Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.
Though some historians conceptualize globalization as a recent phenomenon, it’s in fact has been in force since almost the beginning of human history. I will be telling a story about globalization that is quite particular to its modern manifestation (all explanations are stories, with increased clarity requiring a more narrow selection of facts).
In Ancient Rome, each place had a genius loci, a protective spirit that embodied the sense of place. In other words, there was an emphasis on particularity, the spirit of a place giving birth to a particular culture and a particular god. Conquerers had no problem letting these gods remain, as they did not threaten the political sovereignty of the emperor. This is echoed in certain modern instantiations of religion in which beliefs are identical with cultural or national identity (a totally foreign concept to Americans, for whom religious belief is an intellectual assent to an abstract set of propositions).
Christianity, influenced by Greek philosophy, took a revolutionary turn when Paul claimed that this religion had nothing to do with ethnicity and culture. In contrast to the local paganism, Christianity claimed, “this is no local phenomenon— this philosophy is universal, transgressing all borders of place and culture.” This universality required evangelization, evangelizers who would be willing to die, if necessary, in order to spread the good news (and many did). I contend that this evangelizing and universalizing spirit is still at play in the American psyche, inspired by our Christian roots.
We are convinced that there is one true government (democracy) and one true economic system (capitalism) and we must evangelize, ranging across countries (like that fiery first Christian, Paul) in order to convert nations to our truth, even if it requires killing others or suffering martyrdom. I have argued elsewhere that more have died in the name of democracy than in the name of Christianity, and if you consider the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, compared to the crusades, this is absolutely true. It also points to the fact that our allegiance to a capitalistic democracy is as unwaveringly dogmatic as devotion to a god.
Globalization once seemed to be progressing inexorably towards one world culture, but now nationalism is on the rise in many countries. There are many fascinating reasons for this resurgence of nationalistic feeling, but for now, let us say that the world is correcting a faceless universality by inserting pockets of particularity.
Globalization stems from an even deeper philosophical tension, one that has been asked in all cultures under different guises. Plato posed the question of “the one and the many.” There must be a unifying force behind all the disparate “things” that come into being and pass away. In the words of professor Richard Hooker: “This aspect could be material, such as water, or air, or atoms. It could be an idea, such as number, or "mind." It could be divine, such as the Christian concept of God or the Chinese concept of Shang-ti, the "Lord on High." The problem, of course, is figuring out what that one, unifying idea is… the problem of the one and the many still dominates Western concepts of the universe, including modern physics, which has set for itself the goal of finding the theory that will "unify" (unify means "make into one thing") the laws of physics.”
The question reflects a timeless question, and I find it interesting that both the universal and the particular, the global and the national seem to be required. In Japan, the folk “religion” (so much debate about this word) is Shintoism, in which “kami” are worshipped, similar to the gods of place, but inhabiting a larger range of things. This “religion” has no specific doctrine, but many local manifestations. When Buddhism arrived in Japan as a foreign export, it offered a universality that perfectly complimented (and unified) Shintoism without needing to destroy its gods. In a similar fashion, the timeless wisdom of Taoism was complemented by the culturally-conditioned mandates of Confucianism. And Catholicism subsumed many local, pagan gods as it spread to foreign countries, calling them “saints.” The universal is not always great at maintaining the particular, as can be seen by the rampant destruction of native religions by Christianity and globalization. So the timeless questions remain:
Can the universal accommodate particularity?
Can globalism maintain pluralism?