sidlogo2.GIF - 0.5 KSt. Lawrence Institute
for the Advancement of Learning


Ian Garrick Mason

Morley Leonard Evans, in "Wordplay: Man, Markets, and Language" (Discourse, Summer '93), wrote a stimulating article on the words at the root of such concepts as economics and cosmopolitanism. I was pleased to be reminded of the cosmopolitan ideal, for it occurred to me that while it has a very long history as a concept, as a practice it has shown itself to be all too vulnerable to the darker side of its own virtues.

The first golden age of cosmopolitanism, long before its current zenith, was the Hellenistic age of the eastern Mediterranean, a time which is generally defined as dating from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, a battle which marked the final establishment of Roman supremacy over the region. The Hellenistic world owed its very existence, in large part, to the notion of cosmopolitanism, for the conquests of Alexander the Great were motivated partly by the ideal of a unified world; when he prayed at a banquet at Opis, he prayed for the union of hearts (homonoia) among all peoples, and for the formation of a commonwealth of the Macedonian and Persian peoples. Alexander achieved his world empire, but he died young, and his empire began to splinter soon after his death, torn by civil war, assassination, and plots.

The Hellenistic world that emerged from this crisis, however, was one in which Greek soldiers and administrators had been spread from Egypt to the Indus river, deep in modern-day Pakistan. These men stayed on to administer and fight for the kingdoms that emerged from Alexander's empire, and their presence formed a base for that varnish of Greek culture, learning, and language that was to mark the cosmopolitanism of the time.

Common Greek, the koine, became the lingua franca of the time, and a person could travel virtually from one end of the known world to the other speaking only it. Citizenship, in many Greek cities at least, became a flexible institution, and residents were allowed to change their citizenship so long as they did not hold more than one at the same time. Great centres of learning, like the enormous cities of Alexandria and Pergamum, actively encouraged the great thinkers and scientists of the time to settle in them, regardless of nationality. Religion was also deeply affected, as the traditional Greek pantheon suddenly found itself exposed to the deities of the East: Isis, Thoth, Anubis, Baal, Marduk. In many places, these deities merged their roles and spawned new worship, a process known as syncretism.

The notion of cosmopolitanism itself, in fact, formed one of the central tenets of the dominant philosophy of the Hellenistic age, Stoicism. Stoics opposed classical Greek notions of racial and linguistic superiority, and saw all citizens of the inhabited world, the oikumene, as brothers. All people contained within them the divine spark, they argued, and all were equally subject to the same divine reason, the logos. Thus all people -- master and slave, Persian and Greek, orator and silver-miner -- were brothers. The Stoic love of self (oikeiosis) was to be expanded by the individual to include friends, family, and, ultimately, mankind. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, described an ideal state, a world city in which all would be citizens, and all would be bound together not by human law, but by the spirit of brotherhood. For all their utopianism, however, the Stoics were well-grounded in the realities of the world around them, and they asserted that the citizen had a duty to support his country, recognizing too that the ideal state, if it ever came, would emerge from the system of nations that already existed.

The mind-set of the age, then, was remarkably open and humanistic in orientation, and science, trade, the arts, and literature flourished under its wing. Yet, in the end, the cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic age went too far; the Greeks began to accept influences uncritically, and the influences from the East turned out to be overpowering. The labouring masses needed a religion which spoke to them, and the austere and virtuous road set out by the Stoics began to lose its appeal when set against the direct and revelatory wonders of the Eastern gods. The religious syncretism of the age thus turned out to be a one way street, as the ancient beliefs from Egypt and Babylon showed their strength. In the place of Stoic reason, duty, and virtue came the personal salvation, rebirth, and immortality promised by mystery cults. Hellenistic science, too, came under pressure, the greatest casualty of which was astronomy, snuffed out by the deterministic, anti-rational astrology of the Babylonians, which would dominate astronomical thinking for the next fifteen hundred years. Magic, too, acquired a new vigour, and spells and charms of all kinds punctuated the day-to-day lives of the region's inhabitants, offering short cuts to wealth or love.

In the end, the rise of Rome was fortunate indeed for the Greeks, for in conquering the Hellenistic world, Rome became the defender of Greek culture. The tide from the East was not turned back, but it rose no higher, and the Greco-Roman heritage survived to be passed on to Medieval Europe, and to our own time.

Today's cosmopolitanism is far more pronounced than that of the Hellenistic age, yet it has sprung from similar roots. The European imperial domination of the 19th century world, when it receded, left an enormous amount of Western influence behind: parliaments, states (if not nations), bureaucracies, railways, and even doctrines like communism. Even the most nationalistic and anti-Western of African dictators, it has been pointed out, still issue their (Western) socialist polemics to their (Western) parliaments dressed in (Western) suits. Though our own oikumene is much larger than that of Alexander's time, we too have our koine in the English language, and a person can travel around the world armed only with English, as many young Canadian and American backpackers well know. In addition, the retreats of empires brought with themselves immigration into the home countries, producing cities of startling ethnic mosaics: London, Birmingham, Paris; meanwhile, the magnetism of economics has produced mosaics of its own: Miami, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles. Religion, too, has undergone remarkable blendings, most vividly in the syncretic voodoo of Haiti, formed from a blend of Roman Catholicism with west African tribal religion. Finally, it is true, though cliché, that Coke is sold world-wide, and Madonna's videos can indeed be seen in almost every place where televisions are, except perhaps in theocratic Iran or paternalistic Singapore. Global commerce has not created a world culture, but it has added to the familiar Western "varnish" over existing ones.

I mention music videos for a purpose, however, for it is within the youth culture of the modern world that cosmopolitanism is most fully apparent. Though young people still identify themselves as Canadians or Americans, the "MTV generation" cares very little about nationalistic issues like Canadian-content regulations on the air waves. The 17 year-old surfers on the Internet see the entire world as their province, and routinely debate and exchange views with people from other countries. There is a certain "statelessness" to it all, and indeed companies like Benneton (as in "The United Colours of...") have perceived and benefited from the strength of this "citizens of the world" concept among young purchasers.

Yet cosmopolitanism, and our open society, now faces two threats. First, tolerance of other cultures has given way to an uncritical boosterism of them, and along with this has come a suspension of judgement about the true worth of competing ideas. The doctrines of moral and cultural relativism, of course, have played a central role in this phenomenon, yet there is more at work here. In this society of pulsing images and satellite down-links, it has become all too easy for creative people to mix cultural strains together to produce, not something better, but merely something different. Critics applaud such cultural syncretism, playing "spot the allusion" almost as a mental game. Yet relativism, and innumerable sets of "equally valid" standards, has left us without measuring posts, so we are never quite sure whether a cultural innovation is an improvement over what we have now, or merely another random fad.

Traditional religions have, in the main, taken this relativism to extremes, and in their quest to be relevant and inclusive they have become quite irrelevant to many of their followers. The modern failure of traditional religion to provide any sort of a moral program or answers to the life questions of believers has left a tremendous void in the world of the spirit. In response, citizens now jump at any self-help book that claims to be relevant to their lives, or at crystals, or at charismatic preachers, seeking desperately for something to tell them how to be happy (or "self-actualized"). So the New Age is upon us, yet what it offers is not new at all, but ancient and instinctive, offering short cuts, revelations, and mystery, just as it did in Hellenistic days. For all its modernist overtones, computerized astrology is merely a faster way of reaching the same erroneous solutions that the Babylonians did.

The second threat, and the more dangerous one, is the acceptance by elites of the doctrine of tribalism, a doctrine which may well turn out to be the bogeyman of the twenty-first century, much as extreme nationalism was the bogeyman of the twentieth. The "progressive" thinkers of the modern world no longer believe, if they ever did, in the ideal of the individual being judged on merit, irrespective of tribal identity. The deck is so loaded, say the progressives, the society so racist, the employers so sexist, the media so lookist, that individuals will never get a fair shake. Only if groups show their power will they get the rewards they are entitled to. This view of society is rooted in a natural occurrence: the difficulties that individuals from one group have in fully and totally understanding the experiences of individuals from another. Men and women are the obvious example of this, and misunderstanding between them has been the inspiration for half the literature of the world. Yet from this natural friction, the progressives derive a profound distrust of the Other. No matter what men may say, warn the radical feminists, they remain chauvinistic and sexist, whether they know it or not. This is a style of thinking which springs from our xenophobic and instinctive past, and it is profoundly dangerous, for it shuts off minds from the evidence of the senses, and it sees in the outsider an enemy forever, never to be completely trusted. It is the polar opposite of the open-minded sense of brotherhood required by cosmopolitanism.

And so even ideas begin to falter, as the most liberal and open-minded people become racked with self-doubt. "Perhaps I only believe what I do because I am a white male," says the thinker. "Perhaps my ideas are not universal, but only particular and local." They are encouraged to feel this by the exclusionary tactics of the tribalists. Men may not take part in "Take Back the Night" marches because they cannot share in the feelings of women. Whites may not attend conferences on the oppression of "writers of colour." "Voice appropriation" is a term that has been coined to forbid the imaginative writings of authors whose subjects are members of races other than their own. In this system, ideas are not right or wrong, better or worse, but are strictly demarcated, assigned to their proper groups and thereupon made immune to criticism.

We can hope, of course, that the next generation will grow up without the distrust that our own generation is so fanatically engendering in society. Perhaps they may find our own concerns quaintly irrelevant as they surf the faceless, sexless, raceless domains of the emerging Net. Perhaps they will. Yet they are being raised in an education system which has wholly internalized the group-orientation once rightly considered so dangerous. Further, while well-off children with home computers and curious minds learn the lessons of cosmopolitanism, many others of their generation are learning the more ancient lessons of tribal affiliations: territory, gang honour, "face." Like the revelatory religions of the Near East, this state of mind offers the temptation of direct solutions: us against them, attacking "oppression" through quotas and group preference, eliminating "unsound" ideas with declamation and sanctions. Left alone, this xenophobic, anti-cosmopolitan, and destructive thinking will shut off debate, will stifle criticism, and will confine thought to permitted narrow channels. And the current flowering of cosmopolitanism, the greatest the world has known for 2000 years, will sicken and die, to be replaced not by something better and more enlightened, but by something far more ancient, and far more dark.

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