GK Chesterton’s “The Patriotic Idea”

Found this in an old edition of the Chesterton Review. Very good IMHO.


”The Patriotic Idea” by GK Chesterton, St. George Educational Trust, A4 papers. 24 pages. Obtainable from the Trust of St. Michael the Archangel, 113A Shirland Road, Maida Vale, London, W9 2EW. 1.50 pounds, postage 50p.

There is an epigram of GK Chesterton’s, not nearly as well known as his famous “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything,” but equally as elusive as to source – ”The Patriot loves his Patria, but the Cosmopolitan does not love the Cosmos.” It does not appear in “The Patriotic Idea” but it may be said to summarize the content and argument of what is a long and densely written essay (approximately 10,000 words).

A preface tells us that in spite of Chesterton’s fame the essay did not appear in literary review of wide circulation, nor in a collection from a well known publisher, but in a 1904 collection edited by Lucien Oldlershaw entitled England A Nation – The Papers of the Patriots’ Club. It has never, until now, been republished and the editors speculate on the reason for this. They conclude that it is because the essay is a defense of the Christian (and natural) virtue of Patriotism. If it had been an attack on Patriotism it would have appeared many times in print.

The tenor of the prose, the density of meaning, the detail of the argument and even the fact that the essay is, unusually for Chesterton, divided into three parts, indicates that Chesterton did not regard it as just another piece of “Jolly Journalism”, but a serious examination of both the question and his own standpoint. The first part treats of “philosophic” cosmopolitanism, what was represented in Chesterton’s time by Tolstoyism, and is today represented by “multiculturalism.” Chesterton makes the point that it is impossible to love “Humanity” without loving human things and these are, par excellence, local and national customs, rituals, affections, and relationships: “The prig will profess to join in their divisions…A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity.” In this essay Chesterton holds aloft the banner under which he was to fight against cant and abstraction – the banner of reality and diversity. “The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism and such sentiments is this: that by means of it all things are loved adequately because all things are loved individually….Patriotism begins the praise of the world at the nearest things instead of beginning it at the most distant.” With his usual brilliance Chesterton argues that far from patriotism and nationalism being “narrow”, it is cosmopolitanism which is “narrow to the point of suffocation,” a “frigid and arbitrary fancy, incomparable in its moral value to that intensity which has bound living men to an actual and ancient soil.” “Just look,” he cries aloud, “at your cosmopolitans!”

There is, however, another enemy of Patriotism and Nationalism. It is equipped with power and wealth and a good chance of success in practical politics and it is but the disguise of cosmopolitanism. It is Imperialism, or as we would say, ”Globalism”. In Chesterton’s opinion the Empire was neither for the benefit nor the glory of the English, it was for their exploitation. We had been put to work, to suffer, to bleed and to die, for the benefit of international banking and trade, that is, “Globalism”, and when we had served our purpose the assets would be stripped and lodged elsewhere. The price of such glory as we might enjoy from seeing the map painted red, was our impoverishment, our deculturation, our mongrelization, our destruction as a Nation. Chesterton presented this succinctly in “The Flying Inn”(1904) “Did you ever hear the great destiny of Empire?….It is in four acts…..Victory over barbarians. Employment of barbarians. Alliance with barbarians. Conquest by barbarians. That is the great destiny of Empire.”

It is perhaps a minor point, but worth noting as evidence of Chesterton’s perspicacity, that in “The Flying Inn” the method of marking a ballot box is changed from a cross, which might offend Mohammadens, to a crescent; our “Anglo-Catholic” Prime Minister, Blair, has recently changed it to a “tick” for the same reason.

Imperialism, Chesterton argues, is the opposite of Nationalism for the good reason that it is impossible to have for “a sprawling and indeterminate collection of people of every variety of goodness and badness, precisely that sentiment which is evoked in a man, rightly or wrongly, by the contemplation of the peculiar customs of his ancestors and the peculiar land of his birth.” Chesterton’s objection to Imperialism is precisely that it seeks to destroy all such “peculiar customs” which differentiate nations. Its aim is the cosmopolitan aim of a standardized humanity living in a standardized economy under a standardized law. It is not the existence of sovereign nations which is the cause of war. It is the policy of the Empires, British, French, German, Russian, and since Chesterton’s day, American, to expand and bring all peoples under their sway, which results in the clash of titans. To love one’s own country first and most is no more at odds with a proper regard for Humanity than to love one’s own family and one’s own native spot first and foremost, on the contrary, it is required by the virtue of pietas. The limits upon such love are perhaps hard to define, but have never been put than in the words applied to the Scots’ patriot, Fletcher of Saltoun: “He would gladly die for his country, but he would do no base thing to save it.”

The chief impression of this essay, in spite of reference to such contemporary events as the South African War, is of its relevance to our present condition. Cosmopolis and Empire tread the same road and have the same destination; the destruction of all that is precious to men, and the bitter irony is that the Cosmopolitan does not even love the Cosmos. The St. George Educational Trust is to be congratulated for making this valuable piece of Chesterton once more available, not only for, let us hope, to Chestertonians, but to a wider circle who will learn from it good sense, even at the eleventh hour.

Anthony Cooney,
Lark Lane