Supporting and Competing Loyalties


By EDMUND EZRA DAY, President, Cornell University

Delivered at Commencement of Cornell University, May 25, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 539-541.

FOR the fourth time in the history of this institution the commencement exercises are conducted with the nation at war. The first of these war commencements occurred in 1898; the second and third in 1917 and 1918. The Spanish-American War, which set the stage in 1898, was so brief and one-sided a conflict as to disturb the national life but little. The University certainly was hardly affected at all. The World War a generation ago was, of course, vastly different. There was a great exodus of students from the campus after the declaration of war in April 1917, and in 1917-18 the life of the institution was dominated by the S. A. T. C. and the war effort. Interestingly enough, commencement in 1918 was advanced just as it has been this year. It was held on the 22nd of May.

Once more in this year 1941-42 the undertakings of the University have been geared into a stupendous war effort. Curriculum, calendar, researches, courses, finances, staff arrangements, extra-curricular activities, counseling services— all phases of the institution's life have been adapted and realigned to maximize Cornell's contribution to the final victory of the United Nations. The fact that nearly half of the men in the two upper undergraduate classes have already gone into the armed services, or are in specific training on the campus for commissions in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps, is striking evidence of the extent to which the University has gone into all-out participation in the war effort.

The war in which we are now involved is one of unprecedented dimension and consequence. The fighting front spans every continent and ocean. The stake is the future of all mankind. The issue is plainly this: Shall we and other like free peoples the world over become enslaved, or shall we remain free? On this issue there can be but one outcome. In the end, the forces fighting for freedom must and will prevail.

This confidence in final victory is warranted only as we are clear, first, as to the nature of the attack which is being made upon us, and, second, as to the strength and endurance of the forces which we can bring to bear in our stupendous program for overcoming the formidable enemy forces. As to the nature of the attack to which we are being subjected, I shall not undertake to speak; freeman the world over have long since been cruelly informed. The original disguises of the authoritarian movement are now completely stripped: the movement stands before the judgment of the world naked in its barbaric brutality. Nor shall I speak of the tremendous material resources of manpower and equipment which the United Nations are now rapidly bringing to bear. These, happily, become more and more evident. What I should like to bring briefly to your attention is the profoundly important undergirding of the war effort which is to be found in the loyalties with which we carry on the fight. It is in these loyalties that our ultimate destiny resides.

Our effective loyalties may be thought of as in three groupsor categories; personal, institutional, and ideational loyalties. Personal loyalties are those we feel toward individuals we know, or think we know; whose personalities we understand, some, of course, quite intimately. Institutional loyalties are those we develop toward all the diverse organizations to which we belong; the club, the fraternity or sorority, the college or university, the state or nation. Ideational loyalties are those we come to acknowledge to certain ideas and ideals, such as justice or democracy.

How are these different types of loyalty interrelated? To what extent are they complementary, to what extent competing? Are there among them any definite priorities? On what basis do we determine which come first? Is there rationing to be done in terms of their relative claims? These are questions which a life and death struggle, such as that in which we are now engaged, compels us to consider and, in so far as possible, to answer. With this in view, let us look more carefully into these groupings into which our loyalties so clearly fall.

Personal loyalties are basic in all human experience. Among such personal loyalties, the most basic of all is our loyalty to ourselves. We start developing that at a very early age. The small infant who bites his toe till it hurts and thereafter desists is learning loyalty to himself at a very rudimentary level. Gradually the conception of self expands. It covers in the whole complicated body mechanism that lies at our disposal. It comprehends our unfolding intellectual and spiritual life. It carries our hopes and fears, our wants and ambitions. It finally involves us in a paramount loyalty to our own best selves. There are no loyalties quite so important as those that lie in a fully developed sense of individual integrity.

The loyalties to ourselves which begin to form at a very early age are associated almost from the start with personal loyalties toward those upon whom we are obviously dependent. The mother-child relationship is the largest single source of these initial outside personal attachments; but the circle soon widens. Fathers, brothers and sisters, playmates, schoolmates get included. The radiation continues: college classmates, husbands and wives, neighbors, fellow club members, fellow citizens, fellow workers, heroes and heroines of all sorts, Hollywood and otherwise, professional attendants, political leaders. There is no end to the range which personal loyalties may take. They may even go far as to involve the idolatrous worship of a fuehrer.

Our most concrete and intimate loyalties are all personal loyalties. No other loyalties are so constantly with us; no others tend so persistently to dominate us. With some people, personal loyalties are the only ones that really count. With every one of us, they are profoundly important.

Under modern social conditions, institutional loyalties are just about as pervasive. We are all caught in a great mesh of organizations of every description. Some are formal, others quite informal. Some are economic in purpose, others religious or educational; still others political; some purely social. The strength of the ties they entail varies enormously. College loyalties, for example, are sometimes very strong, at other times, manifestly weak. Loyalty to the party in American political life has had a tremendous influence. The most significant single example of institutional allegiance is to the nation. Patriotism for centuries has been, and doubtless for centuries to come will remain, one of the greatest of all social forces. In general, institutional loyalties permeate human affairs and have a vast deal to do with the course of human events.

Over the ages, however, the loyalties which transcend all others are those which relate to certain great ideas andideals. Human progress without loyalties of this order would be impossible. They are what keep mankind at its never-ending quest for truth, beauty, justice, goodwill, brotherhood. At times these great ideals seem remote and unattainable. Certainly at times they seem to be defied if not wholly defeated. The fact remains that they alone over countless generations have kept alive the aspiring spirit of man. It is in fidelity to these more enduring ideals of life that individual as well as social undertakings find their final satisfaction and meaning.

If we thus review our loyalties we are forced to certain conclusions. Personal loyalties are basic. They give color and content to our daily living. They are the molecules of which our larger relationships are composed. Life without them would be quite untenable. But the purpose and pattern of life have to be set by larger considerations than can be encompassed by any individual, be he great or small, Personal loyalties, essential though they be, find their validation in loyalties of a more inclusive sort.

Institutional loyalties are clearly a social necessity. Anarchy and social chaos can be avoided only through social organization, and such organization could not function if it did not elicit loyalties. The purposes served by social organizations vary enormously, however, and so do the corresponding loyalties. Allegiance to an exclusive club may serve primarily to nourish personal pride and a sense of social status. The same may be true of school or college connection. The fact that an organization is reputable does not prove that its contributions are worth while. Institutional loyalties should be constantly reviewed and evaluated. They need to be checked against loyalties of a higher order.

These higher loyalties are to be found among the loyalties which relate to the great and enduring ideals which have guided mankind through the ages. These are the loyalties, which should govern our personal and institutional attachments. Only when our personal and institutional loyalties complement and reinforce our ideational loyalties can we be sure that our system of individual allegiance is firmly based.

In some ways, our ideational loyalties may seem abstract, remote, and futile. It is our job to make them concrete, intimate, and effective. We can live truth if we set out to. We can strive to expel error and prejudice. We can resolve to spread no report the accuracy of which we have reason to question. We can seek the facts when they are available. Living truthfully will make a positive difference in our daily lives. We can similarly go along with beauty. And once we get really exercised about justice we can do a lot about that, too, here and now. If we come really to believe in goodwill and brotherhood, in kindly, considerate, understanding human relationships, we can do a great deal more than we have done to put them into effect in home and school, in neighborhood and community, in shop and trade, in nation and throughout the world. When we really want freedom strongly enough we shall lay fast hold of it through self-discipline and the unfailing discharge of the great loyalties from which human progress is fashioned.

We are all involved in a life and death struggle. It is a war against enslavement; a war for freedom. It is a war which is sure to put our loyalties increasingly to the test. Let us not forget the magnificent response of Cornellians men and women the world over a generation ago. The nearly ten thousand graduates who then served in the armed forces of the nation surely kept faith with their highest loyalties. We can do no less. Let us individually and collectively make sure that our vision is clear and our priorities wisely set. Let us make sure that we know what things are to come first; what things are to be given up last. If we keep our sights set right, if we see far and straight enough, no sacrifice, however great, will seem too much.

For the most enduring rewards of life lie in the causes which make for the progress of all mankind. There are no substitutes for the time-tested loyalties which justify and validate human hope and aspiration.