SalutingI asked myself a question yesterday which I have not yet been able to answer. I’d very much appreciate it if anyone who reads this posted a comment with their own answer.

How do you understand the concept of loyalty and what value, if any, does it have for you? I find that whenever I try to think about this I either get tangled up with thoughts about honour, which is a related but different topic, or I react emotionally and vaguely. I find that I tend to imagine a loyal person – a heroic patriot or similar – or a disloyal person – Captain Jack Sparrow or similar – and then identify with one or the other.

Sometimes I consider the value of loyalty for loyalty’s sake: the idea that the value of loyalty is not linked (or only loosely linked) to the object of one’s loyalty but rather comes from the act of loyalty itself. It is good to be loyal, regardless of to what or whom you are loyal. I think Josiah Royce wrote something along those lines. I find it an intellectually appealing idea in some ways but ultimately it strikes me as hollow. I can’t make the link in my mind between the abstract loyalty discussed by philosophers such as Royce and the visceral loyalty that leaps from the pages of Anglo-Saxon poetry such as The Battle of Maldon.

But then old Germanic ‘loyalty’ wasn’t a lot like the modern idea of loyalty. It is made quite clear in the old poems that a person’s loyalty depends on the rewards he will be given. Having received a gift from his lord, a man is obliged to fight for him. But when peace returns he may, as long he owes nothing more to the lord, break off his allegiance and join the retinue of another lord who gives better rewards. Furthermore, this was considered praiseworthy – today it would probably be considered disloyal.

I think part of my problem is that I have an old fashioned understanding of honour but I cannot articulate it properly with my modern language. Triuwe, êre and vridu all make more sense to me than loyalty but even so I’m not sure if I really know what they mean. I particularly like this sentence, taken from George Fenwick Jones’ Honor in German Literature:

The old Germanic ideal of service unto death, but only as long as the payments are prompt, lasted until modern times in the ethics of the Swiss mercenaries.

There is something worryingly selfless about modern loyalty. It owes nothing to oaths, honour and debt. Instead, it has something to do with altruism and inherent duty. It seems fake and imposed rather than an authentic virtue. Lao Tzu wrote this:

When people lost sight of the way to live
Came codes of love and honesty,
Learning came, charity came,
Hypocrisy took charge;
When differences weakened family ties
Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons;
And when lands were disrupted and misgoverned
Came ministers commended as loyal.

Published in: on September 14, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. I see loyalty as a way of preserving a relationship with the things you positively identify with. Loyalty for the sake of it is stupid. There’s got to be an ulterior motive behind it, whether its emotional gratification, the preservation of a persona (in respect to how we wish others perceive us), or spotting the chance to get some form of return from something or someone in the future. It’s like altruism in that respect. Honour is a way of extending a protective element over that positive identification by absorbing what we’re loyal to into ourselves and treating it as if it’s a part of us. When we over-identify with our honour and loyalties the consequences can be dire. Just think of the actions of religious martyrs, the death of Sturm Brightblade in the Dragonlance Chronicles, or the reactions of certain Japanese Generals and SS Officers after their respective countries surrendered to the Allies in WWII for some examples.Loyalty and honour have value to me, but only as long as the subject of it retains its relevance. Its also important for me to keep a balanced sense of perspective in my loyalties and to question them when they don’t appear to be working in my favour.

  2. If you’re going to illustrate a point with something from the Dragonlance Chronicles I think I can get away with a Tarantino reference. My favourite exposition of honour in cinema is that scene in Kill Bill where Bud (Michael Madsen) says, “That woman deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.”It’s the idea that the enemy can be honourable and morally right in their actions but we are still morally right and honourable in our attempts to thwart them that strikes me. I hate the (predominantly) modern idea that we cannot act unless we are morally superior in some way to our foe. The whole idea of jus ad bellum seems to miss the point completely.It’s from that sort of standpoint that I find the idea of loyalty for loyalty’s sake to be intellectually appealing.Ultimately, my difficulty stems from my emotional immaturity. In any other sphere of my life I could give something up, secure in the knowledge that if it doesn’t work out I could take it back again. But when it comes to something as emotive as loyalty, I lose the ability to think in the same way. I begin to think of loyalty and honour in black and white terms – all or nothing – which is unhelpful, to say the least.

  3. Thank you very much for posting that. I had not made the connection before but I was just now making some notes about Hagalaz in my galdor-book and I remembered your comment and a number of realisations all suddenly clicked into place. I won’t go into it all here, but thank you for the nudge.

  4. Contrary to your own ‘personal explanation’ I see loyalty on a more ‘divine level’. Man should be loyal to the Orlögr, the Divine Order (also known as Rita, Arta or Sanâtana Dhârma). If one lives to this Orlögr, it will be restored in this chaotic world (if only a little bit). Also the Heilagr (or Tao) will be ‘positively influenced’. Heilagr is a divine inner force or sacred sphere (“heil” or “whole”) which is connected to ‘good name’ and… honour. This not on a personal level (of course), but in connection to the kin. You may think here about the old Germanic way of living that you already referred to (in slighly a different context).

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