Not a Name That Commonly Surfaces in Inaugural Addresses

For many Californians, Josiah Royce, whose concept of loyalty Gov. Jerry Brown cited in his January 3 inaugural address as the key to overcoming partisanship, might be almost as familiar a name as Thomas Starr King.

Said Brown:

“One of our native sons, Josiah Royce, became for a time one of the most famous of American philosophers. He was born in 1855, in a mining camp that later became the town of Grass Valley. I mention him because his “Philosophy of Loyalty” is exactly what is called for. Loyalty to the community, to what is larger than our individual needs.

Royce was a philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century who, as the Democratic governor noted, was born in what was later named Grass Valley.

He was the “leading American proponent of absolute idealism, the metaphysical view that all aspects of reality, including those we experience as disconnected or contradictory, are ultimately unified in the thought of a single all-encompassing consciousness,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Royce graduated from what was then the University of California at Oakland with a classics degree in 1875, subsequently teaching literature and composition at Brown’s alma mater, the University of Calfiornia at Berkeley, which was the university’s new home.

Brown graduated in 1961.

royceAlthough a native son, Royce thought California too far from the intellectual big leagues of the East Coast and landed a job at Harvard, the Stanford of the East, where his students included T.S. Eliot and W.E.B. DuBois.

It appeared Royce’s career had peaked in 1900, at age 45, with the publication of his two volume The World and the Individual, detailing his rationale for “absolute idealism.”

But the notion of loyalty Brown referenced appears in a 1908 book, comprised of a series of lectures called The Philosophy of Loyalty.

For Royce, a person is defined by what they do. That can be a job or membership in a service club, a religion, a sport, a cause. And participation in these social groups defines the individual and makes them part of a larger community with shared goals and values.

And eventually the individual becomes committed to those shared goals and values. That’s what Royce calls “loyalty.”

Each community is united by an “interpreting spirit” which can be a leader but isn’t always.

Does loyalty to a shared cause, sacrifice individualism? Not at all, Royce argues.

“In loyalty alone is the fulfilment of the reasonable purposes of your individualism. If you want true freedom, seek it in loyalty. If you want self-expression, spirituality, moral autonomy, loyalty alone can give you these goods,”  Royce wrote in The Philosphy of Loyalty.

Royce believes that the most significant moral achievements in history were fostered by promoting more communities of loyalty.

“Unless you can find some sort of loyalty you cannot find unity and peace in your active being,” Royce says.

Loyalty to a “lost” cause appears to be “higher” form of loyalty in that the members of the community share a goal that can’t be fulfilled in their lifetimes or that of the community.

World peace, perhaps, would be an example of this.

As might be what the 39th governor is urging Californians to do – particularly Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

From a cursory look at Royce’s work, it appears Brown wants Californians to look beyond themselves and unify in seeking some greater good, some “higher” community.

In this case, presumably, that would be putting California’s well-being first and politics a distant second.

But as Royce says:

“Thinking is like loving or dying. Each of us must do it for ourselves.”


Filed under: California History

1 Comment »

  1. His name is regularly heard at UCLA in the form of Royce Hall, one of the original buildings on the Westwood campus. Its picture is often used as a symbol of UCLA. The webcam at UCLA is a shot of Royce Hall: http://www.webcamsmania.com/webcam/uclabruincam

    Comment by D Mitchell — 1.04.2011 @ 8:43 pm

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