Apologizing for Love … of Country

The stone and marble arches that dot Yale’s landscape can sometimes transport you back in time. Athens. Rome. Or even Jerusalem. Etched on the arched gates of the many residential colleges read the words, “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” It is surprising that the inscriptions still stand today.

Over the past six months it has become so common to see and hear, almost to a nauseating effect, the phrase “Love Trumps Hate.” The intent is obvious. But like many words, has love lost its effect and understanding in society today? Love, like so many things, has become subverted to the whims of a consumer culture and politicized zeal.

St. Augustine of Hippo was one of the four original doctors of the Church. He is also remembered as the “Doctor of Love,” and has routinely been described by philosophers as an apologist for love. Indeed, anyone trained in philosophy would know that love and beauty are the two great themes replete in Augustine’s works. From Confessions to City of God, to the manifold letters he wrote to friends, colleagues, and opponents, the theme of love, in particular, undergirds everything for Augustine.

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Indeed, the very phrase “For God, For Country, and For Yale” is reminiscent of that Augustinian strand of piety and love that once glued the young American nation together. The bond of love and solidarity is highlighted throughout the phrase. The shared love of God, country, and Yale all intersect with each other to produce “tranquilitas ordinas.” Tranquility of order is, itself, a manifestation of love in its most natural and pristine form.

Love is a natural sentiment shared by all persons. Love of country, according to the likes of Cicero and Augustine—and Cicero was a major influence upon Augustine in many respects—was a natural manifestation of the affectionate love all persons possess within them. Pro aris et focis, “For our altars and our fires.”

The great wisdom of St. Augustine was the recognition of the uneasy and ambiguous plane in which we exist. City of Man and City of God are often remembered, incorrectly, as having been polarized opposites. In reality, both cities were metaphors of the loves that humans express. And both loves were mixed together in the plane of the saeculum. And this causes tension, but that’s the point.

Love itself is an uneasy thing. And no one knew this better than Augustine. Love of God, or love of self? Love of country, or love of neighbor and foreigner? For the Greeks, everyone who wasn’t Greek was a barbarian. For the Romans, everyone who wasn’t Roman was an enemy. But for Augustine, there is no dualism in the poles of love. It is orderly, overlapping, and the love of self finds fuller fulfillment in the love of others, the world, and of God. More importantly, love is rational. While love itself is often a battle, it is a healthy one. And we should not forget that.

It is telling in our modern language, sloganeering, and more general outlook, that we are all still, at heart, Manicheans and radical dualists. This is love and that is not love, worse, it is actually hate. Even the commentary between “nationalism” and “globalism” are painted as polar opposites. But Augustine accosted this dualistic view. The world is good and everything is a reflection of attempts to express love. Some expressions, however, are greater than others. As he wrote in Confessions, “sin is misdirected love.”

Apology, in Greek, meant defense or justification. Not being sorry. Augustine, the great apologist of love, was defending love against the nihilists who had confused love with hate, self-loathing, and wanted to destroy order and stability to achieve “true love”—whatever that might be.

As the Roman Empire was suffering the weight of barbarian invasion Augustine simultaneously reminded the people of the western empire that they should not confuse the Roman Empire with eternity, but also that there were still many great benefits that the empire provided and were worth defending. As Augustine wrote in his masterpiece, “Peace is the instinctive aim of all creatures.” Why? Because even the imperfect peace established by earthly order is a reflection of love (the tranquility of order) and that peace allows all citizens to pursue love. Augustine even went on to state, “Thus, even the heavenly city in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise of human wills.”

When the Vandals were invading Spain and North Africa, the Roman general Boniface wrote to Augustine and requested advice on how he should act. Augustine responded to him that he had a responsibility as a soldier and citizen of Rome to defend the order against the invaders. Earlier, Boniface had even wanted to become a monk when his wife died, but Augustine talked him out of it believing that the empire needed his services and that his tenure in the military was a reflection of his love of God. “Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service” Augustine wrote to the Roman general.

The uneasy ambiguities by which we live are meant to be uneasy. There are no easy answers. But it is deeply troublesome that the love of country has been thoroughly demonized as backwards, irrational, and hateful. But we know that love is rational, and so too is love of country. This is not at a blind allegiance to “American Exceptionalism,” but a deep reflection of the most natural love of the human condition. Yes, love of country is not the only love. But it is a natural manifestation of love. And there is nothing irrational and hateful about it. As the Catechism reads, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.”

Love is the dominant feature of Augustine’s work, it is the bedrock of Catholicism, and this includes love of one’s country—which has long been considered an honest and virtuous extension of the fourth commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother.” The wisdom of Augustine is as important today as it was in the fifth century. I, for one, love walking the campus of Yale and turning my head and eyes upward, as if toward heaven, to read “For God, For Country, and For Yale.”

Editor’s note: The image above is a painting of St. Augustine attributed to Gerard Seghers of Antwerp, 1591-1651.


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