Royce, loyalty, and vocation – some initial thoughts

Writing in 1908, in part responding to what he saw as the problematic and radical individualism of American culture, Josiah Royce suggested that the whole moral life can be centered on the singular virtue of loyalty. Loyalty, as Royce defined it, is the “willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause”Josiah_Royce [from The Philosophy of Loyalty (Vanderbilt UP, 1995) 9]. In the same work, Royce goes on to spell out how a “cause” can serve as the overarching focus of human lives, connecting them to others through concerted, coordinated action.

My hunch—an idea that I would like to pursue through this project—is that Royce’s work can serve as a resource for vocational discernment because it provides a non-theological vocabulary, without being secularizing or anti-religion. At the end of The Philosophy of Loyalty, Royce makes an interesting philosophical move, one that invites us to consider how “loyalty to a cause” can work at both a metaphysical and a naturalistic, pragmatic level. In a chapter entitled “Loyalty and Religion,” Royce restates his original definition using a metaphysical vocabulary: “Loyalty is the will to manifest, so far as is possible, the Eternal, that is, the conscious and superhuman unity of life, in the form of the acts of an individual Self.” He then suggests that the same idea can be restated in the terms of “our ordinary experience,” borrowing the phrase of his dear friend William James: “Loyalty is the Will to Believe in something eternal, and to express that belief in the practical life of a human being” (166).

For many of us working with undergraduates on vocational discernment, one of the obstacles is how self-centered or even solipsistic the conversation can become. Approaching vocation as an extension of how they might express themselves upon the world, the options seem infinite. They feel unmoored. Their fear that they might choose unwisely stems from a sense that they might choose something that doesn’t totally capture who they are. As Alasdair MacIntyre noted many years ago, this paradigm of self as the dominant form for the expression of values is limited and problematic. It haunts any contemporary discussion of vocation, especially if vocation is uncoupled from theological commitments (although it can arise there, too, as an anxiety over figuring out what God wants me to do). The world as an empty canvas seems vast; the Self, standing before that canvas as a painter, is immobilized.

My hunch, then, is that Royce’s views on the self and loyalty can be of help. Royce saw the self as essentially social—we come to be a “self” through our embeddedness and participation in human communities. We are interdependent and socially constituted, and this becomes the starting point for vocational discernment. Not only do we need to think about the commitments that we already have, by virtue of being tied to certain communities; I am convinced that we also must recognize that the work of vocational discernment is best done in conversation and within a community.

In Royce’s work on loyalty, this view avoids being deterministic because the self must willfully choose a cause. Royce emphasizes the role of the will, offering a needed sense of agency rather than passivity. Without being anti-theological, this is a helpful way of thinking about vocation in non-theological terms. What pulls one forward is called “cause,” rather than being explicitly named as God. For Royce, the cause must be supra-personal—it goes beyond one’s individual self and connects an individual to others. The cause, once chosen, then becomes the overarching ideal that orients one’s life.

Royce goes on to argue that a principle of “loyalty to loyalty” can help in moments of crisis, and that can be applied to times of vocational crisis, too. At moments of crisis or conflict, a person must consider: what is the larger or deeper cause that might be addressed through a new set of actions and choices?

Some of the material in this post appears in a different form in Chapter 10 of At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, edited by David S. Cunningham, used with permission from Oxford University Press USA.  © 2016 Oxford University Press

For more posts by Hannah Schell, click here. 

Leave a Reply