“Loyalty to lost causes is . . . not only a possible thing, but one of the most potent influences of human history.” Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908).*
Loyalty to a lost cause is inherent to reactionary politics, and yet many on the right are embarrassed by the association with defeat and wish it were not so. The thirst for victory is strong in man, and the reactionary heart naturally faints when it reflects on the losses that have littered its way since 1649. A reactionary is also perplexed by questions of how loyalty to his lost cause can be sustained when the cause is truly lost, and when the victors who opposed it are both vigilant and vengeful.
To assuage their embarrassment, cheer their hearts, and unknot their perplexities, reactionaries require a philosophy of lost causes that can pull them from the morass of despair, intransigence and regret. They need a theory to assure them that they are not all mad as Don Quixote or sad and futile prisoners of the past.
The American philosopher Josiah Royce made a good start on this philosophy when he explained that defeat in the visible world can cause a loyal remnant to idealize their cause and raise it out of the stream of history and place it on a transcendental level. As an idealist, Royce approved the transformation of historical events into transcendent ideas, and he was not in the least bit troubled that the transcendent ideas were not perfect replicas of the historical events. Royce does not give this example, but he would, I think, agree that loyalty to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy is not exactly the same as loyalty to the historical cause of the Confederates, and the difference is not only that the former is bathed in romantic moonlight and the scent of sweet magnolias.
Royce points out that Christianity was born as loyalty to a lost cause. Indeed, it may be the archetypal case. When Christ died on the cross, his historical cause in the visible world of first-century Judea was lost. Judaism would not be reformed, the Romans would not be expelled, and the line of David would not be restored. Considered as a merely historical event with these narrow and contingent purposes, the cause of Jesus ended in defeat and ignominy. But his cause was raised from the stream of history and resurrected as a cosmic cause because his disciples remained loyal when the historical cause was lost. They idealized the historical cause of Jesus, placed it on a transcendental level, and thus transformed a failed revolt in a minor Roman province into a cosmic revolution that changed the world.
As Royce puts it,
“The whole history of Christianity is . . . one long lesson as to how a cause may be idealized through apparent defeat . . .”
To put this in the terms proper to Christianity, a lost cause dies in history and is resurrected in eternity through the undying loyalty of those who keep the faith.
“To watch our Banner, from the grave of strife
Rise with the glory of a new-born life.”**
So wrote James Ryder Randall around 1870, when Reconstruction had ended, Confederate flags were once again fluttering in the southern breeze, and the legend of the Lost Cause rose transfigured from the grave of the cause that was lost.
Legend is analogous to what Christians call the resurrection body of those who will rise in the last days. When any event is lifted from the stream of history and idealized at a transcendental level, it becomes a legend, and like the resurrection body a legend is “delivered from the bondage of corruption” and “glorified” (Romans 8: 21). This is why Royce says the idealization of a lost cause “reads into that past not what the lost cause literally was, but what it meant to be.” That is to say, that the legend of any lost cause tells us what the historical cause would have been if men were perfect and the world also.
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Viewed philosophically, loyalty to a lost cause is therefore based on the postulate that the stream of history is “the bondage of corruption,” that everything in history is therefore twisted and perverted, and that it is only when resurrected or idealized at a transcendental level that we can really see what these things were “meant to be.” The zeitgeist is a swindle run by scoundrels and buffoons, and some causes are therefore simply too good for this world. Their defeat discredits the world and not the cause. History is not a discriminating connoisseur carefully selecting the best. It is a swine plowing the muck in eager expectation of a cabbage stalk or a wizened potato, and grunting with irritation whenever it bumps its snout against a Venus de Milo.
If loyalty to lost causes has a thesis, it is that human history has been a story of pearls cast before swine.
This was the opinion of Robert Lewis Dabney when he addressed the Philanthropic and Union Literary Societies of Hampden Sidney College in 1882. As he told the assembled scholars of southside Virginia, the cause of the Old South had been defeated, “not because the old forms were not good enough for this day, but because they were too good for it.”*** The pearl of a free agrarian republic had been cast before the Americans, and they had trod it into the mire while they rooted for cabbage stalks of luxury and wizened potatoes of power.
Dabney was an orthodox Calvinist, so we might say that he saw America as twice-fallen. In the first fall, Adam and Eve had been tested and found wanting. They were not good enough for Eden. And now America had likewise been tested and found wanting. Its men and women had not resisted the temptation of luxury and power, and in succumbing to these temptations they had shown themselves not good enough for a society of free men living together in agrarian simplicity and republican independence. And because of this fall, the country had been cursed with willy plutocrats, unruly mobs, reeking cities, meretricious newspapers and an overbearing and irresponsible government.
This second fall was naturally cloaked as a leap of moral progress, but the real impulse had been greed and the lust for power. Lincoln’s “more perfect union” was obviously a militaristic empire fit for tycoons, scallywags, demagogues and slaves. Travelling through the “black country” of the English midlands in 1880, Dabney saw where his twice-fallen America was headed. Looking from the window of an English railway carriage, he wrote:
“This is a country which is spoiled, with iron and coal mines and furnaces, as a farming country. It is horrid. All the land . . . is covered with black brick factories, furnaces, cottages, warehouses and slag. The most of the surface not covered with the most wretched and grimy houses, is covered with hills of slag, and the rubbish slate, etc., of coal mines beneath. The houses are black, the waters are black, the smoke is black, the hills are slate-colored with splotches of black. The sky is slate-colored with streaks of black.”†
The Civil War was “meant to be” a fight against this. As idealized in the Legend of the Lost Cause, it was a fight against this. The historical cause had of course been caught in “the bondage of corruption,” and therefore marred and fatally vitiated by the moral weaknesses of the fallen men who fought for it; but all of this was removed by defeat, and the poetic truth therefore stood out in the resurrected ideal. For men such as Dabney, the legend was that the Lost Cause had been, at heart, a plea that America not eat the apple of luxury and power, and therefore suffer the curse of empire.
But the plea was rebuffed, the apple was eaten, and the curse was cast. And as a result, America would, sooner or later, descend to something like the black country of the English midlands, a stinking Mordor of whose inhabitants Dabney wrote:
“How can a man be civilized who never sees the sun, never has a clean face, or especially a woman? But on this toiling, imbruted mass, rests England’s power and riches.”
At the close of his address to the scholars of Hampden Sidney College, Dabney described loyalty to this lost cause as “sturdy heroism in defeat.” Like everything Dabney wrote, the line must be read in a Christian light, and I believe this Christian light is essential to any philosophy of lost causes. Every one of us is fallen, and thus defeated. Every last one of us is, therefore, a lost cause that failed to become what we were “meant to be.” If there remains in us any “sturdy heroism,” it is a loyalty to the legend by which we are reminded of that from which we have fallen short.
Reactionaries should be consoled by the thought that, as Royce said in my epigraph, loyalty to such legends is “one of most potent influences of human history.”
*) Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (New York: Macmillan, 1908), part 6, section 5.
**) James Ryder Randall, “The Unconquered Banner.” The words are taken from a collection published at the time of Randall’s death in 1908, but the poem appears to have been written around 1870. Randall is today remembered for the lyrics of Maryland, My Maryland, the state song of (you guessed it) Maryland.
***) Rev. R. L. Dabney, The New South (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards, Broughton and Co., 1883).
†) Letter to an unnamed Presbyterian newspaper, 1880, in Thomas Cary Johnson (ed.), The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (Richmond, Va.: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903), p. 417