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Ernest Renan, What is a nation?

Sorbonne Lecture, March 11, 1882


Man does not belong to his language or to his race, he belongs to himself alone, for he is a free being, a moral being. We no longer condone the persecution of people in order to change their religion; persecuting them to make them change their language or homeland appears just as evil to us.

What makes a nation is not speaking the same language or belonging to the same ethnographic group, it is having done great things together in the past and wanting to do more great things in the future.


Language invites unity, without, however, compelling it. The United States and England, Latin America and Spain share the same languages, but do not form single nations. Conversely, Switzerland, so solid because it is based on the consent of its various parties, has three or four languages. There is in humanity something superior to language; it is will. The will of Switzerland to be united, despite the variety of its tongues, is much more important than the similarities often obtained by means of persecution.

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