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Obedience is Freedom

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Brahms had a personal motto, frei aber froh (“free but happy”), which features famously as the note sequence F-A flat-F in the first movement of his Third Symphony. He adopted this cheerful philosophy as a jovial riposte to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who had used the phrase frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”) in disconsolate self-description. Brahm’s breezy motto is still a liberal, and libertarian, ideal today. 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:

Can our duties set us free? | Ben Sixsmith | The Critic Magazine

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.”

Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | Waterstones

Allegiance, loyalty, deference, honor, respect, responsibility, discipline, and duty have all been ironized and outmoded in our civilization, which is simultaneously paedomorphic and senile. These virtues are nonetheless indispensable threads in a web of reciprocity uniting individuals who would otherwise sheer off randomly into social outer space, occasionally as brilliantly as comets, but just as aimless and lonely. 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. 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.”

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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”. In this pensive and highly personal study, English theologian Jacob Phillips shows that Joachim had keener insight than his famous friend; he knew that too much freedom can often mean unhappiness. The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic – and yet, are we any freer than our forebears?

Jacob Phillips - Battle of Ideas Jacob Phillips - Battle of Ideas

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. 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. 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.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. 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.

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