Patriotism: A Dangerously Misunderstood Virtue
By Tom Morris and Mick Mulroy
One of us (Tom) just wrote a book called The Everyday Patriot. When we recently looked it up on a major bookseller’s site, the next item listed was “a patriot’s guide” to the automatic weapons and handguns deemed best for patrolling your neighborhood, while dressed in military-type attire. A few years ago, a US politician’s patriotism turned on the issue of whether he or she wore a flag pin on a lapel. Things have only gone downhill. We badly need to get clear about what patriotism is and what it means in a time when we’re so divided politically and yet connected globally.
Some now shy away from the concept altogether, confusing it with a nationalistic narcissism, a self-celebratory parochialism, or an adversarial mindset that too easily shades into xenophobia and jingoism, immensely dangerous postures for a volatile world. But that isn’t the nature of patriotism at all. We are at a time when we need to reclaim this vital concept from all its current misunderstandings and the manipulatively theatrical performance art that too often pretends to represent it in our day.
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The classic history of the word ‘patriotism’ stretches back to ancient Latin and Greek roots meaning, simply, one’s native country. Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as a “love for or devotion to one’s country.” By the late eighteenth century, when we Americans first defined ourselves as a nation set apart, patriotism was thought of as an attitude and commitment devoted to the broadest safety and wellbeing of our fellow citizens in our joint project of living and working together.
Aristotle seems to have had a simple formula for politics, which peeks through the complex prose of his work.
Aristotle seems to have had a simple formula for politics, which peeks through the complex prose of his work. He sees it most generally as a noble endeavor about how best to live well together, and he hints that human excellence typically seems to come from, in contemporary terms, the efforts of “people in partnership for a shared purpose.” National greatness can’t arise apart from collaborative communities of individuals moved to work together by some healthy vision of the good.
A Pew Research Survey recently showed that not only is confidence in government at an all-time low, among Americans, and that it has steadily declined, but also that as many as 65% of all Americans believe most people who get into politics do so only to “serve their own personal interest.” This is a far cry from the view of Aristotle on the meaning of politics for its participants.
Patriotism at its core is perhaps best thought of as being a loyalty and love for our nation that wants for it the best and works toward that goal in commonplace ways wherever we might live—in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and broader communities. It’s a commitment to act in positive ways for the good of our country and all who live within it, with a hope of also delivering real value to the larger world beyond our borders. It’s a beneficial involvement in the life of our nation with the aim of making our productive difference to the common good on however small or great a scale we can. It’s supportive and creative, more contributory than merely celebratory in nature.
This mindset is not inherently adversarial at all. It’s about being our best together, or as some of the philosophers who influenced our founders might have said, it’s a commitment to individual and community flourishing throughout our own nation that then reaches across the globe with encouragement and friendship for others. We need to renew and embrace this important concept, understood aright, for our time and lives at the present moment. It’s one of the most important challenges and opportunities we face. If we can get it right, we can deal much better with every other challenge that confronts us.
Today it seems as if many view the patriotic spirit as requiring fierce opposition to another group viewed as an enemy. But it does not. We need to renew and embrace the properly philosophical concept of positive patriotism and politics for our time. It’s one of the most important challenges we face. If we can get it right, we can deal much better with every other challenge that confronts us, a collection of currently daunting problems that, by most estimates, will only increase in their scale and consequence with time.
Put metaphorically, patriotism is simply about cultivating our garden well wherever we are and offering its bounty up for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. Many of the early western philosophers saw good governance as a thing that must begin in our own hearts and minds, guiding our own lives well, and then it can move outward in productive ways. Those who best represent a inner healthiness of self governance should then be chosen to serve our broader communities in elective office.
There reflects a certain model for political life generally that derives from the ancient Roman Stoic Hierocles, and can be called “the inner circle principle.”
There reflects a certain model for political life generally that derives from the ancient Roman Stoic Hierocles, and can be called “the inner circle principle.” We begin in the smallest circle of our concern, within ourselves, getting our inner house in order, and then acting where we are most locally, creating the best families and friendships we can, and offering up that bounty to the next outer circle of community, and on to the more increasingly remote circles of the city, state, and finally, nation, which we then can contribute even more broadly as a healthy and wise participant in the global society. This is the concern and care of the everyday patriot.
With this in view, some questions arise. Are we sending the most ethical and inwardly well governed among us into politics, people capable of operating to honor all our circles of concern? Are our political parties promoting the interests of the greater whole, or simply the concerns of any who fund their campaigns? Do we even need political parties, or would we be better off at this point without them, as each issue we face might then have to stand on its own and be engaged without ulterior motives? Are there any everyday patriots left in our political system, and if not, how do we find and bring them in? How can we encourage them by ourselves being among them?
The French essayist Joseph Joubert once wrote, “All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so.” Patriotism is about making our own gardens beautiful. And this image has a nice implication. Good gardeners don’t fight each other. Any healthy contribution can make our larger garden more diverse and better, and the overall landscape more productive. Everyday patriots then are people who seek to bring beauty and goodness into the life of the community and the world through their ongoing daily activities. They do not focus on fighting with friends and strangers on social media about partisan politics or who depict anyone with a different political opinion as less than patriotic or, worse yet, an enemy.
A patriot is not necessarily a great hero, a broad-scale leader, or a person whose efforts in favor of the land have big consequences. The concept of an everyday patriot may indeed capture best what we have in mind here. The everyday patriot seeks to vote in every election, selecting the most thoughtful and wise representatives at all levels, from the local to the state and up to the national arena. And if there are none yet running for office, the everyday patriot seeks to find one, or else to be one. This sort of patriot also goes one big step farther, voting every day with their time, attention, and action, where the measure of success is real results that help people where they live.
The concept of voting is fundamentally about selecting or choosing from alternatives with care. We can do that with ballots on official election days and with our attention and concern in our daily lives. Everyday patriots pay attention to local needs, however small, get to know their fellow citizens as partners in a shared purpose, and take action as often as they can to make improvements to their garden, wherever it happens to be.
We face a daunting array of national and global problems right now, and the many institutions that have been created to help deal with such problems are in relative degrees of decay and dysfunction. It is only by renewing our sense of patriotic concern in an ongoing way that we can be motivated to repair our philosophical infrastructure, as we clearly need to do with our physical infrastructure, for the greater functioning and common good of our society into the future.
We Americans can be an unruly bunch, and we disagree about many things. But it’s part of the attitude maintained by the everyday patriot to work to find the best that the majority of us can agree on, and use that to effectively work toward solving any other vital issue at any given moment. We can surmount all the loud but small squabbles of our time if we can learn anew to focus on the big things that can and should unite us around the welfare of our nation.
About the authors
Tom Morris, Ph.D., is a public philosopher and author of over thirty books, including the newly published call to action for our time, The Everyday Patriot: How to be a Great American Now.
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, a retired CIA officer and U.S. Marine, an MEI Senior Fellow, an ABC News National Security Analyst, a Co-founder of Lobo Institute and a member of Plato’s Academy Centre’s Board of Advisors.