Shortly after the attacks on 9/11 seven years ago, I was invited along with a few others to offer reflections on patriotism which were intended for publication in the Intercollegiate Review. The essay that resulted was entitled "Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange." The full essay is available via the link, but I provide some excerpts below (well, a LONG exerpt), in recollection of, and out of honor for, the events of this day.
Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange
Patrick J. Deneen
Love and Mistrust of One’s Own
Patriotism exhibits a form of unarticulated agreement with Aristotle’s great and challenging assertion, “all men are by nature political animals.” According to Aristotle, humanity in full flourishing requires the goods that a polity affords – those material goods of sustenance, shelter, protection provided by organized defense, and the less quantifiable goods of education, bonds of friendship, the opportunity for contemplation. Patriotism is a recognition of a debt that individual human flourishing rests upon a sufficiently good regime, that full-blown individuality exists not “by nature” but instead requires the antecedent institutions and practices of a city that lead to full individuation. Thus, Aristotle argues, “the city is by nature prior to the household and to each one of us taken singly.” To be fully human requires cultivation in political communities, cultivation that is unnecessary to “beasts or gods” since they are incapable or not in need of such sustenance, but necessary to humans ironically in order that they can become fully human. Patriotism, as an acknowledgment of the debts owed by humans to specific origins, and as a defense of those institutions and practices that constitute us, is a resonant echo of this Aristotleian understanding of the relation of wholes to parts.
Yet, if patriotism is regarded as a laudable expression of gratitude for the possibility, even a requirement, of human nobility, at the same time Aristotle also reminds us that a “good citizen” is only rarely “a good man.” It is a rare polity that does not call upon its citizens at times to act ignobly in ways at odds with Aristotle’s understanding of virtue. Thus, if the love of one’s own is a core political requirement, at the same time it remains one of the most persistent threats to political justice. Patriotism, as that form of loyalty that extends us beyond the familial and the amicable, presents one of the most potentially ennobling and degrading forms of love, at once directing our devotion to that which makes human flourishing possible – the polity – and yet ever portends the transformation of that devotion into blind obeisance, impassioned intolerance of a perceived enemy, and willing collaboration with that which is unjust and even evil.
Thought and virtue demand a limit to our love. We should not love that which is unjust, or that which inclines us to act unjustly or accept injustice. We should not love that person or place that would make us worse by dint of our love. We should love no one, or nothing, without reservation. And yet loyalty, to be meaningful, requires that we love that which is imperfect, even morally frail. The core feature of loyalty would be lost if we abandoned those people or places we otherwise cherish at the first sign of moral imperfection. Indeed, such inclination to avoid all forms of immorality would preclude the possibility of our loving in the first instance. At critical moments it is precisely our loyalty that compels us to remain with that to which we have dedicated ourselves, even given these frailties. Indeed, perhaps because of those imperfections our loyalty demands that we re-double efforts to support, reprimand, and improve those people, things, or places we love.
Clearly there can be no formula for navigating the calm seas and the submerged shoals of patriotism: it is neither morally defensible to demand an unreflective patriotism from a citizenry nor humanly virtuous to call for its cessation. Yet the idea of “balancing” patriotism with the critical distance demanded of morality seems ultimately to defeat the necessary priority required by patriotism. How can this tension be maintained without betraying the demands of each? If “balance” eviscerates the core loyalties of patriotism, then must one simply decide between the love of one’s own and the love of one’s own virtue?
Vision and Politics
To love one’s own seems to be the “default” position of most humans – we begin our lives loving what is nearest to us, including our parents, our siblings, our childhood friends, as well as our hometown, our region, our homeland. We understand the essence of growing up and the central purpose of education to be the process of moving us away from such automatic loves. Without necessarily leaving behind our first loves, we learn that our parents are not omnipotent, that our hometowns are repositories of conventionality and parochialism, that our country is marred by episodes of injustice and cruelty. We move psychically and physically away from these people and places, choosing our own friends and lovers, creating our own families, exploring new towns and regions and nations, creating at all points ever greater critical distance between unchosen primary loves and conscious mature loyalties.
This movement away from unchosen commitments by means of a contemplation of and eventual dedication to a particular choice between alternative forms of life is mimicked by the enterprise of political theory as an academic study and political theorizing as a way of thinking. As an educator in political theory, it is part of my vocation to challenge all those loyalties with which students enter college. Political theory often does, and by some lights always should, teach us one thing above all: a rejection of patriotism. Patriotism is one of those most impassioned “loves of one’s own,” a sentiment of affection for the place of one’s birth and upbringing, and for the ways of life and traditions of people and a place. Political theory, on the other hand, teaches us at some level about the conventionality of these ways of life. The theoretical study of politics compels us to recognize the insufficiencies of all political forms, to appreciate the virtues of regimes and traditions that are not our own, and points ultimately to a question of the best regime, a regime of perfect justice which, while implausible if not impossible, nevertheless always stands at least in principle as a standing accusation against all existing regimes, even, and perhaps especially one’s own.
It is no mistake that political theory should call patriotism into question. The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek word theorein, meaning “to see.” Over time, it came to describe a special and intensified form of “seeing,” namely the vision that was required of specially designated city officials – theoroi – who were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” special events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other” in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare and then in idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to fellow citizens. This encounter would inevitably raise questions about customs or practices of the theorist’s own city – why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life?
This tension between the theorist’s role as critic and the city’s imperative to protect its way of life is deeply embedded in the history and the practice of political theory. The full dimension and implications of that tension was revealed when Socrates was accused of impiety toward the gods of the city and “corrupting the youth” and subsequently put to death after being found guilty at his trial. Throughout the Platonic corpus – one that idealizes, dramatizes and “theorizes” the life of Socrates – there is constant evidence of the abiding tension between the role of the theorist and the exigencies of the city. In his most famous dialogue, the Republic, we discover that Socrates has “descended” beyond the walls of the city of Athens, to the multicultural port city of Piraeus, where he has gone to “see” a festival celebrating a new foreign goddess that is being accepted into the Athenian religious world. While he expresses appreciation for the Athenian procession, he expresses even greater admiration for that of the “foreigners,” namely the Thracian worshipers. It is then “outside” the city, in the midst of a “theoretical” enterprise that Socrates undertakes his most radical political enterprise, the consideration and description of the perfectly just political regime – one fundamentally at odds with the Athenian, and all existing regimes. By this estimation, a theorist is in some respects defined by a kind of “outsideness,” an alienation originally induced by the experience of physically moving from one place to another in order to assess the virtues and vices of one’s own particular cultural practices. Although we have largely forgotten the original meaning of the word, we still consider “theory” to involve at least the internal ability to raise questions about accepted norms and customs and to provide a critical distance that in many instances expressly confronts and even offends a nation’s patriotic sensibilities.
It is not surprising that theorists of many stripes have been suspicious, if not downright hostile toward patriotism. This has been as true, if not even more common, for thinkers on the Left – such as Emma Goldman, who wrote an essay entitled “Patriotism, A Menace to Liberty” – as it has been of thinkers on the Right, such as Samuel Johnson who more famously declared that “Patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels.” There are good and principled reasons for thoughtful people to be suspicious of Patriotism. We do not admire the evident patriotism of the German people under the Nazi regime. A story like “The Lottery” reminds us that the unquestioned acceptance of custom can promote wholly malignant and evil practices that might continue in the name of patriotism or "the way we do things here." An ancient play like Sophocles’ Antigone suggests the limits of patriotism when fundamental obligations, such as religious ones, conflict with the demands of the State. People of varying ethical and religious backgrounds, from St. Augustine writing as a Christian, to Martha Nussbaum writing as a secular liberal ethicist, criticize the place of primacy that nations hold under a widespread patriotic sentiment. A thoughtful person should never willingly or knowingly sacrifice his or her “theoretical” perspective before the altar of patriotism.
Does this mean that it is impossible for a thoughtful person to be patriotic? Does this require that “theorists” should by default view the actions and claims of the State with a skeptical eye? Are “theoretical vision” and patriotism mutually exclusive?
Returning to the original practice of “theory,” one sees that quite the opposite is the case. The “theorist” was a designated office of the city. To “theorize” was a requirement of particular regimes in antiquity. Part of the self-definition of ancient cities involved the practice of calling its own practices into question. The activity of “seeing” foreign customs and events comprised only half of the theorist’s official duty. The other half – just as essential – was the “giving of account” of what the theorist had seen. This could not be done employing concepts and language of the foreign city, a possibility that might make it easier for a theorist to explain what he had seen (how much easier it would be for me to explain to friends my own experiences living in Germany if only they could understand German!), but one that would make it nearly impossible for one’s fellow citizens to begin to form an understanding of exotic foreign practices.
Instead, the “theorist” delivered his report firmly in the idiom of his own city: the position required one deeply versed in one’s own language, one’s own practices and ways of being, indeed, one sympathetic to the patterns of thought and action that characterized one’s own native city. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, to “go native”: no Athenian “theorist” could conceivably observe a Spartan gymnastic festival and then simply return in a condemnatory stance toward his own city. Even if a “theorist” were persuaded that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the sympathetic primacy of the theorist toward his own city demanded the careful, thoughtful, and prudent explanation of those practices to his fellow citizens, presented in ways that sought to evoke similar admiration by means of native assumptions, opinions and shared understandings. Such gradualist explanations were not handed down from a position of superiority or greater knowingness by the theorist, but rather indelibly informed by a prior respect for the practices of his own city which, even if imperfect, nevertheless were the source of other civic virtues – the bases of which might be undermined if insufficiently appreciated – as well as the source of limits or even prejudice that, if directly confronted, would produce a hostile reaction to the theorist’s account and defeat indefinitely the prospect of amelioration.
The theorist was chosen then, not only for a recognized ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual, but equally for an abiding appreciation for the customs and practices of his own way of life. These are not mutually exclusive qualities, but intimately connected. A theorist was, by definition a patriot – one who treasured his cultural inheritance, traditions, intimately knew the stories and histories of a place and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity. At the same time, it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to a renewed devotion to those practices, in some instances, or subtle questioning of dubious customs in others.
One sees a form of “patriotic theory” particularly in the works of the ancient playwrights. The connection between “theory” and “theater” was more than linguistic, for the ancient playwrights were a kind of “theorist” – people of intense vision – who by means of their “accounts” made possible a form of “theorizing” for the city’s greater populace as well. By means of retelling old stories about the city, by expanding on well-known tales and legends like those of Oedipus and Theseus and Orestes, a theatrical theorist at once tapped into the same constitutive material that informed his own vision and perception of the foreign, while altering or changing an emphasis in those ancient tales in a way that could open new vistas and ways of thinking for his audience. The Oresteia or the Theban trilogy might begin in foreign cities – like the theoretical journey itself, take one outside the city gates, if only figuratively – but, significantly, each of those play cycles concludes in Athens. In each case the trilogy demonstrated to the Athenians their own best qualities – its system of self-governance, for instance, or its openness to foreigners (thus reaffirming the value of “theorizing” and theater) – by means of recalling and recasting ancient stories. An Athenian audience could at once celebrate the unique features that constituted the Athenian character, leaving the theater more consciously patriotic, and yet also newly aware of potential shortcomings embedded as warnings in the subtle but familiar retellings by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and kindred theorists.
The city, in effect, pre-committed itself to a course of potential change and improvement by means of selecting the appropriate theoroi: without knowing the kinds of accounts with which it would be confronted, the city relied upon and employed the theorist’s reservoir of patriotism to ensure that the city’s vital customs, practices, ways of life were, in the first instance valued and respected, and yet potentially subject to reconsideration. One might even say the prospects for patriotism were extended and broadened by this practice and by the city’s attentiveness to the selection of appropriate theoroi, precluding the possibility of encrusted forms of parochialism or unquestioned vile customs while also undermining the accusatory claims of ungrateful cosmopolitans, “citizens of nowhere” whose initial stance was always one of hostility and mistrust and ingratitude toward any existing city. “Theory” kept the city open to improvement without loosening the ancient loyalties. It helped to make the city a worthwhile object of devotion, in some respects anticipating Edmund Burke’s observation, “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
The patriotic vision of the “theorist” eventually came to exist independently of the actual office sanctioned by the city, and in particular came to be closely associated with the form of inquiry of the ancient philosopher, most especially Socrates as portrayed by Plato. In a certain respect Socrates seems to represent the pure opposite of the activity of the “theorist” since Socrates famously did not travel outside the city of Athens except as a soldier during several battles in the Peloponnesian War. Yet the Platonic corpus featuring Socrates constantly alludes to and draws upon the ancient activity of the theorist, and demonstrates the manifold ways that Socrates “leaves” the city by means of contemplation, of imagination, through encounters with foreign guests (like Protagoras and Gorgias) and foreign teachers (like Diotima), through encounters with foreign teachings and deities (especially those of Sparta, Egypt and Persia), and through many small “journeys” within Athens that provide a setting for greater philosophic journeys (such as to Piraeus where the Republic unfolds, or to the banks of the Ilisus where Phaedrus transpires).
Generations of scholars have tried to explain the apparent contradiction that seems to exist at the core of Socrates’ relationship to Athens, exhibited on the one hand by his firm insistence that he will pursue his philosophic mission as he understands it even in spite of a prohibition from the city – as he announces in the Apology – and on the other hand, his deep commitment and gratitude to the city that “created” him, as expressed in the Crito. Most modern commentators, failing to see the “theoretical” character of the Socratic enterprise, often try to downplay or dismiss one or the other aspect of Socrates, ending with a portrait of Socrates as alienated critic or Socrates as devoted citizen. Yet these are not mutually exclusive, but indeed by ancient understandings are mutually reinforcing.
In the Apology – his defense speech before the Athenian jury, in which he defends himself against charges of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods into the city – Socrates reveals that he engages in his form of questioning at the behest of the gods who have declared him to be the wisest man and whom he seeks to disprove in his discussions with any purportedly wise person. His mission then seems to be potentially at odds with the interests and traditions of the city, and Socrates insists that he will not cease even if commanded by the city. Yet he goes on to explain to his fellow citizens that he will persist in this activity because of, not in spite of, his devotion to the city that, as the Laws say to him in the Crito, “begat, nourished, and educated you, and gave you and all the other citizens a share in all the noble things we could….” He insists in the Apology that he will continue to philosophize in order to rouse the “lazy thoroughbred” of Athens – a noble but insufficiently excellent regime – and that, while he will speak with anyone he happens to meet, “both foreigner and townsman,” he will dwell more with his fellow citizens “inasmuch as you are closer to me in kin.” His philosophic activity is undertaken on behalf of the city, born of the same gratitude and concern – if also futility – that prompted him to defend it bravely in the terrible Athenian defeats at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium. For Socrates, there is a unbreakable connection between this civic loyalty and his critical activity. We misunderstand ancient “theorizing” if we do not recognize the entwinement of patriotism and philosophy.
Theory without Vision: Against Patriotism
At some point, the practice of theory moved from this more integrated relationship between patriotic sympathy and critical distance born of the “sacred journey,” and became increasingly and almost exclusively a form of critique that started from an skeptical, untrusting, even accusatory perspective. While one can see such developments even in antiquity – Diogenes Laertius declared in the fourth-century B.C.E. that he was kosmou politēs, a “citizen of the cosmos” – the turning point that differentiated modern from ancient forms of theorizing, placing the theorist in an adversarial position with loyalty, can be arguably traced back to René Descartes.
Many people forget that much of the early section of Descartes’ seminal work on “theorizing,” Discourse on Method, begins with autobiographical details of Descartes’ many travels. His first engagement in the “thought experiment” by which he proceeds in a complete state of doubt about all inherited knowledge, all assumptions of what is true, all the most obvious facts of existence that arrive from the senses, notably occurs in a foreign country. During a winter spent in Germany, having “no cares or passions to trouble me, I remained the whole day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I had complete leisure to occupy myself with my own thoughts. One of the first of the considerations that occurred to me was that there is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked.”
Descartes describes the perfect antithesis of the approach of the ancient theorist: rather than proceeding from a sympathetic stance toward the inheritance of his own legacy, Descartes begins with radical suspicion toward all that has preceded him in act or thought, and especially as an outcome of common endeavors like that of a community or a people. The fact that he is in Germany as he launches these considerations only highlights the variance of his own investigations from those of the ancient theorist. He purposefully eschews the insights and experiences offered to him by an alien culture, and instead shuts himself literally within a room and figuratively within his own mind.
Descartes’ presence in a foreign land is almost irrelevant as part of his approach, a conclusion he has reached as a result his previous travels that all human arrangements are wholly conventional, mere accrued custom and accretions of generations, and not a result of considered and purposive thought. Travel has taught him that there is nothing more to be learned from travel: he is now a cosmopolitan, a thinker without origin or destination, an occupant of earth who can contemplate equally well anywhere he should find himself. He is the precursor of and the model for the modern philosopher, a citizen of no-place but the realm of abstract thought, one who can presumably arrive at the same patterns of thought regardless of what nation he might find himself – all locations are accidental and tenuous. A thinker like Descartes would appear to be content to think anywhere on earth.
At the same time, Descartes reveals that this apparent lack of preference will result in certain preferences all the same – Descartes admits that ideally, such a philosopher is a kind of “free rider” on the wealth, security, generosity, and anonymity provided by modern nations and especially cosmopolitan cities, ones in particular that are sufficiently liberal as not to demand any loyalty in return. As Descartes relates, since his first investigations in Germany, “it is just eight years ago that this desire to remove myself from all places where any acquaintances were possible, and to retire to a country such as this [i.e., Holland], where the long-continued war has caused such order to be established that the armies which are maintained seem only to be of use in allowing the inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of peace with so much the more security; and where, in the crowded throng of a great and very active nation, which is more concerned with its own affairs than curious about those of others, without missing any of the conveniences of the most populous towns, I can live as solitary and retired as in deserts the most remote.”
Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy’s estrangement from the places where philosophy begins – among and with one’s fellow citizens – and ultimately from the world. G. K. Chesterton once suggested that the “main problem for philosophers” was to solve the problem of how to “contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it” (he proposed a novel in which an Englishman sails the South Seas in search of new islands. He lands in England without realizing it, and all that was once familiar is now new. Chesterton describes an accidental theoretical journey, in effect). Descartes seemed not to have even acknowledged either “wonder” or “belonging” as of ultimate value, for by making oneself a stranger from one’s fellows and the world, one made it thereby impossible to be astonished by it.