Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Patriotism Firmly Rooted in Mid-Air

I am like many self-styled American "conservatives" in this regard: I am extremely impatient of bumper stickers and signs that say "God Bless The World." I know what they're trying to say: God's love encompasses the whole world, and we must not presume to think for one moment that God's providential care is limited to one nation. I reply with a hearty, affirmative "Amen" to this. But I'm afraid there is a more sinister side to this position that these well-meaning folk miss, and miss at their peril. They run the risk of falling victim to an abstract sort of "love for humanity," a solidarity with the "human race" which, C.S. Lewis reminds us, can easily turn into an excuse not to love anyone at all. Stalin and Pol Pot were "lovers of humanity," yet had no qualms sending a good number of indivuduals to their deaths simply because they did not conform to their ideal of "humanity." This is the temptation that befalls all "lovers of humanity"-a destructive love of an abstraction. Love of country forms the basic and and necessary chain of affections which tie a person to a family, a community, and a nation, without which love of the human family is, if not impossible, very, very difficult to attain. How can you love "humanity" without loving particular people? You learn this through the complex web of relationships, beginning with family, extending to one's community, city, village, etc., to the love of one's country, and on to the world.

But I must also wonder about the "good American" who plasters his bumper with "God bless America," the Statue of Liberty prominently displayed bearing the "torch of freedom," stars and stripes fluttering everywhere. What, in fact, is this fellow's love and allegiance? Is it to an actual country, with its complex web of communities, history, traditions, local customs, and shared experiences? Or is it to an abstraction? If you ask a typical "patriotic" American why he has a devotion to his country, the usual answer you are likely to get will include the words "liberty," "freedom," "rights," etc. To him, America is an idea, a concept, which encompasses the "ideals" of liberty, freedom and justice for all.

So is it "ideals" to which the typical American patriot locates his devotion? The American patriot's affections become directed not so much to a place, a community, a nation with history and tradition which mark its own uniqueness, but to a set of abstractions. Do you ever hear any mention of his love for the American people? Do you ever hear him express a love for his city? Of his neighbors? Does he even know his neighbors?

The American notion of patriotism, I'm afraid, is closely akin to that of Imperial Rome's notion of itself as something more than a city on the banks of the Tiber. This is captured in the concept of Roma Aeterna, Eternal Rome, a reality that exists in the mind of the gods (it ws usually figured in coins as a lady seated on a throne, holding the sun and the moon-an emblem of Rome's mastery of the world). For the typical Roman Rome meant order, civilization, light, glory, peace, over against the barbaric hordes that hem her in, and which she must subdue. There was a sense of mission associated with this, as Romans were to subdue the world around her, bringing the light of Roman civilization to every tribe and people that was benighted by the darkness of barbarity and lack if civitas. This sense of "Roman-ness" is captured by that indefagitable celebrant of the new Augustan order, Virgil, who, in his Aeneid, has the central hero, Aeneas, sojourn through the Underworld in Book Six, where he meets his dead father, Anchises. Up to this point, Aeneas (often called pius-"dutiful"), he seems to stumble a great deal, at one point being tempted by the love of Dido to stay in what would eventually become Carthage instead of moving on at the gods' insistence to build the city of Rome. Anchises shows him a "parade" of endless prominent Romans that would be the lions of his race: Cato, Marcellus, Quirinus, Fabius Maximus, etc., and gives him this charge: "Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth's peoples-for your arts are to be these: To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered, battle down the proud." (Aeneid, [trans. Robert Fitzgerald] New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 Book VI:1151-1154) Rome is thus defined as an entity whose divine mandate was to bring peace, "impose the rule of law," thus bringing a settled life among the world's barbarians.

I think Richard Harris' protrayal of Marcus Aurelius captures the essence of what Roma Aeterna was supposed to express. In a private and candid conversation with the central hero, Maximus, he expresses a notion of Rome he calls "something you uttered only in a whisper," a concept, an idea, that if you uttered it above a whisper, it would disappear.There is a problem when a nation becomes nothing more than an idea, no matter how noble or lofty. It is only that-an idea, a phantom with no rootedness in community, history, and culture.

Freedom, rights, and liberty are great things, but unless they are rooted in natural law, and understood to be mediated through historical and cultural experiences that provide a cohesiveness that binds a people together, then they will forever remian nice ideas that have no relevance to human experience. Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution was precisely directed at its commitment to liberte, egalite, fraternite, having destroyed its existing constitution-the French monarchy, and its institutions-thus cutting itself off from its own history.

I saw two cars last week-on the same day-one bearing the bumper sticker "God Bless the World," and another "God Bless America." The drivers of these two cars have different allegiances, but in the end, I'm afraid, both are equally guilty of a profound allegiance to abstractions.

1 comment:

Ø said...

This isn't anything new, though, is it?

I mean - hasn't "America" always been an abstraction?

As a boy growing up in this country - and continuing to grow up here - I have never been presented with anything more than an idea. It is great because "behind this mask, there is an idea - and ideas are bulletproof!" (V, from V for Vendetta) I personally believe this is rather lame, but it seems like the only way to make a Modernist/Enlightenment project like "America" work.