One-sided search for statutes of liberty

For Love of Country
August 9, 1996

This is a powerful plea for a love of country free of the narrow exclusiveness that we so often associate with such attachments. For Maurizio Viroli, patriotism alone can embody that love. For patriotism is the love of liberty and of the republic where liberty alone can flourish; and the devotion that it engenders is a caring compassion for our fellow citizens.

Viroli traces the roots of patriotism to the Roman Republic and its protagonists, Cicero and Livy. It was to the Romans (rather than the Greeks) that the Italian humanists and Machiavelli returned for their inspiration and models, and it was against the ardent love of the republic that the Enlightenment thinkers, notably Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, measured the distance and the differences of a modern patriotism. Whereas the patriotism of the ancients demanded an all-encompassing devotion through political participation, the large-scale patriotism of the moderns can only be moderate and law-abiding. Modern patriotism is a love of the well-ordered republic and the liberties and prosperity that it creates.

For Viroli, patriotism is a love of a particular republic, not of an abstract commonwealth by the "world-citizen". Its love encompasses the republic's specific political institutions, way of life and historical memories, for only such a passionate love can inspire real men and women to emulation. On the other hand, patriotism is not interested in the ethnic, moral or cultural unity of the people. That is the goal of nationalism and it has, not the republic for its object, but the "nation". For Herder and the German Romantic thinkers, liberty was less important than homogeneity and unity; and the quest for unity inevitably bred an exclusive and narrow love of the nation. Later, patriotism too was nationalised; Mazzini still believed in the necessity of liberty if a country was to inspire love, but liberty could only flourish in a culturally unified nation. The book ends with some examples of a revived love of republican liberty in the writings of Rosselli, Simone Weil, Natalia Ginsburg and Jurgen Habermas, and a plea for the recovery of a political tradition that can help us to avoid the terrible excesses of nationalism.

What Viroli fails to explain is why, after nearly 2,000 years, nationalism became so powerful, why it overshadowed and absorbed patriotism. Could it be that a patriotism born of the polis is irrelevant today? Could it be that a purely political creed is insufficient? We need stronger fare to hold ethnically heterogeneous peoples together.

Besides, Viroli partly undermines his own case. If it is to inspire a passionate love in the citizens, patriotism must be directed to a particular republic with its own historical memories, pride and distinctive cultural way of life. But this is very much what civic nationalisms desire. In fact, it is hard to conceive of modern societies holding together without a national identity that evokes such memories and cultural commonalities. Nationalisms come in various guises, and we should not assume, in the tradition of Lord Acton and Elie Kedourie, that the German Romantic version is canonical. That omits the powerful republican nationalism of the French revolution, and overlooks the Enlightenment and Rousseauan influence in Latin America and Africa. In these versions, civic liberty and autonomy, as well as popular sovereignty, are supreme virtues and their enemies are as much despotism and oppression as heterogeneity, contamination and disunion.

We are all in debt to Viroli for his sympathetic and acute dissection of the patriot tradition, and his thought-provoking reflections on our political shortcomings. His evaluation of the nationalist tradition, however, is one-sided. To heap all the virtues on patriotism and the vices on nationalism, besides being historically unfair, is sociologically and politically inadequate: it precludes explanation of why so many people have embraced a nationalism that promised them civic liberty along with other goods, and it holds out no practical criterion for achieving political solidarity in a liberal society. Perhaps the way forward is not to jettison nationalism for patriotism, but to humanise nationalism by infusing it with some of the virtues of the ancients.

Anthony D. Smith is professor of sociology, London School of Economics.

For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism

Author - Maurizio Viroli
ISBN - 0 19 8952 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £22.50
Pages - 206

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