By Kristof Oltvai ’15
News Editor Emeritus
You don’t need to travel far from campus to see the legacy of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Just take a day trip to Columbus’ German Village and you can drink craft ales at a great little pub on the corner of Mohawk and Kossuth streets.
This coming Sunday, Hungarians around the world will recall this second name—that of one of our great national heroes, Kossuth Lajos—in the context of the 167th anniversary of the war of independence he led and lost.
Now 167 is no landmark number, and the Hungarian revolution was, after all, just one of many in ’48 Europe—the “spring of nations.” Most of the famous “12 points” issued by Kossuth and his comrades are standard fare to any Enlightenment-era intellectual: freedom of the press, equality before the law, freedom of religion. The posters used to advertise them in Budapest even displayed, in translation, the motto of the earlier French Revolution—“equality, liberty, fraternity.”
But it is the last of the 12 points that stands in contrast: it is the simplest, shortest, and to the foreign ear, perhaps the most mysterious. On the old posters, it reads Unio—“union.”
At first glance, this may appear to be a mere synonym for egyetértés, “common understanding” or “unity.” But such an individualistic interpretation, with undertones of compromise or an only circumstantial solidarity, diminishes the strength of the claim. Unio is oneness, wholeness. It is the restoration—or perhaps, culmination—of a destined togetherness.
In the context of ’48, of course, this meant the union of Transylvania (Erdély) with the rest of Hungary, the political inseparability of the nation as a geographical affirmation of its right to pursue its destiny of freedom. It was this demand for union that backfired in the end, spooking the various minorities living in the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen into siding with the Habsburgs. Kossuth later saw antagonizing national minorities as his greatest misstep, and abandoned visions for a united Hungary.
We might say this is only being politically realistic, but giving in to this view is a kind of crypto-cynicism that undermines the philosophical importance of union. The Hungarian revolutionaries saw union with Transylvania as an essential demand, on par with individual freedoms and indeed the independence of the state itself.
What the twelfth point of 1848 recognizes is that the independence of the individual anywhere is deeply rooted in the community’s spirit of true belonging and togetherness. If this spirit is unembodied—if it is, in other words, purely spiritual—it has no real meaning. To live life freely means not only to have certain individual rights, responsibilities, and relations with the state (such as the right to speech and so on), but to live in communion with others in such a way that one’s actions and thoughts are given meaning as part of a network of relationality defined by solidarity, friendship, and yes, love.
For the Hungarian revolutionaries, Unio took the form of an undivided nation, but the idea of union is applicable to any community—including Denison.
As my time on the Hill draws to a close, it is clear to me that one of the biggest problems facing Denison remains its lack of campus union. Yes, multiculturalism and diversity has, “on paper”, gone up, but in many respects this seems to have only resulted in a cantonization of social culture here. When Denison students talk about having a feeling of community, they are talking about the intimacy they feel with their friend group, their sports team, or their fraternity or sorority. Rarely, if ever, are they talking about a solidarity that exists between all students.
Our individualistic culture bears much of the blame for this, because in many ways, we fear those practices or traditions that would serve to unify us as threats to our “rights.” In the old days, for example, Denison freshmen would wear a beanie until Scrap Day, when their tug-of-war duel with upperclassmen at Ebaugh would allow them to liberate their scalps. Today, this would probably be seen as “hazing.”
Despite all the secessionist rhetoric Americans are especially prone to, there is a point to having common traditions, ceremonies, and rituals. Living in the same place, breathing the same air, knowing you got into the same school is just not enough. At Denison, the kind of sacred heritage that produces oneness is reserved for those privileged to be a member of a certain campus groups like fraternities. For much of the student body, such traditions are less weaker and perhaps altogether absent.
As long as a community is a mere collection of individuals with no common experiences, the realization of those individuals’ freedom will always be stained by isolation, atomism, and cold distance. The creation of shared practices—even if purely invented, and yes, even if mandatory—contributes immensely to a sense of shared principles, responsibilities, and destiny. While such experiences are sometimes unpleasant, outdated, or weird, the bonds they create ultimately contribute immensely to the comfort and freedom of the individual person.
167 years ago, the poets of Pest acknowledged the importance of the practical, and not just supposed, union of the Hungarian nation as a prerequisite for the freedom of every Hungarian individually. Denison would be wise to follow in their footsteps. Have no fear, the college will survive either way. But it’ll be a sadder and shallower place to live.