In 1900, there were two great philosophers working side by side at Harvard, William James and Josiah Royce. James was from an eminent Boston family and had all the grace, brilliance and sophistication that his class aspired to. Royce, as the historian Allen Guelzo points out, was the first major American philosopher born west of the Mississippi. His parents were Forty-Niners who moved to California but failed to find gold. He grew up in squalor, was stocky, lonely and probably knew more about despair and the brooding shadows that can come in life.
James and Royce admired and learned from each other, but their philosophies were different, too. James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.
They differed on the individual’s role in society. As David Lamberth of Harvard notes, James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain.
You’re never going to find a cause if you are working in a bland office; you have to go out to where the problems are. Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action.
“The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty.”
In such a community, people submit themselves to their institution, say to a university. They discover how good it is by serving it, and they allow themselves to be formed by it. According to Royce, communities find their voice when they own their own betrayals; evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it.
Royce took his philosophy one more crucial step: Though we have our different communities, underneath there is an absolute unity to life. He believed that all separate individuals and all separate loyalties are mere fragments of a spiritual unity — an Absolute Knower, a moral truth.
That sense of an ultimate unity at the end things, shines back on us, because it means all our diverse loyalties are actually parts of the same loyalty. We all, he wrote, “seek a city out of sight.” This sense of ultimate unity, of human brotherhood and sisterhood, is what is missing in a lot of the current pessimism and divisiveness.
Royce’s philosophy is helpful with the problem we have today. How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, “How happy am I?” Ask, “How loyal am I, and to what?”