Rational v Irrational

Why is nationalism both irrational and rational?

  1. Rational means based on reason i.e. proof through evidence. Irrational means belief based on emotion or superstition. So how can nationalism be both? For liberal nationalist of the enlightenment nationalism was the rational answer to the irrational belief in kings and ideas such as divine right. This allows enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke to argue that the state is formed by consent which is given in elections based on the rational conclusion that people will seek what is best for them so they will only consent to good government and will deny their consent to bad government. Nations are formed ' of the people, by the people, for the people,' (see Gettysburg Adress) and this was a rational form of human organisation and it was rational for humans to see national identity as the rational desire to attain or maintain political independence, usually expressed in the principle of national self-determination.

This seemed to offer a rational alternative to belief in custom, tradition and religious mysticism. Nationalism legitimises the authority of government. Political sovereignty in a nation-state resides with the people or the nation itself. Nationalism represents the idea on of popular self-government, the idea that government is carried out either by the people or for the people, in accordance with their 'national interest.This is why national­ists believe that the forces that have created a world of independent nation-states are natural and irresistible, and that no other social group could constitute a meaningful political community. The nation-state, in short, is the only viable political unit.

However, the enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau also had an irrational belief in the 'natural rights of humans' which were not simply practical or efficient ideas for human organisation but have come from God or nature. Rousseau's idea of the 'General Will' or the will of the people is also more romantic than scientific.

Notice how this portrayal of Lincoln's Gettysburg address suggests something magical is happening - government by the people isn't simply a rational form of social organisation - it has the qualities of destiny.- See American Exceptionalism)

Other nationalists were even more clearly romantic in their ideas of nationalism and saw its origin in the 'blood and soil' of nations. Cultural nationalists tend to be 'mystical', in that it is based on a romantic belief in the nation as a unique historical and organic whole. Typically, cultural nationalism is a 'bottom-up' form of nationalism that draws more on popular rituals, traditions and legends - folk festivals, rituals and music tend to be seen as a form of national strength. Johann Herder believed that each nation possesses a Volksgeist (spirit of the people- not that different to the General Will - which reveals itself in songs, myths and legends, and provides a nation with its source of creativity.