Universal Patriotism

G. K. Chesterton is uncomfortable with both pessimism and optimism in the way that they are commonly defined. This is not such a novel view since we all assume that there is a “middle way” between the despair of the pessimist and the naivete of the optimist. Chesterton’s real insight is that the real problem with both the optimist and the pessimist is that each comments on the universe as a critic, as one looking over a piece of art in a gallery. A critic is one who, supposedly, critiques something from the outside as a “impartial observer”; but such an idea is ludicrous when critiquing the cosmos. We cannot stand outside of the universe and judge it impartially, for we are a very part of this universe. There is no outside of all that is.

Chesterton says that his attitude towards the cosmos is not something akin to pessimism or optimism, but rather patriotism. In Orthodoxy (GKC Collected Works Vol. 1, Ignatius, 1986) he writes:

Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with a flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more…

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual historyof mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

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