By Peter Wood
Near the beginning of Dickens' novel Little Dorrit (1857), a
character named Monsieur Rigaud explains to a companion, "I am a cosmopolitan
gentleman. I own no particular country.
My father was Swiss--Canton de Vaud. My
mother was French by blood, English by birth.
I myself was born in
It's an attractive idea. Being a citizen of the world sounds like an escape from everything narrow and provincial, which gives it magnetic appeal to college students eager to shed their suburban and hometown identities. Many American colleges and universities have tapped into this longing, and I've been tracking this conceit for a while.
Like Monsieur Rigaud, it has a Swiss connection.
Lest we conclude too hastily that global citizenship (GC?)
and EC are still a bit foreign to the American sensibility, let's touch base
with the heartland. The
The president of Swarthmore College, Rebecca Chopp, likewise recently declared that being a citizen of the world requires a certain ecological orientation:
:As stewards and citizens of the world, we are also linked by environmental and political challenges that require us to work together to create a sustainable and just world.
In Chopp's view, we "are already global stewards and citizens whether we choose to be or not." The question is "what kind?"
The attraction of American college students to world citizenship, as I said, makes good sense, especially in historical perspective. After all, Americans have been condescended to for five centuries by more polished and sophisticated people. We've been treated like the uncouth relatives from the backwoods who have barged into the afternoon tea. Part of President Barack Obama's appeal has been that, unlike George W. Bush, he has the savoir faire of a world citizen. He won't put his cowboy boots on the Louis XIV settee. World citizenship has its theoretical expositors too, most notably Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2007) calls for us all to be world citizens; and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum who has been arguing for many years beginning with her book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997) that the real purpose of liberal education is to prepare students for world citizenship.
I'll trust that anyone who has been to a college graduation recently or read an alumni magazine has at least a passing awareness of the current campus enthusiasm for world citizenship, and with that in mind, I want to turn back to that pleasant example, Monsieur Rigaud.
Rigaud's first explanation of world citizenship is delivered to his cellmate, a smuggler, in a Marseilles prison, where Rigaud is being held on suspicion of having murdered his wife. He beats the rap and continues his villainous career as a thief, forger, blackmailer--and a dog poisoner. Rigaud constantly preens himself on his cleverness and his ability to live successfully outside the norms of society. In the novel, his oft-repeated boast, "I am a citizen of the world," underscores Rigaud's essential selfishness and predatory nature.
Dickens pointedly contrasts him with another character, a
good-hearted Englishman, Mr.
Meagles, who travels
Dickens, one might think, was onto something. The self-conferred standing of someone as "citizen of the world" suggests a relaxed open-mindedness, but it also suggests an individual who has detached himself from the loyalties that foster a spirit of kindness and commitment to those who most depend on us.
The "citizen of the world" phrase, of course, has a long and
checkered history before Dickens picked it up.
The original citizen of the world appears to have been Diogenes, the
nastiest of Greek philosophers, whose sneering dismissals of social values gave
Cynicism a bad name. At times, the phase
conveyed a general sense of magnanimity.
When a donor gave some books to Harvard in August 1764, he wrote,
"Thomas Hollis, an Englishman, a Lover of Liberty, civil and religious, citizen
of the world, is desirous of having the honor to present this set of
books..." Mr. Hollis as a "citizen of the
world" was an Englishman expressing support for the fractious colonies at a
tense moment in the deterioration of relations between
The same year (1855) that Dickens began publishing Little Dorrit in installments, a self-educated American blacksmith, Elihu Burritt, began a new monthly magazine titled Citizen of the World. Burritt is best known today as an early peace activist but he was also an abolitionist. When he launched his new magazine, he explained in an editorial:
Whatever meaning may have attached to a "citizen of the world" a century ago, the significance of that term has widened and deepened, and taken nobler dimensions of philanthropy in these latter years of civilization and Christianity. It means one who recognizes and reveres the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, who sees and respects, in the people of every nation, race, and tongue, the children of the same Heavenly Father..."
Burritt's cosmopolitanism was oddly matched with his
American nationalism--and his irritation with the British. In his second issue, he argued that
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.