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.

6 comments on “Book Review: Loyalty by Eric Felten
  • Ah, so there is something good in that cesspool of misdirection and vacuity known as the Wall Street Journal, besides Kara Swisher.

    Please forgive me, but I have difficulty picturing you, Ben Casnocha, being swept up in the passion of the moment in love, war, or a rock concert. I see you as detached– so involved in analyzing the situation, whatever it is, that you’re not actually living it.

    I do like Felten’s and your thinking on the “passion-fidelity dilemma”, but his figure of speech– “Many facing this choice look at passion like ripe peaches–short lived, but much to be preferred over fruit canned in cloying syrup” is almost as infelicitous a choice of words as something Sarah Palin might say.

    The mental imagery it evokes is not quite in synch with the subject matter. Felten should bone up on the sexy Song of Solomon to put those peaches in their proper place. Now there’s some passion for you.

    I do highly value loyalty in my friends, above such over-rated qualities as physical beauty and personal charm.

    If only I could teach my various lovers to value fidelity as much as I do, then we all could be one big happy family.

    After all, life is nothing without a little wickedness– you have to have something to compare the virtuous with to give it meaning.;-)

  • Ben,

    Hitler’s minions were also ‘loyal.’ I think loyalty is among the virtues, but at the top would be judgement.

    In the end we need to do what is right, given the situation, circumstances and values we hold. I wonder is good judgement is learned, though books or just by making poor judgements?


  • I think the point of ‘loyalty,’ as distinct from the other traits you listed in your earlier post, is that sometimes we judge that a particular person/institution/whatever has earned a little space where we’ll offer them the benefit of the doubt, a little breathing room where we’ll stick with them and wait to see, even when rational analysis might dictate that we cut and run. So it’s a critical trait if we’re interested in building relationships (romantic or business) that transcend constant cost-benefit calculations. Great leaders *have to* inspire loyalty, because there will be times, in pursuit of a big vision, when there’s no other rational reason for people to stay committed.

  • Loyalty is often sworn when one can’t find another better ploy to cleverly mask an underlying element of great advantage. And they stay loyal until that advantage is extracted or it plays itself out in full.

    How many Greek, Irish, Portugese or even American will be ready to cough up more taxes and forego entitlements gladly to prevent their country from being labeled as a `defaulter’…? Try telling them they were clearly living beyond their means and it’s austerity time for honoring their nation’s trust for all that it gave them up until now, they respond with riots, looting and arson…!

Leave a Reply to Ben Casnocha Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *