Growing up in the 90s, ‘obedience’ was a 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 offend anyone 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.
Jacob Phillips’ latest book, Obedience is Freedom, posits that our society is much poorer for this approach. The book’s title may seem Orwellian in tone, yet Phillips’ argument is precisely the opposite—there is nothing Orwellian or sinister about obedience and freedom. Instead, Phillips offers a diagnosis of contemporary society, which emphasises “transience, optionality, re-invention” rather than “permanent, unconditional attachment like that of parent and child.” This milieu, thus, “leaves people conditioned by self-attachment” and “the drive for self-fulfilment dominates.”
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.”
In one of the most moving accounts in the book, the author looks at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. This was a protest site set up by women to protest against the presence of nuclear weapons on British soil. What started as an initiative by 36 women was eventually taken up by approximately 70,000 protestors who formed a 23 km human chain in April 1983. The women of Greenham Common were remarkable in that they used their gender not to make some self-serving point on identity but to emphasise that being mothers, they had a duty to highlight the dangers that their children and future generations would face. Phillips writes: “The women’s bind to their infants—their unquestioning allegiance to their children—freed them from the inexorable self-centredness that prevents people from taking responsibility for the wellbeing of others.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Respecting hierarchical roles is not redolent with connotations of slavery. Instead, it is a freeing concept which recognises that “reality cannot be ordered around satisfying one’s own desires,” thus freeing people from honouring “other people as persons”—as “bearers of freedom just like you.”
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.
There is also a discussion on what is understood by respect. There is a well-meaning, though misleading, way of engendering respect through racial categorisations. However, the author points out that this is not behaviour borne out of a shared living experience but, rather, construed in “peer-reviewed journals and Powerpoint slides.” This and other factors reduce culture to a “dangerous place steeped only in prejudice and hatred… fear and suffering” rather than the “source of unity” that it can—and should—be.
This is the exact opposite of what culture intends to be. Culture “mediates between nature and humanity” and is shaped by a cosmological understanding of human nature rather than self-construction. Instead, the self should be shaped through “repeated habits, habits of duty.”
The skill of the author lies in how he crafts his argument. This is neither a polemical text nor a heavy read. Instead, the author avoids a preachy or condescending tone and guides the reader gently through various themes. It is almost as though the author enters into a conversation with literary figures, philosophers, and theologians and offers their views to the reader. He weaves into these conversations his own experiences and observations, thus presenting a book that is engaging, personal, and even moving at times.
Jacob Phillips has written a book which needed to be written and which needs to be read. He is an author rooted in the sense of place and a certain degree of oikophilia. He uses his own personal environment to draw lessons relevant to the broader community. In addition to being an accomplished theologian (his work on Newman, among others, is masterful) and a fine translator (he is the man behind the English translation of Benedict XVI’s ‘Last Testament’), this work cements his reputation as a fine essayist in the best of English traditions.
André P. DeBattista is an academic researcher and occasional columnist based in Malta.