Note: The first part of this essay assumes a more relational/social understanding of country, thinking of the people within it. The latter part turns more towards viewing country in terms of culture and place, which are connected. This article does not address policy for reasons that hopefully will be evident throughout the piece. For further reading on government and politics, I recommend the referenced readings along with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.
At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Socrates finds himself in the home of a rich young man named Polemarchus and his father Cephalus. Early in the conversation, small talk gives way to philosophy as Socrates begins to question the wealthy patriarch’s concept of justice. Cephalus quickly bails, leaving his son to be the heir of the conversation alongside his friends (Glaucon, Adeimantus, Thrasymachus, and Cleitophon, if you’re curious). After dialoguing with these lively young men and blowing their assumptions to bits, Socrates decides these young men will understand better if they conduct a case study: helping him build the ideal state through their imaginations and logic, for justice is often called the virtue of the individual soul as well as the State (Book II, section 368, p. 316). Socrates explains his rationale for such an experiment through the analogy of a nearsighted person who, being asked to read small letters from a long distance, would benefit from reading larger letters first and then attempting to identify the smaller. Similarly, “… in [the State] the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them” (Book II, section 369, p. 316).
I’d like to take a similar but somewhat reversed approach in addressing the question of loving one’s country. If I could be general for a moment, it seems that we are currently experiencing a cultural astigmatism, the kind that affects both near and far vision (as I inherited from my father). In some ways we are nearsighted (in this case, self-absorbed but also asking questions about details while ignoring core principles) and need to be reminded of universals. In other ways, we are farsighted (preoccupied with the dust in the other’s eye while ignoring the infamous plank in our own) and need to be reminded of the particulars of our own thoughts, words, and actions. I’m probably stretching the analogy, and I don’t claim to be using it in the same way as Plato, but I do think that he (along with Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas) would agree that we need an appropriate ordering to our souls as well as our loves.
So, what is the proper way to love one’s country?
Currently, it’s hard to ask this question without having to address—perhaps to the point of distraction—the various issues, controversies, agendas, opinions, and genuine concerns and desires on everyone’s minds. It may be crucial to address the specific issues our nation is facing, but in order to do so we must first remind ourselves of some universal truths. Which is why in this case it might help to use something smaller to rediscover the universal principle and then apply this principle to the larger. (We can then go on to address the specifics, the concrete, everyday issues.)
Let’s relate a love of country to a love of one’s neighbor. That should keep us busy for a while. We spend a great deal of time boiling people down to ideas, groups, and causes and incidentally strip them of their humanity. A neighbor is a bit more tangible than a country, something you can grasp more easily—whether we want to grasp it or not. It is also more relational than an idea or a policy.
So, instead of thinking of the large group of people making up a country, state, or even a city, narrow that down to your neighbors for the time being. We’ll even bring it further down to friends and family to make it easier. You now have a fairly familiar group of people in mind, however much you like or dislike them. What does it mean to love these people?
We’re actually doing something quite similar to what Lewis proposed in Mere Christianity in his chapter “Forgiveness.” He first responds to qualms about forgiveness, in particular the quip, “I wonder how you would feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?” (Lewis 115). First, he admits he wonders the same thing. He’s not quite sure what he would do, and certainly not what he could do, but that is not the question. The question is what Christianity says.
He then encourages us to start smaller, as we do when learning math by learning addition long before calculus. (I’m personally flattered he assumes we’d even make it to calculus.) First, we might try forgiving a friend or family member, and second, “we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbor as yourself means” (115). Scripture tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, so how do I love myself? (You’ll now notice we’ve gone from country to neighbor to friends and family to the self, a complete reversal of Plato’s Republic.)
Lewis writes very candidly here, and his thought process is helpful, hence the length of the quote:
Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently, ‘Love your neighbor’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive.’ I ought to have seen that before, because, of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I’m afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact, it is the other way around: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either.
Notice here Lewis shifts from family and friends to enemies, widening our understanding of neighbors. He continues
That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I’ve done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate the bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.
For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely, myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. (116-117)
It should be the same with our enemies, our friends and family, our neighbors. To love our neighbor means to desire the best for his soul (and everything else) and act accordingly, to care for him as we would ourselves. It’s a great call to a realistic view of the self and the other, a call to responsibility, compassion, and honesty.
And then we have to remember what Christ said in response to the question, But who is my neighbor? Here he tells a story that is now known as The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Who was the neighbor? The one who had mercy. In this case, the Samaritan, the character that Christ’s audience would have hated on religious, ethnic, and political grounds all underlined by a painful and nasty history. One Benedictine scholar makes a few interesting points that I’ll summarize and quote here:
First, John J. Pilch reminds us, the Jewish man who was robbed, in being stripped and left half dead, could no longer be identified by his clothing or accent. How could a Jew tell if he were a fellow Jew or a Samaritan? How could a Samaritan tell if he were a fellow Samaritan or a Jew?
Next, if the man were dead or not Jewish, the priest or Levite would have been defiled by touching him. (Purification rites were not exactly convenient, and when I visited Israel we learned about the shame and honor system more prevalent in eastern cultures.)
The Jewish passersby were cognizant of the potential consequences of helping this man, and the Samaritan should have been no exception. Pilch draws our attention not only to the repulsion the Samaritan man may have been tempted to feel towards his enemy but the dangers of helping him in the first place:
The Samaritan’s risk is that this victim might hate him upon re-gaining consciousness. Samaritan wine and oil were considered impure and would have made the (very likely) Judean victim impure too! In a certain sense, the Samaritan in this story line will be “damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.”
…Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the robbers, promises to return and pay any additional expenses. This is perhaps the most foolish part of this story. If the victim should die, his family, who will not be able to find the robbers, may kill his benefactor instead. Or if the victim survives, he may rage at this Samaritan for making him impure with Samaritan wine and oil. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of purity, that is, the determination to “be holy as the Lord is holy” (Lev 11:44 and elsewhere).
Our neighbors, clearly, are not only those with the most similarities or those we most agree with or those living in the closest proximity. Christ has a way of turning these things on their heads, and now we’re back to our original question, What does it mean to love one’s country?
I think we could go back, especially to the Lewis quote, and replace neighbors and enemies with country. In fact, I encourage you to do so.
Loving our country does not mean we think our country “nice” or find it attractive (that would be a nice bonus that can change at any moment as it does in relationships). We do not love the people that make up our country because they are all nice. We can loathe the terrible things our country does. The reason we hate those things is because we love our country. We love it because it is ours, and because we love it we want what is best for the souls within it, and we act accordingly.
At this point, we might expand this further, What does it mean to love our neighbors around the world?
It may help to consider what Lewis points out in a section on patriotism in the book The Four Loves. (He actually covers very well many questions not addressed in this article, so I highly recommend that you give it a read.) In a preliminary chapter called “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human,” he reminds us of the maxim that love “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god” (6) and seeks to “distinguish its [patriotism’s] innocent from its demoniac condition” (22). He again relates something large and abstract to something smaller and more concrete, namely, a love of country to a love of home:
With this love of 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 the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reason for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he “could not even begin” to enumerate all the things he would miss.” (23)
Of course this love, like others, can become misplaced, an idol, but it can also, Lewis says, be a preparation for spiritual love: “There may come an occasion for renouncing this love; pluck out your right eye. But you need to have an eye first” (24).
In thinking of love of our country (as well as other countries) as similar to the loves of our neighbors, selves, and homes, it’s helpful to remember the following wisdom as well:
Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised 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 just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different” (24).
What a beautiful thing, that we as sub-creators have one more way in which to imitate the One Who Created us! It makes life into a dance. Who would want to deprive her neighbor of the same opportunity? Such a lack of focus echoes that of Cain who was jealous of his brother’s offering to the Lord. And isn’t love for our neighbor, our country, and our neighboring countries to be just that, an offering to the Lord of us all? He said it Himself, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36.)
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
“Land of My Sojourn” Rich Mullins
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper Collins: New York, 1980.
—————The Four Loves. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988.
Pilch, John J. “The Good Samaritan.” Historical Cultural Context. 10 July 2016.
https://liturgy.slu.edu/15OrdC071016/theword_cultural.html. Accessed 3 July 2020.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Great Books of the Western World.
Vol. 6. Edited by Mortimer J. Adler. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1990.