Everybody has heard of loyalty; most prize it; but few perceive it to be what, in its inmost spirit, it really is,—the heart of all the virtues, the central duty amongst all duties.
— Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty
(Photo: The Washington Post)
Loyalty does not appear in Aristotle’s list of virtues, nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit, but it is something that the great mass of people know to be valued between friends, toward spouses, and by tribal warlords, Mafia families, fraternity brothers, and Marines. That such a wide variety of individuals and groups hold loyalty dear should not surprise us, since in a time of torrential self-interest we treasure any branch we can cling to that will arrest our plunge over the falls.
Josiah Royce, longtime professor at Harvard and lifelong friend and philosophical jouster with William James, declared loyalty to be the primary virtue. In his Philosophy of Loyalty(1908), he outlines it as the fulfillment of morality and declares, “Justice, charity, industry, wisdom, spirituality, are all definable in terms of enlightened loyalty.” He could hold to this sweeping maxim because he viewed our lives as a tension between the autonomy of the individual and our duty to the community. Loyalty is the magnetism that holds the poles of individual desires and community responsibilities within the same force field.
Royce defines loyalty as a voluntary dedication to a cause outside ourselves. This doesn’t come naturally, since most of us, when we are young, don’t have a clue who we are and why we are here. And this also sets up a paradox, as he puts it: “No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty. Yet I, left to myself, can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. . . Whence, then, can I learn any plan of life?”
His answer is that we learn from the models set before us in life. We learn to play, to work, to speak, by entering into our social life with others. Living and learning from others stimulates our own self-expression and our own individuality. It’s never simply a matter of imitating others. We conform in order to learn and having learned we build our own plan for life within the social community.
“Thus loyalty, viewed merely as a personal attitude” says Royce, “solves the paradox of our ordinary existence, by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.”
If we’re fortunate and have learned from good people we may find that purpose which centers our life, that gives us passion and defines the shape of our soul.
Artists and musicians know something about the power of a cause outside themselves. It is that which Bob Dylan spoke of in his Nobel Prize lecture as the spark that passed between him and Buddy Holly in one of the last concerts before Holly was killed in a plane crash. Dylan describes his awe as he watched from six feet away on the front row: “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”
A day or two later, just after Holly was killed, someone he didn’t even know handed Dylan a Leadbelly record. “That record changed my life then and there,” he said. “It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.”
Still a teenager, still living at home, still Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, the convergence of those experiences turned him inside out. The music set him free because it was real to life. The books he devoured in grammar school—Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front—their themes shaped the world inside his heart and fleshed themselves out in his lyrics. His music was his passion, that to which he gave his life.
We see loyalty here to Beauty, to Truth, to Justice—we could call up a hundred moments in the lives of those who have electrified us through the causes that gripped them. Think of Steve Jobs’ fierce dedication to the perfect convergence of Art and Technology. Pick almost any of the Old Testament prophets for whom the cause of justice burned within their bones until they cried out. Antigone and Creon, separated by an abyss of ritual duty—which one is truly loyal, which one irredeemably corrupted? Loyalty runs through our history and literature like a stitch along a seam: now we see it, now we don’t, but a pattern is clearly there.
Aristotle said, “To thine own self be true,” which sounds close enough to loyalty for most of us. It’s a value that we’ve embraced, despite the fact that “our self” is in flux and at times a mystery even to us. There’s more than a hint of desperation in the memes and tweets that proclaim how humbled we are by our own awesomeness. Royce reminds us that, “Loyalty is social. If one is a loyal servant of a cause, one has at least possible fellow-servants.”
But if loyalty is midwife to the emergence of the self, “Loyalty without self-control is impossible. The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance.”
That brings us to Donald Trump and James Comey, and the loyalty demanded by one and withheld by the other. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey describes a tense meeting with Trump in the White House in January soon after the inauguration. Summoned to a private dinner with the president, Comey was told “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” According to The Washington Post, “Comey said he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.” The president again asked for loyalty, but this time Comey recovered enough to promise him honesty. That apparently wasn’t enough for Trump: “I will give you honest loyalty,” said Comey, and with that rather stilted expression the dinner concluded. The conversation for Comey, again in the words of The Post, “raised concerns in his mind. ‘My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,’ Comey testified.”
In the light of what Royce has said about loyalty, some observations can be made. First, both men understand the word “loyalty” in very different ways. Trump uses it, rather paradoxically, to express both domination and need. He expects Comey’s loyalty as due him by virtue of his position as president. More importantly, he expects it as payment for the debt incurred by Comey because Trump allowed him to stay in the job—despite the fact that FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term. But Trump also needs Comey’s loyalty, a slip of the tongue that reveals perhaps more than he intended. He needs the assurance that everyone who serves him can be trusted and is willing to pay obeisance. Thus, for Trump loyalty is strictly a personal matter of the noble pledging fealty to the king.
Comey, however, recoils from such a misuse of loyalty because for him there is a much larger issue at stake. He has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and to maintain a bright, clear line between the kinds and uses of power for their appropriate ends. Furthermore, the loyalty demanded is only as strong as the loyalty given; loyalty cannot be coerced, only earned.
Let us admit that even with the best of intentions our loyalties are divided and our motives are mixed. H. Richard Niebuhr, an American theologian and social critic, channels Royce quite neatly when he notes, “Without loyalty and trust in causes and communities, existential selves do not live or exercise freedom or think. Righteous and unrighteous, we live by faith. But our faiths are broken and bizarre; our causes are many and in conflict with each other. In the name of loyalty to one cause we betray another; and in our distrust of all, we seek our little unsatisfactory satisfactions and become faithless to our companions.”
If we accept Royce’s thesis that loyalty is dedication of oneself to a cause outside of oneself, then the differences between the two men become even starker. Trump’s version of loyalty is a demand centered on satisfying himself alone; Comey’s is a principle that points beyond itself — and him — to an ideal of justice and fairness. Comey is loyal to the ideal of loyalty; Trump is loyal only to himself.