The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

For Queen and Country

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

Within the question asked by these well-known lines which open the sixth canto of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel lies a declaration. That declaration is simply this: that it is natural, good, and virtuous for a man to love his country. The man who does not has a dead soul.

The term for “love of one’s country” in English is patriotism. This word is derived from the Greek work patris and its Latin cognate patria both of which mean “homeland, native country”. Their most literal translation would be “fatherland” as they are themselves derived from pater which means father in both languages. Unfortunately however, that once innocuous word suggesting the “land of one’s fathers” now has sinister, nasty, connotations that are quite foreign to its original meaning.

From its etymology it would appear that patriotism is an affection whose proper object is a place rather than a people. It is this which is the primary difference between patriotism and nationalism, which latter term indicates affection for the people one is connected to by ties of ancestry and cultural heritage. Patriotism, however, does not denote love for one’s homeland as separate from one’s people but as distinct from one’s people. Barren territory cannot command “true patriot love”. The country the patriot loves is the homeland upon which is built the civil society to which he belongs.

Twenty-six years ago Dr. Alasdair MacIntyre, who at the time was the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and who currently is the O’Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, was invited to give the Lindley Lecture at the University of Kansas. The subject of the lecture he gave was “Is Patriotism a Virtue”?

If, Dr. MacIntyre argued, the standard by which we are to judge the answer to that question is liberal morality, the answer must be no. Liberal morality is the reigning system of ethics of the Modern Age. According to liberal ethics questions of right and wrong can only be answered by reason applied impartially and universally. Dr. MacIntyre argued that there are five central positions to liberal morality:

[F]irst, that morality is constituted by rules to which any rational person would under certain ideal conditions give assent; secondly, that those rules impose constraints upon and are neutral between rival and competing interests—morality itself is not the expression of any particular interest; thirdly, that those rules are also neutral between rival and competing sets of beliefs about what the best way for human beings to live is; fourthly, that the units which provide the subject-matter of morality as well as its agents are individual human beings and that in moral evaluations each individual is to count for one and nobody for more than one; and fifthly, that the standpoint of the moral agent constituted by allegiance to these rules is one and the same for all moral agents and as such in independent of all social particularity.

According to Dr. MacIntyre, if we accept such a moral standpoint, we are required to treat patriotism not as a virtue but as a vice. However, Dr. MacIntyre goes on to argue, liberalism is not the only way to understand morality.

Three years prior to giving that lecture, Dr. MacIntyre’s book After Virtue had been published by the University of Notre Dame Press. In this book Dr. MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment Project which had spawned the now ubiquitous system of liberal morality was doomed to failure because of its rejection of basic Aristotelian ethical concepts. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle had written that virtue or moral excellence is like excellence in anything else. The purpose of a roof over your house is to protect you from the elements. A “good” roof does this well, as opposed to a roof which leaks and does its task poorly. Fishermen, farmers, police officers, etc. are “good” fishermen, farmers, and police officers to the extent that they fish, farm, and enforce the law, well. Likewise, Aristotle wrote, a man is virtuous when he fulfils the purpose of man, and fulfils it well.

By rejecting that Aristotelian teleology, Dr. MacIntyre argued, the moral philosophers of the Enlightenment Project had stripped morality of its necessary framework and foundation, and left it at the subjective whims of the individual resulting in moral chaos. He pleaded for a return to Aristotelian virtue.

In his lecture on patriotism he spelled out an alternative to liberal morality, that was particular where liberalism is universal. According to this alternative view “it is an essential characteristic of the morality which each of us acquires that it is learned from, in and through the way of life of some particular community.” Moreover, the goods “by reference to which and for the sake of which any set of rules must be justified are also going to be goods that are socially specific and particular”. Finally, it is only in the context of a community that we can be moral at all. Morality is difficult for human beings, and:

[I]t is important to morality that I can only be a moral agent, because we are moral agents, that I need those around me to reinforce my moral strengths and assist in remedying my moral weaknesses. It is in general only within a community that individuals become capable of morality, are sustained in their morality and are constituted as moral agents by the way in which other people regard them and what is owed to and by them as well as by the way in which they regard themselves.


Loyalty to that community, to the hierarchy of particular kinship, particular local community, and particular natural community, is on this view a prerequisite for morality. So patriotism and those loyalties cognate to it are not just virtues but central virtues.

In the remainder of his lecture Dr. MacIntyre defended this alternative morality in which patriotism was indeed a virtue. Acknowledging the liberal argument that patriotism would require an uncritical attitude towards one’s country, he answers it by saying that what is permanently exempted from criticism is “the nation conceived as a project, a project somehow or other brought to birth in the past and carried on so that a morally distinctive community was brought into being which embodied a claim to political autonomy in its various organized and institutionalized expressions”. An uncritical attitude towards one’s country’s current leaders or laws is not required, and indeed, there are certain extreme circumstances where the survival of the country might inspire the patriot to take drastic actions against it’s current leader. Here MacIntyre pointed to Adam von Trott, a Christian conservative, German patriot, who tried to bring down Hitler in order to save Germany (which resulted in his arrest and execution in 1944).

Some Christians, who would not ordinarily be expected to sympathize with the ideas of liberalism, might be alarmed at the particularist system of morality MacIntyre defended in his lecture. Their fears, that particularism might lead to moral relativism, are groundless. Christianity’s requirement that we be just to all men does not exclude particular loyalties. “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men”, St. Paul wrote in the sixth chapter of his epistle to the Galatian Church, which he immediately followed up with “especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” The universal hortatory subjunctive in the first part of the verse does not exclude the amplified particular application in the second. St. Paul’s epistles are in fact full of particular duties being enjoined on certain people towards other specific people – duties of husband to wife, and wife to husband, of children to parents and parents to children, etc.

In the third chapter of his epistle to the Church in Philippi St. Paul speaks of our citizenship in heaven. He does not say, however, that it is our only citizenship, and excuse us from participation in and our duties to the temporal societies to which we belong. To interpret this verse that way would be as wrong as it would be to interpret Christ’s remark “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” as saying that we should not display filial piety.

St. Paul did not disavow his temporal citizenship by declaring his citizenship in heaven. In the Book of Acts St. Luke records how St. Paul, after having been arrested in Jerusalem, and about to be scourged, told the centurion who was guarding him “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” Later, when he appeared before Festus, he invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard before Caesar.

St. Paul was not the kind of man who would claim the privileges of earthly citizenship while denying the duties that go along with it. In his epistle to the Church in Rome he commands obedience to temporal authorities and goes so far as to identify their role as enforcers of the law as being ordained by God.

Aristotle wrote that it was the nature of a virtue to be a mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. It follows from this, that if the virtue of patriotism consists in loving one’s country, then there are two accompanying vices, loving one’s country too much or in the wrong way, and not loving one’s country enough.

The vice of not loving one’s country enough can manifest itself in indifference to one’s country’s survival or well-being, refusal to take up arms in defense of one’s country should the call of duty arise, or the manifestly perverse form of preferring another country, even the enemy of one’s country, to one’s own.

The vice of loving one’s country too much can also take many forms. It could take the form of jingoism or hostility towards other countries. It could take the form of blind support for all the policies of one’s government even when they are manifestly wrong, stupid, evil and deleterious to the well-being of the country. It could take the form of an ideological nationalism that demands that all other loyalties, to family, God, and local community, take second place to loyalty to country.

Those who are prone to the last mentioned form of excess would do well to remember the words of Edmund Burke:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

Patriotism is a natural affection. We love our family members, not because we can make a rational argument for it or even because we are commanded to (which if we are Christians we are) but because it is natural to do so. It is part of who we are to form bonds to the people who are closest to us, to the parents who raise us, to the siblings we grow up with. It is through forming these bonds that we learn how to form bonds of friendship to our acquaintances and neighbors in everyday life. We also develop attachment to places. We grow to love the houses we grow up in, the countryside, and the various buildings – school, grocery store, post office, etc. in which live our everyday lives. From these attachments to the people and places we know best, our love for our country, which encompasses them and countless other similar communities, is formed.

It is normal, right, and virtuous to form such attachments.

As for those who don’t, we will return in closing, to the words of Sir Walter Scott::

If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung.


  1. Interesting blog. I agree with your endorsement of patriotism in the abstract and applaud your loyalty to "Queen and Country" in particular. However, as a monarchist who unfortunately happens to be an American and has not yet figured out how to fulfill my dream of emigration, I find it impossible not to prefer the UK and Canada--at least, the UK and Canada as they were before the 1960s--to the republic in which I find myself, fatally flawed by my Tory/Loyalist standards from its very inception. I am powerfully drawn to the ideal of the Crown and am incapable of mustering any such affection for any Republic. Is that "manifestly perverse"?

  2. Hi Theodore. Thank you for your comment. The question that you have asked is a difficult one. Socrates lived his whole life in the city of Athens. However, like his disciples Plato and Xenophon, he preferred the aristocratic form of government of the city Sparta to the democratic government of the Athens of his own day. He made no attempt to hide this fact. Did this mean Socrates was non-patriotic?

    One's initial response is to say yes. There is more we have to consider however. For much of Socrates' life the two cities were fighting the Peloponnesian War against each other. Socrates, in his defense speech at his trial, as depicted by Plato in "Apologia", says that he fought for Athens against the Spartans in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly before his death, Socrates refused his friends' offers to help him escape. His reason for doing so, at least the way Plato tells the story in the "Crito" is that he felt that because he had continued to live in the city he was born all his life he had therefore made its laws his own and owed a debt to those laws. Although he had been dealt with unjustly, he would not turn around and do an injustice to the laws and constitution of Athens by escaping.

    This would suggest, that despite Socrates' aversion to Athenian democracy and preference for Spartan government, his patriotism was intact.

    Someone's country is much more than just their form of government or economics. It is a combination of land, people, and customs that together make up a political society.

    When I said that "preferring another country, even the enemy of one’s country, to one’s own" is "manifestly perverse" I had in mind more than just a preference for a different form of government. I had in mind people like the "idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/ every century but this and every country but his own" whom the Lord High Executioner puts on his little list in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado".

    Or, for real life examples, think of leftist American intellectuals and celebrities who went to North Vietnam in the 1970's and made propaganda for the Communists. Criticism of and disagreement with the war would not have impugned their patriotism. Making propaganda for the enemy most certainly did, and crossed the boundry into treason.