The Cosmopolitan Predicament   /   Fall 2009   /    Essays

Cosmopolitanism: Three Études in the Quest for a Lost Ideal of Civilization

Rob Riemen

Cosmopolitanism is a word born from the European soul. With that soul has cos- mopolitanism also vanished? The following three études were written in search of, and in response to, that question.

Words are defenseless against people. They can be abused or ignored and thus lose their meaning. These “lost words” disappear. They are no longer used, or they are mis- used because a meaning is attributed to them that resembles the original as much as the distorted image in a carnival mirror. A “dictionary of lost words” would be worth writ- ing. Not only because it would be read as a fascinating account of our cultural history, but it would also shed an illuminating light on what is happening in contemporary society—or rather what is not happening because it has been lost.

“Cosmopolitanism” would be one of this dictionary’s key words. In this entry we would be able to read the history of the word’s original meaning: an ideal of civilization that is gradually being distorted to the image of the one who is: uprooted, not one of us, exclusively for the affluent elite, unreliable, decadent, and—in the anti-Semitic variant, spoken with a certain contempt—“typically Jewish.” We shall see how the vilification of the original meaning banishes an ancient ideal of civilization and how societies are captivated instead by globalization, nationalism, or multiculturalism.

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