Thursday, March 13, 2008

Berns on Patriotism:

At Cato Unbound, Walter Berns has responded to George Kateb's essay on patriotism. Though I have strong disagreements with Berns' conservative politics, I always enjoy reading his work. He is brilliantly learned on the political philosophy of America's Founding and, interestingly, argues America's Founding philosophy is secular and non-Christian at its core (he goes even further than I do in asserting the American Founding's incompatibility with orthodox Christian doctrine). Yet, even though America and France were founded on the same (or a very similar set of) Enlightenment principles, because America took a different approach to implementing those principles -- i.e., America didn't sweep everything away and remake society in accord with those ideals, but rather enacted compromises, where changes would occur slowly, over time, through democratic and republican mechanisms -- Berns reaches a very conservative, Borkian even, constitutional Founding, out of ideals that were liberal and subversive of the traditional Christian order.

Here is a taste of Berns' essay that illustrates what I've just noted above:

For this reason patriotism became linked with the rise of popular sovereignty. This development, in turn, depended on the discovery or pronouncement of new universal and revolutionary principles respecting the rights of man — see Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690). From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism, or an understanding other than, or in addition to, love of country, or the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to recognize this new form of patriotism, or at least to speak of it. In his Democracy in America, he argued that this patriotism was more rational than the simple love of one’s native land. It was Aborn of enlightenment, he said, “and grows with the exercise of rights.” A few years later, Abraham Lincoln referred to the Founders of this country as “the patriots of ‘76,” not, I think (or as Professor Kateb would have it), because they killed their erstwhile “British brethren,” but, rather, because they established this free country. Lincoln said it was “the last best, hope of earth.” Thus, he eulogized Henry Clay by saying that Clay loved his country “partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he [worked zealously] for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such the advancement, prosperity and glory of human liberty, human right and human nature.” In a word, the patriotic Clay loved the idea of his country, or its principles.

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