Sunday, July 4, 2010

Paradoxical Patriotism

Cross-posted from my personal blog, Virtue Quest:

I always feel awkward around the Independence Day holiday. I'm not by inclination a patriot, just as I'm not by inclination a church-goer. I am both these things because I've come to see that my own inclinations, or desires, or vices, have led me astray from reality.

So I recognize the honor that is due to the nation of my birth, and my own responsibility to be as good a citizen as I am able. I just have a hard time bringing any emotional *umph* to the celebration.

I also recognize that, while I'm inclined to focus on the naughtiness of my nation and my speculations on how it ought to change, there is a real need to celebrate what is good and true and virtuous in the United States of America. Perhaps it is especially important for someone like myself to participate in the celebration, exactly as a corrective to my own erroneous inclinations.

The virtue of patriotism

Thomas Aquinas does not list "patriotism" among the virtues, but he does note that all people are both subject to law and responsible for the good of society, and that Justice requires respect for authority and Charity requires action for the good of one's fellows. As he puts it,
Consequently, this very act of loving someone because he is akin or connected with us, or because he is a fellow-countryman or for any like reason that is referable to the end of charity, can be commanded by charity, so that, out of charity both eliciting and commanding, we love in more ways those who are more nearly connected with us. (ST II-II q26 a7)

These are what make up the essence of patriotism: loving one's country and fellow citizens exactly because they are one's fellows. It is closely related to the love of family, whom we do not choose but whom we must love anyway, whether we like it or not. Family and country are, in a sense, a school of charity; they teach us how to love even when loving is difficult.

Ironically (given the whoop-de-do about Church and State in this particular country), it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church that, I think, states most clearly what patriotism is all about:
It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. (CCC 2239; emphasis in the original.)

What is critical, to me at least, about this approach is the balance it strikes: one's country is to be loved, but not because it is better or stronger or more worthy than any other nation; rather, exactly because it is one's own. I did not choose to be born an American; but I was, and it is as an American that I love the U.S.A. A Canadian or a Chinese might love the U.S.A. for some other reason. Perhaps they admire the American ideal, or perhaps they enjoy economic benefits from America, or any number of other reasons. But my own love of my country is founded simply on the fact that it is mine, or rather, that I belong to my country in a similar way that I belong to my family.

(I'm tempted to add a video of one of my favorite patriotic satires here, but instead I'll just provide a link.)

American virtues

So, given that it's not at all to my credit that I am American, what is it that I'll celebrate with grilling and fireworks and other forms of pyromania today?

First off, I'll celebrate the very good things I have myself received from the United States: a certain economic opportunity, even in difficult times such as these, to make ends meet without resorting to undignified or immoral work; a definite social opportunity to meet and converse with people from all walks of life and all regions of the country (and even the world), and to learn from their experiences; the English language which, thanks to American dominance following WW2 (augmenting the impact of English colonialism), has become a global language, giving me the advantage of communication with those I would otherwise have no connection; a political system that provides real opportunity (even if limited and corrupted by "special interests") to contribute to and impact the governance of the society I live in.

I'll also celebrate the genuine good that the United States has done in the world: through the citizens' works of charity, of scholarship, of invention; and through the occasionally wise governmental policies, such as developing our highway system or contributing to the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after WW2.

Celebrating the good does not mean I stop critiquing the bad; it simply means I acknowledge that there is virtue to be found even among rampant vice. It means I extend to my country the same charity I extend to my neighbors and myself. I will celebrate my brother's birthday, even if my brother is a criminal; I will celebrate my friend's success, even if my friend is often a fool. So, although I am highly critical of many aspects of American politics and culture, I will celebrate America's birthday with both gratitude and joy. In other words, I will practice the virtue of patriotism, trusting that both I and my country will grow toward greater virtue through practice.

And besides, who can pass up an opportunity for grilled meat?


  1. Aquinas does not use the term patriotism but he does note that what we would call patriotism is part of the virtue of piety - a form of justice. As religion is justice towards God, so piety is justice directed towards our parents and our country. This from the Summa:
    “On the contrary, Tully says (De Invent. Rhet. ii) that "it is by piety that we do our duty towards our kindred and well-wishers of our country and render them faithful service."
    I answer that, Man becomes a debtor to other men in various ways, according to their various excellence and the various benefits received from them. on both counts God holds first place, for He is supremely excellent, and is for us the first principle of being and government. 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.
    The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 12). The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country. Therefore piety extends chiefly to these.”
    Full link here:

    It seems from your quote above that the CCC also extends this though to include the virtue of charity.
    I think an exemplar of this virtue (either of justice or charity) would be John Paul II. One can consider the history of Poland which included schism from Rome during the Reformation, pogroms, collaborators with Nazis and Communists, etc. as grounds for severe critique and doubts about celebrating the good that Poland has produced. But when one reads the comments of JP II they are filled with a true expression of love and gratitude without a critical spirit. I think this provides the example for us, in a broken world where parents and countries can fail significantly. We can live our life criticizing our parents constantly as well as our country. Our culture today exalts in exposes of celebrities by their children. Such are really cruel and do harm to all. I remember on priest commenting on an expose of Betty Davis by her daughter stating that her daughter should “grow up.” He was not excusing real harms done by the mother. But he noted that the daughter was given life, sustained in life and given and comfortable existence by this “evil mom.” I believe it is the same with those who dwell on the ills of their countries in a critical spirit.
    This is not to excuse the ills of either parents or countries. But to dwell on them and to begrudge respect and love is to fail in the call to live the virtues.

  2. I believe it is the same with those who dwell on the ills of their countries in a critical spirit.

    I think I agree with you, Phillip, though I might choose a word other than "critical" to describe the begrudging spirit. I think there's a kind of loving criticism that is part of patriotism, especially in a democracy or republic.

    However, since it's exactly that tendency to begrudge respect and love that I'm fighting against, I'm not sure I have a better suggestion.

    Thanks, by the way, for the citation from Thomas. I'd overlooked that one! You're exactly right that patriotism is (perhaps in different ways) both an act of Justice and of Charity.

  3. I agree one needs to have constructive criticism. My sense was those who dwell constantly on the ills of a country, frequently without any positive comments. That is the "critical spirit" I was referring to.

    You're welcome about the source. The citation is hard to find and doesn't come up if you go online to the Summa and enter "patriotism." I think you have to enter "piety."