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Can our duties set us free?

Jacob Phillips’ new book challenges the assumption that freedom lies in unconstraint

Artillery Row Books

Obedience Is Freedom by Jacob Phillips

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”.

“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.

How can obedience be freedom? Take poetry. As Phillips writes, poetry depends on “discipline of language and culture”. As poets increasingly emancipated themselves from formal structures, were they free to write better poems? Sales suggest otherwise.

Obedience Is Freedom, Jacob Phillips (Polity Press, £14.99)

Elsewhere, Phillips writes about caring for his mother as her mental and physical health declined. Some friends and acquaintances talked to him about letting go, stepping back and looking after yourself but Phillips rejects the idea that his interests and his mother’s interests were necessarily opposed. To be fair, stepping back does not mean one cannot step forwards again — we must all have time for ourselves — but it is true that lives which can never be anchored in attachments drift aimlessly.

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.

Indeed, anyone expecting a port-soaked paean to feudalism will be taken aback to find that another of Phillips’s case studies arrives in the form of the radical mums who protested against cruise missiles being based on Greenham Common. Their devotion to the future of their kids, he writes, represented “a celebration of natality, of the primordial commonality between mother and child”. Nowadays, environmental activists are liable to pose as if not having kids is a mark of virtue. A shrill minority of progressive ideologues frame parenthood itself as an instrument of oppression. Whatever one thinks of national defence, there is a vivid contrast between maternal vitality and teenage posturing.

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.

For example, Phillips writes, in the context of family love, that “honouring another person with indissoluble commitment” represents “a great loss of control” but also “a freedom to join with that person, unshackled from the desire for them to fit into your schemes”. There is truth to this. Commitment frees us, to some extent at least, from the siren songs of frivolous temptation and runaway narcissism. Still, when relationships devolve, as many will, into conflict and indifference, this “freedom” can grow constrictive. Laws can be absolute, depending on one’s moral and metaphysical views, but their qualitative implications will vary.

One thing this book struggles with, like all prescriptively-minded, broadly right-wing books, is how to offer a perspective of the good life within what Sowell called “the constrained vision”. Leftists, being more optimistic about human nature and the course of history, have more freedom to insist that what is righteous is inextricable from what is satisfying. Commentators on the right, though, must face the fact that the good life may not feel good to live. (As Vince McMahon said, sometimes life sucks and then you die.)

Men with beautiful houses often torture themselves with the desire for a beautiful boat

Phillips knows this, criticising the “Boomerweltanshaaung [which] promises the satisfaction of desire”. But the desires endure, and they are difficult to argue out of existence. Phillips rightly criticises people for conflating economic and moral significance. “Those of dubious socio-economic value are led to consider their lives almost worthless,” he writes. This is indeed a problem. But when a poor man looks with envy at a rich man’s house, is it primarily because he wants the same moral worth or because he wants, well — the house? Even if we could accept, as we should, that a rock star is not inherently better than an office worker, someone who creates spreadsheets remains liable to envy someone rocking a microphone because he has more fun.

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:

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…

How to satisfy our thirst? Phillips writes a lot about turning away from ourselves, towards people to care for, and towards “the natural world among which particular communities live”, and towards “the unavoidable duties of…life”. To what extent can man achieve this, now modernity has opened Pandora’s chocolate box? I am not sure. If nothing else, people should still have the keen personal ambition that inspires them to, say, write a beautiful book. But it is certainly true that our responsibility to something beyond ourselves frees us from bogs of introspection and fantasy. It is also obedience to our better angels, who will find Obedience Is Freedom stimulating and insightful.

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