On Loyalty to Lost Causes

“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.

* * * * *

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

27 thoughts on “On Loyalty to Lost Causes

  1. Brilliant, JM.

    Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

    ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #195

  2. “As a nation of free men, we must live for all time, or die by suicide” -Lincolns “Lyceum Address”

    Contextualizing the Civil War as the fight against American Empire was a big deal for me. This was affirmed as i read “Lees Lieutenants” and they described the battle of Fredericksburg and Anteitam. The Confederates wouldnt fire their artillery for fear of damaging the city; the Union rained iron on it in order to flush out sharpshooters who confounded thrir approach. In Anteitam, the Confederacy didnt plunder their countrymen, but rather toom their cash and went shopping in the local markets for shoes and hats.

    A Lost Cause will only transcend its immediate circumstances when its adherents behave with dignity consistent with the ideals of that Cause. The Union won, in part because they were willing to view their countrymen as the enemy and wage Total War against them. The Confederates lost, but maintained respect and fortitude in the face of long odds.

    Christ suffered and was crucified, because the Romans znd Pharisees were willing to deny his human dignity; but Christ as a perfect sacrifice was unwilling (indeed, unable) to deny theirs. Christ practiced (perfectly!) What he preached, and so inspired others to follow his example and teaching. (Im simplifying to make a point but if im transgressing any theological lines please correct me.)

    Christs example is magnified by his resurrection: the War is won, he conquered Death and threw open the gates of Paradise (narrow tho the path and straight tho the gate). The only thing left to do is finish fighting the battles.

    Finally: Im reminded finally of the rallying cry of Dorsey Pender i believe at the battle of Cedar Mountain: “Never fear, we shall not neat them!”

    • So-called glorious causes generate their own legends, although these are actually faux legends more akin to a public relations campaign. Moving to the right seems always to involve the realization that some glorious cause did not transpire “as advertised.”

  3. Great piece. I would add that perhaps a lot of the mythology of cultures from across the world, may have begun life as historical events which slowly evolved and transformed over time into a more abstracted and fantastical story within which contains transcendent ideas and meanings.

    • Thanks. I think you are right. Of course most people nowadays will tell you that to idealize the past is to falsify the past. We need to rehabilitate the word idealize.

  4. Pingback: On Loyalty to Lost Causes | Reaction Times

  5. “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.” – T. S. Eliot

  6. “…reactionaries require a philosophy of lost causes that can pull them
    from the morass of despair, intransigence and regret.”

    Philosophy? Nah! Sheer bloody-minded refusal to submit does it for me. I wear a Jacobite Tartan kilt as ‘…worn by participants in the Jacobite [Rising] of 1715 and…historically associated with the Scots national identity.’

    • PS: One of my favourite pieces of verse, which Professor Tolkien also loved, is that spoken by the old retainer Byrhtwold at the Battle of Maldon when his Earl lay dead on the field and the battle hardened warriors of Olaf Tryggvason closed in on those who would not abandon their leader:

      “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
      mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.”

      [“Hand be the harder, heart the keener,
      mood be the more as our might declines.”]

      (The translation is mine)

      • The thought occurs (fuelled by whisky) that if the original disciples had been hearth companions like Byrhtwold, Christianity might not have prospered, but its demise would certainly have been spectacular.

      • I am one of those who grow more certain of my opinion as those who oppose it grow more numerous (and vocal). It’s as if the opinion I hold in common with the multitude don’t need me as much as these unpopular and embattled opinions do.

      • Whenever any of the historically illiterate right-on liberal classes try to convince me of the joys of unrestricted mass immigration, I like to suggest that they take a trip to what is now the United States of America, find a reservation where the descendants of the original inhabitants live and ask them what they think of the proposition.

      • I taught a summer course in Bavaria a few years ago and did what I could to gently temper the students’ enthusiasm for multiculturalism. I would guess that at least some of them are, by now, “older and wiser” men, not unlike the wedding guest in the RAM of STC.

      • Ahh… Bavaria! Home to (real) Disney Castles, Bierkeller Putsches and Father Rupert Mayer. He was a Jesuit priest who was chaplain to a regiment of Bavarians in the First World War and got his leg shot off – and replaced with a wooden one. Subsequently he made a public speech as to why no German should ever be a Communist. Certain people liked what he had said so much that he was given the platform at a meeting attended by a certain A. Hitler. Fr Mayer then gave a speech as to why no German should ever be a National Socialist [ie: Nazi]. He escaped with his life – just. Having subsequently been in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he ended the war interned in Ettal Monastery, because the Nazis were afraid he would die in the camp and become a martyr. Having been released by US forces in May 1945, he returned to work. On the 1st November 1945, while celebrating an 8:00am mass, his last words were “The Lord…The Lord…”
        As he was not an accomplished speaker, the congregation thought he was just groping for the next word. It took a while before anyone realised that, though he was still standing on one good leg and one wooden leg, his Lord had required his presence elsewhere.
        His remains are interred in the lower floor of the Bürgersaalkirche in Munich.

      • Corrections:
        1) ‘…why no German Christian should ever be a Communist’
        2) ‘…why no German Christian should ever be a National Socialist’

  7. Hampden-Sydney ’76 here; pardon the hijacking. Indeed it once was “i,” at least sometimes, but changed to —y— a long time ago. I’ve sent my football (’72) and wrestling (’74) photos to Kristor and Tom, in case you want to post them for amusement.

    • Do the Philanthropic and Union literary societies still exist by any chance? I suppose not, but it would be heartening to learn that that cause was not lost.

      • Absolutely.

        Union-Philanthropic Society
        For over two centuries, the Union-Philanthropic Society has offered Hampden-Sydney a unique forum for discussion. Whether debating the ethics of slavery (1810) or discussing the various views of the historical Jesus (1996) the Society has continually provided the College with an unparalleled source for the oratorical and literary improvement of her sons.

        The oldest student organization at the College and the second-oldest debating society in the United States, the Union-Philanthropic dates from 1789. Edward Henry, the son of Virginia’s greatest orator, and William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, were among its early members. Yet the Society has never been simply a student organization, and its influence has never stopped at the College gates. Men from all backgrounds, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Robert E. Lee, were awarded and accepted honorary membership.

        Membership in the Society is an honor which is bestowed upon gentlemen who demonstrate an interest in public discussion, a thirst for learning, a friendly manner, and a good character. A reception for prospective members is held each term, followed by several public meetings; all students are cordially invited to attend and are strongly encouraged to participate. The Society summons several men to become members each term, and no previous experience in speech or debate is required.
        Advisor and Critic: Rob Irons ’00


      • SHC sounds like a refreshingly deviant institution. Higher education is one of the many venues in which obscurity is a mark of honor.

      • We even have our own little Abbeville Institute.

        Society for the Preservation of Southern Heritage
        The Hampden-Sydney Society for the Preservation of Southern Heritage is for students with a special interest in southern history and heritage. The “Southern Heritage Society” holds monthly meetings with guest speakers and programs of interest and field trips. We support the Southern traditions of dedication to the Constitution of the United States, a strong family unit, religious faith, courage, honor, integrity, respect for womanhood, and self-reliance. We endeavor to promote knowledge, understanding, and the true history of the region of the United States known as the South and to perpetuate the knowledge of contributions made by Southern citizens, both civil and military, to the establishment and development of this great nation. The Southern Heritage Club is a patriotic, historical, educational, benevolent, non-political, non-sectarian, and non-discriminatory organization.
        Advisor: Charles W. Ironmonger. Jr. cironmonger@hsc.edu


      • William Henry Harrison IV (Hampden-Sydney ’75) was my ’73-74 roommate at the Alpha Chi Sigma Chemistry Fraternity house.

      • Thank you, Dr. Smith. Everyone likes to think well of his alma mater.

        And since I do so love showing off, let me point out that from “wedding guest,” I knew that “RAM of STC” stands for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

  8. Pingback: Omens, Portents and Signs – The Orthosphere


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