Chesterton on Patriotism

America is in the news, and not for reasons I’d like. Here is G.K. Chesterton on “patriotism.” I will always remember this quote from reading his book Orthodoxy (emphasis mine):

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

G.K. Chesterton

The Pimlico reference is to some unsavory district of London at the time.

Patriots don’t approve of the bad parts of their home any more than a parent is pleased with the weaknesses of a child. Chesterton asserts that cities became great because they were loved, as opposed to becoming great through some other cause and then attracting admirers. Maybe we can take this hypothesis to the urban economists…

The point I take away is that patriots don’t have to think everything is right about their country.

You won’t blame me for having to look up the exact words of the quote. In doing so I came across another quote from Chesterton specifically about America:

The Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. But it is the idea of making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along. In a word, what is unique is not America but what is called Americanisation. We understand nothing till we understand the amazing ambition to Americanise the [lesser-known people groups from Asia]. We are not trying to Anglicise thousand of French cooks or Italian organ-grinders. France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on. And the process, as I have pointed out, is not internationalization. It would be truer to say it is the nationalization of the internationalized. It is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.

G.K. Chesterton

The square brackets are my words for his reference to Kamskatkan people and Ainu people. When Chesterton says “we” he refers to the British. Apparently, he wrote a whole book called What I Saw in America from 1921. I’ve added the book to my wish list.

For a much more recent discussion of how America looks from the outside, see Tyler’s conversation with Audrey Tang (my excerpts here). 

3 thoughts on “Chesterton on Patriotism

  1. Leopold January 15, 2021 / 8:25 am

    I love this! Thanks for sharing.


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