Ancient Dreams: “I Am A Citizen Of The World”

Photograph Source: Jonas Bengtsson – CC BY 2.0

Those of us, either political activists or theorists, who are trying to navigate our way through a wide range of meanings associated with “cosmopolitanism” as well as a vast landscape of literature that tries, somewhat desperately, to think how we can arise from the mire of nation-state conflict, may have forgotten that the mighty affirmation “I am a world citizen” came from ancient Greece and Rome. This plaintive cry has echoed down through history’s bloody pathways. In her regal book, The cosmopolitan tradition: a noble but flawed ideal (2019), Martha Nussbaum (noted for he elegant style and articulation of the Capabilities paradigm) observes: “Asked where he came from, Diogenes the Cynic answered with a single word: kosmopolites, meaning, ‘a citizen of the world’ (Diog. Laert. VI.63). This moment, however fictive, might be said to inaugurate a long tradition of cosmopolitan thought in the Western tradition” (p. 1).

A startling revolutionary intrusion in ancient times that shifts our attention beyond the local and parochial—a “Greek male refuses the invitation to define himself by lineage, city, social class, even free birth, even gender. He insists on defining himself in terms of a characteristic that he shares with all other human beings, male and female, Greek and non-Greek, slave and free. And by calling himself not simply a dweller in the world but a citizen of the world, Diogenes suggests, as well, the possibility of a politics, or an approach to politics, that focuses on the humanity we share rather than the marks of local origin, status, class, and gender that divide us. It is the first step on the road that leads to Kant’s idea of the ‘kingdom of ends,’ a virtual polity of moral aspiration that unites all rational beings (although Diogenes, more inclusive, does not limit the community to the ‘rational’), and to Kant’s vision of a cosmopolitan politics that will join all humanity under laws given not by convention and class but by free moral choice” (p.2). Kant, the cosmopolitan visionary, never travelled more than thirty miles from his home, yet he dreamt of world entirely peaceful.

A lengthy quotation: but it corrals the elemental features of the cosmopolitan vision of one humanity; it follows that this moral vision might engender a cosmopolitan politics and a world organization beyond competing and warring nation-states. James Ingram (Radical cosmopolitics: the ethics and politics of democratic universalism (2013) puts it this way: “Cosmopolitics is an attempt to realize the importance of universalism—to grasp the human world as one and ourselves, to at least some extent, is connected to, and therefore at least to some degree responsible for, all of it. Cosmopolitics, as I will use the term, is the attempt to act politically in the world on the basis of this understanding” (p. 24). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “World government” (2012) defines world government as “the idea of all humankind united under one common political authority. Arguably, it has not existed so far in human history, yet proposals for a unified global political authority have existed since ancient times—in the ambition of kings, popes and emperors, and the dreams of poets and philosophers” (p. 1).

Indeed, dreams and imaginings emerge in different  historical times and diverse cultures. Religious dreams of universal peace, for instance, have imagined a world government as reflecting the unity of the cosmos itself, under God. But the form the world government might take varies widely: medieval thinkers “advanced world government under a single monarch or emperor who would possess supreme authority over all lesser rulers …” (p. 1).

According to Derek Heater (World citizenship and government: cosmopolitan ideas in the history of Western political thought [1996]), the celebrated Italian poet and philosopher Dante (1265-1321) articulated the Christian idea of human unity that would be manifest in a world governed by a universal monarch (mirroring God on earth). In The banquet (Convivio) Dante thought that if all human beings were ruled by monarchies, wars could be ended. If humankind were ruled by one world ruler, who possessed everything, he would not desire any other territories. Then people could be content within their own borders.

In a lengthy book, Monarchia (1309-13), Dante drew from Aristotle the idea that human unity emerged from a “shared end, purpose or function, to develop and realize fully and constantly humanity’s distinct potential” (cited, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, pp. 1-2). If humanity was divided, no peace was achievable. But this far-seeing medieval mind was locked into the idea that universal peace depended on ruler over all humanity—an idea that was abhorrent to Kant and just about every thinker today who writes about cosmopolitanism and world government.

In a lively article full of hope, “What happened to the idea of world government,” Thomas Weiss (2000) lays the groundwork for our contemporary exploration of the possibility of achieving a cosmopolitan world order. He “confesses that he firmly believes that human beings can organize themselves to solve global problems” (p. 266). Those whom he calls “Westphalian optimists” believe that the “combined spread of trade and economic progress along with the consensual strengthening of existing international organizations ultimately will result in a world state” (ibid.). Weiss considers David Held the “best example of a Westphalian optimist” (ibid.). A post-Westphalian like Peter Singer, on the other hand, thinks that globalization creates a rich soil for the generation of “global unity in which sovereign states no longer will represent the outer limits of political community and ethical obligations—and his version, like Wilkie’s and Nehru’s, is called ‘one  world’” (ibid.). Gazing into his crystal ball, Weiss thinks that Singer “sees the growing influence of transnational social forces as making possible a different kind of post-Westphalian global unity” (ibid.).

Others think that we had better get there quickly because if a nuclear apocalypse does not get us first, the inequities of globalization, climate change and diseases will create unredeemable chaos and doom all civilizations. In fact, hard-headed global realists now speak coldly of a world disorder where one dominant nation is actively trying to drive a grand canyon rift between the US and China-Russia. The current global crisis has abandoned diplomacy for lies, hatred and violence. Skeptics can easily chide cosmopolitans as ridiculous dreamers as yet one more false narrative is fed to us through the mass media. The  world seethes with too many animosities and too many refugees and displaced persons.

The literature on the conduct themes and issues of international relations and the possibility of achieving a cosmopolitan order is immense. I have been working through Habermas’ dialogue with Kant regarding achieving a “perpetual peace.” My core idea, understandable within Habermas’ social evolutionary learning paradigm—is the idea, suggested by Kant, that humankind cannot fulfil its rational potential unless political energies turn from war (in all aspects) towards the building of a cosmopolitan new world order. The “age of maturity” for humanity can only arrive when we create the moral and political conditions for its achievement.

Thus, the innovative imagination of humankind (both its collective understanding and collective morality) will remain stunted and stagnant until we move fully towards cosmopolitan governance. In his perceptive observations on Kant’s thoughts on the cosmopolitan order’s purpose, Kevin Geiman (1996) comments: “Because rational ability is something that can only be developed in the species as a whole, any standing condition of military activity between states would constitute a barrier to the eventual full growth of that rational ability by occupying human agents in destructive, rather than constructive, enterprises” (p. 517).

At the moment, however, our geo-political order is anarchic and treacherous. But we cannot forsake the ancient dream. Surely we can learn our way beyond endless and senseless nation-state power shenanigans towards creatively imagined new co-operative forms of post-national constellation. Demonizing leaders of different countries, or calling for their assassination, reflects the miserable moral degradation of our current geo-political interactions. Kant’s call for “perpetual peace” must be reclaimed, proclaimed and renewed for our ghastly time. As Thomas McCarthy insists in Race, empire, and the idea of human development (2009), the restructuring of the nation-state at the global level “will require institutional imagination, experimentation, and proliferation to discover which forms of law, democracy, and politics work best in a transnational context to domesticate capitalist modernization for a second time” (p. 228). If this proves impracticable, we are fated to continue the “state of nature” bemoaned by Kant in Perpetual Peace.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.