John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress: Pilgrims in sight of Vanity Fair (Image credit: duncan1890)

The real benefits of loyalty and order

Evocation of a more hopeful culture lost is both the book’s strength and weakness


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In happier times, the existence of Jacob Phillips’s Obedience is Freedom wouldn’t have been necessary. That he felt compelled to fill 200 pages, casting desires as bad and virtues as good, says something about the human condition, given that John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678, while the similarly themed Romance of the Rose has circulated since the days of Robin Hood.

Worse, at first glance it might look as though Phillips had fallen into the gimmicky publishing trap of producing an intellectual version of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, a penitential calculus of dos and don’ts for a generation lacking truisms, discipline or a half-decent critique of hedonistic utilitarianism.

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

Yet he doesn’t lay it on thick with indignant, shrill lectures that would drive Job to drink. Paragraph after paragraph, a seductive threnody unfolds, structured by an almost syllogistic order. Highlights include, first, identity politics rarely bestowing a deeper grounding upon dialogues but “closing everything down to a mere monologue”. Second, anchoring life’s meaning to unconditional, visceral bonds (which produce sacrifices, not benefits) rather than fecklessness and squalid self-attachment. Third, an attack on the leftist assumption that an ideal state jettisons authority, which inevitably leads to its replacement with brute force or auto-suggestion, the most popular form of manufacturing consent today. Truly, there is no muck — only brass — in this academic’s field.

These points flow like water in ten short chapters under headings such as loyalty, honour, respect and obedience. Again, this is a risky format for Phillips as unkind commentators might dismiss him as another smug sub-Scrutonian author, a pony in the stable of a stallion. Yet this fate is deftly sidestepped by setting his narratives in the squats and dives of the 90s — peopled by Dickensian roughs — or environmental marches, instead of Roger Scruton’s gentleman-farmer backdrop. 

The upshot is that liberalism is parasitic. It operates smoothly only when it has a morally absolute precursor to syphon. In the West this historical faith, Christianity, has been reduced to a husk. In less abstract terms, it’s easy to be a Machiavelli among timorous lambs but almost impossible when the culture is Machiavellian. The cost of this trust deficit is rising every day, and the overweening state presents itself as the only legitimate antidote. 

Other deficits haunt the text, too. They’re essentially the ghosts conjured when societies break conceptual binaries only to end up living in the tyranny of the greyish ectoplasm left behind. One of my favourite passages is reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) or Giorgio Agamben’s notion of a permanent state of emergency:

War and peace require a specific place of meeting if they are to be differentiated. If times of war cannot become times of peace, the battle will never cease. Then, even in peacetime, everyone is at war. Recreation is riven with contention; people mistake combat for contentment. Order and obedience no longer intersect with rest and regeneration because there is no boundary where you pass from one into the other.

In the midst of this disorder — compounded by fake narratives of meritocracy — people retreat into technology that mirrors themselves rather than share the company and friendship of others. This tech not only enables individuals to escape the consequences of their actions (just as contraception or termination methods swipe aside natality, the ultimate responsibility), but also traps them in a psychological spiral. Anxiety, pain and a dull sense of worthlessness are subdued by drugs (inevitably producing human vegetables). 

Alternatively, a stunted self-admiration, vanity, is provoked as a vital — if brittle — reaction against nihilism. Every stage in this journey is diagnosed as a “disorder” so that the macro order is never challenged, rarely accused of being disordered itself. 

It’s hard to avoid feeling Phillips’s big virtues bob in a vacuum

Overall, the book is a thrilling redux of Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979). No doubt the American historian would have nodded at the menu of virtues Phillips prescribes; powers that inoculate one to coercion or domination by greater systems. Yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Phillips’s big virtues bob in a vacuum. The author occasionally alludes to cosmologies as outer frameworks, but avoids being drawn into the greater Christian question, almost certainly to prevent the book being slung into the publisher’s graveyard of apologetics. In other words, to allow its appreciation by all faiths. 

This personal, poetic and ecumenical evocation of a more hopeful culture lost is both the book’s strength and weakness. It’s not hard to discern that Christianity looms as the deeper context, like a sun at dawn. An extra chapter on it would have made a superb addition, not least thanks to the rise of a fairly explicit Gnosticism, as John Gray outlined in The Soul of the Marionette (2015). This attitude remoulds the merciful morality of Christianity as puritanical wokeism and lays out a metaphysics in which theosis (the idea that Man’s prelapsarian nature can be restored) is rarely the aim but rather transhumanism, the idolisation and eternal perpetuation of the self.

I’m terribly biassed, but the failure to mention the Philokalia as some sort of remedy to these societal ills — yes, I’m clutching pearls so hard that I’ve given myself Dupuytren’s contracture — is vexing. Orthodox (Christian) texts such as this force mankind to confront its own createdness, its in-built limitations. Spiritual health and maturity are dependent on purified awareness, a “watchfulness” that the ancients called nepsis. This faculty ensures people are alert to false and imprisoning accounts or narratives of who and what the human subject is, and the God in which they dwell.

The Philokalia reminds us that virtues have no secular “reality”. They are the secondary effects that cascade from the ultimate virtue, divine love. Its energy is not dependent on circumstance. We do not love properly if it depends on someone’s relation to us but only if we accept the instability of how others treat or regard us. Yet this isn’t a hippy screed open to all. There is no spirituality free of doctrine. We must follow the example of Christ who suffered for and offers hope to all. The Son who showed us human nature in its true glory. This faith affirms the righteous and shows mercy to those who have lost the dignity that is their divine birthright.

Ultimately, Phillips hits his targets but whether they are big enough is moot. Rising high above elegy only to flinch before theology will satisfy some, but it struck me as an anti-climax. In essence, Man is called not just to a virtuous life, a role that fulfils the polis. He is called to God and an angelic life; angelic not because there is a calling to be less embodied — a popular misconception — but because an angelic life places itself in a position of humility. It does not try to master the future or others. It is angelic because it realises life is liturgical at heart; that when love reigns there is simply nothing to add. Unlike with Phillips’s book.

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