By David Phillippi
For most of human history, in most societies, identity was not something one had to go searching for – it was given at birth. For most individuals, the socio-cultural space relevant to their lives was easy to map out, and directions for proper navigation were well understood from a young age. Life may have been extremely difficult in the physical sense, but at least it was not confusing – people knew their proper place.
As Greenfeld has demonstrated in her first major work, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, this changed in 16th century England following the War of Roses, which wrecked the nobility and left the rigidly stratified society of orders in disarray. In its place, a new consciousness emerged–nationalism–the modern consciousness, which redefined the possibilities for life in England and in the other societies to which it soon spread. We call this new consciousness nationalism simply because “nation” was the name given to the society in which it emerged by those 16th century Englishmen who first experienced its dignifying effects.
Nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism. (Three distinctive features which most often take shape along with this consciousness are an open class structure, the state form of government, and an economy oriented towards sustained growth). At the beginning of the 16th century, someone among the newly elevated English aristocracy began equating the word “nation,” which had formerly referred to as a political and cultural elite, with the word “people,” which referred originally to the lower classes. This equation of “nation” and “people” both reflected and reinforced the new reality of English society, where the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism made the nation and all its members an elite. No longer confined to a particular station in life by a closed societal structure ordained by Divine Providence, man became his own ruler, the maker of his own destiny. This elevation in dignity for every member of the nation meant that life in the here and now gained much greater importance–eternity was no longer the realm of the meaningful. This is the source of the secularism of modern society–God was not consciously abolished, but was essentially replaced by man.