James Comey swears President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Comey offered honesty. Trump said he would accept “honest loyalty.”
After Comey testified before Congress, the president accused him of lying. Trump said, “I hardly know the man, I’m not gonna say I want you to pledge allegiance, who would do that, who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath?” Trump has offered to testify under oath about his version of things.
What is “honest loyalty”? And what lessons can we learn from this fascinating piece of political theater?
One lesson is to be suspicious of oaths and loyalty pledges. Perjury is not prevented by promising to tell the truth. In some cases, the more a person swears to God, the less we ought to trust them. Nor is loyalty guaranteed by a pledge of allegiance.
Oaths and pledges are least effective when they matter most. Scoundrels affirm bald-faced lies. Traitors are eager to pledge allegiance. Hypocrites and rogues cover their tracks with honeyed words and perfumed promises. And even decent people occasionally fudge the facts in order to get out of a jam.
In the long run, verbal assurances mean less than a consistent pattern of truthful, loyal behavior. Honest and loyal people remain faithful and true, without needing to swear that they are.
Total loyalty is only possible when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content.
20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt
The complaint against oaths and pledges is an old one. The ancient Jews and early Christians refused to pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some contemporary Christians continue to avoid swearing oaths, basing this on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches there that you should simply say yes or no, without swearing an oath.
Protestant reformers took this seriously. In 1635 Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts for criticizing the colony’s loyalty oath. He thought it was wrong to force people to swear allegiance in the name of God and to invoke God’s name with regard to civil matters. After his banishment from Massachusetts he founded the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for religious dissenters.
In the 1650s the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained that “an oath adds nothing to an obligation.” If we have an obligation we ought to keep it. An oath will not make a bad man keep his promises.
William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, had a similar idea. In 1679 he explained, “He that is a knave, was never made honest by an oath. Nor is it an oath, but honesty, that keeps honest men such.” Penn concluded that oaths have “often ensnared a good man but never caught one knave yet.”
And what about loyalty? Philosophers have roundly criticized unquestioning loyalty. In the middle of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism rested upon morally deficient loyalty. She said, “total loyalty is only possible when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content.” Fidelity without morality leaves the loyal person subject to the immoral whims of a party or person.
An oath adds nothing to an obligation.
17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes
A further problem is that fawning toadies pledge loyalty as a way of sucking up. Ingratiating flatterers offer worshipful praise, currying favor by lying and exaggerating. Flatterers and sycophants have been roundly mocked by moralists. The Roman essayist Plutarch called them “parasites” and enemies of truth. He says that flatterers ruined Rome, since they encouraged rulers like Nero to behave without dignity.
Plutarch noted that excessive self-love makes us susceptible to flattery. Those who are infatuated with themselves believe what flatterers tell them, no matter how absurd. That is why flattery undermines truth and wisdom.
The solution, of course, is self-examination, devotion to virtue, loyalty to the truth, and honest friendship. True friends speak the truth, without “paint and varnish,” as Plutarch put it, because they love us and want us to be better. True friendship is both loyal and honest.
In political life, truth and loyalty are always in dispute – as the Comey-Trump feud shows us. But in ordinary life, honesty, loyalty, and friendship help us live well. We need honest and loyal friends. But friendship should be freely given. It is not assured by an oath or pledge. Promises and flattering words are mere idle talk. What matters is the quality of our characters, not the quantity of hot air we produce.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala