Book Review: Loyalty by Eric Felten

41+acjhZqgL._SL500_AA300_ Browsing in a book store a couple months ago–something I wish I did more, to introduce serendipity that doesn’t happen when buying books online–I noticed an item that caught my eye. Beautifully packaged in a dark blue jacket cover with a gold-font title: Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Wall Street Journal arts columnist and musician Eric Felten. I bought it.

In the introduction, Felten says “loyalty is the virtue of being trustworthy.” It means keeping your word. In each subsequent chapter, he complicates this basic definition by exploring how loyalty operates in different contexts: romance, business, politics, and others.

Felten says loyalty is essential in human affairs. Without loyalty, trust disappears and relationships crumble. The problem is, loyalties conflict. For example, when friends commit immoral acts, should you stand by them (loyal to friend) or uphold moral principles (loyal to principle)? Felten says, “Try not to renounce your old friends except when they exhibit an excess of wickedness.” An excess of wickedness was Aristotle’s trigger for disloyalty. Or as Sir Walter Scott said, “I like a highland friend who will stand by me not only when I am in the right, but when I am little in the wrong.” A lot in the wrong is different; too much loyalty and soon we’re talking about a vice, not a virtue, Felten says.

What’s the difference between a little and a lot of wickedness? That’s up to you. Figuring it out is an example of a tough decision Felten says we need to make, case by case. If we’re not willing to untangle loyalty conflicts as they arise, we give up on loyalty altogether, and life becomes impossible.

The chapter on adultery and monogamy is strong. Couple quotes:

…the “passion-fidelity dilemma.” It’s a long standing struggle, and we still haven’t been able to decide whether passion and fidelity are compatible. We want love that lasts, but we also want passionate intensity, and we suspect that we will at some point have to choose which love is worth having, the epic but brief romance, or the companionship that goes the distance. Many facing this choice look at passion like ripe peaches–short lived, but much to be preferred over fruit canned in cloying syrup.

So which is it? Is loyalty love’s friend or its enemy? Does love bind things together or rip them apart? The advocates of passion celebrate Eros’ tendency to smash the crockery. Real love, they argue, is unconstrained by stodgy, boring old notions of fidelity; real love proves its primacy by transgressing the petty boundaries of bourgeois morality; real love demonstrates itself by transcending inhibition and propriety. This is a view that aggrandizes the destructive tendencies of love and betlittles loyalty as a wet security blanket. It is also a narrow, impoverished view, one with adolescent enthusiasm made possible by an adolescent understanding of what gives life satisfaction and meaning. As alluring as the passion principle may be, mistaking romance for love is one of the most common calamities known to humankind. And, as we’ll see, the difference between the two is marked by loyalty.

I mostly agree, though I think many believe in the idea of monogamous romance–and agree with Felten that the passion principle gets tiresome as lifelong practice–but still commit occasional physical betrayals. In other words, many agree that fidelity in romance is the way to the happiest life, but many of those same people still occasionally act in pursuit of momentary passion.

The topic of loyalty has been an interest of mine for awhile. Hearing people exalt others for their “loyalty”–to a person, to an organization, or a cause–has never quite sat well with me, probably because there is a dangerous, unthinking sort of loyalty that is called to mind when I hear the word. The ambiguity of it all has also bugged me. Almost two years ago, I wrote a post titled Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue:

Loyalty is better viewed as a phenomenon of other traits and virtues: trustworthiness, empathy for fellow humans, investing in a relationship in good times and bad, variations of the golden rule, etc. These are constitutive virtues of loyalty. For example, fidelity is its own virtue. You should be faithful in a relationship. To describe this concept, I say use the word “fidelity” and not “loyalty.”

I still would rather people use other more specific words to describe certain positive traits. But Felten refreshed my understanding of the essential role of the virtue(s) at work when we use the word, without arriving at any easy or clear conclusions. My own conclusion from reading the book is that I maintain staunch loyalty to certain people, institutions, and ideas, and must be prepared to negotiate conflicts accordingly.

This is a book to give to anyone who too quickly celebrates loyalty or to someone tempted to too quickly dismiss it.

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