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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Is Patriotism Worth Cultivating?

by Rev. C. P. Greene, Rector.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 356-360


A Paper read to the Parents' Union at Clapham

(1) I do not speak the language of ordinary conventional humility, but simply of straightforward honesty, when I say that the task you have laid upon me of writing a "paper" for this evening on the subject of patriotism is one that I have felt altogether beyond the compass of my mental powers. I have not either had the time or opportunity to consult any authorities on the subject, nor do I even know that any exist: all the little, therefore, that I shall say in this paper, will be merely the imperfect expression of my own crude ideas upon what I cannot but feel to be a very important subject, and worthy of better treatment. My hope is that some of those who are present will, in the course of the discussion that is to follow, put the matter in a clearer light, and that the very imperfections of my paper may at least supply ample subject for discussion.

(2) By "Patriotism," I take it, we ordinarily mean that complex emotion, or sentiment, of love for one's own country and one's own people, which, as a deep human instinct, lies at the very root of a nation's existence and makes what we understand by "National Life" a possibility, much in the same way as the narrower and intenser, yet still complex instinct of "Family Love" lies at the root of "Family Life," and makes what we call the "Family" possible.

Indeed, this social instinct which thus creates both the Family and the Nation, is a bond without which society in any form is hardly conceivable,--amongst the lowest and most barbarous races it has created the Tribe,--amongst the civilised and semi-civilised races it has created, universally, some form of State.

For the old Greeks and Romans it shaped the City State, and after the break up of the Roman Empire it formed out of the fragments of that empire, the existing nations of Europe.

(3) But this human instinct is not only, even in its most rudimentary form, a universal and a useful instinct, it is in its more developed form of "Patriotism" essentially a noble and an ennobling instinct, for it means the sinking of the separate selfish interests of the individual in the wider interest of the community, and in its highest forms it implies and includes, in greater or in less degree, the element of self-sacrifice for the common good. Again, it includes the elements of imagination and of exalted feeling: it is capable of being fired by pride in a glorious past, of being uplifted and sustained by a noble idea of duty and sense of responsibility in the present and of being inspired by splendid visions of the future. It can be stung as with a sense of shame when that nation has been unworthy of itself--and thus it may become to the nation as a whole what conscience is to the individual.

It is strengthened, but not created, by the motives of a legitimate self-interest, as it learns to realise the truth that if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it, and if one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

(4) Thus like all the greater human instincts it is not only a power in the moulding of the life of the world, it is a power for moulding that life for good. It is a power also not only in developing society but in developing the character of the individual. The man who has never felt its power, who has never known what it is to thrill with love or pride--or it may be at times with sorrow or with shame--for his country, is wanting in one of the most ennobling elements that goes to make a man, and for the lack of this his is a poorer, a less noble, a less useful, and certainly a less interesting life both to himself and others.

(5) Look back for a few moments upon the Nation's past, and as you look, say whether all history has not been made glorious by the great deeds of the great men who have loved their country with a passionate love, and been ready for that love to live--and if need be to die--for the country and the people that they loved?

When will our Western World forget the glory of Thermopylae, where the little band of Greeks withstood for days the countless hordes of Xerxes till Ephialtes (who was not a patriot) betrayed his countrymen--yet still Leonidas stood firm with his 300 Spartans, rejoicing to die for Greece and liberty.

Or that field of Marathon, where Miltiades charged with his tiny army the hosts of Darius, and shattered for the time the power of Persia and, for ever, her prestige, and saved, so men say, Europe for all time. Or turn to the little City of the Tiber that was in after times to be the Imperial mistress of the world: where was the strength that was to make her this? It was the spirit of Patriotism that she nurtured in her people--the spirit that created, and certainly was fed by, the stories of the brave men of old: such as the dauntless Three that kept the bridge against the false Tarquin and Etruscan Porsena,--or Regulus returning to die a torturing death at Carthage rather than advise an unworthy or a hurtful peace,--or Mettus Curtius leaping into the gulf that had opened in the heart of Rome and that would not close till it had devoured "the most precious thing in Rome." Was he wrong in thinking that Rome held no more precious treasure than the heart of a brave man ready to give his life for her?--and the gulf closed, for the gods approved:--or to rush on through centuries rich with many other instances of noble deeds, what did our fathers not owe, what do we, their sons, not owe, to our noble Alfred's ceasing love for England? what did Scotland not owe to such men as the Bruce or William Wallace--or France again to Joan of Arc, the simple, true-hearted shepherd maid of Domremy, who "had pity on the fair realm of France" when it was trodden under foot by our kings; you know her story, the story of the deliverance of her country, and, alas, the story of the shame of England for her cruel death.

Or nearer to our own times, what was it that enabled statesmen like Pitt or sailors like Nelson to save England? to save Europe form the brigand Emperor, that sought to bestride the world like a Colossus? It was their quenchless love for England.

Are not these the heroes that make glorious the history of any land-whose memories are a glorious heritage for all time--mighty for good while they lived--mighty still to thrill our hearts and fire our imaginations and nerve our arms--and make us greater and nobler than otherwise we could have been?

(6) But though this instinct be thus mighty for good, like all other human instincts, it has its dangers, its temptations, its tendency to misdirection, and to disproportion, its tendency to degenerate. It may become narrow, stupid, selfish, prejudiced, provincial, and so may cease any longer to be noble: all virtues may become vices. Or it may assume the form of a braggart, overbearing, and aggressive insolence towards other nations--Jingoism we call it now. Or it may deteriorate under the lowering influence of the commercial spirit into a ignoble self-seeking in the struggle with other nations for mere material wealth, regardless of all higher aims, regardless of its duties and responsibilities in the world. Or it may assume the shape of a self-satisfied and intolerable priggishness--a kind of national Pharisaism.

But these and other such like aspects of love of country are not the developments of patriotism--they are unworthy of its name.

(7) Yet still the question may be asked: "After all, is not what you call 'patriotism' only at best a narrow selfish love, that gives to a section of the human race, that which should be given to all mankind,--is it not a weakness, or even a vice, to be condemned, and if possible eradicated, rather than a virtue to be applauded and encouraged?"

This question sounds very well,--a trifle transcendental, perhaps--but highly virtuous. But will it bear examination?

I think not. Is there not at its root some confusion of thought? does not the fallacy of a false antithesis lurk in its terms? For surely love for one's own country and love for all mankind are not of necessity antagonistic to one another,--certainly they are not mutually exclusive--they may be made to harmonise. Take an illustration, or rather an analogy:--we love our home with a dear and special love, but does that fact hinder our loving our country as a whole? The one kind of love is different and distinct from the other. Again, we love a friend, a brother, a wife, a child, each with a special and peculiar, personal, love: but will this fact hinder our love for all mankind? they are all different relationships, and are all compatible with one another. In the case of personal affection, we have a narrower and an intenser love, and because it is personal, that very narrowness is of its essence. What would be thought of the mother that loved another's children as well as her own? she would be simply thought to be unnatural. Or of the man who loved another woman, or many others, as well as his own wife--we should hesitate about knowing him.

But the other kind of love, the love of our neighbour, of man as man, is a wholly different thing: it is not a personal affection, but rather a tone, a temper, an attitude of mind, a disposition: as individuality and therefore, if you will, narrowness, is the essential element of the one kind of love, so universality (in which the very thought of individuality is lost) is the very essence of the other.

And so I take it that this wider love consists mainly in a readiness, a forwardness, an enthusiastic desire (if you will) to do justice to others, to recognize their claims, their rights, to be kind, to be courteous, considerate, in a word "to do to others as we would they should do unto us." And so, we may love our country with a personal love that thrills our nature through, and in the power of that love we will be ready to work for her, to fight for her, if need be to die for her, but, above all, to care for her honour, to desire, and, as far as may be, secure, that her conduct, her attitude towards other nations, her influence in the world and upon the world, shall be high and noble, just and pure, free from all taint of merely selfish ambition or ignoble and unworthy aims or jealousies: and so may a pure and lofty patriotism further and not hinder, amongst the nations and the colonies that form her mighty empire, amongst the great nations that are her worthy compeers, and even amongst the nations of a lower civilization, the barbarous races that feel her power,--peace and goodwill to all mankind.