What is Patriotism?

Navy Recruiting Poster

At the outset of my blog, I would like to offer a brief definition of Patriotism.  I have taken this definition from a well respected ethical manual entitled: “Man as Man, The Science and Art of Ethics.” It was written by Rev. Thomas J. Higgins, S.J., and it was published in 1958.  I totally agree with this definition and during this time of unquestioning jingoism we need to dwell upon the full import of these words.

“…we understand by a citizen a person who owes primary allegiance to the laws of a given State and is entitled to its minimal civic privileges.  We say “primary allegiance” because, when a citizen is absent from his own State, he generally owes a secondary allegiance to the laws of the place where he resides.  We say “minimal civic privileges” because, although all citizens may not equally participate in civic life by voting, sitting on juries, being eligible for public office, and the like, yet there is a least common denominator of civic standing.  If a person falls below this level, as does a slave and felon, he is not a citizen.  Certainly all who are born within the territorial jurisdiction of a given State and permanently reside there ought to have citizenship rights, except those whose criminal conduct justly forfeits them.

Patriotism, which Samuel Johnson caustically defined as the last refuge of a scoundrel, epitomizes the relations of citizen to State.  The bond is piety.  This is readily understandable if a State is small and its members are one’s own kind.  Even though the modern State is much more than the family outgrown, the same relation of piety exists between it and its citizens.  For as piety binds man to the family, the first of natural societies, so also it ties him to the State, the perfect natural society.

Patriotism is not unreasoning sentiment, nor is it the preference for one’s own people which begets contempt for outsiders.  It is not prejudice or bias which regards one’s way of life as necessarily superior to that of all foreigners, and ridicules all strange customs, and considers one’s own national acts upright and honorable but those of one’s enemy vile and immoral.  Nor is patriotism jingoism, the truculent nonsense that one’s nation can dominate whom it pleases.  Rather it is the well-ordered love of one’s State and of one’s fellow citizens.  Here the object of love is not one’s native soil.  The object of love is primarily one’s fellow citizens; it is also the moral person, the State.  Some people have said that it is impossible to love an abstraction.  That impossibility fades before the cold fact that men do-even by dying for it.  Like all real love, this love must include benevolence and beneficence.  That is a pernicious patriotism which proclaims, My country, right or wrong.  This sentiment presupposes that national welfare, convenience, and prestige are above all moral law; that the State, dealing with other States, has moral license to do whatever it has the force or guile to accomplish.  This attitude is one of the scourges of modern life.  It has substituted the State for God and the worship of country for religion.  Well-ordered love remains within the bounds of reason.

As piety in the family comprises both justice and charity, it includes the same in the State.  The good which the citizen strictly owes the State is laid down by legal or civic justice.  It is aptly called legal justice because law prescribes what the welfare of the State demands of individuals.  It may also be called civic justice so as to distinguish the common good peculiar to the State from that of the family or the human race at large.  The duties of the true patriot are not limited to what law prescribes: he will come forward, as occasion demands, and freely give of his own to the common need.  This is a kind of social charity“.

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