To understand how a healthy patriotism can lead to solidarity with and empathy for others, it’s worth returning to perhaps the most helpful framing of the virtues of patriotism and the temptations of nationalism that I’ve ever read. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis outlines the ways in which citizens should love their nations.
First, he uses a key word—“home.” He compares the love of your country to the “love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells.”
When I read those words, I know instantly what Lewis is talking about. If you’ve ever traveled abroad for any length of time, you might remember that feeling of comfort the moment you return. It’s akin to that sense of comfort you feel when you open your front door and walk into your own house. This is where I am from. This is where I belong.
But he continues, explaining how this feeling of national belonging can be an expression of selflessness. “As the family offers us the first step beyond self-love,” writes Lewis, “so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness.”
Critically, love of country rooted in love of home “is not in the least aggressive.” It “asks only to be let alone.” That’s not to say that it’s pacifistic, but “it becomes militant only to protect what it loves.”
And here’s the final element. Because healthy patriotism is rooted in this deep and natural sense of home, it rebukes any sense of chauvinism or xenophobia. “In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” Lewis says, “How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs.”
And this turns us to Ukraine. The Ukrainian people are a suffering people, swallowed for generations by the Russian Empire and by the Soviet Union. It endured the Holodomor, the Soviet terror-famine that killed millions. Part of it is presently occupied, and it’s been fighting with Russian-backed separatists for most of a decade.
No one claims that Ukraine is a perfect country. Like many former Soviet republics, it has struggled to find its footing. It’s endured authoritarianism, and it battles corruption. But, in Lewis’s words, it is “not in the least aggressive.” It “asks only to be let alone.” As a nation that has endured its own aggressive attacks, how can we not empathize? How can we not do what we reasonably can to deter Russian aggression and help Ukrainians defend themselves?