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  • Reverence for the Relations of Life as a Source of Royce’s Ethical Insights
  • Richard P. Mullin

Fr. Frank Oppenheim’s contribution to the revitalization of Royce’s philosophy is universally acknowledged. Of the many aspects of Royce’s thought that Oppenheim revealed and thoughtfully interpreted, this essay focuses on a relatively underdeveloped phrase that became a title of Oppenheim’s 2005 book, Reverence for the Relations of Life. The context of this phrase constitutes Royce’s assessment of why some communities in early California endured, while others, which seemed to thrive for a limited time, turned into ghost towns. Royce concluded that the defining characteristic of the enduring towns was reverence for the relations of life (Oppenheim, Reverence for the Relations ix).1

In his 2005 book, Oppenheim examines Royce’s relations with Pierce, James, and Dewey. I will develop the idea of reverence for relations as the foundation for a Roycean ethics. This project seems to conflict with the obvious fact that Royce has established “loyalty to loyalty” as the basis of his ethics. Reverence for relations and loyalty to loyalty are certainly congruent, but several questions must be addressed. The questions include: How are these terms, “loyalty to loyalty” and “reverence for relations of life,” similar, and how do they differ? Why did Royce not emphasize reverence for relations in his later works? And, what can we gain by interpreting reverence for the relations of life and Royce’s later works in the context of each other?

Reverence and Loyalty

Loyalty to loyalty and reverence for relations of life both engage deep problems for the American tradition. The American ideal has always been to limit the public sector and maximize personal freedom. Under these conditions, some communities can learn to live together and thrive. But others [End Page 72] do not. As mentioned above, the difference is reverence for the relations of life. Without such reverence, we naturally slip into a preference for our own interests over that of the more common good and fail to develop a sense of social responsibility. This self-centeredness causes problems not only for the community, which disintegrates into enclaves and isolated individuals, but also for individual persons themselves, who, in spite of the illusion of self-sufficiency, can find their fulfillment only in a community that they can relate to with a sense of reverence.

If Royce is correct in claiming that reverence for relations constitutes a necessary condition for survival, then we must conclude that our continued long-term survival and prosperity require identifying and strengthening the sources of reverence. Reverence consists of admiration or recognition of something that we regard as greater than ourselves. Such admiration or recognition depends on our ability to know and appreciate that which we revere, and on our humility to acknowledge its greatness over and above ourselves. Individuals who take the goods in their lives for granted, or who attribute them to their own effort alone, are not likely to have a sense of reverence. A daunting task for educators is to enable young people to develop an appreciation of the good, along with the humility to acknowledge their own debt to things greater than themselves.

Before considering how Royce dealt with this challenge, and how we can interpret his insights for our own century, I will show a way of connecting reverence for the relations of life with Royce’s favored “loyalty to loyalty.” Reverence is a respect and admiration for something that we regard as overwhelmingly superior to ourselves. So if we revere relations of life, we subordinate our individual good to these relations. In the context of Royce’s thought, reverence for relations would not mean a selfless altruism, but rather an imperative to develop ourselves so as to serve the relations, whether these relations are at the level of family, community, nation, or world (Sources of Religious Insight 197–98).

The connection between reverence for relations and loyalty to loyalty is that reverence is a necessary condition for loyalty, but loyalty goes further. Royce’s preliminary definition of loyalty is “a free, practical and thorough-going devotion to a cause” (Philosophy of Loyalty 9). Although we may be able...


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