What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)
We started to talk about this yesterday, in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. We’ll discuss it some more today. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, the cosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.
So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.
So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.
Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos…
So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.
Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP
That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was.