Man is designed by Nature to live in small groups (even today most of the world’s population live in small settlements despite millennia of urban settlement). Human beings are very large mammals which naturally seek a diet containing a good proportion of meat. Large mammals which rely on a substantial intake of meat are near the top of the food chain. They are necessarily few in number because the food they require is scarce. Hence, large agglomerations of humans are impossible without the greatly enhanced supplies of food produced by farming. The archaeological evidence supports this reasoning. Evidence of large human settlements is not found beyond, at best, 10,000 years ago (for example Jericho). The remains of large human settlements dated before 4000 BC are very rare.
Why have human beings formed larger groups than those in which they naturally lived for hundreds of millennia? The fact that Man is a social animal is, as our philosophical friends say, a necessary but not sufficient condition for such behaviour. It does not mean that men take easily to living in large groups, but it does provide the possibility of such social engagement. But because living in large groups is not natural to Man in the sense that his evolutionary history did not include such behaviour and because the complexity of life is greatly enhanced in large communities, he result is always imperfect. In a tribe of 500 it is easy to see how a sense of belonging and identity exists, because everyone will have a personal relationship of some sort with everyone else. In a group of 10,000 that is not possible in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, in a group of 10,000 the individual can still be practically aware of the group, for example through public meetings. With a group of a million the relationship between the group members becomes intellectual rather than personal or practical. That is when the problems start.
Man can create such an intellectual sense of belonging because he is self-conscious. However, this consciousness also provides the means to create distinctions between groups of people. Hence war, tribalism, nationalism and racism.
To create very large agglomerations of people who see themselves as part of a whole requires a core of values which are accepted by generality of the population. These values may be religious, as in the case of the mediaeval church and Islam. Then the sense of belonging is supranational, indeed supracultural. But such feelings have always bowed before the demands of family, tribe, feudal lordship and nation. Hence the failure of the mediaeval church’s claim to supremacy; hence the mutual antipathy of many Muslim peoples throughout history. National identity does not consist of clone like similitude, but it does require a sense of belonging, an instinctive recognition of those included within the parameters of a national group.
Taking the evidence of history as a whole, it is reasonable to conclude that there is an inherent tendency within human society to attempt to create ever larger units of political authority. However, like all behavioural traits in the natural world, it is no more than a tendency and there is an opposed tendency for large political groupings to disintegrate if sufficient cultural homogeneity does not exist. It is noteworthy that empires have been markedly less durable than nations throughout history. Nations survive defeat, enslavement and centuries of oppressions. Empires may mutate as the Russian did from Tsarist to Soviet, but they cannot withstand successful conquest. Then they always die and stay dead.
The components of national identity
National identity is most commonly presented in terms of such banalities as “national dress” (often a mark of past servitude), food and crafts or in the more demanding but still narrow world of High Art. Both are inadequate explanations because they touch only a small portion of human existence. To find the answer to a people’s national identity one must look to their general culture which includes at its most sophisticated, science, technology, politics, education, sport, history, morals, humour, language.
From the general culture comes what might be called the secondary human personality, which is developed by and is continually developing the components of culture. By secondary personality I mean a nurtured overlay on the innate personality. The range of basic human traits - aggressiveness, placidity, timidity, extroversion and so forth - are universal. But those qualities are the mere skeletons of minds. Above them stand the modifications of experience. From experience develops the secondary personality. The social context of that experience and the reflection of that experience through the secondary personality creates culture, is culture.
All of this is not to say that the material and mundane accoutrements of a man’s life are completely unimportant to the foundation of national identity. There are certain things which are such a part of the warp and weft of life over a long period that they acquire true symbolic value. For example, The wilful destruction in England of their historic measures which arose naturally from man’s everyday needs and a coinage more than a thousand years old, has helped undermine the self confidence of a people who retained such things not out of backwardness, but from a sense of national worth and importance.