Humans, we are often reminded, are social animals. What people usually mean by this is that we dislike extended solitude, seek out others to form ever-larger communities, and rely on the cooperation of others to achieve most everything we do. As profound as all those observations are, they also apply to any number of other social animals. In the grand scheme of things, being a social animal doesn’t make us all that special.
What does set humans apart (at least until Siri and Google catch up) is the capacity for self-actualization or transcendence – the fulfillment of deeply personal, dynamic and contingent desires. The catch is that, while the desires themselves are deeply personal, their achievement is possible only with and through others. One of the fundamental ironies and contradictions of humanity is that our apex as individuals occurs when we are the least individualistic.
The philosopher Josiah Royce wrestled with this contradiction, and his insights are so powerful and universally relevant that it is worth quoting Atul Gawande’s masterful description of them at length:
The answer, he believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning.
Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty. He regarded it as the opposite of individualism…In fact, he argued, human beings need loyalty. It does not necessarily produce happiness, and can even be painful, but we all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable. Without it, we have only our desires to guide us, and they are fleeting, capricious, and insatiable. They provide, ultimately, only torment. “By nature, I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestral tendency. From moment to moment… I am a collection of impulses,” Royce observed. “We cannot see the inner light. Let us try the outer one.”
And we do. Consider that we care deeply about what happens to the world when we die. If self-interest were the primary source of meaning in life, then it wouldn’t matter to people if an hour after their death everyone they know were to be wiped from the face of the earth. Yet it matters greatly to most people. We feel that such an occurrence would make our lives meaningless.
The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said 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.”
As someone who has long gravitated toward loyalty and has recognized being loyal (sometimes to a fault) as a defining personal trait, I find this philosophy at once moving, resonant, and empowering. Everything that appears on this site, then, should be taken as an expression of my loyalty to the people, places, ideas, and institutions that matter to me. It is an intellectual exercise, of course, but coming in the service of loyalty, it is a deeply emotional one as well.