Avishai Margalit
Avishai Margalit; drawing by David Levine


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.

Margalit acknowledges that talk of collective memory is “a metaphor… or at least…an extended sense of ‘remembers,'” but he sets out to show how we can use the metaphor without being misled by it. Here he distinguishes between two kinds of collective memory, “common memory” and “shared memory.” A community has a common memory simply if most of its members recall “a certain episode which each of them experienced individually”; a shared memory, by contrast, involves an active process by which a story is preserved and retold. Everybody who was in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, or who learned of what happened through radio or television has a memory of the collapse of the Twin Towers. But this common memory became almost immediately a shared memory for New Yorkers and for Americans (and for many larger and smaller communities as well) because their individual memories were integrated with those of others in the community, to form a shared version of September 11. “In modern societies, characterized by an elaborate division of real labor, the division of mnemonic labor is elaborate too,” Margalit observes.

Shared memory in a modern society travels from person to person through institutions, such as archives, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as monuments and the names of streets.

He might have added schools and universities to his list of institutions; and he might have added official and unofficial histories, in books and newspapers, on television and film, to his list of mnemonic devices. Margalit’s shared memory is very close to Renan’s “rich legacy.”

It follows that the task of supporting these institutions and devices for memory is a collective one. None of us is individually responsible for that sustenance: our own responsibility is only to make sure, in concert with others, that someone sustains them. Here there is a division of labor that is analogous (as Margalit points out) to the division of labor that secures health care for the sick in a welfare state. “We are, collectively, responsible to see to it that someone looks after the ill. But we are not obligated as individuals to do it ourselves, as long as there are enough people who will do it.”

And so, having sketched an account of shared memory as the product of institutions for which we are collectively responsible, Margalit can now return to the questions with which he began: Are there things we must remember? Who are “we”?

A community that has a collective obligation to maintain shared memories is, for Margalit, a “community of memory.” But the “we” that remembers is also a community extended in time. Indeed, Margalit suggests that, in a community of memory, we have thick relations between the living and the dead. We honor those who died in warfare for our country through memorials, through institutions such as Memorial Day, through the stories we teach to our children in history classes. We may be tied to them by love and loyalty: and that is what makes it right to remember them. Here Margalit comes close to Burke’s view of society as a contract “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”

Margalit discusses a number of different pictures of how shared memory might create a shared community. In one such picture—he calls it the “Christian project”—memories of the sacrifice on the cross must be maintained in order to help us create a human community, governed by the thick relations of love. The cross must be remembered because we owe God a debt of gratitude for this sacrifice; and that gratitude is displayed in our struggle to turn all of humankind into a single beloved community. In what Margalit calls the “Jewish project,” the memory of Exodus must also be preserved as a ground for gratitude to God: though here the response is to create an ethical community among Jews—governed by thick relations of care—and a moral community of human beings, whose common debt to God derives from his having created us all in his image. The Jewish project, unlike the Christian one, makes the distinction between ethics and morality. Margalit is skeptical that we can make “humanity” as such an ethical community, a collective governed by care and loyalty. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Schiller’s anthem, would strike him as suspiciously utopian.

This theme runs through his discussion of “moral witnesses”—of testimonies to Stalinist terror like Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”; or the diaries of life under the Nazis by Victor Klemperer, an assimilated Jew in Dresden, and Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto. These people are, of course, witnesses to crimes not against care or loyalty but against humanity; they are witnesses to moral, not ethical, crimes. And yet, Margalit tells us, the work of witnessing has particular importance to a community created by thick relations. Akhmatova and Mandelstam allow all of us, Russian or not, to pay respect, through memory, to Stalin’s victims; but surely their work has a special place in the Russian community of memory. So too, mutatis mutandis, with the witnesses to anti-Jewish terror. It is natural to think that there are particularly strong reasons for Russians and Jews to sustain the memory of those stories as the stories of their people: people, now dead, with whom they nevertheless have thick relations—thick relations that entail the obligation to remember.


What exactly is the nature of these obligations? Margalit’s answer, after a meticulous and extended exploration of the nature of thick relations and their connection to memory, is that our obligations to remember are conditional:

I think the ethical ought should be used in a sense akin to medical ought. Medical ought-to, as in “you ought to avoid eating fat,” “you ought to exercise,” “you ought to take your medicine,” is relative to the assumption that you want to be healthy. There is no obligation to be healthy. But if you want to be healthy, this is what it takes. There is no obligation, in my view, to be engaged in ethical relations. It remains an option to lead a solitary life…. The ought of morality, on the other hand, is different from the ought in ethics. Being moral is a required good; being ethical is, in principle, an optional good.

We ought to remember, he concludes, because thick relations nourished by shared memories are better than those without such memories. We ought also to remember because remembering is conceptually tied to caring for others; indeed, the fact that we care for those with whom we have thick relations makes those relations good. So our obligation here flows from the worth of our thick relations with the members of our community of memory, living and dead.

More generally, the argument that we ought to sustain shared memories derives from the value of the solidarities that they nourish. Margalit says that people remember because they care. I would add, with Ernest Renan, that they also care because they remember. One role of shared memories in the national community of memory is to underwrite our current common projects. (Indeed, for Renan, the legacy and the commitments are indissoluble: they are “really just one.”) As Lincoln put it, in an address that lives in the shared memory of Americans, we take from the “honored dead …increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

And so Margalit’s “ethics of memory” promises to resolve the dispute with which I began, between those who place the Constitution at the heart of American identity and those who do not. For, if we follow his general account, we owe it to one another and to our ancestors to carry forward the shared memories that are at the heart of the American community of memory. Before the Constitution came into being, those memories were of emigration and colonization and also, alas, of capture and the Middle Passage: they were the memories of Pilgrims, of the enslaved. Once the new republic was made, much of the injustice of the past continued, but the Constitution became a central part of the American story and of what Americans undertook to do.

By the same logic, without a sense of shared history you cannot understand the nation’s continuing problems and accomplishments. When defenders of the Civil Rights Acts referred to the nation’s “unfinished business” (and voted for them, in part, to finish it), they relied on their fellow citizens to know about slavery, emancipation, the Civil War, and the Civil War amendments. It was an argument that presupposed, and drew upon, a community of memory. Is this an argument that we “must” remember that past? I doubt it, because I doubt that we “must” be good citizens. But it certainly shows that the past is something it would be good to remember.


Aristotle famously said in the Nicomachean Ethics that we should adopt the degree of precision appropriate to the subject and that many claims in ethics were true “for the most part.” Appropriately enough, the spirit in which Margalit’s book is written is distinctly exploratory and provisional. He is more interested in framing—and clarifying—questions than in settling them. “There are two styles of philosophers: e.g. philosophers and i.e. philosophers—illustrators and explicators,” Margalit says, and he identifies himself as one of the illustrators, who “trust, first and foremost, striking examples.” He further points out that when examples work, “they are illuminations, not just didactic illustrations.”

Margalit’s book is full of just such illuminations—including, for example, a subtle exploration of the relationship between forgiving and forgetting. But as a bit of an i.e. man myself (one of those who “trust, first and foremost, definitions and general principles,” as Margalit puts it) I sometimes felt the need for more explication.

Thus, for example, we start out with individuals who remember people they care about and are obliged, in virtue of the thick relations that obtain between them, to keep those memories alive, but we end up with communities sustaining shared memories as a matter of ethical duty; and some of these memories, like the “memory” of Exodus, are not—or, at any rate, not just—memories of people. They are memories embodied in texts transmitted long ago. This suggests, at least to an explicator, the question whether I also owe it to those I care about to remember something other than them; and, if so, whether members of the Jewish community of memory owe the sustenance of shared memories of Exodus to their ancestors or to one another. How exactly, in other words, do the mnemonic obligations of individuals translate into collective duties?

Margalit is clear that a shared memory, such as the Exodus from Egypt, may have to do not with any actual historical event but merely with an “event-story.” But once we have entered the realm of pure storytelling, we may wonder about the force of the obligation not to change the story. Alongside Margalit’s central question—“Are there things we ought to remember?”—we might pose another: What are the things that we ought to remember? Talk of “communities of memory” doesn’t help here: the only answer it would yield is that we should remember the things we already remember. For Margalit, after all, the point is to sustain thick, caring relations that are, in part, constituted by those shared memories.

And this, in turn, leads to a matter of demarcation. A “community of mem- ory” is bounded by its shared memories. Sometimes, to change those memories is to change the community—to expand its compass, perhaps. Margalit is admirably clear that shared memories have a “voluntaristic” aspect—they’re not things we simply have, they’re things we actively create and perpetuate. But, by the same token, they can drift and shift, and when they do, the community of thick relations may be redefined—surely, at times, for the better.

In that respect, The Ethics of Memory perhaps gives too little attention to the ways in which memories are contested. Even within families, people remember events differently, often radically so. And one way that people may seek to change the nature of a community is by challenging and reshaping its basic narratives. That’s why the progressive- minded will often teach children the story of America as one of liberal triumphalism—attending to the successive enfranchisement of blacks and women, the expanding compass of social concern as represented by the Civil War, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Acts, and so forth; and among such people there will be some who will want to make their children aware that this progress has been partial, leaving many without adequately protected rights. At the same time, we can imagine a conservative educator who preferred a story of scrappy Christians bravely extending and protecting their dominion against barbarians and foreign tyrannies.

This is only to say that, in telling the story of America, Pat Robertson and Al Gore would pick out different “event-stories.” And they would be defining America, as an ethical community differently too. One person might well prefer to define the real America as, in John Jay’s words, “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.” On the other hand, if, as most are inclined to say these days, America is a “nation of immigrants,” then memories of Ellis Island are as salient as memories of the Mayflower. And memories of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s can be as important as anything else.

What makes a person care for the American nation enough to identify with it—to think of him- or herself as an American enmeshed in thick relations with other Americans—is, no doubt, different for each of us. But Margalit’s book reminds us that we care about other Americans as Americans through narratives of a shared past. Nor do our obligations end there. At a certain point, as Margalit says, one must “ask if these relations are also good relations, and not just thick ones.” We are committed to a shared future in part because we share a past—but our commitment depends on the value and not just the fact of our community. And that, in these difficult times for patriots, is something worth remembering, too.

This Issue

March 13, 2003