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The nation-state as a god

October 4, 2012

Divinity is a human construct, a state of being which is defined by certain qualities that humans commonly attribute to the objects of their worship.  Consequently, it is possible to discover a number of similarities between the characteristics that men associate with their governments and those they associate with their gods.  The similarities go unnoticed as a rule, but are nevertheless present and, in their own way, quite apparent.  A few of the most obvious examples of such dual-use attributes include:

  • Immortality
  • Intangibility
  • Assertion of temporal authority on the basis of moral or ethical authority
  • Self-established definitions of right and wrong
  • Association with a fixed territory and a clearly defined population
  • Expression of will through officials, ministers, or oracles
  • Rituals which must be followed in order to exercise or interact with authority
  • The presumption of immunity to defeat in a conflict with the individual
  • An emphasis on deterrence in legal theory and punishment

Each of these qualities is exhibited equally prominently by a nation-state or a divinity.  The state, in theory, can never die, even if it is displaced from its physical location, just as a god is said to be everlasting; hence the concepts of legitimacy and government in exile.  The modern state is confined within boundaries and its rule limited to its own particular population, just as Greece, Babylon, Persia, Israel, and Egypt all had their own particular gods whose jurisdictions were considered to adjoin each other without overlapping.  The modern state often claims to define eating or drinking certain things as offenses against its moral code, just as ancient Polynesian religion placed a variety of complex taboos on foodstuffs.  In the most general terms, both a state and a god are intangible forces that manifest themselves in a succession of officials and through an ongoing process of ritual–in other words, both are essentially spirits that are claimed to indwell earthly ministers.  And neither can actually be shown to exist outside the minds of those who want it to exist.

Bear in mind that the concept of divinity used here is that which prevailed in the earliest periods of mankind’s history.  The gods referred to are not the universal deities which became increasingly popular over time, but the local, personal deities that groups of humans all over the world long worshiped as being directly responsible for their welfare.

How is it helpful or useful to draw parallels between the nation-state and the gods men set up for themselves?  Well, the comparison offers us a useful lesson.  What happens to gods that men have forgotten?  They disappear.  They lose their power and vanish.  Human history is littered with discarded gods.  If a god can be disposed of through forgetfulness and indifference, why not a state?  Why not the whole concept of the nation-state?

(For a fuller exposition of the idea that society and law are chiefly superstition, see The British Barbarians by Grant Allen.)


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