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  • Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe:Anthropocene Reflections
  • Mark Larrimore and C. Hannah Schell (bio)

How paradoxical a world, then, must the real world be, if the faith of the loyal is indeed well founded!

—Josiah Royce (1995, 144)

loyalty is an old-fashioned virtue, and there are good reasons to be wary of it. Conjuring images of unthinking obedience to unworthy tyrants, freethinking liberals are suspicious when conservative voices celebrate its name and call for loyalty as the antidote to our cultural sickness. Loyalty does seem to keep people stuck in unhealthy relationships, bad political arrangements, and toxic work situations. Loyalty to country, paired with militarism and its hierarchies, is hardly a source of ethical insight.

At a time when the world around us seems irreparably broken, however, we have found the concerns of loyalty—causes, commitments, and community—to be a promising entry-point. They resonate particularly with young adults seeking direction in their lives (see Schell 2016, 235–54) and facing personal debt and downward mobility, global and local political dysfunction, and the ramifications of [End Page 721] anthropogenic ecological collapse in the epoch increasingly referred to as the Anthropocene. Loyalty offers a compelling way to frame a meaningful life for members of Greta Thunberg's generation who feel that "we probably don't even have a future any more" (Thunberg 2019). Might loyalty offer guidance more broadly for living well in a time of catastrophe? In this essay we explore the potential of the concept and practice of loyalty for living in a time of unfolding catastrophe, building on the analysis of one of its most thoughtful interpreters, Josiah Royce.

Writing in the world of the early twentieth century, Royce couldn't imagine the systemic closing of the horizon of our time. There is much that is dated about his approach, philosophically and culturally. Yet the Californian philosopher addressed strikingly familiar existential concerns. He understood loyalty not as a fixed stance but as an itinerary of discernments toward a progressively more universal moral engagement—an expansion of moral and social awareness paradoxically made possible only by free commitment to a particular cause. Not all of Royce's ideas have aged well. His profoundest ideas, however, seem to us worth retrieving and reframing. His understanding of life defined not by success but by ideals, grounded not in open horizons but in sorrow and solidarity, speaks directly to the challenges of living in the Anthropocene.


Loyalty … has nearly always been confused in men's minds by its chance social and traditional associations.

—Royce (1995, xxiv)

Royce recently experienced 15 minutes of posthumous fame in a column in the New York Times by David Brooks (2019). In offering a way of honoring the value of lives committed to something larger than the self, Brooks presents the author of Philosophy of Loyalty as "the philosopher we need today," an antidote to the divisiveness and narcissism [End Page 722] of identity politics. Reproducing William James's categorization of Royce in Pragmatism, Brooks embraces Royce as "more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract." Royce is the philosopher of "binding and connection" where "the good life" is understood as one in which you commit yourself and your life, along with others, "for the sake of a noble cause."

Playing up Royce's childhood on the western frontier, Brooks states that Royce "had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it's every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain." Brooks dwells upon the active, practical aspects of Royce's definition of loyalty and then invokes Royce's depiction of separate individuals and their loyalties as fragments of a larger unity, precisely the spirit of "human brotherhood and sisterhood" that is missing in "the current pessimism and divisiveness." It was Royce, long before Martin Luther King, Jr., who reveled in what "the beloved community" makes possible and how difficult it is to achieve.

Responses to Brooks's article predictably fell into two camps; loyalty plays differently across political lexicons (Haidt 2012). While some readers were enthusiastic, most wanted nothing of it, especially from someone not uniformly critical of a president...


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