The Ninth and horrific final circle of Dante’s Inferno descends to four rings, each one of which is devoted to a various class of traitors. There are traitors to their family, and traitors to their country (rings one and two). Then there are traitors to guests (ring three). And finally, there are traitors to their masters – Satan himself, Cassius, Brutus, and Judas.
I’m not unfamiliar with the problem of traitors, as in my last major company (an insurance company for doctors) two of my subordinates – one of whom I’d brought through several businesses, and mentored for over two decades) did all in their power to push me aside, so they could absorb my position, my income, and avoid culpability. Twelve years of 100 hours-per-week work negated in a matter of a few weeks. Satan has prepared a cozy place for them, and patiently waits; they will surely end with despair in enduring pain. Cold satisfaction today; torrid satisfaction in due course.
My interest herein lies in an opposite direction, however. The diametric opposite of betrayal is loyalty. And if we are to trust and believe Dante Alighieri, who surely thought more about this subject than anyone before (or even since), if the betrayal of one’s lord is the highest evil, enduring loyalty to one’s master is, by logical extension, the greatest good. As Judas is the prototype of deliberate evil – in the betrayal of Him who was known to be archetype of the most perfect good – then we might well ask who is the prototype of the highest and most noble species of loyalty. In fact, if we were so moved, we might employ Dante’s protocol structure, and define four rings, or types, of noble loyalty, and conclude with the greatest exemplification of its acme.
It would be reasonable to talk first about those who are loyal to their families.
What does it mean to be loyal to one’s family? A somewhat narrow view of this virtue might argue that it means to defend the honor of the family, actions right or wrong, and maintain an outward appearance of apparent (and unassailable) unity and universal, congruent prioritization of family activities. But I would argue that this is far too narrow a sense of virtue. “My family right or wrong” might sound impressive, but it’s wrong-headed: “Make my family always right” could be a better stance. It isn’t chosen as frequently as the former aphorism is invoked, likely because it involves, invokes and might require quite sophisticated intra-family activity, and often in the face of patriarchal, matriarchal, fratriarchal headwinds. It is a rare and “family politic” person who grasps the dynamic of family relations’ complexity, and also quietly, intuitively knows how best to convert its stubbornness into well-managed positive directionality.
Such a view of family loyalty grasps both the immediacy of hidden family submarine dynamics, and the necessity for a family’s well-expressed moral compass in the face of a potential pride-filled “damn the torpedoes” captaincy. It is in this manner of well-informed loyalty that we can find the diametric opposite of those who are ostensibly family-loyal, but in the light of wiser insights woefully misguided.
LOYALTY TO COUNTRY: The jump from family to nation isn’t as daunting a leap as the sheer population numbers might imply. And the parallels in terms of personal misperception and conceptual miscegenation are compelling. “My country, right or wrong,” is as dunder-headed as the parallel family epithet, and even more unforgivable because of its implied xenophobia – or lack of global perspective.
There are surely times when we required unquestioned loyalty: during an active war, in international financial matters (perhaps) and in certain types of diplomatic negotiations. There is always a difference between the degree of balanced perspective and utter equality – and it is a rare diplomat who takes the good of the world as his playground, rather than the task for which he is engaged: the benefit to his own country in the context of its visions for world-order. Therefore, loyalty to country has a certain equivocation about it, as the higher good – loyalty to the planet – might actually play an important role.
We also can remember heroes, real heroes, who were in a limited sense disloyal to their country but loyal to higher, more enduring values divorced from national pride – for example, insofar as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran minister) was undoubtedly a spy and deeply opposed to the government in power, Hitler’s Third Reich, one could accuse him of disloyalty to his country. He was killed for his disloyalty. Yet, he was disloyal to those genocidal monsters who eventually would destroy his country; he was loyal to a higher power, and outspokenly loyal to the demands of his God. One must distinguish between loyalty to a country, and loyalty to a government of a country (the latter often a passing phase), and loyalty to the Most High.
There was a time – and there are times – when loyalty to an honorable or simply struggling independence-oriented country (if such exists from time to time…and many have and perhaps even do today) is higher than any loyalty to family or friends. “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” said Nathan Hale, an American spy during the War of Independence, who was hanged by the British for attempting to gather military intelligence for General Washington. One might put Mohandas Gandhi in this class as well, or any genuinely self-conscious hero fighting against imperialist suppression. The 18th century’s great wars of independence, in retrospect, tend to reward the heroic military leaders as loyalists – George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Jean-Paul Marat, Napoleon Bonaparte. The 20th century is filled with representative global citizens who might have offended the day’s temporary leaders, but bravely swore belief in a higher ideal than the apparent trendy and safe ideals of the moment: Eugene Debs, Ralph Nader, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, Julian Bond, Elia Baker, Mother Theresa.
Surely these men and women are exemplars of loyalty to country…to that highest ideal of a country that soaringly transcends current populist leadership and temporary trends to extol a vision of universal value, and often international citizenship.
It’s time to add one more facet and perspective to the argument: the Dog. Perhaps the “ordinary” family dog (although I’d contend there is no such thing as an “ordinary” dog in a family), perhaps the dog of history, like the historical Hatchi or Disney’s “Old Yeller” or Odysseus’s Argos. But why the dog?
Anyone who’s ever grown up with a dog understands, intuitively, what such loyalty, such high and noble loyalty, means in its constancy, simplicity and single-mindedness. Here is Argos, the aged dog of Odysseus, who has waited 20 years to catch a glimpse of his master, and then, satisfied, allows his own death.
“This is the dog of a man who died far away. If he were now what he used to be when Odysseus left and sailed off to Troy, you would be astonished at his power and speed. No animal could escape him in the deep forest once he began to track it. What an amazing nose he had! But misfortune has fallen upon him now that his master is dead in some far-distant land, and the women are all too thoughtless to take any care of him.” With these words he entered the palace and went to the hall where the suitors were assembled at one of their banquets. And just then death came and darkened the eyes of Argos, who had seen Odysseus again after twenty years.
In the course of my own little life I’ve had some wonderful, delightful, even impressive friends. At various times, I would even say that I’ve had friends who’d have died in my stead, or whose integrity and thoughtfulness was beyond all reason. In this realm I should be remiss not to count my mother, my grandmother, my brother (the one who hasn’t survived so far); my high-school buddy now dead of cancer, and my much-adored grade-school friend (dead also, of a heroin overdose – a common malady in Ridgewood in the 1960’s). Yet – yet .. none of them, with the exception of my mother, could hold a candle to my dog Hennessy, or Licker, or Chico, whose fearless loyalty and unflinching affection are light-years beyond the realm of Sirius and higher than Orion’s constellation in midsummer.
When I pray with Hennessy, which occurs a dozen times a day or more, for as many minutes, we are both transported to a world unique to prayer, in which time stops, quotidian sounds fade into the distant background, and the two of us float on the motherly ocean of non-thought, absorbed in eternity. I have never had this experience of prayer with anyone else, and every moment of my life I fear its loss. I call her “My Friend of All My Life.” That is, the person for whom I’ve been seeking since birth, the core person who loves, inspires, chastens, cares, stands by me. She is, really, the finest individual I know. In many ways, she is the reincarnation of my mother.
Not something that occurred overnight, this marvelous development of trust, honor, love and prayerful fellowship. It was years in the making, like any other friendship. If you have a new dog, a dog new to you, whether patriarch or puppy, pug or Pyrenees, you should consider the development of his/her intelligence a key feature of your future friendship. Friendship with anyone requires caring more for them than you care for yourself, “daring” to give the benefit of doubt, the patience of a saint, the affectionate forgiveness of a wise parent. Allow your up-and-coming friend-of-your-heart to explore the world, without trammel or interference. She will want to stop while on walks, and you must be very, very patient and allow it. She will want to explore things to watch, smell, eat, chew, speak to, play with, nose around. Allow it, happily. The linkage between curiosity, unbridled and un-entrapped curiosity, is the future linkage to intellectual growth, and intelligent friendship is bought at a price: the price of patience and forbearance. This does not mean momentary patience and occasionally forbearance; it means a constant, careful and loving application of the encouragement of curiosity, knowing in one’s heart that the rewards – in the areas of deepening friendship, mutual observation, mutual intellectual growth – are beyond value and beyond measure. One learns incalculable lessons, a kind of depth of consideration and soulful growth, from the extirpation of impatience. You will not be disappointed. But….be prepared, as you will surely be tried and weighed in the scale.
If one is not found wanting, blind Justicia will reward you with presents beyond any imagining. Payment in the Coin of the Gods is neither lightly won nor ever misplaced. It can be spent again and again, without a tittle of diminishment. These are treasures both, yes both, on earth and in heaven.