The Meaning of Patriotism

Sordello: C.S. Lewis offers great insight into how Americans can love their country without making it an idol.

On the Fourth of July, the United States of America completed 236 years as a sovereign nation; patriots, true and self-identified, will celebrate and remember. Patriotism, while a duty, is easily misunderstood and, as history demonstrates, once misunderstood is easily used for perverse ends. The anniversary of the founding of our nation presents the perfect opportunity for the examination of one’s patriotism.

The words “patriot” and “patriotism” find their roots in Greek and in the political conceptions of the Greek city states. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon defines πατριώτης as a “fellow countryman: property of barbarians who only had a common πατρίς [fatherland, of one’s fathers].” They continue, “πολϊται being used of Greeks who had a common πόλις.” The Greeks, as MacIntyre notes in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, saw their loyalty as tied to their particular city-state, not to some notion of “Greece.” Rome ignored the slightly pejorative nature of the word and adopted the concept of fatherland in the Latin word, patria, derived from patrius – of a father, fatherly, paternal; hereditary; ancestral; native. Patriota, or patriot, retained the meaning of  πατριώτης -fellow countryman. Both languages incorporate themes of community and inheritance into their understandings of who a patriot is and what patriotism entails. The Greeks clearly thought the polis to be the appropriate size for a vibrant patriotism; the Romans eventually turned their patria into an empire.

The American patriot inherits a patria more akin to an empire than to a polis, stretching “from sea to shining sea” and encompassing diverse cultures, geographies, and even languages. Because of this expanse, the temptation to make patriotism into an abstraction is large; with this abstraction comes the temptation to use patriotism, and even the patria itself, as a tool for domination. Affection, the root of true patriotism, involves the patriot in participation with his compatriots and with the past, as well as the present, of the patria. Affection recognizes that the fatherland is an inheritance and seeks to preserve it through proper use.

C.S. Lewis describes patriotism:

First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, or familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about “Britain.”

Lewis says Kipling’s “’I do not love my empire’s foes’ strikes a ludicrously false note.” He argues that love for one’s country must be rooted in a place. “With this love for place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language.” This affection involves a love for neighbors, not because of the Christian command, but mainly because they are part of that way of life.


To understand affection, we return again to Greek. C. S. Lewis discusses στοργή, affection, in The Four Loves. He argues that affection is familial love, the combination of gift- and need-love. In a family, for example, the child need the mother, the mother gives herself to the child, and the mother herself needs the child in order to be able to express her gift love. Similarly, the patriot, in his affection for his country, sees the gifts that he has received, recognizes his need, and attempts to give back. The familial nature of affection is key. Lewis writes, “[Affection’s] objects have to be familiar. We can sometimes point to the very day and hour when we fell in love or began a new friendship. I doubt if we ever catch Affection beginning. To become aware of it is to become aware that it has already been going on for some time.”Affection, and by extension patriotism, is something ingrained into one’s being.

Because of this nature of affection, it is not proud. “Affection,” Lewis writes, “. . . is the humblest love. It gives itself no airs. People can be proud of being “in love,” or of friendship. Affection is modest – even furtive and shame-faced. . . . Affection would not be affection if it was loudly and frequently expressed; to produce it in public is like getting your household furniture out for a move. It did very well in its place, but it looks shabby or tawdry or grotesque in the sunshine.” Affection then is expressed properly in living, in need- and gift-love rather than in words and proclamation. Neither is this patriotic affection aggressive. Lewis argues, “It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.”

Understanding and loving the particulars of place and home leads to “a good attitude toward foreigners.” Lewis writes, “How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.” The nature of patriotic affection demands participation with others and rejects the urge to dominate and re-create in one’s own image.


But the United States is bigger than “England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster;” it is bigger far than Britain. Is the American patria inherently abstract? While some might argue so, this was not the belief of the founding fathers. Both the federalists and the anti-federalists had strong connections to their states. The ideal of federalism, itself, presents a mean between the Greek polis and the Roman empire. An American is a citizen of his nation because he is a citizen of his state, indeed he is as much a product of his nation as he is of his place. But this federal citizenship necessitates the sharing of loyalty and affection between the national and the local. Affection, because it is centered on the familiar, is due chiefly to one’s home. Can one truly love his nation without loving his place, his neighbors? Affection for the nation, without affection for a place, leads to abstraction.

When the patria becomes an abstraction, large and incomprehensible, true affection becomes impossible. As true affection becomes impossible, expressions of patriotism become less and less found in the mode of living and more and more in public discourse. Here the American right has been (at least recently) even more guilty than the left. When a public official fails to salute during the national anthem, when he treats fellow world leaders as equals, when he fails to say (gasp!) “God bless America” his patriotism is immediately questioned. Those affiliated with the right are quick to “prove” their patriotism by affiliating themselves with the flag, with veterans, with unsophisticated dialects, but do they ever live their patriotism?

Does the American right concern itself with the conservation of the patria and its principles? Does it seek to avoid foreign entanglements as “the father of his country” suggested? Does it worry about the inheritance that it received from its fathers and which it must pass on to its children? With fostering nationalized industry at the expense of local economies and cultivating the military-industrial machine the American right shows as much disregard for patriotism as they accuse their political opponents of showing. As it attempts to remake the world in the image of the United States, the right’s attempts at domination create more and more enemies as it refuses to recognize the possibility of others’ native affection for their own places. In so doing, the American right disrupts the participant nature of native patriotisms and builds anti-American sentiment and actions (see Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam).

The Past

C.S. Lewis suggests another element of affectionate patriotism: “The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. . . . This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us, and because we are their sons there is good hope that we shall not.” But this attitude does not involve blindness to the issues that have faced a nation in the past: “The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.” Lewis argues for the sagas and myths of a nation, but, in contrast to the fascists of his day, strongly urges that they not be taught as literal history. He warns,

What does seem to me poisonous, what breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious if it last but not likely to last long in an educated adult, is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or biased history – the heroic legend drably disguised as a textbook. With this creeps the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief – surely it is very bad biology – that we can literally “inherit” a tradition.

Lewis warns of the idea of national exceptionalism; it need not be argued that this is a well from which American have drunk deeply. He writes of a clergyman he knew who asserted the belief that his own nation was markedly superior to all others. “’But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity – he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar – ‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’” In the United States, it is politically dangerous to suggest otherwise. He discusses the idea of England’s “white man’s burden:” “This was not all hypocrisy. We did them some good. But our habit of talking as if England’s motives for acquiring an empire . . . had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world.” This will to dominate is insatiable; it demands “that the area in which [it] operates should grow ‘wider still and wider.’ And both have about them this sure mark of evil: only by being terrible do they avoid being comic. If there were no broken treaties with Redskins, no extermination of the Tasmanians, no gas-chambers and no Belsen, no Amritsar, Black and Tans or Apartheid, the pomposity of both would be a roaring farce.” Lewis argues that this attitude leads to the final, and most pernicious, distortion of patriotism – a blindness to one’s nation’s faults. This blindness sees everything the nation does as good, it might even go so far as to say that it is only because it is good that it is loved.

Patriotism and Gnosticism

A distinction, then, is to be made between the patriot and the gnostic. A patriot is one who loves the fatherland – its past and its present – and hopes to preserve it for the future; in this, he is a conservative. The gnostic, whether liberal, libertarian, or socialist, loves only an abstraction – a future country made using his principles. The patriot, unlike the gnostic, is able to have affection because he is grounded in reality.

Eric Voegelin argues in Science, Politics & Gnosticism and The New Science of Politics against the gnosticism he saw arising in modern politics and society. This gnosticism is characterized by a three-part self-deception:

  1. The surface act, which could be an unintentional error.
  2. The individual persists in deception after becoming aware of it.
  3. The individual revolts against God and becomes essentially demonic in his pursuit of falsehood.

While this gnosticism often centers around well known thinkers and writers, in Ersatz Religion, Voegelin asserts that the “gnostic mass movement” contains both intellectual and mass movements. He also lays out six characteristics of gnosticism:

  1. Dissatisfaction with current states of being;
  2. A belief that problems arise because of poor order in the world;
  3. That the end of the world, as a result of those problems can be avoided;
  4. That the order of being will be changed through historical process;
  5. That change and the salvation of the world is in man’s power, effected through action; and
  6. Construction of formulæ for bringing about this salvation, and establishment of oneself as a prophet of the new order.

The failure of true patriotism that leads to a gnostic will to dominate is a failure of affection. This failure of affection is, in turn, caused by the focus on the abstraction (perhaps unintentional) of the nation and the neglect of place and home. This danger of the abstraction of fatherland was seen by the ancient Greeks who chose instead to inhabit humane city-states. The Romans, however, embraced the idea of empire and used the sentiment of patriotism to extend that empire and their ideal of “pax Romana.” This mistaken patriotism attempted to remake the world in its own image.

The modern American social and political gnostic attempts the same thing. Grounded in his belief in absolute American exceptionalism, he desires to remake the world in the image of the United States. But what is this image he attempts to impose on the world? What is the United States? Is is the Declaration of Independence and the ideas of democracy and individual rights? Or is it the particulars of home and American life?

The attitude of patriotic domination is dangerous because, in its abstraction, it neglects the affectionate cultivation of home. Do you know the names of your town council? Your country supervisors? The Sheriff? Certainly you know the name of the President and your national representatives. The true patriot is concerned with issues of local import concurrently, if not primarily, as with those of national and international importance. Though the national and international affect the local, the aggregate of local issues affect national issues much more strongly. Local issues – care for the elderly, education of the young, providence for the poor – when ignored by the community become expensive and oppressive when addressed nationally. The true patriot, in addition to opposing the growth of the national government legally, will attempt to foster community so as to reduce dependence on the national government.


Lewis suggests that the imaginative use of saga and myth is useful to the development of patirotism. The Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry too sees the importance of imagination to the affectionate participation that characterizes a patriot’s interactions with his home. He writes, “The sense of the verb ‘to imagine’ contains the full richness of the verb ‘to see.’ To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with ‘the mind’s eye.’ It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force.” Imagination, so understood, is the opposite of the abstraction that so often characterizes our political discourse and understanding of patriotism. Imagination is not disconnected from reality; it does not attempt to imitate or dream up new realities. It attempts to understand the qualities of things seen in their proper context. Berry continues,

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

The attitude of affectionate participation recognizes the fragility of home; the patriot attempts to protect this fragile existence. The gnostic, however, participates in “the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, ‘as gods.’ We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our intelligence, like our world, is limited. We seem to have known and feared the possibility of irreparable damage” [Berry]. The American gnostic, embracing abstraction rather than imagination, becomes increasingly focused on domination rather than affection. This attitude of domination can be seen clearly in industrialization and the American war machine. Berry writes,

Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities,
neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure…. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

The answer to this attitude of domination, this false patriotism, is the revitalization of the patriotism of affection. Berry argues, “The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely.” The modern patriot, particularly given the absence of a direct foreign threat, must concern himself with fostering community and caring for his neighbors – caring because they are his neighbors, as well because Christ commands it. The patriot will reject the abstraction of nationalism and the deception of unqualified American exceptionalism. The patriot will resist attempts to dominate and remake other nations in the image of the United States; instead, he will focus on addressing local concerns in the hopes of limiting national involvement and the growth of the national government. To do this, he will form and participate in “little platoons”described by Edmund Burke as “the first principle of public affections.”

Patriotism is dependent on reality, on the realities of the past and present and the imaginative hope for the future that arises out of those realities. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is characterized by a rejection of those realities and the hope of a future disconnected and radically different from the present. Affection, engendered by imagination, is tied to the reality of existence; it recognizes its dependence on the past and the indebtedness arising from that inheritance. Tied to existence, it is also tied to the local, to the familiar which it seeks to preserve and cautiously improve. Patriotism, properly understood, is therefore inherently conservative.

This piece was originally published in the webzine The Hipster Conservative on July 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.


About Sordello. In the seventh canto of the Purgatorio, Dante meets the troubadour Sordello who typifies patriotic pride. That historic Sordello spoke out against the princes and rulers that were failing Italy and leaving her weak and divided. Given that modern-day Sodello lives in a democracy, he is forced to speak out against almost everyone. His career as a troubadour has, consequently, suffered.


  • […] and he does not seem to think that will inevitably happen, or worse have us rewriting history. This article is interesting – it discussed Lewis and also Wendell Berry's ideas on patriotism. […]

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