On Patriotism

Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that? Some defenders of patriotism who want us to love our country use such terms as fatherland and mother country. Such usage seems to indicate that we should love our country as we love our parents. Do they mean that a country is a person and should be loved as a person is loved? Obviously a country is not a person. There is a metaphor involved. If we notice the metaphor, we see that what we are doing when we liken a country to a parent is performing an act of the imagination. More commonly, the metaphor is not understood as a metaphor. Rather, many people just accept the usage as if it were natural and can and should go without examination. They manage to do two contradictory things simultaneously: they know that of course a country is not a person, yet they act with energy on the belief that it is. The metaphor facilitates an exploitable mental confusion.

Let us repel the metaphors of fatherland and mother country by thinking about love of parents. We might find that it would be fairly monstrous to love a country as one already loves one’s parents (or conversely to model love of parents on the love we are urged to feel for our country). I love my parents — if I do — because I began my life in infant attachment to them, well before I had a sense of self and a developed mind. They “imprinted” themselves on me; we bonded; only pain ensued from their neglect or abuse, while I was content if they wrapped me in their enfolding nurturant love. As I grew, I realized that I would be lost without them; I was wholly dependent on them; I loved them. With the onset of maturity, I felt gratitude towards them. I knew that without them there would literally have been no me. Love of parents is an obligation that is more than an obligation and should not be felt as one, except under the most trying circumstances. Love should overwhelm all feelings of reluctant duty. Despite conflicts and frustrations I loved my parents; if the difficulties were too great and I became alienated or even hostile, my feelings would remain at least ambivalent. (Is there ambivalence from the start?) I realized that alienation or hostility was an open wound; only reconciliation could heal it. Perhaps it could never be healed, to my inestimable loss.

Are such feelings properly transferred to a country? Should love of country overwhelm all self-centered reluctance? In particular, is gratitude, a kind of love, the right emotion to feel towards one’s country? Although children are not usually asked to die for their parents, and most parents wouldn’t accept the offer if it were made, some defenders of patriotism imagine the state as a super-parent that may ask its children to die for it. The idea of patriotism is inseparable from killing and dying for your country. A good patriot is a good killer.

I do not literally owe to my country my coming into existence. It’s true that I could not go on if I didn’t live in some society, but my genes are not politically identifiable; a country is not a biological entity. My parents could have moved after I was born; my country could have lost the territory in which I was born; I could have been abducted and raised elsewhere. My parents are one thing, my country another, altogether different. A country would not exist without its people; the reverse is literally false and appears true only by metaphorical distortion.

A famous assertion that the feelings towards parents are the right feelings towards one’s country, but with even greater intensity, is Socrates’ speech in the Crito. In various diluted forms, the sentiment he expresses so radically appears, at least residually, in many defenses of patriotism. Some attention to it, though not solely to it, helps us to see why patriotism is urged by theorists and why many people feel it. As he waits to endure capital punishment when he could escape it with the help of friends, Socrates impersonates the city and its laws, and lectures his friend Crito while also lecturing himself, and says things he never said before. In the speech, he says “your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, and all your ancestors, that it is more to be revered and more sacred … that you must worship it” (51b-c). The city is the mother of all mothers and the father of all fathers. What makes it so? Its laws establish the institution of marriage and provide guidance in the rearing of children. Without the city, it would seem, no one would exist – or at least no human being would grow up as a person with an identity, a role in life, and a purpose for living. The city gives a person more than parents do, and what it gives is parental in nature. The major meaning is that obedience to it under all circumstances is required, above all, as an exaction of gratitude. The ultimate exaction is to die in war or punishment; one must be ready to endure in a grateful spirit whatever the will of the parent-city commands.

Socrates’ speech takes in earnest the metaphor of the city as parent, while insisting on an un-enlightened, un-democratic conception of the powers of parents. He moves in the direction of likening children to slaves and hence citizens to slaves. Citizens are owned because they owe their very lives to the country. The double meaning is that without the country they would not now be alive, and that therefore if the country needs or wants to take their lives it can do so. What it gives, it actually lends; what it lends, it can take back. One’s life is not exactly a debt that one owes and that only one’s death can discharge, but it is only a conditional gift.

Where Pericles in his Funeral Oration can urge devotion to the city even at the expense of one’s life, he is sure to avoid all endorsement of slavishness in his appeal to Athenian patriotism. His oration mixes elements that are, in turn, erotic passion for the city, aesthetic wonder at its beauty, and a mystical loss of self in its sublimity. But one strong element is the invocation of the practical advantages that people enjoy by living in a democratic city that elevates them above a life of humiliating inferiority to their betters and affords them a chance to live decently and make the best of themselves. He breaks the back of the parental metaphor because it is inappropriate for adult citizens in a democracy, even though he urges them to risk death for the sake of the city’s defense of itself as an empire, and rather maniacally asks them to keep on replacing the dead warriors with new children. At the same time, he speaks to an audience that, if Plato is to be believed, had already re-defined the relation between parents and children in a democratic manner, thus liberating children from unquestioning obedience and subjection to the unexplained will of their parents.

I do not think, however, that Pericles’s defense of patriotism, though it is far more enlightened and democratic than Socrates’ servile advocacy of total submission to the parent-city, settles the matter of the validity of patriotism.

I believe that buried pretty far down in some modern defenses of patriotism is a sentiment rather close to what Socrates is expressing in the Crito, if not exactly the same. The best recent defense of patriotism, Maurizio Viroli’s For Love of Country, bases itself on the metaphor of country as fatherland, as fidelity to the legacy of the political fathers, who are supposed to bind succeeding generations by a kind of filial piety. An intensely American philosopher, William James (in “The Moral Equivalent of War”), can think that it is good for young people especially to feel that they are “owned” by their country. I find it surprising that such a clear-headed thinker, democratic through and through, can voice such a view. But the much larger surprise is that we find in him, where we shouldn’t, a defense of the idea that, being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a “blood-tax” that must be paid when the state demands it. A blood-tax, however, isn’t an exaction of gratitude. Rather, the patriotic heroism of dying prematurely or risking death is the best definition of being a man. If James doesn’t follow Socrates in saying that the state, as our parent, gives us our lives, he exceeds Socrates by suggesting that in being owned by the state, we owe it a blood-tax, not merely a grateful readiness to die when it commands. For James, only death or its risk proves patriotism.

Socrates’ position in the Crito and the sentiment expressed by William James and other advocates of patriotism share the idea that we do not own ourselves. We come into the world already obliged after a certain age to serve the country and feel patriotic passions for it. I associate this notion with traditions of thinking that have not yet arrived at the idea that political society owes its rightful existence only to the consent of the people, originally and continuously thereafter. Through consent, the people own the state, which is its servant, not its parent or owner. The premise is the principle that each person owns himself or herself. From self-ownership is derived the idea of political consent, freely given or withheld or withdrawn, and it is formulated variously by theorists of the social contract, from the seventeenth century and after. The most relevant theorists are the Levellers, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The most formidable social contract is the United States Constitution. I hazard the thought that all defenses of patriotism finally rest on the rejection of the idea of individual self-ownership, even though people have patriotic feelings that can and do emerge without the assistance of any theoretical defense.

The common thread in contract theory is that the obligation to obey can derive only from consent, expressed or tacit, and always given by the individual, whether as a personal pledge or a pledge given in association with other like-minded people. Every person is born equally free by the very nature of his or her humanity. The first enemy of the social contract is therefore patriarchy, the assertion that the state, usually a hereditary monarchy, exists by the will and grace of God; the ruler is father of his country; as father, the king rules without consent, just as children did not and could not choose their father (or mother); as patriarch, what is more, the king owns the people of the kingdom and their property. They belong to him and they ought to feel grateful for his protection. The king’s only obligation is to God; otherwise he may dispose of the people and their goods as he sees fit. In battle with this outlook, the theorists of the social contract tried to kill not the king exactly, but the view that the king is father in the image of the God who is the lord and father of mankind, the source of life and death.

A great irony is that, try as it might, the theory of the social contract never wrestled free of the claim that the people owe their existence to the state and hence that the state owns the people. While the contract theorists unmistakably struggle to establish the proposition the state does not own the people, they nevertheless also say – and I think, inconsistently – that it can require citizens to die to preserve it. All the theorists accept this requirement. It is as if by eroding the idea that the king is father and owner of the people and owes his authority to God’s grace, they feel the compensatory need to replace devotion to the king by some other bond that would yield a moral obligation to sacrifice oneself for the state. The claim is that such a bond is created by a person’s consent to live under a state. The basis of the state in rational choice is turned into the basis for morally allowing the state to cause the death or the risk of death of citizens. Our choice to preserve our lives is turned by the contract theorists into a choice to assume an obligation to die for the sake of what supposedly, in the first place, exists in order to preserve us. Necessity gives birth to the state but the state gives birth to another kind of necessity, which is a dangerous and recurrently lethal necessity. The state for all does not preserve all lives, and loses or wastes a good many.

There is cruelty lodged in the heart of the theory of the social contract, even though it seeks to demystify the state and to replace the traditional awe of the parent-state by clear-sighted understanding of the state’s rational purpose. The language of obligation supersedes the language of gratitude and devotion. But the mentality of self-sacrifice perhaps takes on a greater strength when it is made to flow logically from the obligation that choice creates. The social contract tends to become a more ingenious trap than any appeal to the patriotic love of country rooted in filial loyalty, whether in its pure Socratic form or in the various dilutions of it that are always current. Just because parents usually don’t ask their children to die for them, and consider it an unspeakable tragedy when any child dies before its parents, the metaphor of the state as parent must contradict its literal source: parents feel horror at the death of their children. The theory of the social contract must confront and try to overcome a different contradiction: a contract for life is also, and inevitably, a contract for (premature violent) death. The upshot is that the social contract can become a more bloodthirsty theory, despite its apparent dispassion, than the idea of the parent-state (or owner-state), because its contradiction seems more successfully resolvable on the theoretical level. Children are not supposed to die for their parents but equals are supposed to die for one another.

Yet the theorists of contract knew that consent would not supply the passionate energy that is required to discharge the obligation to die, if need be. Hobbes and Rousseau, more than the Levellers and Locke, proposed techniques of indoctrination in political mystique in order to shore up what they knew was, to begin with, a quite shaky scheme by which the choice to live turns into an obligation to die. The mystique of patriotism, shored up by civil religion, mattered most to Rousseau because he was keenly aware of the cruel irony lodged in the heart of the theory of the social contract, as Hobbes was; but, at the same time – and here is another irony – Rousseau was much more eagerly insistent than Hobbes to provide a worked-out rationalization for the obligation to die that did not depend on the mystique of patriotism. Hobbes went this way and that on the problem of conscription and its possibility of death, as if to suggest that the problem really was not soluble at all within the framework of consent and contract – or perhaps within any theory.

Rousseau in The Social Contract (Bk.2, chap. 4) asserts that by dying to preserve the city, its citizens are merely giving back to the state what they received from it. In his theoretical desperation, he thus returns us to the pre-contract idea that the state owns the people: because it has given them life, it may take life away from them, if need be. To this old mystique, Rousseau then adds the enlightened rational calculation that without a state, they would have had to risk their lives in the anarchic condition in an eventually vain attempt to preserve them. Don’t people gain from collective strength? Don’t they reduce their chances of dying by living in a political system that their consent has created? Yes, they do – that is, some do, but some don’t. The dead have been sacrificed for others, and therefore the whole egalitarian logic of the social contract is violated by a majoritarian calculation. It is a best bargain only for those who live, not for those who died before their time. And so Rousseau works to bypass the dilemma by advocating a tight communal life infused with patriotic love of country. His theory is a tremendous effort to make political life more fair and less arbitrary. But in many respects the life he advocates is finally not more rational. It is as irrationally based in devotion and gratitude to the city as other societies are, or even more so. Even worse, his theory may seduce us, by its promise of justice, to grant the blood-tax it levies. I doubt, however, that Rousseau’s version of the blood-tax joined to his sketch of the best bargain can succeed in theoretically reconciling the social contract with the obligation to die for the state.

If neither the metaphor of the parent-state nor the idea of the people’s consent to government can justify killing and dying for the state, patriotism has not run out of resources. Whatever theory says, patriotism will prevail. One main reason is that it is a usually tacit ideology and flourishes without philosophical assistance. The theoretical debate about patriotism directly interests only thinkers who concern themselves with questions of political and moral philosophy, and publicists who are eager to promote some policy or other. The debate about patriotism reaches undeniably to some of the most profound speculative matters, yet patriotism itself proceeds as a brute fact of life. The trouble is that this brute fact contributes to the erosion of the sentiment that government exists by consent and has the status of servant to the people. But haven’t I just said that the manifestation of consent, the social contract, tends to rationalize killing and dying for the state? Yes. But I think that properly revised, it need not; the revision must build on the ambivalent work of Hobbes and the ambiguous work of Locke, as I have elsewhere tried to suggest. In any case, modern liberty can’t do without the premise that government rightfully exists only by means of popular consent to a system of government that routinely works through continuous popular consent. The point is to show that patriotism facilitates the erosion of the idea of rational consent, and does so by means of an improvident and un-reasoned acceptance of a second social contract that usurps and inhabits the body of the original one that created the system of constitutional democracy.

The brute fact of patriotism is made brute by the inveterate inclination in men to associate virility with the exertion involved in killing and risking death. No theory can ever defeat or discredit this inclination, which helps to engender the fantasy that the competition of political units is the highest kind of team sports. Men love teams, love to live in a world where they are called on to back or play for their team against other teams, even though the sport of war is soaked in blood. Socratic notions of gratitude or Jamesian notions of infinite indebtedness are not necessary for this love. In the sport, where aristocrats used to play their games, elites now mobilize groups or masses to slaughter each other. Men can become peace-loving for a while, but not forever. The women who love them encourage their inclination to see team sports as the essence of their masculinity, and to call patriotic this inclination when it is projected into politics. The pity is that men lend their energies to a state that sooner or later embarks on an inherently unjust imperialist career and thus gets constantly engaged in policies that are deliberated in secrecy, and sustained by secrecy and propaganda, and removed from meaningful public deliberation. Patriotism is indispensable for sustaining this career of anti-democracy.

In general, an activist foreign policy works tirelessly to de-legitimate any constitutional democracy. Patriotism is the greatest asset in the internal and ever-present war against the sentiments and institutions of free government. The support of one’s team is not the defense of the Constitution. What gets hollowed out is government by rational consent, while a number of basic freedoms are steadily attenuated. The original contract for constitutional democracy is usurped, and replaced, in significant part, by a second contract for expansion and predation. It is bad enough that the original contract is interpreted to mandate dying for one’s country. Much worse is the displacement of the original contract. The spoils of activism and imperialism intensify political and economic inequality while immunizing leaders from their accountability to citizens to an ever greater extent. Citizens become followers. Leaders and followers live in different worlds. Citizens allow the patriotic thrill of team sports to obscure the radical alteration that descends on the original contract, while acquiescing in the gains of large and sometimes sinister interests that use patriotism in their appeals for support. The great theorists of the social contract would have been horrified; they didn’t quite have such a drastic mutation in mind – not to mention the anti-imperialist Socrates in his espousal of the parent-state.

Patriotism, more than any other passion in political life, makes virtues do the work of vices while promoting the praise of vices as disguised virtues. It thus sustains enormous moral perversity. If no one were a patriot, the world would be better off than it now is, when almost all are patriots. Theorists shouldn’t join in.

George Kateb is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University and author of Patriotism and Other Mistakes.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • On George Kateb’s Patriotism by Walter Berns

    In his reply essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots, argues that the value of patriotism, the love of country, depends on the nature of the country to be loved, and criticizes George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms. Berns notes that historically patriotism has been linked with ideas about popular sovereignty, which gave rise in the 17th Century to new ideas about the rights of man. “From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism” fundamentally different from “the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.” Berns finds Kateb agreeing that a legitimate liberal democracy needs citizens willing to defend it. “Although [Kateb] ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots,” Berns writes, “he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.”

  • Patriotism: A Hair from the Tail of the Dog by Chandran Kukathas

    The London School of Economics political theorist Chandran Kukathas argues that George Kateb “takes the state far too seriously, and fails to realize that it is the state, and not patriotism itself, that is the source of the problem.” Patriotism, Kukathas claims, is a symptom “of the place the state has in the life of a person or of a people.” When people come to think there is a problem that only the state can solve, patriotism tends to surge, but “they will come to think this because the state and its acolytes have persuaded – tricked, cajoled, manipulated, deceived, conned, frightened, bullied, sweet-talked – them into believing so.” However, the state is not going anywhere, and therefore neither is patriotism. So “we should just get used to patriotism, patriots, and their discontents,” Kukathas concludes.

  • In Defense of a Reasonable Patriotism by William Galston

    Like Walter Berns, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston faults George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms of patriotism. He then observes that one may love one’s country without loving it in the way one loves a parent. Moreover, Galston argues, if we need the state, as Kateb admits, then it seems we may need patriotism. “It would seem to follow that the beliefs and traits of character that conduce to government’s security-providing function are ipso facto instrumentally justified, as civic virtues. That is the basis on which a reasonable patriotism may be defined and defended.”

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