Patriotism and Ethics

Patriotism and Ethics. By John Godard. London:  Grant Richards. 5s.

EVERY kind of moral and personal credit is due to Mr. Godard for his courage and conscientiousness in publishing this interesting book at this time. I cannot pretend to accept his theory; which is a proposal for the dethronement of the whole virtue of patriotism. But the shock of a logical challenge can do nothing but good to a virtue like patriotism, especially when that virtue is almost trampled to death, as at present, by inanities disguised in its costume. We hear much of saying "the right thing at the right time;" but there is a considerable value in the man who says even the wrong thing at the right time.

But there is, before I proceed to any details, one error which spoils much of Mr. Godard's book from a philosophic point of view. It is that he, like His Majesty's Ministers, appears to think the present Transvaal war a great war. Judging from the enormous amount of space occupied in his pages by this silly and disastrous adventure, one would think that there never had been a national enterprise in the world before. Patriotism can be tested by the Transvaal war just about as much as Christianity could be tested by Mr. Baxter's prophecies of the end of the world. Mr. Godard had undertaken to study the whole nature of patriotism, and it was necessary for him to take some great theory of patriotism and systematically examine it. Some of the greatest men the world has seen have written upon patriotism-Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Milton, Victor Hugo, Herbert Spencer, John Ruskin. And Mr. Godard calmly selects for detailed study a lecture given by Mr. Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain does not pretend to be a philosopher; his opinion on patriotism has no more special value than his opinion on the Royal Academy. It need hardly be said that I entirely agree with Mr. Godard's spirited denunciation of the present war, of Jingo intolerance, of the brutality of the idiots who wrecked Peace meetings. But what have these things to do with patriotism? What has Imperialism to do with patriotism? What have sky-larking crowds to do with patriotism? Above all, what particular connection is there between Mr. Chamberlain and patriotism?

This is the primary and superficial objection to Mr. Godard, that he has meekly accepted the theory of the Government that the war is a great trial of English patriotism, instead of being, as it is, a vulgar and dirty experiment in a corner, different in no way from other frontier experiments except in the arrogance of its terms and the magnifying-glass of morbidity through which it is regarded. Mr. Godard, if he wished to study patriotism, should not have taken one paltry colonial squabble out of history, as one takes lots out of a hat; he should have reviewed the great wars of history in something like their proper proportion. But one thing is at least certain.

If Mr. Godard does not think patriotism is a precious virtue, his sympathy with Boer resistance is inexplicable. He passionately, and most justly exclaims, "Does 'justice' decimate a nation because it refuses unconditionally to submit to a foreign yoke?" But if patriotism has no value a foreign yoke has no injustice. "Can we contemplate," he continues, "the absolute annexation of the territory of two foreign States, 'a penalty so extreme as to be without parallel in the history of modern nations since the partition of Poland?'" It is the opinion of many, including myself, that annexation is far too great a penalty. But if patriotism has no sanctity, it is not a penalty at all. If the lines between nations are really as needless and arbitrary as Mr. Godard represents, it is no more cruel to take over a Boer farm from the Republic to the Empire than to transfer a particular street from Fulham to Hammersmith. If there were a passionate patriotic feeling in Hammersmith; if the inhabitants delighted in boasting that the flag of Hammersmith had never fallen in war, that the women of Hammersmith were the most beautiful and the wines of Hammersmith the most rejoicing in the world, then I myself should thoroughly sympathize with Hammersmith, entertaining, as I probably should, similar convictions about South Kensington. But presumably Mr. Godard would not. He considers any peculiar attachment to a nation narrow and immoral. He must, therefore, I infer, consider the present resistance of the Boers a hideous and ghastly thing, the deluging of a whole country with blood by madmen fighting for a detestable prejudice. I do not.

I am very little terrified by Mr. Godard's catalogue of the wars and woes wrought by patriotism. Of all methods of testing a great idea this method seems to me the worst. Mankind have always been ready to pay a great price for anything they really thought necessary; catalogues of dead and wounded only show how necessary they thought it. Mr. Godard declares that patriotism is, on account of its cruelties and its pride, inconsistent with Christianity. But if peace is the test, how will Christianity itself stand it? Again, he declares patriotism to be inimical to liberty and democracy. But if peace is the test, how will liberty and democracy stand it? The French Revolution has led to at least as much bloodshed as any national sentiment in the world. Rosseau is at one with a greater, in that he assuredly did not bring peace but a sword.

Mr. Godard wishes us to dethrone patriotism and substitute love of all mankind, because patriotism, he says, is only "reflex egoism." I cannot comprehend this definition. In what sense is patriotism reflex egoism in which the love of humanity is not reflex egoism? If patriotism is exclusive, so is the love of humanity; it stops at the first ape. If patriotism includes pride in being an Englishman, does not the worship of humanity include pride in being a man? If the pride of being an Englishman makes a merit of something not in our control, does not the pride of being a man do the same? If patriotism asserts the interests of the nation, often cruelly, against other nations, does not the service of man assert his interests, often cruelly, against the animal world?

And does Mr. Godard really suppose that if the love of humanity became an universal popular virtue, its expression would not be as vulgar, as heated, as unscrupulous in many cases as that of patriotism? Mr. Godard quotes a list of silly and brutal remarks about President Kruger "singing psalms on the wrong side of his mouth" and puts them to the account of patriotism. They belong, not to the ethics of patriotism, but to the psychology of cads. Does Mr. Godard suppose that if the love for humanity were made the basis of national thought, the fool who had just been saying, "One in the eye for Kruger," would immediately begin to talk in the language of sublime liberality? He would merely change the cant. It would be as easy to represent Kruger as the enemy of mankind as to represent him as the enemy of England.

It would be as easy for a ring of financiers with their eyes on a gold mine to pity Outlanders as men as to pity them as Englishmen. It would be as easy to break up the meetings of your political opponents because they were enemies of their kind as because they were enemies of their country. The old cosmopolitan Romans boiled Christians in oil because they were the foes of mankind. The French Revolutionists burnt priests in straw because they were the foes of mankind. These things do not arise either from the love of country or the love of men, but simply from folly, intemperance, vagueness and the heart of man deceitful above all things. Let Mr. Godard look abroad on Europe at this moment. There exists a school who hold, doubtless with entire sincerity, the pure love of humanity which he recommends, to the exclusion of all national preferences. The form it takes is to blow to pieces with dynamite hundreds of harmless people whom they have never seen. "Let patriotism be subdued," says Mr. Godard. "Let it be removed from the pinnacle of a virtue and be replaced by humanitarianism, and there shall dawn the day of peace on earth and goodwill to men." And of this cosmopolitan philosophy the first fruits are the Dynamiters.

Of some of Mr. Godard's arguments I will not speak at length, for we think he must have employed them in some haste. We cannot see the philosophical bearing of such a remark as that "patriotism fights against the best interests of the patria." It seems to us like saying that we dislike total abstainers because we find they all drink. In that case it would not be total abstinence that we disliked, but drinking. If certain so-called "patriots" work against the patria the case against them does not lie in the charge that they are patriotic, but in the charge that they are not.

The fact is that Mr. Godard has erred by confusing two things. Christianity is a symbol, the dim and shifting symbol, of a certain love of all things, a certain loyalty to the universe to which we all rise in our higher moments. It is not the love of humanity, it goes out to cats and tadpoles. It is an inspiration far too mysterious to be bridled or counted upon; far too certain to be demonstrated; far too perfect to be praised. It has nothing to do with practical politics or material privileges; it extends itself with a calm conscience to the creatures we burden for transport and slay for food. It is a moment in which we realize our kinship with the stars and the stones in the road; in which our sensitiveness runs like a maze of nerves over the whole Cosmos until a falling star or a stricken tree is like a wound upon our bodies. But this gigantic self is a thing that even the greatest and purest only realize at certain seasons. It does not and cannot have anything to do with those working loyalties which we have to preserve in order to preserve our mode of life. That terrible truce in which the lion lies down with the lamb is a vision, not a daily rule. For natural purposes, we assert our family against our fellow-countrymen, our country against humanity, humanity against nature.

Mr. Godard never seems to realize that he does belong to a country. Great Britain is no more a geographical area than the Order of the Jesuits or the Cocoa Tree Club. Like them, it is a centre of power, numbering certain persons within its rules and responsibilities. It is not humanity which prevents Mr. Godard from being knocked down with a bludgeon; it is his country and his country alone. It is not humanity that makes Mr. Godard pay for a dog-license, it is his country and his country alone. The only real error of Mr. Godard is that he calls upon a mere abstract sentiment, however natural and beautiful, to take the place of what is a necessary working sentiment designed for certain definite relations of life. It is like saying, "Let a soldier's obedience to his officers be removed from the pinnacle of a virtue and replaced by a love of all living things." Patriotism is obviously a virtue so long as there is a patria. Mr. Godard seems to think that a nation will remain strong and independent automatically, without any assistance from patriotism. I should be inclined to ask what is keeping the Boer nation in existence at this moment.

The bill which Mr. Godard counts up against modern Jingoism is long and heavy. But of all the crimes it has committed, none is so black and ruinous as this; that it has made good and able men like Mr. Godard turn against patriotism itself. About patriotism itself I will say one thing only, on behalf of those like myself who are Nationalists at home and abroad. We also have had to breathe in a stifling vulgarity; to see a thousand faces fixed in one fatuous sneer. We also have had all the temptations possible to intellectual rebellion or to intellectual pride. If we have remained steadfast in a monotonous candor, we cannot claim that we were strengthened by ethical subtlety or new-fangled emancipation. We have remained steadfast because voices older than the hills called us to this spot; here in this island was to be our glory or failure. We have eaten its bread and been made wise with all its works. And if we are indeed near the end, and the madness of cosmopolitan materialism, the spirit of the present war, be indeed dragging our country to destruction, we can only say that at the end we must be with her, to claim our portion in the wrath of God.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Speaker, May 18, 1901.

(A collection of early Chesterton essays compiled by Mike Miles)