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Quaker patriotism: eldering from an aged philosophy prof.

I know that we Quakers don’t vent our frustrations, especially with one another. But when I saw the cover of the February Friends Journal, I confess that I said, “Drat!” All right, it was stronger than “Drat!” I’m sorry.

What upset me first was a cover photo deliberately provocative: a fierce looking American eagle, glaring straight at us. And, then, worse: whoever chose that admittedly handsome photo used it to tout an article inside: “The Immorality of Patriotism,” by Tony White.

If an old gent may first elder you Journal editors, sticking that title, unqualified, right below the eagle’s fierce eyes and beak did more than market the article inside; it suggested strongly that the Journal agrees with it. Perhaps you do, editors. But might you better have invited readers to consider the article’s blunt claim, rather than seem to endorse it? A better cover line would have been, “Is Patriotism Immoral?” That would have invited readers to approach the article inside with openness and objectivity.

Objectivity is an ideal we Friends often miss, even as we aim for it. But surely it’s wrong to miss the ideal on our national magazine’s cover.

I’ve studied the magnificent eagle photo many times now and conclude that the bird doesn’t look warlike at all. She looks tough, maybe defensive, but mostly sad. And, yes, that makes her (or him) a fine icon for our defensive but badly confused nation, one that’s lost or at least badly damaged its moral compass. A nation that has, in short, lost all sense of real patriotism. I’m guessing that the eagle is not grieving patriotism, but the mindless abuse of the concept.

White did define “patriotism” in a couple of spots, but always his definitions skewed meaning to back his thesis: that what many call a virtue is truly a destructive vice. This smacks more of rhetorical ploy than precise analysis.

Rhetoric’s great early formulators, men like Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero made much of the basis of tone in speech, which is based on the interaction of ethos, logos, and pathos.

Logos is the actual, logical content of a speech construct, whether spoken or written. Pathos denotes the amount of emotion you add to sway your audience. (“If you don’t buy this vacuum cleaner, my kids won’t eat tonight.”)

And ethos refers to how you present yourself as a credible speaker. Cicero, that canny Roman, said that you can make an audience buy any idea if you convince them that you’re bright, and also moral (at least by their definition), and also on their side. Dazzle them with all three, and they’ll buy any car on the lot.

I don’t mean to suggest hypocrisy in Cicero, or insincerity in anyone following his advice. If you have a true good to offer listeners or readers (as Tony sincerely believes he does) then you want to use the best means to present it. I’d only point out one problem on this front.

One way to bolster your ethos as a speaker is to cite authority. Tony does. He cites the ultimate authority of Christ’s words, and the strength of our own Friends testimonies. But here’s the problem. Since Tony is identified as a teacher of philosophy, I would expect him to base his argument not on authority, but exclusively on logic alone: on what the unaided human mind can arrive at by its own powers.

Philosophy always views reality, as it were, as a horizontal plane. It doesn’t take refuge in a vertical definition of it. As philosophy teachers and Quaker Christians (as, I believe, both Tony and I are), we have to speak clearly either from one perspective or the other. To conflate the two is to invite readers’ confusion or, dare I say, reveal our own.

It is helpful to read Aristotle’s Ethics and read about patriotism as a subset of justice. Then motor forward almost a millennium to check in on Aquinas. Listen to him rumble on about how any virtue (strength) is a point of balance between two vices: spineless inertia and mindless excess.

I think that in Tony’s fervor he’s defining patriotism as Aquinas’ category of extreme, mindless excess. As he attacks the dragons of nationalism, Americanism, jingoism, nativism, tribalism, etc., he misses seeing the positive values of a valid and necessary human virtue, patriotism.

They all first define a virtue as a good habit of thought or action that has become strong (virtus) by repetition. Good habits are assets in life. Think of patience, self‐control, prudence, and good driving.

A vice is a bad habit grown strong by repetition. Think uncontrolled anger, indifference to others, runaway lust. Think uncontrolled drinking or smoking.

The Great Philosophers saw patriotism as a subset of the virtue of justice; the habit of rendering to all and to each what is due. And they find their model for the subset virtue of patriotism in the smallest of our social units, the family. (Sorry for the patriarchal sexism, but the very noun patriotism alludes to a pater’s presumed role as head, provider, and protector of the family.)

Few would deny the value of living inside a healthy, loving family that cares for body, spirit, and us.

Without life in such a loving unit, we’re likely to grow up physically weak and spiritually lacking the most fundamental equipage for a happy life. We’re likely to lack the ability to love, since we learn to love by receiving love.

In justice, what do we owe back to this loving, nurturing, educating, sheltering, protective, defending body? Well, to quote another beloved philosopher: “Duh!”

Of course we owe our family a return of love and loyalty. We owe nurturing to other members as best as we can. We owe promotion of their growth as best as we can. And we owe what contributions we can make to their protection and to their defense.

The Great Philosophers saw this model of shared, reciprocal good as the model for all units of civic society: village, town, city, province, nation. And they saw the same basic goods flowing from membership in each, and the same obligations of membership.

This model continued through the history of Western ethical and political philosophy. Great minds of the Middle Ages rang changes on it, as did those of the Renaissance. You see it developed in Rousseau’s Social Contract, which stresses that the values that come from societal membership are bought with demands and duties, which, given human nature, may need reinforcement by penalties. Good highways, yes, but speed limits and tickets are part of the package.

And certainly the projection of the family unity to a national scale is implicit in John Locke’s work and consequently in our own country’s founding documents.

I’m a Quaker Christian and take as my life’s definition Jesus’ command to be a peacemaker. But in philosophy, we have a splendid tool at our disposal, and in following Jesus’ lead, we should use it with great care.

James Atwell
Fly Creek, N .Y.

Posted in: Features

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