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Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Why C.S. Lewis Thought Healthy Patriotism Curbs Excessive Militarism

Love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.

Image Credit Wikimedia|CC BY SA 4.0

Many know professor and theologian C.S. Lewis for his epic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. As I wrote in November, this series, on top of being a deep religious allegory, offers insightful political commentary as well.

Although it may surprise some only familiar with Lewis for Narnia, Lewis was a prolific scholar who released a collection of fiction and non-fiction books which touched on primarily theology and occasionally politics.

Those who know Lewis’s life will be unsurprised. Lewis fought for Britain in World War I and applied, though was rejected, to train cadets in World War II. He lived through the rise of both fascism and communism, and, as such, has quite a bit to say about what politics looks like in a healthy society, despite not being overtly political.

This brings us to Lewis’s discussion of patriotism. Although many may link love of country to support for militarism, Lewis observed that the exact opposite was true. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis briefly examines what a healthy love of country looks like.

When Love Becomes Demonic

The theme that runs through The Four Loves is Denis de Rougemont’s maxim that love becomes a demon when it becomes a god. In other words, when we elevate something above its proper place it will become destructive to everything around it.

Lewis begins by noting that this can be true of patriotism. An excessive love for country can turn demonic. Lewis gives some straightforward examples of demonic patriotism, such as the willingness to spread propaganda, the indoctrination of young citizens, and the refusal to accept any mistakes made by the country.

He summarizes the ugly form of patriotism with lines from a poem by Rudyard Kipling which say,

“If England was what England seems

‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er. But she ain’t!”

In contrast, healthy patriotism, which Lewis advocates for, can be summarized simply with the phrase, “England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.”

The Importance of Patriotism in Curbing Militarism

Based on the above condemnations, it may seem that Lewis is anti-patriotism, but he is not. Lewis only believes patriotism becomes demonic when love of nation becomes a god.

To the contrary, Lewis believes love of your home and the people near you is developmentally a prerequisite to loving others in general:

“Those who do not love the fellow-villagers and fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far in loving ‘Man’ whom they have not.”

Lewis views love of home as an important step—and perhaps an irreplaceable one. He moves on to address those who take a cynical view of all patriotism with a simple response fitting of a professor—“compared to what?”

Without patriotism, Lewis says, the scale and damage created by militarism will explode.

“Those who would reject [patriotism] entirely do not seem to have considered what will certainly step–has already begun to step–into its place… 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… [In the past,] good men needed to be convinced that their county’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such… 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.”

Lewis argues that without the motivation of defending one’s home, the appeal must be made to potential soldiers that they are defending goodness itself. This turns worldly disagreements between countries into transcendent fights between good and evil.

In contrast, with wars fought in the name of love of home,

“the hero’s death was not confused with the martyr’s. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rearguard action, could also in peacetime, take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It can laugh at itself. Our older patriotic songs cannot be sung without a twinkle in the eye; later ones sound more like hymns. Give me ‘The British Grenadiers’ (with a tow-row-row-row) any day rather than ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.”

With this I’m in full agreement with Lewis. Having Yankee Doodle Dandy as the national anthem would add some necessary light-heartedness into our patriotism. Winks and nudges while we sing about riding on ponies seems better to me than waxing romantic about alabaster buildings.

So to Lewis, both a complete lack of patriotism and a demonic excess of patriotism lead to aggressive and destructive militarism. The former turns all disagreements into a struggle for everything good in the world. The latter seeks to subjugate all others to an infallible nation.

Healthy patriotism, in contrast, is anti-imperialistic.

“Patriotism of [the proper] 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 realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? … The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

America, with all her faults, I love her still. And I’m happy she is different.

  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.