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The idea of patriotism – love of country – is an ancient one.  It goes back to the Greek word patris (place of one’s ancestors) and the Latin patria (fatherland). 

Like every form of love, patriotism is partly determined by the object of its affection.  Is love of country unconditional – my country right or wrong – or is it dependent on its meeting certain standards?  “To make us love our country,” Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “our country ought to be lovely.” 

But what if it isn’t? Then what? 

Patriotism has always been a contested virtue, because love of country must contend with other loyalties to family, friends, tribe, and religion.  In the virtually inevitable conflict of loyalties that anyone will experience, which loyalty should take priority? As any reader of Sophocles’s Antigone would immediately recognize, the conflict between loyalty to family and loyalty to state is as old as Western literature.

The so-called pre-Socratic philosophers saw the human world – even the cosmos as a whole – as pervaded by constant and continual flux.  Order and stability were largely fragile and uncertain creations designed to hold back the all-pervasive chaos with which the human things were threatened. It was this deep sense of chaos and the fragility of life to which the ancient Greek tragedians gave profound voice.

Antigone is by some accounts the greatest specimen of this Western art form.  It is a play about conflict at several different levels: between men and women, between nature and convention, but most importantly between the family and the state.  For readers today, it may be difficult to imagine a world where the claims of family and blood ties took such powerful form. 

“We have no fresh history of conflict between family and state,” the English classicist Bernard Knox has written. And yet Knox’s claim seems not quite true.

Two scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather epic provide a vivid illustration of Antigone’s dilemma.  At the end of The Godfather II, there is a flashback scene where the Corleone family is gathered around the dining room table in anticipation of a surprise birthday for Don Vito, the family patriarch.  The conversation turns to the surge of military enlistments after the recent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Tessio, who arrives with the birthday cake, announces that thirty thousand men enlisted the day after the attack. “They’re saps,” Sonny, the heir apparent of the family, says, “because they risk their lives for strangers.” When Michael, the younger brother attending Dartmouth College, protests that they risk their lives for their country, Sonny snaps, “Your country ain’t your blood. You remember that.” After Michael reveals that he has enlisted in the marines earlier in the day, Sonny furiously berates him: “Did you go to college to get stupid?”

The two other brothers each react according to their character. Tom Hagen, Michael’s adopted brother and the family lawyer, regards the matter as a purely transactional arrangement. The attack, he says, should have been expected after the oil embargo. Fredo, clueless as usual, offers his hand in congratulations. Only Sonny is the representative of an ancient premodern ethic that holds the family – ties of blood and kin – as the highest form of obligation. 

According to this ethical view, familiar from the plays of Sophocles, what one takes pride in is what touches most immediately one’s family and sense of family honor. At the end of the scene in The Godfather II, we hear the family united in celebration of the Don’s birthday, but Michael remains alone left in thought. What is he thinking? I suggest that he is reflecting on the tension between himself as a member of the Corleone family and as a first-generation American citizen. Which will have the greater pull – loyalty to family or loyalty to the nation? 

This scene seems to reference an earlier moment from near the end of the first Godfather. Here Michael and his father are talking in the garden of the family estate. The Don has largely retired from the family business and Michael is stepping into his shoes. 

“I never wanted this for you,” his father confides to him. The old man claims that he has no apologies for his life, that he has done what he had to do, but for his youngest son he had hoped for something better. “Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone,” his father muses. “We’ll get there, pop,” Michael reassures him, “we’ll get there,” perhaps not believing his own words.

These two scenes reflect the ancient Sophoclean pull between loyalty to family and loyalty to country. Which will have priority? Don Vito’s wish is clearly for his son to enter the mainstream of American life and perhaps even to put aside the tragic conflict of loyalties that has shaped his Old World views. Michael himself seems to acknowledge this. As a young man, he opts for country by joining the army and returning a war hero, but as the saga plays out, we learn that the ties of clan and family ultimately prove stronger. 

What does The Godfather teach us? It does not deny that love of country is a powerful and even a noble motive but rather that it must always contend with other loyalties that may prove equally compelling. Patriotism is and always has been a contested good because love of country is only as good as the country we love. 

“This is a world of compensations,” Abraham Lincoln once wrote. Goods must be balanced and weighed and not all good things will be compatible. Antigone and the Godfather understood this fact.  It is something worth remembering.

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and a professor of philosophy at Yale University. This article draws from his forthcoming book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes(Yale University Press, 2021).