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You Must Remember This


In the second of the Federalist Papers, John Jay writes that

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs….1

Even in the late eighteenth century, this was—to put it mildly—a misleading description of the thirteen states (where, for example, a majority of the population of South Carolina was of African descent); and nowadays, of course, most people take it for granted that Americans, like the citizens of all modern states, are remarkably heterogeneous. We have not only a superficial diversity of appearance but deeper diversities of aspiration and habit and belief. We can hear scores of languages spoken in our homes and schools, our parks and shopping malls; and we speak in many accents. We are Baptist, Catholic, Methodist; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform; Sunni, Shia, Black Muslim; Hindu, Sikh, and Jain; we are even atheist and agnostic. And that is only the beginning of a familiar catalog of our variety.

It is not unreasonable, faced with all these differences, to ask what binds us together. One answer—an answer that suits our local traditions—is that the American many are made one by the Constitution and the republic it secures, and that our loyalty to one another is a consequence of our common allegiance to that high law. But this is not an answer that would make sense to most modern men and women in other places, because they take themselves to be tied to their nations independently of the political forms of the societies they inhabit. Some peoples—Kurds, Palestinians, Quebecois, Sikhs—are conscious of themselves as nations (or, in the nineteenth-century term, nationalities) even though they have no state, no laws, no republic of their own. And even those who live in ancient monarchies, like the United Kingdom, or republics with long histories, like Switzerland, are likely to think it is not the law or their attitude toward it that makes them British (or, at any rate, English) or Swiss (or, at any rate, Genevois); the law only recognizes the fact of their nationality in granting them citizenship. The law could change, they would say, it could declare them to be citizens of a United Europe or simply cast them out altogether, and they would still be the English or Swiss men and women that they are.

Something like the same view was necessary, in fact, to the framing of the US Constitution, for that document speaks in the voice of “We, the People,” and that people is, therefore, presumably united before the Constitution. “A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle,” said Alexander Hamilton in the last of the Federalist Papers.2 The Constitution was needed because we were a nation already.

So we need an alternative answer to the question how, e pluribus, we came to be unum; an answer that fits with the sense that, so far as feelings of belonging are concerned, nations are primary and states secondary, a story that allows us to distinguish between national loyalty and mere citizenship, which is a creature of law. And in the heyday of nineteenth-century European nationalism, just such an answer was articulated by Ernest Renan, the great French historian of religion, in his essay “What Is a Nation?” “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,” he argued:

Two things, which, in truth, are really just one, make up this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is current consent, the desire to live together, the willingness to continue to maintain the value of the heritage that one has received as a common possession.3

Renan’s answer, then, was that it is our common history—and the contemporary commitments this history underwrites—that makes us one.

But what is the nature of this common history? In the case of a country, like ours, that is older than any of its citizens, it can’t be a past we share as individuals; no Americans living today participated in the Founding, and the ancestors of a great many were then in other places. Of course, we share a past in the sense that we are Americans and it is America’s past: but if Renan had meant that it was our past in that sense, then his answer would have been circular. For it cannot be that what makes you American is your past if you have to be an American already for that past to be yours.

What Renan meant by a shared history, rather, was a story of the past held somehow in common, what he called a “rich legacy of memories.” The nation for Renan is bound together not by the past itself—by what actually happened—but by stories of that past that we tell one another in the present. What we remember—and, Renan famously added, what we forget—makes us the nation that we are. For the story of the past is made both by holding on to some events and by letting go of others. It also may include a certain amount of unacknowledged invention. “Forgetting,” Renan wrote, “and I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and that is why progress in historical research is often a threat to nationality.”4

Renan’s claim seems plausible enough. His own country was to construct a story of World War II in which the large truth of German victory and Vichy collaboration was scanted in favor of an exaggerated version of “la Résistance.” The American South was held together once by a story in which the Civil War was depicted as a struggle for states’ rights, not as a war to save slavery. And the identity of many Northerners was nourished, on the other hand, by stories of “the war to end slavery,” Yankee slaveholders and slave traders being conveniently forgotten. In all these narratives there are elements of remembering, forgetting, and fantasy. But surely such stories, and the attempts to revise them, constitute the network of narrative that unifies nations, helping to identify the Frenchness of the French, the Americanness of Americans.

Renan’s idea is naturally expressed by saying that national memory is at the heart of national identity. Still, the metaphor of memory here is just that: a metaphor. Nations have no minds or thoughts about anything, including their pasts. When we try to specify the content of our talk of national memory, we are led back to Renan’s idea: the national memory consists of stories from the past, kept alive in the present—whether in the minds and memories of individuals or in externalized memorials, written in books, performed on stage or screen, encoded in monuments—available, at least in principle, for any of us to draw on as a basis for our continuing willingness to live a life together.

And if national memory is, indeed, so central to our national belonging, shouldn’t we ask whether there is anything that we ought, as Americans or French or British or Swiss, to remember…or to forget? Such questions belong to what Avishai Margalit calls “the ethics of memory,” and they are the subject of his engaging new book. In six essays that combine a philosopher’s conceptual precision, a novelist’s feeling for human details, and a historian’s appreciation of contingency, he sets out to specify the relations among memory, community, and duty:

Are we obligated to remember people and events from the past? If we are, what is the nature of this obligation? Are remembering and forgetting proper subjects of moral praise or blame? Who are the “we” who may be obligated to remember: the collective “we,” or some distributive sense of “we” that puts the obligation to remember on each and every member of the collective?

These questions have a special urgency in Israel, Margalit’s nation, where remembering the Shoah is widely understood to be an important obligation both of individual Jews and of the Jewish people. Hitler famously asked, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” as he planned his own exterminations.5 To forget the genocide of millions of European Jews, one feels, would amount to a sort of complicity in the Nazi project. Indeed, Margalit tells us that The Ethics of Memory had its beginnings in a long-ago debate between his mother, who believed that post-Holocaust Jews had an obligation to “form communities of memory,” and his father, who thought that the living should think “predominantly about the future.”

Margalit early in his book makes a distinction between two kinds of relations that we have with other people: the “thin relations” that “rely…on some aspect of being human, such as being a woman or being sick” and the “thick relations” that “are grounded in attributes such as parent, friend, lover, fellow-countryman.” The obligations generated by our thin relations depend on nothing other than our shared humanity and the fact that other human beings can be in need and entitled to our aid. Thick relations, on the other hand, depend on a special relationship with others: something “anchored in a shared past or moored in shared memory.” Margalit uses the word “morality” to refer to what thin relations demand and the word “ethics” to refer to what thick relations ask of us.

Sometimes memory, including collective memory, is clearly in the service of moral concerns. Typically, when we speak of what must never be forgotten, of what should never leave the shared memory of humankind, what we have in mind is genocide, monstrous acts of cruelty—all the great twentieth-century horrors. We must remember these radical evils, Margalit says, because they aim to undermine morality itself—they challenge the very idea that we have duties to others simply because they are human. Holocaust denial is an affront to humanity, not only Jews or Germans in particular. “Ought not,” he asks, “this moral community to have some minimal sense of memory for, say, the Gulags, the kulaks, Majdanek and Treblinka, Hiroshima and Nanking, as warning signposts in human moral history?”

But Margalit wants us to see that we have obligations to remember that go beyond such traumatic cases. In his view, such “mnemonic obligations” as we have are mostly ethical obligations, not moral ones. They are obligations we have only to people with whom we have thick relations.


Margalit begins his analysis by looking at the connection between individual memory and the emotions we may have for those with whom we have thick relations, most prominently what he calls “caring.” It is evidently false, he notes, that remembering someone means you care about them: “We remember particularly well people we hate….” Conversely, it’s possible to care about someone whom you no longer remember: he offers the example of a person who was separated as a baby from his mother but who still cares about her a good deal, as is manifest, say, in his attempts to find her. Margalit concludes, then, that the connection between memory and caring is this: if you both care for and remember someone, then you can’t stop remembering her without ceasing to care for her. “When we care about another, we find it natural to expect the other to be one with whom we share a common past and common memories,” Margalit writes. The main task of his book is to show that these intuitions we have about kith and kin can be extended to larger communities, and longer memories.

  1. 1

    The Federalist Papers, Number 2, paragraph 5.

  2. 2

    The Federalist Papers, Number 85, last paragraph.

  3. 3

    Une nation est une âme, un principe spirituel. Deux choses qui, à vrai dire, n’en font qu’une, constituent cette âme, ce principe spirituel. L’une est dans le passé, l’autre dans le présent. L’une est la possession en commun d’un riche legs de souvenirs; l’autre est le consentement actuel, le désir de vivre ensemble, la volonté de continuer à faire valoir l’héritage qu’on a reçu indivis.” See Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (1882; Toronto: Tapir, 1996), Chapter 3, paragraph 1.

  4. 4

    L’oubli, et je dirai même l’erreur historique, sont un facteur essentiel de la création d’une nation, et c’est ainsi que le progrès des études historiques est souvent pour la nationalité un danger.” See Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, Chapter 1, paragraph 7.

  5. 5

    The New York Times, November 24, 1945, quoting an account of a speech Hitler made to his commanders on August 22, 1939, at Obersalzberg prior to the invasion of Poland.

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