Cocktail maven Eric Felten plays teetotaler in Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, a thoroughly clearheaded examination of the enigmatic virtue. Felten, (How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, 2007) a culture columnist for The Wall Street Journal, takes a postmodern approach to tackling the importance of loyalty, citing a varied array of case studies and personalities—from Julius Caesar to Sandra Bullock—to bolster his case. Felten spoke with us about how to navigate virtue in a post-modern era, the lessons he’s learned from Al Pacino and what writing about cocktails has taught him about philosophy.

What makes us tick? Read more about human behavior with Tina Rosenberg's Join the Club and David Linden's The Compass of Pleasure.

What is so vexing about loyalty?

What makes it vexing is that it’s essential to every relationship we have that matters. But because it is essential to every relationship that we have, our various relationships each have their own sets of loyalties that come with them, and those loyalties often come into conflict with one another. So this central virtue has this tragic flaw of tending to run into conflict, and we never can figure out how those loyalties are going to come into conflict or how we are going to untangle them when they do.

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Loyalty almost seems anathema to the American Dream, and you mention in the book how difficult a trait it can be in our Age of Irony. Where does loyalty fit in the real world?

As much as loyalty is hard to find, we still long for it, we admire it when we see something in a loyal way, even if they are being loyal to the wrong thing, we admire the loyalty. Just in the same way, that even if a traitor does something that works to your own benefit—you love the treason, but you hate the traitors. I do think there is room for loyalty in this ironic age to maybe push back against the irony of our age, to push back against the notion that the only calculations are strict of the moment rational calculations of personal benefit.

Is this, in a way, a self-help book?

It is, I think, in a way. Philosophy at its best really should have some implication for how we live, and so that’s the approach I’ve taken. It’s not just an effort to untangle philosophical issues but to try to untangle them in a way that can help us live better lives, more satisfying lives, less awkward lives. By trying to show how important loyalty is to our lives, and where the pitfalls are with loyalty, I am hopeful that the book can help people make loyalty an important part of their lives and make that work for people, make it less likely to end up in conflict—and when those inevitable conflicts do arise, have some tools and understanding of those conflicts so they can be untangled as best as possible.

You put loyalty in a historical perspective, from the highs—you quote Aeschylus—to the lows—I don't want to call Al Pacino low, but...

High culture and pop culture, we can put it that way. One of things that was really fascinating to me as I got into researching and writing the book, was whether in high culture or pop culture, issues of loyalty end up being these core issues that turn up in all sorts of literature, in drama and tragedy—especially tragedy because often, the tragic condition is one of being stuck between obligations that can’t all be realized, that there is a wrong whatever one does.

And I think it says something about the importance of loyalty in our lives that these issues have been dealt with in every time and society—it is really a fundamental part of the human experience and the human dilemma. It was fascinating to me to see how different people at different times have dealt with those dilemmas.

This seems a departure from your last book. Are there any threads of connectivity between the two?

I wish there were a loyalty cocktail—I haven’t figured it out yet. If there is a connection, the writing I’ve done about cocktails and drinks has been an effort to do social history in a narrow way, in a micro-history of American drinking.

But what has made cocktails fun for me as a writer is that it is this narrow window on American culture, but one that gives a lot of insight into how people have actually lived in a day-in and day-out way. If there is some similarity, it’s that I’ve tried to bring some social history—how people actually live and how they have lived—that sensibility into the philosophical questions. I’ve tried to illuminate the philosophical issues by doing a bit of social history about loyalty as well.