Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The Whole Concept of Nationhood

The modern definition of what constitutes a nation is comparatively recent. At least the modern European definition can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. But most of the non-Western world differs in important ways.

To abbreviate the issue, the Treaty concluded the Thirty Years War, which in a way represented a settlement of the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire, and in another way represented a new way of adjusting to "enclosure" of nomad grazing territory into stationary parcels of land for agriculture. Or, alternatively, the breakup of Catholic religious domains among language and Protestant dissensions. For the purpose of encapsulating (and discussing) various religious enclaves, it seems best to separate the document from its underlying causes, since the final document is so simple, while the underlying causes remain so contentious. The Peace of Westphalia stated that a nation was defined by its boundaries, and the religion of the country was defined by the religion of its ruler, and rulers were expected to respect each other's boundaries. The previous demarcations had been the reverse, for the simple reason that there was only one religion for vast territories inhabited by nomads who ignored boundaries, or conquerors who reset the boundaries within Empires by force.

Although the history of the past three centuries might stimulate some doubt of it, reliance on geographical boundaries rather than occupation, language or occupation was sought in order to reduce the likelihood of warfare, and perhaps it is true that wars have become less frequent but more violent. During the readjustment period after the Treaty, it was surely questioned whether it was more provocative to move rebels to more congenial places, or leave the people alone and change the kings. Nevertheless, it is now widely accepted among western people that Westphalia offered better resolution. Since the matter is scarcely discussed, that would seem to be the better outcome, but perhaps it ought to be. The Jews, Mohamadens, and Orientals who cling to tribal (i.e. hereditary) arrangements seem to think so, and the appeal of culture and/or language is clearly at work in certain wars and hostilities. To a considerable extent, this sort of response was surely at work during the settlement of then newly-discovered American continents. That this is a viewpoint strongly associated with American values is evidenced by the general dissatisfaction expressed by the rearrangement of borders after the first World War, which was often accomplished by a few leaders sitting around a table. Perhaps it is true that when vacant land is abundant, the location of borders appears to be of less consequence.

Originally published: Thursday, April 27, 2017; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019