Chesterton on Patriotism, with an Application to U.S. Elections

I’m continuing my quest to read a bit more Chesterton after receiving a little admonishment from commenters in this post and four volumes of Chesterton from my wife.  Thus far, I’ve been making my way through Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  I’ve discovered that the best way to read Chesterton is while playing a little Civilization V!  Chesterton’s commentary on life and culture has a happy shaping effect on the type of civilization one builds.  And, Chesterton’s unusual wit and view of the world, often picturesque, requires slow reading to absorb what he’s saying.  So, alternating between your CivV turn and reading while waiting on the AI to make its move feels a little like a swimmer taking strokes before rotating to get air.

Well, that’s my CivV tip for today.  I’m really writing because Chesterton has me thinking about the nature of true optimism, pessimism, and patriotism.  That seems appropriate given that yesterday was Constitution Day in the Cayman Islands and we’re coming up on Independence Day tomorrow.  And all of that during a presidential election, which only adds to the delicious irony of learning about American independence and patriotism from a Brit!

In chapter 5 of Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World,” Chesterton takes on “two curious men running about who were called the optimist and the pessimist.”  Chesterton defines the optimist as the man who “thought everything right and nothing wrong.”  The pessimist was his opposite, the man who “thought everything wrong and nothing right.”  When it came to their regard for the other, Chesterton found that “the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist found everything bad, except himself” (p. 71).  The problem with both men, according the Chesterton, is that they approach the world with  an unreal detachment.  They speak of the world as though they’ve not yet entered it, as though they don’t belong to it, as though they aren’t creatures bound to it.  Chesterton reminds us that “A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it.  … He has a loyalty long before he has any admiration” (p. 72).

Here’s where I think Chesterton helps us when it comes to something like presidential elections.  It seems to me that both the pessimist and the optimist tend to speak loudest when some votes are about to be cast.  One claims the passage of this legislation means the end of the U.S. as we know it.  Another hails the same legislation as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.  Both stand off at some supposed intellectual, factual, indifferent distance to make their pronouncements, as though they’re viewing the alternatives from some other world.

Chesterton teaches us that neither view is to be trusted.  Instead, he argues for a truer patriotism than either the optimist or pessimist can give us.  It’s worth quoting Chesterton at length to make the point.

Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval.  My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism.  It is a matter of primary loyalty.  the world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable.  It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it.  The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.  All optimistic thoughts about England [or Cayman or America] and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot.  Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico.  If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary.  It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea.  Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful.  the only way out of it seems to be fore somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.  If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved.  For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable.  A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it.  A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.  If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.  Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy.  I answer that this is the actual history of mankind.  This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great.  Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well.  People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it.  Mend did not love Rome because she was great.  She was great because they loved her. (pp. 72-73)

It seems to me that an essential prerequisite to responsible voting and commentary during an election should be to determine if (a) we individually are patriots, pessimists, or optimists, and (b) if the guys casting around for our votes are patriots, pessimists, or optimists.  Do we and do they love the country as an expression of primary loyalty?  Does that love or loyalty show itself in having loved the country when she was not so lovely, precisely because she was not so lovely?  The optimist, as Chesterton sees it, cannot bring himself to admit anything unlovely, while the pessimist can’t bring himself to love.  Surely both are caricatures and half-truths that ruin reason and real progress.

Both kinds of men present themselves as friends, but neither truly is.  The pessimist is “the cosmic anti-patriot,” who is “the candid friend.”  But there’s a problem with the so-called “candid friend” who is not truly a patriot.  Again, it’s helpful to let Chesterton speak at length:

I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid.  He is keeping something back–his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things.  He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help.  This is certainly, I think, what makes a certain sort of anti-patriot irritating to healthy citizens. … There is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the many who says, “I am sorry to have to say we are ruined,” and is not sorry at all.  And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it.  Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant.  Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag.  Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive.  It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help men.

The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises–he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.  What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist?  Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. … He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances.  He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.  (pp. 74-75)

Will we not see men and women of every political stripe essentially join one or the other of these two parties?  They may register Democrat or Republican, but they will live the anti-patriot’s whitewashing optimism or sky-is-falling pessimism.  And even more peculiar is the tendency to be either the optimist or pessimist depending upon whether one’s own party is in office or one’s favored policy is enacted.  If we’re not careful we may be nauseated or necks snapped in half by the sometimes sudden see-sawing between optimism and pessimism caused by poll results.

The only thing that truly helps is getting off the see-saw.  Chesterton tells us: “Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything) comes in with the reasonable optimism.  Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform.”  What does Chesterton mean?

The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason.  The man who ill improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.  If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself.  But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem.  I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms.  Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism.  The worst jingoes do not love England [or George Town or Washington], but a theory of England.  If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos.  But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation eve if the Hindoos ruled us. … The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are you politics. (pp. 75-76)

Our countries are filled with citizens who love the country because of this or that reason.  They defend the country–or more likely their view of the country–because of and with those cherished reasons.  In the end, it’s the reasons they risk loving and not the country as it truly is.  They’ll keep the country just as she is–with all her warts needing repair–for fear of harming their reasons for loving her.  As Chesterton points out, they may defend the reasons against the very country itself.  And it may all seem very rational, reasonable.  It is “irrational optimism that leads to reform.”  It is the man who loves the country and the people because he loves them that will savage the country to reform or rebuild her into something great.  ”Before any cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance” (p. 76).

Chesterton provides us some helpful questions to ask ourselves and to ask of our candidates, questions that may help us love and reform out countries.

Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?  Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence?  Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair?  Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?  Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? (p. 77)

Are we and our candidates true patriots?