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Imagined Communities

Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

By Benedict Anderson
13-minute read
Audio available
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities (1983) is one of the most influential studies of the origins of nationalism. In it, Benedict Anderson asks a question that had long vexed his fellow historians: Why did nations become such a potent source of identity in the modern world? In these blinks, we’ll unravel Anderson’s fascinating answer to this conundrum as we delve into the history of capitalism, the printing press, religious belief systems, and nationalism. 

  • History buffs
  • Thinkers and theorists who love bold ideas
  • Anyone who’s wondered why we live in a world of nation-states

Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) was a professor of international studies at Cornell University, New York. A polyglot fluent in multiple Asian languages, Anderson first made his name as a scholar of Indonesia. In addition to his contributions to the study of Southeast Asia and nationalism, Anderson was also the author of Under Three Flags (2005), an exploration of the global anarchist movement, and his posthumously published memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries (2016).

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Imagined Communities

Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

By Benedict Anderson
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
Synopsis

Imagined Communities (1983) is one of the most influential studies of the origins of nationalism. In it, Benedict Anderson asks a question that had long vexed his fellow historians: Why did nations become such a potent source of identity in the modern world? In these blinks, we’ll unravel Anderson’s fascinating answer to this conundrum as we delve into the history of capitalism, the printing press, religious belief systems, and nationalism. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Nationalism isn’t a religion, but it’s closer to religious belief systems than to modern political ideologies.

We enter this world on terms beyond our choosing. Our genetic heritage, parents, and physical abilities are all determined by chance. The only certainty in life is death. These two facts – the contingency of existence and the inescapability of mortality – have always weighed heavily on humans. Attempts to make sense of them are at the heart of most traditional belief systems. Modern styles of thought, by contrast, remain silent on questions that can’t be settled by science, which is why neither liberals nor Marxists have much to say about immortality. Nationalists, however, do

And that’s the key message here: Nationalism isn’t a religion, but it’s closer to religious belief systems than to modern political ideologies. 

Let’s consider cenotaphs, one of the most interesting emblems of nationalism. These are monuments dedicated to nameless soldiers, and it’s this anonymity that gives these ghostly tombs their meaning. Because they commemorate “Unknown Soldiers” who lack an individual identity, they become symbols of something greater. They represent the ultimate sacrifice – dying for one’s country. Cenotaphs seem to suggest that those who give up their lives for something larger than themselves live forever. 

In this, nationalism resembles religious worldviews. Faiths like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were able to survive for millennia in dozens of different societies because they tapped into human intuition. These faiths bring hope that there must be a deeper meaning to the seemingly random ebb and flow of life. Whether they call it karma or the afterlife, religions find this meaning by linking the dead, the living, and the unborn into an eternal chain of death and regeneration. 

Given this similarity between nationalism and religious thought, it’s not surprising that the former emerged just as the latter was faltering. After being taken for granted for thousands of years, religion lost its self-evident plausibility in eighteenth-century Europe. This was the age of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that emphasized human reason rather than religious tradition. The decline of religion certainly didn’t, however, remove the suffering to which it had, in part, been a response. 

In fact, this decline left a void at the heart of modern life. Without paradise, existence seemed unbearably arbitrary. Without the prospect of salvation and a life in the hereafter, the imagined community of the nation became more attractive. But before we examine nationalism itself, let’s take a closer look at the cultural systems that lead to it. 

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