Since nations are first and foremost cultural realities, the long-term viability and sustainability of nation states depends on the existence of healthy and living national cultures. If the culture withers and decays, the nation state will wither and decay in the culture’s wake.
There are good practical and pragmatic political reasons for retaining the presence of nation states in an increasingly globalized world. As a protective level of localized democracy, nations represent a democratic defence against the political and economic dominance of international and transnational bodies which have no real democratic mandate for the power they wield and which are beyond any realistic democratic control. Such transnational bodies could easily metamorphose into embryonic world government unless the presence of strong nation states can prevent them. It is for this reason that Brexit strikes a blow for freedom, not merely for Britain but for the world, and it is for this reason that the resistance within the European Union of nations, such as Hungary and Poland, represents a similar blow for freedom.
The problem is that nations are not merely political constructs but are distinct cultural realities. At best, nation states are local expressions of a lived and living culture; insofar as this is so, the nation state represents a political expression and a political defence of a people’s way of life, a way of preserving and protecting a people’s shared and collective identity; insofar as this isn’t the case, the political state can be seen as an artificial construct, inimical to the people living within its jurisdiction. Examples of such artificial constructs, which run roughshod over local and living cultures, would be the late and lamentable Soviet Union or the current and equally lamentable European Union. Such entities are not nations but empires.
Since nations are first and foremost cultural realities, the long-term viability and sustainability of nation states depends on the existence of healthy and living national cultures. If the culture withers and decays, the nation state will wither and decay in the culture’s wake. Once this happens, if it’s not averted and reversed by a life-giving cultural revival, all that will be left will be that other form of wake, which follows the death of a loved one. And keeping with the word-play, a nation must be awake if it’s going to avoid a somnambulating suicide.
When we awaken from sleep, the first thing that happens is that we remember who we are and where we are. We situate ourselves in the consciousness of reality so that we can live fully in it. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals. The awakening of a nation is inseparable from the restoration of the collective memory of a people; such memory shows us who we are and where we are as a living culture in a wider world. This restoration of memory is essential. A living culture needs to be rooted in memory so that the past can be a living presence in the present. The loss of such memory, the amnesia which is a consequence of the ignorance of history, literature, and the arts, is deadly. A nation which loses touch with its cultural roots is depriving itself of the very nutrition it needs to survive.
This somewhat perambulatory meditation was prompted by the news that the historic home of G.K. Chesterton in Beaconsfield is in danger of being demolished to make way for an apartment block.[*] Such an act of cultural vandalism does not simply represent a dereliction of duty by those who have the power to prevent it, it is an example of the sort of rootless cynicism which is the very death knell of national culture and, in consequence, the knell of doom for the nation state also. We should remind ourselves, in this context, of Oscar Wilde’s quip that a cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If cynicism prevails, nothing of lasting value survives.
It could be argued of course that the destruction of one historic and culturally significant house in a small town north-west of London is hardly the straw that is destined to break the camel’s back. It is, however, symptomatic of a disease which, if unchecked, will prove fatal. If a people does not remember its heritage and is not willing to fight for it, it will have no heritage to fight for. It will have squandered its inheritance in favour of the inherent myopia of market forces, much as the heir to the family fortune squanders his inheritance in the casinos of Monte Carlo. Such a person, and such a nation, pays the price of living for today, heedless of yesterday, by a life of penury and misery tomorrow. Make no mistake about it, and this is as true of the United States as it is of Britain, a nation that is losing its memory is losing its future.
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[*] K.V. Turley, “G.K. Chesterton’s Historic Home in England Faces Demolition,” National Catholic Register, January 10, 2020.
The featured image is “Allegory on the Memory of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, with the Portrait of His Widow Amalia of Solms-Braunfels” (1654) by Govert Flinck (1615-1660), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.