In 1908, A Harvard philosopher named Josiah Royce wrote a book with the title The Philosophy of Loyalty. Royce was not concerned with the trials of aging. But he was concerned with a puzzle that is fundamental to anyone contemplating his or her mortality. Royce wanted to understand why simply existing– why being merely housed and fed and safe and alive– seems empty and meaningless to us. What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile?
The answer, he believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning.
Royce called the dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty. He regarded it as the opposite of individualism. The individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his own pain, pleasure, and existence as his greatest concern. For an individualist, loyalty to causes that have nothing to do with self-interest is strange. When such loyalty encourages self-sacrifice, it can even be alarming– a mistaken and irrational tendency that leaves people open to the exploitation of tyrants. Nothing could matter more than self-interest, and because when you die you are gone, self-sacrifice makes no sense.
Royce had no sympathy for the individualist view. “The selfish we had always with us,” he wrote. “But the divine right to be selfish was never more ingeniously defended.” In fact, he argued, human beings need loyalty. It does not necessarily produce happiness, and can even be painful, but we all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable. Without it, we have only our desires to guide us, and they are fleeting, capricious and insatiable. They provide, ultimately, only torment. “By nature, I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestry tendency. From moment to moment… I am a collection of impulses,” Royce observed. “We cannot see the inner light. Let us try to the outer one.”
And we do. Consider the fact that we care deeply about what happens to the world after we die. If self-interest were the primary source of meaning in life, then it wouldn’t matter to people if an hour after their death everyone they know were to be wiped from the face of the earth. Yet it matters greatly to most people. We feel that such an occurrence would make our lives meaningless.
The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said Royce, “solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.” In more recent times, psychologists have used the term “transcendence” for a version of this idea. Above the level of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they suggest the existence in people of a transcendent desire to see and help other beings achieve their potential.