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Obedience is Freedom

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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. 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.”

Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | Waterstones

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.” Argues” is an imperfect word. This book is not a thunderous polemic, still less a dry work of abstract argumentation. Phillips, writing in effective and elegant prose, draws on literature, modern history and personal experience to craft richly human insights into thinking and living well. 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.

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. 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.

Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | Waterstones Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | Waterstones

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.” 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.” 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.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… 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. 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.

Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips, Paperback | Barnes Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips, Paperback | Barnes

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.

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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.”

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