On George Kateb’s Patriotism

Professor Kateb begins by defining patriotism as love of country; fair enough. He then distinguishes this love from that of a child for his parents, pointing out that, whereas a child is not likely to be asked to die for his parents, “the idea of patriotism is inseparable from killing and dying for your country.” What he might better have done here is to have distinguished between loving, or pledging allegiance to, a democracy or a monarchy, or, with a view to our current situation, a liberal democracy or any of the forms of tyranny. This, surely, is the decisive issue in an appropriate analysis of patriotism.

It is significant that Aristotle did not number patriotism among the virtues — courage, for example, or prudence, justice, and magnanimity — probably because he knew that it should be praised or fostered only in the case of a country that deserved to be loved. And not all countries, or regimes, deserve to be loved. But Kateb makes no such distinctions; his analysis is abstract; it abstracts from every relevant political consideration; he is opposed to patriotism as such; rather than a virtue, patriotism as such is a vice; it is the cause of “enormous moral perversity.” He goes so far as to say that a “good patriot is a good killer,” regardless of whom, or for what purpose, he kills.

And it is also significant that the first recorded use in English of the word “patriotism” did not occur until 1726, when it was defined as “public spiritedness.” Prior to that time (and for some time, and in some places, after it) the modern European world consisted of princes and their subjects, who were expected to be loyal and obedient, and to fight and die in battle, but not be public spirited. So it was the Emperor Frederick, not the people of Bohemia — and Maximilian, Elector of Bavaria, and Philip III, King of Spain, and Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and Louis XIII, King of France, and Christian IV, King of Denmark, and (one more in a long list) Charles Lewis, Elector Palatine, not their respective peoples — so, as I say, it was these various princes who fought (or made the decision to fight) what we know as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Generally speaking, only citizens (not subjects) could be expected to be public spirited.

For this reason patriotism became linked with the rise of popular sovereignty. This development, in turn, depended on the discovery or pronouncement of new universal and revolutionary principles respecting the rights of man — see Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690). From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism, or an understanding other than, or in addition to, love of country, or the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to recognize this new form of patriotism, or at least to speak of it. In his Democracy in America, he argued that this patriotism was more rational than the simple love of one’s native land. It was born of enlightenment, he said, “and grows with the exercise of rights.” A few years later, Abraham Lincoln referred to the Founders of this country as “the patriots of ‘76,” not, I think (or as Professor Kateb would have it), because they killed their erstwhile “British brethren,” but, rather, because they established this free country. Lincoln said it was “the last best, hope of earth.” Thus, he eulogized Henry Clay by saying that Clay loved his country “partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he [worked zealously] for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such the advancement, prosperity and glory of human liberty, human right and human nature.” In a word, the patriotic Clay loved the idea of his country, or its principles.

There is, of course, nothing parochial about these principles; any country might adopt them and many have done so. This was of particular concern to Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist. He understood that the French Revolution was something new and (to him) alarming, especially because its principles appeared to be readily exportable; those scientific and universal principles, if exported and unleavened by the unique experiences or traditions of a country, would reduce not only the French but the people of all Europe to “one homogeneous mass.”

Something like this did in fact begin to happen, but the French Revolution, and what a Frenchman of our own time has called the enormous Napoleonic enterprise, “unleashed a contrary movement of particularization and national separation.” In a word, the attempt to export these universal principles gave rise to the glorification of the nation, which is to say nationalism and a politics of ethnicity, where what matters is blood, not the political principles associated with patriotism. “I speak for Germans simply, of Germans simply,” said the philosopher Johann Fichte in 1807, a sentiment repeated by many another European. But not by Americans. The word “fatherland” has no place in the American vocabulary.

Since then, at least in intellectual circles, the very idea of the nation, as well as patriotism, has been discredited. This process began in 1848 when Karl Marx declared (in the Communist Manifesto) that “working men have no country” and predicted that they would refuse to fight for country. This proved not to be true when World War I broke out in 1914. Then, after World War II, Europeans set about the task of divesting themselves of their sovereignty in favor of European Union. It remains to be seen if the citizens of the Union will love it, let alone fight for it.

Unlike Edmund Burke, Kateb’s quarrel is with the theory itself, not its possible consequences; and by theory I mean the social contract propounded by Hobbes and Locke. Or to be more precise, he argues that the state, coming out of the contract that men enter into in order to preserve or secure their lives — “lives, liberties, and estates,” in Locke’s account — cannot legitimately require them to risk or give their lives in its defense. “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.”

This is not the place to discuss whether Hobbes and Locke can rightly be accused of an inconsistency at the heart of their proposals. It is sufficient to note that Kateb agrees that modern liberty, or liberal democracy, is based on the consent of the governed. What is interesting here is that, in the course of making his case for the inconsistency, he suggests that this government, being legitimate government, needs and deserves citizens willing to defend it. Which is to say, although he ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots, he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.

Fortunately — although he does not say this — there continue to be patriots; I presume he means in the United States. He explains this by saying that its proponents have presumed the existence of a second contract, one that justifies the new patriotism, but, by doing so, “usurps and inhabits the body of the original one that created the system of “constitutional democracy.” This suggests that he is, after all, a champion of constitutional or liberal democracy and, if he is paying any attention to what is going on in the world, he has to know that constitutional or liberal democracy is threatened by enemies more dangerous than implicit contracts.

Despite the compelling case that can be made for it, patriotism has become unfashionable among some intellectuals. One prominent American university professor (Martha Nussbaum) suggests that the times require that people get rid of patriotism and, to that end, become citizens of the world and lovers of humanity, and thereby protect all those desirable human rights. But humanity does not have a government (or an army), and there is not reason to believe that, if it did have a government, it would be lovable.

Walter Berns is Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Making Patriots.


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • “Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that?” asks George Kateb, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University, in this month’s provocative lead essay. According to Kateb, patriotism is the kind of love that suggests our lives are not our own, that we should be prepared to kill and die for the state: “Being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a ‘blood-tax’ that must be paid when the state demands it,” Kateb writes. After treating the reader to a learned account of the uneasy place of patriotism in the liberal, social contract tradition, Kateb concludes, “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.”

Response Essays

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.”