Web Exclusives: PawPlus
April 5, 2006:
The Cosmopolitan Scholar.*
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Eight score and three years ago—or, to be more exact, on August 31st 1837—Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, on the subject of “The American Scholar.” It is perhaps the best known lecture ever given to that august assembly; Oliver Wendell Holmes famously called it the country’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
There is a vast gap between the context in which Emerson spoke about the intellectual life of this nation and the one that we inhabit today. For the American university today is not the poor cousin of Oxford and Cambridge and the Sorbonne, or of the older German and Italian universities, but their peer: indeed, in the view of most scholars, more than their peer. By now we can surely claim that what Emerson called “the sluggard intellect of this continent” has done what he asked of it: it has “look[ed] from under its iron lids, and fill[ed] the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” The world now looks to this country and her universities for leadership in the sciences, natural and social, and in the humanities; and the literature of the United States has given the world some of the works it now most treasures.
Of course, it remains true that this is a society that values less than many others, past and present, what Emerson called Man Thinking—the worlds of philosophy, and poetry and physics, of metaphysics, mathematics and music: if scholars and writers are known and respected in this country outside the academy, it is most often for what they do outside the academy, as politicians, performers or pundits of one sort or another. Horace, who was one of the great ornaments of Augustan Rome, and who has been for thirty years one of my favorite poets, has a well-known ode to Melpomene, his muse, in which he tells her that he knows that her servants will never win fame in the ways that mattered most to Romans—boxing or chariot racing or war and conquest. Rather, their remuneration will be that of the poet. And so the ode ends by acknowledging the muse’s role in giving the poet these rewards:
totum muneris hoc tui est,
monstror digito praetereuntium
Romanae fidicen lyrae…
Or, in a rough and unpoetical translation:
All this is your reward
That I am pointed out by the finger
the minstrel of Rome’s lyre…
I doubt there are many streets in this country where a poet or a physicist or a novelist could say, with Horace, monstror digito praetereuntium—I am pointed out by the finger of passers-by—as America’s novelist or physicist or poet: and certainly not in Washington, our Rome. Emerson’s scholar—and for Emerson the poet was as much a scholar as the historian or the astronomer—seemed, he said, to stand in a “state of virtual hostility … to society, and especially to educated society.”
Well, if Emerson’s description was accurate, then we today have found a mean between the public celebration that was Horace’s privilege and the lonely—if necessary—exile from society that Emerson described. For today the American academy—the scholar’s domain—is a vast area of the American economy and American national life. There are scores of cities, like Boston, where universities and colleges are collectively or individually the biggest businesses in town; every year millions of people matriculate at American colleges. A large part of our university system is public: Berkeley, one of the world’s greatest universities, is the creature of the state of California, and we here, in the supposedly private sector, live on the Federal dollar as much as on our endowments. The politicians, who in this as in so many things are only following the public, may often seem to value scholars and writers largely as the source of commercial value: the patents of our biologists and chemists and physicists and computer scientists, the copyrights of our novels, which can be transmuted into the scripts of our movie industry. But still this country sustains the richest system of tertiary education in the world.
So that the challenge for our universities now is not, as it was in Emerson’s day, to become fully and originally American, it is, I think, rather to find a way to balance our American-ness and our obligations to the society that so generously sustains us, on the one hand, against the cosmopolitan needs of the life of Man Thinking, on the other. We are learning how to live in a world of ideas that is not simply American but also global and thus, in a certain way, the shared space of all of humankind.
I speak of “cosmopolitan needs” because I believe that the spirit of cosmopolitanism provides the proper starting point for thinking about the role of our university in a global context. And so I would like to talk to you today about that spirit.
I grew up in Ashanti, the region of Ghana that is the residuum of the great Asante empire that dominated our region of West Africa before its conquest by the British. Growing up with a Ghanaian father and an English mother, who was both deeply connected to our family in England and fully rooted in Ghana, where she has now lived for nearly half a century, it has never seemed to me hard to live with many such loyalties. Our community was Asante, was Ghana, was Africa, but it was also (in no particular order) Gloucestershire, England, the Methodist church, the Third World.
My sisters and I have homes in four distinct countries—I in America, and they in Namibia, Nigeria and Ghana—but wherever we live we are connected to Ghana and to England, our family roots, and to other places by love and friendship and experience. Each of us has lived for a time in at least one other country outside Ghana and England. And what strikes me about our experience—apart from the fact that it is one that is reproduced in many, many families today—is not the difficulty of these relocations but how easy they have largely been. I gather from many responses in many places over the years, that it is tempting to think of experiences such as ours as somehow especially modern, and, therefore, as raising new and special difficulties. But in trying to think about why living with these many over-lapping loyalties has been so natural and so easy, I have been reassured by the reflection that our little family experiment actually belongs to one of the oldest patterns of the species.
In every region of the world, throughout recorded history, men and women have traveled great distances—in pursuit of trade, of empire, of knowledge, of converts, of slaves—shaping the minds and the material lives of people in other regions with objects and ideas from far away. Alexander's empire molded the politics but also the sculpture of Egypt and North India; the Mughals and the Mongols shaped the economies but also the architecture of great swathes of Asia; the Bantu migrations populated half the African continent, bringing language and forms of worship, but also iron-working and new forms of agriculture. The effects are clear in religion: Islamic states stretch from Morocco to Indonesia; Christianity is strong in every continent, borne often by missionaries in the wake of empire, while Judaism has traveled to every continent with barely a hint of evangelism; and Buddhism, which long ago migrated from India into much of East and South East Asia, can now be found in Europe and Africa and the Americas as well.
But it is not just religions that travel: Gujaratis and Sikhs, and people whose ancestors came from many different parts of China or of Africa, live in global diasporas. The traders of the Silk Road changed the style of elite dress in Italy. The Ming China in Swahili graves follows the path of Admiral Cheng Ho, whose fifteenth-century expeditions ended with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Ming court and the Swahili city-states. The nomadic urge is deep within us.
In our century, however, ideas, objects and peoples are now more—and more obviously—intermixed everywhere than they have ever been. Planes and boats and trains, satellites and cables of copper and optic fiber, and the people and things and ideas that travel all of them, are, indeed, bringing us all ever more definitively into a single web. And that web is physical, biological, electronic, artistic, literary, musical, linguistic, juridical, religious, economic, familial.
In this broad context, it has seemed increasingly natural to think of our species, as a community—which is part of what is meant by that now-tired phrase “the global village.” This formulation was coined to be paradoxical. For, however much we are now connected, the relations between us—from Bombay to Birmingham, from Rio to Rome, from Adelaide to Accra—are hardly similar to those of village life.
The word “village” evokes a face-to-face community, a place whose inhabitants can walk past the houses, naming their fellow villagers; people who see each other on the street or the farm or the market place. Fewer and fewer people live in such places, not just in the North but also in the South. The street where I spent most of my childhood was in Kumasi, in Ghana, in the country's second city. But it was a city of neighborhoods, each of which felt a little like the village of my imagination. When I was a child, it was a new street—we were the first people to live in our house, which my parents built, and my grandfather, who lived opposite, was one of the first people to have built a modern house in that area. Still, we knew everyone on the street, a community of a few hundred people, and, if you had asked me, I think I would have said when I was eight or ten that I would be able to go back and find them when I grew up. In fact, the majority have moved on, as I have, in a way that would have been unimaginable for my grandfather: Eddie, from across the street, who never finished school, calls to wish me a Happy New Year from Japan; Frankie, my cousin from next door to Eddie, lives in England; Mrs. Effah still lives next door, but visits her children in the United States; even my mother and sister have moved to a new (and much less sociable!) neighborhood across the city.
Urbanization has proceeded apace everywhere across the globe; and yet our increasing interconnectedness—and our growing awareness of it—has not made us into denizens of a single village. Our most basic social identities—the identities that are called “tribal” in Africa, for example, or the ethnic groups of the Balkans or the modern multicultural city—are no longer village identities. Everyone knows you cannot have face-to-face relations with six billion people. But you cannot have face-to-face relations with a hundred thousand or a million or ten million people either; and we humans have long had practice in identifying, in towns, cities and nations, with groups on this grander scale.
Rome, after all, in the years around the birth of Christ, already had a population of nearly a million people; and being a citizen of that city and its empire was, as St. Paul famously insisted, a substantial thing. To be civis Romanus like Horace, was to be bound together with other Romans not by mutual knowledge or recognition, but by language, law and literature. Increasingly, since the eighteenth century, people all around the planet have grown into national affiliations that extend over territories that would take weeks or months to traverse on foot, covering thousands of villages, towns and cities, millions of people, and, often, dozens of languages, or scores of barely mutually intelligible dialects.
In other words, nations differ from city-states so substantially in scale—there is no space large enough to encompass in a single gathering the free citizens of almost all of them—that relations between citizens must, of necessity, be relations between strangers. If nationals are bound together, it is on the Roman model, by what I just called “language, law and literature”; and if they share an experience of events, it is not in propria persona, but through their shared exposure to narrations of those events: in folk tale and novel and movie, in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television, in the national histories taught in modern national schools.
Narrative was central to earlier forms of political identity, too: the Homeric poems for the Greek city-states; the Augustan epic poetry of Virgil (as well as Horace’s lyric) for a cultivated Roman elite; the story of Shaka for the Zulu nation. If there is something distinctive about the new, national, stories, perhaps it is this: that they bind citizens not in a shared relation to gods, kings and heroes, but as participants in a common story. Modern political communities, that is, are bound together through representations in which the community itself is an actor; and what binds each of us to the community—and thus to each other—is our participation, through our national identity, in that action.
The trouble with borrowing a rhetoric of fellow feeling from the nation, however, is that the national story is so much a story of a nation among nations, an inter-national narrative. And the standard national story creates solidarity by contrasting what we do with what they do, usually, as we all know, to their disadvantage. To put it crudely, making friends may require having enemies.
Yet perhaps this is the wrong place to start. Nations are also sources of law, of public norms, of regulation and order. If we are to be a global community, should we not take the direct route and become a single polity? Why not transfer sovereignty to the global level, thus creating a single state? Why should the world not be a single πòλις?
This will seem like the right moment, no doubt, to return more explicitly to the idea of the cosmopolitan. “Κοσμος,” after all, is just the Greek for “world”—so a cosmopolitan should, etymologically at least, be someone who thinks that world is, so to speak, our shared hometown, reproducing, in effect, something very like the paradox of the global village.
Cosmopolitanism as an ideal in the West is conventionally regarded as a legacy of Stoicism, a movement of which Zeno of Citium the Cypriot rather than the Eleatic whose paradox you have all heard of—is conventionally regarded as the founder. But Zeno seems to have begun within the broad framework laid out by the Cynics, who had been the first to coin the (deliberately paradoxical) expression κοσμου πòλιτες, “citizen of the cosmos.” The paradox would have been clear to any one in the classical Greek world. A citizen—a πòλιτες—belongs to a particular πòλις: a city to which he or she owes loyalty; the κoσμoς for Cynics and for Stoics is the world, not in the sense of the earth, but in the sense of the universe. But for most of their contemporaries, to be a πòλιτες of one place was exactly not to be a πòλιτες of any other. Talk of citizenship in the κoσμoς reflected a rejection of the call of local loyalties—reflected, in fact, the general Cynic hostility to custom and tradition—and so it was more that a mere appeal to a universal human solidarity.
So it is interesting and important that cosmopolitanism is not, in fact, the proposal that we should create a world state to govern our world community. That was already true of the Stoics. Certainly Marcus Aurelius, one of the most enduring of the later Stoics, whose Meditations are still widely available today—yes, this is the same Marcus who plays the Good Emperor to his son’s Bad Emperor in the recent blockbuster Gladiator—starts the paragraph of the last book of that great work with these words:
O man, citizenship of this great world-city has been yours. Whether for five years or five score, what is that to you? Whatever the law of that city decrees is fair to one and all alike.
Now if anyone had ever been in a position to set out to put into place a world-government, it would have been Marcus Aurelius. He was, after all, one of the last great emperors of the greatest empire of the Classical West. But the world-city he was talking about reflected a sense of spiritual rather than political con-fraternity—here κoσμoς really means the universe.
Marcus Aurelius is, in this respect, as I say, like most modern cosmopolitans (and here I am happy to include myself). Far from being disposed towards world government—the vision we can call cosmopolis—we hold to a vision that accepts, even celebrates, the diversity of social and political systems in the world, taking pleasure in the existence and the products of peoples and places other than our homes. Thus, what is distinctive about cosmopolitans—in other words—is that we display our concern for our fellow humans without demanding of them that they be or become like ourselves.
Now let me return, by a slightly winding route, to the university’s mission. Early on in Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, an “old French officer” observes that:
Le POUR, et le CONTRE se trouvent en chaque nation; there is a balance, said he, of good and bad every where; and nothing but the knowing it is so can emancipate one half of the world from the prepossessions which it holds against the other—that the advantage of travel, as it regarded the sçavoir vivre, was by seeing a great deal of men and manners; it taught us mutual toleration; and mutual toleration, concluded he, making me a bow, taught us mutual love.
Here is an English writer writing, in 1768, in a mélange of English and French about a journey to France at a time when she was at war with England; which should remind us how easily cosmopolitan educated men and women in Europe were before the nineteenth century. Cosmopolitanism of this sort begins by urging that we should know others, with their differences, and believes that this will lead us to toleration, perhaps even to “mutual love.”
This way of making the argument raises an immediate problem, however. For it starts with an acknowledgment that there is good and bad—le pour et le contre—in each place. And if that is so, won’t treating people in other places as fellow citizens require us, indeed, to love the good but also to seek to eradicate the bad? Why love the French as they are, rather than helping them to become better? Why not take advantage, at the same time, of the ways in which they can improve us? Cosmopolitanism of this variety embraces Difference, with a capital D: but why not embrace the Good, with a capital G? That way, we can learn from other kinds of people and from other societies, just as they can learn from us. This is what we can call a universalistic cosmopolitanism: a celebration of difference that remains committed to the existence of universal standards.
One of my favorite proverbs in my father’s language is a piece of word-play that runs like this: Εsono εsono εna εsono sosono. It means, literally, that there is a difference between an elephant (εsono) and a worm (sosono). But we can use it to say that even an elephant and a worm—two creatures as unlike each other as you could imagine—have something in common: their names are almost homonyms. And the very formula for difference—“εsono x εsono y” is how you say that x and y differ—is itself in this strange way alike these very different creatures. It is language that brings worm, elephant and difference together. Cosmopolitanism in the universalistic vein values diversity because, even if you are an elephant and I am a worm, your difference can be a resource for me, just as mine can be for you: and if our differences are to be resources for each other, then they must be available for our common human conversation. Alle Menschen werden Brüder: that is the lesson I draw from the elephant and the worm.
But there is another way you can go. That is to argue against universal standards—what I just now called the Good, with a capital G—and to defend Difference because there is no Archimedean point outside the world of contesting localities from which to adjudicate. I believe—this is just an announcement, because it would take too long to go through the arguments today—that the right road to follow is the universalistic one. And that makes the universalistic form of cosmopolitanism particularly suitable as a framework for thinking about the global role of the university. For just as, in the sciences, we take it for granted that we can learn from those who work and study in other societies, so in the work of the humanities and in the life of our literature, in the whole wide realm that Emerson claimed for the American scholar, we can expect to be able to learn from other societies as from others in our own society, precisely because the aesthetic, moral and political world we are exploring is a shared world. If the anti-universalists were right, there would be a sense in which the moral life of Indonesia or Iran was a separate world from ours; and if that were so, conversing with Iranians and Indonesians about morality would be like trying to learn how to live on Venus by discussing life on Mars.
“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.” (I am a human being: I think nothing human alien to me.) That is one of the grandest formulations of humanism. It was first enunciated about 2160 years ago in a Roman comedy by P. Terentius Afer—known to us as Terence—a man who was born an African slave and learned Greek civilization through Rome. It can serve as a fine motto for cosmopolitanism; but it is also, I think, a good motto for the American university.
* In its original form, this essay was first delivered by Professor Appiah as the Phi Beta Kappa Oration, Alpha Iota Chapter, Harvard, June 2000.
Emerson “The American Scholar” in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983, selected and annotated by Joel Porte) pp. 53-71.
Loc. cit. p. 53.
tu, Melpomene, semel
nascentem placido lumine videris,
illum non labor Isthmius
clarabit pugilem, non equus impiger
curru ducet Achaico
victorem neque res bellica Deliis
ornatum foliis ducem,
quod regum tumidas contuderit minas,
sed quae Tibur aquae fertile praefluunt
et spissae nemorum comae
fingent Aeolio carmine nobilem.
Romae principis urbium
dignatur suboles inter amabilis
vatum ponere me choros
et iam dente minus mordeor invido.
o testudinis aureae
dulcem quae strepitum, Pieri, temperas,
o mutis quoque piscibus
donatura cycni, si libeat, sonum,
totum muneris hoc tui est,
quod monstror digito praetereuntium
Romanae fidicen lyrae:
quod spiro et placeo, si placeo, tuum est.
loc. cit. p. 63. I should add, immediately, that Emerson celebrated that place outside society as the ideal circumstance for developing “self-trust,” the independence of mind that made it possible for the true scholar to be both the “world’s heart” and the “world’s eye.”
John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Vintage, 1999) pp. 328-29.
The leading recent theorist of this process is Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 1983; revised edition 1991).
Marcus Aurelius Meditations (translated with an introduction by Maxwell Staniforth) (Penguin: London and New York, 1964).
Laurence Sterne A Sentimental Journey (Worlds Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) pp. 62-3.
This is line 25 of Act I Scene1 of “The Self-Tormentor” (Heauton Timoroumenos) by Terence, which was first performed in 163 BC Menedemus and Chremus, Athenians who are on neighboring farms:
Chreme, tantumne ab re tua est otii tibi,
Aliena ut cures, ea quae nihil as te attinent?
[Chremus, can you take time from your own business to take care of someone else’s, things that have nothing to do with you?]
Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.
[I am a man: I think nothing human is someone else’s business.]
This is typical of the sententiae often uttered in Terence’s comedies: it stands well, proverb-like, outside the context for which it was written. (As does the most famous remark about sententiae, which is also Terence’s: Quot homines, tot sententiae.)