Against Cosmopolitanism

The leading political struggle in the United States today is not, I suggest, between rich and poor, or between blacks and whites, or between men and women, or even between LGBT folks and regular folks, but between cosmopolitans and nationalists.

The first cosmopolitans were the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world. Appearing at a time in history when the polis (city-state) was beginning to lose its moral authority, they, radical individualists, denied that they were citizens of Athens or Thebes or any other particular polis. Instead. they were citizens of the world (Gk., kosmos). Their city was the world-city, the cosmopolis. Consequently everybody – male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, Greek and barbarian – was a fellow citizen in the great world-city of the universe.

A generation or two later the Stoics appeared on the scene and gave a deeper philosophical foundation to this cosmopolitan idea. All humans, they said, possess the godlike faculty of reason, and it is this godlike faculty that is the basis of human dignity. Insofar as all men possess this faculty, all men are of equal worth. The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” would have been assented to by all Stoics.

Many present-day Americans – especially those on the liberal or left end of the political spectrum – are cosmopolitans even though they are not Stoics. (Stoicism has long since gone out of fashion in the United States, even though the father of our country, George Washington, was a man of the Stoic type.) That is, liberals are great believers in the principle that all humans are equal and are entitled to equal rights. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, rich or poor, white or black, young or old, Christian or Muslim or Jew or atheist, immigrant or American-born, legal immigrant or illegal, American or non-American, gay or straight or bisexual or transgender, etcetera – everybody is equal in the eyes of the liberal-cosmopolitan.

This will suggest to the persons I’m calling “nationalists” that liberal cosmopolitans are unpatriotic, in that they don’t rank their American fellow-citizens above everybody else in the world. But no, they are patriotic. Theirs is, however, a “soft” patriotism, a very different thing from the “hard” patriotism of their opposites, the nationalists. These latter do rank their fellow Americans above the rest of the world. While nationalists don’t necessarily consider Americans to be intellectually or morally superior to everybody else in the world, they believe that our fellow Americans have the first claim on our respect and assistance; foreigners have only a secondary claim.

This difference between cosmopolitans and nationalists explains their contrasting attitudes toward illegal immigration into the United States. Nationalists are, of course, strongly opposed to illegal immigration. “The country is ours,” they say, “and we have a perfect right to determine who comes in and who doesn’t. Foreigners no more have a right to break in to our country than anybody has a right to break into our houses.”


By contrast, cosmopolitans, though very few of them explicitly favor open borders, are willing to tolerate something very close to open borders. They don’t come right out and approve of illegal immigration, but it doesn’t bother them very much, and they are reluctant to take effective steps to stem the tide. “After all,” they say, “these so-called illegals are our fellow human beings, our fellow-citizens of the world; and they have just as much right as we do to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The difference between nationalists and cosmopolitans also goes a long way toward explaining their different attitudes toward the use of military force. If “all men are brothers” (to borrow the words found in the fourth movement of that very cosmopolitan symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth), then there is something horrible about using violence against those of our brothers who happen to be non-Americans.

Thus liberal cosmopolitans favor a foreign policy that shies away from the use of military might and leans in the direction of pacifism. Nationalists will have none of this. From their point of view, all men are not brothers (except in some abstract and purely theoretical sense), and they are quite willing to build up our military weight and then throw this weight around in the world.

If you’re a Christian who is a genuine believer in the Christian precept that we must love our neighbor as ourselves, you are more likely to sympathize with cosmopolitanism than with nationalism, for cosmopolitanism looks like a secularized version of that great Christian precept.

If Christianity believes in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, liberal cosmopolitanism believes in the second of these two parts. Accordingly many Christians ally themselves with secular cosmopolitans in scorning American nationalism and holding American nationalists (“hard” patriots) in low regard.

The trouble with the cosmopolitan idea of the world-city is that there is in reality no such thing. It is a purely hypothetical ideal. Perhaps it is a noble ideal, but there is no concrete reality corresponding to it. You may consider all mankind to be your fellow-citizens in this ideal cosmopolis, but there is no actual cosmopolis – and therefore, except metaphorically, you have no fellow citizens of the world.

By contrast, the United States of America is a real community, and Americans are your real fellow-citizens, towards whom you have real responsibilities.

Macaulay once said (in an essay on Francis Bacon) that it is better to own an acre in Middlesex than a county in Utopia. Likewise, I say that it’s better to be an American nationalist than a cosmopolitan. In practice, cosmopolitanism doesn’t connect you with a larger community. Instead it gives you an excuse for loosening your connection to a real community. That is, it provides you with a justification for being more individualistic, more egoistic – and less patriotic.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.