It’s probably fair to say that most people today regard obedience and freedom as antonyms, and that obedience is regarded as the bad side of that duality. We might even say that we are free just insofar as we obey no one, except perhaps ourselves or our own will. Going further, obedience seems like the kind of orientation to the world that depends upon there being unquestionably rightful authority, but perhaps we don’t regard authority, any authority, in that way any longer–as having unquestionably right claims on us. Sometimes obedience is thought to be a kind of mindless servility or rote submission, though older conceptions of obedience incorporated an important element of free choice. Is it then not obedience if one chooses to submit oneself to the authority whom one obeys? Again, that position would assume that choice and obedience are necessarily antagonists, but the structures of authority to which one might voluntarily submit oneself might actually make one more free to achieve certain objectives than one would be without the submission (think here of the structures of excellence in sports or writing or some other practice).
Ok, enough already. I raise all this in light of an interesting new book by Jacob Phillips, Obedience is Freedom (Polity Press). The abstract is below, and here is an interesting review of the book that came out a few months back.
The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic – and yet, are we any freer than our forebears?
In this provocative work, Jacob Phillips argues not. Many feel unable to speak freely, their opinions policed by the implicit or explicit threat of coercion. Impending ecological disaster is the ultimate threat to our freedoms and wellbeing, and living in a disenchanted cosmos leaves people enslaved to nihilistic whim. Phillips shows that the antiquated notion of obedience to the moral law contains forgotten dimensions, which can be a source of freedom from these contemporary fetters. These dimensions of obedience – such as loyalty, discipline and order – protect people from falling prey to the subtle forms of coercion, control and domination of twenty-first-century life.
Fusing literary insight with philosophical discussion and cultural critique, Phillips demonstrates that in obedience lies the path to true freedom.