Wednesday, September 01, 2004

C.S. Lewis and Patriotism

For the record, I really wanted to call this post C.S. (F)Lew(h)is Coop, but I figured that stretching that far for a pun would be wrong. But just in case it isn't, I put it in the first line of the post.

So, in his classic book on love entitled, appropriately, The Four Loves, Lewis writes: "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 by 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. 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."

Part of me wants to flush that whole section down the toilet. It seems out of step with a great deal of moral philosophy written by men far more focused on the question of what constitutes a "just" war. Thinkers from Augustine to Michael Walzer have outlined why wars should never be based on patriotic self-interest. How else can one hope that her country's cause is just except if her country's cause is justice? Otherwise, must we not worry about self-interest shrouded in justice?

I believe that obscured self-interest is what worries Lewis in the first place, and that's why I don't think, in the end, think we should flush his thoughts away. The fact that Lewis leaves no real space for honest service to justice represents a powerful streak of realism in this idealistic Christian thinker. However, the real concern as it stands before us today, is the very option that Lewis supports. Many in our country today believe that our cause is just because we are seemingly the only ones strong enough to defend civilization as it ought to be defended. That belief, that only we are willing to make a stand, and that others see that it should be done but are too weak to deal with the consequences, is indeed an inflated sense of patriotism, a fervent mixture of religious and patriotic zeal. Of course Lewis warns against this, but when he guts the mission of serving justice that, even if occasionally flawed, drives men to a higher standard than patriotism by implying that it can never truly exist, he leaves us with few options.



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