Empires and Nations: Convergence or Divergence?

It has long been the conventional wisdom that nations and empires are rivals, sworn enemies. The principle of  nationalism is homogeneity, often seen in ethnic terms. Nations strive to embody, or to produce, a common culture.  They express a radical egalitarianism: all members of the nation are in principle equal, all partake of the common  national “soul”. Nations moreover are intensely particularistic. While they do not deny the existence of other  nations, and of their right to cultivate their ways, they are generally concerned only with their own way, convinced  that it is superior to the ways of all other nations. Nationalists, as John Breuilly suggests above, are highly inward looking. They tend to celebrate themselves – “we English”, “we Germans”, “we French” – simply for their good  fortune in being who they are, rather than for any cause or purpose in the world which might justify their existence. 

Empires by contrast appear to exhibit principles antithetical to those of nations. They are multi-ethnic or multi national. Far from having or seeking a common culture, they stress the heterogeneity of cultures, especially that  between the elite and the local cultures. Empires are hierarchical, opposed in principle to egalitarianism. The lines  of solidarity are vertical, between subject and ruler, not, as in nations, horizontal, between equal citizens or fellow members of the same ethnic group. Empires finally aspire to universalism, not particularism. As with China or  Rome, they see themselves as being at the centre of the known world, the source of civilization itself and the carrier  of the civilizing process to all the corners of the globe. Far from celebrating merely themselves, they tend to see  themselves as the instruments of larger purposes in the world, generally of a moral or religious character. Towards  nationalism they are contemptuous, as something petty and self-centred. “I am not nacional [sic]; that is something  for children”, declared the Count-Duke Olivares of imperial Spain, in an expression typical of the imperial mentality  (in Elliott 1984: 74).

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