Loyalty to Loyalty - a Remembrancetide Meditation

Like most kids in the late seventies and eighties I watched dozens of films about World War Two in which the glorious and good allied soldiers, sailors and airmen vanquished their evil counterparts from the Nazi regime in Germany. Life was easily divided for us into the good and the bad and I belonged, unquestioningly, on the side of the good guys. In our games - whether in the playground or in the local woods and playing-fields you never wanted to play the Germans.

Then, when I was about fifteen, I read a book which was significantly to shape my whole life and philosophy. It was entitled I Flew For The Fuhrer by Heinz Knoke who joined the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of the war, rose to the rank of commanding officer, and who was eventually awarded the Knight’s (Iron) Cross.

Although a later reading of it - now many years ago - revealed to my, by then more sophisticated understanding, some deeply problematic aspects, what I took from the book on my first naive reading still came over to me. Namely, that Knoke, as an individual human being, was not a million miles away from the individual human beings who sat in Allied cockpits at the same time. In his book I found not a clichéd enemy but person whose feelings and concerns were familar to me: fear, love, courage, duty and loyalty a deep concern for the well-being of his family. This simple fact alone profoundly disturbed me because it challenged my naive and socially reinforced belief that there were easy distinctions to be made between the 'enemy' and me. As a Sea Cadet the parade I took part in each Remembrance Sunday at the local Walton-on-Naze War Memorial became for me, overnight, a deeply ambiguous event. For many years 'What about our enemy's dead?' was almost the only question I could ask. I trust you realise that this was never to dismiss my own country's dead as unimportant but it was radically to question how and why we were doing our remembering in this very one dimensional way. Perhaps such one-dimensional remembering is all that could and even still can be done in such big national public events but, here, in this more intimate and sophisticated environment, I think we can do better.

On a prima facie basis (that is, a prima facie case for a modern western liberal) I can see that one is simply not going to be inclined to remember well those who supported and fought for - as Knoke did at the time - the unimaginably brutal Nazi regime (and I really cannot stress enough how this is in no way a hidden apology for their way of being). Anyway, surely I can say with justification "Let them all go to hell" - my disbelief in both heaven and hell not withstanding. So what was I and am I worrying about? Well I was, and am, concerned about all the things I discovered I shared in common with Knoke (and, therefore, the rest of humanity) but, today, it is with loyalty that I shall remain. All that follows is drawn from the work of the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) - (In the following I have broadly followed the good precis of his philosophy of loyalty found at this link - however he is worth reading rather more fully and HERE you can find a scanned copy of his book The Philosophy of Loyalty.)

Royce notes that to be a human being is to be born into complex processes (biological, social etc.) that are already long, long under way and that these are precisely what allows us to develop certain ideas about the universe and the way one can live in response to it. This complex historical process inevitably provides us with innumerable causes to support and many programs for their accomplishment and, although it is true that we all become unconsciously involved in causes simply because our particular culture values them, they only become truly moral positions in so far as an individual begins to self-consciously to judge, accept and/or reject them as good or bad. Note here that although Royce is clearly stressing the central importance of moral freedom he is also stressing that this freedom only exists within wider contexts that limit our freedom significantly. So, to pick an obvious example, we couldn't choose to follow the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha before they were born and had themselves lived, learnt, taught and died.

Whenever an individual self-consciously decides that a particular cause is worth supporting at least three things occur. The first is that, through this cause, our individual wills become sharpened and better defined. Secondly, we find ourselves amongst a wider community which shares the same causes as us. Thirdly, there develops a increasingly morally significant commitment to the cause and the community that espouses it. It is this latter effect that Royce calls "loyalty" without which there can be no meaningful moral life for any individual.

But, if left here, a massive problem remains because it is clear that, although there have been many millions of people loyal to what we call the 'good' there are also many millions of people who have been loyal to brutal and evil causes. Royce knew this only too well and for him perhaps the most direct example was the Confederate States' defence of slavery during the U. S. Civil War. (Obama's victory this week bringing some of that story to a point of closure).

Against this Royce notes that the highest moral achievements have always been those in which an individual's loyalty to their own particular cause has promoted "the formation and expansion of communities of loyalty." So, although the most dreadful deeds have also been committed by very loyal individuals it was only ever a narrow loyalty to their own group and one which, eventually, not only destroyed other human beings but also the conditions for other individual's loyal actions. Royce summed up the difference between these two types of loyalty as follows:

". . . a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows" (Royce 1908 pp. 118-119).

To some degree, of course, all of our human communities and causes fail to live up to this high ideal and so are all, in this sense, lost causes - a point Royce particularly highlights. I realise that some people might read this as a philosophy of despair but in truth it is one of genuine hope in which we can humbly engage in genuine moral action. Why? Well, because in the moment we recognise all human causes are lost we are simultaneously alerted to the constant need to re-examine our aims and actions and to set about reforming their disloyal aspects. In short our very failures are what keep us loyal to true loyalty. Lost causes are, therefore, for Royce indispensable as the source of all the norms and values of any human community - including even what we might consider the best.

In sum, loyalty to loyalty demands from us that we continue to find ways to draw ever more inclusive circles whilst always acknowledging that we will ourselves never achieve the perfect loyal community which is nothing less than, to use Royce's own terminology, the Beloved Community - which was a modification of his earlier conception of the Absolute (i.e. his philosophical idealist conception of God).

We can see that Knoke, and millions like him, have been loyal to a cause and, in so doing, they expressed something without which no human being can lead a true moral life. Time, and millions of deaths, revealed to us that the cause to which Knoke was loyal was brutal beyond imagining. However, the failure and defeat of the Nazi cause was only possible because allied servicemen and women heeded the same call to loyalty that Knoke did. History has shown that the allied cause, although terribly flawed in its own way, was more loyal to true loyalty than the Nazi regime and for its overthrow we should be eternally grateful - especially to those who served on both the front-line and the home front.

But we must never rest content with this response - this little bit of remembering - for Royce's philosophy reminds us that not only was Nazism a lost cause but so was the Allied cause and so are all our current causes - no matter how good and worthy we may feel them to be at this moment of time. Only an acknowledgement of this continuous failure can properly call us onwards to an infinitely deepening loyalty to loyalty which, to repeat, we only express in our societies by constantly being alert to the need to re-examine our aims and actions and always to be reforming our own community's disloyal aspects. Royce believed that loyalty to loyalty revealed something genuinely firm upon which all people stand and when we remember only our own heroes this is obscured and it is why I think we need to bring people we once considered as our enemies into our circle of remembering.

Royce concludes his own book on loyalty with Jesus' words found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (28:20 AV). Today, I can do no better than to leave you with Royce's final words:

" . . . from the whole circle of the heaven of that entire self-conscious life which is the truth (the Absolute), there comes always, and to all the loyal, the word: "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (p. 398).