Are Patriotism and Religion the Last Refuges of Scoundrels?

In 1775, in the year just prior to the American Revolution, Samuel Johnson famously quipped that:

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

And this morning, thinking about this truism, I asked myself this question:

What is it about patriotism that makes it amenable to usage by scoundrels?

And it occurred to me that the answer is surprisingly straightforward: patriotism makes something other than reason—in this case, nationalism—the last court of human appeal: my country, right or wrong. In other words, patriotism short circuits reason and puts in its place a form of submission: loyalty to a fatherland or motherland above all else. And so patriotism, being pre-rational, is a form of mystification readily exploited by scoundrels. The American and French Revolutions, being assertions of reason and individual liberty against the mystifications of kings, would not have happened if the scoundrel appeals to loyal submission to king and country were heeded.

And so this seemed to me a tidy summing up (at least to my own mind) of why patriotism is, indeed, the last refuge of the scoundrel. Nationalism trumps reason.

But then another question occurred to me:

What props up nationalism?

And once again, the answer seemed blindingly obvious: religion. The American and French Revolutions—the fruits of the Anglo-French Enlightenment—were not just in a fight against kings and patriots (defined by loyalty to a king ruling territory). Instead, they were in a fight against the divine right of kings over a territory. Religion and nationalism, in other words, are the two pillars of the anti-Enlightenment tradition—the tradition that sets faith and cultural conformity over universal human reason and individual liberty.

And so it is that faith and patriotism function as the last refuges—against the universalist Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition—of scoundrels.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to Are Patriotism and Religion the Last Refuges of Scoundrels?

    • santitafarella says:

      Penn and Teller’s patriotism is completely coherent to me. I do think, however, that people like Glenn Beck use this form of patriotism to swindle into the conversation old style anti-Enlightenment nationalism (the Founding Fathers built the country on faith, Americans are unusually good human beings, etc.).

      Beck, and similar scoundrels, are, at bottom, anti-Enlightenment nationalists, not Enlightenment nationalists (like Penn and Teller). There’s a difference, and it is important.

      We should be suspicious of any form of nationalism that has not first thoroughly passed through the Enlightenment (historically, culturally, intellectually). Nationalism absent the Enlightenment is frequently a hindrance to the advance of univeral freedom and liberty. Just look at Iran.


  1. santitafarella says:


    You set your reason and liberty beneath loyalty to country—or above it?

    When push comes to shove, what is your last court of appeal?:

    —patriotism (my country, right or wrong)

    • andrewclunn says:

      I’m gonna have to go with faith because my morals are based on a set of values, and reason alone cannot derive values into existence. I believe my country was primarily founded on those values, but as it sways form them my patriotism calls me rebellion not acquiescence.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Your answer is surprising. Is it coherent to say that your values do not accord with your reason? Did you just pick them off the shelf wholly as an act of contingency?

    I understand how a people can have eccentric pursuits of happiness and eccentric commitments to fantasies and myths that they salivate to (from religion to Star Trek). And I can understand how important it is to protect the ability to pursue them. That’s called liberty.

    But what surprises me is that you would set the foundation for your liberties on faith (and not reason).

    What values, exactly, do you think this country was founded on?

    I say universal human reason and individual liberty. I think that is where the buck stopped for people like Paine, Hamilton, Franklin, and Jefferson. I think that they understood reason to be a break with the past—a break from tradition, authority, and faith—and something that humans could base their lives on and make for themselves, as individuals and collectively, a better and freer world.

    I think that the Founding Fathers thought that, by making reason the last court of appeal in disputes, it was capable of arbitrating a better future for humanity than the ones that kings and priests were likely to ever achieve (and I think that their intuition proved correct). I also think that the Founding Fathers believed that open dialogue, individual liberty, representative democracy, and science worked, and had universal application to the problems facing mankind.

    That’s what I say they were fighting for (not the replication of European forms of nationalism on the American continent). They wanted a republic: a representative government based on the power of universal reason and liberty. And they expected the model—being a break with the past, and superior to it—to one day expand to the whole world.

    What say you?


  3. andrewclunn says:

    All reasoned argument requires premises. My premises are that the universe operates on some constant set of rules, and that I both exist within that universe and have power over my own existence. From there a respect for science and vaguely Lockean values follows.

    I am patriotic because the manner of the founding of this nation and its early form suggest a loose basis on those values in ways not previously (and arguably never again) established. So yes, I use reason, but that reason requires a few assumptions, which I accept as a matter of faith (and thankfully science appears to be validating, at least as much as is possible.)

  4. santitafarella says:


    Yes, I agree with you then. This is the ground for American patriotism: its disjuncture from the past. Or as you put it:

    “I am patriotic because the manner of the founding of this nation and its early form suggest a loose basis on those values in ways not previously (and arguably never again) established.”

    That disjuncture was the Enlightenment (a commitment to universal reason and liberty).

    As for your axioms, while you might not be able to come up with air-tight syllogisms for accepting them, you obviously have not adopted them at random, and so I would not use the word “faith” to describe your commitment to them. You have very good reasons for thinking that they are true, and you could offer reasons that a reasonable person would understand. You are not appealing to authority. This is what I mean by a commitment to reason—a commitment to dialogue and a respect for science and universal knowledge.


    • andrewclunn says:

      Yes, well I do have no basis for discounting postmodernism in its most extreme form (How can we know anything for sure?) So that is an assumption. Also I place the value on the individual and assert that introspection and thought can lead to changes in behavior, thus asserting a sort of physics compliant for of free will. The last one seems to be corroborated by neuroscience, but the placing of value on the individual sentient being is a clear matter of faith.

      I can make pragmatic arguments for individual freedom to collectivists, but there are some areas that we just won’t agree on. Also where does one draw the line for sentience (Some draw it so that only humans of a certain race are real ‘people’, while others include nearly all animals)? These are not question that science can give limited if any insight to. So if I am to be honest, I must admit that faith underlies my beliefs.

  5. santitafarella says:


    No worries. I think of reason as the helium in a balloon: so long as people are talking and reasoning together—exchanging their hot air—and the helium is going in, the balloon will rise.

    What I’m trying to say, via my bad analogy, is that the more people talk about religion, postmodernism, science, political ideologies, etc. the better their conclusions on these matters are likely to be. In other words, postmodernism has its charms, but on balance it is a bad idea and does not do well in argumentation. It is true that sophists have always been around (and will always be around—postmodernism is a contemporary form of sophism), but if you get sick, you go to a doctor (not to a continental philosopher).

    Put another way: the faith of the Enlightenment is that, over time, and if dialogue and science are kept open, humanity will make its way to a better world—a more rational world. And ideas that are rational will eventually prevail over generally bad ideas (like, say, sharia law or young earth creationism).

    I think this is true. It’s my faith as an Enlightenment humanist. I see humanity advancing. And I see it advancing because Enlightenment rationalism and liberty are compelling, and are a break with the past. It is a historic disjuncture that is going relentlessly forward (in the teeth of a lot of traditionalist and nationalist static). Our historic moment, Andrew, is to live at a time when the Enlightenment has occurred, but has not prevailed yet. It is a time in which the Enlightenment is clashing against counter-Enlightenment forces (traditionalisms, collectivist ideologies, nationalisms, religious authorities).

    We are amphibians. Perhaps our great grandchildren will find themselves on a less foggy, and less irrational, shore.


  6. Roger Salyer says:

    “False opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.” – Joseph de Maistre

    A few points:

    Santi, you are merely asserting the divine right of the individual. This is also a faith. And it is a false one. It is also a patria. And it is a disloyal one.

    Reason as a court of final arbitration does not create a better future; it creates what we have today: Degeneration. Having less being, less identity, this is degeneration and not progress. The Anglo-French Degeneration. Pi may be an irrational number (I would say an extra-rational number.), but you need it to create a circle.

    Values are not picked off a shelf. They are givens, not subject to reason. For how can anyone exercise reason to pick a value, except by virtue of an even deeper set value?

    Liberty may be thought of as potential energy. Talk all you want, but liberty’s value comes in its exercise, in making a choice—which thereby closes liberty off. To ask a question is to presuppose that you want an answer, even expect one.

    To pretend to choose, but to hold open the choice, is simply not to choose. What may I choose as an individual in America with a right to liberty? To be in communion with my ancestors through tradition? To be in communion with my neighbours through collectivism? No? What if I choose, as I have, “throne and altar?” Not an option? Then what is this vaunted liberty?

    You have written that you are enriched by the diversity of your L.A. neighbourhoods. But are your neighbours from different cultures enriched by you? In what way? What have you given them? Your humanity? Ha. Ha. Ha.

    This is why I condemn modern America. It allows one to choose only to be an individual. But without some content, this individuality is an empty vessel. America preaches freedom, but condemns its exercise. You have the right to choose, so long as you don’t exercise it.

    I agree that at least to a great extent “America” was founded upon universal human reason and individual liberty. Certainly that foul human Thomas Paine thought so. This is why I reject it. What if I use that individual liberty you prize so highly to establish a European nationalism on this soil, which I have, if only in my own home and heart? I get war from “Enlightenment” zealots.

    America will only permit one to be loyal to oneself. Yet, if the man is not loyal to something other than himself, he has not himself either. “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free.” – Joseph de Maistre

    Americanists do expect to expand their model to whole world. It’s a conquest that they call “liberation.” It’s an implicit assertion of moral superiority because there is no moral superiority. It is therefore schizonphrenic. That’s why Enlightenment Liberalism must, for the sake of Mankind, be defeated. And will be defeated. “Nationalism absent the Enlightenment is frequently a hindrance to the advance of univeral freedom and liberty.” Thank God. Come out of the darkness and see some-thing.

    • andrewclunn says:

      I have only this to say:

    • santitafarella says:


      You said:

      “What if I use that individual liberty you prize so highly to establish a European nationalism on this soil, which I have, if only in my own home and heart? I get war from “Enlightenment” zealots.

      America will only permit one to be loyal to oneself. Yet, if the man is not loyal to something other than himself, he has not himself either. ‘Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free.'”

      My response:

      I have little sympathy for your private project (a form of European nationalism). But that is a far cry from saying that you cannot envision it, try to build a commune around it, build it into a whole cultural community with property that you have purchased (like, say, the Amish have done in Pennsylvania).

      I recognize the value to the human psyche for creative and shared cultural vision (whether constructed from scratch or nostalgia). And I might argue with you about your religious or political views, but I wouldn’t prevent your liberty among consenting adults. In other words, there would be no “war” with you beyond the rhetorical (sassing you at my blog etc.).

      As for de Maistre’s quote, you salivate to original sin as a concept. I don’t. You may be right that it is folly to try to build a life or a community without taking original sin into account, but only Enlightenment humanism of the Paine and Jefferson variety give people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes (make errors in the exercise of liberty).

      Setting reason and liberty in the driver’s seat of arbitration makes it possible for you to be you with others who agree with you, and me to be me with others who agree with me.

      Lastly, as for neighborhoods: we build multicultural LA neighborhoods from our human universals (all humans like their own place to live, they like to be smiled at when passed in the street, they like a convenient place to get a loaf of bread etc.). The Phoenecians have to get along with the Jews (if they want to trade). The benefits are too high to shun. But the peculiar cultural or private fantasy expressions of individuals gets done with others who share similar obsessions. It’s not my role in the community to give my neighbor that. They have their family, coworkers, and links to meaning, and I have mine.

      Just because a nation is not going all in the same religious or cultural direction (or a neighborhood for that matter), it doesn’t mean that the basic Enlightenment regime (reason and liberty) isn’t making it possible for eccentric flowers to bloom. It’s just that human universals are powerful and attractive—probably more attractive than most provincialisms. That’s why it’s hard for Los Angeles immigrant parents to get their children to do things in the old way—it’s the tug of the urban Phoenecians that calls their children away (and, in my view, usually for the better).

      If, for example, pre-Vatican II Catholicism is such a vibrant and satifsying cultural expression for you, play it out. But you may not find many people to join you. And the days when you could pad your numbers by forced conformity are long gone. That milk has already washed from the carton. What spilled it was the French and American Revolutions. You can’t go from experience to innocence.


  7. santitafarella says:


    One more thing: what you call decadence I would call human universals that draw people together into large urban areas. The meta-urban cultures that now interconnect around the globe—you can drink Starbucks in Shanghai or Austin—get their energy, for good and ill, from exploiting human universals.

    I don’t see how or why you think it would be desirable (let alone practical) to see humanity arrest its development at a certain stage of history (say, the 18th century). It is near-inevitable, given the spectacular capacities of the human mind, that our technology would spawn a global culture based on human universals. How could this moment, after the scientific revolution, not have come sooner or later? I don’t think that human beings are a terrible mistake, do you? Provincialism is obviously a waystation to something else. If we’re a species that survives for another million years, we’ll be interplanetary and maybe even interstellar beings at some point. How silly and curious nationalism will seem then.

    Roger, you’ve seen the earth from space. That’s humanity’s collective destiny. Hopefully we can base it on reason and liberty as human universals. But those images of earth from space—the very fact of their existence—are the writing on the wall. The blue of them is the blood of the earth birthing something new—the image of a blue and human inhabited planet writ large. The Anglo-French Enlightenment Revolution writ large. Provincialism must face a heavy headwind forever after.

    “One world, ready or not.”


  8. Gunlord says:

    Heh heh. My friend Santi, considering some of the excesses of the French Revolution (the ‘Cult of Reason’ comes to mind) and even some of the more extreme statements of certain leaders of the American Revolution (Thomas Jefferson’s quote about the tree of liberty and the blood of patriots and tyrants), it isn’t immediately self-evident that the Enlightment tradition, at least in and of itself, brought an end to the nasty specters of not even religion or nationalism, but the underlying human tendency of in/out-group thinking that often leads to such nastiness of all sorts.

  9. Roger Salyer says:

    “I don’t think that human beings are a terrible mistake, do you?”

    “And they expected the model—being a break with the past, and superior to it—to one day expand to the whole world.”

    I am not sure how you square the two statements. You seem to be saying that human beings were a terrible mistake until manna rained from Heaven in the form of the Declaration of Independence.

    You wouldn’t prevent my liberty from “consenting adults?” How does one consent to be excluded? For me to form my “commune,” I would need to exclude those who, consenting or not, do not fit the paradigm. If I form a commune that holds heterosexuality to be normative, how can I hold on to it without excluding in some measure the homosexual boy living down the street?

    • santitafarella says:


      I do think that human existence—absent reason, rebellion, and the Declaration of Independence—is a mistake. I’m glad I live in the Enlightenment-driven era that I do.

      As for your commune, do what you want with your private property. If you have somebody living on your property without your consent, kick him off. But if you don’t own all the houses on the block, you are out of luck if you want to force someone out of your pristine social experiment.

      What is it you want that the Enlightenment deprives you of—a whole nation under Catholic law and blocked from the Internet? What is it, exactly, that you want that you don’t have? Do you want the Phoenecians never to trade with you or visit your closed territory that you hold in covenant with God?


  10. Roger Salyer says:


  11. Roger Salyer says:

    The Enlightenment does not deprive me of anything by its simple existence, so long as I do not have to obey its dictates. If you are not loyal to the king, that is ultimately not my problem. The issue really only arises when you demand that I be loyal to the democracy, or more precisely today, to the sacrosanct individual. If you tell me that you have no duty to respect the king as king… well, I know I don’t have any duty to respect you, just because you can walk and talk.
    You may say in all this that I am calling after spilt milk. Not true. Let me update this a little. You apparently hate (given the thrust of your post) everyone (and, despite your characterisations otherwise, I suspect that they are in the millions in the U.S. and in the billions around the globe) who don’t want to transform their world into your wonderful vista future with you. You have deemed them worthy of hate.
    I am simply calling out anyone who asserts, without explanation, that the milk should be spilt, must be spilt. You are attempting to shift a burden.
    Look, be as Enlightenment as you personally want to be. But some people already have communities, or the remnants thereof, and they are not obligated to allow some universalism to deconstruct those communities, subject to meeting your justification requirement.
    You have attempted to characterise my desires as similar to those of the inhabitants of The Village. Not so. You might be surprised at how liberal a society I might prefer—so long as the society had A WAY of its own. What I prefer may be a “European nationalism,” but I admit that I am not entitled to it any more than you are entitled to get rid of it. Nonetheless, the only community that is a community is one that has a way of its own.

  12. Roger Salyer says:


    Property. Sovereignty. If a people are the people of a community, they can kick out anyone they wish out of their country as well.
    Here appears to be the rub, and the reason that the break-with-the past types are tyrannical: They presume to DEFINE “America” as universal reason and individual liberty when it ought to be defined as WHATEVER “the Americans” will it to be (I say this even as a monarchist-sympathiser.). Your position appears to be—along with the pocket-constitution faux opposition across the aisle—that the people exist to execute a political philosophy. To the extent their politics exhibits a refusal to do so, it is void and illegitimate. What was it that Brecht said about the East German government?
    In any event, can I do whatever I want with my private property? Thanks though, I take it that you are not a supporter of the spirit of the Civil Rights Act either. Respecting the Amish, I am so glad you’re not of the same opinion as US SCt Justice Douglas in a case called Yoder v. Wisconsin.

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