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2007 - 2022

Scotland and the Nexus of Nationhood


In a recent Scotsman essay Gerry Hassan cited Ernest Renan’s celebrated 1882 lecture to the Sorbonne: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? “What is a Nation?” (ii) Renan, a Breton, was a theologian and the author of The Poetry of the Celtic Races (1909-14). He understood the importance of story told from a poetic which is to say, a spiritual or a metaphysical depth. Hassan quoted his most famous line: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.” In the theory of nationalism this distinguishes Renan’s “French” (in his case, Celtic) civic nationalism from 19th century Germanic ethnic nationalism. He said in his Sorbonne lecture (and perhaps, given the dating, we might overlook his gendered language):

To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more – these are the essential conditions for being a people….

A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist…

What we see here, then, is a sense of community arising from mythic depth – not a popular idea in a postmodern world that deconstructs but is unable to reconstruct – and that community continuously renewed in deeds from which the nation, as community writ large, can take pride and draw its sense of identity and social cohesion. This is ensoulment, and the task of becoming a community or nation is therefore the task, as African healers would say, of “calling back” the soul which has been lost.

Here, too, we see the essential distinction between a nation and a state. A nation is the collective soul of a community of place writ large. A state is its body, its framework by which those inner principles achieve outer effect.

J.F. Ferrier, the St Andrews metaphysician who gave us the word “epistemology” for the theory and structure of knowledge understood this, which is why Davie cites him extensively in his books on the democratic intellect, referring at the start of The Crisis … (p. i) to “metaphysical Scotland”.(iii)

McDiarmid also had a firm grasp on the metaphysical – that which is “beyond” or “behind” the outer physical appearance of reality. It comes through strongly in poems like On a Raised Beach, First Hymn to Lenin and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle where:

A Scottish poet maun assume
The burden o’ his people’s doom,
And dee to brak’ their livin’ tomb.

The challenge of all these is that if we are going to ask what it means to be a nation as a community writ large – whether British, Scottish or whatever our choice – we need to start by asking the much deeper question of what we think that life is all about. What is a human being? Are we just egos walking about on legs of meat, here today, gone tomorrow? Is mutual competition to be our primary paradigm? Or is there more to life than that? Is love for real as a quality that is immanent but also transcendent? And if so, how does that affect our social and political values?

I know that these are far out questions. These are not what most politicians would ask in public. But they matter. They are questions, as Tillich might have said, of “ultimate concern”; about “the ground of being”. To answer them one way would incline towards a hedonistic politics that must inevitably – like we see towards the end of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – find its nemesis in nihilism. But if we answer them the other way – if we affirm that our politics must have a metaphysical (or spiritual) basis, then we can start to map out the inner life framework for an outer politics of altruism. A politics perhaps of relatively simple sufficiency, but of beauty, and at the risk of sounding like The Idiot himself, to Dostoevsky’s assertion that “Beauty will save the world.”

Towards the end of his time as president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, the architect of the Maastricht Treaty, became more and more aware of the imperative of social cohesion. He set up a programme with the European churches called A Soul for Europe. A key figure in its visioning and running was Alastair Hulbert, formerly secretary of Scottish Churches Action for World Development and now, retired back in Edinburgh, and doing stunning work on the spiritual meaning of Europe as seen through art and the history of maps.

On 4th February 1992 Delors made a speech to European church leaders. Its questions might equally apply today, and to Scotland … England … Britain … in equal measure. He said (my italics):

We are in effect at a crossroads in the history of European construction. 1992 is a turning point. Even if on the surface of the sea nothing is yet visible, deep down the currents are beginning to change direction. The Maastricht summit marked the end of the economic phase of European construction … [and] we are now entering a fascinating time – perhaps especially for the young generation – a time when debate on the meaning of European construction becomes a major political factor.

Believe me, we won’t succeed with Europe solely on the basis of legal expertise or economic know-how. It is impossible to put the potential of Maastricht into practice without a breath of air. If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.

This is why I want to revive the intellectual and spiritual debate on Europe. I invite the churches to participate actively in it. The debate must be free and open. We don’t want to control it; it is a democratic discussion, not to be monopolised by technocrats. I would like to create a meeting place, a space for free discussion open to men and women of spirituality, to believers and non-believers, scientists and artists.

Commenting on the impact of Delors’ speech a decade later the editors of an essay collection on the European soul (including Konrad Raiser, then Secretary of the World Council of Churches) said:

We now have to give a soul to Europe’ pronounced several years ago Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission. This remark has become a touchstone even for those who feel uncomfortable with the spiritualistic undertones of the soul metaphor, because it perfectly conveys the need for the European integration process to go beyond market and currency unification. The Union should acquire a political and cultural character, becoming something in which the citizens can recognise themselves as far as their ideas and interests, beliefs and principles, are concerned. Whatever its relationship to existing national identities, European identity is about the Union’s institutions becoming rooted in the ‘soul’ of the citizens.

The American cultural critic George Steiner (vii) suggests that real art and deep culture start in the immanent but are inspired from the transcendent. He says that every true artist knows this. If creativity is not grounded in the soul, then reality is reduced only to the quantifiable parameters of markets and money; and with that, politics gets reduced only to the question of whether Scotland will be better or worse off with or without England until the oil runs out.

Gerry Hassan called his essay Scotland as an Idea and Place of Substance. We need to ask: what is the real substance or in Steiner’s sense, the “real presence” behind what we aspire towards? As the song by Dougie Maclean says, we need to stand “on Solid Ground”.

(i) Search on Ferrier and Davie at:
(v) Delors in Konrad Raiser, Gérard Delteil, Jacques Stewart, Jacques Santer & Jérôme Vignon, Europe under Challenge – Reconciliation and Meaning, Occasional Paper No. 4, Ecumenical Association for Church and Society, Brussels, 1997, p. 51.
(vi) Furio Cerutti & Enno Rudolph (eds), A Soul for Europe: An Essay Collection, Vol. 2, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, 2002, p. ix.
 George Steiner, Real Presences, faber & faber, London, 1989.


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  1. Doug says:

    It is simple.. we have a sense of the other, and a love of the people that are not – we trust them, they have a shared experience or other shared norms – or we believe so. Philosopically we look into the cave from the same angle. But love of our fellow man is in concentric circles depending on a shared understanding. And this is not necessarily (but commonly) the same experience. I find for example, that the sense of struggle and the priorities in life are much more a common bond between myself and South Africans rather than the easy sense of Australia.

  2. Scott Hames says:


    Many thanks for this serious and thoughtful article, which sent me back to Renan. I hope you’ll forgive a slightly tangential counter-argument, based on a different reading of Renan’s Sorbonne speech (which is not, of course, all that central to your article). Addressing your main point, I want to suggest that belief in national community needn’t be ‘soulful’ in character, and is quite compatible with the secular, disenchanted worldview you seem to have in your sights here. My point boils down to: there is something between ‘soul’ and abject surrender to egotism, markets and hedonism. There is critical reason, and Renan’s view of the nation is an example of it.

    That view, it seems to me, is less ‘spiritual’ than his place in your argument might suggest. The Sorbonne speech is full of rich contradictions, but its dominant note seems to be that nationality can’t be anchored in any metaphysical ‘beyond’. Renan’s whole argument operates at the level of history and historical consciousness. Nations, he points out, ‘are something fairly new in history’, the product of violent and messy contingencies. Nothing metaphysical (e.g. race, religion) explains their origins or their continuity, and nor can they be justified simply through realpolitik. He goes out of his way to disavow transcendent models of nationhood, adopting a principle of ‘continually renewed consent’ akin to self-determination:

    ‘A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine right and less brutal than so-called historical right. According to the ideas that I am outlining to you, a nation has no more right than a king does to say to a province: “You belong to me, I am seizing you.” A province, so far as I am concerned, is its inhabitants; if anyone has the right to be consulted in such an affair, it is the inhabitant. A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will. The wish of nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criterion, the one to which one must always return’.

    His commitment to democracy falters a bit (it was 1882), but that’s clearly where his thoughts are tending when he considers the fundamental legitimacy of nations – a practical and historical question rather than a belief ‘arising from mythic depth’.

    ‘We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics. What then remains? Man, with his desires and his needs. The secession, you will say to me, and, in the long term, the disintegration of nations will be the outcome of a system which places these old organisms [nations] at the mercy of wills which are often none too enlightened. It is clear that, in such matters, no principle must be pushed too far. Truths of this order are only applicable as a whole in a very general fashion. Human wills change, but what is there here below that does not change? The nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very probably replace them. But such is not the law of the century in which we are living. At the present time, the existence of nations is a good thing, a necessity even. Their existence is a guarantee of liberty, which would be lost if the world had only one law and one master.’

    My point is that Renan continually grounds his thought in ‘what is there here below’ – in the ‘immanent’, historical world, rather than invoking transcendent principles or substances. Though he uses the language of spiritual verities (‘soul’ etc) nationality itself is ‘historical’, and so is its continued legitimacy. (In the real political conditions of the day, given all the plausible alternatives, nations are good because they can secure liberty – with a strong whiff of Renan’s own sense of what defines Frenchness.)

    He does say ‘the nation is a soul, a spiritual principle’, but this principle is man-made and continually being edited and negotiated. For me, there is no real sense of the metaphysical in play. Nations for Renan aren’t held together by any transcendent glue, but by a tacit agreement to ignore the absence of that transcendent glue – but to nevertheless choose, ‘here below’, to suspend disbelief in the historical myth of the nation.

    Historical consciousness is the active principle. Just as nationhood is sustained by choosing to remember shared ‘glories’, grievances and sacrifices, Renan insists that ‘forgetting’ and even ‘historical error’ are ‘crucial factors in the creation of a nation’. We have to agree to un-remember and mis-remember what would jeopardise the narrative of our togetherness (including, Renan says, the ‘brutality’ by which our ‘unity’ was first effected). The epistemology at issue, it seems to me, is critical, secular and historicist.

    Why bother arguing all this? I was piqued by this element of your essay:

    If creativity is not grounded in the soul, then reality is reduced only to the quantifiable parameters of markets and money; and with that, politics gets reduced only to the question of whether Scotland will be better or worse off with or without England until the oil runs out.

    To me, this takes a hasty shortcut from the disenchantment of secular reason to a helpless positivism which can only deal with facts, never values. Renan himself is a good example of how it’s possible to believe in the nation for ‘realist’ and secular reasons, without investing in any supra-historical principle such as soul. Arguments from democracy and self-determination sidestep all this, of course; but they are baked into Renan’s conception of national community.

  3. MacNaughton says:


    Thanks for your article, it’s interesting and intelligent, but I don’t agree with your metaphysical approach to the question. I believe in democracy and precedent (as MacDiramid called it, not tradition), and broadly agree with what Scott Hames says above.

    Any quest for “what being Scottish means” is a futile one; it must mean different things to different people. Blood and soil nationalism, the soul of the nation, such talk is totally discredited since 1945, and a good thing too.

    If there had been any interest in creating an equitable Union in this island, the second parliamentary chamber would be in Edinburgh and Gaelic, Scots and Welsh would be an option on the national curriculum the length and breadth of the British Isles. There has never been an interest in making a United Kingdom, but on the contrary, making Scotland a shire of England.

    Scottish independence is no panacea, but it would be a great step forwards to redressing a debilitating power imbalance,
    a criminal foreign policy which is a disgrace, a stifling cultural hegemony, and the marginalization of a culture and society which doesn’t fit into what the South of England thinks is important in the world – which is the South of England, and not much else.



  4. douglas clark says:

    I would raise you Sartres’ “Hell is other people”.

    I am quite content with a version of civic nationalism that embraces difference and mutual respect.

    It seems to me that the only people that ‘get’ that idea – at least in the UK and outside academia – are us. Y’know, people living in a wee northern corner of the British Isles. (Maybe the Welsh too, but who remembers the Welsh?)

    That, pretty obviously was not always the case. Certainly in the post WW2 period there were major advances in UK wide civic nationalism. I will stand corrected, but I do not recall the welfare state being established on an exclusive basis, I do not recall tertiary education being viewed as something most of us should be excluded from.

    Whilst, much like the next man, I would accuse the Tories of nostaligia for a time that never existed, I find myself oddly conflicted.

    The only part of this nation that still tries to remember and protect it’s past are us.

    You, dear reader, should read that and weep. Whatever gains we made as a nation have been ripped asunder.

    I am due to get a state pension sometime soon. I thought I should determine what tax I would have to pay – it is 20% apparently, and that is fair enough. Whilst reading about my tax position I discovered that the richest in our land are having their income tax rate reduced!

    So much for any recognition, even at a financial level, of equality.

    I do not know for a fact that Sartre would have been different if he had been Scottish, but the thought echoes in my mind that he might have said:

    “Hell is not other people, it is Westminster”.

  5. Hello Doug, Scott, MacNaughton and Douglas, and thank you each for your responses. Let me try and respond to each of you in turn.

    Doug … I very much agree with what you say about concentric circles and South Africa. You are maybe already aware of the use of this approach in community conscientisation coming out of the Training for Transformation programme in South Africa. It is based on the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil – “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. For many years in the 1980s it was supported from Scotland by SCIAF, the Catholic aid agency, and my wife is one of its trainers and recently had a small group go from Glasgow to S. Africa for training there – see

    Scott …it was thoughtful of you to acknowledge that I was only using Renan as a springboard and not trying to push him as a panacea. His ideas on race are much too 19th century for that. What I would say, however, is that I view him in a wider context than just that particular essay. He was also a pioneering scholar of Celtic studies and a theologian. As such, his statement about a nation being a soul, a spiritual principle, that Gerry Hassan cited in his Scotsman article is a good way in to the contemporary theology of nationhood. I cannot claim much expertise in this except to say that one of the leading figures is my late friend the American theologian, Walter Wink. Walter is best known for his trilogy on power, Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers and Engaging the Powers. It is the latter that I use when I teach activism to students, but it is the 2nd one that is relevant to this discussion, and especially chapter 4, “The Angels of the Nations”, pp. 87-107.

    I know that at this point I’m teetering on the edge of the Richter scale of acceptable scholarly discourse with 90% of my readers, but Wink has been one of the most influential contemporary theologians, so let me persevere. He’s basically saying that if, a) People are spiritual beings having a material experience, and b) love is the basis of profound interconnection that makes community and builds up to nationhood, then c) to understand power and how to call it back to a higher vocation when corrupted, we need to wrestle with the “angels” or the inner spirituality of the nations.

    Whether this argument has traction depends on one’s worldview, but that was the point of what I wrote: to raise the question of worldviews in terms of Scotland. Now, before the remaining 10% switch off, let me try and redeem myself by pointing out that this is precisely what MacDiarmid was wrestling with in his poem “Good-bye Twilight”. I see, in checking if it was online just now, that there is discussion of this around p. 13 of “Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic” by Scott Lyall. The Key passage I’d draw attention to is this (MacDiarmid, Complete Poems, Vol 2, Penguin,1985: 1124-6):

    An obsession that does not allow of any very clear
    Spiritual vision or insight into the true inwardness of the thing
    That is the obsession … and promptly becomes
    Doped, drugged, besotted – my countrymen, even as you. …

    Because your sub-conscious nature, which, apparently,
    You know nothing about, is manipulating you from the start.

    Out of your melancholy moping, your impotence, Gaels,
    (You stir the heart, you think? … but surely
    One of the heart’s main functions is to supply the brain!)

    So you see, Scott, you are asking if there is something inbetween “soul” and egotism, and I’m not sure if there is, except as stepping stones on the journey that if you wrestle long and hard enough, as the supposedly “atheistic” MacD did, you get pushed towards “the true inwardness of the thing” that, in Wink’s language, is it’s “angel”.

    I don’t quite get how you conclude of my argument, “To me, this takes a hasty shortcut from the disenchantment of secular reason to a helpless positivism which can only deal with facts, never values”. I thought I was arguing quite the contrary, but maybe I wasn’t clear. There is much more we could discuss from what you have written, but forgive me if we leave it there, with Wink and MacD, and as for the rest, over a dram sometime, perhaps, if we have chance to meet.

    MacNaughton … you also challenge my metaphysical approach, but you’re right, what Scottishness means or doesn’t mean will be different things to different people, and while making the points I’ve made above, I’m simply saying that for me the enquiry is at the inner/spiritual level, and the epistemological in Ferrier’s sense of that word. But what I hear both of you saying to me is not to make the mistake of presuming that everybody will see things the way I do.

    Douglas … I am rushing now as my wife has called me twice for dinner, so I’m in the sin bin. Your parody of Sartre may go deeper than you are aware. I have recently been researching the Westminster confession of faith and how, in 1709, King George created the Royal Bounty to propagate it though such bodies as the SSPCK in the Highlands. Our system of governance is Westminster not just in the parliamentary sense. The Westminster Confession remains locked in to the British constitution because it is constitutionally the “subordinate standard” of the Church of Scotland by law established and as per the Articles of Union. At that I’ll stop, because it gets into very torturous territory.

    One last point. I noted on re-reading my contribution that all the figures I mentioned were men, and I have been asking myself why that is.

    All the best, Alastair.

  6. douglas clark says:


    Thanks for fitting me in. I wasn’t attempting to parody Satre at all. I was just pointing out that he was as much a creature of his own environment as you or I are.

    I see that as, the Americans are wont to say, as self-evident.

  7. kenny says:

    “a) People are spiritual beings having a material experience, and b) love is the basis of profound interconnection that makes community and builds up to nationhood, then c) to understand power and how to call it back to a higher vocation when corrupted, we need to wrestle with the “angels” or the inner spirituality of the nations”

    Both premises really evoke a shake of the head for their appeal to romantic tradition. As for the idea of community “rising out from the mythic depths” seems a bit like Brigadoon to me. i prefer the idea above of community as a “messy business” and little to do with the concepts at the heart of this worldview. Look all over the UK, how can the cities/communities be so run down and violent after a couple of hundred years of asset stripping from every corner of the earth, slavery of nations etc. Where did the community spirit go I ask myself?

  8. Davy says:

    A collection of some thoughts …………
    ” If we tear down an old patriarchal civilisation with all its myths and
    legends, then we must begin to build a new one, with new templates of
    joy and fulfilment, new romantic visions; and we have to make those
    visions as erotic and magical as the old ones.”
    Joyce McMillan – When Fairy Tales Fail

    Is there a need for a transformative shared / common purpose , meaning , vision , belief………?

    Some form of collective secular/humanist social/communal solidarity or “spirituality” – as in human spirit , community spirit.

    Many brought up with organised establishment religion , understandably , develop aversion or hostility to religion.

    The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio” which has a meaning influenced by the verb “religare” to bind…..

    Some go on to “bind” with strict texts or “scriptures” of political dogma as a new replacement form of “belief system”

    As mainstream religions decline – though there are still many formal and informal followers and the influence they hold – some forms of fundamentalist religions grow , whether those be christian , muslim etc.

    Some on the Left might claim that their particular variety of socialism/communism/anarchism is THE answer for their followers “salvation” – it only needing to be preached more to gain converts…….
    Is that enough ?

    ” Politics and religion are both collective modes of consciousness and change.
    The difference betwen them has been that , until now , politics has been concerned
    with social change, and religion has ( ostensibly ) been concerned with individual values.
    With postindustrialism , politics must become concerned with human development ,
    and so it must become more like religion , using deeper symbols and rituals. ”
    Transformative Learning & the Tao of History: Spirituality in the Postindustrial Revolution | Part 3
    – Brian Milani

    French philosopher Michel Foucault famously declared, “Politics is war, continued by other means.”
    While utterly necessary, the overthrow of intolerable institutions does not magically equip us to build better ones.
    While complementary, the two are distinct tasks. In this unprecedented moment of rapidly unfolding, global social upheaval — a moment that turns entirely on what we bring to it, and how we meet each other — can we afford modes of behavior reproductive of war? Is there, perhaps, something deeply political about forging a relationship with oneself that, itself, is an act of refusal; a refusal of the impulse to control, dominate; a refusal to be conducted by our anxieties and fears; an anti-authoritarian mode of being?
    Self and Determination – An Inward Look at Collective Liberation – Joshua Stephens

    “It’s time to drop our conceptions of an individual transcendence and re-imagine an awakening that is cultural, technological, environmental, economic and utterly transformative to both the individual and society. We need to push past enlightenment to a life of deep intimacy. The opposite of imagination is addiction. We are a culture addicted to outdated stories. So how do we drop them? And what comes next.”
    Michael Stone – Centre of Gravity

    “We believe that helping to empower individuals and communities to tread a path where committed social engagement goes hand in hand with radical personal transformation is an important task. We see the combining of inner work with outer engagement as the basis for a radical response to our times. That’s why Ecodharma work with individuals and organisations to offer courses and trainings that explore that terrain.”—an-overview

    The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde

  9. kenny says:

    I cant believe you think quoting intellectuals is relevant to the population. I know the dandy, whose wife shouts him for his tea-twice, thinks the world is here to serve him but you need to feel the naked night at your neck to realize there’s not a lot of friendly metaphors out there. Please wake from your intellectual slumber, your retreat into intellectualism is as effete as the mad drunk Macdairmid knocking at your door at three in the morning talkin’ shite.

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