The True Meaning of Cosmopolitanism, and Why We Need to Embrace It to Survive

To live safely on this planet together, we should see ourselves as citizens of the world

People toss an inflatable globe in the air in front of the U.S. Capitol Building during the Global Climate Strike protests on September 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
AFP

Cosmopolitanism has an image problem. It so often sounds recreational. There’s that magazine, known for its sex and fashion advice. There’s that cocktail, a viscously sweet and luridly red concoction. And when we refer to people as “cosmopolitans,” we’re typically conjuring up the frequent fliers who know what hotels to stay at in Davos. The term, in these contexts, suggests sophistication… unhappily accompanied by a patronizing smirk at those less sophisticated.

Different societies have had disparaging terms for such people. In Nigeria, they’re called “been-tos” – they’ve “been to” places abroad and are only too happy to tell you about their experiences there. In China, they’re hai gui, or “sea turtles” – the know-it-all colleagues who studied abroad, and imagine that they have broader horizons than the tu bie, the local beetles (slang for country bumpkins).

The originators of cosmopolitanism, though, would have been hard-pressed to recognize themselves as members of any of these tribes. Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C.E. who was the first to declare himself a cosmopolitan – that is, a “citizen of the world” – spurned social convention and lived in a large clay pot, which I guess was the shipping container of its day. No one would have called him a sophisticate.

The Stoics of the first and second centuries C.E., who elaborated the cosmopolitan idea into a larger ethical doctrine, weren’t aiming to shore up hierarchy but to expand the compass of our moral sympathies – recognizing that all lives have moral significance – while recognizing the special care and concern we may have for those with whom we have special bonds.

In “Bleak House,” Dickens satirized Mrs. Jellyby, who is so preoccupied with her philanthropic projects in Africa that she neglects her own family. Dickens accused her of “telescopic philanthropy,” because “she could see nothing nearer than Africa.” No doubt there are such people, but a responsible devotion to human welfare should be guided by the wise observation of another of the ancient Stoic cosmopolitans: ‘‘Human fellowship will be best served if we treat most kindly those to whom we are most closely connected.’’

Hierocles, the second-century Stoic, wrote about concentric circles extending outward from you to your immediate family, your extended family, your ethnos, and finally to all of humankind. He didn’t want to collapse the circles; he did want us to draw those circles in closer to us. The idea that all thinking creatures are possessors of dignity, that all have a moral claim on us, was critical to Kant’s thought; at the same time, when he proposed a “league of nations” – anticipating the international organizations of the 20th century, not least the United Nations – he supposed that nations would endure. His essay on “Perpetual Peace” embodied a cosmopolitan’s respect for the importance of the local. Kant understood that the task of finding a form of moral universalism that’s compatible with the special obligations we have toward our kinfolk, communities and co-nationals, was the real project of cosmopolitanism. And so it’s the opposite of rootless. (As Gertrude Stein once said, “What good are roots if you can’t take them with you.”)

I suppose this can all sound like a luxury. In fact, on our small, heating planet, it has become a matter of growing urgency, and in the century ahead, it will be an absolute necessity.

The political theorist Judith Shklar, in her best-known essay, “The Liberalism of Fear” (1989), defended a minimal political commitment that was not a matter of aspiration but of sheer self-protection. In her view, the “original and only defensible meaning of liberalism” was that “every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult.” Liberalism was grounded not in any summum bonum, or greatest good, but rather, in a summum malum, a greatest evil. And the summum malum was cruelty, together with the fear it inspired. Given that the state and its agents had “unique resources of physical might and persuasion at their disposal,” Shklar argued, liberalism regarded “the abuses of public powers in all regimes with equal trepidation.” That’s what made this a liberalism of fear. It was focused less on the blessings of liberty than on the dangers of despotism.

A cosmopolitanism of fear, similarly, focuses less on the pleasures of intercultural exchange – real as we know these are – and more on the challenges of sharing a planet with billions of other highly mobile human beings. Over the coming century, perhaps the largest perils we will face, collectively, will in some measure be man-made. They’ll include the political perturbations produced by climate change and extreme weather; ecological shifts, acute and chronic, will produce wars and waves of what we now call “climate refugees.” We can expect, too, pandemics, involving both natural and engineered pathogens, along with networks of cyberterror and cybercrime, and technology-enabled threats yet to be conceived.

And what these perils have in common is that they will not respect national borders. To live safely on this planet together, then, it will help to see ourselves as – among other things – citizens of the world. A universalism that disdains our many local loyalties has no future. But neither does an outlook that disdains cosmopolitanism.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at New York University and is the author of “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” (2006).