Cosmopolitanism — moral obligation to all human society

Near the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man(1916), James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus opens the flyleaf of his geography textbook and examines what he has written there:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World

The Universe

Most of us will, no doubt, remember writing a similar extended address as children, following through the logic of this series of ever-larger locations. The last two entries in Dedalus’s list are, obviously, redundant in any real address. Only an alien sending a postcard home from another universe would think to add them. We are all, in some loose sense, ‘citizens of the world’, or at least its inhabitants.

And yet, as adults, we don’t usually think about much outside our immediate surroundings. Typically, it is our nation that defines us geographically, and it is our family, friends, and acquaintances who dominate our social thinking. If we think about the universe, it is from an astronomical or from a religious perspective. We are locally focused, evolved from social apes who went about in small bands. The further away or less visible other people are, the harder it is to worry about them. Even when the television brings news of thousands starving in sub-Saharan Africa, what affects me deeply is the item about a single act of violence in a street nearby.

Life is bearable in part because we can so easily resist imagining the extent of suffering across the globe. And if we do think about it, for most of us that thinking is dispassionate and removed. That is how we as a species live. Perhaps it’s why the collective noun for a group of apes is a ‘shrewdness’. Continue reading



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