Like water for fish, loyalty is a medium human need to survive. It surrounds the base of evolutionary imperative, forming an invisible shield for children and clan in the struggle against the slings and arrows of the world. It affords security to the sense of belonging and links the soul to the familiarity of place. Some form of it gives sustenance to all human relationships, which, as Aristotle reminds us, are the stuff of life. “Man is a social creature and naturally constituted to live in company.”

Loyalty can range into any combination of people that constitutes an identity, and, in the spiritual mind, further still to the Creator of all. In Michelangelo’s Sistine painting one can sense it flowing across the gap between the outstretched fingers of Adam and God.

Each of us has many loyalties, for the sentiment has several manifestations, some deeply personal, some dependent on institutions and ideas, and even some that stretch its normative application into the commercial realm through attachment to brands and loyalty programs in aid of selling products. There’s nothing wrong with commercial use of the word, but serious harm can be done in carrying its transactional nature into the field of real loyalty.

In times of war, its properties are demanded under pain of punishment. There it can reach its highest point, for in that domain life itself can be its due. Profoundly affected by the challenges of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson opined, “Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.”

In all cases, not only in war, standing ready for self- sacrifice in varying degrees, some great, some small, according to need, is loyalty’s signature. In this sense, loyalty can bee seen as an antidote to selfishness and its current scourge, narcissism. We observe this in successful sporting teams, where the demand for loyalty disciplines the member who hogs the ball. The same principle applies to all other kinds of teams, enhancing their performance. The sense of loyalty encourages the process of subordinating the ego of the individual to the higher purpose of the group.

But in times of affluence and security, when suffering the slightest inconvenience, much less self-sacrifice, is commonly shunned, loyalty’s force tends to fade, its relevance even questioned on occasion. In such a time are we. Often acts that would have been regarded as disloyal in an earlier age either are excused by rationalization or confused with loyalty of another sort. But true loyalty requires not only honest sentiment but conduct that arises from clarity of thought. It also demands restraint and discipline, two garments considered to be hair shirts today.

Much commentary is written these days about the erosion of trust in institutions. There are many reasons for this, but the looser sense that seems to be felt for the importance of loyalty, both on the part of institutions to the people they serve, especially banks, and within the public generally, contributes to the decline.

The Roman satirist, Juvenal, says about Rome in the first century, “We bear the evils of long peace; fiercer than war. Luxury weighs us down.” Speaking of the imperial city three hundred years later, Edward Gibbon comments on the decline in loyalty amongst the populace, referring to, “a degenerate people who viewed a change of masters with the indifference of slaves.” Those times were closer to the rot of decadence than ours, but we could do well to see the comments as cautionary.

The ancient Greeks gave us stories of loyalty that rose to inspirational heights. The most famous cites Penelope’s undying faithfulness to Odysseus throughout the long time he was away in the Trojan War and journeying home. For years she suffered unrelieved anxiety fending off the importunate attention of powerful suitors by promising to accept one of them when she finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. By day she could be seen weaving, but at night she untied her work so no progress was made. Despite the passing of years with no news of her husband, she stuck to her subterfuge. For her, loyalty had no rhythm to disturb its constancy. Eventually, she was rewarded by his homecoming and killing of the harassers.

The one, however, that has the greatest effect on me is the drama of Sophocles’ Antigone. My mother, who was a classical actress, at one time with London’s Old Vic, played the heroine in a Toronto production. I had a walk-on part of the small boy who guides the blind priest, Tiresias. And so I was introduced to possibly the greatest play about loyalty.

Creon, the King of Thebes, had passed an edict that no one should mourn or entomb Antigone’s brother, Polyneices because he had attacked Thebes in a civil war. Leaving a deceased outside to the hunger of birds was viewed with horror by the Greeks. It was an unnatural act wholly rejected by the Olympian gods.

Notwithstanding the prohibition, Antigone, who deeply loved her brother, attempted to bury him and was caught. Hauled before the King, she admitted she knew about the edict but defied it on the grounds that the higher law of the gods overruled human law. For her defiance, Creon condemned her to be buried alive. She knew that would be the consequence and accepted it with noble courage.

As a boy of eight, I couldn’t distinguish the part my mother played from who she was herself, so I naturally considered she was the epitome of loyalty. She never disappointed me.

While some manifestations of loyalty are more profound than others, its deepest form stems from a personal sentiment that rides in the chariot of love. Family and close friends have the primacy, and for many, the force that created us all. I only had the foggiest notion of death at the time but even then I knew it was a serious punishment and that love motivated my mother to rise above it. Sophocles made it clear in her lines. Her appeal to the law of the gods was just advocacy in her cause before the King.

That is not to say love must be present in all types of loyalty. Indeed, the English word ‘loyal’ itself would suggest otherwise.  It comes from the Old French ‘loial’ which in turn is derived from ‘legalis’, Latin for ‘legal’. Its basis, therefore, is in law, both in English and in French, dating back to mediaeval times.

In that era, constant military turbulence created a need for stability that could only arise through the greater coalescence of power around authority figures. Allegiance to the feudal lord and the sovereign became an overarching imperative requiring the coercive force of law. And so, first, in France, a word was invented to describe the relationship, one that owed its philosophical basis to the need for order through the agency of law. Later the work of the word was expanded to cover all the uses we now give it, including faithfulness in a wider sense, a quality that stems from trust, the incorporeal adhesive that allows human beings to escape solitude.

The legal aspect of loyalty with its purpose of order underpins the requirement to be faithful to the authority of the state and show allegiance to its armed forces, particularly when chaos stalks the land. Since time out of mind, order and suppression of its opposite have been perceived as essential to human society. Indeed creation stories across the world describe the emergence of order from formlessness or chaos through the action of supreme authority.

In the material world, the state, which executes its functions through government, is its loftiest expression. Does everyone have to be loyal to the government as well as the state? No. In the Westminster system (which in some form or another is common throughout much of the world) the issue of dealing with political disputes involving government without endangering the fundamental order of society is enshrined in the concept of “Loyal Opposition”. As such, those not in government are given licence to oppose it so long as they remain loyal to its source of power, the state.

However, modern times have allowed the distinction to become blurred in a manner that suggests loyalty to the state is merely conditional. In a sense, it is understandable because what is most observable in the state is its operation through government and that is based on the consent of the governed, a proposition commonly accepted since articulated by Hobbes and Locke. For a very long time, that consent has been freely given, but recently its presence is being questioned by some.

In the United States, the perception of widespread injustice is so passionately held by some people that they have withdrawn their consent and declared a “Resistance” to the current administration. In some applications, it does not seem to be circumscribed by any sense of distinguishing government from the state.

The football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick is widely supported by opponents of the government when he kneels instead of standing for the national anthem at football games. Flag burning is rife and has been for years. The antics go beyond loyal opposition to government, for respecting flags and anthems is the outward show of loyalty to the state, an entity that stands above government in a sacred space of its own.

While Australia is excused from these extremes, loyalty to people and parties within the political sphere, not particularly robust anywhere in the world at the moment, is noticeably thinning out here. The constant toppling of political leaders on both sides of politics, together with the breaking up of traditional parties into fragments of independents and small parties, disclose a more fragile commitment to loyalty in public life than before. The major parties bear the brunt of this syndrome; loyalty is flaking off them like old paint.

Former Prime Minister John Howard says that a few decades ago forty percent of voters supported Labor, forty percent the Coalition and twenty percent were undecided or favoured minor parties. Now it is thirty-thirty, with forty percent spread over a suite of independents and minor parties, with a few uncommitted. The incendiary language about celebrating Australia Day further confuses the issue of to whom should we be loyal.

The political sphere is not the only place where vexing choices plague loyalty. I heard about one of these from John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world of his time.

At lunch in Sutton Place, his home near Guildford, he told me his oil company, which had a 50-50 joint venture with Mitsubishi, the major Japanese zaibatsu, had sent a tanker full of oil to Tokyo Bay. While it was at sea he received a telegram from his Japanese partner, the CEO of their joint venture company in Tokyo, “Turn tanker back”. Getty was in a quandary. A large portion of his wealth was tied up in that tanker and returning it would cause a huge loss he could ill afford. Nevertheless, he ordered the captain to comply with the telegram. A few days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The issue of loyalty here was of Grecian proportions. The Japanese man risked all in resolving the conflict between partner and state the way he did. If he had been found out, the most he could have expected would be a quick death by shooting. Access to raw materials, especially oil, was the principal reason Japan went to war. Unlike Antigone, he got away with the preference, earning the undying gratitude of his American partner.

Of course the government of Japan and no doubt most of its citizens would have emphatically claimed treason and from an objective point of view, they would have been right.  Whatever the judgment, however, the gravity of consequence, in this case, illuminates loyalty in the full magnificence of its splendour.

As in all virtues, loyalty can be carried to an extreme or be imprudently applied. There it becomes a vice, in the manner, Aristotle cautioned in his advocacy for the Golden Mean. Misplaced loyalty, such as in an abusive relationship or to a truly underserving recipient or loyalty once given that disavows its moral purpose, is justifiably abandoned, and indeed should be. For instance, when the evils of Hitler became apparent, loyalty to him abandoned its virtue and became a vice. Cases like that this are mercifully rare, but instances of lesser purport have arisen since which can be said to display the principle.

The social revolution of the 1970’s tested the limits of loyalty, particularly in the United States, as ferocious debate about the morality of the Vietnam War tore at its roots and inflamed passions to were honest people felt compelled to break the law and rip apart the sinews of order. The impulse was similar to what animated Antigone’s argument, despite the different circumstances.

When Antigone stood before King Creon and he asked, “Thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law?” she replied, “Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict.” Even a mortal ruler cannot override “the unwritten statutes of heaven.”

It’s easy to see how difficult drawing the line can be at times, and how mixed motives can blur the distinction. Would Antigone have reached for divine law if it weren’t loyalty to her brother that needed the support?  And in other cases, even ordinary personal opinion, as shallow as having a contrary political view, can cloud justification for actions through appeals to a higher law. That is made more likely in a society that generally tends to question loyalty’s primacy in affairs of state, for whatever reason.  Such seems to be the situation today.

While identity politics, so much in vogue today, doesn’t ablate loyalty it certainly confuses what one should be loyal to. The fragmentation it causes has a tendency to set up silos that concentrate loyalty through intense and narrowly based politicization, where connections outside the silo are not encouraged. The exclusion it promotes makes it difficult to extend loyalty beyond, to the nation or the nation’s civilization, for example, except in an attenuated form. Indeed loyalty within the silo is easily judged to be superior to and in conflict with them.

But fortunately loyalty on a personal scale, for family and friends, seems still to be as deeply felt as always, although I wonder whether its expression in some cases is as strong as it once was. Loyalty to a person is usually superior to that of a belief or idea, or an institution for that matter. Without loyalty, families are broken and friendships empty. Shakespeare, drawing on Seneca, speaks of closeness in friendships that cannot exist without loyalty.

“Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

For examples of personal loyalty, we often look to animals, particularly dogs. Their loyalty stirs us all. When a photo of Sully, President George H Bush’s Labrador, was seen sleeping beside his casket during the funeral service it went viral on social media, attracting two hundred and thirty thousand ‘likes’. The faithful dog’s sadness, wrapped in sleep by its dead master, reached across the airwaves and touched all who saw it with the beauty of its sentiment. There was no impurity of motive or questioning of justification, only the simplicity of sincerity in a fellow sentient creature, one whose instincts can instruct us all. It was especially moving for it contrasted so profoundly with our increasingly complex world, which so often steals our peace.

In our appreciation of canine loyalty, constancy is the most telling feature. It transcends all changes in circumstances, stands firm even in the face of wrongs and remains true to the end. In this regard loyalty can be like love, about whose nature Shakespeare’s sonnet advises,

“Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

Apart from its moral value, loyalty, like trust and love, can be viewed as a measure of mental health. It earns an entry ticket to a sense of well-being. Its implied promise of assistance in times of trouble is cognate with the evolutionary properties of the brain and so provides the emotional security that comes with being in accordance with nature. Also, the giving and receiving loyalty contribute to self –esteem for they demonstrate that one has the capability of conferring it and is worthy of receiving it.

The sense of belonging which loyalty so reliably infuses has a physiological consequence, for it stimulates oxytocin, often called the ‘bonding hormone’, creating a feedback loop that has the effect of increasing the level of dopamine, resulting in feelings of mellowness. It builds a bridge over anxiety. No fear of the future stirs it.

The process must be started by some act of loyalty, no matter how small. A simple thought will do, a flash of perfection in an imperfect world. It’s a moral act. The benefits are highly significant for they reduce feelings of stress, depression and anxiety, the scourge of modern civilization.

Loyalty is essential to the integrity of the individual in the sense of consistency between what one knows to be right and one’s actions, for it encourages a salutary tendency of reaching out from oneself to another, the known principle animating all positive relationships. Relationships, be they within families, marriage, friendship, teams, or outside the personal realm, and the loyalty they engender, define who we are. Expressions of loyalty disclose their state of health for all to see.


Tony Grey