Amor patriae

Love of country can mean a lot of things. Many of them don’t seem to apply from my standpoint. It can mean:

  • Love of the principles for which the country stands. What are those principles in America today, though—individual economic success? National strength? Global democracy? Inclusiveness and tolerance? Those are all good things within limits, but taken literally as final comprehensive goals—which is how people seem to take them—they strike me as destructive and certainly not lovable. “One nation under God” suggests limits to the other principles, but it’s probably too content-free to do much, and in any event seems to have dropped out of polite discourse.
  • Love of a particular people. But the whole point of American national thought, feeling and public morality today is that there is no particular American people. Those who think there is are evil and un-American. And if the whole of America with one voice says that acceptable definitions of the American people have to limit themselves to some combination of legality, ideology and team membership, who am I to disagree?
  • Love of a particular place. America’s too big for that as a whole, though, and American localities are becoming less distinctive and less important in the scheme of things. Also, the American built environment tends to be inhuman, alienating and generic. It’s possible to love New England villages or mid-American county seats, but we’re not in the 19th century so that kind of place does not define America.
  • Love of characteristic ways of doing things, or characteristic people, places, habits, connections, situations and attitudes. Someone might like American popular culture, California girls, the American supermarket, the American attitude toward enterprise and mobility, or all of the above. Even people who don’t especially like such things might be used to them and find it uncomfortable to live away from them. Those things change, though, and a lot of them seem to be going downhill, losing their distinctiveness, or both. Also, love of country can’t simply be love of minor habits.
  • Love of a reconstructed or idealized America: America as it was or could be or perhaps—one might claim—most truly is. Is that love of the actual country though?

To my mind love of America seems somewhat like love of a large and troublesome extended family operating a loosely organized business, if such a thing can be imagined: you depend on them, they’ve made you what you are, you care what happens to them and wish for the best, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with them or approve of what they do or who else they bring into the family. Nor does it mean they necessarily have much in common except family membership.

It’s likely to mean you have some idea of how things could be better that’s connected to your idea of what they’ve been and what’s best in them. To that extent love of family is connected to a vision of reconstructed or idealized family life. Most basically, though, it’s attachment and concern with people just as they are because you’re connected to them. For that reason another analogy would be to for a small and somewhat isolated town where your family, and most families, have lived for generations. You don’t idealize the place, but you’re part of it and it’s part of you so you want what’s best for it and for those who live there.

12 thoughts on “Amor patriae”

  1. Love is a feeling?
    Nice post, but it’s interesting that you describe love as mostly a mental state, or at most “wanting” what’s best for something—rather than as an ongoing relationship, behavior, etc.

    • I think I discuss it as an
      I think I discuss it as an attitude normally integrated with various habits and human ties.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • “I think I discuss it as
        “I think I discuss it as an attitude normally integrated with various habits and human ties.”

        Well, with all due respect, no you didn’t. I’m just going by what you actually wrote, not what you may have meant to say, and one of the things that struck me—which is related to what I said before—is how un-integrated this love is with its object, the “characteristic ways of doing things, or characteristic people, places, habits, connections, situations and attitudes”. These attitudes, habits, etc. are the objects of your amor patriae, not your amor patriae itself. This “love” is about “care”, “concern”, “want what’s best”. All very nice, but the only thing that comes even close to what I’m suggesting in its place is a vague word you used, “attachment”; but of course you can also be attached to something you hate or are indifferent to.

        You started this with a Latin phrase, but I’d go even further back. In ancient near eastern covenants a vassal often swore to “love” his suzerain, and there exist examples of the phrase “you shall love [your king or suzerain] as you love yourself”. This was not about “care”, “concern”, “want what’s best”—it was about action, behavior. Love was something that could be seen with one’s eyes. That’s what seems to be missing from your amor patriae. How can it be seen?

        • The ties that bind
          In the last two paragraphs I mention situations that seem to me analogous to love of country. It seems clear to me that I treat love there as an aspect of a relationship that’s fundamental to what we are and not as a free-floating feeling.

          Incidentally, you seem to treat “care,” “concern,” and “wanting what’s best” as disembodied feelings with no systematic connection to how one is disposed to act. Does that make sense? I suppose people sometimes use the words that way but when they do it’s recognized as fraudulent.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • “recognized as fraudulent”
            Our only disagreement now seems to be whether you really wrote what you meant to write, which is pretty trivial. To answer your general question, though, when the object of someone’s professed love is something as abstract as a patria, words like “care” and “concern”—disconnected from any action more strenuous than putting one’s hand on one’s heart—are usually not recognized as fraudulent (or as self-deceiving, which is more often the case). Hence the skepticism in my original comment, which apparently was just the result of a misunderstanding.

  2. Patriotism
    The current wave of civic-mindedness (or at least an increased inclination to vote) generated by the current presidential election campaign certainly indicates to me the continued existence of a love of country among the general populace. And it is indeed as you say like the love of a large and troublesome family. However it is in fact made up of the sum of those particulars that you find such weak tea.

    Individual economic success has always been part of the bedrock of American ideology. The “liberals” push for equality of results in addition to equality of opportunity may well destroy it all but it is founded on extending economic success to everyone. People are quite passionate about this and consider it their patriotic duty to further the cause. Witness Obamamania.

    National strength in the face of attack is also a fundamental American characteristic as the wave of enlistments directly after 9/11 showed. Extending democracy to the rest of the world via force of arms has always been a tough sell though, and has usually required quite a bit of lying by the government to effect. Left to their own devices the populace is happiest when making and spending money.

    There may not be a particular American people but there certainly are peoples. Even if the volatile elements of pop culture seem to fuel the melting pot, the unlimited influx of immigrants keeps it a lumpy stew. Americans seem to love their neighbors enough anyhow. For instance, everyone hates New Yorkers but the immediate and visceral support for NYC by the entire country was extraordinary. And “FDNY” scrawled in chalk on munitions was put there by and large by non-New Yorkers.

    I would also argue that love of place is still a deep emotion for most Americans. Especially so in the South and West but even Manhattan has its aficionados. The entire conservation/environmental movement springs from an atavistic but very real love of the landscape.

    Which gets right to the “characteristic ways of doing things, or characteristic people, places, habits, connections, situations and attitudes” that Americans do. It’s called playing hard on the weekends. When not working they spend all their time and apparently every last cent hunting, shooting, fishing, boating, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, sailing, water ski-ing, bicycling, camping, prospecting, skiing, scuba diving, fly planes, build planes, kayak and God knows what else. They build hotrods, collect coins and stamps, build furniture, garden, cook for sport, collect wine and antiques, sing, dance, go to church, deliver meals on wheels, play music, collect this and that, crochet, knit, play and watch: baseball, football, soccer!, hockey, basketball. They lift weights, run, jump, play video games, ad infinitum. I suppose New Yorkers drink, smoke, go to plays, museums, watch TV, and shop. And everyone now spends time obsessing over the particulars and hooking up with other enthusiasts of their hobby on the internet.

    As trivial and as etiolated from some notion of past greatness that some may find it, it’s making money and these “minor habits” that make up the country in peoples minds. And it is what they mean by their “freedoms” that they were told were under attack by Iraq. And the concomitant enthusiasm for the war was frightening to behold.

    Americans love of their ountry is as vulgar as it is certainly real. And instead of longing for a lost America of Wednesday night prayer meetings and full six day work weeks Americans are much more likely to finish up a hard weekend of play by saying “Hey! Is this a great country or what!?!”

    • Interesting response
      I suppose my counter-response is that things ain’t what they used to be. A couple thoughts:

      1. The current civic-mindedness seems mostly to take the form of Barack Obama. It also seems mostly content-free. We had Republican team spirit for a while, which was given a boost by 9/11, and now we have Democratic “change you can believe in.” That kind of thing gives you a nice high but also leads to hangovers.

      2. Agreed that “the American Dream” (individual prosperity) and vulgar amusements are still big and people are attached to them. They both seem increasingly disconnected from family and community life though. Won’t that have some effect on how satisfying people find them, and how much they attach people to society at large? The young men and women Kay Hymowicz describes are making money and entertaining themselves but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to make patriots of them.

      I’m not sure how to summarize the issues. Maybe your view is that the same crude stuff that’s kept us going all this time is still working just fine, mine is that it’s getting cruder and wearing thin.

      • The long slow decline
        Well I’ve always maintained that things are going to hell in a handbasket but this is still an incredibly rich country with a lot of people willing to work long hours so it’s still going to take a considerable amount of time.

        As to the topic, the Republicans severely overplayed their hand after 9/11. A corrupt Republican congress spent like drunken sailors and Bush didn’t veto a single bill for over six years in pursuit of what can only be described as a criminally insane policy engaging in unprovoked aggression and unilaterally pushing American military power into Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

        The military/industrial/state security apparatus that we have been saddled with since World war II has finally reached its limit as evidenced by the crashing dollar, the ballooning deficit, and the destruction of American prestige throughout the world. Barack Obama stands in opposition to this and most Democrats and many more Republicans than people currently think are going to feel quite patriotic voting for him in the fall because of his anti-war stance.

        The average Democrat also wonders how that with a 3 trillion dollar budget this country doesn’t have universal health care and many corporations and unions are wondering why too. Those Democrats running for congress on the Obama ticket are going to feel quite patriotic voting for health care even if it does mean raising taxes or somehow figuring out how to make the republic safe without the benefit of 11 nuclear aircraft carrier battle groups or a thousand US military installations on foreign soil. I’ve never voted Democratic in my life but I can’t say that I disagree with them.

        Obama and the Dems will be constrained from doing too much damage fiscally by our huge national debt and unfunded liabilities but I agree with you that there will be one hangover for traditionalists for which there will be no forseeable cure. If he brings the troops home and gets a healthcare bill passed he’ll be in for eight years and that means four Supreme Court nominations at a minimum.

        The young men and women Kay Hymowicz describes have been around more or less continuously since London’s swinging sixties. It’s largely a haute bourgeois phenomenon of yuppies aping the aristo Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age. So goes the traditional officer class, degenerate traitors all, they certainly have eschewed military service during the last several wars. However I do find it interesting (if not surprising) that if and when they settle down they tend to establish more stable families. As you go up the socio-economic scale divorce rates drop. All you need is love – plus a nannie and two professional incomes.

        Speaking of which having raised a couple of kids myself I wouldn’t say that recent American life is necessarily more disconnected from family, church, school, and friends than it was when I was growing up in the fifties (where did all this soccer come from?) But it certainly is a lot more hectic! How I long for the old long, slow, Sundays when the whole country more or less observed the Sabbath. It now seems that the only day of rest remaining in our towns and cities is Christmas Day.

        • Things don’t always stay smooth
          Things often look very stable until there are sudden radical transformations so it’s hard to predict just how long they will last if basic trends are adverse.

          I know people say that expanding the welfare state is patriotic, but it never really works that way. Patriotism is “how can the individual identify with what the country needs” while the welfare state is “how can the country indentify with what individual needs.” Not the same thing. Alas the same applies to cutbacks on the military.

          I suppose love of country, which is a bit different from patriotism, can go very well with love of peace. I’m not sure about the welfare state though since the emphasis there is so much on the needs and problems of individuals. Also, I still think we have less love of country now and more allegiance to either Team America, which needs a big active military, or to various social ideals that mostly emphasize inclusiveness and tending people’s personal issues and so weaken social allegiance of any kind.

          The women Hymowicz writes about are definitely yuppies. I’m not sure that’s so true of the men. Yuppie families seem to be more stable—the one kid they have at age 38 gets the best of everything—but lots of yuppy women don’t get married. Men have been downwardly mobile lately and women don’t marry down.

    • Decline
      Dear Forrest,

      Your post is much too uninformed as to economic matters. The references to the dollar and the deficit are inappropriate. These are complex factors that only people such as the Fed chairman are able to deal with. Bernanke has been slow to respond to the maybe-recession, but we must praise him for his historic raising of the prime rate by 125 basis points in a few weeks.

      I agree with you about how awful things have become since the 1950’s, when I was young. The Dems intend to destroy our culture.


      • Bernanke
        Your faith in the tightrope walking skills of Ben Bernanke is touching even as it is naive in the extreme. While the Fed through open market operations can effect interest rates in our fractional reserve banking system for the extreme short term it is ultimately the market that sets the price of money. After artificially keeping short term rates too high for months (witness the recent inverted yield curve) the Fed is now, no doubt, over-reacting in the other direction. This is in direct response to a very real liquidity crunch and is an example of the Fed following the market not leading it.

        Our national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is again approaching historically high post-WWII levels and coupled with the huge and unfunded future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare is causing the dollar to tank and long-term interest rates to rise in the international money markets. As I stated in the post above, this situation will severely restrict the US Government’s ability to engage in imperialistic ventures and simultaneously increase the size of the welfare state. And, as I also stated above, when given the choice the Democrats will opt for butter over guns.

        I remain open to being pleasantly surprised by a rosier outcome than my uninformed pessimism has led me to as I have a mere bachelors degree in economics. Perhaps Professor Bernanke’s belated reactions will avert a recession but then again he may at this point just be pushing on a string.


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