Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

The Problem of Patriotism

First, we do well to understand what patriotism is. St Thomas puts it succinctly:

On the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.[1]

On account of our indebtedness, justice and worship conspire to give us piety; which, when we render it to our country and fellow citizens, is patriotism. And by worship in this context, of course, we do not mean the latria which is due to God alone. Rather,

piety is a protestation of the charity we bear towards our parents and country.[2]

How noble a virtue is patriotism, then.

But a difficulty emerges. What becomes of the virtue of piety when one realizes there are rather acutely unlovable things about one’s country? Whence piety when the fatherland shows signs of profound ill health? Are we indeed to show piety to a nation that countenances gravely unjust and even perverse laws? One thinks immediately of state-sponsored infanticide, for example.

As it turns out, the answer to the problem may come from an unlikely source: the cloister.

Out of the monastic culture of the West—which must mean that culture which was brought to birth under the Rule of St Benedict—out of this culture comes the following definition of what a monk is. That is, the monk is an amator fratrum et loci: a lover of the brethren and of the place. He loves the brethren with whom Divine Providence has joined him and he loves the very place in which Divine Providence has rooted him. Dare we say, that is as good a definition of patriotism as given by St Thomas.

Man cannot love abstractions: because he is not only a soul. Thus, while it is true that the patriotic man must love immaterial goods, like law and the virtues which the law attempts to enshrine; it is also true that man loves such things in concreto. Love and the homage of service can only be rendered to the real, concrete persons right in front of one. And this is challenging enough. And while it is true that I may not share or love the opinions of this or that of my fellow citizen, I may still love him. We love our neighbors because they are our neighbors, for good or ill. Patriotism has free play in such relationships.

All men live out the drama of life within peopled places: the objects of his ‘protestation of charity’ are therefore right in front of him. It is also part of patriotism to love the very land or neighborhood or city in which one lives. Loving our locum is something we can do that hardly needs to be outright political, at least in the sense that we usually mean the word. Heaven help us, let there be nothing partisan about a mountain or shaded lane or a city park! For places matter. And, more often than not, we live in places of beauty that, if we stop to notice, are very worthy of our grateful love.

The man who loves his land and neighbor is a pious patriot. And if the laws or history or current state of health of his country disturb him—as in these troubled times they ought to disturb him—then perhaps a man can think of himself as a monk does. Whatever illusions the media may give, every man, woman, and child is cloistered: cloistered in a little place with a few brethren. If only these could be loved, and loved truly, we might be astonished at the result.


[1] STh IIaIIæ, Q101, art 1, res.

[2] Ibid, art 3, ad 1.

Art Credit: Laborare Est Orare (1862), John Rogers Herbert (1810–1890); The Tate.

Lightning Meditations