This statement of Dr. Samuel Johnson is a half-truth, told in the form of an epigram. If patriotism is the first urge of the best, it is sometimes the last resort of the worst people of the world. If history of patriotism were written, it would be found to be essentially a Roman virtue. ‘Pro patria mori’ is a Latin phrase from Horace, the famous Latin poet; it means to die for one’s fatherland. Bertrand Russell in an essay, while tracing the origin of Western civilization, observes that the ancient Romans were the first to develop the conception of loyalty to the state and self-sacrifice for the country’s cause.
It is, however, a mistake to think that patriotism was the monopoly of the ancient Romans. In ancient times, Darius the Great of Persia, fired by the ideal of patriotism, led huge hordes against the Greeks in revenge for the interference in Asia Minor in the fifth century B.C. Alexander of Macedon also was inspired by the lofty ideal of patriotism when he undertook world conquest in the fourth century B.C. In later times, Indian history records the heroic deeds of the Rajputs, the Marhattas and the Sikhs, all inspired by the intense love of the country. The Rajputs under Rana Pratap, the Marhattas under Sivaji and the Sikhs of Punjab under Ranjeet – Singh fought and died for their motherland. These are of course some of the most notable examples of patriotism as the primary urge of the leaders of nations.
In the First World War of 1914-18, there arose an English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died, covered with glory, in the Battle of Gallipoli. Rupert Brooke has written some beautiful War sonnets, which are widely read. In one of the sonnets, he describes the fallen heroes of the Great World War as restoring to England the long forgotten ideals of Honour and Piety. Rupert Brooke, indeed, speaks very highly of patriotism as the noblest aspiration of man.
But Johnson’s epigram is not a mere jugglery of words. In recent times, politicians and statesmen of the meanest type have misled whole nations and peoples. Hitler, for instance, rose from the humble position of a soldier to that of the Fuehrer (or leader) of the nation. Himself intoxicated by the ideal of racial superiority of the Germans, he instilled that ideal into the mind of every German man and woman and boy and organized a supremely powerful party known as the Nazis. The Nazis or the National Socialist Party, of which Hitler was the accredited leader, as we all know, attacked Poland in 1939 and later involved the rest of the world in the Second World War. Many competent critics of international politics and history adjudge Hitler to be a low specimen of humanity who resorted to patriotism as a means first for personal advancement and then for the nation’s supposed good, for the German nation was for him nothing but his own shadow lengthened out a million-fold on the wall of European history.
Mussolini of modern Italy is just another convincing example of a scoundrel practising politics apparently for national but in reality for deeply personal ends. Son of Alessandro, a blacksmith “a heavy man with strong, large, fleshy hands” Mussolini, after many changes of fortune, rose to power after the World War of 1914-18, and organized, after Hitler, the Fuehrer of Germany, powerful party and a movement, known as the Fascists and Fascism. Drawing his inspiration freely from the Roman imperialism of ancient times, he dreamed of an Italian Empire with far-flung colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Both Hitler and Mussolini were dictators; both were blindly led by the possessive instinct; the one stood for the ideal of racial superiority, the other for territorial greed; and both are now gone out of the picture of international politics.
In the Pakistan of today, patriotism is the ideal equally of the good and the bad, the true and the false amongst men. Jinnah has awakened the political consciousness of the Muslims of India. But there have been on India’s political stage enough of mountebanks and charlatans; they traffic in communal passions, mix with cunning private with public ends for the sake of personal advancement.
Shakespeare teaches this lesson in his political play, Julius Caesar. In this play, he dramatizes the conflict between republicanism and dictatorship in ancient Rome in the days of Caesar. Caesar was the dictator and Brutus the leader of the conspiracy against Caesar. Though Brutus was a selfless idealist, Cassius another member of the conspiracy, was always inspired by personal hatred and malice against Caesar. If Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all”, Cassius was truly the scoundrel for whom patriotism was the last refuge.