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Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism Revisited

The Mediterranean in Global Context

Once upon a time, the Mediterranean Sea was—as its name suggests—the centre of the world.[1] It was experienced that way by its inhabitants and by travelers from other parts, for the two thousand years or more from the rise of the Greek polis until sometime after the opening of the sea-route around the Cape to India and the discovery of America in 1492. The borders of the Mediterranean world were described by Alcibiades in the fourth century BCE, when he reminded the young men of Athens of their oath to “account wheat and barley, and vines and olives, to be the limits of Attica.”[2] These four crops later set the limits of Rome, and defined the territory in which its successors—Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Venice and others—contested for supremacy.

The eastern Mediterranean region was the birthplace of the earliest human civilization—that is, where literacy and urban life began.[3] It was not the only place where civilization began. But the Mediterranean region was unlike China, India and central America in the diversity of languages, religions, cultural traditions and sources of political power that co-existed, often on the basis of relative equality, for so long a period and with such effect on the subsequent course of world history. It was in this region that the idea of cosmopolitanism emerged.

Cosmopolitanism developed and mutated over many centuries in the trading cities of the Mediterranean region, without ever becoming a universal norm; perhaps even without ever being upheld as a universal norm, until it was already in decline. Most people lived in the countryside throughout this period. But the collective life of those who lived in cities—and perhaps the wealthier and more educated city-dwellers, above all—seemed to demonstrate and embody a possible long-term direction in which human society could be moving.

This actual movement and possible direction had at least three main characteristics: it moved towards greater understanding and acceptance across barriers of language, culture, religion and ethnicity; towards a wider, more flexible and many-sided range of communication, enhancing the autonomy of all engaged in it; towards greater capacity for the formation of philosophical concepts and arguments, within local cultures which measured themselves against the claims of their neighbours’ rival conceptions of the world.

Cosmopolitanism was by no means limited to the Mediterranean region. In ancient times it was replicated, at least briefly, after the Indian king Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism in 260 BCE, in his professions of brotherly love for his Greek subjects in what is now Afghanistan.[4] At different times, including our own, and with somewhat different meanings, it has characterized trading cities around the world—New York, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Timbuktu, Cape Town and many others.[5] The Mediterranean region may be especially important in considering this global context, however, because this region has so long a history of cosmopolitanism, and because its local meaning and significance are so intensely contested today—above all, in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The legacy of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism has made itself felt in societies at a distance from the region in which it originated. This essay, for example, has its origins in an attempt to describe an undercurrent of South African political thought, extending over a century or more, seeking to discover a possible future for South Africa in the mirror provided by Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. This essay explores the significance of that Mediterranean legacy, in South Africa or beyond. If we are to accept, for example, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot live together today, after so many centuries in which Jews and Muslims lived together in the Mediterranean region in relative harmony and equality, then what hope is there of overcoming legacies of racial division, domination and violence in South Africa and elsewhere?

From Ancient Cosmopolitanism to Modern Multiculturalism

The word cosmopolitan is Greek in origin. It was coined by Diogenes of Sinope, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. It is perhaps not the ideal term for the phenomenon under discussion. But it is the term which contemporary historical scholarship has settled on, and it is convenient for that reason, at least.[6] There is probably no single ideal term suitable for discussing so long and varied a history.

Perhaps the single word which best captures what is at stake in the specific context of the Mediterranean region is the Spanish convivencia, describing the shared culture of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Andalusia from 711 to 1492.[7] Paul Gilroy uses conviviality (or cosmopolitan conviviality), a somewhat forced translation of the Spanish word.[8] A more literal translation of convivencia as, for example, living well together provides three words instead of one. The historian S. D. Goitein uses the biological term symbiosis—the co-existence of two organisms so that both benefit from being linked while neither suffers loss—to describe the relations of Muslims and Jews in medieval Egypt.[9]

The question of terminology is complicated by the fact that important characteristics of ancient cosmopolitanism are also central to what has become known, since the 1970s, as multiculturalism. A new discourse of cosmopolitanism (or cosmopolitan democracy) has also emerged in the 1990s. These two contemporary fields of discourse are interrelated, in that both of them seek to overcome a legacy of racial discrimination and inequality by developing liberal conceptions of rights to make them more inclusive, while defending a right to cultural difference. Multiculturalism can be seen as cosmopolitanism on a local scale and cosmopolitanism as multiculturalism extended to the global context. The features of Mediterranean cities which have historically been described as cosmopolitan would more likely be described as multicultural today.

Multiculturalism has made itself felt not only in political theory but also in public policy—especially in Canada and Australia, where it is treated as official policy and celebrated in public holidays and events such as food fairs. The discourse of cosmopolitanism remains more of an academic enclave, and does not form part of the rhetoric of state policy in the same way. But just as theorists of multiculturalism have responded to the needs of government policy and planning—concerning immigration, education, and provision of healthcare and public housing, for example—so theorists of cosmopolitanism can be seen to respond in less direct ways to the foreign policy agendas of the major Western powers, concerning such issues as military interventions in weaker countries, justified on supposedly humanitarian grounds.

Contemporary cosmopolitanism has had greater difficulty in aligning itself with political power, if only because there is less need for ideological consistency in foreign relations. Its pitfalls were evident in the fracas around prominent theorist David Held’s alliance with the Gaddafi family, which led to Held’s resignation from the London School of Economics.[10]

A striking feature of contemporary multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is the almost complete absence of any reference to the Mediterranean experience of cultural coexistence and interaction. Thus, Daniele Archibugi’s exposition of cosmopolitical democracy begins with an account of how “in the course of centuries, states have used a variety of means to pursue a greater degree of homogeneity.” Archibugi describes this pattern of nationalist exclusion, conquest and slaughter being countered, finally, by “more enlightened” states that “have looked for institutional devices to regulate, rather than homogenize, diversity.”[11] It is this process—supposedly initiated by the United States, Britain and France—that cosmopolitan democracy, as conceived by Held and Archibugi, seeks to advance.

Contemporary literature on cosmopolitanism is able to treat as irrelevant huge swathes of human history in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere, because that literature takes the universality of the nation-state for granted. Where theorists of cosmopolitanism look for historical precedents, they go no further back than Kant’s 1784 essay on Universal History and his 1795 essay on Perpetual Peace.[12] What makes Kant especially worthy of inclusion—while all others before him, and many since him, are excluded—is the formalism of his political thought; that is, his commitment to a kind of moral and political engineering in which “the problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils.”[13]

In this sense, the contemporary discourses of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism aspire to be part of an essentially managerial science of politics. It would be a mistake, then, to treat the ancient and modern terms as interchangeable, or even as being essentially continuous with one another. In some ways, the new discourses serve as the negation of the aspirations underlying the old vocabularies, rather than their completion.

The legacy of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism is of critical importance in our own time, precisely because it does not fit the conventional wisdom of contemporary political theory. For contemporary political theory has shown itself to be unable to transcend the limits of a global order now in apparently irreversible crisis. This global crisis intensifies and inflames divisions of race, religion and culture around the world, but especially in the Middle East.

The Rise of Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism

The first city to be defined by its cosmopolitanism was probably Alexandria, from the time of its foundation in 331 BCE—when Alexander took Egypt from the Persian Empire—to the Arab conquest of 641 CE.[14] Alexandria soon became the largest city in the world, and was for centuries the second largest after Rome. In ancient times it was home to the world’s largest Jewish community, along with sizable Greek and Egyptian communities. It was there that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible were translated into Greek. Its commerce linked Egypt not only to the Mediterranean but also Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean. [REVISE FROM HERE]

Alexandria’s diversity was accompanied by remarkable cultural and intellectual vitality. From its foundation, Alexandria attracted leading intellectuals from around the Greek-speaking world, specializing in medicine, astronomy, physics and mathematics. The resources of its library attracted generations of grammarians and literary scholars.[15] The philosophical schools continued to flourish there (and in Constantinople) for a century after Justinian closed the schools of Athens in 529 CE. Classical Greek philosophy reached its culmination there, in the work of Plotinus, and philosophical frameworks were developed for the beliefs of Judaism (by Philo) and Christianity (Clement, Origen). Alexandria was an object of wonder, not only for its lighthouse and its library. “I have taken a city,” Amr wrote to the Caliph in 641, “of which I can only say that it contains 4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 400 theatres, 1,200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews.”[16]

Alexander had followed a deliberate policy of mixing his Macedonian troops with other Greeks, and with Persians, Syrians and Egyptians, seeking to overcome tribal or national distinctions. The Romans acted in a similar vein in 212 CE, when the edict of Antoninus gave equal citizenship rights to all freemen under Roman rule. After the decline of Alexandria, Constantinople (later Istanbul) was its successor as the centre of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, along with Smyrna, Beirut, Salonica and other merchant cities of the Levant. The Caliph Omar welcomed Jews back to Jerusalem in 638 CE, after seven centuries of exile. Saladin encouraged oriental Christians and Jews, who had been expelled by the Crusaders, to return there again after he retook the city in 1187.

The Arab conquests of the seventh century created a divide between Islam and Christianity, principally at the level of state and military power. Even in the Crusades (usually dated from 1095 to 1291), longstanding loyalties to cities in which Christians, Jews and Muslims had lived together for centuries were sustained or even strengthened in the face of the onslaught from the West.[17] The rise of Islamic science from the ninth to the fifteenth century was itself an act of cosmopolitanism, bringing the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece to the modern West, and helping to establish the foundations of capitalist modernity. This cultural interaction was most evident in Andalusia, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together until the Spanish reconquista resulted in the expulsion of Jews in 1492 and Muslims in 1499. Granada and other Andalusian cities were important centres of learning and literature, with different religious and intellectual traditions borrowing freely from one another.

Mediterranean cosmopolitanism also impacted on many cities in the region which were themselves relatively homogenous in religion, language and culture. Venice, in its era of imperial expansion, provided the model of preserving ethnic purity at home, while assimilating major elements of oriental culture, and constantly engaging in intercultural encounters abroad, in the fondaci provided in the major trading cities of the Levant.[18] Dubrovnik, a predominantly or even entirely Catholic city, maneuvered over six centuries between the Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, keeping its independence and trading rights, paying tribute to and adjusting to the customs of one or more of these powers, remaining at “the intersection between the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, between Christendom and Islam, and between East and West.” [19]

Dubrovnik first defined itself as a republic in its negotiations with the Ottomans. The city was known for its piety, but always balanced piety against business interests and the need to prevent any office-bearer from holding too much power. Thus, they kept the Jesuits at arm’s length, thinking they were too loyal to Rome and the Counter-Reformation, and they decided in 1409 that their own archbishop should never be a native of Dubrovnik. For much of its history, Italians and Jews filled the role of city doctors.[20] The Mediterranean world and its many cultures required flexibility rather than dogmatic certainty or entrenched power.

The role of the Mediterranean in West European economic life was much diminished by the opening up of the Cape sea-route to India and the European discovery of America in 1492, and the subsequent rise of Spanish, Dutch, British and French imperial power. The Ottoman Empire became increasingly unable to match the economic and technological advances of the Western powers. Modern nation-states had no interest in preserving the independence of ancient city-states. Napoleon abolished the Republic of Venice in 1797, the Republic of Dubrovnik in 1808, and briefly occupied Egypt and Syria but could not hold them.

When Napoleon landed at Alexandria in 1798, the city that had once been the largest in the world and the centre of European intellectual was no more than a fishing village of about 5,000 people. The cities of the Levant were in decline. But Alexandria was to experience rapid expansion from the 1820s, and then its modern age of cosmopolitanism. This second “golden age” lasted almost a century—roughly from the U.S. Civil War, when demand for Egyptian cotton increased dramatically, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, to Nasser’s rise to power in 1956 and the subsequent expulsion of British and French citizens a few years later.

The Decline and Fall of Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism

Mediterranean cosmopolitanism came to an end in stages. The long-awaited collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 shifted the legal and constitutional framework which had regulated city life in the Levant. Greek nationalism, encouraged by the British to expand into Asia Minor in 1922, was decisively defeated by Kemal Ataturk’s armies. Cosmopolitan Smyrna was reduced to ashes, and rebuilt as Turkish Izmir. More than 1.2 million orthodox Christians were deported from their ancestral homes in Turkey, and more than 400, 000 Muslims from Greece; “ethnic cleansing without parallel” at that time.[21] Greeks were allowed to stay on in Istanbul, but Ataturk moved the Turkish capital to Ankara, a haven for nationalist power with no such cosmopolitan past. Armenians and Kurds were subject to exile, repression and genocide.

Cosmopolitanism came under attack as nationalism grew stronger in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, with fascism coming to power in Italy, Spain and Nazi Germany. Nationalist movements grew in Palestine and Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, in response to British and French domination and the rise of Zionism in Palestine. During World War II, the Nazis sought to deport Jews from North Africa, mostly through their French and Italian allies (Jews were often protected by local Muslims). Nazi occupiers in Greece deported the Jews of Salonica from a city whose cultural fabric had already been ripped apart by the katastrofi of 1922, whereas Jews were hidden or helped to escape the Nazis in cities such as Athens.[22]

The critical event in the destruction of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, however, was the independence of Israel in 1948 and the Nakba which drove the majority of the Palestinian people into exile. The destruction of Jewish communities throughout the Islamic world— sometimes through the rise of Arab nationalism; sometimes at the instigation of the Israeli secret service—deprived Mediterranean diversity of an essential component. The support of the world’s major powers for Israel, especially after 1967, entrenched a sense that the people of Palestine had been declared surplus to humanity, and hardened resentments throughout the region.

The ongoing occupation of Palestine is not the only factor in the demise of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. But it is the one factor which locks sectarian hatred most firmly into place, ensuring that these hatreds and the myth of their inevitability are always available when needed to prevent mobilization across ethnic and religious lines. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum left by the West’s crushing of democratic and modernizing initiatives in the Middle East. In that context, religious fundamentalism serves the interconnected interests of Western capitalism, Arab dictatorships and the oil companies.[23]

Civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1989 and then especially the destruction of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s can be seen as mopping up operations—ways of erasing the memory of forms of community that flourished for many centuries, making them impossible even to imagine now, or preserving them only in the commercialized form of Beirut nightlife.

There are conflicting views on the relationship of the Balkan region to Mediterranean history, with some emphasizing its capacity for ethnic conflict and others its diversity and tolerance. Grubačić argues that the pejorative idea of the Balkans as the powder-keg of Europe and home to savage and primitive tribal feuds has its origin in the 1878 Congress of Berlin and recurs whenever Western powers are in need of an alibi for intervention in the region.[24] But the former Yugoslavia occupies a unique and significant place in any assessment of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, as the one context in which it took explicitly socialist form, in the project of a Balkan Socialist Federation, adopted by the Comintern in 1928 and brought to an end by Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948. The project of regional federation was a way of defending the autonomy of local communities against both Western and Soviet power by bringing together the many cultures of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. This project was undermined at Yalta and its demise helped to ensure the crushing of the Greek revolution in 1949.[25]

Ammiel Alcalay describes the danger that had to be eliminated in Sarajevo in the 1990s: “The example of a multiethnic community in the Bosnian fashion, including mixed marriages, tolerance and mutual respect, might actually turn out to be contagious and pose a real threat to the sterility of dead-ended politics and the further concentration of power and capital. That’s how it was once with Beirut, which broke free from its surroundings and had to be destroyed. This is just one of the parallels with Sarajevo now, but also, let’s not forget, with a city like Granada in the past.”[26]

The Political Character of Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism

Over the many centuries of its existence, Mediterranean cosmopolitanism took on different political forms. These varied according to the dominant form of empire, the specific history and traditions of the city concerned, and the larger historical context. The common thread was the responsibility taken by different ethnic, religious or linguistic communities to establish and supervise their own places of worship, schools, hospitals, cemeteries and other institutions—including some parts of their own legal systems—while allowing for considerable interaction and movement between communities and for commercial, educational and other institutions in which individuals from all communities were involved as equals.

The most enduring legal form for this cosmopolitanism was provided by the capitulations (so called because they were written in chapters or capitulae) negotiated by France and the Ottoman Empire in 1535, to regulate commercial relations between these powers. This required French traders (and later citizens of other countries, not necessarily engaged in trade) to live in Ottoman cities without being subjected to sharia law. The capitulations were based on Byzantine and Islamic tradition, and provided a model for relations between nationalities in the cities of the Levant until their abolition by the young Turks in 1914. They were temporary agreements, renewed at regular intervals, and changed regularly to reflect the conditions of the time. They made negotiation of economic and political issues a permanent necessity, enabling these cities to become “experiments in coexistence between different races and religions” with “few parallels anywhere else in the world.”[27]

This coexistence did not depend on self-government, but in time proved to be compatible with self-government. The Ottoman parliament established in 1877 included representatives of Muslims, Christians and Jews, with minorities somewhat overrepresented.[28] When Alexandria, in 1890, became the first city in the Ottoman Empire to govern itself independently, different communities were represented proportionately in its municipal government.[29] These practices outlasted the Ottoman Empire. When Sarajevo was granted city government by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, it was stipulated that the city council would consist of six Serbian orthodox members, five Muslims, four Jews and three Catholics. Although it was not required by law, all Habsburg-era mayors of Sarajevo were Muslims.[30]

These city governments were generally dominated by wealthy merchants, who were generally expected to contribute financially to community and public projects. The wealth of these merchants and hence the cultural achievements of the Mediterranean cities were built on the foundation of a repressive labour order in the countryside and considerable poverty in the cities themselves. We have to recognize this in seeking to learn from the legacy of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism about possibilities of cultural diversity not only among urban elites but throughout society. At the same time, we should also recognize that Mediterranean cosmopolitanism impacted on urban society as a whole, and on movements for social equality beyond the cities. The Committee for Union and Progress (or Young Turks) began in Salonica; the Egyptian Communist Party in Alexandria.

A common sense of belonging to the city did not create homogeneity. Its diversity did not ordinarily create division. Alexandria’s modern cosmopolitanism, according to Khaled Fahmy, was also seen, “in the frequency with which people from different communities were willing to do business with each other, to eat with each other, to drink with each other, and to have sex with each other.”[31]

In Jerusalem in the 1890s, according to Amy Dockser Marcus, it was a longstanding custom that two boys born on the same day would be suckled by both mothers and then considered foster brothers. Muslims, Jews and Christians regularly celebrated each others’ holy days. Rabbis, imams and priests took turns “spending part of each day sitting in one of the neighborhood’s many shops, available to talk to anyone who stopped in with a problem or needed some advice. Shopkeepers jockeyed for a chance to host one of the religious leaders in their stores, believing it brought good fortune, blessings and more customers.” When Theodor Herzl made his only visit to Jerusalem in 1898, he “instinctively recoiled,” according to Marcus, “from the dirt and the noise and the ethnic fluidity of the city.” [32]

These examples should make it apparent that it was not its political or legal structures that defined Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, but rather the peculiar and complex aesthetic and ethical sensibility that enabled people both to value their own communal traditions and practices and also to understand and value what they shared with others from different backgrounds. In short, Mediterranean cosmopolitanism required a widespread and socially valued capacity for a specific kind of philosophical reflection—a capacity, that is, for stepping back from one’s deeply-held beliefs and considering them in the light of possible alternative beliefs.

This sets Mediterranean cosmopolitanism apart from contemporary multiculturalism, for example, located within a framework of individual rights and a commodified culture. It is difficult for contemporary theorists of multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism to recognize this Mediterranean history, precisely because questions of how to enforce or balance individual rights are seen as political, while questions of how to create a specific kind of human sensibility are not.

Is There a Mediterranean Philosophical Tradition?

Ethical and aesthetic sensibility is often seen as a matter of individual temperament, habit and preference, rather than collective history. But if it was built into the structures of cosmopolitan life in Mediterranean cities over many centuries, then we would expect it also to be reflected in some way in the formal practice of philosophy—the discipline which seeks to clarify and stabilize the figures of individual temperament into conscious and enduring structures of thought. The account of the political character of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, outlined above, raises the question of whether it drew support from, or resulted in, a distinctively Mediterranean philosophical tradition or, if no more, a distinctive relationship to philosophy.

This is a larger question than can be answered properly here.

Alexandria was a major centre of Hellenistic philosophy. Haag, drawing largely on E.M. Forster’s writings from the early the twentieth century, describes the historical continuity in the intellectual life of the city: “Not unlike the modern city, the Alexandria of the first to fourth centuries AD had been a cosmopolis not only of people but of ideas, though then it was the intellectual capital of the Graeco-Roman world and became the fountainhead of Western thought for two millennia to come.”[33]

I have already mentioned the philosophical schools of Alexandria and the work of Plotinus, Longinus, Clement, Origen and Philo in the Hellenistic period. The list indicates something of the diversity of opinion among them. The common thread among them is neo-Platonism, but they make use of this body of thought for widely differing purposes. Plotinus, who would refine Platonism into a form of rational mysticism, could study alongside Origen, one of the early fathers of the Christian church, because both of them belonged to a community in which a wide variety of philosophical beliefs were held and debated. What is perhaps most distinctive, however, is that both of them were protégés of Ammonius Saccas, a former dockhand in Alexandria who abandoned Christianity for paganism.[34]

A list of this kind cannot itself describe a specific philosophical climate or tradition. But if you add to it the name of Hypatia—the first of the eminent women philosophers, who was stoned to death by a Christian mob in Alexandria in 415 CE—it makes clear the capacity of philosophical debate in Alexandria not only to cross barriers of religious belief but also those of class and gender. Philosophy was not a narrow specialization or an occupational category, but reflected a widespread concern with meaning and essence and a certain resistance to the dominance of questions of technique in intellectual and social life.

Something of this is conveyed in C. P. Cavafy’s “From the School of the Renowned Philosopher,” describing a young man who was Ammonius Saccas’s student for two years until he “grew bored” with philosophy and with Saccas. After trying out politics and religion, he relies on his beauty to become “an habitué of the depraved houses of Alexandria” and reflects:

For at least another ten years yet

his beauty would endure. After that—

perhaps to Saccas he would go once more.

And if in the meantime the old man had died,

he’d go to some other philosopher or sophist;

someone suitable can always be found.[35]

At the centre of Cavafy’s image of Hellenistic philosophy was the enigmatic figure of Apollonius of Tyana, an itinerant neo-Pythagoran philosopher who travelled as far afield as Ethiopia and India, and was credited with magical powers. Cavafy seeks to capture some part of the importance of philosophy for Mediterranean cosmopolitanism in his reflection on Apollonius’s words “but wise men apprehend what is imminent”:

The secret call

of events that are about to happen reaches them.

And they listen to it reverently. While in the street

outside, the people hear nothing at all.[36]

A similar pattern of philosophical enquiry and argument, characterized by extraordinary diversity of belief and social background, can also be identified in the medieval context. It is best documented, in relation to individual philosophers, in Sarah Stroumsa’s recent study of Maimonides as a “Mediterranean thinker,” which demonstrates how closely his seminal contributions to Jewish thought was interwoven with the thought of his Muslim and Christian contemporaries and the classical tradition all of them drew on.[37] Goitein’s massive reconstruction of the life of the Jewish community of medieval Cairo does the same for a whole religious community, in their interaction with the other communities of the Mediterranean world.[38]

If there is a distinctively Mediterranean philosophical tradition, then, it is likely that it takes a form which would make it invisible to contemporary historians of philosophy. Historians recognize many forms of philosophical tradition: lineages of teacher and pupil (for example, among the pre-Socratics); traditions defined by religious confession and sometimes by political belief (Buddhist or Marxist philosophy); a handful of national traditions in philosophy (British empiricism, French rationalism, German transcendentalism); and a proliferation of methodological or sub-disciplinary affiliations (analytical philosophy or phenomenology, logic or Hegel studies). But they recognize these forms of philosophical tradition insofar as they separate themselves from the life of the larger society and from other areas of enquiry and imagination.

If there is a Mediterranean tradition in philosophy, then it is characterized by what Pierre Hadot describes as characteristic of ancient philosophy— that it has been integrated into a way of life.[39] It is not to say that this long history has produced a distinctive school of philosophy—at least, not since neo-Platonism—or a single, consolidated philosophical perspective. On the contrary, its intellectual life was characterized by pluralism, hybridity and the relative absence of reflection on the region’s own history. Here as elsewhere, the owl of Minerva began its flight only with the onset of dusk.[40]

Four Currents in the Afterlife of Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism

Put differently, Mediterranean cosmopolitanism did not produce an easily recognizable philosophy (or political theory) of its own cosmopolitanism. It did not reflect in a systematic way on its own distinctive features until the signs of its decline were already becoming visible.

The starting points for such reflection were often provided by outsiders, or long after the event. Mediterraneanism as a conscious current of thought belongs to the afterlife of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. However, the afterlife of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism is vital for understanding its contemporary relevance—that is, for understanding whether it is simply an object of nostalgia or remains in any way relevant to the contemporary world and its problems.

This essay is intended to establish a context in which to examine one contemporary current of thought which forms part of this afterlife of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. It will be useful, in order to do this, to distinguish it from others. Hence this rough typology of four modern currents of Mediterraneanism—what I will call the imperialist, the aesthetic, the Nietzschean and the Cavafian forms of Mediterraneanism.

The Mediterranean Sea has been a battleground of empires for thousands of years. But imperialism began to dress itself up in Mediterranean garb roughly from the time that the British established their protectorate in Egypt in 1882. Lord Cromer, the British consul-general in Egypt, described the character of British rule in Egypt succinctly in a letter to Alfred Milner in 1893, complaining about the new Ottoman pasha, who was less subservient than his father: “The old system has been smashed by this foolish boy, who I think will prematurely thrust the whole Egyptian question on us. You know the old system so well that I need not describe it. It consisted in my keeping in the prompter’s box and occasionally whispering a word to the hero on the stage. The latter won’t play at the game any more. So I had to move out of my box and expostulate with him before the audience. This is enough to shatter the system.”[41]

Where the British had to define their role in Egypt (and after 1918, elsewhere in the Middle East) as that of benevolent outsiders bringing progress, justice and a balanced budget to the backward Ottoman Empire, Mussolini’s Mediterraneanism was his claim to be able to revive the power and order of the Roman Empire. Since the Suez crisis of 1956, the major imperialist power in the Mediterranean region has been the United States, and U.S. ideology in the region has depended more on Islamophobia rather than regard for ancient history. Perhaps the contemporary sequel to Italian conquest and rule in Ethiopia and Libya and its disastrous war-time occupation of Greece, Yugoslavia and Albania is President Sarkozy’s plan for a Mediterranean Union—first proposed in 2008, pretending to be modeled on the European Union, but likely to emulate the repressive rather than the redistributive side of the EU.

Aesthetic Mediterraneanism is a kinder, gentler approach to the region from Northern Europe. Its starting point is Goethe’s account of the region as “the land where the lemon trees blossom, and a soft wind blows from the blue sky,” where the people were especially close to nature, “lovers of the open air, happy, hospitable, unreflective, their society simple and harmonious.”[42] Ruskin’s studies of Venice and Florence continue in this vein, contrasting the Northern mind with its tendency to “set the individual reason against authority and the individual deed against destiny” to “the languid submission, in the Southern, of thought to tradition and purpose to fatality.”[43] Ruskin also renders this aesthetic consistent with a critique of industrial society and a political outlook of Christian socialism. This perspective is also evident in the work of mid-twentieth century novelists such as Carlo Levi and Ignazio Silone and in much early Italian realist cinema. In an age of mass tourism, this conception of the Mediterranean will be easily usurped by advertising images of cruise-ships, beaches and holiday sex.

Nietzschean (or Dionysian) Mediterraneanism puts a similar aesthetic to work for more volatile political purposes. Nietzsche’s own account of the Dionysian (in his Birth of Tragedy) or Mediterranean (Gay Science) character in some ways echoes Goethe. The instability of this focus on character is evident in the political diversity of Nietzsche’s heirs, ranging from Nazism to Zionism to postmodernism. Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche in 1909, gave a self-consciously Mediterranean colouring to his Dionysian Zorba the Greek—proud and defiant, until the next morning’s hangover. The anthropologists have contributed their portion to this feast with the argument that Mediterranean society is characterized by a culture of honour and shame.

A clearer political point of reference is provided by the avowed Mediterraneanism of Albert Camus, with its programmatic refusal to take sides in the Algerian struggle for independence. According to Camus, those making the demand are “stuffed with hatred”. For himself, he refuses ideological blueprints and transcendental consolation, and responds: “Ah, but I have taken sides. I have chosen my own country, the Algeria of the future where French and Arabs will associate freely together.”[44] The appeal to Camus is often a sign of equivocation, not only in the context of decolonization.[45]

This stance has been evoked by R.W. Johnson in the context of South Africa , defending Camus’s argument that Algeria was never “an Arab, Muslim country,” but was instead part of “Mediterranean society”; the product of “the mixing of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Egyptians with Jews, Arabs, Portugese, Spaniards, Italians, French, Syrians and Maltese. The glory of Algeria was that it had been part of that, that it was at ease with it, that it shared that richness and understood it.” Johnson continues argues that a similar process makes South Africa “a fine example for the whole of mankind.”[46] By emphasizing the cultural potential of Algeria and South Africa, he conceals the reality of political and economic exclusion in both societies.

In various ways these three currents draw on the legacy of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, but parasitically—it seems to me—rather than constructively. The imperialist form of Mediterraneanism is outdated and by now dishonest; the aesthetic form has valuable elements but is easily co-opted; the Nietzschean view is indeterminate and often self-serving. This brief survey is intended to distinguish these three currents from the fourth—what I will call the Cavafian—form of Mediterraneanism.

In the sequel to this essay, I plan to trace the development of this perspective, mainly through the work of three poets: the Alexandrian Greek C. P. Cavafy, the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, and the South African Breyten Breytenbach. It’s unusual to rely on poets in order to reconstruct a political and philosophical perspective—even when these poets are essayists as well. But the poetic imagination may be the most reliable guide to this ancient and modern world, in which clarity of tone and meaning is integrated into a collective way of life.

Something of this is conveyed in Cavafy’s poem “For Ammon, Who Died at 29 Years of Age, in 610.” The speaker asks Raphael to compose an epitaph for “the poet Ammon, one of our own”:

Your Greek is always beautiful and musical.

But now we want all of your craftsmanship.

Into a foreign tongue our pain and love are passing.

Pour your Egyptian feeling into a foreign tongue.

Raphael, your verses should be written

so that they have, you know, something of our lives within them,

so that the rhythm and every phrasing makes it clear

that an Alexandrian is writing about an Alexandrian.[47]

E. M. Forster set out Cavafy’s stance like this: “He was a loyal Greek, but Greece for him was not territorial. It was rather the influence that flowed from his race this way and that through the ages, and that (since Alexander the Great) has never disdained to mix with barbarism, has indeed desired to mix; the influence that made Byzantium a political achievement. Racial purity bored him, so did political idealism.”[48]

This is not in itself a political stance. Politics requires not just a critique of the politics of established power, but also a vision of how collective action can resist that power and empower society in new ways. But Cavafy’s reimagination of the Hellenistic world provided an extended metaphor for a different kind of collective life, on which an actively political vision could be built.


[1] Paper presented at Praxis group conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia, April 2012. [2] Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, ed. Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Modern Library, 1992), vol. 1, pp. 268-69. [3] Cf. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), pp. 30-32; cf. Colin Renfrew, “The Emergence of Civilization,” in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, ed. Arthur Cotterell (London: Penguin, 1980), pp. 12-20. Parts of the ancient Mediterranean have also been given a major role in ideological conceptions of Western civilization, which are not intended here. [4] I. Hadot, “The Spiritual Guide,” in A.H. Armstrong, ed., Classical Mediterranean Spirituality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 443. Cf. John Brockington, “Imperial India,” in Arthur Cotterell, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilizations (London: Viking, 1993), pp. 195-97. [5] A recent study of multiculturalism in global context, focuses on five locations: Flensburg, Germany; Kerala, India; the Russian republic of Tatarstan; Marseilles, France; Queens, New York. Cf. Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl Meyer, Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Works (New York: Public Affairs, 2012). [6] For a discussion of scholarly terminology, cf. Deborah Starr, Remembering Cosmopolitan Egypt: Literature, Culture and Empire (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. [7] Cf. Vivian Mann et al, ed., Convivencia: Jews, Muslims and Christians in Medieval Spain (New York: George Braziller, 1992). [8] Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). [9] Cf. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (New York: Schocken, 2011), pp. 219-220. [10] Jeevan Vasagar, “Academic linked to Gaddafi’s fugitive son leaves LSE,” The Guardian, 31 October 2011; on the academic corruption involved, cf. Anthony Barnett, “Fred Halliday was right: The LSE, Gaddafi money and what is missing from the Woolf Report,” [11] Daniele Archibugi, “Cosmopolitical Democracy,” New Left Review II/4 (July-August 2000), p. 138. [12] For example, Allen W. Wood, “Kant’s Project for Perpetual Peace,” in Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, ed., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 59-76. [13] Hans Reiss, ed., Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 112. [14] Long before Alexandria, the Phoenicians traded throughout the Mediterranean from as early as 1200 BCE. Their cities may have been cosmopolitan in some respects, but left no enduring political legacy. [15] Diana Delia, “All Army Boots and Uniforms? Ethnicity in Ptolemaic Alexandria,” in Peter Green et al, Alexandria and Alexandrianism (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), pp. 43-44. [16] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 89. [17] Cf. Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes (London: SAQI Books, 2006), pp. 19-21, 50-51, 114, 126, 129, 153 et passim. [18] Roger Crowley, City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), pp. 185, 133, 263-68. [19] Robin Harris, Dubrovnik: A History (London: SAQI Books, 2006), p. 18. [20] Ibid., pp. 84, 234-36, 223, 140. [21] Giles Milton, Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), p. 382. [22] Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), pp. [23] Cf. Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), pp. 48-59. [24] Andrej Grubačić, Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! Essays after Yugoslavia (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), pp. 256-62. The stereotype of Balkan savagery is updated in Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993). The region is treated most straightforwardly as part of the Mediterranean by a Croatian author, Predrag Matvejević, in his Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999). [25] On the significance of the idea of a Balkan Socialist Federation, cf. Branka Magaš, The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-up 1980-92 (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 15-48; for more historical detail, cf. Paul Shoup, Communism and the Yugoslav National Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), pp. 124-43. [26] Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays 1982-1999 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999), p. 261. [27] Philip Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 9. [28] John Freely, Istanbul: The Imperial City (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 282. [29] Haag, Alexandria, p. 16. [30] Robert J. Donia, Sarajevo: A Biography (London: Hurst & Company, 2006), p. 74. [31] Khaled Fahmy, “Towards a Social History of Modern Alexandria,” in Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk, ed., Alexandria, Real and Imagined (London: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 304-05. [32] Amy Dockser Marcus, Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Penguin, 2007), pp. 44-45, 24. [33] Haag, Alexandria, p. 85. [34] Ibid., p. 88; cf. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 74. [35] C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), p. 110. Mendelsohn’s translations of Cavafy are used throughout this essay. [36] Ibid., p. 7. [37] Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). [38] S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, volume 5: The Individual (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). [39] Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002). [40] Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 23. [41] Cromer to Milner, 22 January 1893, in John Evelyn Wrench, Alfred Lord Milner: The Man of No Illusions (London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1958), p. 143. Milner had been under-secretary for finance in Egypt under Cromer, and was later Governor-General of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner to South Africa. His book England in Egypt (1892) is a clear account of British imperialism in relation to the Mediterranean region. [42] Quoted in Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 28-29. [43] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (London: George Allen, 1903), vol. II, p. 202 (chapter VI, §76). [44] Philip Thody, Albert Camus (1961), p. 214. [45] Cf. Dylan Riley, “Tony Judt: A Cooler Look,” New Left Review II/71 (September-October 2011), pp. 45-47. [46] R.W. Johnson, South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid (London: Allen Lane, 2009), p. 626. [47] Cavafy, Collected Poems, p. 71. Cf. Edmund Keely, Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 83-84, for a discussion of this poem. [48] E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), pp. 249-50.


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