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What Is Patriotism?

by Fr. Stephen J. Brown, S.J.


Stephen Brown reflects on the true meaning of patriotism, including St. Thomas' explanation of the duty every man owes to his country.

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The Catholic World



Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, November 1939

AT first sight it would seem to be a very simple thing to define patriotism and to explain its meaning. It is not so simple. A few years ago somebody had the idea of inducing a score of distinguished persons to answer the question, What is patriotism? When they had done so he published the answers in a substantial volume. All that one of the reviewers of the book can say of the result is that the editor "starts with the laudable intention of clarifying the vexed question of the nature of patriotism, but has not succeeded in riding the editorial horse with sufficient firmness to get safely home." So it is a "vexed question" and, apparently, not easy to clarify.

Yet we have always been told that patriotism is love of one's country. Is there anything obscure in the terms composing this definition? Well, in the first place "love" is one of those words that have almost lost definite meaning owing to vagueness of usage and even positive misuse. "Country" is a term that has many meanings. It could be translated into French by campagne, pays and patrie. It is this last that is the specific term for the definition of patriotism. And it is somewhat unfortunate that there exists in English no such specific term; fatherland, which is nearest, being really a German word which has never become wholly English. However what is more important than the term is the entity covered by the term "country" when we speak of love of country. Not that people who are unable to define it may not be thoroughly patriotic. For patriotism, as we shall see, is an instinct almost as natural as the love of kith and kin, which needs no defining. But if we would acquire an intelligent grasp of the nature of patriotism and of the motives which justify it, above all if we would defend it against its adversaries, we must analyze the notion of country.

Before doing so, however, we may consider patriotism or attachment to one's native land as a fact of history. There have been writers who have written of patriotism as a phenomenon which emerged at some particular period—say in the days of Joan of Arc or even at the French Revolution. This may be true of some particular form of patriotism or rather of the object of patriotic devotion: it cannot be said of patriotism itself. Surely the story of the Jewish people as recorded in the Old Testament is one long history of patriotism, from Gideon, Samson, and Judith to the Machabees and to the last struggle with Rome. Was it not patriotism that inspired the Greeks at Marathon and Salamis? What if in the minds of these ancient peoples the idea of country never stood out clearly from the kindred notions of state, religion, family, and race? Under whatever name, it was nevertheless an object of devotion. The Greeks and Romans at least used a term almost identical in form and meaning with that used by modern Frenchmen, Italians, and Spaniards. Witness the patriotic hymns of Tyrtaeus in the seventh century b. C., and the familiar "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country).

Long before Joan of Arc there had been heroes of patriotism such as the Cid in Spain, but in St. Joan patriotism reached its highest ideal and received its perfect consecration. It has been well said that with St. Joan patriotism itself was canonized by the Church. Later in French history came Bertrand du Guesclin and the perfect knight Bayard. It is little short of ludicrous to say that patriotism began with the French Revolution. In reality the devotion of the Jacobin was not to France but to revolution. If he fought for France it was that the Revolution might prevail. But even from the days of Clovis there was an entity called France on which the devotion of Frenchmen centered. It mattered little whether the symbol or the embodiment of that entity was a king or an emperor: it was France that men loved and fought for. One might call to witness French patriotic literature from the Chanson de Roland 1 to l'Aiglon and beyond. A study of the national literature of Germany, England,2 Ireland, Poland, Spain, and Italy would yield the same result — the universality of patriotism. Dante, for instance, was as intensely patriotic as Shakespeare. Rarely indeed at moments of reaction or despair or of Utopian humanitarianism do we hear discordant notes as from the Russian Tolstoy, the German Lessing, or Lamartine's "Nation, mot pompeux pour dire barbarie" (Nation, a pompous word for barbarity). To these we must add Mr. Beverley Nichols and a few other writers of our day. Old Dr. Johnson's oft quoted sally about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel is not really a sneer at true patriotism.

I do not think it can be doubted that among every people that has any claim to the title of nation and possesses a native country, patriotism, in the sense of attachment to, devotion to, country, is a universal fact. It is true that we have often to distinguish "la petite patrie" from the great, that is to say local from national patriotism. A Frenchman may love his Brittany or his Provence as well as France; a German, Bavaria or the Rhineland, without being the less a German for the fact; a Sicilian may be an Italian patriot without ceasing to love Sicily, and so of the rest. But this distinction affects not the nature of patriotism but the extent of its object.

What then is its object? What is this "country" towards which the love of patriots is directed?

It is clearly in the first place the native land itself, in all its concrete reality, the actual territory within which a man has been born and has grown to manhood. What the precise boundaries of that territory are matters but little. Those of Ireland have always been the same—the four seas of Eire. Those of France have varied from age to age. The notion of precise frontiers has little to do with patriotism, at least till one's country is threatened with invasion. However frontiers may vary it is at bottom the same land that Irishmen or Romans, Alsatians or Poles, French or Germans, Englishmen or Russians call and have always called their country, Vaterland, patrie.

Of course this term country, patrie, etc., takes on substance color, significance, emotional content only when spoken of the particular land that is one's own. For one looks on that land as something of a mother: we owe to it our very life and being. It has nourished our bodies with its substance, it has in some sort molded our very souls. It is surely not for nothing that from childhood we have looked upon its landscapes, even if we be of those rare beings who have not learned to love them. Its skies, its weather, its woods and fields and hills, its towns and villages all have colored our imagination and become part of our inmost being. After all, this land of ours is our home, in a sense it is part of us and we of it. It is as natural to the normal human being to love his native land as it is to love his home and family. Seeing it with eyes of affection he sees in it beauties and excellences which the foreigner may fail to see—

"Oh, she's a true and fair land,
She is a rich and rare land,
This native land of mine . . . "

might be spoken of his country by any normal man.

This then is the first element included in the idea of patria as the very terms show clearly—patria terra, our country, our native land. That a second element is included we see by the very etymology of the word patria. This land of ours is the land of our fathers. The generations that have gone before us have toiled to make it what it is. It is the fruit of their labor and sweat or the outcome of their brains and skill. Or perhaps they have died in its defense. In its soil they have been laid to rest. This feeling for the soil that holds the dust of countless generations of our kinsfolk and countrymen may be merely latent, may tend in this age of ours to die away. It is nevertheless a reality and an element in the idea of country.

A third element is the idea of one's people. One's country is not merely the ancestral lands, even for the few who own any such. It is felt to be the common possession of the people to which we belong, of our race and nation. Their country for the Hebrews of old was the people of Israel no less than the Promised Land. The Greeks in their nobler moments thought not only of Athens or Sparta or any other of the city states of ancient Greece but of the Hellenes wherever their home might be. The Romans thought not only of Rome but of the Senatus populusque Romanus, just as Irish poets wrote not only of Banba or Eire but of the Children of the Gael.

These then would seem to be the three constitutive elements of the idea of country, each of them an outward and concrete reality. "Native land" situates it in space, "land of our fathers" links it with the past, "our people" fixes it in the present and beckons it towards the future. We love our country because it is the land of our birth, because it is the land of our forefathers, and because it will be the land of those who shall come after us, perhaps of our sons and daughters.

Besides these outward and concrete elements, the idea of country may be said to have spiritual elements also, largely the same as those that go to constitute nationality, but seen from a different standpoint. Considered in relation to the nation they are factors making for distinctiveness from other nations and for oneness within the nation. Considered in relation to country they are parts of the national heritage, spiritual goods handed down from generation to generation. (If the land and its people may be said to form the body of our country, these other elements may be said to constitute its "soul," provided the word be used as metaphor or analogy, not as literal truth.) Thus there is the national language which has come to us from past generations inpregnated with the spirit of one's people, a precious heritage indeed. There is the national literature and the national art in which the genius of the race has expressed itself. There is the national religion, national, it is to be hoped, not because the product of the nation but because the nation is its product and has been shaped and molded by it. There is the national history, a treasury of sad and glorious memories. All these are part of the national heritage, elements of the idea of country. When we speak of love of country all these things and more besides are embraced by that love.

We are now perhaps in a position to distinguish the idea of country from certain other kindred notions —state, nation, society. The state is simply a collectivity gathered under a sovereign authority or government which rules over the territory inhabited by that collectivity. It may include several nations or parts of nations. To understand that the State is not only a different notion from that of country but may not correspond with it at all, we have but to think of Poland, Ireland, and Alsace-Lorraine in 1914. For most of the people of those three territories their country was something wholly different from the State or States of which they formed a part. A country, a patrie, is the long growth of centuries, a State may be formed over night. The distinction between country (patrie, fatherland) and nation is perhaps not so easy to make plain. Commonly they are the same entity but looked at from a different point of view. The nation is a nation whether looked at by friend or foe, citizen or foreigner; it is a patrie only to the individuals who compose it and perhaps not to all of these. In the Ireland of not so long ago there were individuals not a few who, though undoubtedly Irish by nationality, spoke of "this country" and "our country" and meant— Great Britain. There were Czechs and Poles of that type in the Austria of before the last War. I am not blaming but merely calling attention to a fact. Again there are emigrants, thoroughly loyal citizens of their new country, who still look back with longing and regret to the "old country," their true fatherland, which they have quitted forever. And again there are those whose love and loyalty go both to their "petite patrie" (Brittany, the Basque Country, Bavaria) and to the greater country of which it forms a part.

As for a society it is any collectivity of human beings bound together under some form of authority, or, more simply, a group of men united in common action for a common purpose. These distinctions made, can we now define with any degree of adequacy what we mean by "our country" as the object of patriotism? May we say that it is the entire heritage transmitted to us by our countrymen who have gone before us? That description does not sound very scientific but it seems to me to contain the gist of the matter. And if accepted it would account for and justify patriotism. For surely a man might well regard with affection and devotion the ensemble of those things that he owes to his native land, those things which are his from the very fact that this is the land of his birth. He may indeed be one of the disinherited of the earth: I am speaking not of such but of men and women in normal circumstances. Again, further benefits may be conferred on him by his State. These may perhaps be taken within the purview of patriotism; they are surely not of its essence.

If then country, fatherland, patrie be what we have described it, can we come at a clearer notion of the nature and consequences of patriotism? It has always been described in terms of love—amor patriae. To have this clearer notion of patriotism must we then define love? I do not think so, if we look at the reality of things. For in point of fact this love varies, like other loves, from a vague sentiment to a passion, from mere complacency to active, self-sacrificing devotedness. We may compare it, as it has often been compared, to family love, and "country" itself to the family enlarged. "Patriotism," writes Mr. John Eppstein, "is the love of the family and of that human setting from which it is not normally possible to separate a man's conception of his family, namely a place, friends, neighbours, language, traditions—his native land in fact. So a man loves his country because3 he loves his own home, and the former love partakes of the intimacy and sacredness of the latter."4

St. Thomas Aquinas had already coupled together these two devotions, to parents and to country (Summa Theologica, 2a, 2ae, Q. 101). Dealing with the virtue of "pietas," dutifulness, he writes: "The principles (or origins) of our being and governing are our parents and our country, which 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 "pietas," in the second place, to give worship to one's parents and one's country." Thus, unlike nationalism, patriotism comes within the sphere of virtue, duty, and moral obligation.

That this is and has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church may be gathered from the pronouncements of the Head of the Church as collected in such a work as La Patrie et la Paix. Textes pontificaux.5 Thus we find Pius X, in an address delivered in French to French pilgrims on April 19, 1909, saying in express terms: "Si le catholicisme etait ennemi de la patrie, il ne serait plus une religion divine" (if Catholicism were the enemy of the country, it would no longer be a divine religion). He went on to say (the translation is mine): Yes, it is worthy not only of love but of predilection that country (patrie) whose sacred name awakens in your mind the most cherished memories and makes quiver every fiber of your soul, that common country which has cradled you, to which you are bound by bonds of blood and by still nobler bonds of affection and tradition."

Twenty years earlier Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae set forth patriotism as a moral obligation based on natural law. "If," writes the Pope, "the natural law bids us give the best of our affection and of our devotedness to our native land so that the good citizen does not hesitate to brave death for his country, much more is it the duty of Christians to be similarly affected to the Church."

In view of these and many similar pronouncements, the editors of the work mentioned above include in their synthesis of papal teachings the two following propositions: Country (/a Patrie) is a legitimate and noble institution which is postulated by natural law and consecrated by Christianity; Love of country is one of the obligatory forms of human and Christian charity towards the neighbor, coming in between the love of family and the love of mankind.

A passage which expresses clearly and simply what I believe to be the truth in this matter of patriotism is from a pamphlet of the Catholic Association for International Peace entitled Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Brotherhood of Man, being a report of a Committee on National Attitudes, the chairman of which was the distinguished historian Carlton J. H. Hayes. The passage is as follows:

"Men have always lived in groups. Apparently it is a part of God's plan that they should. And one of the things which have enabled them to live in groups has been the loyalty —the patriotism—which God has implanted in their very nature. This loyalty—this patriotism—this love of country'—involves a triple affection. It embraces an affection for familiar places, an affection for familiar persons, and an affection for familiar ideas. One's 'country' connotes all of these: the land itself, the persons on it, and the traditions associated with it. One's 'native land'—the terra patria, la patrie, das Vaterland—is an extension of hearth and home. It is the soil that has given life to one's forefathers and holds their tombs, and which in turn nurtures one's children and grandchildren. It is a link between generations, between families and friends, between common experience of the past and that of the present and future." . . .

I make no apology for adding the following passages in which patriotism is described by two independent and very different thinkers.

"Patriotism has always existed, and always will, so long as men are bound in societies. One may feel that emotion of loyalty towards a tribe or a town, a tiny district, a feudal group and lord, a large nation or a whole vast culture; but it is always present and always must be present. For if it were not, society could not hold together. Now, men must live in society; and therefore by every law of man's nature (that of self-preservation, that of the organ arising to supply the need, etc.), devotion to what the Greeks call 'the City' must be present. One may go much further and say that in sound morals patriotism must not only be present in every society, but should be strong; because the absence of it is inhuman and unnatural" (H. Belloc: Survivals and New Arrivals, p. 140).

"The fatherland— 'la patrie'— is first and foremost the soil, the soil with its own peculiar physiognomy, the soil with the contours and undulations that lend it its character. . . . But before all else the soil keeps its hold upon us by the memories it stores up for us, memories whose range is as wide and as varied as life itself, memories that dwell in the intimate depths of our hearts, but more than all that memories the common possession of which links together in a bond of union the compatriots who share them. . . .

"Land of birth, land of cradles and of tombs, in a word, land of the family,—and already there enters into the very idea of fatherland a more living and more lovable reality: the family, of which the fatherland is but the historical flowering, the family, from which the fatherland comes forth as from its prototype and native element. The fatherland is the uniting bond of fathers, the bond of ancestors, the bond of memories and of domestic traditions.

"Let us unite religion with the fatherland, the altar with the hearth. What point of attachment can be more solid? . . . Always do you find those two intimately united. . . . The altar and the hearth —there we have as it were the two historical poles of the fatherland, pro aris et focis.

"Native soil, cradle, tomb, hearth, altar, history,—such then are the august and cherished realities contained in the name of fatherland" (From a speech Le Patriotisme dans l'Enseignement Catholique delivered at the college of Vaugirard by R. P. Longhaye, S.J. Author's translation).

It is no part of my present purpose to expound the duties arising out of patriotism, to point out the excesses and exaggerations to which it is liable, nor to argue with its opponents. Enough if I have succeeded to any extent in making clear its nature and thereby distinguishing it from other notions with which it is apt to be confounded.


1 In the Chanson the name France is given 170 times to the Empire of Charlemagne. Occasionally it is used for the narrower domain of subsequent French kings.

2 Cf. A History of English Patriotism by Esme Wingfield Stratford, 2 vols. (London: Lane, 1913).

3 I should prefer to say that a man loves first his own home, If he happens to have one, and then loves his country not because of that, but for much the same reasons.

4 The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations, p. 361.

5 Translated and edited with notes by Yves de la Briere, S.J., and P. M. Colbach, S.J., p. 484. Paris: Desclee, 1938.

© The Catholic World, Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle.

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