Citizens of the World

Peter Wood

What is a “citizen of the world?” Matea Osti is one. She is a 2008 graduate of Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and is featured on the college’s Web site as the epitome of a citizen of the world. Matea was born in Bosnia, became a refugee to Austria at age 5, and then moved with her family to New Zealand. An ex-pat American woman from Lynchburg who employed Matea’s mother as a nanny helped Matea find her way to Randolph College. Matea has warm feelings for the college as “one of those places that nurtures you to become a very accountable, knowledgeable, aware citizen of the world.” [Emphasis added]

American colleges and universities these days are awash in the rhetoric of world citizenship—and “global citizenship” too. The “world” and the “globe” sound to the ordinary ear as one and the same place, but some enthusiasts apparently draw a distinction. Wikipedia says so, although it draws a blank in explaining the difference. Global citizenship, according to this estimable source:

can be defined as a moral and ethical disposition which can guide the understanding of individuals or groups of local and global contexts, and remind them of their relative responsibilities within various communities. The term was used by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2008 in a speech in Berlin.

A citizen of the world or “world citizen” gets a simpler Wikipedia exegesis:

often referring to a person who disapproves of traditional geopolitical divisions derived from national citizenship.

Not that we really need such assistance in grasping terms that flutter like autumn leaves through campus life these days.  We know what a citizen of the world is: It is someone who disdains national identity in favor of a vague allegiance to the whole of humanity.

Older Citizens

And it is certainly not a new conceit. It was attributed by Cicero in his Tuscan Disputations (45 BC) to Socrates. Cicero’s Socrates says he is not a citizen of Athens or a Greek but “a citizen of the world”—though it is unclear that Socrates, who fought for Athens as a soldier in its wars and willingly drank the hemlock because his city ordered him to, really said such a thing.

The more authentic sounding ancient source was the Cynic philosopher Diogenes—he who legendarily went searching the world, lantern in hand, for a single honest man. Diogenes is credited with answering questions about his origin by declaring, “I am a citizen of the world,” literally, a cosmopolitan.  By this Diogenes certainly did not mean to express affection for humanity at large or some kind of avant la letter multiculturalism. He was by all reckonings a misanthrope. It is understandable that today’s citizens of the world prefer to claim Socrates as inspiration.

The term has won many other adherents over the centuries. Oliver Goldsmith notably titled a collection of fictitious letters by a supposed Chinese visitor to England, The Citizen of the World. That was in 1760 and the Enlightenment was about to give wings to the idea of a new kind of cosmopolitanism. Tom Paine, the great propagandist of both the American and French revolutions, wrote in The Rights of Man, “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” That was in 1791, after he had become disenchanted with his adopted country. He reversed the word order three years later in The Age of Reason (1794) where he claimed, “The world is my country; all mankind are my brethren; and to do good is my religion.”

One can imagine Diogenes choking with laughter.

Bradley Manning

Paine’s declarations, however, are cited these days as having authority akin to the Declaration of Independence. They inhabit that zone of self-righteousness where one not infrequently encounters E.M. Forster’s animadversion from his 1938 essay, “What I Believe,” that “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Forster, of course, viewed that as an unwelcome choice. Today’s citizens of the world often seem rather eager to show their lack of attachment to anything so provincial as their patria. Even outright treason has its campus admirers. We might think of this as the Bradley Manning standard for getting your world citizenship passport.

22-year old Army Specialist Bradley Manning was arrested in June 2010 in Kuwait after boasting to an online acquaintance that he was the source of classified military material that had been posted by Wikileaks. As the Wikileaks’ story has unfolded, it now appears that Manning stole more than 250,000 classified military and diplomatic documents and turned them over to Wikileaks, which has now published all of them, without redactions.  The leaks imperil the lives of both Americans and foreign nationals. Naturally, Specialist Manning has become an object of sympathy to some and a hero to others. New York Magazine published a tender portrait of a young man from a broken home struggling with his gender identity and his doubts about the conduct of the war in Iraq. In April, two law professors, Bruce Ackerman, at Yale, and Yochai Benkler, at Harvard, drafted and published (with 293 other scholars as co-signers) a letter in The New York Review of Books a letter protesting Mannings’ solitary confinement and the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, e.g.

He is not allowed to doze off or relax during the day, but must answer the question “Are you OK?” verbally and in the affirmative every five minutes.

The Pentagon later moved Manning to a medium-security prison in Kansas where he can talk with other prisoners.

Concern about the harshness of his detention is one thing; admiration of his actions is something else. Bradley Manning should be thanked and celebrated as a hero, declares one Australian group; the U.S.-based Bradley Manning Support Network likewise calls for celebrating Manning’s courage. Ann Wright, a member of its advisory board, published a statement on September 14, declaring,

Instead of punishing and silencing alleged whistle-blowers like Manning for revealing uncomfortable truths, we should honor their courage to stand up for what’s right.

Marjorie Cohn, professor of law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, agrees. She writes on her September 19 blog, Bradley Manning: An American Hero:

[I]f  Manning did what he is suspected of doing, he should be honored as an American hero for exposing war crimes and hopefully, ultimately, helping to end this war.

So is Bradley Manning, like Matea Osti, a modern “citizen of the world?” Some think so.

The Bradley Manning Support Network is running an “I am Bradley Manning” campaign, where people can send in photos of themselves holding “I am Bradley Manning” signs and short statements. Laura Childers, for instance, holds a neatly printed “I am Bradley Manning” sign and adds her affirmation: “I am a human being, a citizen of the world, a citizen of the United States of America.”  Anonymous blogger on writes, “Bradley Manning is a symbol of every repressed and oppressed and depressed citizen of the world.”


There is a lot of this in the vast undergrowth of the blogosphere, but that only goes to show how versatile the “citizen of the world” trope really is. It served as diverse a crowd as Diogenes the Cynic philosopher, congenial but undisciplined Oliver Goldsmith, the acerbic democrat Tom Paine, the idealistic refugee Matea Osti, and a fair number of the “I am Bradley Mannings.” This barely touches the range of world citizenship.  Demosthenes, Francis Bacon, Einstein, and tennis great Arthur Ashe claimed the passport. Montesquieu declared himself a “citizen of humanity first.” A few years ago, the 19th-century Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, wore the honorific in the subtitle of a biography. Eugene Debs, the radical labor organizer, declared, “I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.” The United Nations has bestowed its Sergio Vieira de Mello Citizen of the World award on such worthy contributors to internationalism as Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Richard Branson.

Fictional characters have also been citizens of the world. Edmond in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, claims to be a cosmopolite:

My kingdom is bounded only by the world, for I am not an Italian, or a Frenchman, or a Hindu, or an American, or a Spaniard—I am a cosmopolite. No country can say it saw my birth. God alone knows what country will see me die. I adopt all customs, speak all languages. You believe me to be a Frenchman, for I speak French with the same facility and purity as yourself. Well, Ali, my Nubian, believes me to be an Arab. Bertuccio, my steward, takes me for a Roman. Haidée, my slave, thinks me a Greek. You may, therefore, comprehend that, being of no country, asking no protection of any government, acknowledging no man as my brother, not one of the scruples that arrest the powerful, or the obstacles which paralyses the weak, paralyses or arrests me.

Being a “citizen of the world” sounds like a good and generous thing. Moreover it is one of those badges of merit that can be acquired at no particular cost. World citizens don’t face any of the ordinary burdens that come with citizenship in a regular polity: taxes, military services, jury duty, etc. Being a self-declared world citizen gives one an air of sophistication and a moral upper hand over the near-sighted flag-wavers without the bother of having to do anything.

Who wouldn’t embrace the term? I’ve found one instance of people responding with apparent dislike. Colorado Christian University held a debate on immigration, at which, according to history professor William Watson:

Senator Lucia Guzman, encouraged the audience to be “citizens of the world.”  The response from the overwhelming conservative crowd was a chorus of boos, followed by a reproof by John Andrews for their incivility.  Afterwards I personally apologized to Senator Guzman and expressed my agreement with her.  Although I am a conservative Republican, I am also a citizen of the world.

Why the boos? Professor Watson doesn’t explain, but I would guess that the students at Colorado Christian University registered Senator Guzman’s appeal as a not especially subtle put-down of those who those who believe in the legitimacy of the United States’ national borders. Still it is interesting to see that the elasticity of “world citizenship” extends as far as Professor Watson’s self-description.

Globalism and Particularity

Elastic though the idea may be, the citizen of the world is today much more likely to take his political and cultural bearings from the left. As far as the American academy goes, probably the most influential of contemporary advocates of the idea is University of Chicago law, philosophy, and theology professor Martha Nussbaum. In her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum urged Americans to see liberal arts education as a way to transcend local identities in order to put students on the path to becoming “citizens of the world.” It was an odd argument, in that this path to world citizenship required colleges and universities to embrace racial and other group preferences and to make group identity highly salient on campus in order to move forward with that transcendence. Nussbaum’s position involves a fair amount of the magical ingredient of dialectic: We cannot transcend local identity without first embracing it in all its multiplicities.

Nussbaum’s version of the citizen of the world, tethered lightly to Diogenes and Cicero and the classical tradition of Stoicism, has found its way into the campus zeitgeist. Yearning for world citizenship these days rests comfortably in the embrace of campus identity politics. Without any sense of contradiction, a student can be a world citizen one moment in order to express disapproval of American exceptionalism, and the next moment a proud advocate of ethnic particularity.

I think it is wise to ask contemporary college students to think carefully about their allegiances, and that should include a searching examination of the conceit “citizen of the world,” and its variants such as “global citizenship.” The way these terms are commonly employed in our colleges and universities, however, suggests that there is no debate at all: Being a “citizen of the world” is held up as an ideal plainly superior to being any other kind of citizen.

When I think about the growing estrangement between American higher education and American culture, that aggrandizement of the “citizen of the world” by colleges and universities strikes me as both a symptom and a deep cause.

Higher education inevitably involves some degree of estrangement from the culture and the community in which a student began life. If a student truly engages liberal education, his horizons will widen and his capacity for comprehending and appreciating achievements outside his natal traditions will increase. Thus far I accept Nussbaum’s argument. But a good liberal-arts education involves a lot more than uprooting a student; showing him how limited and meager his life was before he walked into the classroom; and convincing him how much better he will be if he becomes a devotee of multiculturalism. Rather, a good liberal arts education brings a student back from that initial estrangement and gives him a tempered and deepened understanding of claims of citizenship—in a real nation, not in the figment of “world citizenship."

This article was originally published on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on September 19, 2011.

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....