Monthly Archives: May 2014

The same image can be interpreted a million times over, and differently each time. The interpretation of an image is dependent on the spectator, whose understanding is derived from ideology. Thus, ideology is that which guides individuals into particular social niches and associations — it is ideology which gives an image, which intrinsically has no meaning, symbolic meaning.

Firstly, we should define our most important term which is ideology. In Marx’s Capital, he defined it simplest he could, with an aphorism: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). Philosopher Slavoj Zizek elaborates on this in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology: 

The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself (Zizek, 33). 

Ideology is all around us. We are constantly making associations without realizing it because we have been inculcated in a particular historical context. Ideology is especially relevant in Western society since our desires are constantly being shaped in an effort to further consumption.

Consumption derives its power through subliminal messages. It exerts power by transcending itself from simply being an action to being representative of worth. Economist Thorstein Veblen gave this a name — “conspicuous consumption.” Purchasing an expensive car, to give one example, is not merely an act in and of itself. It also represents a certain social rank to the individual and those around you. Therefore, an act of consuming has two dimensions to it. One is the actual use-value of the commodity to the individual. The second is what the commodity culturally symbolizes and it says about the individual to the observer. The focus on the commodity, and the creation of symbols, was pivotal in rise of mass-consumerist society in the 20th century. It shifted the West from a need-based economy to a desire-based economy.

It is no surprise that symbolism differs in each socioeconomic class, not just for consumption, but for virtually everything that is perceived. The following poll is from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

Museum Questionaire

I think this chart clearly makes the case that human beings derives their associations from perceived usefulness. For a laboring manual worker, the association is naturally that which is most familiar — a church. A church is most dear to them and resembles a large museum in form. For an upper-class individual which possesses the free time to tend to such things, a museum is a thing-in-itself. It is simply a museum, which is why near 20% of these individuals chose “none of these” as their response.

Without usefulness and the free time (or individual interest) to explore certain areas, objects and ideas are dealt conveniently as pure associations. Marketing plays into this ignorance, but we also see this even more evidently in politics. To illustrate this, I’m sure that if you wrote buzzwords like “socialism” and “inequality,” each class of people would have differing associations for that particular word. The fact that many of these associations have replaced the actual definition of the word is frightening and speaks more of the respective economic class which we are all born into rather than personal choice. Sure, there can be choice involved as to how we define words, but to the politically-unconscious laborer, such a choice is relatively meaningless. This is especially dangerous in a time of mass-media and populist politics. Consumerism and politics, coupled with misleading associations, leads to a very unhealthy social situation.


A spectre is haunting Europe – and rather than communism, as Marx famously said, this spectre is nihilism. We are at “the advent of nihilism,” or so Friedrich Nietzsche argued in The Will to Power. However, why is only Europe in this predicament? Has the Asian philosophical tradition saved the East from similar demise? During the late 19th century, Buddhism was relatively unknown in detail to Western observers. It was through the work of Jesuit missionaries that Asian thought found itself in Europe. Nietzsche was fond of Buddhism to some degree, but he still considered it nihilistic. He used Buddhism to make comparisons to Christianity, contrasting them to show the futility of Christendom. Nietzsche likely encountered discussions on Asian philosophy through the work of Schopenhauer, who he admired dearly. His examinations between the two did not go in vain and, as historian Guy Welborn describes, he was likely “one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time” (Elman, 673). Thus, a constructive assessment of Buddhist philosophy can help us fill in the apparent “gaps” in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and see if Buddhism acts as a proper remedy to the ills Nietzsche attributes to Western society.

I. Nietzsche as the “Buddha of Europe”

In a note dated during the 1880s, Nietzsche writes “I could be the Buddha of Europe: though admittedly an antipode to the Indian Buddha” (Halbfass, 128). Here, we find a contradiction of terms. In his writing, Nietzsche affirms Buddhism as the only positivistic religion in the history of humanity; however, he also distances himself from the nihilism and the disaffirmation of life that he believes Buddhism supposedly entails. The reason Nietzsche calls himself “the Buddha of Europe” is because of the ontological similarities between himself and Buddha; however, he also paradoxically claims he is diametrically opposed to Buddhist philosophy, since he does not give the same solutions that are posited in early Buddhist thought. Firstly, apparent in both Buddhist and Nietzschean thought is the utmost rejection of metaphysics. Of course, Nietzsche himself and some Buddhist schools dabble in metaphysical inquiry by establishing criteria of the “self” and other concepts, but they never make it a rule of their inquiry. Rather, it is supplementary to their greater philosophy. To give an example, Gautama Buddha, the original Buddhist sage, demonstrates skepticism of metaphysics in a story known as the “Parable of the Arrow” found in one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka. A monk, Malunkyaputta, is bothered by the Buddha’s silence on the fourteen unanswerable questions. Frustrated, Malunkyaputta then issues an ultimatum – if the Buddha does not entertain these questions, he will renounce his teachings as a monk. Gautama Buddha responds by stating that he never promised to uncover “ultimate truths” and then goes on to explain a parable of a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow to further prove his point.

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. [We] would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city…’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him (Bhikku, 63).

This parable demonstrates the futility of metaphysics in fixing the suffering (Dukkha) that is inherent in life. When a poison arrow is lodged into you and causing you pain, discovering just where it came from is irrelevant to the more crucial problem at hand, which is actually removing it. Later Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Dogen affirm this position as in line with original Buddhist thinking. Dogen, especially, emphasizes this fact by “concern[ing] himself only with what is experienced… he is not concerned with notions of reality outside this process of experiencing consciousness” (Kasulis, 69). Rather than see statements as having “metaphysical significance,” Dogen posits that such claims are misunderstood descriptive statements about experience. In Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood, Francis D. Cook talks about metaphysics in relation to authenticity and the self. He writes:

Metaphysical systems… are constructed and defended to the death in order to solace and defend minds that are primarily concerned with their own reality, importance, and survival. As Nāgārjuna argued in the second century and Dōgen continued to insist in the thirteenth, all positions and ideologies arise from and, in turn, nourish the inauthentic self (Cook, 136).

Thus, for Dogen and Nagarjuna, metaphysics functions as a means to selfishly bolster the individual rather than cure the condition. Nietzsche, too, sought to bring philosophy back to the experiencer rather than put it in hands beyond ourselves. Therefore, he rejected abstractions as needless constructions that merely separate us from our actual-existing reality. He uses Christian imagery of God becoming man through Christ as a means to allegorically demonstrate that divine instruction, metaphysics, and “objective” knowledge has now grounded itself in man, for all of us to experientially explore.

That God became man only indicates that man shouldn’t search for blessedness in the infinite; rather, he should ground his heaven on earth. The delusion of a world beyond has cast human spirits and minds in a false relation to the earthly world: it [that delusion] was the product of a childhood of peoples (Porter, 1).

Buddhism (particularly the Madhymaka School) and Nietzsche reach their anti-metaphysical position by, firstly, rejecting theism. For Gautama Buddha, the idea of God was a non-issue since it has little to do with “seeing things as they really are” – as Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering(Nisker, 23).  It is because both Nietzsche and Guatama Buddha reject God that they also reject metaphysics, objective value, and any purpose behind suffering.

II. Suffering as Perpetual

Both Nietzsche and Buddhism affirm suffering as always present. Nietzsche derives his concept of Dukkha from the work of Schopenhauer, who might had very well come to the idea through Buddhism.  For Schopenhauer, suffering was “an obstacle placed between the will and its aim” (Elman, 675). Thus, “because all efforts of will arose from the constant dissatisfaction with its present state, there could be no end to striving; therefore, there could be no end to suffering either” (Elman, 675). Schopenhauer took this fact to mean that Dhukka can never be overcome and the only proper solution is to negate our own will, since we can never escape suffering. Nietzsche rejected this view and instead inverted Schopenhauer’s conclusion – the solution was not to negate the will, but to elevate it above all else. Although we live without God and objectivity, that does not mean we are doomed to nihilism. If we reject metaphysics and realize that Dukkha is ever-present in our current reality then there are two possible solutions: (I) we either appeal to Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal in an effort to ultimately end it or (II) we affirm suffering itself and take it as a form of strength through Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch. For Nietzsche, Buddhism is life-negating because it fails to affirm suffering as a means towards improvement. Rather, it wishes to escape it. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Kaufmann, 344)

From this common position of suffering, two potential roads open up: the “life-negating” ethics of the Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal, or the life-affirming ethics of Nietzsche’s own Übermensch ideal. It is because Buddhism accepts suffering as paramount that Nietzsche places it higher than Christianity, since it does not succumb to ressentiment. Nietzsche’s characterization of Buddhism as “life-negating” comes from a misunderstanding of Asian philosophy. While the goal of Buddhism is to negate yourself and realize your self is an illusion (Anatta), you make yourself empty in order to affirm life. This same concept is present in Daoism, found in the Dao De Jing chapter 11:

By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. …And so, what is there is the basis for profit. What is not there is the basis for use (Ivanhoe, 11).

Thus, it is through “negating” yourself that you become an empty vessel in order to be filled with everything else – you destroy the distinction between the self and the universe, in order to be fully realized and reach enlightenment. Nietzsche seems to be missing this characteristic of Buddhist doctrine; instead he focuses specifically on Anatta as a means to prove Buddhism is inherently nihilistic, a position which Gautama Buddha and Nagarjuna reject.

III. Impermanence and the Self

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the “weeping philosopher.” He was an influence on Nietzsche. Here he is depicted on an oil canvas by Hendrick Bloemaert.

If suffering (Dukkha) is reality, then what does it mean to be resentful towards that reality? What does it mean to deny it? For Nietzsche, such thinking is an act of ressentiment and a characteristic of slave morality. However, suffering is only one aspect of reality. Nietzsche also agrees with the other Buddhist mark of existence, impermanence (Anicca) or the idea that everything is in constant flux. Nietzsche was introduced to this concept not through Buddhism, but rather through the works of pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Nietzsche writes that “Heraclitus will remain eternally right with is assertion that being is an empty fiction” (Common, 15). Nietzsche hoped to transform the talk of an ontological and static “being” into one of a more dynamic “becoming.” This dynamism he attempts to capture in his conception of will to power (Barrett, 178). Reality does not create fixed entities such as subject, being, object, and essence. These words are created for convenience since we cannot possibly see this flux in full; we do not see the interaction between different beings, temporally and spatially, which leads to their co-dependent creation. By postulating “being” as fixed, Nietzsche argues, we make ourselves foolishly comfortable by grounding a reality which is, ultimately, never constant and always changing. It is from this idea that Nietzsche attacks truth:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding (Magnus, 29, 30).

In the same vein, Nietzsche affirms that the self is co-dependent and of “great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman(Hollingdale, 61). He also describes the self as a “social structure of… drives and emotions” (Hollingdale, 25) In the Will to Power, he expounds on this idea by describing the subject are more multi-faceted than just a “self.” He writes:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general?… My hypothesis: The subject as multiplicity (Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 270).

Nagarjuna, specifically, speaks of Buddhist co-dependent origination in Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness where he writes in poetic form:

Entities do not exist In their causes, in their conditions In aggregations of many things, or in individual things Therefore, all entities are empty (Lindtner, 3).

In this stanza, “empty” does not mean “not existing.” It simply means empty of an essence. There is no static being that is a thing-in-itself; rather, an object is dependent on other entities for it to exist temporally and spatially.

Without one there are not many, and Without many there is not one. Therefore, dependently arisen entities [like these] Have no characteristics (Lindtner, 7).

The co-dependency of all entities also implies that these same entities are in constant flux. In these two stanzas, Nagarjuna outlines the case for impermanence. From the position of impermanence, both Nietzsche and Buddhists run into a problem – how can individuals overcome Dukkha in an ever-changing world? How can one create value or affirm anything in a world that does not have constant or eternal entities? Ultimately, these questions are where Nietzsche and Buddhists overlap. They both seek to solve the issue of nihilism which is inherent in an impermanent world. They do this by striving to recognize reality for what it is and then offering a solution with which to solve the problem of suffering. For Buddhists, this is found in denying the self and its desires, which will ultimately put an end to Dukkha. Nietzsche, conversely, affirms suffering as necessary to fulfillment which is the inspiration for his aphorism: “What does not kill me, strengthens me” (Common, 6). Despite the differing solutions, Antoine Panaioti in Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy attempts to reconcile these two views of suffering by arguing that both philosophies attempt to make its followers so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive suffering as an obstacle. In other words, both seek the elimination of suffering as an impediment – for Nietzsche, this is done through will and self-affirmation; for Buddhism, this is done by disaffirming the self and one’s will.

IV. Final Remarks

I find the Buddhist response to suffering to be much more sound, since impermanence of the self implies a lack of a subject. Nietzsche, paradoxically, triumphs the individual will above all else while also arguing that the self is multi-faceted and not just an essence. He is an individualist that denies the individual. The Buddhist philosophy is consistent because it denies the self as an entity of itself, but it goes even further – it also denies the subject as an individual agent. Thus, Nietzsche’s formula is left incomplete. Buddhism correctly fills in the gaps. At the root, both Buddhism and Nietzsche seek to destroy ideals. For Nietzsche, this was the entire Western tradition. The nihilist, in all its negative connotations, is in actuality a frustrated idealist that realizes abstractions will never reach perfection. The solution, then, is to simply destroy these notions of “ideals” and to live according to the “real.” In other words, in order to fully overcome nihilism, we need to kill Platonic forms, metaphysical tribulations, and conceptions of “noumenon” that cloud our perceptions. Therefore, nihilism is a kind of product of Western metaphysics. Buddhism had no such institutional opposition, and thus had no need to break down ideal forms as Nietzsche did. Nietzsche overlaps with Buddhism in his ontological conception of the self, in his ideas on “becoming,” and the reality of constant suffering. The difference is, largely, the historical context and the solutions for the problems posed. For all his denouncing and rejection, it seems that Nietzsche was much more of Buddhist than he cared to realize.


– Elman, Benjamin A. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. pp. 671 – 686.

– Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. State University of New York Press, New York. 1988. Print.

– Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 Nov. 2013. Web. <;.

– Kasulis, T. P. Zen Action: Zen Person. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1989. Print.

– Cook, Francis Dojun. Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1985. Print.

– Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus and the Platonic Midwife: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 3. John Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

– Nisker, Wes. Buddha’s Nature, reprint ed. Bantam, 2000. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Modern Library of New York, New York. 2000. Print.

– Ivanhoe, Philip J. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press, New York. 2002. Print.

– Common, Thomas. The Twilight of the Idols and Antichrist., 2010. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

– Hollingdale, R. J. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Penguin Press, 1974. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Hollingdale, R. J. The Will to Power. Vintage, 2011. Print.

– Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuna: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. New Delhi, 1997. Print.

– Panaioti, Antoine. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2013. Print.

propNationalism works within a unique niche in contemporary society. It is constantly romanticized by its proponents, described as both necessary and natural, despite having to reinvent itself with every new epoch. Nationalism prides itself on its continuity, but it is constantly changing the means with which it defines itself. In a symbolic gesture, nationalism “mediates the past with the future, while providing an effective dimension for the present” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 255). It gives the appearance of historical resemblance in a reality that is actually ever-changing and fluid. The Enlightenment and Romanticist literary movements have played their part in developing national consciousness by describing nationalism as eternal, static, and even “infinite.” Ironically, it is because of the ordinariness of capitalist standardization that nationalism found its sincerest and most passionate supporters. The fact that nationalism rose during a time of emerging economic automation and science is no coincidence – National consciousness had to be created as a means to cope with the turbulent alienation of modernity.

I. Essentialism Is Inseparable from Nationalism

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

The eternal flame is the distinctive marker of national honor. It is used to respect those who died for their homeland, or to venerate political figures of national importance. The “eternal” in this fiery symbol is an all-encompassing depiction of the nation-state; the nation is conceived as immaterial, unique, and timeless by its most fanatical believers and oftentimes heightened to quasi-religious proportions. This line of rhetoric is characteristic of a philosophical position which dates back to Greek Antiquity – essentialism. Essentialists posit that there exists an objective, core quality to a particular person or group that is inherent in their very being. Therefore, essentialism is also an a priori claim on human nature.  This philosophy can take on different forms. It can function within an individualistic framework where attributes are assumed for an individual based on how they can be characterized more generally (race, gender, etc.). Ethno-nationalism derives its power from an essentialist position, arguing that their particular group constitutes a natural identity and one that has a greater historical narrative they are destined to complete. It is the position that “nations are natural, organic, quasi-eternal entities” rather than products of historical forces (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). Essentialist nationalism is thus the position that the individual is second to the community and therefore owes allegiance to the nation.

6a00d83451cdc869e20120a8b4166c970bVirtually all of nationalism functions as essentialist in how it conceives itself. The concept of “the nation” rests on four major ideas that Benedict Anderson in the introduction to his book Imagined Communities outlines. Firstly, the nation is imagined. It is imagined because, although conceiving of themselves as a group, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (Anderson, 15). Secondly, the nation is limited. Each national group has finite boundaries with which it defines itself. Anderson makes an effort to clarify this distinction by arguing that “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation…” (Anderson, 16). In other words, nationalism is by its very design limited in scope; Nationalists does not seek the expansion of all people within its borders. Instead, they value most those that culturally qualify as their own.  Thirdly, moving forward, the nation is sovereign. Nationalism requires a state to enforce itself or else it falls into obscurity, which is why the “nation” and “state” are so deeply intertwined. And finally, fourthly, the nation is a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 16). It is why individuals die for their nation – they conceive of themselves as inseparable from it and are therefore willing to be slaughtered for the state. Such actions, although sometimes full of valor, are motivated by imagination.

Ironically, the more passionate nationalism is, the more it discredits itself as an ideology by turning to violent means to achieve an imagined vision. As Josep Llobera writes, “in the long run, the history of Western Europe is the history of the qualified failure of the so called nation-state” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). However, despite the atrocities committed in its name, nationalism relentlessly survives with each decade. Nations amass popular credibility and power through two means – by creating the “Other” and the myth. In order for nationalism to take root, it must first differentiate itself from other groups or individuals that are unlike it. Commonalities are formed within a particular group – be it cultural, religious, or political – and eventually synthesized, popularized, and normalized and made natural in contrast to the “Other.”

II. The Creation of the “Other”

In order for an ethno-national state to affirm itself, it first has to make clear what it is not. This process of differentiation is crucial in the development of nationalism since it distinguishes the “nation” from those that are outside it, and thus creates an imagined community for its people to follow. However, imagined communities are not created in a vacuum; there must be particular historical forces at play in order for a group to conceive of themselves, collectively, with one national identity. Take the case of Catalan nationalism – it emerged as a result of regional repression, an ineffective Spanish state, industrialization, romantic literature, and a strong Catholic base (Tonkin et. all 250, 251, 252). The final differentiating factor is, ultimately, language which is arguably “the symbol and the lively expression of the personality of [the] people” (Conversi, 55). Catalan nationalism and its history provide us with many sources on how the intelligentsia made an effort to differentiate Catalans from other Spaniards. The dichotomy of being “Catalan” and “not-Catalan” is an important one, since the whole purpose of its nationalist project was to create an “irrefutable and indestructible Catalan personality” (Conversi, 55). Thus, the creation of Catalan nationalism involved the creation of core values and language as a means to differentiate Catalan as a legitimate nationality. And such was not just the case in Catalonia, but for all nationalist movements that sought validity in the post-Enlightenment era.

III. The Myth of Nationalism

The creation of nationalist myths goes hand-in-hand with differentiating the nation from others. The myth functions as a unique starting point for national consciousness – it inspires and creates a common story of origin for all the people in its supposed jurisdiction. The need for myths is apparent in virtually all nationalist movements. For Croatians, they found national solidarity by identifying themselves as the cultural ancestors of the historic Illyrians who lived in the Balkans around 5th century B.C. In another case, the Scottish Highlands created their own nationalist myth by distinguishing themselves from Irish culture. As Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in The Invention of Tradition:

It occurred in three stages. First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original, and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by historic Lowland Scotland… (Hobsbawm, 16).

scot5In an effort to forge a national identity, the Scottish intelligentsia told stories of Scotts resisting Roman armies, called Irish-influenced ballads their own, and even popularized their own non-Irish traditional garb by the 18th century (Hobsbawm, 17, 19). This was done all in efforts to differentiate themselves from Ireland, who they felt culturally overshadowed the Highlands.

The creation of myths is the imaginative potential of nationalist projects. The sheer literary talent of piecing together a coherent (although fictitious) narrative was a product of 18th century Romanticism. Eventually, these tales became ingrained in the culture from which they sprung; the myths began to be taken as true, as if they had a life of their own. These stories’ main purpose was to establish a grander narrative which grounds the community in core values and common history. Thus, myths are a necessary component of any nationalist project – they reinvigorate a community to stand on its own, distinguishes them as unique, and ultimately gives them a reason to take up arms to defend their imagined history.

IV. Inventing Traditions

Thus far, we have discussed the steady progression of nationalist development. First, it begins by taking an essentialist position on a group’s origin. From here, differentiation begins by defining the particular group separate from the “Other.” It is then that the creation of “myths” arises in order to justify collective consciousness and action.  Once a national identity is established, it becomes the responsibility of the state and/or the people to maintain it.

Structures and codes of behavior are usually maintained through invented traditions, by using repetition and appealing to continuity with the past.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines this phenomenon in the opening pages of The Invention of Tradition:

‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm, 1).

Invented traditions function as the maintainers of state power. They are constructed with the intent of making the custom appear “historic” or “natural.” Such was the case for the British Monarchy, which was forced to reinvent itself in the late 19th century amidst an educated, growing middle-class. However, this process was not easy and required many failures on part of the ruling class to perfect its rituals. David Cannadine in chapter four of The Invention of Tradition writes, “For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco” (Hobsbawm, 117). This was because royal ceremonies in Great Britain before the mid-19th century were historically done behind closed doors, rather than as public spectacles (Hobsbawm, 116). With the rise of liberalism, the British monarchy had to create a ceremonial tradition that would quell the public’s animosity towards the Crown. They exacted it to a science – appealing to tradition, populism, and the myth of their necessity as an institution. Soon, the British royal family became the living embodiment of national pride, whose “traditions” live on to this day.

However, when a hegemonic imperialist power invents traditions, these changes have ramifications far outside its nationalist borders. The British Empire also imposed these traditions on its colonies, in an effort to naturalize their exploitation and justify their expansionism. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the British monarchy’s symbolic power, starting in the late 19th century, was directly around the time of it colonizing Africa. The same process of “inventing tradition” would be applied to Africa to make them submissive to Anglo-Saxon power. Terence Ranger writes in chapter 6 of The Invention of Tradition:

But serviceable as the monarchial ideology was to the British, it was not enough to provide the theory or justify the structures of colonial governance on the spot. Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans (Hobsbawm, 212).

A hierarchy was enforced in Africa which placed “white” as the ideal amongst the people living there. The watchful eye of Anglo-Saxon officials became symbolic of the African peoples’ position in relation to British power and was justified through appeals to nature and history. With this also came justifications from Protestant theology – the mantra was that it was the white man’s burden that the British have taken upon themselves, out of benevolence, just to help these people succeed. This, however, could not be farther from the truth.

A British ceremony commemorating Ado’s Kingdom assimilation into greater British Nigeria [1897 – 1899]. It was through these rituals that the British empire created traditions and assumed dominance. They did it by creating a spectacle.


British imperial power expanded its power by forcing groups to assimilate into their empire with the threat of force. In this photo, British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian representatives.


The British Royalty, starting in the late 19th century, began to rely on aesthetics and ritual to enforce their necessity. In an age of growing democratization, the royalty needed to stay relevant by making each of their actions a symbolic event. The coronation stood, above all else, a symbolic representation of the passing of imperial power. The above photo is a postcard meant to endorse national pride from 1911.


“Are We Afraid? No!” is a jingoistic British postcard from WW1. The five pups represent the best of Britain’s colonial territories (i.e. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa). The exact year of the postcard is unknown.


This is a french poster by the Mouvement Anti-Apartheid (also known as the Campagne Anti-OutSpan or C.O.A). The group was founded in 1975 and supported the African National Congress and the struggle against apartheid. This was part of its first campaign to boycott Outspan oranges from South Africa in an attempt to destroy the Western hegemony in Africa.

The British Crown is an especially relevant example of invented traditions. Because its influence was so widespread, Anglo-Saxon culture permeates and invents itself as “natural” even to this day. Still, Great Britain aside, virtually all nationalist state projects appeal to a type of invented tradition to maintain itself and make its institutions seem “natural” – be it the caste system in India, or the romanticizing of the Founding Fathers in the United States, or even the appeal to the Roman Empire in fascist Italy under the rule of Mussolini. All of these invented traditions appeal to supposed “historical continuity” and attempt to make a narrative to justify its institutional power. Invented traditions are the means with which nationalism maintains itself as relevant and necessary with each passing generation.

V. Popularizing the Nation

The spread of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its invented traditions. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities outlines a few historical patterns which explains how virtually all nationalist movements popularized themselves. Much of it has to do with “print capitalism,” which was the commodification and mass-production of texts. It ultimately led to a codified language, a “national” language, and extinguished any dialects that previously existed locally. The rise of print capitalism was a steady process, but it eventually grew to encapsulate every aspect of life. Anderson notes, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500… if manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (Anderson, 37). In turn, the print expansion also brought with it a level of greater community, one which extended far beyond kinship and familial ties. It molded a type of national consciousness, a collective identity, by standardizing the means of communication. Therefore, the birth of nationalism can very much be associated with the birth of capitalism and their development is intertwined.

Far beyond print capitalism, other historical factors merged to further solidify nationalism in public consciousness. The spread of the newspaper connected previously unrelated social phenomenon into an implicitly greater narrative, which eventually led to nationalism. Anderson writes:

In this way, the newspaper… quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged (Anderson, 62).

Along with the newspaper, the homogenization of time with the steady adoption of the Gregorian calendar created “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time” which fits nicely into nationalist narratives of continuity. All of these factors – propagated through print capitalism – led to a kind of philological revolution, while also creating a common measurement of time, which allowed for the birth of the collective consciousness that would become nationalism.

VI. Conclusion and Final Remarks

Nationalism derives its prowess from essentialism, myths, and differentiation. It popularizes itself through print, through national language, and through common narratives for the future. And finally, it cements its dominance through repetition and invented traditions. The nuances of how nations individually created their sense of pride are invariably unique, mostly due to differences in relative power, but the general way nationalism is conceived is virtually the same in every historical situation.

Although nationalism is derived from invented traditions and mythological imagination, this does not delegitimize its potential as a political force. Nationalism has proved to be one of the most dynamic phenomena in history, constantly re-inventing itself with each generation. Although as a rule, nationalism is an imaginative community, it has its uses in fighting hegemonic power and re-vitalizing exploited peoples. As Stuart Hall writes in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: “I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically… who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization” (King, 53). It for this reason that nationalism cannot be discarded purely on the basis of being imaginative – it has the potential to be a necessary counter to dominant power, and has revitalized marginalized people throughout the world, especially in the post-colonial era. As a means, nationalism is a sound anti-imperialist platform, but it still fails to provide an end. The historic end-goal of nationalism is the victory of the particular nation. What this end entails is potentially open to reactionary violence, and even political manipulation, which has been the case for the much of modern history. Nationalism breeds competition; It may function as a means to liberate a group, but it fails to provide a proper end.


– Tonkin, Elizabeth. McDonald, Maryon. Chapman, Malcolm. History and Ethnicity. Routledge, 1989. New York. pp. 247 – 261. Print.

– Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso Books, 1983. London. Print.

– Conversi, Daniele. Ethics and Racial Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. Routledge, 1990. pp. 50 – 70. Print.

– Hobsbawm, Eric. Ranger, Terrance. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983. New York. Print.

–  King, Anthony D. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Minneapolis. Print.




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