Wilfred M. McClay, a JMC board member, explores the tension between America’s commitment to universal truths and the particularities of its national history. Patriotism, argues McClay, requires continued attentiveness to both these components of American political life.
How to Think about Patriotism
By Wilfred M. McClay
From National Affairs
Recent developments in our politics have inspired a re-evaluation of patriotism and a fresh consideration of its worth. Even advocates for the cosmopolitan ideal have come to understand that the sentiment of patriotism is indispensable to the development of the kind of social bonds that foster solidarity and mutuality in a society. There is a naturalness to patriotism, reflecting a healthy love for what is one’s own, gratitude for what one has been given, and reverence for the sources of one’s being. Such dispositions are more visceral than intellectual, being grounded in our natures and the basic facts of our natality. Yet their power is no less for that, and they are denied only at great cost. A disposition toward gratitude nourishes the roots of our most important moral sentiments.
There are many meanings to be found in Aristotle’s famous declaration that man is by nature a “political animal,” but one of them is that we are in some sense made to live in community with one another. We are by nature belongingcreatures, and one of the deepest needs of the human soul is a sense of membership, of joy in what we have and hold in common with others.
Much of the thrust of modern political and social thought, however, has compelled us to look in the opposite direction. This trend is especially vivid in a work like Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in which civilization is understood to rest upon a brutal suppression, even a kind of mutilation, of our instinctual natures, for the sake of the uneasy equilibrium that makes human society possible. We endure life in society as the pacing tiger endures the cage, but it is not what we were made for.
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Wilfred M. McClay is a member of the Jack Miller Center Board of Directors. He holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. His book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians. McClay received his BA from St. John’s College in Annapolis and his doctoral degree in history from Johns Hopkins University.
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