[This post is adapted with permission from “Making Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation,” an essay in the anthology Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister.]

When people use the term today in casual conversation, “cosmopolitan” generally refers to a person whose disposition is one of urbane sophistication, not blinkered by the prejudices and limited experience of the provincial, the uneducated, and the narrow-minded. The cosmopolitan exhibits tolerance rather than xenophobia, reason rather than prejudice, universalism rather than localism. The cosmopolitan considers himself a citizen of the world and views other affiliations as secondary to his universal embrace. He is suspicious of patriotism and fearful of nationalism. He is not a communitarian for his community knows no limits; rather, the embrace of his imagination, if not his actual affections, extends to all humanity.

The word “cosmopolitanism” is, of course, used in a variety of ways. On the one hand, this flexibility points to the usefulness of the term; however, it also invariably creates confusion as various meanings slide past each other making effective communication about the concept frustratingly illusive. Nevertheless, it is possible to tease out several threads. Ethical cosmopolitanism is the view that human beings owe moral duties to all other human beings by virtue of a shared moral status. Political cosmopolitanism is the view that ideally human beings are (or should be) moving toward a common political organization where common moral goods can best be realized. Finally, cultural cosmopolitanism is a consequence of globalization whereby, through mass media and ease of travel, cultural particularities are dissolved into a universal culture….

Let me suggest four arguments against political and cultural cosmopolitanism.

The first is rooted in human psychology. Human beings have a deep and abiding longing to belong. We quite naturally frame our identities, at least in part, according to our various relationships and associations. I am a son, brother, husband, father, neighbor, citizen. These identities help to me to situate myself in terms of self-understanding as well as in terms of action, for a life of virtue is unintelligible if it is abstracted away from the concrete relationships that form the contours of my existence. Furthermore, my need to belong is not fully realized only in terms of human relationships. My relationships with cultural artifacts help to frame my understanding of myself and others. A particular language, a particular cuisine, a particular geography, climate, manners, stories, songs, metaphors — these all serve to make me who and how I am. While I can imagine my abstracted self as a global citizen or as a brother to all humanity, such an extension requires significant effort and is as unlivable as it is unnatural. The limits of my belonging are determined by the limit of my love — and love, not an abstracted feeling of goodwill, has limits. My imagination can reach beyond my love, but my need to belong is only satisfied when it is co-extensive with my capacity to love. Thus, it appears that local political institutions and local cultures are best suited to human needs and desires.

Second, neither political cosmopolitanism nor cultural cosmopolitanism is suited to the human scale. This is the idea that there exists a scale that is fitting for human flourishing. Depart from the scale and the potential for flourishing correspondingly diminishes. One feature of the human scale is simply biological: we are embodied creatures, therefore we occupy a particular space and time. We are limited, placed creatures, and therefore our existence is in some respects necessarily local. If this is the case, then politics, economics, education, and other vital elements of society must be centered on the local and the placed. This is not to say that components of these institutions cannot extend beyond the local; however, if the local is subsumed by the national or international, the centrality of the local is lost and the principle of human scale is disregarded….

Third, political and cultural cosmopolitanism is not suited to human nature. One aspect of this is the problem of consolidated power I discussed above. A world community requires an enforcement arm that encompasses the globe. Without absolutely trustworthy leaders, such a power would represent a threat to freedom like no other. But where are such leaders to be found? Until they are, we do well to keep power relatively diffuse. If the centralization of political power is a legitimate concern, we do well to foster political institutions scaled to human needs and human nature. At the same time, cultural cosmopolitanism would clearly facilitate political cosmopolitanism, for cultural variance is one of the main blocks against political unity. Thus, to the extent that political cosmopolitanism is to be feared, cultural cosmopolitanism should be resisted.

Fourth, there is an aesthetic appeal to variety and vibrant difference that cultural cosmopolitanism tends to diminish even as ethical cosmopolitanism equips us with the moral vision to appreciate the vastly different ways other human beings shape their particular places. Cultural cosmopolitanism, which is necessarily constituted by pop culture of the lowest common denominator, inevitably leads to a flatness and banality even as its champions celebrate the tolerance they see as integral to it. But tolerance is not the same as universal platitudes about equality or the value-free rhetoric of the enlightened. Indeed, one only tolerates what one does not like. In other words, tolerance is only a possibility in a world of real difference. And real difference helps provide the kind of texture that makes the world the stunningly beautiful place that it is. And even when the beauty is admittedly absent, its absence is noticeable and therefore regrettable. Local differences, particularities, and personalities are what constitutes “local color,” and color, after all, is one aspect that contributes to beauty. Remove the local color and something is lost. Remove the local songs, stories, businesses, cuisine, dialects, games, and something very good has been lost, and when lost, they are likely to be gone forever.

We are all deeply implicated in the liberal project and thus inhabit what is essentially an empire of individual choice. By practice and consciousness we are, as Robert Nisbet put it, “loose individuals.” If our lives are constituted by mere choice (or the perception of choice), then we are all cosmopolitans: The communities and traditions we inhabit are chosen, embraced, and rejected based primarily on acts of individual will. We are consumers of cultures not inheritors or caretakers or stewards. Cultures are smorgasbords of alternatives each potentially tantalizing, each an option to be provisionally accepted or rejected and replaced when our interests are diverted by something else. We are eclectics, dabblers, and both our philosophical anthropology and our economy encourages this very outlook.

However, not all cultures are (or have been) confined by this anthropology of liberation. In other words, liberalism, while advertising itself as a traditionless posture that judges the world from a neutral standpoint, is actually a tradition that blinds the liberal to its underlying preconditions. If our human longings are best fulfilled in the context of vibrant local communities, we would do well to consider how best to foster a more rooted existence. We would do well to cultivate the art of place-making. Here are some suggestions.

First, a sense of limits is essential. As I have argued, political limits are an essential means by which power is controlled and local cultures are a vital means by which human beings participate in and perpetuate particular goods. At the same time, ethical cosmopolitanism seeks to embrace the whole of humanity with its moral vision. Are these two views incoherent? They are not so long as the ethical cosmopolitanism is of the weak form that does not entail the claim that all human beings owe equal moral duties to all other human beings without regard to proximity or relation. The moral universalism I am advocating is one rooted in the claim that all human beings are equal in moral worth and inherent dignity. However, our actual moral duties are, to some extent, determined by accidentals of place and therefore ethical cosmopolitanism is a combination of negative moral duties of respect for all and positive duties to particular people within our particular places.

Second, we must come to orient our lives around long term commitments and a recognition of natural duties. Cultural cosmopolitanism lends itself to pop culture, which is, if nothing else, ephemeral and transitory. It demands little and therefore one can easily jump from one facet of pop culture to the next with little trouble. This ease and eclecticism undermines the stability of local communities that necessarily depend on long term affiliations and commitments. A life given to assiduously keeping one’s options open will, in the process of avoiding commitments, miss out on the very best kinds of human goods that are only found in the wake of commitment.

Third, limits and long-term commitments can be better realized if we recover the language and sense of providence, vocation, and stewardship. Providence, of course, implies some form of theism that includes at the very least a God who is both concerned about and in some way involved in human affairs. The belief that God has created a world infused with moral norms necessarily implies that certain actions are prohibited while others are enjoined. There exist, prior to any human will, limits on human action. The theological doctrine of vocation requires the antecedent notion of providence, for vocation is the doctrine of calling whereby God calls each person to a particular set of tasks and as a consequence to a particular place. Again, the idea of vocation implies a sort of positive limitation, a natural suitability, that is unique to each person. Finally, the idea of stewardship implies that that the places and institutions we have inherited are gifts to be wisely tended and lovingly passed on to the next generation. But one can only tend well what one understands and ultimately loves. Understanding and love are limited, for only God can understand the entire world or love it in a way that does not become merely an abstraction. Stewardship, then, is necessarily rooted in local affections and particular commitments.

Finally, place-making is an art that requires time and practice. Yet it is an art that is desperately needed if the potentially harmful effects of cultural cosmopolitanism are to be countered. What are some of the features of place-making? Neighborliness is one facet of place-making. As one becomes a good neighbor, one helps to create the small fibers that bind people and places together. Related to neighborliness is friendship, one of the sweetest goods in life and one that is only fully realizable in terms of particularity. One cannot be friends with the world, and Facebook “friending” is at best a parody of the kind of friendship described by Aristotle who argued that friends must live in proximity to each other, for only then can they truly know each other and fully appreciate their shared virtues. Place-making also entails education in local stories, practices, flora, and fauna. As one becomes familiar with the particulars of one’s place, one is better equipped to act as a steward and therefore better able to pass on to the next generation that which one has inherited and tended.

What I am suggesting represents something of a third way that avoids the cosmopolitan temptation while at the same time shuns any aggressive tribal reaction. This third alternative, what we might call humane localism, appreciates the variety and differences between cultures and thus resists the homogenizing impulse that is so strong in modern liberal democracies. It recognizes that the language of global village represents an abstraction that will never satisfy human longings. It is characterized by a love for one’s particular place and the people thereof. Yet at the same time this humane localism is not animated by fear of the other, for by an act of imagination it sees through the inevitable differences and recognizes the common humanity we all share. It recognizes that we are all living souls with needs and longings that bind us together even as the particulars of our own places remind us of our distinctness. In short, humane localism is rooted in respect, not in homogeneity; in love of one’s place, not hatred of other places; and in the realization that human flourishing is best realized in the company of friends and neighbors sharing a common place in the world.

Mark T. Mitchell is the chairman of the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. The complete and fully referenced version of this essay can be read in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, published in 2014 by New Atlantis Books/Encounter.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Having raised my seven children on both sides of the Atlantic, I have thought that I was instilling a cosmopolitan outlook. Eschewing the Helen Gurley Brown concept of what being cosmopolitan means, I have looked at the concept as an antidote to parochialism.
    Never have I considered it to be associated with a One-world political attitude. My children, in my opinion have great local associations, always having the example ( mostly my wife) to take part and volunteer. At the same time knowing that there are many different ways of living that make up a local experience. As Chesterson has written, there is nothing more exotic than what is happening over your neighbors fence.

  2. Good luck with this Mark. There is no sense today.

    It is precisely because of the Cable News Media’s understanding of an average human’s “need to belong” that they have created the elaborately idiotic edifice of cable news, spawning one sectarian fist fight after another. They laugh their way to the bank every day. In their turn, the viewing public lurches from one sentiment to another.

    Localism might work but anyone who has withstood a storm of criticism from fellow dinner party locals as a result of attempting a line of reasoning divergent from the Cable News menu knows that local aint what it used to be.

    At this juncture, the people love their armchair fights. People are not happy unless they are against something. An extended series of wins and the resulting indolence has contributed to this sorry state of affairs.

    Would that a “vocation” still existed.

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