- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid counsellor the best.

–G. K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism”

I got into a discussion on Facebook with a friend yesterday about how to teach patriotism to your children, if you want them to understand their country’s crimes and failures as well as its achievements. Here’s what I said:

There’s a question behind the question, and that is what the basis of patriotism should be at all? And it feels to me like that’s only a question because of the size of our political communities.

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

Filial love is first and foremost rooted in gratitude for existence itself. That applies to adopted children as well; we are not born able to fend for ourselves, but radically dependent on others’ love and care, and however imperfectly it was provided if we survived at all then it was provided in some measure. And that gratitude extends to the larger society. None of us were raised in the wilderness; whoever we are, we are because of the world that shaped us, and we are grateful to be ourselves even if we are not always happy being ourselves.

So the central question of how to teach patriotism is not “how do I teach my child that my country is deserving of love when it has done terrible things” but “how do I teach my child that they owe a debt to an entity as abstract as their country, and that in the fullness of time they will discharge that debt by taking responsibility for its well-being.”

Anyway, that’s what prompted me to look up the larger context of the Chesterton quote. Appropriate for every season, sadly only more appropriate as time goes on.

Happy Independence Day.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism"

#1 Comment By Rancor On July 4, 2017 @ 10:37 am

“how to teach patriotism to your children, if you want them to understand their country’s crimes and failures as well as its achievements”

It depends on a balanced public discourse. The Critical Left certainly doesn’t provide it. Also, you simply teach your children moral norms – then they’ll point out wrongdoings of both individual people, and politicians

It’s also good to have something like Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”. In general, you need different forms of formation of people

#2 Comment By Paul Worthington On July 4, 2017 @ 11:05 am

It is pretty difficult to hold a nation together if the policy of that nation is to be dictated by the interests of a small cabal of international financiers, whose will prevails massively over that of millions of working people. Even more so when the interest of too many of those financiers lies in the profits of war, even war which has nothing to do with the defence of the nation, or of anything of value to the nation as a whole, as Eisenhower warned over half a century ago.

Two great texts were published in 1776: the Declaration of Independence, and the Wealth of Nations. The latter has been much abused and misquoted. For modern international casino capitalism, it should be re-edited as: The Wealth of International Billionaires, and Screw the Nation.

Happy Fourth. And good luck with the repair job. The same one we have to do in Britain, and, eventually, the rest of Europe, once people have relearned Locke and Jefferson’s lesson, that the democratic nation state with one “common sense” (Hutcheson, Hume), one set of values, and the unquestioned acceptance of one set of laws for all citizens, is the only guarantor of liberty and democracy under the social contract.

The nature of the state of that contract is eroded by the unbounded greed of a few, the casual acceptance of evil and immoral wars, and the insidious nature of egotistical “identity politics” and self- loathing. Loathing never cured any insobriety, or other weakness or evil of the state that should unite us. The cure is in the just determination of the kind lived by those who fought successfully for the abolition of slavery. Not the smugness of those who love to loath.

#3 Comment By Unquiet American On July 4, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

“The cure is in the just determination of the kind lived by those who fought successfully for the abolition of slavery. Not the smugness of those who love to loath.”

Who do you mean by “those” in the first sentence? If the past couple of centuries are any guide, “just determination” has a nasty habit of leaving a sea of carcasses in its wake. Let’s not pretend that abolitionists weren’t notable for their love of loathing.

#4 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 4, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

Noah, have you heard of what Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera said? “We love Spain because we do not like it” Or as he explained, they loved it with a will to perfection. Maybe we should cultivate more this kind of love.

#5 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 4, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

I can tell you when I fell afoul of some unthinking patriots of the type “My mother is never drunk” They were discussing the Crusade against Islamic fundamentalism, and how to get other countries to join in. At that moment Obama was at a Latin American meeting and he was pushing for human rights in Venezuela.

I said that he was meeting Michelle Bachelet, of Chile, whose father had been tortured and killed by a US backed dictatorship, Dilma Roussef of Brazil who had been tortured by a US backed dictatorship, Mujica of Urugay, that he been locked up in what was basically a well by a US backed dictatorship, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, whose Secretary of State was the son of a famous political prisoner of a US based dictatorship, and that Obama was lucky that they did not laugh in his face.

Well, to make a story short, I am no longer welcome in that group….

#6 Comment By cka2nd On July 4, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

Adriana I Pena says: “…they did not laugh in his face.”

I’d love to see that one of these days. An American President, UN ambassador or representative of some kind giving some lecture or speech about human rights is pulled up short by laughter and has all the hypocrisy thrown in his or her face. and it actually airs on TV as well as the net. Yeah.

#7 Comment By bayesian On July 4, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

@Adriana I Pena

I’m more than a bit surprised to see you of all people quoting the founder of Falange v1.0.

Considering that the same speech included, four sentences later, “We love the eternal, immovable metaphysical spirit of Spain.”, I think I will pass.

p.s. I wonder if our Hitler-assasinating time traveler could keep going and take out Herder instead? That might have more positive effect 🙂

#8 Comment By GregR On July 4, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

I love our country not because we always do right, we absolutly do not, but because while imperfect, it is the best way I know to ensure that the maximum number of people can live their lives any way they choose so long as their actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

Yes it means I must accept large periods of injustice for others, and a population that at times seems ignorant, or crude, or incapable of deeper thought. But I hold that even those immune to deeper thought are my equal as men, even if I cannot accept them as my equal socially. It means I went to war while being lied to by our leaders, and knowing that we fought not for freedom but for oil and revenge. And yes this knowledge hurt, and yes it bread resentment, but not at our system, but at the leaders who have so twisted the system for their political whim.

I do live our country, and I love our population, but we can be a hateful, stupid, ignorant group a lot of the time. Swayed by short term political gains, and distracted by stupid partisan bickering to the gain of the wealthy and our loss far to often. Sadly the super rich have and always will twist the system to their benefit in large part because we let them get on with it while we are fighting about distractions.

But I know of no system that is better, and no system that can self correct itself. Any attempt to change the system to eliminate the ability to twist it so far only leads to a loss of freedom and the rise of a new oligarchy (often made of the same people in new disguises).

So why do I love our country? Not because we do the right thing, and not because we act appropriately, and not because I have forgotten the evils we commit. But because we try to provide freedom to all even if we may fail miserably along the way.

An atheist, liberal

#9 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 4, 2017 @ 9:26 pm


Actually I have read quite a bit on the subject of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. I did write two articles (in Spanish) about him for a scholarly publication.

So why is it surprising? Maybe you do not know me as well as you think you do.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 5, 2017 @ 2:13 am

A reasonable patriotism is one that seeks the best for one’s closer neighbors, without doing the worst to those further afield. (After all, you can’t seriously claim to care about those far away if you have no concern first for those placed next to you.) As Mark Twain put it, “Why should loving my country make it necessary to hate someone else’s?”

#11 Comment By bayesian On July 5, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

@Adriana I Pena

My apologies, no insult intended, and congratulations on your scholarly work (which I would love to read if you are willing and if there’s some suitably anonymized way to do so).

I obviously do not know your persona here as well as I thought, as your comments at TAC seem rather to the left of the median TAC commenter, and appreciation for romantic metaphysical nationalism of the sort de Rivera exemplifies (e.g. in the quote) tends very much toward the right these days, freely granting that de Rivera in particular is particularly not a good fit for a single left-right dimension.

#12 Comment By TJ Martin On July 5, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

You missed the point entirely…. so you might want to go beyond the platitudes and quotes that enforces your bias and dig a little deeper into G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts when it comes to the common definition of Patriotism by taking the time to READ his books in their entirety and within context .

Because what he states is that anyone subscribing to Blind Patriotism [ Love it or Leave it regardless of how bad it might be ] is the very definition of a fool … and that genuine patriotism .. like genuine love .. is willing to criticize and if need be tear it down .. out of genuine love and patriotism [ ” Orthodoxy ” G.K.Chesterton ] His example being … if you truly love Wembley Stadium …and if it has reached a point where as is it is no longer repairable you would out of genuine love tear it down and start over .

As a quick pop culture anecdote …. T Bone Burnett’s ” Tear This Building Down ” off of his album ” The Criminal Under My Own Hat ” which is based in its entirety on the writings of G.K. Chesterton

Sigh … once again … another no doubt RNC advocate taking quotes out of context in order to justify his or her options missing out on the wisdom right under his or her own nose

#13 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 5, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

@ bayesian

Here is one


Also, this one citing Burke


And a previous study, which goes back to Ireland Democracy Paradox


#14 Comment By bayesian On July 5, 2017 @ 8:26 pm

@Adriana Ines Pena, thank you, most sincerely. I will, as promised, read all three. Just skimming, I find at least one point of agreement with Primo de Rivera that I did not know I had – extreme antipathy toward Rousseau.

#15 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 6, 2017 @ 10:45 am


Someone else who disliked Rousseau (and for the same reason) was Albert Camus.

When I want to rile Libertarians I call the Rousseau’s bar sinister children – as they also postulate the people are naturally good, and that government corrupts them. As if Government had been brought by aliens and imposed on the nice, upstanding people on Earth.