The Unfathomable Complexities of Our Most Basic Instinct: ‘Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue’

If you think loyalty is a thing of the past, you’re not alone. Apparently, for hundreds, even thousands of years, the greatest minds of every generation have felt that loyalty is on the decline. Much like the tale of the twenty miles uphill in the snow your grandfather walked to get to school each day, loyalty has long been a subject for glorification and reminiscence.

Of course this time we’re really in trouble, because we’ve got Facebook, and a whole other host of tools making it easy to betray your friends, or worse, pretend to be friends with people we don’t care about at all. If we’ve thought about loyalty, it’s likely we’ve deemed it old-fashioned, or irrelevant. To that end, in , Eric Felten describes and reflects upon the history of this elusive and complex topic, beginning with the origin of society and moving to present day.

Felten offers perspectives on loyalty that make it palatable for us today, despite our many, varied, and often conflicting commitments. He tackles some of history’s greatest traitors with refreshing, nuanced analysis. For example, he suggests that Brutus’ greatest mistake was not Ceasar’s assassination, but rather dismissing it so easily in his speech to the crowd. Life often forces us to choose between two loyalties. In the case of Brutus, he had to choose between his friend and his city. If he had seemed repentant, or given indication that he’d given the decision a great deal of thought (which of course, he did) he might have won the favor of the crowd.

Although at a glace, the book seems ardently esoteric, Felten manages to weave a great deal of relevance into his primarily philosophic text. He tackles marital and infidelity, loyalty to employers, and betrayal of friends and family. He elucidates the many complications of these relationships that we experience every day, but perhaps don’t often contemplate.

For example, in a chapter on the nuances of marriage and infidelity, Felten uniquely investigates the paradox that is our insistence upon the institution of marriage despite copious transgressions of faith. Drawing on anecdotes from modern day political scandals, ancient fairy tales, and everything in between, Felten helps us to understand why we are the way we are and suggests normative guidelines for how we ought to be.

He also tackles the aspects of loyalty that are not so cut and dry. In Nazi Germany and in China’s Cultural Revolution, young children were indoctrinated in schools to turn in their parents for betraying the State, with terrible psychological ramifications. Loyalty is a paradox, highly valued but unsustainable. Drawing on plenty of real life examples, Felten digs deep and spares us no discomfort. We’re reminded of David Kaczynski, who recognized his brother Ted’s handwriting and turned him into the authorities. Felten adds that at first, David sent in an anonymous tip. As it turns out, even if your brother is the unabomber, betraying a family member feels very wrong.

It’s no wonder. After all, during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus noted that when the world was getting ready to end, we’d know because “brother shall betray brother to death”. Our perceptions of right and wrong are pitted against each other, and regardless of the apparent winner, every player leaves the game a bit wounded.

Despite these rather startling and extreme examples of loyalty gone awry, one of Felten’s strongest undercurrents is that loyalty is necessary, especially these days when it’s not just neglected, but practically condemned. The subtext of Felten’s book may be that this particular generation isn’t just disloyal; it’s apathetic.

Despite the historical complexity of loyalty, in every example he gives, Felten seems to argue that loyalty ought to be a factor in behavioral choices, even if it’s not the deciding factor. Furthermore, it’s a nuanced concept, and never beneficial when offered blindly. Although much of the book feels conversational and loosely strung together, he does have strong feelings about how we should apply our loyalty, and one way he’s set on is patriotism.

He argues that loyalty to one’s country doesn’t mean unmitigated approval and support. In fact, loyalty might mean criticizing, protesting, and even revolting. The one thing it doesn’t mean is bowing out of the conversation. We’ve convinced ourselves that we can’t change anything, but according to Felten, complacency is the greatest act of betrayal. By offering this review of loyalty’s many applications, Felten assures us that as long as we’re creative, there will also be a value to our faith.

RATING 7 / 10