What Is a Nation?
From Renan, Ernest. Qu'est qu'une nation. trans. Ida Mae Snyder (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1882), 26-29.
The eminent nineteenth-century French scholar Ernest Renan wrote one of the most famous explanations of nationhood in 1882, amid a crisis of French national identity brought on by defeat to Prussia in 1871. Renan famously declared that the nation is a soul, a spiritual principle, and that it is sustained by a daily plebiscite.
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common. Man, sirs, does not improvise. The nation, even as the individual, is the end product of a long period of work, sacrifice, and devotion. The worship of ancestors is understandably justifiable, since our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, of great men, of glory (I mean the genuine kind), that is the social principle on which the national idea rests. To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have accomplished great things together, to wish to do so again, that is the essential condition for being a nation. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices which one has approved and for which one has suffered. One loves the house which he has built and which he has made over. The Spartan chant: "We are what you make us; we are what you are" is simply the abbreviated hymn of the Fatherland.

In the past, a heritage of glory and a reluctance to break apart, to realize the same program in the future; to have suffered, worked, hoped together; that is worth more than common taxes and frontiers conforming to ideas of strategy; that is what one really understands despite differences of race and language. I have said "having suffered together"; indeed, common suffering is greater than happiness. In fact, national sorrows are more significant than triumphs because they impose obligations and demand a common effort.

A nation is a grand solidarity constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again. It supposes a past, it renews itself especially in the present by a tangible deed: the approval, the desire, clearly expressed, to continue the communal life. The existence of a nation (pardon this metaphor!) is an everyday plebiscite; it is, like the very existence of the individual, a perpetual affirmation of life. Oh! I know it, this is less metaphysical than the concept of divine right, less brutal than the so-called historic right. In the order of ideas that I submit to you, a nation has no more right than a king of a province to say: "You appear to me, I take you." A province for us is its inhabitants; if anyone in this matter has a right to be considered, it is the inhabitant. A nation never has a real interest in being annexed or holding on to a country despite itself. The desire of nations to be together is the only real criterion that must always be taken into account.

We have traced the politics of metaphysical and theological abstractions. What remains after that? Man remains, his desires, his needs. . . . Human desires change; but what does not change on this earth? Nations are not something eternal. They have begun, they will end. They will be replaced, in all probability, by a European confederation. But such is not the law of the century in which we live. At the present time the existence of nations happens to be good, even necessary. Their existence is a guarantee of liberty, which would be lost if the world had only one law and only one master.

Through their varied, frequently opposing, abilities, nations serve the common cause of civilization; each holds one note in the concert of humanity, which, in the long run, is the highest ideal to which we can aspire. Isolated, they have their weaknesses. I often say to myself that a person who has these defects in quality that nations have, who nourishes himself on vainglory, who is jealous, egotistic and quarrelsome, who could support nothing without fighting; he would be the most intolerable of men. But all these unharmonious details disappear when we are united. Poor humanity! How you have suffered! What ordeals await you yet! Can the spirit of wisdom guide you to prevent the many dangers that line your path?

I continue, sirs. Man is not enslaved, nor is his race nor his language, nor his religion, nor the course of the rivers, nor the direction of the mountain ranges. A great aggregation of men, with a healthy spirit and warmth of heart, creates a moral conscience which is called a nation. When this moral conscience proves its strength by sacrifices that demand abdication of the individual for the benefit of the community, it is legitimate, and it has a right to exist