Ágnes Heller/ Cosmopolitanism as philosophy, as refuge, and as destiny

Agnes Heller is one of the leading thinkers to come out of the tradition of critical theory. Her awesome intellectual range and output includes ethics, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy and a theory of modernity and its culture. Born in Budapest in 1929, she was one of the best known dissident in central Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Since her forced immigration she has held visiting lectureships all over the world and has been the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York for many years. Her perspective is both sceptical and utopian, upholding a critical humanist perspective just as it critiques contemporary democratic culture.

    Where are we at home? In the place where we were born? Or where we were growing up? Or where we found refuge?  Or perhaps everywhere? Or perhaps nowhere?

 When we say “home”’, what are we referring to?

      To a village or a city,, a house, a street, our first school, our first friends, a language, some habits,? Places, people we are familiar with, where we understand the hints without explanation and without footnotes? The “’warmth” of the hearth, this is what home means? Memories, good and bad memories alike? 

   What do I mean when I say:  I am going home? I mean back to my street, my house, or back to my land, to may city of birth, to a place or shared memories?  What does “to be exiled” means? Leaving the land of birth, my “step mother”, to escape from starvation, persecution, discrimination as so many migrants who in the last 200 years tried their luck in America?  Or by being punished with exile, banned from the beloved city, giving up the hope to return, as Ovid felt as exile from Rome? Or having been exiled from a city, a beloved homeland which does not exist anymore,  as Jews were exiles from the holy City of Jerusalem for almost two thousand years, while remaining often aliens, strangers in the land of their birth?  Is our home, our original home, a land where our ancestors lived and we hardly even know? The place from where we originate?

  Most people preserved this original, maybe even “archaic” feeling of “home” even in our time of globalization. One can change habitat many times, but the places of “origin”, of the first experiences, maybe the first love, does not let us go. The first pain is as important as the first pleasure, the first fear as the first hope.

  All children are born as strangers, and it takes time and effort to become familiar with the norms and rules of one’s environment, to the habits, the language to a degree sufficient for understanding and being understood, even if this never succeeds entirely. One repeats this first experience any time one changes habitat. The country girl who enters a big city is for the first time feels uneasy, she does not know how to behave, how to talk. The same is true of anyone who leaves her country of birth for another, for any reason. She is a stranger for the others and she feels a stranger herself, trying hard to understand the language use, the actions, the habits,  the other people of a brave new world.

    For people who do not share everyday life with the average population of a place, a country, or a city, but live in communities ,or at least share a spiritual world  with a few, the place, the habitat, of settling is less and less important. This was the experience of a few for the first time in the epoch of Hellenism, where some Greek customs where shared by members of the upper classes.  People who were born in different places, who were children of very different people, were   “at home”’ far away from one another,   shared   familiarity, for they all spoke Greek, visited the temples  of the same gods, frequented the amphitheaters, common baths  for men, as all the people in the  Hellenistic and Roman Empires. .Some of them was committed to specific philosophical schools, among them the schools of various Stoic philosophers. They shared the wisdom that the best thing is to live according to nature. Nature, the Cosmos, is the same whenever one sets foot, thus they can live in the same way according to nature equally everywhere.. They were at home not in one city or in another, but in nature, .in the Cosmos. They termed themselves the citizens of the Cosmos: the cosmopolitans.

    Modern cosmopolitanism was rooted in an entirely other vision of the worlds, in philosophical universalism, a vision the ancient cosmopolitans had not even dreamt about.

   . Men of Enlightenment did not think of themselves as citizens of the Cosmos, but as citizens of “humankind “. It was not a culture they believed to share (temples, baths, amphitheaters, language) but a “substance”’. This substance was “human nature.” Their overarching identity was to be “human beings”. Being a human was believed to stand higher in nobility than any culture, any custom, any language, and any place one occupies in the world.  As Sarastro says in Mozart’s “Magic flute” about Tamino:   “he is more than a prince, he is a Man”. According to the text wrote by Schiller and set to music by Beethoven we should embrace millions, kiss the whole world.

    Most constitutions forged in the times of Enlightenment, beginning with the America n Declaration of Independence, stated that all men are born equally free and all of them are equally endowed with reason and conscience. Thus, all of them have equal right to life, liberty and to pursue happiness in their own way.

     Universalism was relying upon the concept of “natural law” and that of “natural right”, two fictions. One has to accept those fictions as truth, and make them work: they are true only for those who are committed to them..It was also immediately obvious, that, as Rousseau formulated it, all men are born free, yet they are everywhere in chains.

       The idea of  “universal humankind ” ,that is the  idea of institutionalizing the universal  notion “humankind” is the  idea of a Commonwealth where the  text of the declarations (all men are born equally free)  is lex lata, that is the law of a country, perhaps even  the law of all countries. The first (lex lata of one country) is the republican idea, the second; (lex lata of all counties) is the cosmopolitan idea. Cosmopolitans are thus the citizens of this not yet existent, but imaginary city, they behave, or at least try to behave, as if this universally human city existed, they think of themselves as the citizens of this imaginary city. They are the so called “Weltbürger” (Citizens of the World”) .

     In Kant’s philosophy the universal concept “humankind” occupies two places. First it is thought as “humankind in us”, transcendental freedom from which the categorical imperative follows , and as such eternal (timeless). Second, it is the empirical humankind,  that is human nature. One is entitled to presuppose that human nature develops towards  freedom, to a hidden goal of a cosmopolitan Commonwealth, the federal super state of all republics. Kant reconstructs also history from a “cosmopolitan point of view”

          To identify yourself by the statement  “I am but a human being” ,and identify yourself  by the statement “I am a citizen of a cosmopolitan universe”  are philosophically related , even in not identical statements  .Only in  a political, social context can they coalesce  and declare the same: the  supreme identity for  being a human, in comparison to which  all the other identities are secondary ,particular versus the universal.

      At first, in the 18th century, before the birth of  European nationalism, the statement “I am a human being” meant that one’s  social status, position is, compared with “being a human”, of secondary importance ,perhaps  of importance at all. One is by accident born as a prince or as a servant, as a nobleman or as a burgher, but essentially we all belong to humankind, we are human beings above all.   One is by accident born in a Catholic or a Protestant or Jewish family, but essentially as human beings. We are all human beings.

             The negation of particularistic determinations (people, religion, social status, family) appeared prior to Enlightenment practically, as in the story of Romeo and Juliet ,who they gave  priority to nature  against  social determinations… Yet they, and others in similar conflict never referred to “’humankind” in them but to their body, to their very person, above all to their love. Their home was their love. Even Spinoza did not identify himself with “humankind” yet with free thinkers,, the community of philosophers, scholars  like him..To be a “humanist” meant first to be learned in ancient Latin poetry and thinking, reading Cicero and also  to have a kind of distance to habits, duties, obligations of their environment they felt as “unnatural” The equality of all members of homo sapiens was not an option.

        The concept of nation (la nation) was born in the French revolution together with the institutionalization of universalism in the French constitution. The place of traditional particularistic determinations, like master/slave, nobleman/ burgher or Catholic/ Lutheran/, Calvinist)) which were at first negated by the universal statement that” all men are born equally free”, was slowly replaced, that is occupied, by a new particularistic determination: that of the nation.

            The ideology of nations, nationalism, became almost dominant in Europe at the beginning of 19th century, and won a final victory in WW.1. From this time onwards, at least in Europe, the question:”what are you first and foremost” were no more answered like “I am a Calvinist” “I am a Jew”, ’neither by “I am a human being”, but by “” I am French, German, Hungarian “and the like.  

     The social content of cosmopolitanism radically changed with the birth of nationalisms, even if its function remained the same, namely the denial of a particularistic identity.  In the 18th century it was meant as a denial of the primacy of a particularistic social identities (he is not a prince, but more: a man) yet, no one was forced to choose only one between them. One could say: I was born a nobleman, I cherish the heritage of my family but I am above all a human being as anyone else. Or I am born a Scot this is important to me, but as a philosopher I am rather interested in universal issues, not in Scotland.

   From the 19th century onwards and with an increasing speed people were, however, forced to choose national identity above all the other ones, especially in Europe. Individuals were set under pressure to choose their national identity as their exclusive, and mostly all inclusive identity, especially after the unification of Italian and German states.

    As earlier European Jews had to be baptized to be accepted, even if conditionally, by the host countries, now they have to identify themselves with the host nations. From the 19th century onwards Jews could no more be integrated into a nation without assimilation. Accepting nationalism of the host country, that is assimilation, remained the only avenue of integration. As far as Hungary is concerned assimilation was forced not just only on the Jews but also on the Germans and other nationalities who lived under the Hungarian crown. There was an either-or. You are either a Hungarian or a Jew, either a Hungarian or a German, you cannot be both.

             Cosmopolitanism offered an escape route. . If one could not, or did not want, to answer the question whether choosing this rather than then that national identity , one could still answer: neither this nor that , or, maybe,  both of them, but this is not really essential to me: ,I am just a human being . I am born in Germany, I speak German.. I was  born by accident a  Jew and a n Austrian, yet I am above all born as a human being .,  I choose myself as a human being, this is what I essentially am, for my essence (human being) is not accidental, yet me  being born Austrian and  Jew  is. I can reject all my particular determinations; these are what I am not. I am the universal. You, Austrians, are also human beings just like me, since our essence is identical. Thus I do not need to “assimilate”

To this I need add, that in class-societies assimilation to a nation meant always assimilation to a particular class. The Hungarian Jews and Germans who decided to assimilate assimilated either to the gentry’s class or to the so called “lateiners”, the stratum of the “learned” professionals. English “working class” people assimilated to the gentry. Instead of cockney the tried to speak King’s English.

    At times of the birth of nations and nationalism, still before WW1, cosmopolitanism became one of the leading ideas of a part of the European bourgeoisie, whose interest in trade with all possible partners was far more important than national interest. Cosmopolitan thinking was widespread also among free floating intellectuals, mostly “lateiners” from cities, who believed in “world literature”, in the universality of  European culture. To join the Esperanto movement belonged also to cosmopolitan preference..

   Some others found another way to escape assimilation to a nation:  while accepting the idea of internationalism. Internationalism was a proletarian version of cosmopolitanism at least among the socialist manual workers, yet also favored by intellectuals. Internationalists could not, even should not, assimilate to a nation. They had to assimilate to the world proletariat, learning from Marx, that the proletariat has no fatherland.  A third escape route from assimilating to a nation was emigration to the new world, first of all the America, a state where the “people” did not become a” nation”.

       WW1, the original sin of Europe, was the victory of nation state against bourgeois cosmopolitanism and proletarian internationalism. The resulting catastrophe is too well known. After Auschwitz, this symbol of the 20th century, no one could declare any more proudly “I am a human being and nothing else”, for “human beings “turned out to do evil perhaps in the grandest scale in human history. Humanist universalism lost its appeal in concentration camps.

    One who read the autobiographical novel by Stefan Zweig,  “Farewell to yesterday” (Abschied vom Gestern) will have an idea about the fate of cosmopolitans between the two wars.. Zweig belonged to those Jews who believed to avoid the choice between being Jew and to assimilate to the Austrian nation by joining cosmopolitan institutions and participating in cosmopolitan conferences, some of them in England where he was always welcome. After the Anschluss, as all Jews lost their Austrian citizenships, he wanted to escape to England. Yet his entry request was refused. As long as I had a valid Austrian passport, he wrote, I was regarded a cosmopolitan, after I lost it, I am no more a welcome cosmopolitan, but a not welcome refugee. The story ends here.

     Universalism in philosophy is nowadays no more called “cosmopolitan “. By “Humankind” we do not mean anymore all Europeans plus the New World.  Neither is “Humankind” an abstraction we can happily embrace and kiss, or the universal duty that all  of us carry in their reason and conscience.  “Humankind” became all the empirical people, all the empirical cultures we share the globe with, whether we sympathize with them or not, whether they share our universalism or reject it aggressively.. The utopias of an anthropological revolution are over. None believes anymore in the unification of transcendental freedom and  human nature (Kant)  in the final unity of “generic essence” and individual existence (Marx).. Perpetual peace, the end of alienation, and all the similar dreams of the universalistic heritage became obsolete.

     Universalism, the source of modern cosmopolitism is no more taken as a fact,(all men are born free).neither as a dream (moral perfection of the human race),but as a task: to help people in need (need of food, water, health services, education) and help people at war. Why? Because they are humans like us, if for no other reason.

    Cosmopolitanism lost its philosophical power and message exactly at the same time when it ceased to serve as the stick for people trying to escape obligatory assimilation to a nation state or to be forced to serve any kind of fundamentalism. No one is protected anymore from nationalist or religious fundamentalism just by saying: “I am not this or that, but higher than this or that, namely a human being.”

  While ceasing to exist as philosophy and losing its function as a stick, cosmopolitanism became reality.