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Cosmopolitanism, as befits its Greek roots, literally means, “citizen of the world”. When originally developed, cosmopolitanism was a direct challenge to the narrow Greek concept of citizenship that restricted full rights to someone who was the child of two citizens. To be an alien in the ancient world was extremely dangerous, as the law favoured citizens in most disputes. Cosmopolitanism, at its birth, suggested that human beings who didn’t meet the defined criteria for citizenship that were, nonetheless, of equal value. However, few people “felt” cosmopolitan.
The rise of Christianity, as a force which broke down state divisions and created a multi-ethnic, trans-national identity, has contributed significantly to the concept of cosmopolitanism. The ideal that all were “brothers in Christ”, still restricted the circle of people with whom one identified, but widened it, and continued to widen as colonialism and missionary activity created a global Christian community. Similar identities evolved within the Islamic ummah (“brotherhood”), and exist today. Within Western Europe, however, Walter Mignolo has explored the shift from a cosmopolitanism defined by belief to one based on the idea of inalienable rights. He argued that the horrors of religious war, led to the Enlightenment and a secular understanding of “natural law”, the idea that there are certain universal values. If there are certain universal values, then, all human beings must therefore have the same value. Mignolo neglects to note, however, that the development of nationalism, most obviously seen today American exceptionalism, puts cosmopolitanism in constant tension with the urge to support one’s people against “foreigners”.
Today, cosmopolitanism evades much direct definition, Sheldon Pollock et al have even claimed, “Cosmopolitanism may instead be a project whose conceptual content and pragmatic character are not only as yet unspecified but must always escape positive and specific definition, precisely because specifying cosmopolitanism positively and definitely is an uncosmopolitan thing to do.” The rise of globalisation and the ability to communicate quickly with people from every corner of the earth, first by phone, then the Internet, means it is harder to consider outsiders as sub-human when they are interacting with you every day. The modern definitions of cosmopolitanism all include the idea of a shared humanity (usually defined as morality), but also, uniquely, an obligation to defend that sense of humanity where it is threatened. Every war generates opposition, protest, and peace-keeping and reconciliation programmes, even by the very nation-states conducting the conflict.
The concept of cosmopolitanism now not only includes individuals, but also sovereign nations who see themselves as part of a global community in relationship, with rights and responsibilities. Cosmopolitanism has developed as an abstract concept to a living reality for many people, primarily in urban spaces. It would be ridiculous to argue that nationalism or ethnocentrism no longer exists and Achmar Abbas has rightly pointed out that “cosmopolitan” values is often used to mean “Western” values. However as young people grow up with the Internet in their pockets, the idea that humans are anything other than a global community in relationship, is an idea that is much harder to ignore than in 5th century Athens BCE. The true basis of that relationship, however, is still a conversation in the making.
1. Pollock, Sheldon, et al. Cosmopolitanism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.