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Tyrone Schiff
Understanding a Nation

The year 1859 was a revolution in culture. The year was marked with a wealth of

new and fresh ideas being presented and broached for the public’s consumption. The

medium in which this information was catapulted into the lives of those who lived during

this historic year was via literature. All sorts of literature were used in order to convey the

thoughts of the time. Some were skillfully crafted pieces of fiction, others were political

manifestos, and there was even a scientific proclamation that changed society’s outlook

then and even today. While all of these pieces of literature seem to speak to diverse

audiences and address significantly different schools of thought, there is a central theme

to which they all seem to address. In particular, the idea that percolates within some very

important texts from the year 1859 is the idea of the nation. Benedict Anderson, a

professor emeritus at Cornell University, provided a resounding definition of the nation in

his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism,

and it states, “[the nation] is an imagined political community – and imagined as both

inherently limited and sovereign” (7). Anderson’s definition of the nation will be

definitively supported and proven by four specific texts that each speak to a particular

claim presented by Anderson.

Each of the four texts specifically discusses the more detailed explanation that

Anderson provides, which will be examined further on. Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

addresses the imagined portion of Anderson’s definition of the nation because of the

extreme size and scope that is intrinsic to all nations. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles

Dickens explores the limitations of a nation. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill addresses the

sovereignty of the nation, and the individual’s purpose within the nation. Finally, The
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Origin of Species by Charles Darwin will be used to illustrate the sense of community

that manifests itself in a nation. All of these works were critical to the revolution in

culture that occurred in the year 1859, and work to support the definition set forth by


Anderson’s first point of emphasis within his definition is that of an imagined

nation. This concept will be upheld by the literary work of Samuel Smiles, Self-Help.

Anderson begins his analysis of an imagined nation in stating, “the members of even the

smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear

of them, yet in the minds of each lives the images of their communion […]” (7). The

point that is being emphasized here is that nations are typically very large, but even when

this is the case people within a given nation find a sense of solace in the fact that they are

all a part of the same group. Smiles talks to Anderson’s elaboration on various points.

When considering the book, Self-Help, one will notice the great expanse of individuals

that it covers. It discusses people from all walks of life who contribute to society in a

multitude of ways. However, it is important to be cognizant of the great deal of people

that are left from the book. While Smiles may have tried to educate those about the

people within their nation, there is no possible way for him to discuss everybody. Smiles

generally only discussed famous people, and did not once discuss women. Self-Help is

therefore a perfect illustration of Anderson’s point that within a nation one will typically

not be able to meet or hear about a great deal of their fellow members.

Even though members of a nation will not have the opportunity to meet one

another, there is this great sense of communion. This sense of communion can be

accurately portrayed by the government of a nation. The way in which a nation decides to
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be governed depicts a great deal about the individuals that make up the nation. Smiles

speaks to this point in saying, “The Government of a nation itself is usually found to be

but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The Government that is ahead of the

people will inevitably be dragged down to their level, as the Government that is behind

them will in the long run be dragged up” (19). Smiles advocates here that the way in

which a nation governs itself is due to the individuals that make it up. Though all

individuals within a nation clearly cannot meet one another, they can still come to a

consensus as to what government works best to benefit the greatest number. This talks to

the sense of communion that exists within a nation. People will work with one another in

order to achieve the best result.

Smiles provides an excellent illustration of this sense of communion and how it is

formulated in the nation with the example of Josiah Wedgwood. Smiles explains, “Josiah

Wedgwood was one of those indefatigable men […] by their energetic character not only

practically educate the working population in habits of industry, but by the example of

diligence and perseverance which they set before them, largely influence the public

activity in all directions, and contribute in a great degree to form the national character”

(73). The point of discussing the life of Wedgwood was that it revealed an individual

could have a great deal of impact on the society at large and help to develop the nation as

a whole. Smiles showed how it was the contributions of each individual that ultimately

formulated the nation. This idea of an individual having the ability to construct their

nation is what drove the communion that Anderson speaks of. This individuality and

responsibility that was bestowed on each person in a society gave them a collective

identity. Even though the constituents of a nation may not know everyone else within
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their nation, having a common purpose brought them together. This is the idea that

Samuel Smiles speaks to in his book, Self-Help, and thus works to prove the first tenet of

Anderson’s definition of the nation.

The next portion of Anderson’s definition of the nation deals with how it is

limited. This precept will be defended by Charles Dickens’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

Anderson explains that the reason that the nation is limited is, “because even the largest

of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic,

boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with

mankind […]” (7). Anderson portrays the nation as something that inherently has bounds

and limitations to it. Furthermore, there is a distinction made between one nation and

another. Anderson asserts that a nation develops its own identity and dissociates itself

from an overall view of mankind. These ideas are supported by the story told by Charles

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Very early on in the book the idea of nations being separated from one another is

established. Nations are seen to be independent without any overlap between two of

them. This separation of nations is depicted in the second paragraph of the novel where it

states, “There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of

England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of

France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of

loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever” (Dickens, 5). This excerpt

speaks directly to the limited realm of a nation. Although the descriptions of the royalty

of both nations sound similar, it is a point emphasized by Dickens that they are indeed

different. To be English means something significantly different from being French, and
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this point is articulated by Dickens from the outset of his novel. There is a definite

identity that is associated with any given nation and certain connotations that are

broached depending on what nation is being discussed. For instance, Darnay has a great

deal of admiration for George Washington and the United States. This figurehead and

nation means something completely different to Darnay than does the French system

which he escaped. Though a nation is just an arbitrary boundary that is contrived by

human beings, the ideals, feelings, and associations related to a nation are significantly


A further example of Anderson’s idea of a limited nation comes up later in A Tale

of Two Cities when Darnay is put to trial for being an emigrant. The passage which is of

most pertinence to the idea presented by Anderson is the following, “Darnay, was

accused by the public prosecutor as an emigrant, whose life was forfeit to the Republic,

under the decree which banished all emigrants on pain of Death” (Dickens, 293). Darnay

was being prosecuted in this situation because of his status as an emigrant. This gives a

great deal of insight into how a nation views itself as being exclusive. In this situation,

being an immigrant was punishable by death. This is a clear example of how there is a

definite boundary that exists between nations, and individuals are not readily able or

encouraged to venture outside of their nations confines. To give this a modern day

context, consider the great lengths that the United States goes through in order to

maintain its border with Mexico. This is an effort by the United States to maintain its own

nation and limit it to outsiders. George W. Bush signed a bill in October of 2006 which

planned to add 700 miles of new fencing to the United States and Mexico border in order

to keep out illegal immigrants (Riechmann, 2006). Clearly, even today, the same ideas
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that were present in A Tale of Two Cities and Darnay’s circumstance persist. Based on this

analysis, Anderson’s definition of a limited nation hold true as a result of the ideas in

Charles Dickens’s novel and further elaborated on by current events in the United States.

Furthermore, Benedict Anderson gives the attribute of sovereign to the nation.

Anderson specifically discusses sovereign in the following sense, “[The nation] is

imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment

and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical

dynastic realm […]” (7). Anderson asserts that the idea of the nation came about during a

period in which the ongoing tradition of a dynasty was starting to be reassessed.

Sovereignty was considered more desirable than having royalty or a group of elite rule

over society. The concept of the nation grew out of individuals longing to wield more

control. The analysis provided by John Stuart Mill in his political manifesto, On Liberty,

provides a superb context in which to understand this portion of Anderson.

According to Anderson’s definition, in order for a nation to be sovereign the

“divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” needs to be destroyed (Anderson, 7).

This is outlined by the writings of John Stuart Mill. On page 183 of On Liberty, Mill

explains the progression of a nation from a dynastic regime to a more sovereign society,

“In countries of more advanced civilization and of a more insurrectionary spirit the

public, accustomed to expect everything to be done for them by the State, or at least to do

nothing for themselves without asking from the State not only leave to do it […] naturally

hold the State responsible for all evil which befalls them, and when the evil exceeds their

amount of patience, they rise against the government and make what is called a

revolution” (183). This series of events outlines how nations gain sovereignty, which is a
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fundamental component to a nation in the eyes of Anderson. In further congruence with

Anderson, Mill realizes and articulates that the way to break free of state control is via

revolution. Mill explains how society will eventually grow tiresome of the way they are

treated by the state and will rise up against it. This idea is very much in line with Mill’s

ideas regarding utility. John Stuart Mill would agree with Anderson that sovereignty is a

means to greater utility and integral to the progress of the nation.

Mill also provides an illustration as to why a dynasty is not a desirable thing to

have in a nation and rather champions sovereignty. Mill negates the idea of a dynasty in

suggesting, “it is almost commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of

progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life […]

Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but

it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of

reason and sanity” (110). Mill makes the case here that it is far better and more typical to

have an array of options when it comes to political ideologies. A nation devoid of these

options would clearly be a dynasty with a pre-ordained ruler. Under this circumstance,

individuals are unable to make choices regarding political ideology, because there is only

one choice, nor is the alternative of deviation desirable, because they could be persecuted.

On the other hand, Mill expresses how having these options in political thought, and thus

sovereignty over one’s own ideologies, is a far more desirable thing. This obviously

indicates a complete approval on Mill’s part of Anderson’s definition regarding the nation

being sovereign.

The final portion of Anderson’s definition of the nation involves the nation as a

community. Anderson describes the nation as a community in the following way,

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“regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is

always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that

makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so

much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (7). Anderson places a great

deal of weight on the fact that people are willing to die for this ideal because of the

apparent connection that individuals have to the nation. The scientist and revolutionary

thinker, Charles Darwin, deals with this idea of working for the betterment of society in

his scientific treatise, The Origin of Species. In this book, Darwin explores the way that

communities progress over great expanses of time in order to improve. A lot of his

analysis can be rooted back to the ideas of the nation and especially the community to

which Anderson alludes.

Charles Darwin developed a concept of natural selection, which generally states

that over time the fittest individuals within a population will survive. Charles Darwin

states the following, “Natural selection will modify the structure of the young in relation

to the parent, and of the parent in relation to the young. In social animals it will adapt the

structure of each individual for the benefit of the community; if each in consequence

profits by the selected change” (72). Here, Darwin explains the scientific premise behind

natural selection; change will occur if the adaptation is in fact positive. The improvement

is made due to the interactions that one makes within the community, and the

improvement is further reinforced if it dually benefits the individual and the community.

There is a great deal of exploitation that occurs in natural selection, all organisms are

intrinsically in competition with one another. However, the competition that occurs

amongst individuals within a population ultimately ends up benefiting the community

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that they are in. Therefore, without even trying, individuals are contributing to the overall

success of their community. There is a great deal of solidarity that comes from this. There

is a great sense of collective identity that is to be gained from contributing to one’s

nation. Everyone is trying to improve themselves, which ultimately ends up improving

the community, which in turn works to benefit the nation altogether. It is easy to see just

how committed someone can become to their nation with this analysis. One’s life

practically becomes overlapped with the success of the nation.

To think about this in a different context, Darwin provides his readers with an

example of this sense of community that exists in the animal kingdom. Darwin’s

illustration of the queen-bee is an exceptional case to further affirm Anderson, “It may be

difficult, but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which

urges her instantly to destroy the young queens her daughters as soon as born, or to perish

herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community” (165). This

example depicts Anderson’s idea of being willing to die for the nation. The queen-bee in

this situation is putting her life on the line for the good of the community. If she dies

while fighting one of her daughters, it is better for the community as a whole to have a

new queen-bee. The victor will clearly be stronger and more fit to head up this post.

There is a great deal to admire about this amount of commitment. Darwin is espousing an

intense sense of community with this example. He believes it to be inherent to all

organisms. Darwin, therefore, speaks directly to Anderson’s definition of community as it

relates to the nation. This sense of community is important to the well being and future

success of any nation. Darwin understood that these qualities of natural selection and
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community were true of all organisms, including humans. With this in mind, Anderson’s

definition of the nation is further upheld by the scientific findings of Charles Darwin.

At this point, it is quite evident that the definition set forth by Benedict Anderson

has been proven accurate based on the four texts that have been discussed. This has

powerful and important implications for a number of reasons. Consider first that if

Anderson’s definition of a nation is substantiated, and clearly has been, are there further

aspects to what contribute to a nation? While Anderson’s definition is supported again

and again, it is entirely possible for there to be other criteria on which to base a nation.

Anderson’s definition is very detailed, but takes a much more macro perspective at

looking at the nation. A lot of the analysis in this paper had to extrapolate and deduce

from the wording and phrasing that Anderson used. In order for this definition to be even

better it should incorporate aspects about the individual contribution to the nation. This

insight from Anderson would then attack the definition of the nation on both the macro

and micro fronts.

While the four books mentioned in this paper all play an integral role in proving

Anderson’s definition of the nation, it speaks volumes more about the books that they all

relate to the idea of the nation. This unquestionably points to the fact that during this time

in Victorian England, there was a great deal that needed to be conveyed about the nation.

These books, collectively, give an all-encompassing view of the intricacies that ultimately

shape a nation. Self-Help and On Liberty address the ideas of a nation from an individual

level. They speak to the individual and illustrate how they work into the greater

framework of the nation. On Liberty is unique in the way that it also speaks to the nation

as a whole. It talks about the potential harms of the nation and how an individual ought to
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react to any conflicts with it. A Tale of Two Cities is a fictional story but is also rooted in

historical events. It gives perspective on what occurs in the progression towards

revolution. It provides a road map of the sort of events that may transpire prior to

revolution. The Origin of Species, while entrenched in science, speaks to a nation’s

evolution into the future. It delves into the players who contribute to a nation, and how a

nation can move forward over time as a result of natural selection.

The reason that this message of the nation is even further significant is that it was

shared with people of all types of backgrounds. The idea of the nation that oozed from

these books spoke to people involved in politics, science, the low class, the upper class,

and those who just felt like reading a fictional story. This concept was so far reaching

because of the immense audience that encountered its message. These four books were all

published and purchased by the public starting in the year 1859. Though it has been close

to 150 years since the publication of these books, they still resonate with a modern day

audience. The reason that 1859 was a cultural revolution in literature was because it

inspired those living at the time and even today, about themselves, their capabilities, and

their potential contributions to society. These books called those who read it to action and

placed the responsibility of the nation in their hands.

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Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Oxford World Classics, 1996.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Penguin Classics, 1974.

Riechmann, Deb. “Bush Signs US-Mexico Border Fence Bill.” ABC News Online. 2006.

18 April 2007 <>.

Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help. USA: Oxford University Press, 2002.