Patriotism and Ethics (June 1, 1901)
To the Editor of THE SPEAKER
Sir,—I am very grateful to Mr. Godard for the courteous letter in which he replies to my defence of the existence of patriotism as a virtue. The whole of his case appears to hang upon one idea, that because I and other reasonable people think that patriots are at present making fools of themselves therefore we ought to abandon altogether a virtue which we cannot permit to have full play. "To have to subdue or check an instinct lest it should lead to vice scarcely harmonises with the theory that it is a virtue." Now I should have thought that it harmonised extraordinarily well, for I know no virtue in the world that does not have to be subdued and checked. Why, half the vices that exist are only unchecked virtues. If a man had such love for his children that he forged bank notes to enrich them, he would be turning a virtue into a vice. If he was so courteous about the feelings of others that he perjured himself rather than distress the prisoner in the dock, he would be turning a virtue into a vice. If he had such reverence for his mother that he assisted her to commit murder, he would be turning a virtue into a vice. And as a matter of fact every virtue is turned into a vice by millions of silly people, just as patriotism is. Domestic love is made an excuse for swindling, purity for scandal-mongering, public spirit for private advancement. I do not, as Mr. Godard seems to think, choose solemnly between the ethical code and the patriotic code, not having the smallest notion what the latter thing may be. I simply rank my loyalty to my nation, along with that to my kind and my family, in its reasonable place in the ethical code itself. It is quite true that I admire patriotism because I think it ethical. The same applies to honesty.
I admit I cannot yet understand why I should accept Mr. Chamberlain's opinion, or the majority's opinion, about whether I am patriotic. No doubt they would say I am not patriotic; probably they would say that Mr. Godard was not ethical. Of course, the patriotism I think a virtue is my own patriotism, not that of Mr. Chamberlain. So it is with all virtues. It is my own honesty I think right, not the honesty of Highland cattle-lifters; it is my own chastity I think right, not the chastity incumbent on the Grand Turk. Every virtue has its varieties and its irregular history. As to Mr. Chamberlain and his "patriots," I can only say that I detest them primarily because I am a patriot and they are ruining my fatherland.
One word as to the Boers. I repeat that I cannot imagine any decent man doing what the Boers are doing, continuing a sanguinary struggle, unless he was fighting for a virtue. "I sympathise with the Boers, not because they are patriots," says Mr. Godard, "but because independence is a thing to be prized, because liberty is a jewel to be guarded." Surely neither Mr. Godard nor any Liberal can really mean that the Boers had some secret of political perfection, that the government of President Kruger was so full of recondite joys and beauties that a person would be wrong to permit it to be altered at any cost. If, on the other hand, he means by "liberty" the independence of the fatherland, then I entirely agree with him. But in that case he does sympathise with the Boers because they are patriots. To sum up, I think Mr. Godard imagines that when I say patriotism is a virtue I mean that patriotism is virtue. I refer it and everything else to a test of universal good. Only I happen to find that it passes the test with honours.— Yours, &c., G.K.C