Royce 4: From Loyalty to Beloved Community and Beyond

This is my final week on Josiah Royce and the early pragmatists. Peirce, James, Dewey, and Royce are important figures in American thought, and especially in the case of Dewey, have a continuing influence on American public policy. Each struggled with a problem at the root of American democracy: What is the proper way to coordinate between individual self-interest and the needs of the community? Dewey, in particular, subscribed to a form of socialist thinking. Peirce leaned towards incrementalism, inclined towards careful change in institutions after investigation and analysis. [1]James was an individualist and, as we saw, against largeness and oligarchic or imperialistic organizations generally.

Royce is important for a number of reasons, most importantly because  of his diligent attempt to reconcile individualism with community. It is Royce who conceived the term, “Beloved Community,” which inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of what ought to motivate Americans in overcoming the problems of race and economic inequality. His balanced approach was indicated by his support for the First World War, despite being inclined towards a pacifism. He was a proponent of social and organizational change, but also for preservation of the best of the past and of tradition. His work is supremely wise and balanced. If for no other reason than the last, Royce has a view that ought to be heard today.

From Communities to Individuals to Community

For Royce, the virtue of loyalty involves the willing devotion of a human person to a cause greater than oneself. [2] “Loyalty is the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of an individual to a cause.” [3]. Any cause results in a community, for a cause by definition is social in nature. In order for a cause to exist, it must be embodied in a community that advances the cause.

The implication of this for the relationship of individuals to community are many. First, loyalty means “willing devotion.” This implies that any human community is first and foremost the result of human decision and no true community can be created by force. In Royce’s thought, the voluntary societies which have such an important role in American society and politics are just that—voluntary. They cannot be commanded into existence. Second, loyalty to a cause is personal. It is the loyalty of a human person. For Royce, the incredible diversity of people and their different families, experiences, education, vocation, hobbies and the like mean that there will be many different kinds of persons and many different kinds of causes within American society. Finally, loyalty involves devotion to a cause greater than ourselves. In other words, loyalty draws us out of our isolated individuality into community.

Courtesy and Conflict Among Loyalists

Royce is aware that in a society such as America, with many different nationalities, faith communities, political parties and lobbying groups, the emergence of community can and does involve the reality of conflict. In a complex society, people will be loyal to many causes, some of which are opposed to one another and have difficulty communicating peacefully. This calls for the virtue of courtesy. Courtesy is an essential expression of loyalty. Thus:

The true value of courtesy in ordinary human intercourse lies in the fact that courtesy is one of the expression of loyalty to loyalty, and helps everyone who either receives or witnesses courtesy to assume himself a loyal attitude towards all the causes that are represented by the peaceful and reasonable dealings of men to men. [4]

There’s no aspect of loyalty more important for contemporary American political discourse than the insight that courtesy is essential in a free society in which people join together to support sometimes differing causes. We cannot truly be loyal to our own causes unless we can be courteous to those whose opinions differ. If a free society cannot inculcate this virtue in its citizens, it is doomed to unfaithful and unreasonable discourse. It only takes a moment’s reflection to recognize that much contemporary American discourse has this characteristic. A glance at social media is sufficient to see a great deal of vulgar discourtesy and unreasonable and unpeaceful commentary.

Practically speaking this virtue of courtesy is assisted by implementing a few simple rules:

  1. First, respect the loyalty that others have towards their causes even when we do not share the same enthusiasm for the cause or cause they support.
  2. Second, be more critical towards the causes to which you are loyal than to opposing causes and
  3. give the benefit of the doubt to those who are loyal to their own causes.

Life-enhancing and Life-denying Communities

In the beginning, Royce declines to discriminate among causes, preferring to begin his analysis with a definition that embraces all loyalty, misguided, evil, wise and good Although all communities involve the creation of social entities, since not all causes are good causes not all communities formed to support a cause or an equal footing. To give an obvious example, there’s a considerable difference between a church form to advance the gospel and a criminal organization formed to advance a criminal conspiracy. There is a difference between a political party formed to advance the best interest of a society and a political party formed for the purpose of enslaving the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. There’s a difference between a society formed to advance the cause of peace and one form to advance the cause of war. Communities formed for criminal, antisocial, or violent purposes are not on the same footing as communities form to advance some legitimate benefit of society.

A community may begin its life formed for the benefit of a society, it may become outdated, ineffective, unable to adapt to change, or corrupt and no longer be beneficial or work for the common good of society. History is filled with business and other organizations formed to advance a public benefit that became unable or unwilling to adapt to change in the society of which they were a part. History is filled with organizations that over time became ineffective in the way in which they addressed issues. Finally, any society may become corrupted and no longer work for the benefit of those society. History is filled with organizations that began well and ended corrupt.

An Individual Plan of Life

The need to avoid misguided loyalties requires that each individual develop for his or her self a “plan of life”. [5]The process of developing a plan of life is by no means easy, since our society and every society provides multiple encouragements to give loyalty to various causes. It’s important to recognize that there is a positive aspect to what might be called, “becoming socialized into a plan of life.” Every society either consciously or unconsciously steers its members into a plan for their lives.

In this vein, Royce demonstrates devotion to individual choice, while recognizing that we all need education and instruction into social norms. when he says’

I, and only I whenever I come to on my own, can morally justify to myself my own plan of life. No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty yet I, left myself can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. By nature I simply go on crying out in a sort of chaotic self – will, according as the momentary play of desire determines. [6]

Human beings need socialization, traditions, expectations, family instruction, and other socialization into the kinds of causes and communities that our society finds life-enhancing. However, there is a tension that has to be recognized and an interplay that needs to be supported: every individual has to own for themselves the precise causes and communities within a greater society to which they will belong and give their devotion. In fact, our moral self-consciousness and our capacity for healthy social engagement is a function of our social life. As Royce put it, “our moral self-consciousness is a product of our social life. This self is known to each one of us through its social contrasts with other selves, and with the will of the community.” [7]

In this view, the inevitable conflicts of social life are not negative; they are the means by which we human beings grown and develop our identity. As Royce so eloquently puts it:

In brief, it is our fellows who first startle us out of our natural unconsciousness about our own conduct; and who then, by an endless series of processes of setting us attractive but difficult models, and of socially interfering with our own doings, train us to higher and higher grades and to more and more complex types of self-consciousness regarding what we do and why we do it” [8]

Our self-awareness and identity as human persons are established as we interact with others, who may be critical of our plans, behavior, beliefs, customs, or other social aspects of our identity. They may even actively oppose certain of our most treasured ideas and behaviors. In this way, our fellow human beings train and shape us to transcend our current level of individualization. In our internal and external dialogue with opposing views, we refine our own identity and commitments. As solitary beings, achieve no social growth. It is only by entering into society and the inevitable conflicts and comparisons of that society that we become true individuals. [9]

Levels of Community

There is, however, a deeper issue to which loyalty must address itself: The danger that a particular cause or community may begin to become so ultimate to its members that it is unable to recognize the limits of their cause, turn inward, and become instrument of cultish isolation, intolerance, and even oppression. Here we see the root of what these blogs have often called the problem of “Moral Inversion.” Moral inversion is likely to occur when a particular individual or group of individuals make ultimate a cause that is not truly ultimate. For example, I may belong to a family and be so loyal to my family that I do not recognize my family’s responsibility to its neighborhood. I may become so loyal to my neighborhood that I cannot understand the value of loyalty to my town or city. I can become so loyal to my town or city that I cannot be loyal to my state or nation. In each of these cases my subordinate loyalty has become something negative. This problem is especially difficult where politics and the power of the state are involved.

To avoid this problem, Royce recognizes that there are levels of loyalty, and our loyalty to any given less than ultimate ideal cannot become ultimate without dangers to society. Royce finds this ultimate loyalty in our devotion to loyalty itself and into the gradual merger of our lesser loyalties into the ideal community of the Beloved Community, which is a kind of secular adaptation of the nature of the Christian Church, if indeed the Beloved Community can be separated from that heavenly vision that Christians have always celebrated as their transcendent ideal—the heavenly city come down from God. [10]

Higher forms of community create a spiritual transformation in our loyalties and a greater and deeper love of all of our communities, as they are relativized by what I will call the “Transcendent Community” of the ideal society. [11] I would argue, and I think that Royce would agree, that no merely human community, no existing cause can be healthily sustained without it being related to a higher ideal which relativizes and renders penultimate that loyalty. In our society, many people regard politics as ultimate and the achievement of what they conceived to be adjust economic and social order to be the ultimate good. Over the course of the 20th century great evils were done by search people, all devoted to cars that in itself wasn’t evil but which became so by becoming ultimate. I think we see in the West today the growing danger of another outbreak of the kind of fanaticism that created the holocaust and the great human suffering under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot Pol and other leaders of penultimate movements become ultimate to their followers. Each of our human causes and communities is important on its own level, but it is not ultimate.

The Morally Inverted Leader

The kind of moral inversion of which this series often speaks results from a kind of person who has been collectivistically socialized into a kind of revolutionary individualism that is actually anti-social and destructive of persons and society. Here is how Royce puts it:

For the highly trained modern agitator, or the plastic disciple of agitators, if both intelligent and reasonably orderly in habits, is intensely both an individualist and a man who needs the collective will, who in countless ways and cases bows to that will, and votes for it, and increases its power. The individualism of such a man wars with his own collectivism, while each, as I insist, tends to inflame the other. As an agitator, the typically restless child of our age often insists upon heaping up new burdens of social control, control that he indeed intends to have others feel rather than himself. As individualist, longing to escape, perhaps from his economic cares, perhaps from the marriage bond, such a highly intelligent agitator may speak rebelliously of all restrictions, declare Nietzsche to be his prophet, and set out to be a Superman as if he were no social animal at all. Wretched man, by reason of his divided will, he is; and he needs only a little reflection to observe the fact.[12]

I must end here only to mention that a study of the quote above and a deep internalization of its meaning will explain the behavior of many organizations that regularly create violence during our election and other seasons and the true motives of their misguided leaders. There is no area of our political life in which Royce’s views need to be heard more important than this one.


I find Royce a difficult but rewarding philosopher as regards the problems we face in our society today. When we reach the end of these blogs, and I begin to summarize what I have learned, his views will receive another look and place of honor.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs All Rights Reserved

[1] Of all the thinkers reviewed in this series, Peirce is the most difficult to locate. For an interesting take on his likely political thinking (and a most revealing and important review of his thinking about education for political leadership see, Yael Levin Hungerford, Charles S. Peirce’s Conservative Progressivism Boston College Electronic Thesis or Dissertation, 2016 (downloaded May 19, 2022).

[2] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]), at 46. Hereinafter, “Loyalty.”

[3] Id, at 18.

[4] Id, at 69.

[5] Id, at 23ff.

[6] Id, at 23.

[7] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 1 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library) (downloaded May 17, 2022), “hereinafter, Problem of Christianity”.

[8] Id, at (downloaded May 17, 2022).

[9] Id.

[10] (See, Revelation 21:1-4)

[11] Id, at (Downloaded May 17, 2022). In several passages, Royce speaks of the spiritual warfare of modern society which creates an intolerable burden on the conscience of the individual which burden grows; and the moral individual cannot bear it, unless his whole type of self-consciousness is transformed by a new spiritual power which this type of cultivation can never of itself furnish.” I think that this and other passages which speak of the spiritual aspects of the kinds of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies that have dominated the past two centuries prevent moral wholeness in he individual.”

[12] Id, at (Downloaded on May 17, 2022).


One thought on “Royce 4: From Loyalty to Beloved Community and Beyond”

  1. Thank you, Chris, for your hard work and dedication in preparing this blog for us! I will need to read this several times!

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