Book Review: For Love of Country

    Viroli, Maurizio. For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995.

Maurizio Viroli is admirably forthright about what he believes is the proper task of students of nationality: "Instead of aiming at forging scientific definitions of the nature of patriotism and nationalism, we should aim at understanding what scholars, agitators, poets, and prophets have meant when they spoke of love of country" (4-5). It is, Viroli thinks, the tunnel-vision emphasis on causal and external approaches to nationalism studies that has led scholars to confuse, conflate, and generally elide the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. He contends that it is only from an internal, hermeneutic point of view that we can grasp the difference between these two types of nation-thinking. Obviously, this complaint would be irrelevant if the difference in question was unimportant, but Viroli argues with passion and skill that it is of great (indeed, of terrible) importance.

This importance is made manifest, Viroli claims, by consideration of the effects of the core values propagated by patriot-writers and nationalist-writers: "for the patriots, the primary value is the republic and the free way of life that the republic permits; for the nationalists, the primary values are the spiritual and cultural unity of the people. In the writings of the founders of modern nationalism, the republic is either repudiated or regarded as an issue of secondary importance. Patriots and nationalists have…endeavoured to instil or strengthen in us different types of love: a charitable and generous love in the case of patriotism, an unconditional loyalty or an exclusive attachment in the case of the nationalists" (2). The issue, then, is one of political freedom. Viroli holds that the effect of patriot values is to promote the republic (which in Viroli’s calculus is the sole vehicle for political freedom) and at the same time to make us charitable persons. The effect of nationalist values, by contrast, is to downgrade the status of the republic, and to rid us of caritas—charity— for our fellow humans by instilling in us a univocal loyalty to the nation. Hence, nationalist values attenuate (and possibly, in the end, abolish) political freedom.

Now, Viroli’s analysis of the distinction is of course a good deal more nuanced than this. He recognizes that "patriotism has also meant loyalty to the monarch and the language of patriotism has also been used to oppress, discriminate, and conquer, while the ideal of the nation and the cultural and spiritual unity of a people have been invoked to sustain struggles for unity" (2). But I think that the account given above fairly represents (excepting perhaps the use of the term "political freedom," which I haven’t the space to define) his views of the question and the political commitments that drive him to it. Consider this further elaboration:

Properly understood, the language of republican patriotism could serve as a powerful antidote to nationalism. Like the language of nationalism it is eminently rhetorical; it aims at resuscitating, strengthening, and directing the passions of a particular people with a specific cultural and historical identity rather than at attaining the reasoned approval of impersonal rational agents. It endeavors to reinforce bonds, such love [sic] of the common liberty of a people, which are as particularistic as the love of, or pride in, the cultural tradition or the shared destiny of a people. Precisely because it competes with nationalism on the same terrain of passions and particularity and uses rhetorical rather than purely rational arguments, patriotism is a formidable opponent of nationalism. It works on bonds of solidarity and fellowship that like feels toward like to transmute them into forces that sustain liberty rather instead of fomenting exclusion or aggression (8).

The syllogism that underpins this argument seems to go as follows: affect will often triumph over reason in political affairs; patriotism is a far less dangerous form of affect than is nationalism; therefore, political communities ought to try to instill patriotism in their members. The project Viroli proposes, then, is one of making affect safe for political freedom, as the following passage makes clear:

To move our compatriots to commit themselves to the common liberty of their people [we] have to appeal to feelings of compassion and solidarity that are—when they are—rooted in bonds of language, culture, and history. The work to be done is to translate these bonds into love of common liberty. To make this alchemy of passions possible we surely need moral arguments that appeal to reason and interests, but we must also be able to resort, as good rhetoricians do, to stories, images, and visions (10).

"Alchemy of passions" is not a bad piece of rhetoric itself, an observation that I think reveals a possible flaw in Viroli’s argument. Aren’t "stories, images, and visions" indispensable tools of reasoning, as well as tools of rhetoric? Is reason merely the calculus of interests and discrete units of happiness? But if Viroli’s distinction between reason and affect is not drawn as sharply as it might be, his historical analysis—an erudite critique and review, stretching from Republican Rome to the time of Giuseppe Mazzini and Ernest Renan, of the history of patriotic writings and their eventual, partial cooptation by nationalism—is acute and cogently argued. Viroli is unusually attentive to the histories of words and concepts; he appreciates the normative force that accrues to them as they—like snowballs gathering mass as they roll—acquire ever more associations and meanings.

My main criticism (albeit that may be too strong a word) of the book is that it does not reach a question which I think its aims require it to answer. Viroli believes that we should embrace a contemporary patriotic republicanism. But if so, how should our modern stress on freedom of the individual mesh with the tradition of patriotic republicanism? Is there a tension between his conception of "common liberty" and freedom of the individual? More to the point, what should be our reaction to Horace’s famous line (which the British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen bitterly repudiated while serving in the trenches in the First World War) that "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s fatherland")? Viroli paraphrases this most patriotic of sayings (without attribution) when glossing Herder, but he does not—so far as I can see—speak to the question of where it leaves the "common liberty" that he cherishes.