An iconic image for many National Review fans comes from an early 1990s ad campaign. It’s of man’s best friend delivering an issue of NR. The text line simply read: “Loyalty.” Eric Felten isn’t trying to sell magazines with the word, but a book dedicated to it in all its iterations and complications and benefits. Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue is the book and he talks about it with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.Eric Felten
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is loyalty really “a forgotten, forlorn relic?” Are we that bad off or just in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.?
: I suspect you might indeed have a better chance of finding a loyal friend in the heartland than on the coasts. But I do think that most of us wish loyalty counted for more in our culture. Partly that’s because people in all times and all places have lamented that loyalty isn’t what it once was, and we’re no different. But add to it that ours are fleeting times: We move so often — from place to place and job to job — that we have a hard time maintaining the sort of long-term relationships that foster loyalty. Which means we need loyalty all the more to shore up the relationships we do have.
: Why is it so vexing?
: Loyalty is vexing because it is both essential and impossible. Loyalty is essential to every relationship we have in life that matters — love, family, community, country, faith. Yet the many different relationships we have mean that we have that many loyalties too, and they have a nasty habit of coming into conflict with one another. The loyalty I owe my family may be at odds with the loyalty I owe a friend. The loyalty I owe a friend may be at odds with the loyalty I owe my country. The loyalty I owe my country may be at odds with the loyalty I owe my family.
: Why did Benedict Arnold once loom large in the American imagination, but not so much anymore?
: In our day we have been told that those who betray their country are idealists of one sort or another, to be admired even. Benedict Arnold presented a much more realistic portrait of the traitor — selfish, self-pitying, and self-important. His plot — which very well could have spelled doom for the American Revolution — was undone by three modest, everyman soldiers, men who refused to be bribed or bought. The history of Arnold’s betrayal is worth remembering because its failure is a testament to how powerful loyalty can be when it is embraced by average people.
: Does a general lack of historical knowledge contribute to our issues with loyalty?
: We have a solipsistic tendency to think that the crises we face, both personal and societal, are new and original. But of course the human predicament is pretty enduring. The problems associated with loyalty have been around as long as there have been people. What fascinated me in writing Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue
was seeing the many different strategies that have been tried for getting out of the jam of conflicting loyalties, and how many of those strategies have been tried in remarkably different societies separated by thousands of years.
: Ditto, classics education?
: No one has dealt with the crushing clashes of loyalty more compellingly than the ancient Greeks. Devastating and unsolvable conundrums of loyalty are at the heart of the most powerful tragedies — Agamemnon, Antigone. We can stand to learn from their struggle to deal with loyalties at loggerheads.