Fervour to put down roots lies in Exodus

Chosen Peoples
January 28, 2005

This book marks a new development in Anthony Smith's thinking about the origins of nationalism as a modern doctrine. It focuses primarily on Europe as the birthplace of nationalism, synthesising two themes that have long been at the centre of Smith's intellectual concerns: the ethnic origins of nations and the biblical idea of the "chosen people" - a people called by God to be "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus xix, 4-6).

Smith suggests that the two themes are intimately connected and that together they have shaped the constitution of European nations since the 18th century.

For Smith, ethnicity alone cannot explain the fervour and persistence of collective attachments to the national idea. Religion is also essential in its guises of substantive belief and civic ritual. Building on Elie Kedourie's insistence on the religious aspects of nationalism, Smith defines nationalism as a political religion. Borrowing this concept from the Durkheimian functionalism of the political scientists of the 1960s, Smith adds to it the substance and specificity of Judaeo-Christian belief and ritual. These constitute the sacred sources of nationalism: "The Jewish and Christian traditions... have formed the matrix of the genesis of the political religion of nationalism and provided the cultural resources for the national identities that nationalism has helped to define and canonise."

Smith's particular contribution to the understanding of nationalism as a political religion is the hypothesis that the Old Testament notion of ethnic election is a key factor in not only the persistence of the Jewish people but also in the emergence and survival of European nations.

The book can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Smith examines the idea of "chosenness" and its implications for national identity, independence and popular mobilisation among Jewish and Christian peoples.

The first effect is the motivation to pursue, often in competition with one another, the most righteous identity - namely, to be the authentic keepers of God's moral commandments. Second is the motivation to acquire or defend territory as the land of godly people; and third, the sacralisation of a whole people.

European nationalism, as the pursuit and defence of statehood even at the cost of one's life, has social and popular appeal because the "nation", for which political independence is sought, is a communion of ethnically related seekers and bearers of holiness. Consequently, European nationalism sacralises a people through not only assembly, but also through its incorporation of the biblical belief in the people's holiness.

Smith explores this hypothesis by going further back than Conor Cruise O'Brien and Adrian Hastings to study of the Old Testament and the vast corpus of scholarly and rabbinical interpretation of the idea of the "chosen people". He then examines European proto-national and national movements where this biblical concept can be found. Smith discerns two interpretations of chosenness, which have given rise to two types of nationalism in pre-modern and modern times: one covenantal, the other missionary. The first is inward looking and concerned with national conformity with God's law. It has inspired primarily Protestant peoples such as the Dutch, English, North American pioneers and the Boers of South Africa. The second is outward looking and often imperialist, concerned with converting the world to God's will. It has inspired the Greek core of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Russians, the French and others.

Smith's approach is one of "qualified modernism": through their emotive power and cultural richness, ethnicity and collective charisma turn modern rationalist, industrial and individualist societies into trustees of tradition and holiness. They limit secularism and global anomie by the reaffirmation of the category and traditions of the sacred just as one thought that all was lost. It is in this sense that modern societies are turned into nations.

This is evident in all aspects of national life, especially in national territories, historiographies and art. These are examined in the book's second part. They embody and symbolise what Smith calls "ethnoscapes" and "ethnohistories". Thus, the territories of the modern nation-states circumscribe or acquire the emotional resonance of ethnic homelands. In addition, national historiographies are typically narratives, real or mythical, of the "golden age" or ages of the dominant ethnic group; and national art has typically been ethnohistory painting, while landscape painting has become ethnoscape painting.

Both "ethnoscapes" and "ethnohistories" are imbued with transcendental value, associated as they are with memories and experiences from the age of faith that endure in the modern age of reason. As George Mosse, to whom Smith pays homage, has shown, borrowings from religious ceremonies have permeated national ceremonies. With national monuments and war memorials, these have become central institutions of national life.

This book is like Jacob's coat of many colours: rich and varied in ideas and insights that should appeal to European historians and social scientists. One issue that could have been further developed is the role of the 18th-century classical revival in the genesis of nationalism. Although a central theme in Smith's examination of paintings, sculptures and monuments devoted to the idea of self-sacrifice for the common good, the European classical tradition is not fully linked to either ethnicity and religion. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that European nationalism embraced a wide spectrum of Judaeo-Christian and classical values, thereby reconciling Romanticism with Enlightenment classicism -the sacred with the profane.

Smith is not dogmatic about his claims. He thinks of them as Einstein did of his theory of relativity: "that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory".

Athena S. Leoussi is lecturer in sociology, politics and international relations, Reading University.

Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity

Author - Anthony D. Smith
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 330
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 19 210017 3

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