The Invention of Nations

Border between the Netherlands and Belgium, illustrating Kwame Antony Appiah Reith lecture on the nation

Around this time every year, the BBC invites thought leaders to share their ideas in a series of talks, called the Reith Lectures. This year, the theme of the lectures is Mistaken Identities, and the speaker is Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah is the son of a British aristocrat and a Ghanaian independence activist, a background which makes him especially qualified to talk about identity and sense of belonging. With a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and teaching experience at Princeton, he now teaches at New York University, at the Department of Philosophy.

The series of lectures is ongoing, and we encourage you to listen to the podcast of every episode, but here we’re particularly interested in the second lecture, given on October 25, titled Country. Appiah talks in his eloquent and smooth voice about the surprisingly recent phenomenon of the ‘nation’. Throughout his talk, Appiah uses the life of Italo Svevo, a novelist born in pre-Italian Trieste to illustrate his points. He also refers to the Scottish referendum, a very recent debate on the idea of a nation.

We need ‘usses’ to ‘thems’. Complicated stories make fixing the ‘us’ really hard. So we prefer simpler stories. The story that was invented in the 18th Century, of the nation with the single spirit, is a nice simple story. But it’s not true of anywhere.

Kwame Anthony Appiah at Fronteiras do Pensamento
Kwame Anthony Appiah at Fronteiras do Pensamento in São Paolo | ©cc by-sa

According to Appiah, the argument that you can not be a patriot ànd a citizen of the world – as Theresa May said recently, is nonsense. He tells The Guardian: “My father went to prison three times as a political prisoner, was nearly shot once, served in parliament, represented his country at the United Nations and believed that he should die for his country. There wasn’t a more patriotic man than my father, and this Ghanaian patriot was the person who explicitly taught me that I was a citizen of the world. In fact, it mattered so much to him that he wrote it in a letter for us when he died.”

You can listen to the entire lecture on BBC iPlayer here, or download the podcast here.

Cover image of Netherlands-Belgium border ©cc by 2.0 iamdanw
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