5th May 2010: On Troth (Loyalty) and Decisions

As a young student journalist in 1994, I was given the opportunity to interview the Australian artist Vali Myers. We talked about her life in New York, and at a wildlife sanctuary in Il Porto, Italy. “The Sicilian dons treated me better than the New York City art dealers who tried to rip my work off as cheap postcards,” she explained. A true witch, Myers encountered the authentic Sicilian Mafiosi. In contrast, most of us live with a third-hand cultural stereotype: Mario Puzo’s Godfather novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s film trilogy, which has shaped our understanding of loyalty, honour, and inter-group conflict.


The word ‘loyalty’ is traced to the Old English word treoth or Troth, which means ‘truth’ or ‘pledged faithfulness’. I first encountered Troth in the Gurdjieff Work and then in writings of American runologist Dr. Stephen Edred Flowers, who has observed that this is the Northern, Germanic equivalent of Puzo and Coppola’s ideal. Loyalty thus has a far deeper and richer context than popular stereotypes may portray, and has deep Indo-European roots.


Flowers makes several points about Troth in the context of a Traditionalist discussion. What follows is a personal interpretation, so go to the original sources. Flowers contends that the quality of Troth that guides personal conduct is often missing in contemporary civilisation, in that many activities can involve subtler forms of lying. In part, the Traditionalist critique observes that ‘outer seeming’ can become estranged from ‘inner being’.


Troth also suggests a type of knowledge, sense-making and perspective: the ability to discern truth from falsehood, out-of-context quoting and disinformation. Finally, Troth is observable — in people’s conduct, how their networks evolve over time, in their work or artifacts of their inner states, and in why people make decisions, not just the surface-level effects or what other people infer.


Practice-based disciplines use various methods to create the conditions of Troth: mentoring, professional associations, codes of ethics, and sensitivity to patterns of contexts and situations. The Media Alliance ethics guidelines for Australian journalists, the CFA Institute‘s framework for financial analysts, the CPA Australia rules for accountants, and research ethics guidelines in universities are detailed examples. Each of these attempts to remanifest the positive aspects of Traditionalist forms, such as (Medieval) guild structures or the transcultural transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. For individuals, these structures impose a check on potential ego-inflation, and guidance on how to navigate ethical dilemmas.


Historically, societies have granted these professions a social contract, because Troth implies a custodian role. It’s a little like how US government officials and armed forces swear allegiance to defend and protect the US Constitution as a document that manifests an ideal, rather ‘loyalty’ to an individual President or political administration. Thus, whilst Troth certainly involves being ‘true’ to family and friends, in its fullest sense it reaches out to something bigger and perhaps more abstract than the individual who has ‘bounded’ rationality. In the professional code of ethics suggested above, these may be the media, capital and investment markets, stakeholder reporting, and the integrity of medical and university research. In short, the Freedom given also implies a Demand: the willigness to act when circumstances require you to do so. The challenge is: what circumstances, how to act, with whom, and to what end?


Flowers understands this tension, so did Myers, as probably do Puzo and Coppola. Many people however do not, perhaps because they mistake principles for force or violence. Perhaps this is why there is so much debate and confusion about Machiavelli‘s book The Prince, which is really about loyalty, leadership and is credited, along with the Treaty of Westphalia, with conceptualising the sovereignty of nation-states. Although the popular image of him does not capture this, Machiavelli understood that strong-willed people who have their own visions and worldviews will inevitably clash and polarise, if their respective worldviews are not mutually appreciated or accomodated. The English magus Aleister Crowley and the journalist William T. Vollmann reached similar conclusions. Vollmann went so far as to write an extensive ‘moral calculus’ on this, that takes Machiavelli’s insights into a transcultural realm.


In writing The Prince as a guide for leaders on how to cultivate Troth or loyalty in their followers, Machiavelli built on Thucydides‘ insight that people are self-motivated by “fear, honour and interest”. Both Machiavelli and Thucydides foreshadowed the current interest in cognitive biases (anchoring, framing and positive illusions), and in particular, why high-valence issues often lead to escalated or polarised situations that were avoidable.


In contrast to this ‘classicist’ tragic awareness, popular stereotypes to problem-solving emphasise vengeful anger. The operatic finale of Coppola’s first Godfather film where Michael Corleone’s enemies are gunned down remains a powerful example. Asymmetric and guerrilla warfare is sometimes proposed as an alternative: David Ucko conveys how this really works. For a different view, consider the Camorra in journalist Roberto Saviano‘s book and Matteo Garrone‘s film Gomorrah. In both of these, and in Coppola’s two later films, the Mafiosi are in an alliance-style ‘balance of power’ situation more like what Thucydides and Machiavelli perceived, and which has dominated the international relations school of political realism. Rather than revenge, these works explore the role of political patronage for family and institutional survival. This is why, for example, even Lost‘s Smoke Monster or the embodiment of Evil is a patron who has allies, coherent and explainable goals, and a worldview.


Individuals choose their own Troth over false allegiances, collectivity, and the whims of political patrons. This may initially be branded as ‘disloyalty’ yet is observable, over time, if it is really just separate life orbits. Thucydides and Machiavelli understood that this individuation process may be part of what differentiates some emerging leaders from being followers. Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment reached other similar conclusions about the predictability of inter-group conflict: it’s a small world; the person you write-off today or feel angry with may have been helpful tomorrow, if the conflict and frustrations had just been handled differently. Sherif found two major reasons for this: the power of in-group views of a polarised out-group, and the escalation dynamics that entrench stances.


On an historical and societal scale, this individuation process is what partly what drove the Reformation and the founding of the United States. Do you really think that the Declaration of Independence authors were really that worried that King George III did the 18th century equivalent of blocking off their Facebook, Twitter and email account access? No: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” — and in doing so the US Founding Fathers brought an ideal into being. If they had stayed at home and worried about expressing a valid worldview then history would have turned out very differently. Alexander Hamilton: “See you at the next MeetUp Duel . . .”


How do we differentiate patrons, teachers, allies and collaborators who are worthy of Troth?


Quality of attention. Understanding the individuation process and its stages. Allowing people to awaken and cultivate their own Troth rather than demanding ‘loyalty’ for patronage. Knowing their own fallibility and weaknesses. Having others to keep them in-check and grounded. Being able to ‘agree to disagree’ with others, rather than blow-up and alienate people and institutions. Being able and willing to mend fences. And, occasionally, perhaps going offline and doing something that has a small, real impact in the world, like saving an animal or helping a total stranger.