What the Heck is "Patriotism"?

An AP Lang teacher recently asked me this question:


My students have a good grasp of the concept of patriotism that you describe in your book, but I’m worried that if they use the word “patriotism” on the exam the readers might think they are misusing the word in its traditional sense. It might seem like they inaccurately identified a speaker’s choice. Is there another way to refer to patriotism as you describe it in the book?

Aristotle lists patriotism among the stronger emotions. But I've struggled myself with the definition. Patriotism isn't always a positive emotion in rhetorical terms. It's the desire to identify with a group, to be a part of something larger. You could call it a desire to serve. Or, on the other hand, a tribal emotion.

Here's a way for rhetoric students to understand patriotism. Have them look up the latest research on oxytocin. The popular press calls it the "love hormone," because new mothers exhibit high doses of it when they hold their babies. People administered oxytocin through nasal spray feel love toward people close to them.

But guess what else oxytocin correlates with? When a stranger enters the room, the mother holding the baby feels grizzly-mom hostility. Ditto the nasal-spray experimental patients shown pictures of people from other races.

Aristotle had a deep understanding of humans. I'm guessing he would have been fascinated by oxytocin as a physical marker of patriotism.