None of us is an independent agent surfing a private island in time. Each of us belongs to a much larger continent of human experiences stretching backward over centuries, experiences that situate us within a network of home, family, clan, tribe, friends, country, religion.
These things tug on our emotions. They demand our fidelity, and rightly so. In large measure, they make us who we are. They give us the context for our lives. When the poet Horace wrote his famous line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s homeland,” he put into words what the Roman people yearned to believe: that their struggle to survive and thrive in the ancient world had meaning.
When Spartan hoplites fought to the last man against a much larger Persian force at Thermopylae, they gave their lives defending their families, their city, and their Greek allies. And when Shakespeare wrote the words, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” and put them into the mouth of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, he touched one of the deepest chords of human loyalty. Cultures unable to inspire the ultimate sacrifice from their people for a commonly shared need or code have no future. They’re already dead without knowing it. So it has always been. And barring a miraculous change in human nature before Jesus returns, so it will always be.
Consider: In A.D. 778, rear elements of the army of Charlemagne were ambushed by Basque warriors and their Muslim masters. The engagement took place at Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, near the border of what are now Spain and France. Over time, it passed into legend. In the mid-eleventh century, one thousand years ago, traveling minstrels began telling the story of a great Frankish warrior from the Roncevaux Pass battle. His name was Roland. The poem that bears his name, La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland), has many scenes. But the most famous recounts his heroic stand against a fierce and much larger enemy.
In the poem, Roland is revered by his king and loved by his men, for both his warrior prowess and his noble character. Thus he’s trusted with the crucial task of covering the rear of Charlemagne’s army of Franks. The army is retiring to rest in France after fighting in Spain against its Muslim conquerors. A resentful nobleman betrays him. The Muslim force learns that Roland’s men are vulnerable. They set a trap and attack. But Roland and his men, united in a brotherhood of arms, fight courageously. They ensure the safety of Charlemagne’s main body of men.
As the battle wears on, the size of the enemy force weighs against the valor of Roland and his men. In the end, enemy warriors overrun them. Only in the final moments does Roland blow his great horn Oliphant. The mountainsides echo with the sound. Charlemagne, alerted, returns to crush the enemy. But he arrives too late to save Roland and his men. They’ve given their lives, faithful to their duty.
The Song of Roland is one of the great epic poems of Western civilization. In my high school years in the 1950s, it was essential reading. The violence in the text is lavish and bloody. At one point, Roland cleaves an attacker in two. The havoc is matched only by the intense brotherhood of Roland and his men. When Roland surveys the field where so many of his friends lie slain, he weeps at the loss of those he loved. As his own death draws near, Roland turns his face toward his homeland. He thinks “of gentle France, of his kin and line; of his nursing father, King Karl benign.” His last thoughts turn to God, whom he begs to “shield my soul from its peril.” God answers his prayer by sending Gabriel the archangel to bear Roland’s soul to paradise.
We no longer live in a warrior culture. The poem’s mix of slaughter and tender emotion can seem unsettling today, but we can still learn a great deal from the Song of Roland. The poem’s great age takes nothing away from its timeless truths about the high dignity of loyalty to one’s comrades, a loyalty closely tied to patriotic devotion.
Roland and his men share a bond that unites them. Their bond is consecrated with a spirit of sacrifice. The Song of Roland bears the language of feudal oaths and duties. But these commitments don’t create the mutual loyalty of Roland and his men. Rather, and more accurately, the words and conventions of the warriors’ fealty express something already at work in their hearts, something deeper. It is “gentle France,” the ties of “kin and line,” and memories of what they’ve done together that seal the declarations of loyalty. Our loves and loyalties desire public and durable forms. We seek to celebrate the bonds that unite us. These bonds precede formal expressions of official ties. The impulse to recognize pre-existing bonds is the key impulse of civic life. We have nation-states because we have nations, not the other way around.
The Song of Roland captures an enduring truth about the human condition: The things we’re willing to die for are tied to what we hold as sacred. In fact, the willingness to die for something also consecrates it as sacred.
Many students who’ve gone through U.S. higher education in recent years have been taught to be skeptical of patriotism. A critical, and often poisonously cynical spirit has undermined a great deal of modern life, including the nation. At the same time, a naïve kind of globalist utopianism has grown. It promises a new solidarity transcending national borders. But it’s a “solidarity” as shallow as it is wide. A peculiar free-market ideology is married to this globalist dreaming. It asks us to see ourselves almost solely in economic terms. It reduces us to stateless, homeless consumers, not citizens.
We do need to be wary of excessive national pride. It has caused great harm in the modern era. A nation can become so corrupt and Babylon-like that it’s not worth defending, and America is no exception. We also need to remember that the nation-state, however happily we conceive it, is distinct from, and finally less important than, the purpose of our life in this world. Man’s purpose is to know and love God. We should never imagine our citizenship in any nation as sufficient. Our true and lasting commonwealth is in heaven, and therein lies our real citizenship (Phil 3:20).
Thus, in civic affairs, zealotry for one’s country can be a vice. But there’s also a vice called indifference. And today, in America, we suffer from a media-driven culture that feeds this indifference while simultaneously aggravating divisions. A distorted emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism at the expense of communion and unity discourages any particular loyalty to the nations that constitute the West.
These and other efforts to weaken our love for our native land dovetail with the acquisitive consumer spirit of our time. We’re encouraged to believe that real happiness comes from satisfying our personal desires. And the rapacious individualism that this nurtures is what will dominate the world if we one day live as post-national “global citizens.” That destiny would not be the unity of a universal brotherhood. It would be life in a managed, technocratic cocoon organized to promote consumption and self-invention.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori may be too sweeping a claim for many in the twenty-first century to accept, or even to understand. But we need a healthy patriotism. We need to entertain the possibility that love for our country might lead us to sacrifice greatly, even radically, in order to preserve the best that remains in it. That love is not an evil. It’s a source of liberation. It breaks the bonds of our addiction to lesser things. It leads us to stand as brothers, sisters, and friends with others. Fidelity to the good in our nation is not our final end. It doesn’t deliver us from sin and death. It doesn’t have an absolute claim on our souls. It doesn’t replace our hunger for heaven.
But it is a natural grace; a partial but real deliverance from the prison cell of a world without loyalties, and the confines of self-love.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from the archbishop’s forthcoming book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.