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Obedience is Freedom

Obedience is Freedom

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The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic - and yet, are we any freer than our forebears? The title of Jacob Phillips’s new book Obedience Is Freedom might remind one of the Oceanian slogans “War Is Peace” and “Ignorance Is Strength”, but Phillips’s aim is to convince you that the statement is not paradoxical. Age-old values like duty and discipline, Phillips argues, offer “freedom from the entropy of meaninglessness”.

Jacob Phillips | The Critic Magazine Author: Jacob Phillips | The Critic Magazine

A sceptical reader might dispute Phillips’s positive conception of liberty. I think it is inarguable that in a civilised society, freedom depends to some extent on obedience. Take driving. How “free” would you feel if you drove on roads, or walked across them, on which motorists could drive at 100 miles per hour after downing a bottle of vodka? There is a good chance that your freedom would end on a broken windscreen. Still, it is true that departing from a negative conception of freedom exposes us to endless conceptual elasticity. We find ourselves like the escapees who jumped from the Mutiny of the Bounty and gave way to the urge to slake their thirst by drinking from the ocean. The salt water diet makes them ever more thirsty, until they are driven mad… Freedom is obedience, if obedience to the correct thing. That thing is God and His bible. Obedience to Him aligns the human being towards his designed purpose. You could also say that freedom is obedience to natural law which is the theological idea that God created us with a sense of what is objectively right and wrong. The problem is that there is another factor at play in our souls, sin. Having discipline, constraining impulse is the act of ignoring sinful desire. Sin destroys. It leads away from our human purpose. It seeks to destroy the notion of natural law and the intention to live it out. The cultural context remains vital. Perhaps, this is a culture at war with the different subtleties within it. Culture wars are broadly defined as battles “against a foe with whom there is no common ground.” There is no acceptance of a shared history or a shared endeavour; the common good is sacrificed on the altar of identity politics. Phillips points out that such wars enslave all dimensions of life. We are all conscripted into battle, and “there is no place to which one can retreat, nowhere to return and be recuperated.” Thus, we must question those words that we think we know the meaning of but have somehow been re-defined by changing attitudes, including allegiance, loyalty, deference, honour, obligation, respect, responsibility, discipline, duty, and authority. Phillips does so by turning each word on its head and exploring how these values relate to contemporary society. It should be clear from this example that while Phillips defends some forms of deference, duty, obligation et cetera, he does not defend them in their maximally authoritarian and reactionary sense. When he writes about “obedience”, for example, he is not reducing it to the servility that exists between peasants and a king. He is thinking of obedience to custom, and tradition, and mutual agreements as much as official authority.The author’s mother, erstwhile Greenham idealist, developed senile dementia when Phillips was only 16 years old. He became her caretaker, indeed the only person she would speak to, until she died 19 years later. Recounting this experience leads him into a discussion of ideas of loyalty to a family, community, and place—the differences between being what the British journalist David Goodhart called the rooted “Somewhere” class and the deracinated, educated, mobile “Anywhere” elites, who predominate in global governance. It is surely unnecessary to say that Phillips is not against freedom per se, but rather against the particular kinds of freedoms fetishized today. Here in the West we are largely free to buy what we want, wear what we want, sleep with whomever we want, live and travel where we want, engage in demonstrations, vote in elections, and increasingly even change our “gender”—subject only, of course, to our personal and economic resources. But there is a great deal of empirical and everyday evidence to suggest that all these liberties (which often amount to mere libertinism) are insufficient in themselves, and not obviously conducive to social stability. For example, take the much-maligned concept of hierarchy. The book argues that hierarchy is not merely about socio-economic roles but also the moral worth of each person in the greater scheme of things: “The full acceptance of the role apportioned to oneself requires understanding that that role neither reflects nor exhausts one’s moral worth.” Such paradoxes have of course often been noted, but Phillips drills deeper than most. He argues that through adherence to premodern values, and by respecting established codes and rules of behavior, we can aspire to a “more enduring and genuine freedom than that offered by today’s self-fulfilment paradigm.” By sometimes reining in our own impulses, we are clearly limiting our potential “lifestyle choices.” However, self-restraint may also allow us to enter into a richer kind of existence, one that is more emotionally satisfying—just as submission to the rhyming rules of poetry has so often spurred literary genius. As Oliver Goldsmith knew, sometimes we need to “stoop to conquer.” Yet Goodhart, who is commendably sympathetic to the often-disregarded Somewheres, is still a little patronizing about the importance of loyalty. Phillips, unlike Goodhart, sees loyalty as an elemental rather than a merely primitive emotion, and an uplifting one, encouraging self-sublimation in the service of others who may have few or no other defenders.

How duty can set us free - spiked

He uses this example to contrast this with the culture “in which child-bearing is conditional on self-fulfilment.” This attitude restrains the development of “basic impulses of responsibility and care.” He makes a caveat: “This is not to say that only those who have children exercise such responsibilities. It is to say that the degree to which natality is celebrated in a culture is a vital barometer of how responsible that culture is.” Phillips does not shy away from entering the central debates of the present culture wars. However, he does so not with the armour suit of a warrior but with the sensitivity of a profound thinker and with elegant and engaging prose. He highlights the propensity to label any form of disagreement as emotional abuse. This is instructive because “emotional abuse causes a person’s grip on reality to break down.”When this is applied to differences of opinions, it implies that subjectivity is assigned to all of reality. Nothing becomes fixed anymore. His solution is to meet such attitudes with “sober-minded sagacity”—something which this book does brilliantly.The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic – and yet, are we any freer than our forebears? Phillips’ attempt to defend the value of ordinary, everyday duties – to one’s family, friends and loved ones – is important. He is right to show that fulfilling the duties imposed on you by a wider community creates a special kind of freedom. This is a vital corrective to the narcissistic idea that freedom is simply the absence of limits.

Obedience is Freedom: Phillips, Jacob: 9781509549344: Books Obedience is Freedom: Phillips, Jacob: 9781509549344: Books

Sensual liberty is as unsatisfying as political liberty. Pornography is existentially emptying, leaving everyone with a “permanently scorched vision” and a deeply dispiriting notion of the universe as a mechanistic eternity of grinding lumps of flesh, short-lasting sensations, and cold-eyed transactions. The sexual deviants from what norms still remain are partly the products of mainstream sexualization. Conspiracy theories, from 5G wireless mind control to the QAnon cult, may be fueled by “an intuitive sense that our cultural atmosphere is increasingly permeated with things that are unsanitary and deleterious.” By giving into our whims, by indulging our weaknesses, we risk becoming like the mutineers of the HMS Bounty, who drank saltwater and went insane, drifting in a vast and meaningless expanse. Growing up in the 90s, ‘obedience’ wasa dirty word. The aversion to obedience never wore off. Parenting manuals now advocate a style of parenting based on dialogue and consensus. The text of the marriage service frequently omits the word ‘obey,’ lest it offendanyone in the congregation. Rebellion and revolution are portrayed as the only vehicle for true freedom, while tradition and authority are depicted as oppressive tools used to rob others of their dignity. The only place where one can legitimately demand obedience is in the army. Still, as I am sure Phillips would say, men with beautiful houses often torture themselves with the desire for a beautiful boat, and the history of successful musicians — or actors, or athletes — heaves with anxieties and insecurities. Rare is the desire which is ultimately satisfied. Phillips writes:

Obedience is Freedom ​musically weaves together high and low culture, ancient and modern, the sacred and profane, in a richly resonant texture of ideas. This is a book that will surprise and delight both the very well-read and the very online.' Phillips discerns continuities where others see only divergence. The exclusively female, 1980s antinuclear demonstrators at Greenham Common, now iconized as feminist radicals, were in truth more “earth-mothers” than modern-style misandrists, whose loathing of the weapons was rooted in a maternal concern for all life. Many of the demonstrators were mothers—one of them the author’s—whereas modern feminists often seem to believe that procreation is just another oppression. “Today’s identitarian feminists would struggle particularly with Greenham’s celebration of natality, of the primordial commonality between mother and child,” Phillips writes. He believes, exaggeratedly, that many of those who were at Greenham would now be “cancelled or endlessly trolled as conservatives or reactionaries.” Jacob Phillips is an associate professor in systematic theology, and writes on culture, society, philosophy, and religion. His book, Obedience is Freedom, was published by Polity Press in May 2022. To combat this fiercely self-centred approach to life in community, Phillips asks the reader to rediscover the word ‘geezer’—a term which has lost its meaning. ‘Geezer’ is not just a slang expression for a fun-loving average Joe. Rather, it represents a “locus of contradiction.” The geezer is self-assured because he is humble; he accepts his place in life without regret and respects others and the role they play. He is personable while maintaining a respectful distance from others; he believes in moderation in all aspects of his behaviour without feeling entitled or engaging in excessive introspection. He represents a level of equanimity that “necessitates participation in networks of kinship, social associations, societal structuring, and cultural identity.”

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