Citizenship as philosophical burden

de Ana Bazac

Citizen means to be a member of a certain but precise human community. The man is recognised by his fellows as human being – as social being, zoon politikon – only in this community: only through this recognition can he behave and consider himself as human being. Otherwise, in the dark forest swarming with cruel life, he would be only a part of this animal order.

The human community, the Greek polis, implied just the difference from this animal life. The speech, the rational dialogue, the human memory full of founding myths legitimating the human supremacy and customs, and the falling into human habits, were not the only cohesive facts constructing the polis: the norms of reciprocal behaviour, thus of reciprocal rights were the knots and guiding marks of the human relationships within community.

The ancient human rights were just those given by the polis: a guest, being he long-standing or not, as well as a wanderer seeking for asylum, had specific rights issued from the reciprocal recognition of communities and their members, but more weaken than those of the citizens of the polis receiving the immigrant. They were rights to hospitality, so extraordinary rights, but not normal political rights – the only ones certifying the belonging of men to the polis.

For this reason, citizenship was that which defended people as sign of their belonging to the polis. As we know, the polis was the place of the relations of power and of the struggle for power, citizens were only the free males born from native citizens within the city, but the state of citizenship was the proof of differentiation of the human community from the ancient wild state of nature: the rights were the results of human dialogue and evaluation of the deeds, and no more the privileges of the powerful. Namely, the human rights of those times have substituted the former privileges of the powerful, having the function to open people’s mind toward human communication, argumentation: rationality.

However, as nowadays, citizenship, represented by the human rights within a particular city, has had also a function of closing people within the social space of habits and idiosyncrasies of a certain polis. I do not speak about the already mentioned social discrimination, but about the blindness of citizens concerning the human possibility and rights beyond the city, thus concerning the possible enlargement of the human rights.

This problem of enlargement of the human rights was developed only from the 20th century on, but it was intuited by an ancient philosopher, the cynic Diogenes of Sinope. He was a banished, a refugee – though not from political reasons – and just this situation has generated his conception about the human rights.

First of all, he expressed his feeling concerning his precarious life: this was only because he was no more the citizen of his polis: “he was in the habit of saying that the tragic curse had come upon him, for that he was: ‘Houseless and citiless, a piteous exile/ From his dear native land;/ a wandering beggar,/ Scraping a pittance poor from day to day’” (“ἄπολις, ἄοικος, πατρίδος ἐστερημένος”)[i]. But his situation as such, the event, were guilty of this tragic curse, and not the rules of the polis: “the law, that without it there is no possibility of a constitution being maintained; for without a city there can be nothing orderly, but a city is an orderly thing; and without a city there can be no law; therefore law is order”[ii]. Therefore, the political – i.e. social – character of man is given by the polis, by the living together of the human beings ordered by conventional rules.

This did not mean that these rules would be all reasonable: on the contrary, but this happens because of the lack of reasonability of the human beings as such, said Diogenes. This is the reason to always learn and improve one’s own mind and behaviour.

If so, one ought to be sensitive to the habits and rules of people from other cities and lands: “as is plain from the habits of foreign nations; and he said that this principle might be correctly extended to every case and every people”[iii]. But, for people are encapsulated within their cultural heritage, it seems that it would be more valuable to leave one’s own sure nest and to experience different customs, studies, even lives: “And when, on another occasion, some one said to him, ‘The people of Sinope condemned you to banishment’, he replied, ‘And I condemned them to remain where they were’”[iv]. Who could say that to remain in his native polis would lead or, for Diogenes, would have led to a better, i.e. more interesting life? The condemnation to exile lacks a man from his social certitude given by the rights of citizenship, but the narrow horizons of the city stop him to dream: to learn and to overcome the limits of the past experiences. The experience of closing is opposed to the one of the openness.

In this framework of thinking, Diogenes showed that, while the rights are determined within and by the space of polis, and a man must be member of a polis if he is and wants to be free, if he can no more be the citizen of a certain polis he would be the one of the world: “The question was put to him what countryman he was, and he replied,’A Citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)”, (“ἐρωτηθεὶς πόθεν εἴη, ‘κοσμοπολίτης’, ἔφη”)[v]. From the standpoint of his concrete status as exiled, Diogenes had no more the political rights of citizenship. He belonged to the world, this one covered him, but this space was too large and indefinite for protect him in the standard manner. From the point of view of the possibility generated by the infringement of the limits of his native political “sphere” (Peter Sloterdijk), Diogenes was convinced that he was closer to the “all too human” (Nietzsche) than those who remained within the confines they were used to. If the polis did no more defend his humanity, he, by developing what he thought to be the specific difference of man (not a simple rationality, as that from Aristotle’s definition of the human being as rational animal, but as rational interconnectivity with the other men, as always unfinished result of this interconnection), has considered that the world as such would have been a better (being the only one) environment for his unique existence and development.

From the traditional positive interpretation of the local – the polis –, it seems that Diogenes made a deviation: to be a citizen of the world seems to be more valuable for him, while before and outside him this status was neglected. However, we must not forget that the political belonging to the whole world was only a situation of exception. This situation opened up the look toward new things and new human positions but, at the same time, was so uncomfortable that its pattern was rather that of unconsummated rights, that of the limits of the human status. Shortly, to be a citizen of the world was not, in Diogenes’ time, summa summarum in matters of human condition.

Only from a theoretical standpoint, the highest level of the rational order given by the human law could be considered as a generalisation of this law all over the world: “that was the only proper constitution which consisted in order”[vi].

From the same viewpoint, later on, Voltaire, by criticising the selfishness of the ideology of the nation-state, considered that the highest attitude of man is that which takes into account the interests of all the countries. He suggested that it would be interdependence between the situations of different layers of people within the same fatherland and, on the other hand, the relationships between different countries: on this basis, the desirable belief of man is that of love of humankind as such, instead of a narrow patriotism. “in a fatherland… there were often many thousand men who had no fatherland… It is sad that often in order to be a good patriot one is the enemy of the rest of mankind… It is clear that one country cannot gain without another loses, and that it cannot conquer without making misery. Such then is the human state that to wish for one’s country’s greatness is to wish harm to one’s neighbors. He who should wish his fatherland might never be greater, smaller, richer, poorer, would be the citizen of the world”[vii]. If rather those who are owners and have the rights of meeting “in their common interest”, have their “voice in the assembly” and feel to be “part of everything, a part of the community, a part of the dominion”[viii] are ardent patriots, it results that the main problem of the topic – which commonly people consider as being only a sentiment – is the one of the rights men have within community.

If the political rights were forged by the nation-state and inherently more capitalisto, thus three-fold limited, could one sustain that these rights would be the apex of the human condition of every unique and unrepeatable human being?

Just this contradiction between the uniqueness of man and, on the other hand, the possibility to manifest this uniqueness was the reason of Marx’s theory about the historical and social roots and mechanisms of alienation. His demonstration of these mechanisms has responded to Voltaire’s observation: for the domination and thus the coexistence of the lack of the human right to uniqueness with the right to own other’s uniqueness within the same country is structural, and for capitalism is a world system based on the structural relations of exploitation, compulsion within a country, and between countries and between people from different countries, the human rights could not be obtained and realised only in a country but at a world level.

More: irrespective of the belonging to a specific country – and certainly people love their environment full of customs and memory contributing to their identity – people are fragmented according to their social membership: if certainly the owners (I use Voltaire’s term) feel at ease within the whole world for they hold it, by the agency of theirs relationships of property and power worldwide, the oppressed have also to impose all over the world their right to have human rights. The slogan ending The Communist Manifesto – Working Men of All Countries, Unite![ix] – has frightened and frightens the powerful, but it is the logical conclusion of the state of things. Therefore, to have human rights means to transcend the boundaries within which broad masses are unjustly[x] oppressed: thus to conquer power by and for those lacking of power.

Just this process and phenomenon means that the status of world citizenship – au fond warranting the state of the real citizenship within the frontiers of the nation-state – is no more an exceptional situation, though ideal – even missing many rights, and resulted from the loss of the citizenship of the polis, as Diogenes believed, but an objective one for which, however, people must fight for. World citizenship is a possibility founded in the definition of the human being – definition i.e. general condition of the rational animal –, but to this possibility different narrow, man encircling realities have opposed. And although people have learned from these realities that, before being human beings they were of a certain local citizenship, as well as even though they deduced the right to a human condition from the right given by the local citizenship, in fact this general right is the ground of the concrete rights, of the concrete citizenship.

Would not be this conception an abstract one, that of founding the human determinism by the human “essence”, and not by man’s existence? Not at all. The human “essence”, as real fact and concept as well, is constructed by man’s historical experience, thus historical acquisition of human features. But just in this framework of thinking, we understand, as many people did from the middle of the 19th century on, that the real human rights, thus the real citizenship of people within the confines of a certain country are depending on the sanctioning and realisation of the human rights of every human being at world scale, thus of the world citizenship. More-over, as Voltaire showed before, there are neither real human rights nor human behaviours of and for every citizen of a country just for there is not yet sanctioned a world citizenship.

But philosophy has always struggled and still does, through the agency of concepts, with the concrete. And, as again Marx pointed out, just the logic of modernity (i.e. capitalism) has generated the transformations toward the integration of countries and regions into a single world market. This fact supports the tendency toward a world citizenship. The problem is that the (present) world market has contradictory interests: to allow some rights on world scale and forbid other ones on the same level, and at the same time, to reduce other ones on local scale.

How to manage philosophically this fact? Deleuze and Guatttari remembered that, from a standpoint, the struggle for the generalisation of the world citizenship has to support the world integrative process, although it is led by a discriminating power[xi], just for this integrative process is an objective ground of new and more efficient fights for global citizenship. On the other hand, the support of the fighters for world citizenship given to “the relations of capitalist exploitation expanding everywhere”[xii] is antithetic to the capitalist globalisation. This complex interests and attitudes of the “multitude” realise difficultly, generating different paths where the examination of different experiences confronts the challenges put by the profound social antagonism. This examination shows “that the action of the multitude becomes political primarily when it begins to confront directly and with an adequate consciousness the central repressive operations of Empire”[xiii]. And to confront means, at the level of concreteness, the demand of a global citizenship, for a world social wage, and for the world public control over the ends of the relationship of society with nature. All of these are rights, for the time being only under the sign of posse, but their feature of focusing on different aspects does not annul their consequence: to question the structure of the present society and to put the problem of “the right of reappropriation”[xiv]. This is a new epoch of philosophy: that of going beyond the ideals and the methodological in the construction of ideals.

Notes and Bibliography

[i] Diogenes Laertius, Life and opinions of eminent philosophers, Translated by C.D. Yonge,, Book VI, Diogenes, VI, 38. See also Διογένης Λαέρτιος, Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων, [ed. H S Long, Oxford 1964],

[ii] Diogenes Laertius, Life and opinions of eminent philosophers, Translated by C.D. Yonge,, Book VI, Diogenes, VI, 72.

[iii] Ibidem, VI, 73.

[iv] Ibidem, VI, 49.

[v] Ibidem, VI, 63, and the Greek version, ibidem.

[vi] Ibidem, VI, 72. The Greek version, VI, 72: “μόνην τε ὀρθὴν πολιτείαν εἶναι τὴν ἐν κόσμῳ”. But see also the Romanian translation where this aspect was better caught: “Adevărata orânduire de stat este aceea care cuprinde tot universal”, Diogenes Laertios, Despre vieţile şi doctrinele filosofilor (sec. III e.n.), trad. din limba greacă de C. I. Balmuş, studiu introductiv şi comentarii de Aram M. Frenkian, Bucureşti, Editura Academiei RPR, 1963, VI, 72, p. 315.

[vii] Voltaire, „Patrie”, in The Philosophical Dictionary, 1752, H. I. Woolf, ed., Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (London, 1923), pp. 131-132,

[viii] Ibidem.

[ix] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), Chapter IV,

[x] I use the formula of the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Persecuted, created in 1978 in Czechoslovakia in order to support Charter 77.

[xi] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (1972), translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Lane and Helen Lane, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 239.

[xii] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000), Cambridge, Mass., London, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 209.

[xiii] Ibidem, p. 399.

[xiv] Ibidem, p. 403.

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