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Pity, Piety, and Patriotic Love for Our Imperfect Nation

The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, with its rites of fireworks, cookouts, and disagreement about the meaning and legacy of America. The American story requires an asterisk, some say, given its many injustices—or such is the current mood and impulse. Even if one is not inclined to accept a story of America’s...

The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, with its rites of fireworks, cookouts, and disagreement about the meaning and legacy of America. The American story requires an asterisk, some say, given its many injustices—or such is the current mood and impulse. Even if one is not inclined to accept a story of America’s exceptional wickedness, honesty requires acknowledging the nation’s failures.

I’m not the “my country right or wrong” sort, but, nonetheless, citizens should have proper love of country. Cicero noted that pietas, piety, “warns us to fulfill our duties towards our country, our parents, or others connected with us by ties of blood,” in part because we have depended on them and owe them bonds of loyalty. The country is a father, patria, of sorts, as it is source of law and thus life, and patriotism is the love due to country.

Now, some fathers are absent, neglectful, or unjust. Does piety demand they receive the same love and respect as decent fathers? If a regime is corrupt, is it still a patria that must be loved? How much, and in what ways?

The Aeneid contains a moving scene in which Aeneas flees a burning Troy while carrying his aged father who himself clutches the household gods to his chest. One can hardly imagine a more tragic episode, one of complete loss. Still, both Aeneas and his father keep the demands of piety, discharging their duties to country, parents, kin, and the gods. Rather than abandoning his father to the flames and saving himself, Aeneas says, “come then, dear father, mount upon my neck; on my own shoulders I will support you.” He acknowledges that his father must carry the deities, as Aeneas is himself “fresh from fierce battle and recent slaughter,” and it “would be sinful to handle them.”

It’s a pitiful episode, with a sacked and failed city, gods in flight, a feeble and dependent father, and a son too tainted to be allowed near the holy things. The reader feels pity for them; in fact, the reader ought to feel such pity, for pity is not mere sentiment to which the sensitive are more prone than the stoical. Until the seventeenth century, pity and piety were closely related, with pity “understood as a kind of duty, an obligation to some basic human bond,” and thus a form of piety toward those connected to us—which is everyone, in some way. Pity regards the frailty, inadequacy, and flaws of another through the eyes of duty rather than contempt, and piety does not ask us to overlook flaws. Shem and Japheth knew of Noah’s nakedness; they did not feign ignorance of the fact, but in piety they exhibited regard for him.

 

At the moment, Americans intensely disagree about what constitutes proper patriotism and how to address our flaws. Public Discourse has long welcomed thoughtful and honest commentary on the right and wrong in our society, including Kian Hudson’s reflection on “What It Means to Love Our Country.” If we take our nation seriously, we must work to both preserve and to repair it, and we must do so in collaboration with those who see things differently, Hudson rightly suggests.

Frederick Douglass recognized the need to preserve and repair, as does Mark Shiffman in “Black Americans and the Fourth—and Fifth—of July.” Douglass’s powerful speech, studied by so many, was delivered on July 5, 1852, not July 4, at his insistence. Shiffman explores the importance and continued relevance of Douglass’s choice of date.

Still, there is a healthy patriotism, as suggested by Charles Chaput, recently retired as archbishop of Philadelphia, in “Dulce et Decorum Est: In Defense of Healthy Patriotism.” Even more, patriots might justly be asked to sacrifice for the country, to preserve the best which remains in it.

The best of a nation cannot but include the institutions which constitute a people. Some have suggested that populism and nationalism are the best way forward to rebuilding institutions, while others worry that intense nationalism risks a kind of chauvinism, or even worse. Serena Sigillito, editor of Public Discourse, explores those issues, asking “Should Social Conservatives Embrace Nationalism?” Of course, such a question suggests the debates over immigration and what is owed to non-citizens, topics ably discussed by Pierre Manent in “Christianity, Immigration, and the Religion of Humanity.”

As always, Public Discourse remains committed to argument governed by reason. We know that debates about political life are unlikely to be resolved with mathematical precision, but the well-schooled person, says Aristotle, knows the level of certainty proper to an issue, and politics can be reasonable even if not absolutely certain. Thus, as in so many disputes, Public Discourse invites your own thoughtful arguments and contributions, as we explained in “Toward a New Consensus: An Invitation.”

Thank you for reading Public Discourse; I offer you by good wishes for a lovely Fourth of July.

R. J. Snell
Editor-in-Chief

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