Humane Pursuits published a great introduction to the meaning of patriotism a few years ago. It’s worth reading this Independence Day weekend:
Patriotism, while a duty, is easily misunderstood and, as history demonstrates, once misunderstood is easily used for perverse ends. The anniversary of the founding of our nation presents the perfect opportunity for the examination of one’s patriotism.
The words “patriot” and “patriotism” find their roots in Greek and in the political conceptions of the Greek city states. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon defines πατριώτης as a “fellow countryman: property of barbarians who only had a common πατρίς [fatherland, of one’s fathers].” They continue, “πολϊται being used of Greeks who had a common πόλις.” The Greeks, as MacIntyre notes in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, saw their loyalty as tied to their particular city-state, not to some notion of “Greece.” Rome ignored the slightly pejorative nature of the word and adopted the concept of fatherland in the Latin word, patria, derived from patrius – of a father, fatherly, paternal; hereditary; ancestral; native. Patriota, or patriot, retained the meaning of πατριώτης -fellow countryman. Both languages incorporate themes of community and inheritance into their understandings of who a patriot is and what patriotism entails. The Greeks clearly thought the polis to be the appropriate size for a vibrant patriotism; the Romans eventually turned their patria into an empire.
The American patriot inherits a patria more akin to an empire than to a polis, stretching “from sea to shining sea” and encompassing diverse cultures, geographies, and even languages. Because of this expanse, the temptation to make patriotism into an abstraction is large; with this abstraction comes the temptation to use patriotism, and even the patria itself, as a tool for domination. Affection, the root of true patriotism, involves the patriot in participation with his compatriots and with the past, as well as the present, of the patria. Affection recognizes that the fatherland is an inheritance…