinema. A unified world with a uniform culture wouldn’t produce the range of cultural artifacts that a cosmopolitan aesthetics admires. So too, in politics, the cosmopolitan favors a world of alliances among societies, operating at many levels, not the accumulation of political authority into a single state. Or, at any rate, those are the ideals of this cosmopolitan.