'Cosmopolitanism': Finding a Moral Middle Ground

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah

hide captionPhilosopher and Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah

Greg Martin

An increasingly globalized world presents a dilemma: Accept the values of all cultures or seek a moral code that's absolute. Princeton professor Kenneth Appiah says there is a middle ground. The philosophy, "cosmopolitanism," is the subject of his new book.

Coca-Cola, baseball caps and episodes of Dallas are available almost anywhere in the world today, prompting cries of cultural imperialism that Appiah says are misplaced.

"I think what goes on is that people interpret these things and make sense of them in their own cultural context," Appiah says. "I would like a world in which there was more exchange, because I think some of the most vital cultural moments, human cultural moments, come when that exchange happens."

Excerpt: 'Cosmpolitanism'

While globalization has created some of the biggest threats to global peace, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah believes it has also planted the seeds for a new, decidedly hopeful philosophy. Read the first chapter of his new book, Cosmpolitanism.

Chapter 1: The Shattered Mirror

A Traveler' s Tale

We shall be meeting many cosmopolitans and anti-cosmopolitans in this book, but none, I think, who so starkly combines elements of both as the character who will be the first companion on our journey. Sir Richard Francis Burton was a Victorian adventurer whose life lent credence to that dubious adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Born in 1821, he traveled, as a child, with his family in Europe, and spent time getting to know the Romany people; his English contemporaries liked to say that he had acquired some of the Gypsy' s wandering ways. He learned modern Greek in Marseilles and French and Italian, including the Neapolitan dialect, as his family moved between the British expatriate communities of France and Italy; and he arrived at Oxford knowing Béarnais — a language intermediate between French and Spanish — and (like every other student in those days) classical Greek and Latin as well.

Burton was not just an extraordinary linguist. He was one of the greatest European swordsmen of his day. Before being expelled from Oxford (for ignoring a college ban on going to the races), he challenged a fellow student to a duel because that young man had mocked his walrus mustache. When this fellow didn' t grasp that he had been challenged, Burton concluded that he was not among gentlemen but among "grocers." It is just possible, of course, that his adversary was a gentleman who had heard of Burton' s prowess with the saber.

At the age of twenty-one, Richard Burton went to work for the East India Company in Sindh, where he added Gujarati, Marathi, Afghan, and Persian to his knowledge of modern and classical European languages, while deepening his mastery of Arabic and Hindi, which he had begun to study in England. Despite being (at least nominally) a Christian, he managed, in 1853, to be admitted to Mecca and Medina as a pilgrim, posing as a Pathan from India' s Northwest Frontier Province. He traveled widely in Africa, as well. In 1858, he and John Hanning Speke were the first Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika, and he visited, among other places, Somalia (where he passed as an Arab merchant) as well as Sierra Leone, Cape Coast and Accra (in what is now Ghana), and Lagos. He knew large swaths of Asia and of Latin America; and he translated the Kama Sutra from Sanskrit and the Perfumed Garden and the Thousand and One Nights from Arabic (the latter in sixteen volumes, with a notorious "terminal essay" that included one of the first cross-cultural surveys of homosexuality). Aptly enough, he also translated Luiz Vaz de Camões' Lusiads — a celebration of that earlier global explorer Vasco da Gama — from the Portuguese. His translations made him famous (notorious even, when it came to the Oriental erotica); he also wrote grammars of two Indian languages and a vast number of the most extraordinary travel accounts of a century in which there was a good deal of competition in that genre. And, in 1880 he published a long poem that was, he said, a translation of "the Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi," a native of the desert city of Yazd, in central Persia (one of the few substantial centers of Zoroastrianism remaining in Iran).

A qasida (as we would now write it) is a pre-Islamic classical Arab poetic form, with strict metrical rules, that begins, by tradition, with an evocation of a desert encampment. Although the form was highly respected before the rise of Islam, it saw its heyday in Islam' s early days, before the eighth century AD, when it was regarded by some as the highest form of poetic art. But qasida have been written over the centuries through much of the Islamic world, in Turkish and Urdu and Persian as well as in Arabic. Burton' s Haji Abdu of Yazd was devoted to "an Eastern Version of Humanitarianism blended with the sceptical or, as we now say, the scientific habit of mind." He was also, as one might guess from reading the poem, a fiction. For though the Kasidah is infused with the spirit of Sufism — Islam' s mystical tradition — it also alludes to Darwin' s evolutionary theory and to other ideas from the Victorian West. Burton, the "translator," offered to explain this by writing, in his notes, that Haji Abdu added

to a natural facility, a knack of language learning, . . . a store of desultory various reading; scraps of Chinese and old Egyptian; of Hebrew and Syriac; of Sanskrit and Prakrit; of Slav, especially Lithuanian; of Latin and Greek, including Romaic; of Berber, the Nubian dialect, and of Zend and Akkadian, besides Persian, his mother-tongue, and Arabic, the classic of the schools. Nor was he ignorant of "the — ologies" and the triumphs of modern scientific discovery.

If the linguistic gifts of this imaginary Sufi read a little too like Burton' s own, Burton' s conceit was not designed to deceive. At the start of the note, we' re told that Abdu "preferred to style himself El-Hichmakâni . . . meaning 'Of No-hall, Nowhere.' " And though Burton' s point is, in part, that Haji Abdu is, like himself, a man with no strong sense of national or local identity (dare I say it, a rootless cosmopolitan), it is also, surely, to give us the broadest of hints that El-Yezdi is his own invention.

Certainly the author of the Kasidah expressed views that, for a traditional Muslim, are more than mildly heretical. In one stanza he announces,

There is no Heav' en, there is no Hell;

these be the dreams of baby minds…

In another he says,

There is no Good, there is no Bad;

these be the whims of mortal will...

In short, he can sound — appropriately enough, perhaps, for a native of Zoroastrian Yazd — less like a Persian Sufi and more like Nietzsche' s Zarathustra. One thing, though, about the author is not a fiction: since Burton had, in fact, made his pilgrimage to Mecca, the Kasidah' s author certainly was a hajji — one who has made the hajj.

Of course, one characteristic of European cosmopolitanism, especially since the Enlightenment, has been a receptiveness to art and literature from other places, and a wider interest in lives elsewhere. This is a reflection of what I called, in the introduction, the second strand of cosmopolitanism: the recognition that human beings are different and that we can learn from each other' s differences. There is Goethe, in Germany, whose career as a poet runs by way of a collection of Roman Elegies, written at the end of the 1780s, to the West-Eastern Divan of 1819, his last great cycle of poems, inspired by the oeuvre of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz (author, as Sir Richard Burton would certainly have pointed out, of extremely popular qasida). There is David Hume, in eighteenth-century Edinburgh, scouring traveler' s tales, to examine the ways of China, Persia, Turkey, and Egypt. A little earlier still, across the English Channel in Bordeaux, there is Montesquieu, whose monumental Spirit of the Laws, published anonymously in Geneva in 1748, is crammed with anecdotes from Indonesia to Lapland, from Brazil to India, from Egypt to Japan; and whose earlier witty satire of his own country, the Persian Letters, ventriloquizes a Muslim. Burton' s poet, too, seems mostly to speak for Burton: himself an agnostic of a scientific bent, with a vast store of knowledge of the world' s religions and an evenhanded assessment of them all.

All Faith is false, all Faith is true:

Truth is the shattered mirror strown

In myriad bits; while each believes

His little bit the whole to own.

Burton' s voracious assimilation of religions, literatures, and customs from around the world marks him as someone who was fascinated by the range of human invention, the variety of our ways of life and thought. And though he never pretended to anything like dispassion, that knowledge brought him to a point where he could see the world from perspectives remote from the outlook in which he had been brought up. A cosmopolitan openness to the world is perfectly consistent with picking and choosing among the options you find in your search. Burton' s English contemporaries sometimes thought he displayed more respect for Islam than for the Christianity in which he was raised: though his wife was convinced that he had converted to Catholicism, I think it would be truer to say that he was, as W. H. Wilkins wrote in The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, "a Mohammedan among Mohammedans, a Mormon among Mormons, a Sufi among the Shazlis, and a Catholic among the Catholics."

In this, he follows a long line of itinerant seekers. Menelaus may be most famous as the man the kidnapping of whose wife, Helen, was the casus belli of the Trojan War; but Homer has him boast of having roamed over

Kypros, Phoinikia, Egypt, and still farther

among the sun-burnt races.

I saw the men of Sidon and Arabia

and Libya, too . . .

where the fecundity of the sheep ensures that "no man, chief or shepherd, ever goes / hungry for want of mutton, cheese, or milk — / all year at milking time there are fresh ewes." Centuries after the Iliad, Herodotus writes of how Croesus greeted the wise Solon: "Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom, and how widely you have travelled in the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?" (No "country can produce everything it needs: whatever it has, it is bound to lack something," Solon explains in the course of his reply.) Herodotus himself traveled as far south as present-day Aswan and told us something of Meroë (whose own language has still not been deciphered), a city whose glory days were not to come for another two centuries.

Such exposure to the range of human customs and beliefs hardly left the traveler untethered from his own. Burton illustrates this clearly enough. He was the least Victorian of men, and the most. Certainly he had many of the standard racial prejudices of his society. Africans he ranked below Arabs and most Indians, both of whom were below civilized Europeans. In the third chapter of his To the Gold Coast for Gold — an account of a trip to West Africa that began in November 1881 — he speaks casually of the "pollution" of Madeiran blood "by extensive miscegenation with the negro." Describing a trip to East Africa in Blackwood' s Edinburgh Magazine in 1858, he makes similarly unflattering asides: "the negro race is ever loquacious"; "even a Sawahili sometimes speaks the truth"; "Wazira is our rogue, rich in all the peculiarities of African cunning." At one point he turns to a lengthy description of the "Wanika or desert people of the Mombas hills": "All with them is confusion. To the incapacity of childhood they unite the hard-headedness of age." In their religion, he found "the vain terrors of our childhood rudely systematised."

Nor was his capacity for contempt limited to the darker races. He was an odd sort of mélange of cosmopolitan and misanthrope. In his travels across North America through the summer of 1860, recounted in The City of the Saints, and across the Rocky Mountains to California, he manages to express hostility to the Irish ("At 9 p.m., reaching ‘Thirty-two-mile Creek,' we were pleasantly surprised to find an utter absence of the Irishry"), condescension toward French-Canadians ("a queer lot . . . much addicted to loafing"), distrust of Pawnee Indians ("The Pawnees, African-like, will cut the throat of a sleeping guest"), and gentle mockery of the uniform of the American army ("The States have attempted in the dress of their army, as in their forms of government, a moral impossibility"). Yet he is also capable of composing an elegant defense of a despised people, as in the litany of answers to the "sentimental objections to Mormonism" that runs for many pages of The City of the Saints.6 Still, there is little in Burton' s life to suggest that he took seriously what I called in the introduction the first strand of cosmopolitanism: the recognition of our responsibility for every human being. Over and over again in his writings, he passes by opportunities to intervene to reduce human suffering: he records it, sometimes with humor, rarely with outrage. When he needs workers to carry his luggage into the Dark Continent, he buys slaves without a scruple.

Burton is a standing refutation, then, to those who imagine that prejudice derives only from ignorance, that intimacy must breed amity. You can be genuinely engaged with the ways of other societies without approving, let alone adopting, them. And though his Kasidah endorsed the kind of spiritualism that was common among the educated upper classes in late Victorian England, its image of the shattered mirror — each shard of which reflects one part of a complex truth from its own particular angle — seems to express exactly the conclusion of Burton' s long exposure to the philosophies and the customs of many people and places: you will find parts of the truth (along with much error) everywhere and the whole truth nowhere. The deepest mistake, he supposed, is to think that your little shard of mirror can reflect the whole.

Beyond the Mirror

Life would be easier if we could stop with that thought. We can grant that there' s some insight everywhere else and some error chez nous. But that doesn' t help us when we are trying to decide exactly where the truth lies this time. Real disagreements of this kind often arise in the context of religious practices. So let me begin by thinking about one of those practices: the one, in fact, that Richard Burton wrote about so famously.

Most Muslims think they should go to Mecca — making the hajj, if you have the resources, is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with faith in God, charity, fasting, and daily prayer. About one and a half million Muslims make the trip every year. If you' re not a Muslim, on the other hand, you don' t think that Muhammad was a prophet, and so you are unlikely to think that you yourself should make the hajj. In fact, since unbelievers aren' t welcome, what we should probably do is stay away: a tollbooth on the road to Mecca is helpfully signed NO ENTRY FOR NON-MUSLIMS.

Now, this might look, at first glance, like one of those cases where our obligations depend on our positions. You should be faithful to your spouse, we can agree, but I don' t need to be faithful to your spouse. (In fact, I' d better not be!) Someone might say, in the same spirit, "Muslims should go to Mecca, Catholics to Mass." If you' re not a Muslim, though, you don' t really think Muslims should go to Mecca, and if you are a Muslim, you don' t think that anyone, not even a Catholic, has a duty to go to Mass. On the other hand, unless you' re some kind of libertine — or a rare survivor of one of those experiments with free love that erupted in the 1960s — you probably think that married people ought to keep their pledges of fidelity to their spouses.

Obviously, Muslims believe that they ought to make the hajj and Catholics that they ought to go to Mass. But if you don' t have the beliefs that give those acts their meanings, you presumably think that the people who do think so are mistaken. Either Muhammad was the Prophet or he wasn' t. Either the Koran is the definitive Holy Writ or it isn' t. And if he wasn' t and it isn' t, then Muslims are mistaken. (The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Mass.) Of course, you probably don' t think there' s much harm done if people do go to Mecca. They think it' s right. We don' t. We don' t think it' s wrong, either, though. Indeed, since we think that integrity matters — that living by your beliefs is important — and since, in this case, there' s no harm done in doing what conscience dictates, perhaps it would be a good thing if they made an effort to go.

It' s important to insist, however, that to say that Muslims should go to Mecca for this reason isn' t to agree with Muslims. It is to give our reason for them to do something that they do for a different reason. One way of seeing why this matters is to remind ourselves that no self-respecting Muslim would think that you understood, let alone respected, the reason they make the hajj if you said, "Of course you have a reason to go: namely, that you think you should, and people should follow their consciences unless to do so will cause harm." Because that isn' t what Muslims think. What they think is that they should go because God commanded it through the Holy Koran. And that claim is one that you don' t accept at all.

This disagreement is, nevertheless, one that doesn' t have to be resolved for us to get along. I can be (indeed, I am!) perfectly friendly with Catholics and Muslims while not always agreeing with them about theology. I have no more reason to resent those who go to Mecca on the hajj than I have to begrudge the choices of those who go to Scotland for golf or to Milan for opera. Not what I' d do, but, hey, suit yourself.

Still, this live-and-let-live attitude is not shared by everyone: some people think that the worship of anyone but the true God is idolatry, itself an offense against divine law, and there are some Christians who think that Allah is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom Christians worship. Some Muslims (along with the Unitarians) have worried about whether belief in the Trinity is consistent with Islam' s command that we should worship one God. And that possibility draws our attention to a second kind of disagreement.

For there are the cases, of course, where religious practices strike us not as morally indifferent but as actually wrong. Readers of this book are unlikely to think that the proper response to adultery is to take offenders before a religious court and, if they are convicted, to organize a crowd to stone them to death. You and I are no doubt appalled (as are a lot of Muslims, it should be said) by the very thought of a person being stoned to death in this way. Yet many people in the world today think that this is what sharia, Muslim religious law, requires. Or take what we often call female circumcision, which Burton documented among Arabs and East Africans (according to whom, he claimed, sexual desire in women was much greater than in men), and which remains prevalent in many regions. We mostly don' t agree with that either. Disagreements like these are perfectly common, even within societies. If you are contemplating an abortion, which you think is morally quite permissible, and I think that you' ll be killing an innocent young human being, I can' t just say, "Fine, go ahead," can I?

The temptation is to look for a rule book that could tell you how to arbitrate conflicts like that — but then you' d have to agree on the rule book. And even if you did, for reasons I' ll be exploring later, there' s no reason to think you' d be able to agree on its application. So there has long been a seductive alternative. Perhaps, even if we agree on all the facts, what' s morally appropriate for me to do from my point of view is different from what' s morally appropriate for you to do from your point of view. Burton, with his mastery of thirty-nine languages, was something of a freak of nature in his ability to penetrate different cultures — to "go native," as we say, and do so time and time again. But most of us have that ability to some lesser degree: we can often experience the appeal of values that aren' t, exactly, our own. So perhaps, when it comes to morality, there is no singular truth. In that case, there' s no one shattered mirror; there are lots of mirrors, lots of moral truths, and we can at best agree to differ. Recall the words of Burton' s Haji Abdu:

There is no Good, there is no Bad;

these be the whims of mortal will.

Was he right?

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Cosmopolitanism
Cosmopolitanism

Ethics in a World of Strangers

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

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