Wendell Berry on Patriotism

by Jason Peters on December 18, 2011 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

About thirty-eight minutes into this interview on Indiana Public Radio (WFIU) Berry says:

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world.

In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing toward your place.

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation.

The whole interview is fifty-six minutes long. There are a million worse ways to spend less than an hour.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin December 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm

ISI’s new volume on Berry just came into my grasp today….goody

avatar John Gorentz December 19, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I don’t see why the same phenomenon cannot apply to a nation as to a smaller community, or why each cannot engender conflict with others. I don’t get why size matters.

Being a fundamentally lazy person, instead of listening to the whole hour’s worth to find out I’ll first ask here if this issue is addressed in a rigorous fashion in the interview.

avatar Robert December 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm

One can “understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it” when that place is small enough to be actually (not abstractly or romantically) known. A small nation, perhaps, could be known in such a way. In the case of America, though–300+ million people inhabiting 3.7 million square miles of territory–that kind of knowledge seems exceedingly unlikely.

avatar D.W. Sabin December 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Wisdom has no scale

avatar C R Wiley December 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Optimal size has something to do with a sense of the whole. Nations can get too big, schools can be too big, companies, churches, etc.

avatar John Gorentz December 21, 2011 at 1:40 am

I don’t know if nations can get too big, if properly federalized, but governments certainly can. And so can schools, companies, and churches.

Regarding the knowing of a smaller group personally and intimately, Charlie Brown’s Linus said, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” It’s people we know intimately and personally who are the most hateable.

A recent article in the WSJ about murder rates in New Orleans pointed out that these murders have been shown not to be random violence. The murders are done among people who are personally known to each other.

Last summer on some of my bike rides I was learning about some of the violent interactions between Native peoples and Euro-American settlers in Indiana during the 1810s and 1820s. It was interesting how outside of the war early in the 1810s, so much of the killing and massacre was done by and to people who were personally known to each other. It was not a case of settlers getting angry and killing the first random Indians they encountered, or vice versa. It was a case of going out of their way to kill settlers/Indians who they had personal grudges against.

So I question whether small communities of people who understand their own people and place, are therefore going to go out and sing “We are the World” with all the other small communities in which people know each other well.

I’m not saying you aren’t all on to something, either. But I think the issue needs more careful analysis.

avatar Bob S December 21, 2011 at 10:36 am

I find terms like “nationalism” and “patriotism” tiresome. Everyone has a different definition of what those terms mean to them. Neocons, for example, have a much different understanding of patriotism than people on this site.

avatar love the girls December 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm

What I’ve long wondered if it is even possible to be properly patriotic in the U.S.?

Doesn’t some kind of formal society at human scale first have to exist? A man naturally loves his own, but what is his own when the vast sea is his home?

avatar Corey December 21, 2011 at 6:02 pm

I do intuitively accept Berry’s idea of “patriotism” as the less abstract- and more particularly real- form of extended fellow feeling. But I also wonder where his certainty about the “imaginative” faculty to recognize “that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world.” Isn’t it just as likely that, after understanding your own place and wishing well to it, and therefore understanding the limits on it and the subsequent limits on yourself, you will begin to understand your place as in competition with other places? As others have pointed out, while close encounters with others are necessary conditions of fellow feeling, they are not sufficient for ordering society. At the same time, the kind of human equality recognized in liberal democracies is without basis if fellow feeling is eroded or missing. Daniel Mahoney points out the second half of this problem in “The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order,” but the real difficulty comes when we try to justify our ‘conservative foundations’ that come from patriotic fellow feeling as good for anybody other than the “us” already recognized by that feeling. In other words, lacking abstract foundations for equality, we are left with either the liberal ironism of a Richard Rorty (in which we know equality is nothing but a historical artifact, but we make it the basis for our society anyway) or we must rely on a traditional authority given only to a few.

While I am, admittedly, not as familiar as I would like to be with Berry’s social philosophy, it doesn’t seem to me that his “imaginative” intuition can really be relied on if we think “well-wishing toward the whole world” is a goal. One reason for this is the numerous examples from history in which the most patriotic people had little regard for people outside the polity. This points towards a limitation on a natural rights philosophy without a notion of the ‘given,’ which can be understood as coming from the divine or, perhaps, from the kind of phenomenology of the given found in the work of Jean-Luc Marion: understood in the terms of modern science, we have no reason to expect others to imagine equality unless we find this imagination to be of some evolutionary advantage; in the terms of modern rationalism, there is no foundation for equality that is prior to history or other concepts.

So if Berry wants his imaginative sense of patriotism to do the work of “requir[ing] a well wishing toward the whole world,” then he must be talking about a particular kind of imagination, that comes from a particular place, with particular traditions, that at once is universal. I don’t know of any other way to do this without a Christian political theology.

avatar gja December 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

John — “I’m not saying you aren’t all on to something, either. But I think the issue needs more careful analysis.” Berry (and others) has been carefully analyzing these issues in his books, essays, poems, and talks since the sixties.

avatar robert m. peters December 22, 2011 at 1:23 am

I would simply suggest reading Aristotle. Berry clearly echoes him. I also suggest reading Dr. Donald Livingston who has written extensively on the nature of the republic and upon the economies of scale associated with a republic or a polity. One might also read more closely on the Christian understanding of subsidiarity particularly as it is articulated in the Catholic idiom of that faith.

avatar robert m. peters December 22, 2011 at 1:25 am

One might also read the works of James Kibler, especially his work Our Fathers’ Fields.

avatar Rob G December 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm

~~While I am, admittedly, not as familiar as I would like to be with Berry’s social philosophy, it doesn’t seem to me that his “imaginative” intuition can really be relied on if we think “well-wishing toward the whole world” is a goal. One reason for this is the numerous examples from history in which the most patriotic people had little regard for people outside the polity. ~~

I think Berry would say that this then wasn’t true patriotism. Love of one’s own place or country need not entail a lack of regard for others’ love of their own place or country. In fact our love of our place/country, if it’s a healthy love, should enable us “imaginatively” (one might say intuitively) to understand another’s love of his. This seems to me to be what Berry’s getting at.

avatar John Haas December 22, 2011 at 10:21 pm

John Gorentz makes excellent points.

Furthermore, I don’t need to know anyone or even belong to the same spatial community to have respect and affection for them.

Some examples, some of you may share: Aristotle. Harriet Beecher Stowe. A lot of you guys.

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