European history since the fall of the Roman Empire may be regarded as the slow forging, as if by a hidden hand as well as by human passions, of these particular forms of human collectivities called nations.  After several failed attempts to reconstitute the Roman Empire, Europe emerged out of the Middle Ages as a mosaic of nations—most of them kingdoms, some republics—between which the ever-renewed issue was the establishment of some kind of permanent equilibrium.  Not only were these social bodies considered legitimate ones, but they were traditional objects of respect, if not love, for their respective citizens, a mental disposition that more or less survived until after World War II, in spite of the increasingly loud appeal to internationalism broadcast by both capitalism and socialism.  But the war triggered an additional hostility to European nationalisms, discreetly nurtured by shadowy and scheming Euro-makers like Jean Monnet, and supported by the diffuse conviction that nations were to be blamed for the darkest evils that had plagued Europe for centuries, as if National Socialism were the essence of nationhood.  Seventy years after the war it is more and more obvious that patriotism is a feeling to be vented on soccer fields but otherwise ridiculed or despised.  Unless a miraculous about-face occurs, we may very well be witnessing in the West the closing of an age, the age of nations.

The situation seems to me to raise two questions.  First, why the devaluation of nationhood?  And second, what are the forces responsible for the waning of the appeal that nations used to have for their citizens?

To answer we must first assess the nature of that particular thing called a nation, something that has nothing to do with the mere possession of a passport.

A nation is not merely a particular group of human beings living together by force or by happenstance.  A nation is a society composed of members who love their membership and feel like brothers, though they are not.  The sources of this peculiar bond are multiple, but some traditionally stand out, like being born on the same land (nation derives from the Latin nascor, “I was born”); or speaking a common language, entertaining some loyalty to the same “founding fathers”; or simply, but maybe crucially, the passing of time, forging common customs, habits, creeds—a national identity.  Whatever else it may comprise, what primarily makes a nation is the general feeling among its members that they are somehow bound together in a way that cannot be forfeited.

Why were such entities held in high esteem?  How come dying for one’s country used to be, and had been since Greek or Roman times, a harsh but honored fate?

By nature, man is a political animal, a saying well known and true.  Except there is more to it than meets the eye, and particularly more than the need to exchange goods and services.  Real sociability involves some kind of diffuse friendship, something that is wholly different from being in need of someone else’s help.  That men are political animals means essentially that every man must realize he shares with others a participation in a world in which he lives but which is not of his own making.  And second, whether he acknowledges it or not, every man needs his part to be a meaningful one or at least not an insignificant one, lest he be a superfluous fly on the wall.

That is where nations come into play.

A man is by nature a meaningful part of a family, but family, while essential, is only a very small community.  On the other hand, every man is by nature part of mankind, but then mankind is such an immense grouping, compared with a lone individual or even his family, that they are both doomed to vanish in the midst of it as entities so diminutive as to become indistinct, like a speck in a cloud of dust.  To fulfill his own nature—to be a meaningfully participatory animal—each man needs a sort of intermediate body, a happy medium between one that is too small and one that is too large; that is the nation.  This implies there is a natural size for nations, below which there are only extended families (tribes), and beyond which there are artificial, and therefore meaningless, conglomerates (empires).  Nations are to individuals what a body is to its component cells: Neither cell nor man can exist without a proportionate whole.

This is why in ancient times the citizen considered he somehow owed his life not only to his mother but to his city, why ostracism was equivalent to a death sentence, and why Socrates preferred to die rather than to show ingratitude to the laws of Athens.

This much was necessary, I think, to understand the true meaning of the war that is waged upon nations, at least in Europe, where the common man parrots his supposed elites by confusing nationhood with Nazism.

The old nations of Europe have always had enemies, perhaps more than ever today, since hostility against them feeds on envy and resentment.  But it should be equally obvious that they were, until recently, able to contain and survive all past aggressions successfully.  So what’s new in the West?

Admittedly, there are lobbies, notably industrialists and institutional moneylenders, whose direct interest is to convince Westerners they would be better off forfeiting all national barriers and mutating into a huge open market, which would supposedly be beneficial to the whole of mankind.  Not so long ago even the left, supposedly favorable to internationalism, tried to protect national workers; now it obviously favors unfettered immigration, perhaps as a welcome substitute for a dwindling European white proletariat.  But ascribing the change to such petty calculations would be to underestimate its depth: I think we are facing a spiritual upheaval whose causes are of a metaphysical nature.

Indeed, what strikes me as the main feature of the spirit of our times is the reluctance of the average Westerner to acknowledge that there are things he absolutely must not do, while, at the same time, obsessively abhorring all possible restraints that could be deemed natural, valid apart from his own consent.  (This can be seen in the progressive rescinding of all laws and customs concerning marriage, abortion, private property, etc.)  The average citizen pays only lip service to his possible duties; what really concerns him are his rights, which he believes to be the “rights of man.”  But so long as “man” remains an indeterminate abstraction, to claim the rights of man amounts to claiming a right to totally unbound liberty, absolute freedom.  That, I think, is the psyche of our times in a nutshell.  It recalls the motto of the fallen angel, “non serviam,” which can be loosely translated as “It is forbidden to forbid.”

What does this have to do with the general waning of love for one’s country or the growing imperviousness to any national spirit?  Everything, because the desire for unfettered liberty is synonymous with the reluctance to acknowledge that, besides the bonds men voluntarily forge with one another, there are also ones that bind them whether they like it or not, because they are somehow rooted within their nature, such as those arising from the sharing of land, language, history, or beliefs.  To be a free man in our times has come more and more to mean being a new breed of cosmopolitan, a man who could be born and brought up anywhere, a wandering creature who only stops because he finds it convenient or doesn’t have the means or energy to go elsewhere.  To be free means to obey the laws only when they serve one’s best interests, to be reluctant to be tied to anyone including one’s family, and ridiculing, if not hating, those who are settled and find their condition natural.  A free man is one who does not accept or understand that God has instituted nations as a way of reminding each man of his own limitations, thus preventing him from yielding too easily to the great temptation of conceiving of himself as his own creator.

Why should such human beings be particularly plentiful today?  The question is not difficult to answer: Our societies are very happy to be democracies, devoted to economic activities, and decidedly atheistic.  This makes them a perfect breeding ground for a new type of man, one who sees nature as a yoke and bearing a nationality as the branding of a slave.

Democracy conveys the idea that the only legitimate ruler of any individual is the individual himself, and encourages the inner sentiment that the sovereignty of the people is the sovereignty of the citizen.  Why should the individual citizen trust the mass instead of one man, if not because being a part of a mass, all of whose members have a say, means he has a say himself?  From the moderate Locke to the crazy Rousseau, there is no legitimate power but that which rests on the consent of all citizens, hence on the individual’s, and is therefore somehow each individual’s power.  What democracy feeds on is not respect for others but the desire to at least appear as one’s own master, the perennial yearning to do only what one wants.  But then patriotism and democracy must be contradictory notions: To a modern citizen his nation is merely the entity necessary to fulfill his wishes and guarantee his rights (like free healthcare) and the very notion that it constitutes an entity he should stoop to or even die for is absurd.  How could he owe anything to something meant to be a commodity?  Why is it that Rousseau claimed men must be radically transformed to become good citizens—“denatured,” as he put it—if not because he realized there could be no loyalty of the citizens toward a purely contractual (democratic) city?

Next, the main concern in our societies is the economy.  It has been known since Plato or Aristotle that in business there are no friends, only competitors, or possibly partners as long as the situation allows all parties an equal benefit.  In the marketplace there is no room for true sociability: A trader who doesn’t try to take advantage of those he trades with is a poor trader, and deals advantageous to both parties only result from a balance of forces.  Economics is no charitable foundation, but war by other means.  As soon as economy does not mean the sound management of one’s household, but an obsession with making money, and ever more money, be it petty sums or vast amounts, it becomes inevitable that private interests will take over the public one, or at least that the public interest will be measured by the yardstick of private profit.  (Did Mr. Cheney wage a remote war on Saddam Hussein because Hussein was a threat to the United States, or because he foresaw some juicy investments?)  To the economic actor, the old saying “ubi patria ibi bene” becomes “ubi bene ibi patria.”  Trade hates national borders.

Last but not least, Western nations are obviously evolving into godless societies; they hail the sovereignty not of God but of man, and claim that religious beliefs are essentially detrimental to peace.  But it takes only common sense to realize that atheism goes hand in hand with unfettered individualism.  Modern times are times of hostility to religion; it is no happenstance that they have also seen the birth of radical individual freedom.  Epicurus long ago taught that there could be no society among men but that which obtains among small circles of friends; it is no happenstance that he also taught there were no gods.  Inasmuch as a nation is a cohesive body whose members are the individual citizens, it needs some sort of cementing mortar to bridge the gap that the freedom of each unavoidably creates between them, and all the more as such freedom becomes absolute.  Building such a bridge presupposes that all citizens participate in something that is not made only out of the fickle material of mutual interest but transcends them all, while inhabiting their souls, binding them without oppressing them.  And since this is the very definition of a religious belief, it must be concluded that no nation exists that is not upheld by some religious faith.  Nations are terrestrial vessels anchored in the skies.

Mind you, this does not mean there should be national religions in the manner of the Greek cities, each with its own protecting god.  Such a religion was a mere idolatry of the city, and a cause for dissension among nations as well as individuals.  Nor does it mean men need a religion preaching the indeterminate love of mankind; mere mortals’ love can only include family, friends, and fellow citizens, a small number of men.  But Europe used to believe in a religion that (even though the passions of men led them too often to ignore it) preached a love of one’s neighbor that did not imply hatred of foreigners.  Indeed, classic orthodox Christianity always taught men to love their own countries together with all men, irrespective of their nationalities.  But then it meant that, just as is the case for individuals, nations—though distinct entities—felt they were parts of the same world; not a political one, since they all retained some sort of independence, but a spiritual one, whose unity was manifested at the time by their common compliance with one spiritual authority.

Today, we have something paradoxically called the United Nations, whose more or less explicit goal is to unite mankind in a worldwide society built on the ruins of all nations.  It is our Tower of Babel.