Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Loyalty: The Missing Virtue in Classical Thought

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Loyalty: The Missing Virtue in Classical Thought

Article excerpt

Loyalty was not treated as an independent virtue by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of reasons for its absence. First, loyalty, as an absolute requirement, is problematic as a virtue because it may come into conflict with other moral demands (should one commit murder out of loyalty to a friend?). Second, duty and affection were regarded as sufficient motives for constancy, and so there was no need to invoke a separate virtue of loyalty. This article offers three case studies of loyalty, involving family relations, friendship, and loyalty to the state.


Loyalty is not among the virtues celebrated and analyzed in our classical sources; indeed, it is not even entirely clear what ancient term corresponds to this idea (some candidates are pistis in Greek and fides in Latin, which will be explained below). In this article, I ask why loyalty was not deemed a virtue in its own right, and I offer two reasons. The first has to do with something in the nature of loyalty itself, which might have prevented its being recognized as a virtue, at least as the ancients understood the term. The second reason looks to other ideas or values that might have taken the place of loyalty or fulfilled the role that we assign to it, thus making loyalty unnecessary as a distinct virtue of its own. In the absence of philosophical treatments, I examine some literary texts where loyalty, or what we would consider loyalty, is on display, and suggest that the relevant motivations are not so much loyalty as duty or love; in these cases, loyalty is not singled out as a distinct quality.

Problems with Loyalty

Before entering upon the classical examples, it is worth considering for a moment what we mean by loyalty, for, on reflection, its apparent omission from the ancient catalogue of virtues is perhaps not entirely surprising. "Loyalty" today has a range of meanings, embracing such ideas as allegiance, attachment, commitment, constancy, devotion, faith, and steadfastness, and there are plainly equivalents to some of these ideas in the classical Greek and Roman vocabularies. In what follows, I may seem to be narrowing the concept of loyalty to the point at which it is unusual enough even in modern English, in which case the absence of a corresponding notion in classical thought would scarcely be surprising. Studies on loyalty today, however, do appeal to certain intuitions about its nature that seem to me to be foreign to classical ways of thinking, and it will be enough to show that this conception of loyalty, at least, did not play a comparable role in ancient ethics.

Loyalty is problematic as a virtue in a variety of ways. First, there is the question of loyalty to what: Ought one to be loyal, for example, to an oppressive political regime, to a friend who has become a criminal, to a spouse who has cheated? Unlike virtues such as wisdom or justice or courage, which are presumably admirable in all situations, loyalty does not have a comparable universality but is conditional upon the nature of its object. In this respect, loyalty resembles love or friendship, but these are more like emotions than virtues; and, in fact, some of the issues that pertain to loyalty do come up in classical discussions of love or friendship in Greek (philia), and of love (amor) and friendship (.amicitia) in Latin. Another problem with loyalty is that loyalties may be divided. What if loyalty to one's country, for example, comes into conflict with loyalty to one's family or friends, or if loyalty to one friend results in disloyalty to another? If we are supposed to be consistent in practicing the virtues, it is odd that one of them should inevitably put us in the position of having to violate it in the very act of respecting it, compromising loyalty to one party precisely for the sake of another. Thus Eric Felten affirms: "The Greeks were sticklers for the loyalties that make family and friendship flourish. …

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