Justice and Patriotism in The Four Loves

One of the fundamental truths about the human condition is that justice is blind, but we are not. That is, murder, adultery, envy, and theft are wrong, regardless of who is committing them. On the other hand, the murder we wish to commit always seems justifiable, and our adultery is the product of a pure love and a marriage that should never have been, while our envy is grounded in what we really deserve, and what we steal is only that which is owed us. We have a habit of believing the facts are always on our side.

Now the examples I gave are all driven by self-interest, but we can also cheat justice out of love for others. We all know parents whose children can do no wrong. Their love for their children prevents them from clearly assessing the situation, and from doing what justice demands. Love may be blind, but they are not. They see their children.

There are many loves in the world—love of children or love of parents, love of spouse, and love of friends to name just a few. One love in particular is the cause of much bickering, especially between what we call the right and the left at the present moment: love of country.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes of two kinds of love of country, exemplified by two extremely patriotic Englishmen. In order to understand the stark contrast between them, he outlines several elements which go into love of country:

“First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about ‘Britain.’”[1]

We might say the same about “America.” To be sure, we can have a certain allegiance to the whole thing, but for most of us the love of the familiar places and people is quite specific—Chicagoland is a very different place from the Five Boroughs or the Bay Area, and Deep East Texas is not Eastern Washington, and Northern Michigan is most assuredly not South Florida. This element of patriotism does not stretch especially far.

“With this love of place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because ‘he could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned. As the family offers the first step beyond self-love, so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. Of course it is not pure charity; it involves love our neighbours in the local, not of our Neighbour, in the Dominical, sense. But those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving “man” whom they have not.”[2]

I began this post by bringing up that crucial fact that justice is blind, but we are not. Here we begin to see the way in which love of country might color our vision. The way my friends and neighbors do things will seem quite normal and sensible and right, while the way someone from a distant community does things will seem odd and backwards and wrong. In the heads of most 21st-century Americans we have a notion that this may lead quickly and inevitably to war and foreign conquest—let’s make the whole world like ourselves. Lewis is not so hasty. We must remember that this is merely love of the familiar:

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”[3]

Both these statements are straightforward and sensible. We will protect our children if they are threatened, but not many people go out looking to kidnap other children and teach them to behave like their own. Similarly, we recognize that the affection we feel for our parents is something which most people who had a decent childhood are likely to share. No one is demanding that there be only one “World’s Best Dad” mug. Nor is someone else having different friends much of a threat to our own friendships. Indeed, the fact that we all have similar loves towards different objects is one point which unites us, rather than divides us. We know what it is like to have friends and family, and sympathize with those that do.

Lewis goes on to add a second element to love of country:

“The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to the past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors. Remember Marathon. Remember Waterloo. ‘We must be free or die who speak the tongue Shakespeare spoke.’ This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us, and because we are their sons there is good hope we shall not.”[4]

Living in the age we do, we are of course aware that the past is not all sunshine and daisies. Our ancestors may have done—and likely did—horrible deeds as well as great ones. But Lewis thinks “it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.”[5] The key, he suggests, is to maintain the distinction between patriotic odes and real history. Let Mel Gibson do grand things on the big screen, but let us become familiar with every shade of gray in the actual classroom. We may enjoy the former, but not take it seriously. The latter we may or may not enjoy, but we must certainly take seriously.

But why does Lewis value the former at all? Why does he want to keep the rose-hued image of our nation’s heroes, rather than occupy our images of them entirely with the subtle shades of reality? His answer is brief, but pointed, “But who can condemn what clearly makes many people, at many important moments, behave so much better than they could have done without its help?”[6] The Founding Fathers of the United States fought against overwhelming odds and won. We too may one day find ourselves having to fight against overwhelming odds, and it is those tales of bygone glory, not the complicated reality, that will inspire us to real deeds of heroism. Our ancestors may not have actually achieved high standards of virtue, but those high standards, understood appropriately, are a force for good in the world.

But Lewis is quite explicit that this element of love of country, the love of great deeds done by her past heroes, is far more dangerous than simple love of the familiar. If we confuse our folktales for history, in may creep “the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief—surely it is very bad biology—that we can literally ‘inherit’ a tradition. And these almost inevitably lead on to a third thing that is sometimes called patriotism.”[7] It is this third thing which most concerns us, and which can most easily lead to a miscarriage of justice.

“The third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”[8]

This, to me, is more insidious than the flaws of the previous two shades of “love of country” combined. It is so insidious, because it understands itself not to be the biased affection of a son for his mother country, but objective assessment of reality. I once knew someone who roundly condemned patriotism in general, even perhaps the idea of nations, soberly explain that his part of the country was most morally, technologically, and politically advanced part of the world. Indeed, the major city in that region was the center from which all culture emanated. Simply listing Hollywood, New York, and Washington, D.C. next to each other is more than enough to debunk such nonsense, leaving actually foreign countries out of the equation.

But Lewis is quite right that this misguided love of country can “produce asses that kick and bite.” It is only when we genuinely believe that our own land is actually morally superior to all others that we begin to claim that justice and the good of our country are the same thing. In doing so, we confer upon our country a divine status:

“This brings us to the fourth ingredient. If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century the English became very conscious of such duties: the ‘white man’s burden.’ What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. This was not all hypocrisy. We did do them some good. But our habit of talking as if England’s motives for acquiring an empire (or any youngster’s motives for seeking a job in the Indian Civil Service) had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world. And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters!”[9]

Everybody today knows the joke about America bringing democracy to other nations, and “You’d better watch out, or we’ll bring democracy to your country next!” This sense that we are objectively superior justifies placing ourselves in charge of other nations. We did not conquer the Indians because we loved the East Coast too much. We spread west because we thought we had an objectively superior civilization, and we were therefore justified in either carrying it to the barbarians, or else destroying those barbarians who were beyond saving.

At last we come to the point where Lewis can contrast the patriotism of Kipling with the patriotism of Chesterton. Both men “love their country,” but what this means is very different from one man to the other:

“Chesterton picked on two lines from Kipling as the perfect example. It was unfair to Kipling, who knew—wonderfully, for so homeless a man—what the love of home can mean. But the lines, in isolation, can be taken to sum up the thing. They run:

If England was what England seems
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er. But she ain’t!

Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.’ A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degradation—‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.’ She will be to him ‘a poor thing but mine own.’ He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable. But Kipling’s soldier reverses it; he loves her because he thinks her good and great—loves her on her merits. She is a fine going concern and it gratifies his pride to be in it. How if she ceased to be such? The answer is plainly given: ‘’Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.’ When the ship begins to sink he will leave her.”[10]

This “patriotism” is nothing of the kind. There is no love in it, and no loyalty. It is the flip side of believing your country is objectively superior. On the one hand, you may perform horrible atrocities because whatever she does is by definition better. On the other, if you ever cease to believe she is better, she loses your loyalty and you will do nothing to improve her. The first is straightforwardly bad for other countries, and the second straightforwardly bad for your own. Nothing good comes out of it.

In today’s global society, and in a society which values individual freedom so highly, we are skeptical of anything that might place demands on the individual, any sort of love which might call for service or lasting loyalty. Having seen the pitfalls of so-called patriotism, it is only natural that many of us might question the value of patriotism at all. Justice is blind, but we are blinded to it by our love of country. So why not do away with love of country?

But this does not fix the problem. The very flaw in the false patriotism of the two lines from Kipling is that the soldier does not love his country. Instead, he believes it to be objectively superior. If we do away with love of country, true justice is not what steps into its place:

“For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only be presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for ‘their country’ they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity.”[11]

It should be pointed out that though Lewis mentions “nations” living in danger, this is really shorthand for any group of people. The European Union, transnational though it is, will encounter internal and external threats, and must be defended. Progressive Westerners consider themselves members of a global community that transcends borders, but even this global community will have to confront reactionary or anti-globalist threats. Until the end of history, mankind is in conflict with itself, and if there is any good worth preserving anywhere in it, from time to time we will be called to fight in its defense. In patriotic countries, love of country could serve as this call to arms. In communities that reject patriotism, so higher ideal must step in. This, however, is not the path to justice:

“This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”[12]

We like to talk these days as if Adolf Hitler went about conquering and committing atrocities simply because of his love of country. This is false. Hitler was not overly loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he was born, nor to the Germany to which he immigrated. He believed that the Aryan race was the most advanced portion of the human species, and that its success meant the continuation of humanity, and its failure meant the end of all humanity had ever stood for. His cause was a transcendent cause, not a local or parochial one. And for that reason, his was a war of annihilation.

Stalin did not conquer in the name of Russia, but in the name of humanity—he was liberating the international working class from its capitalist oppressors, not making Russia great again. It must be remembered that he was among the revolutionaries who, temporarily, had made Russia cease to be great. Likewise, the Great Khan thought he ruled all under heaven by divine right, and the early Islamic empire conquered because it was spreading the religion of the one true to God. And as Lewis said, the British Empire was spreading civilization to all mankind because the good things of Britain were not merely British goods—they were universal, and it was the white man’s burden to spread them. It is pretending our nation’s good is the same as some transcendent ideal that leads to blood and death and empire, not mere love of our locale.

“The glory of the old sentiment was that while it could steel men to the utmost endeavor, it still knew itself to be a sentiment. Wars could be heroic without pretending to be Holy Wars. The hero’s death was not confused with the martyr’s. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rear-guard action could also in peacetime take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It could laugh at itself. Our older patriotic songs cannot be sung without a twinkle in the eye; later ones sound more like hymns.”[13]

Justice is blind, but we are not. In a global age and an individualistic age, we think this means it is better to destroy all the sentiments which color our vision of the world. But this does not make us objective and non-partisan, it merely blinds us to our own partisan spirit. The way to prevent our sentiments from leading us to injustice is not to deny our sentiments, but to acknowledge that is all they are. They may lead us to loving our neighbors, or defending our dependents, or doing some heroic deed of self-sacrifice. They may just as easily lead to prejudice. The one thing they may not do is become themselves the standard of justice.

My friend who thought his region the center of the world was not liberated from prejudice because he thought it was objectively true. Instead, his prejudice was given all the shine of holiness and transcendence. If we learn to love the little neighborhood in which God has placed us, even if it is not a very good one, we will not become shackled to prejudices either. Instead, we may learn to sympathize with people whose ways of life are very different than our own, simply because their love for those ways is not.



I wrote this post after listening to the first episode in the Mere Fidelity podcast’s series on the The Four Loves. I highly recommender the podcast in general, and this episode in particular. These links are to the web page, but it can also be found on iTunes.


[1] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Pg. 23.

[2] Lewis, pgs. 23-24.

[3] Lewis, pg. 24.

[4] Lewis, pgs. 24-25.

[5] Lewis, pg. 25.

[6] Lewis, pg. 25.

[7] Lewis, pg. 26.

[8] Lewis, pg. 26.

[9] Lewis, pg. 27.

[10] Lewis, pgs. 27-28.

[11] Lewis, pg. 29.

[12] Lewis, pg. 29.

[13] Lewis, pgs. 29-30.