In a recent Scotsman essay Gerry Hassan cited Ernest Renan’s celebrated 1882 lecture to the Sorbonne: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? “What is a Nation?” (ii) Renan, a Breton, was a theologian and the author of The Poetry of the Celtic Races (1909-14). He understood the importance of story told from a poetic which is to say, a spiritual or a metaphysical depth. Hassan quoted his most famous line: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.” In the theory of nationalism this distinguishes Renan’s “French” (in his case, Celtic) civic nationalism from 19th century Germanic ethnic nationalism. He said in his Sorbonne lecture (and perhaps, given the dating, we might overlook his gendered language):
To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more – these are the essential conditions for being a people….
A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist…
What we see here, then, is a sense of community arising from mythic depth – not a popular idea in a postmodern world that deconstructs but is unable to reconstruct – and that community continuously renewed in deeds from which the nation, as community writ large, can take pride and draw its sense of identity and social cohesion. This is ensoulment, and the task of becoming a community or nation is therefore the task, as African healers would say, of “calling back” the soul which has been lost.
Here, too, we see the essential distinction between a nation and a state. A nation is the collective soul of a community of place writ large. A state is its body, its framework by which those inner principles achieve outer effect.
J.F. Ferrier, the St Andrews metaphysician who gave us the word “epistemology” for the theory and structure of knowledge understood this, which is why Davie cites him extensively in his books on the democratic intellect, referring at the start of The Crisis … (p. i) to “metaphysical Scotland”.(iii)
McDiarmid also had a firm grasp on the metaphysical – that which is “beyond” or “behind” the outer physical appearance of reality. It comes through strongly in poems like On a Raised Beach, First Hymn to Lenin and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle where:
A Scottish poet maun assume
The burden o’ his people’s doom,
And dee to brak’ their livin’ tomb.
The challenge of all these is that if we are going to ask what it means to be a nation as a community writ large – whether British, Scottish or whatever our choice – we need to start by asking the much deeper question of what we think that life is all about. What is a human being? Are we just egos walking about on legs of meat, here today, gone tomorrow? Is mutual competition to be our primary paradigm? Or is there more to life than that? Is love for real as a quality that is immanent but also transcendent? And if so, how does that affect our social and political values?
I know that these are far out questions. These are not what most politicians would ask in public. But they matter. They are questions, as Tillich might have said, of “ultimate concern”; about “the ground of being”. To answer them one way would incline towards a hedonistic politics that must inevitably – like we see towards the end of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – find its nemesis in nihilism. But if we answer them the other way – if we affirm that our politics must have a metaphysical (or spiritual) basis, then we can start to map out the inner life framework for an outer politics of altruism. A politics perhaps of relatively simple sufficiency, but of beauty, and at the risk of sounding like The Idiot himself, to Dostoevsky’s assertion that “Beauty will save the world.”
Towards the end of his time as president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, the architect of the Maastricht Treaty, became more and more aware of the imperative of social cohesion. He set up a programme with the European churches called A Soul for Europe. A key figure in its visioning and running was Alastair Hulbert, formerly secretary of Scottish Churches Action for World Development and now, retired back in Edinburgh, and doing stunning work on the spiritual meaning of Europe as seen through art and the history of maps.
On 4th February 1992 Delors made a speech to European church leaders. Its questions might equally apply today, and to Scotland … England … Britain … in equal measure. He said (my italics):
We are in effect at a crossroads in the history of European construction. 1992 is a turning point. Even if on the surface of the sea nothing is yet visible, deep down the currents are beginning to change direction. The Maastricht summit marked the end of the economic phase of European construction … [and] we are now entering a fascinating time – perhaps especially for the young generation – a time when debate on the meaning of European construction becomes a major political factor.
Believe me, we won’t succeed with Europe solely on the basis of legal expertise or economic know-how. It is impossible to put the potential of Maastricht into practice without a breath of air. If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.
This is why I want to revive the intellectual and spiritual debate on Europe. I invite the churches to participate actively in it. The debate must be free and open. We don’t want to control it; it is a democratic discussion, not to be monopolised by technocrats. I would like to create a meeting place, a space for free discussion open to men and women of spirituality, to believers and non-believers, scientists and artists.
Commenting on the impact of Delors’ speech a decade later the editors of an essay collection on the European soul (including Konrad Raiser, then Secretary of the World Council of Churches) said:
We now have to give a soul to Europe’ pronounced several years ago Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission. This remark has become a touchstone even for those who feel uncomfortable with the spiritualistic undertones of the soul metaphor, because it perfectly conveys the need for the European integration process to go beyond market and currency unification. The Union should acquire a political and cultural character, becoming something in which the citizens can recognise themselves as far as their ideas and interests, beliefs and principles, are concerned. Whatever its relationship to existing national identities, European identity is about the Union’s institutions becoming rooted in the ‘soul’ of the citizens.
The American cultural critic George Steiner (vii) suggests that real art and deep culture start in the immanent but are inspired from the transcendent. He says that every true artist knows this. If creativity is not grounded in the soul, then reality is reduced only to the quantifiable parameters of markets and money; and with that, politics gets reduced only to the question of whether Scotland will be better or worse off with or without England until the oil runs out.
Gerry Hassan called his essay Scotland as an Idea and Place of Substance. We need to ask: what is the real substance or in Steiner’s sense, the “real presence” behind what we aspire towards? As the song by Dougie Maclean says, we need to stand “on Solid Ground”.
(i) Search on Ferrier and Davie at: http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/articles/2008-phd-thesis-alastair-mcintosh-web.pdf
(v) Delors in Konrad Raiser, Gérard Delteil, Jacques Stewart, Jacques Santer & Jérôme Vignon, Europe under Challenge – Reconciliation and Meaning, Occasional Paper No. 4, Ecumenical Association for Church and Society, Brussels, 1997, p. 51.
(vi) Furio Cerutti & Enno Rudolph (eds), A Soul for Europe: An Essay Collection, Vol. 2, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, 2002, p. ix.
(vii) George Steiner, Real Presences, faber & faber, London, 1989.