In colloquial language cosmopolitan(ism) is synonymous with global citizen(ship) – the idea of thinking about our rights and obligations as existing not with regard to a particular community, but with regard to humanity as a whole. However, Diogenes of Sinopes, who is said to have coined the term ‘cosmopolite’, might have begged to differ.

Asked where he [Diogenes] came from, he said, “I am a kosmopolitēs” (Diogenes Laertius VI 63).

This is the first recorded use of “cosmopolite” Literally taken Diogenes said he is a “citizen of the cosmos”. We should not, however, take this to mean that he thought of humanity as a whole community and himself as a citizen in that community. Instead we to be a cosmopolite is to be a person without any place in the world.

Melissa Lane (2014, p. 2018) explains that Diogenes, an exile from Sinopes, “was rejecting the claims of any political community on him altogether” with this statement. Diogenes was known for impertinence. Take the following anecdote:

When he [Diogenes] was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander [the Great] came and stood over him and said, “Ask of me any boon you like.” To which he replied, “Stand out of my light”  (Diogenes Laertius VI 38).

It might be possible that Diogenes not only rejected the community, but did so in his characteristically impertinent way by linking something devoid of a social aspect, the cosmos, with citizenship. A play on words meant to confuse.

In this sense the cosmopolitan differs enormously from the global citizen. Whereas the latter calls for considering all people fellows towards whom we have moral obligations the former only has to profess to not feeling a sense of belonging to any place.

This view of the cosmopolitan is unaffected by the pretentious tendencies which go with global citizenship. One can be a hypocritical global citizen – advocating lofty ideals in word without acting upon them – but not a hypocritical cosmopolitan. There is no need to feign interest in others when there is none and no danger of a declaration of fellowship with all humans ringing hollow when uttered by a prosperous person. “How much do I really understand those who live radically different lives?” is not a question which this sort of cosmopolitan needs to give a particular answer to.

Thus a stricter distinction between the cosmopolitan and the global citizenship reveals how the same gesture – the rejection of a particular community – is associated with two different attitudes towards world. The global citizen feels effort should be put into building a better world where everyone is being included. The indifferent cosmopolitan, on the other hand, seems to be saying “I belong underneath the sun, and that is all.”


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