Nationalism and Mythical Thinking

by Mark English

A lot of nonsense is talked about “destiny.” I’m referring here to the idea that individuals or groups can be seen to have some kind of pre-existing or pre-ordained path to fulfillment that they may discover and embrace.

Certainly, given an individual, say, at a particular stage of life, there are choices he or she may make – relating to profession or love life, for example – which will have consequences for his or her future happiness. But to talk of destiny is to poeticize and possibly metaphysicalize matters. There’s no harm in this, some might say.

I’m not so sure about this, being of the view that we make better life decisions if we try to free ourselves from certain kinds of quasi-religious and Romantic myth, which still maintain a grip on mainstream Western culture. My point applies not just to personal matters and individual “destinies” but also to the political realm – to notions of ethnic or national identity.

The idea of destiny goes back to the classical world, of course, where it was tied to religious and metaphysical ideas regarding fate (or Fate). But it was picked up and developed during the Renaissance and especially during the Romantic period, when it was repackaged in more modern form and applied in a wholesale way to nations and ethnic groups. National groups came to be seen as the bearers of some kind of group soul or “genius” and so to be subject to destiny in the same way as individuals are sometimes seen to be.

As this process occurred, local patriotisms gradually gave way (or at least ceded ground) to more active and activist forms of patriotism and nationalism. The much-anthologized sonnet “Heureux qui comme Ulysse…” by the 16th-century humanist Joachim du Bellay typifies the former approach and gives expression to the author’s deep emotional attachment to his native Anjou. A hymn to the French language and local culture, it is essentially untranslatable. [1] But it typifies the sort of natural attachment that people often feel to their childhood haunts and the culture and traditions associated with their early years.

In the wake of the Reformation and other disruptive forces, pan-European humanism, based on a sense of a common classical cultural heritage – which in no way precluded the sorts of local attachments to which Du Bellay’s writings gave expression – was gradually supplanted by a new, more narrowly political form of nationalism based on the (in my opinion) confused and dangerous Romantic myth of national self-determination.

Gradually the nuanced forms of patriotism which happily coexisted with various imperial and local political arrangements mutated into cruder nationalisms that have been associated with wars and revolutions in Europe and elsewhere over the last two or three centuries. In fact, this kind of Romantic nationalism was part of a package of political ideas (including Marxism/Leninism) that Europe exported to post-colonial Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia and which still drives politics in much of the world.

I am not saying we should reject the nation-state. Nation-states of one kind or another constitute the bedrock of the political and legal status quo. We can’t turn the clock back to some older kind of system or impose a new model willy-nilly. We have to work with what we’ve got. What I’m saying is that we will do so more responsibly if we see the flaws in the current system and, in particular, reject the Romantic twaddle which underlies much current political activism.

It may appear that there are inconsistencies in what I am saying, but I think any inconsistencies are only apparent. Readers who are aware of my previous (at least qualified) support for foreign policy realism and my critiques of the imperialist ambitions of American and British neoconservatives may be puzzled that I appear here to be questioning the pre-eminence of the nation-state (upon which realists base their thinking about foreign policy) and giving at least tacit or qualified support to older forms of imperialism. [2]

But my point about the problems of neo-imperialism and American exceptionalism was not predicated on an absolute rejection of ideas of empire or hegemony. Given that not all states are equal or equally viable, it is inevitable that certain states will become regional hegemons. A state or territory that is too small or too weak to defend itself or cope economically will come to some kind of arrangement, usually with a stronger neighbor or neighbors. Sometimes large blocs form which are tied to one powerful state: empires, in effect. And such empires can be global. During the 19th and 20th centuries we saw, first Britain, then the US playing (in their different ways) the role of global hegemon.

There are both good and bad aspects of imperial power. Empire creates order, even if it is an imposed order (Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana). Arguably, this is its main justification. My point about America in recent times is that its foreign military interventions have been disastrous failures and have contributed to instability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Likewise, NATO actions have increased tensions with Russia, the old Cold War enemy that elements of the political and security establishments seem single-mindedly intent on demonizing at every opportunity.

America is a fading economic force seeking to maintain the illusion of overwhelming wealth and power; in effect to deny current economic realities. The danger is that irresponsible ideologues – specifically, Washington neoconservatives – will be tempted to strike in a military way while the US still retains a military edge on its main challengers, China and Russia.

My approach here (and in my previous pieces on related topics) is critical rather than systematic. All I am really trying to do is to highlight the obvious mismatch between the ideological thinking of a certain group of American policymakers and analysts and current geopolitical and economic realities; to make more explicit a few things which are sometimes glossed over or overlooked.

What I am not trying to do is to present a plausible model of how the complex systems under discussion operate. Given the nature of these systems, this would be impossible. The systems in question are driven by a mix of factors, including economic and psycho-social factors. The precise nature of this dynamic lies beyond the scope of current science and, in terms of modelling and prediction, well beyond the scope of current, and possibly even future, methods.

These complexities make me very skeptical of the narratives of historians. And it is upon such narratives (or simplified versions thereof) that political myths are usually built.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we need myths, both personal and political, in order to live. We need to see purpose and meaning in our individual lives and in history. But some myths are benign and some are not. Sometimes a myth that may be benign (i.e. have good social consequences) at one time or in one situation will turn malignant as circumstances change. I’ve talked in the past about the way the myth of American exceptionalism (associated with neoconservative views of America’s role in the world) may once have had good consequences, but it has recently led to foreign policy disasters.

I am particularly wary of myths that retain or take on a metaphysical dimension – which are, in other words, seen to have a reality that goes beyond the psychological or psycho-social. The myth of American exceptionalism, for example, may be seen in very pragmatic terms; or it may be metaphysicalized (i.e. seen in terms of Romantic or quasi-religious ideas) to a greater or lesser extent. As a general rule, the more metaphysicalized a myth is, the more (on my reckoning) it is out of touch with reality – and so potentially dangerous.

I am not suggesting that there is a necessary correlation between the degree of metaphysical commitment and violence, but it must be admitted that when metaphysical and religious ideas enter the political sphere they tend to undermine and supplant more pragmatic approaches.

This can be seen, for example, in respect of the seemingly intractable problems associated with America’s policies regarding Israel and the Middle East, which are clearly complicated by ideological and religious factors. Pragmatic considerations (concerning oil, the petrodollar, etc.) certainly apply, but there are also deep politico-religious issues involved as well as secular Romantic ideas about nationhood, ethnic identity and self-determination. America’s close historical, economic and military ties with Israel further complicate the picture.

Zionism as a movement arose in the context of – and even now, in its secular dimension, owes more than a little to – European Romantic political thought. In his response to an essay by Hillel Halkin, Steven B. Smith emphasizes the Romantic roots of Zionism and, in particular the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am which was “an attempt to maintain a distinctive Jewish identity – a national spirit – among Jews increasingly tempted by the dreams of assimilation to modern liberalism.” [3]

As Smith points out, these ideas have links with Romanticism and the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder.

… Herder … thought of each people as shaped by its own unique national spirit or Volksgeist. In this romantic vision, history presents itself as the development of a pleasing variety of such national spirits, each with its own distinctive, culture, taste, and tone. Thus, in “The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry” (1782-3), Herder regarded the Hebrew Bible as expressing the Ursprache or original poetic genius of the Jewish people – a thought certainly compatible with Ahad Ha’am’s formulation more than a century later of the Jewish national spirit.

Cultural Zionism, though it represents a very different approach from the pragmatism and technologism of Theodor Herzl, can nonetheless be seen to complement it. But how, asks Smith, “does such a vision … comport with the idea that Torah and Talmud are not simply the exfoliation of the Jewish national spirit but at root the product of a divine gift, of divine revelation?”

This is a crucial question at a time when religious parties in Israel are playing a significant role in political life and in a world in which movements such as Modern Orthodox Judaism and Religious Zionism, as well as more fundamentalist forms of both Judaism and Christianity, are flourishing. In many cases, policy positions and claims to territory are perceived as deriving from – and being justified in terms of – ancient scriptural sources interpreted in a religious and not just in a purely historical way.

Any such approach goes well beyond the sort of political myths I have been discussing and is clearly quite incompatible with modern Western secularism. To the extent that governments or other authorities rely on or give credence to such approaches, they move themselves out of the orbit of Western secular political thought.

Fundamentalist modes of thinking have always dominated in the Islamic world. What is particularly troubling is that this kind of thinking – characterized by literalist interpretations of scripture which are often applied directly to social and political questions – seems to be becoming more popular and widespread amongst both Jews and Christians. The influence of religious parties in the Knesset, for example, has grown in recent times. Such modes of thought have gained ground even in countries like the US which have a strong commitment to political secularism.

Mythical and magical thinking is, to a large extent, unavoidable. Romantic and other secular myths will persist, and will continue to affect how we think about many things, including nationalism. But fundamentalist religious ideas – whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – are in an altogether different category. And, in today’s highly interconnected, heavily armed and polarized world, they pose an even greater threat than other forms of unreason – not so much in themselves, but at least in so far as they are applied to political questions.


  1. Nonetheless, here are some translations – and the original.
  2. Here is my most recent piece on the general topic of foreign policy.


  1. mpboyle

    I was going to let your original comment pass, but now, in responding to dbholmes, you have again expressed “puzzlement at the lack of discussion as to anti-Semitism as the cause for the creation of Israel.”

    Why should I have discussed or even mentioned anti-Semitism as a cause for the creation of Israel *in the context of this essay*? Of course anti-Semitism was a key driving factor behind the Zionist movement. Nothing I said could possibly be seen to deny this.

    In your earlier comment you wrote:

    “Given that the Jewish people is one of the oldest (and culturally rich) continuous ethnoi in the world, with an unbroken presence in Israel since ancient times it is most certainly a poor example…”

    It happens to be an example which involves different kinds of myth (secular and religious in addition to non-myth-based factors) and which happens to loom large in respect of US foreign policy. The broader context of the essay is a series of pieces on US foreign policy. America’s Middle East policies cannot, I would suggest, be understood if the close links with Israel are ignored. And attitudes to Israel and attitudes to certain Israeli policy directions are affected in many cases by attitudes to Zionism and to certain sacred texts. By contrast, secular and religious mythical thinking – (with nationalism) the main topic of the essay – is less relevant to America/China relations, for example.

    “Whatever Zionism’s ties to Romanticism, the Jewish people are far too ancient to fit all that easily into the post-1648 nation state box or its various European manifestations.”

    What you say here is in no way incompatible with what I wrote.

    Your point and the link about the Palestinians’ perceptions of kinship with the people of Jordan does relate to questions of national identity and to that extent is relevant to the topic of the OP. But the focus seems to be on the merit of various possible solutions to disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, a very specific and difficult question which can hardly be dealt with here in a satisfactory way.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for your comment. Other than a brief mention of Herzl, the impression the article left on me was of Zionism and the other nationalisms in Europe being variations on the same theme, with Zionism having a bit of an anti-assimilationist twist. To me it just seemed a bit out of focus without mention of anti-Semitism as a driving force. As to the Palestinians and Israelis, my point is not at all to delve into the minefield of possible solutions, merely to mention that myths and national identity are a complex issue, including for Palestinians.

Leave a Reply