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Obedience is Freedom

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The author’s mother, erstwhile Greenham idealist, developed senile dementia when Phillips was only 16 years old. He became her caretaker, indeed the only person she would speak to, until she died 19 years later. Recounting this experience leads him into a discussion of ideas of loyalty to a family, community, and place—the differences between being what the British journalist David Goodhart called the rooted “Somewhere” class and the deracinated, educated, mobile “Anywhere” elites, who predominate in global governance.

Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | WHSmith Obedience is Freedom by Jacob Phillips | WHSmith

Growing up in the 90s, ‘obedience’ wasa 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 offendanyone 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.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. For all our choice, comfort, opportunity, and stimuli, today’s West is neither dynamic nor happy; perhaps, like Prometheus, we are being tortured for knowing too much. We all know there is no such thing as a free lunch; we now need to learn there is no free freedom. For every freedom we are afforded, there are often important restrictions, paradoxical corollaries of a need to balance often competing desires—most obviously our ability to think or say what we want on an ever-expanding range of subjects. Not all colors can be found in the rainbow.

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

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. 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: 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.

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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. 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. The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic – and yet, are we any freer than our forebears?

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