All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1973

Loving One’s Country

Mr. Gow of Fall River, Massachusetts, is a student majoring in philosophy and intellectual history.

For us to love our country, said Edmund Burke, our country must be lovely. If Burke meant that only a country which is lovely is loved by its people, then he was mistaken, for it is true that many Germans loved Nazi Germany. But if we understand Burke’s remark to mean that for a country to be worthy of admiration, it must be lovely, then Burke certainly made a valid observation.

But what causes a country to be lovely? The British statesman had a ready reply. The country that is lovely, wrote Burke, is permeated with the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman —both being essential to the survival of any tolerable civil social order.

The “spirit of religion” is a complicated term. But what I think Burke meant is a reverence for God and a corresponding acknowledgement of an authority higher than the state. For Burke, it also meant a commitment to a cluster of values and the religious foundation for those values such as tradition, liberty under law, courage, love, integrity, honor, civility, the dignity of the individual because he is made in the image of God, individual freedom and responsibility, the recognition of rights and corresponding duties.

By the “spirit of the gentleman,” Burke was referring to something more than mere social poise and the ability to win friends and influence people. Cardinal John Henry Newman once described the gentleman as one who is “tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd… He never speaks of himself unless compelled, never defends himself by mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip….” The gentleman, continued Newman, is “patient and forbearing”; he resigns himself to suffer because “it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable, and to death because it is his destiny.” And if the gentleman engages in controversy of any kind, “his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds, who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.”

Burke would have agreed with Newman’s sentiments; but he, like Newman, meant something more than the observance of the traditions of civility. Burke also was talking about the refinement of mind and character which elevates one above the social and intellectual fads and foibles of his group and of his times. As Russell Kirk observes, Burke believed that the spirit of the gentleman meant “that elevation of mind and temper, that generosity and courage of mind, [and that] habit of acting upon principles which rise superior to immediate advantage and private interest.”

Were Burke alive today, he would find little of the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman in our country. He would discover little respect for the canons of civilized discourse; and he would find little observance of the norms and traditions of civility.

Instead, Burke would find the spirit of the gentleman considered “effeminate” by those most doubtful of their own masculinity; he would encounter widespread indifference, if not hostility, toward religion in both private and public life. He would find increasing numbers who think in slogans, who shout down speakers, who refuse to listen to views contrary to their own; he would see a denigration of the concepts of individual freedom and responsibility; he would witness in our society an attack by those without roots upon the delicate balance between freedom and order, tradition and change. And Burke, to his dismay, would discover a violent and tragic disruption of what Garry Wills terms “the bond of social affections,” the ties that promote unity rather than division; the ties, that is to say, which bind a person to his neighbor, to his family, to his community, to his country.

To fight today for the resuscitation of the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman would seem to be in a lost cause. Yet, for so worthy a cause we must continue to struggle until these qualities prevail — qualities which cause a country, as well as an individual, to be lovely.

  • Mr. Gow is a freelance writer and English teacher who lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois.