Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism

are important political ideologies that shaped modern understandings of nationness and which continue to inform – and, indeed, circumscribe – present-day thinking about national, international, and universal belonging.

NATIONALISM AND COMSOPOLITANISM are part of a broader complex of ideas about nations and national identity that emerged along with the modern nation in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. In an age that witnessed not only two key revolutions which redefined the nation-state (the American Revolution and the French Revolution) but also ongoing reconfigurations of national identity and national borders both on the Continent (Napoleonic Wars) and within Britain (the Acts of Union bringing Scotland and Ireland into Great Britain), the question of nation was a critical one. Nationalism and cosmopolitanism operated in the period as competing (although not always oppositional) responses to this question. In general, nationalism and cosmopolitanism rest on different notions of what a nation is and what it means to belong to a nation.

Nationalism typically defines the nation in particularist terms such as language, history, blood, and geography. In these models, the nation is considered homogeneous and unified, and it is thus frequently imagined as an organic whole. Such particularist notions of nation lend themselves to understandings of national identity and national character as something essential or non-voluntary. Also, because it conceives the nation as both distinct and discrete, nationalism often justifies political projects of national sovereignty and self-determination and supports economic and political policies such as isolationism and non-intervention.

Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, builds out of Enlightenment notions of the civil contract, and – like liberal or civil nationalisms – typically defines the nation in the rationalist and abstract terms of shared rights and shared constitution. In this formulation, national identity is neither essential nor exclusive, and can therefore co-exist with other national and transnational affiliations. In general, however, cosmopolitanism subordinates national belonging to universal belonging. As a political or economic category, then, cosmopolitanism considers nations in their relation to international or global structures, arguing that nations are dependant upon those broader structures for their integrity or preservation, or arguing for the elimination of nations or national borders altogether. As the above definitions suggest, nationalism and the cosmopolitanism have a close and unstable relationship in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European thought. At their most basic, however, nationalism privileges the national over the universal, and cosmopolitanism privileges the universal over the national.

From 1802 to 1829, the Edinburgh Review was arguably the most influential proponent of cosmopolitanism in Britain. From the start, the early Edinburgh aligned itself with both Scottish and Continental projects of enlightenment, advocating an ‘innocent cosmopolitanism’ of the intellect to counter the prevailing ‘violence of national animosity’ (ER 1:253). Setting itself against the parochial prejudices and insular small-mindedness of its predecessors and rivals, it cultivated a cosmopolitan attitude of disinterestedness and open-mindedness towards subject matter both local and foreign. Indeed, an important part the Edinburgh’s mandate was to inform Britons about political and intellectual developments taking place outside of Britain, especially those taking place of the Continent, and its first volume tellingly included numerous reviews of foreign works, including J. J. Mounier’s De l’Influence attributée aux Philosophes, and Charles Villers’ Philosophie de Kant. Significantly, the periodical’s commitment to reviewing foreign works continued throughout the Napoleonic wars, a time when other periodicals ceased to review foreign literature for fear of being suspected of Jacobinism. Influenced by the socio-political theories and political economy of the Scottish Enlightenment, the early Edinburgh Review took a cosmopolitan approach to the important issues of its day, including the question of nation. More often than not, the periodical advanced a cosmopolitan understanding of the nation as a heterogeneous and non-unified civil entity, an understanding that informed its own self-identification as a British periodical coming out of a post-Union Scotland, as well as its support for various national insurrections taking place on the Continent. Politically, the early Edinburgh considered British affairs to be closely tied to what was happening on the Continent, and it broached a liberal model of Europe as a ‘great federacy’ of nations (ER 1:354). Economically, it drew on the political economy of countryman Adam Smith to argue for a commercially-based internationalism in which commodities circulated freely across national borders. Overall, the cosmopolitanism of the early Edinburgh Review stood out in the nationalistic political climate of early nineteenth-century Britain, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, and it was repeatedly attacked as unpatriotic: ‘the watchword of Government was let loose upon us; and we were accused of wishing to lower the flag of England to her former rebellious colonies; and, in conjunction with our Transatlantic brethren, to aid Bonaparte in his views of universal empire:—and this because we were wanting in that truly British feeling, which is ready to sacrifice every opinion to that of the Minister of the day” (ER 20:234). Renewed interest in the question of nation at the end of the twentieth-century, however, has given new life to many of the cosmopolitan tenets advanced in the early Edinburgh Review.

Esther Wohlgemut, University of Prince Edward Island


Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Scottish historian, essayist, man of letters and social critic, for a while a close friend of Francis Jeffrey and later one of the pivotal figures on the Victorian literary scene.

BORN in modest circumstances in rural Scotland, Carlyle was educated at Edinburgh University and, after school teaching, earned his living by private tutoring and freelance writing.  An early intention for the ministry was soon abandoned, and though Carlyle was to be revered as a force for good and for the value of a personal religious life, his own religious position remained ambivalent.  Passing through interests in science and mathematics, he found his first literary inspiration in German literature (he was a close correspondent with Goethe) and then in the social and political history of his own country.  His substantial histories of the French Revolution (1837) and of Frederick the Great (1858-65) established his international reputation as historian, yet his wide interests and prolific output defy simple summary.

Early journey work produced translations of both parts of Wilhelm Meister (1824-7) and a Life of Schiller (1825), but a more authentic voice emerged in two seminal essays, known as ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) and ‘Characteristics’ (1831), both of them first published in the Edinburgh Review.  With these, Carlyle brought into a focus a penetrating analysis of the effects of the industrial revolution of his own lifetime on society and on the lives of those who worked in the new factories.  ‘Mechanical’ forces impinging on lives which for centuries had been lived according to essentially rural and traditional patterns brought about the changes highlighted in these essays, a theme he further developed in the wonderfully experimental Sartor Resartus (1834), which explores the possibilities of fiction to represent a consciousness caught by these mechanical forces, struggling with religious doubt, and energised by the transcendental forces Carlyle read about in the romantic writers of Germany.  With an incisive and memorable style, Carlyle made many converts (he was widely translated) and his conversational powers were rightly celebrated.

After he stopped writing for the Edinburgh, a steady output of essays continued while Carlyle wrote (always slowly and with difficulty) Chartism (1840), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) (originally given as lectures), Past and Present (1843), Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845) and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850).  His political views, always idiosyncratic and often unpredictable, were initially seen as radical by cautious contemporaries like Jeffrey. (Later they would shift steadily to the right, as Carlyle saw in Victorian society an erosion of personal and public values, and in ‘Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question’ (1853) and ‘Shooting Niagara’ (1867) he became openly anti-abolitionist and racist, alienating many of his earlier admirers.)  Carlyle never lost sight of the world-view of his parents and his early years in Scotland, longing for the certainties of a God-centred Universe even while raging at the decline of his own society.

Jeffrey befriended both Carlyle and his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-66) – the two of them produced the nineteenth century’s most distinguished and voluminous collection of letters – in the closing years of Jeffrey’s editorship, when the couple were living in Edinburgh and before they moved to Craigenputtoch and thence to London, where they eventually settled. Carlyle was soon conscripted to review German literature (for which Jeffrey expressed a contempt), which gave the Edinburgh its first German specialist and Carlyle the opportunity to reach the wide audience enjoyed by the Review.

Ian Campbell, University of Edinburgh

The French Revolution

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION is conventionally dated from 14 July 1789, the day of the storming of the ancient Parisian prison, the Bastille, and the symbolic emancipation of its handful of prisoners. What had begun slightly earlier and continued throughout the ‘revolutionary decade’ of the 1790s was the effective dismantling of the institutions and the social and political hierarchies of ancien régime of France, carried on argumentatively within a newly constituted and representative National Assembly, as well as (concurrently and more violently) in the streets and fields of the nation. For three years (1789-1792), France remained a constitutional monarchy on the British precedent, through its National (later Constituent) Assembly carrying out a number of liberal reforms in the political, ecclesiastical, legal, and economic administration of the country and drafting its Declaration of the Rights of Man (1791). This period, however, saw the rise to power of the left-wing Jacobin Convention, headed by Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton, which initiated a second, more radical revolutionary phase during which the king, Louis XVI, was deposed and eventually executed (January 1793) and a series of savage retaliatory reprisals, driven by paranoia and intimidation and known as the Reign of Terror, was carried out. This was halted by the Thermidorian coup of July 1794, then from October 1795 a coalition known as the Directory attempted to reinstate the more bourgeois constitutional values of the Revolution’s first phase, only to be removed by the military coup of November 1799 which brought Napoleon to power.

‘The French Revolution’, wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘may be called the master theme of the epoch in which we live’. Certainly a consciousness of the Revolution – and of the possibility of revolution – pervades the pages of the Edinburgh Review, just as it pervaded Britain itself throughout the 1790s and beyond. After an initially enlightened welcome from British intellectuals, the Revolution was widely – and, by conservative alarmists, indiscriminately – execrated, as Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793. By and large, the Edinburgh was concerned to salvage what it took to be the positive aspects of the Revolution from hysterical attacks by the anti-Jacobins, while condemning the extreme rationalism and radical extremism that undermined attempts in France to establish an historically informed liberal constitutionalism. In the very opening article of the Edinburgh, Jeffrey congratulates Jean Joseph Mounier for not being ‘one of those, whom the horrors of the revolution have terrified into an abjuration of the principles of liberty’ and in speculating on the causes of the French Revolution offers a rationale for what would become its own reformist agenda: ‘It proceeded from the change that had taken place in the condition and the sentiments of the people; from the progress of commercial opulence; from the diffusion of information, and the prevalence of political discussion’ [ER, 1 (1802), 2, 7-8].

It looks to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone,, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe. All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.

— Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. C. D. Clark (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2001), p. 154.

It created the politics of the impossible, turned madness into a theory, and blind audacity into a cult.

— Alex de Tocqueville, from an unfinished volume on the French Revolution, Œuvres Complètes, ed. J. P. Mayer  (Paris, 1951—), vol. 2, part 2, p. 255