'Patriotism' Armistice Day 2018 Dr John Casey
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept.” [Psalm 137]
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
What is patriotism? A hundred years ago most would have thought that they knew what patriotism was, even if few of them could say what it was. But now it is doubtful that we even know what it is.
Nor is that surprising. Patriotism has long since become a bitterly contested idea, tainted by direct association with the horrors of the last century, and especially its wars.
These fought in any case,
And some believing,
Pro domo, in any case
Some quick to arm.
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
some in fear, learning love of slaughter…
(from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley)
The poets of the Great War of 1914-1918 ensured that the innocent complacencies of the previous generation became inexpressible. The lines I have just quoted, by Ezra Pound, are virtually a reply to a hugely popular poem for English public schoolboys, written only six years before the War began. Replete with lines such as ‘To honour, while you strike him down,/The foe that comes with fearless eyes,’ it ends:
‘Qui procul hinc,’ the legend’s writ -
The frontier grave is far away -
‘Qui ante diem periit:
Sed miles, sed pro patria.’
The writers of the years leading up to the Great War have been accused, not without justice, of making a religion out of love of country, of turning nation, empire, England herself into objects of worship. We think of Rupert Brooke’s wish, if he should die, to be thought of as reposing eternally ‘under an English heaven.’ But perhaps we should also think of that liberal, gentle sceptic of Empire, E. M. Forster, who, in Howard’s End, has a vision of England ‘sailing as a ship of souls, with all the world’s brave fleet accompanying her towards eternity.’
The religious note sounds again and again in patriotism, from that psalm ‘’If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…’ to the primeval Shinto conception of the islands of Japan as ‘the land of the gods.’
If patriotism has become for us a fugitive thing, this may be because we find it to be, in its truest form, so rare. For we see it almost always harnessed to the pursuit of power. That love of one’s country is not the same thing as contempt of one’s neighbours, that patriotism is not to be confused with nationalism, is an elementary distinction. But European history shows how hard it is to separate the pure gold (if such it be) of the one from the dross of the other.
For in how many countries of Europe does the separation really exist? The Spanish sense of nationhood was forged in the Reconquista and culminated in the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the peninsula. The same idea of a reconquest from alien occupiers was used to justify the blood-letting by the victorious side in the Spanish Civil War.
French patriotism has been irretrievably bound up with ideas of struggle and military glory associated with the Revolution. And above all – Germany: a rapidly forged nation state, where unification was connected with war, and where war long remained fundamental to the legitimacy of the state.
But if these are perversions of patriotism, what is the real thing? Aristotle defines as ‘most like true courage’ the valour shown by volunteer citizen soldiers facing death in battle. St Thomas Aquinas calls this ‘political courage.’
St Thomas and Aristotle give the highest praise to physical courage displayed in warfare. This is because they see the voluntary sacrifice of self in the interests of the polis as a loyalty that is nobly directed at the highest end – the good of the people. Aquinas is happy to adapt this to a Christian text: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’
Ah! But what a dangerous saying in this context! How often has it been used to justify mindless obedience in war. St Thomas himself qualifies his account of courage by requiring that it be exercised in a just war. This was how he was able to connect death in war with martyrdom – a connection still made in the Muslim world.
It is here that we often think we can define a better idea of patriotism – a just war fought for values we hold dear, and death for those things, not simply pro patria.
Yet wars fought for ideals have been exceptionally bloody and atrocity-filled. We think of the Crusades and the Wars of Religion. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they put seventy thousand Muslims to the sword in a massacre that lasted three days. They burned the Jews alive in their synagogue. After these triumphs the Christian Crusaders moved in solemn procession to the Holy Sepulchre and (in the words of Gibbon) “covered the tomb in tears of joy.”
But how many wars have there been of which the wisdom of fighting them has not been questioned by historians? A distinguished work on the Great War describes it as “the greatest error in modern history” and argues that that had this country kept out of it “Hitler would have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter” in a Europe dominated by a benign Germany and an unscathed England. There would have been no Bolshevik revolution and its metastases. The nineteenth century would have lasted a little longer. Tens of millions would not have been slaughtered. (Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War)
But must love of country be validated by nice historical calculation, or by our approving a certain policy or philosophy of a government? (T.S.Eliot, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture). Or is it something more mysterious, something that more resembles natural religion?4 Is it above all love of ‘one dear particular place? (Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’).
There is an extraordinary moment in Virgil’s Aeneid (VII) where Aeneas and his comrades, fleeing Troy, catch sight for the first time of Italy. They see a landscape that is strange and wild, and they behold the Tiber leaping forth to the sea, in swirling eddies, through a primeval forest. It is a sublime landscape, but also a disturbingly alien one. The river is darkly mysterious, but it is the Tiber – the familiar, beloved name tells us that this is our landscape, our Italy, a land for which looking on it for an imaginary moment as strangers, we Romans realise our intimate love. (I owe this thought to a conversation with Colin Burrow.)
Virgil is recreating the wonder of patriotic feeling. He evokes the miracle of civilised Rome rising like a genial natural growth from this rugged and rural origin. The loyalties these patriotisms express arise out of something other than our practical life.
It has rightly been said that ‘the life of nations, no less than the life of individuals, is lived largely in the imagination.’ Coleridge said that to a person without imagination the world would be ‘a vast heap of littleness.’ It really does require imagination and the pietas that springs from it for the community of the living to remember the dead, for there to be a sense (in Burke’s words) of ‘a partnership not only between those who are living and those who are dead, but between those who are living and those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’
A hundred years and about seven hours ago today the guns fell silent. On this day above all days we connect patriotism with remembering the dead. It is above all the occasion to speak of the dead. And words are what we need.
As Virgil found words to express the intimately familiar wonder of love of his country and its destiny , and as Shakespeare, in the famous passage from Richard II found such surprising words for his country as fragile object of love - ‘this little world,/This precious stone set in the silver sea’ so we need words to understand what so many people of today find difficult to imagine - that immense sense of belonging which gripped the Jewish captives in Babylon who wept ‘remembering Zion’; of Virgil’s Trojans seeing Italy; of men returning home from the Western Front on glimpsing the White Cliffs; and of that impossible love by which so many laid down their lives for their friends.
That is why it is right to surround our effort to remember with the ceremony of Church and State. For what is being remembered today is so terrible, so emblematic of a century in which
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…’ (Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’)
that our rituals of remembering are at the same time, and rightly so, attempts to make it bearable. None of us here has any remembrance of the Great War, and yet it has a strange power over the imaginations of those born many decades after it ended, so that for growing numbers it has become the enduring symbol of an end of innocence, of an order which with all its faults and injustices had no notion of the barbarism that was to follow, of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ that was to spread all over the old empires of central and eastern Europe, not only during that War but in the decades following it.
At my first Annual Gathering as a junior Fellow I contrived to sit with the pre-1914 generation of Caians. My immediate neighbour was from the intake of 1904-5. I remember them as high spirited, determined to enjoy the moment, and even to talk to a young don whose experiences were utterly remote from their own. After all, they were survivors. But they were reticent, and memories came out as it were by accident. I blush also to remember as a junior Fellow the inexplicable impertinence with which for no reason at High Table I suddenly asked a dining companion decades my senior: “Rudolph have you ever been dead drunk?” “Just once, dear boy, just once. It was the battle of Vimy Ridge. You see, it was a salient and we were surrounded on three sides by the Jerries. That day three quarters of our chaps were casualties. We all went into Arras and drank champagne for the whole evening. I don’t remember a thing after that. I can’t think how my horse got me back to the barracks.”
Sir Rudolph Peters –immensely distinguished medical scientist; Honorary Fellow; offered the Mastership of Caius; worked gallantly among the wounded at Vimy Ridge, mentioned in dispatches; Military Cross with Bar.
Or of a Caian career chosen almost at random: Cuthbert John Burn; admitted as an Exhibitioner in Classics 1912. He was seriously wounded at Ypres 7th November 1914. Shot while lying on the ground, he suffered a severe penetrating wound to the left upper arm. He was even more severely wounded August 1915 at Hooge – hit in the head, in the right frontal region, by a bomb fragment. He was in hospital for six days, and returned immediately to the front. However he started to suffer bouts of tiredness, loss of memory, shakes, and generally exhibited symptoms of shock. He was also suffering from Romberg’s syndrome where half of the face becomes distorted. He was sent home as unfit to serve.
Further surgery on the face was necessary and Cuthbert suffered severely from tinnitis. He spent his time, however, learning modern Greek and improving his French for he hoped to become an interpreter after the War. After recovering, he returned to the front. He was killed on 1st October 1917. He has no known grave.
Of the 44 eligible to serve of that intake of 1904-5, 36 volunteered, and of those 17 were mentioned in dispatches, wounded, or killed. Diana Summers has calculated that of all the officers killed on the first day of the Somme – the bloodiest day in the whole history of the British army – two per cent were Caians.
Of course my pre-Great War dining companions remembered their friends, who had gone ‘from the morning watch even unto night,’ many from quite comfortable circumstances; who looked to successful careers, children and grandchildren; and who had no more wanted to die than anyone here this evening. It was at a Commemoration of Benefactors that I met these men – but of course they are our benefactors.
A late member of the College, Gavin Stamp, compiling forty years ago an account of the memorial and cemetery architecture of the Great War writes this of his visit to the memorial which contains most of the ninety two thousand names of those with no known graves: “Sixty years after Passchendaele, the daily evening sounding at the Menin Gate of the Last Post and Retreat, echoing in the Great Hall with its remorseless decoration of columns of names, can still induce anguish, outrage and a sense of hopeless loss in the visitor.” (Gavin Stamp, ‘Silent Cities’)
On this day of days, in this sacred place, with its own columns of names, you will be especially willing to think what it must have been for three quarters of a million young men, of just about your age, some of whom frequented these courts, this chapel, and in whose rooms some of you may now be living, to have died, not for a policy, nor even a principle, but pro patria.
For the world would indeed be for us “a vast heap of littleness” were there not such occasions on which “our souls approach that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.” (Joyce, ‘The Dead’)
We are born with the dead:
See, they return and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
(T.S.Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’)