Note: I posted this excerpt from a 1904 essay by Chesterton a year ago and thought it was worth posting again.] The opening section of G. K. Chesterton's essay, "The Patriotic Idea", first published in 1904, and included in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works, Volume XX: Christendom in Dublin, Irish Impressions, The New Jerusalem, A Short History of England (also available in softcover), which was edited by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The scepticism of the last two centuries has attacked patriotism as it has attacked all the other theoretic passions of mankind, and in the case of patriotism the attack has been interesting and respectable because it has come from a set of modern writers who are not mere sceptics, but who really have an organic belief in philosophy and politics. Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest of living Europeans, has succeeded in founding a school which, whatever its faults (and they are neither few nor small), has all the characteristics of a great religion. Like a great religion, it is positive, it is public, above all, it is paradoxical. The Tolstoyan enjoys asserting the hardest parts of his belief with that dark and magnificent joy which has been unknown in the world for nearly four hundred years. He enjoys saying, “No man should strike a blow even to defend his country,” in the same way that Tertullian enjoyed saying,“Credo quia impossible.”
This important and growing sect, together with many modern intellectuals of various schools, directly impugn the idea of patriotism as interfering with the larger sentiment of the love of humanity. To them the particular is always the enemy of the general. To them every nation is the rival of mankind. To them, in not a few instances, every man is the rival of mankind. And they bear a dim and not wholly agreeable resemblance to a certain kind of people who go about saying that nobody should go to church, since God is omnipresent, and not to be found in churches.
Suppose that two men, lost upon some gray waste in rain and darkness, were to come upon the light of a porch and take shelter in some strange house, where the household entertained them pleasantly. It might be that some feast or entertainment was going forward; that private theatricals were in preparation, or progressive whist in progress. One of these travellers might lend a hand instinctively and heartily, might play his cards at whist in a fighting spirit, might black his face in theatricals and make the children laugh. And this he would do because he felt kindly towards the whole company. But the other man would say: “I love this company so much that I dislike its being divided into factions by progressive whist; I love so much the human face divine that I do not wish to see it obscured with soot or grease-paint; I will not take a partner for the lancers, for that would involve selecting one woman for special privilege, and I love you all alike.” The first man would undoubtedly amuse the whole company more. And would he not love the whole company more?
Every one of us has, indeed, been lost in a gray waste of eternity, and strayed to the portal of this earth, over which the lamp is the sun. We find inside the company of humanity engaged in certain ancient festivals and forms, certain competitions and distinctions. And, as in the other case, two kinds of love can be offered to that society. The prig will profess to join in their unity; the good comrade will join in their divisions.
If the stray guests see something utterly immoral in the distinctions, something utterly wicked in the ritual, doubtless they must protest; but they should never protest because the distinctions are distinctions, and therefore in one sense exclusive, or because the ritual is ritual, and therefore in one sense irrational. If the stranger in the house has a moral objection, for instance, to playing for money, he ought to decline, though he ought not to enjoy declining. But he must not ask, “Why am I arbitrarily made a partner with So-and-so?” He must not say, “What rational difference is there between spades and diamonds?” If he really loves his kind, he will, as far as he can, and in the great mass of things, play the parts given him. He will preserve this gay and impetuous conservatism; he will throw himself into the competitive sports of nationality; he will walk with relish in the ancient theatricals of religion.
Because the modern intellectuals who disapprove of patriotism do not do this, a strange coldness and unreality hangs about their love for men. If you ask them whether they love humanity, they will say, doubtless sincerely, that they do. But if you ask them, touching any of the classes that go to make up humanity, you will find that they hate them all. They hate kings, they hate priests, they hate soldiers, they hate sailors. They distrust men of science, they denounce the middle classes, they despair of working men, but they adore humanity. Only they always speak of humanity as if it were a curious foreign nation. They are dividing themselves more and more from men to exalt the strange race of mankind. They are ceasing to be human in the effort to be humane.
The truth is, of course, that real universality is to be reached rather by convincing ourselves that we are in the best possible relation with our immediate surroundings. The man who loves his own children is much more universal, is much more fully in the general order, than the man who dandles the infant hippopotamus or puts the young crocodile in a perambulator. For in loving his own children he is doing something which is (if I may use the phrase) far more essentially hippopotamic than dandling hippopotami; he is doing as they do. It is the same with patriotism. A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity. The man who loves his country may not happen to pay extravagant verbal compliments to humanity, but he is paying to it the greatest of compliments - imitation.
The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism and such sentiments is this: that by means of it all things are loved adequately, because all things are loved individually. Cosmopolitanism gives us one country, and it is good; nationalism gives us a hundred countries, and every one of them is the best. Cosmopolitanism offers a positive, patriotism a chorus of superlatives. Patriotism begins the praise of the world at the nearest thing, instead of beginning it at the most distant, and thus it insures what is, perhaps, the most essential of all earthly considerations, that nothing upon earth shall go without its due appreciation. Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.
There is, moreover, another broad distinction, which inclines us to side with those who support the abstract idea of patriotism against those who oppose it. There are two methods by which intelligent men may approach the problem of that temperance which is the object of morality in all matters—in wine, in war, in sex, in patriotism; that temperance which desires, if possible, to have wine without drunkenness, war without massacre, love without profligacy, and patriotism without Sir Alfred Harmsworth. One method, advocated by many earnest people from the beginning of history, is what may roughly be called the teetotal method; that is, that it is better, because of their obvious danger, to do without these great and historic passions altogether. The upholders of the other method (of whom I am one) maintain, on the contrary, that the only ultimate and victorious method of getting rid of the danger is thoroughly to understand and experience the passions. We maintain that with every one of the great emotions of life there goes a certain terror, which, when taken with imaginative reality, is the strongest possible opponent of excess; we maintain, that is to say, that the way to be afraid of war is to know something about war; that the way to be afraid of love is to know something about it; that the way to avoid excess in wine is to feel it as a perilous benefit, and that patriotism goes along with these. The other party maintains that the best guarantee of temperance is to wear a blue ribbon; we maintain that the best guarantee is to be born in a wine-growing country. They maintain that the best guarantee of purity is to take a celibate vow; we maintain that the best guarantee of purity is to fall in love. They maintain that the best guarantee of avoiding a reckless pugnacity is to forswear fighting; we maintain that the best guarantee is to have once experienced it. They maintain that we should care for our country too little to resent trifling impertinences; we maintain that we should care too much about our country to do so. It is like the Mohammedan and Christian sentiment of temperance. Mohammedanism makes wine a poison; Christianity makes it a sacrament.
Many humane moderns have a horror of nationality as the mother of wars. So in a sense it is, just as love and religion are. Men will always fight about the things they care for, and in many cases quite rightly. But there is another thing which should not be altogether forgotten, and that is this: that in so far as men increase in intelligence they must see that a quite primary and mystical affection is a foolish thing to put into violent competition with another thing of the same kind. Men may fight about a rational preference, because there victory may prove something. But an irrational preference is far too fine a thing to fight about, because there victory proves nothing.
When men first become conscious of splendid and disturbing emotions, it is their natural instinct, their first and most natural and most reasonable instinct, to kill people. Thus, for instance, the sentiment of romantic love went through the same historical evolution as the sentiment of patriotism. When a medieval knight or troubadour realized that there was an intensity in a pure and monogamous sentiment which was quite beyond anything in merely animal appetites, he immediately took a long spear and rushed round the neighbourhood offering to kill anybody who denied that he had fallen in love with precisely the right person. I do not think that it can be reasonably maintained that romantic love has decayed in the centuries succeeding this; what has happened has been that people have perceived not that love is too insignificant to fight about, but that it is too important to fight about. Men have perceived, that is to say, that in these matters of the affections all combat is ineffective, since no combatant would ever accept its issue. Each of us thinks his own country is the best in the world, just as each of us might think his own mother the best in the world. But when we think this we do not proceed, or in the least desire to proceed, to the bellicose test. We do not set our mothers to fight each other in an ampitheatre, and for the excellent reason that if one mother overcame the other mother, it would not make the least difference to anybody. That is the only serious objection to the institution of the duel. That the duel kills men seems to me a comparatively trifling matter; football and fox-hunting and the London hospitals very frequently do that. The only rational objection to the duel is that it invokes a most painful and sanguinary proceeding in order to settle a question, and does not settle it. It is our belief, therefore, that the right way to avoid the incidental excesses of patriotism is the same as that in the cases of sex or war—it is to know something about it. Just as, according to our view, there will always be in some degree the power of sex and the use of wine, so there will always be the possibility of such a thing as patriotic war. But just as a man who has been in love will find it difficult to write a whole frantic epic about a flirtation, so all that kind of rhetoric about the Union Jack and the Anglo-Saxon blood, which has made amusing the journalism of this country for the last six years, will be merely impossible to the man who has for one moment called up before himself what would be the real sensation of hearing that a foreign army was encamped on Box Hill. The light and loose talk about national victories impresses those who think with me merely as a mark of the lack of serious passion. The average reasonable citizen, of whatever political colour, would admit that such talk shows too much patriotism. We should say that it shows too little.
To the cosmopolitan, therefore, who professes to love humanity and hate local preference, we shall reply: “How can you love humanity and hate anything so human?” If he replies that in his eyes local preference is a positive sin, is only human in the sense that wife-beating is human, we shall reply that in that case he has a code of morality so different from ours that the very use of the word “sin” is almost useless between us. If he says that the thing is not positive sin, but is foolish and narrow, we shall reply that this is a matter of impression, and that to us it is his atmosphere which is narrow to the point of suffocation. And we shall pray for him, hoping that some day he will break out of the little stifling cell of the cosmopolitan world, and find himself in the open fields and infinite sky of England. Lastly, if he says, as he certainly will, that it is unreasonable to draw the limit at one place rather than another, and that he does not know what is a nation and what is not, we shall say: “By this sign you are conquered; your weakness lies precisely in the fact that you do not know a nation when you see it. There are many kinds of love affairs, there are many kinds of song, but all ordinary people know a love affair or a song when they see it. They know that a concubinage is not necessarily a love affair, that a work in rhyme is not necessarily a song. If you do not understand vague words, go and sit among the pedants, and let the work of the world be done by people who do.” It is better occasionally to call some mountains hills, and some hills mountains, than to be in that mental state in which one thinks, because there is no fixed height for a mountain, that there are no mountains in the world.
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