The Loyal Parent

The Loyal Parent

There is a quality that Charlotte Mason said “is our first duty and our last duty, and includes all our duties.” She said it “is the hall-mark of character,” and that “all men are divided into two sorts”: those who have this quality and those who do not. Only the “few” have this quality, but their “lives are beautiful in quietness and confidence.” This quality, according Mason, “is the jewel and the perfume of the gentle life, which it is our business to keep.”[1]

What might this quality be? Perhaps it is love. What else could be our first duty and our last duty? After all, Jesus said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.[2]

If all the Law and the Prophets depend on love, then is that not our first and last duty? But perhaps Mason had something else in mind when she spoke of the “hall-mark of character.” Perhaps she meant integrity. If one is not a “whole man,”[3] true to God, himself, and his neighbor, what kind of character does he have?

Or perhaps Mason meant hope. St. Paul indicated that “faith, hope, and love abide,”[4] and Mason said this quality leads to a life “beautiful in quietness and confidence.” What is confidence if it’s not faith? Perhaps “the jewel and the perfume of the gentle life” is faith, a trust that God is our strength and shield, bringing rest and relief to our striving.

Or maybe Mason meant justice, the other “Lord of the Heart”[5] besides love. Or perhaps ever-thoughtful of education, she meant knowledge. Or honesty. Do you have any other ideas? Any clues as to what might be “our first duty and our last duty,” “the hall-mark of character”? It was none of the qualities I’ve suggested so far. In fact, it is one that rarely makes any contemporary list of virtues. To my great surprise, this “jewel and the perfume of the gentle life” is none other than loyalty.

Charlotte Mason urges us to “treasure our loyalty as our life, remembering it is the one jewel which a subject has to offer to this king.” She insists that the “subject who is not loyal is, as a subject, nothing.”[6] But she calls us to be loyal to more than a king. She exhorts us to be loyal to country and chief; she advocates loyalty to “personal ties, relationships, friendships, dependents.”[7] She even urges loyalty to projects and principles, but above of all, loyalty to our heavenly King:

The subject who is not loyal is, as a subject, nothing: and this is never so true as when the subject is a Christian and the King is Christ.[8]

I admit I have long puzzled over this apparent anachronism in Mason’s writings. Mason acknowledged that even in her day, loyalty was becoming passé:

But perhaps this is not a loyal age. Our tendency is to believe that to think for ourselves and to serve ourselves in the way of advancement or pleasure is our chief business in life. We think that the world was made for us, and not we for the world, and that we are called upon to rule and not to serve.[9]

If late Victorian England was not a “loyal age,” what can we say of twenty-first century America? We Christian evangelicals can substitute “conscience or calling” in the place of “advancement or pleasure,” and the quotation holds true. What is more noble than standing up for the right in the face of pastor, teacher, administrator, or even friend? That is the hallmark of American character—that rugged, individualistic character—right?

Indeed, in my Idyll Challenge discussion group for men, we have often tripped up on Mason’s ode to loyalty. One man wrote that Mason’s exhortations to loyalty to country “come close to idolatry.” That actually seems plausible. What is idolatry if not elevating some created good to a higher place than it deserves? And certainly, what friend, chief, or king deserves to be elevated above the others? If I make my friend or my chief out to be greater than any other man or leader, have I not placed him on a pedestal? And aren’t pedestals simply the mantles for idols?

Even if it’s not idolatry, favoring one person to another at least seems unfair. According to Eric Felten:

The dominant strain of moral philosophy ever since Immanuel Kant penned The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals has been universalism—the idea that the only rules of ethics worth following are those that make no distinctions among people. What’s right for Fred to do in a given situation must be the same thing that is right for anyone else. But loyalty is anything but universal: It’s all about obligations that we have to particular people, flowing from the particular relationships we have to them.[10]

The philosophical logic seems pretty straightforward. If there is such a thing as moral absolutes (and there is), then it must by definition be absolute. So Kant’s universalism seems to be the inexorable conclusion. The dirty little opposite of universalism is particularism. Particularism is unfair. It’s relative. It’s… idolatrous. Felten goes on:

The advocates of universalist ethics want us to view the judgments we make in our everyday lives in the same way—that acting morally requires acting impartially. They argue that when we are influenced by any particular relationship, our moral judgments are as corrupt and dishonest as the lying testimony of a cop on the take.[11]

But let’s be honest. The absolute morality of universalist ethics has been around since long before Kant. In fact, it’s been around since the granddaddy of philosophy, the revered Plato himself:

Plato saw family loyalties as such a threat to his idealized Republic that he insisted on being rid of them altogether. “The greatest good for a city is what binds it together and makes it one,” the philosopher wrote. The “group” has to be “like a single organism,” and that means “no one distinguishes between what is his and what is someone else’s.” That’s a bold enough notion when it comes to something as trivial as, say, property. But what chance is there that people will look at children communally, with none of that tacky “Well, my little Jimmy” nonsense? Not much, so long as children are raised within families. Plato has a solution: “Children will be placed in a nursery and cared for by nurses. Parents and children will thus not know each other.”[12]

If anything, Plato was consistent. His rigorous commitment to absolute truth led to absolute morals, which led to universalist ethics, which led to children being taken from their parents. That was the only way to achieve his ideal. His perfect, beautiful ideal. His aesthetic ideal. His ideal Form.

So have Plato and Kant helped American Christians to shed our ties to this antiquated Victorian notion? Can we add Mason’s “ode to loyalty” to our list of items in the “disagree” column, that set of things that Mason meant well, but just got wrong? (Like, for example, her insistence that children not eat cheese?)[13]

To be honest I have puzzled over this for years. There has always been a kind of romantic appeal to me about Mason’s love of loyalty. She herself sets up that aura:

The age of Chivalry was the age of Loyalty; and youth ought to be especially the age of Chivalry and of Loyalty in each life.[14]

Furthermore, there is a certain novelty to it that makes it attractive. How neat to be different from both Kant and Plato? But just because something is romantic or attractive doesn’t mean it is true. I can’t just follow Mason’s thinking because it seems “cool”… Or at least I tried not to. But as I followed the universalist ethic, and tried to assert other principles over particularism, I just could not keep Mason’s metaphor out of my mind:

A precious perfume evaporates from an unstoppered bottle; and loyalty is the jewel and the perfume of the gentle life, which it is our business to keep. How are we to know when it is passing from us?[15]

When I reason away the virtue of loyalty, what is happening to the perfume of my life? Is it odorless? Or is it rancid?

A chance conversation just happened to recently turn my thinking on its head. I was talking to Nancy Kelly and Richele Baburina about the upcoming Living Education Holiday. We were discussing the prospect of leading 30 to 35 individuals across multiple cities of Europe. How would we keep track of everyone? How would we make sure everyone was OK? I mean, 35 people is a lot…

On the spur of the moment, I spontaneously blurted out, “What if we divide the group into cells?” My idea was to have “cells” of about 5 persons each. Then each cell would be asked to stay with each other and to look out for each other. That didn’t seem like a tall order. Instead of having to keep track of 35 people, you only have to keep track of the 4 other people in your cell. But you have to really keep track of them. You have to know where they are staying, when they are going to bed, when they are supposed to get up, what they can eat, when they aren’t feeling well… With this cell concept we can be confident and safe… as long as each cell looks after their own.

Shift now to the Ten Commandments. I see a lot of universalist ethics in the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill… Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness…”[16] Those are the commands even Kant would love: “What’s right for Fred to do in a given situation must be the same thing that is right for anyone else.”[17] Fred can’t murder, and neither can I. I think even Plato could go for this.

But then in the middle of these universalist absolutes, there is a bald, blatant particular: “Honour thy father and thy mother.”[18] Suddenly, the death knell to Plato’s Republic. I have three children, all bound by an absolute and perfect moral law. That law binds them to universal fairness, universal respect for life and property. But then it also binds them… to me.

My responsibility to my three children is simply not the same as my responsibility to the other children in the Sunday school class. To all of them, I must teach the truth, knowing that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”[19] I must be a faithful minister and shepherd. I must teach them to “not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”[20] I must teach them not to kill, not to steal, not to covet. So far so good. But then they will all go home. And only three of them will be commanded to honor me.

Think about it. They will never be able to change that law. There will never be another earthly father for them to honor. The eternal absolute law of God binds them to me. And so what kind of father will I be? Will I make it a light or a heavy burden for them to obey the “first commandment with a promise”?[21] Will this one of the Ten Commandments be a wide gateway, an open road, or will it be the eye of a needle? Will I be like a beacon of light inspiring honor? Or will I shroud this command in darkness, such that only a desert father could obey?

Why did God define his law in this way? Could it be that He had something in mind, of which my proposal for the Living Education Holiday is just the faintest shadow? Could it be that God saw that in a world full of billions of people, it would be easy for folks to get lost? For individuals to lose their way? For the idyllic Republic to forget about a few? For the nanny state or the village to leave some children behind?

Could it be that God in His wisdom conceived of dividing the world into “cells”? So that each person, instead of having to look out for every single other person in the world, instead had to manifest a particular concern for the other individuals in his cell? But you have to really keep track of them. You have to know where they are staying, when they are going to bed, when they are supposed to get up, what they can eat, when they aren’t feeling well…

In Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason wrote:

A favourite dream of socialism is—or was until the idea of collectivism obtained—that each State of Europe should be divided into an infinite number of small self-contained communes. Now, it sometimes happens that the thing we desire is already realised had we eyes to see. The family is, practically, a commune.[22]

And so, she quoted and endorsed F.D. Maurice’s maxim: “The family is the unit of the nation.”[23] And then the nation is the unit of the world:

Here is the simple and natural realisation of the noble dream of Fraternity: each individual attached to a family by ties of love where not of blood; the families united in a federal bond to form the nation; the nations confederate in love and emulous in virtue, and all, nations and their families, playing their several parts as little children about the feet and under the smile of the Almighty Father.[24]

What if God in His wisdom envisioned a world divided into cells—units—where the members of each cell are bound by law to a particular love? And all those cells were bound together into nations, under his smile, His Almighty smile?

American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) believed in loyalty. Felten explains:

So which is family loyalty: the foundation of all our other loyalties, or a grubby sort of me-and-mine selfishness? Most decidedly the former, according to Josiah Royce, the philosopher for whom loyalty was the essence of ethics. Not only did he maintain that “The first natural opportunity for loyalty is furnished by family ties,” Royce was convinced that “fidelity and family devotion are amongst the most precious opportunities and instances of loyalty,” ties that give us our first taste of “the spiritual dignity which lies in being loyal.”[25]

If Royce saw loyalty as “the essence of ethics,” then perhaps the same can be said of Mason. Indeed, isn’t “the essence of ethics” the same as that which is “our first duty and our last duty, and includes all our duties”? Perhaps Mason too is a “philosopher for whom loyalty was the essence of ethics.”

It does not seem too far-fetched when we consider what is required for loyalty to exist: there must be a relationship. It takes two to be loyal. The pure, aesthetic ethics of Plato, on the other hand, only require the one. So according to A.W. Morton, for the classical Greeks, “Goodness was described in aesthetic rather than moral terms.”[26] That was the Achilles’ heel of the Greek system: “the fact that the Greek standard was aesthetic rather than moral must be regarded as a fundamental weakness.”[27]

When ethics is seen not in perfect conformance to a Form, but rather in faithfulness to another, the whole shape of morality changes. We are brought into relationship—the “Science of Relations”[28]—and the most important relationships are those within the nuclear family, and with their Heavenly King. Relationship is inherently particular. In fact, we may say that Mason’s relational morality is an ode to particularism.

C.S. Lewis also found this at the heart of Christianity. In his inimitable Pilgrim’s Regress, the pilgrim finally made it home. And there he discovered the truth of the relationship ethic of the Triune God:

Passing today by a cottage, I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had dwelled there
With my mortal friends who are dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.

Out, little spear that stabs, I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted away (I was deceived)
Into love universal the lov’d thing

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan
When the angelic indifferences with no bar
Universally loved but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular.[29]

Friend, we have not “outgrown the local, unique sting.” Our calling is not to simply love the universal thing. To feel the “tether and pang of the particular” is our glory as human beings. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, as a child to be taken to Plato’s communal nursery.

The bond of loyalty is not only for families. When we covenant with others in a “cell,” we make a promise to look out for one another. Even though St. Catherine of Siena loved and prayed for the whole world, she also loved a particular few with a “special love.” These few made up her cell—her famiglia—and her loyalty to them had the fragrance of precious perfume:

And I ask you especially for all those you have given me, whom I love with a special love and whom you have made to be one thing with me. They will be my refreshment, for the glory and praise of your name, when I see them running along this straight and lovely path…[30]

A peaceful lake can seem to be a very safe place. And yet even the most experienced swimmers know it is never wise to go out alone. Even a group of swimmers is not safe unless there are covenantal partners. They call it “the buddy system.” You keep an eye on your particular buddy. You know when he comes up for air and when he is under for too long. And if necessary, you lay down your life to keep him afloat.

Our great and prosperous America can seem like a very safe place. And yet hazards lurk below the surface. Our most merciful Father has ordained a buddy system. Mother and father, he has asked you to have a particular love for a certain set of children. You know every detail of their lives. You know their every need. You know when they come up for air. You know when they’ve been under for too long. And if necessary, you lay down your life to keep them afloat. It’s the call of the loyal parent.


[1] Scale How Meditations, p. 188

[2] Matthew 22:37-39 (ESV)

[3] Ourselves, Book I, p. 168

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:13 (ESV)

[5] Ourselves, Book I, p. 136

[6] Scale How Meditations, p. 28

[7] Ourselves, Book I, p. 122

[8] Scale How Meditations, p. 28

[9] Ourselves, Book I, p. 118

[10] Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, p. 85

[11] Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, p. 86

[12] Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, pp. 88-89

[13] Home Education, p. 26

[14] Ourselves, Book I, p. 118

[15] Scale How Meditations, p. 188

[16] Exodus 20:13-16 (KJV)

[17] Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, p. 85

[18] Exodus 20:12 (KJV)

[19] James 3:1 (ESV)

[20] Exodus 20:7 (KJV)

[21] Ephesians 6:3 (ESV)

[22] Parents and Children, p. 4

[23] Parents and Children, p. 1

[24] Parents and Children, p. 6

[25] Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, pp. 84-85

[26] The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 246

[27] The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 247

[28] School Education, p. 65

[29] Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 198

[30] The Dialogue, pp. 202-203

One Reply to “The Loyal Parent”

  1. This is inspiring, Art. Thank you for giving close consideration to Charlotte Mason’s Ode to Loyalty.

    1) I’m guessing she is alluding to Isaiah 30:15: “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” – – – for the jewel of the gentle life. Beautiful.

    2) Of loyalty to family and the family being the strength of a nation – Hear, Hear.

    3) I recall how moved Dean and I were upon first reading H.E. p.350. “Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief.”
    This thought can “unseal” fountains in grown-ups. too. Then, we are faced in the direction to walk in it.

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