The notion of universality that I associate with cosmopolitan humanism contains no implication that persons, peoples, and civilizations should conform to a single model of life or that universality can be imposed by means of political engineering. It may be helpful to contrast genuine universality with a type of universalism that today is particularly common and influential in the United States. I am referring to an ideologically intense variant of the Enlightenment mindset that assumes a single political system is desirable and even mandatory for all societies and should be everywhere installed, through military means if necessary. I have called this ideology the new Jacobinism. The French Jacobins summarized their putatively universal principles in the slogan “freedom, equality, and brotherhood.” They saw France as the redeemer of nations. The new Jacobins speak of “freedom” and “democracy,” and they have anointed the United States.
Claes G. Ryn argues for a very different universality, one that welcomes the endlessly diverse particulars of people and place and is ready to acknowledge and celebrate virtue wherever it may be found.
Far from being an ahistorical, abstract standard, genuine universality must be freshly discovered by individuals for themselves in their time and place. It must find expression in concrete particulars. The resulting variety enriches and deepens man’s historical existence. Because universality has no other opportunities for articulation than the historical circumstances of persons, it can have no single manifestation, only a single qualitative form. Although true universality creates qualitative affinities across borders, it is inimical to a global uniculture. Goodness, truth, and beauty reveal the common human ground as they show themselves in the uniqueness and distinctiveness of persons, peoples, and civilizations.
This unity in diversity, this cosmopolitan humanism as Ryn calls it, will continue to elude us unless certain ideals once again come to be held dear, however rare their expression may be in daily life. First, that exemplary behaviour is characterised by “self restraint, humility, modesty, dignity, and good manners.” Second, that these virtues can only be attained by focusing on one’s own weaknesses. Finding fault in others, whether individuals or nations, is easy and the habit all too addictive (how better to avoid the inner x-ray).
A realist wouldn’t hold out much hope that these dreams will be realised anytime soon. The moral traffic, regrettably, is still steaming full ahead in the opposite direction. Still, unless we remind ourselves occasionally of what the cherished land might look like, we will certainly never get there.