Is Obedience a Virtue?

It is sometimes claimed that obedience, toward both Gods and humans, is a virtue. That seems wrong to me, and I’d like to explore the reasons why. As usual, I’m trying to develop my own understanding by thinking out in public in this forum, and I eagerly welcome respectful criticisms, objections, questions, and suggestions which might help me further my thinking on the issue.

Virtue as a Mean

Aristotle famously explains that every virtue can be understood as a mean between two distinct vices: virtue is the happy medium between these two problematic extremes.

Perhaps the easiest example is courage, understood as the mean between cowardice or timidness on the one hand (fleeing danger too readily) and foolhardiness on the other (foolishly endangering oneself by continuing to fight even when, as they say, discretion is the better part of valor, and it would be better to step back and regroup).

When generosity is a genuine virtue, it will be the midpoint between excessive stinginess or miserliness (hoarding for oneself while neglecting others) and the excessive giving that makes one a doormat, exploited by others, to the detriment of one’s own well-being.

Likewise, temperance with regard to food and drink means finding the appropriate midpoint between eating to excess and eating too little—a balance which the Buddha is famously supposed to have discovered the day before his enlightenment, when breaking his fast by eating a bowl of rice allowed him the nourishment to undertake his meditations under the bodhi tree. The case of temperance also highlights the sense in which virtue as a mean is (in a certain sense) relative both to the person and to the context. In realizing this mean, one comes to possess, or to manifest, perfect fitness for one’s chosen task, circumstances, or for one’s life as a whole.

As a first approximation, we might see justice as a mean between attending to one’s own wants, interests, or desires, considered narrowly, to the exclusion of others’; and attending to the wants, interests, or desires of others, considered narrowly, to the exclusion of one’s own. The virtue of justice, on this approximation, would manifest as the shift to a greater and more dynamic perspective that encompasses both of these, precisely insofar as it takes account of the wider whole of which they are both parts. There might even be a sense in which this captures a part—though only a part—of Plato’s account of justice, where justice finds the appropriate balance for the demands of my rational nature, or of the rational part of my soul (which is, at the deepest level, the core of myself) and my irrational parts or natures. I attain to the virtue not by neglecting or cutting off any of these, but by assigning each to its proper place, thereby harmonizing the whole. In that way, it’s like tuning a lyre: each string must be present, and must be neither too tight nor too loose, in order for the entire instrument to play in tune.

Obedience does not seem to be a genuine mean in this way. Especially in the case of obedience to human authorities, while it might sometimes be good, appropriate, and right to do the action commanded or enjoined by that authority, the goodness, appropriateness, or rightness generally comes not from the fact of the action’s being commanded or enjoined, but from its being good or right all on its own, irrespective of the command. So even when it is right to do what we’re told, that does not logically entail that it is right because we were so told. Its being commanded neither adds to, nor detracts from, the rightness of the action. (I will take up the question of obedience to the Gods in a separate section below.) Rather, there might be some other virtue like appropriate judgement, for which myopia (failure to consider the demands, authority, etc., of others) is one vice, and unthinking or excessive deference to others (failure to use one’s own independent rational powers) is the other vice. I’m not fully convinced that there is such a virtue, but it’s at least a much more plausible candidate than obedience.

Virtue as Excellence

It is this piece which gets lost most often in modern discussions of virtue. Aristotle observes that while virtue is a mean, it is not thereby any kind of mediocrity; rather, by finding and enacting the mean, we (paradoxically) come to realize the supreme excellence in the domain covered by that virtue. This is root meaning of the Greek term for virtue, aretē. Thus the person who can always strike the mean between cowardice and the reckless disregard of danger is supremely excellent with regard to courage. And likewise for all the other virtues.

Just as it does not seem to be a genuine mean, obedience also does not seem to be a genuine excellence in this way. Obedience seems to involve a cutting-off of the individual’s will, which is exactly counter to the excellence of a human being qua human being. This has several parts.

As a human being, I possess the powers of choice and of judgement, in a way that is central to, and even constitutive of, my rationality, and also constitutive of my humanity (insofar as the human being is defined as a rational animal). I cannot surrender that power of judgement in any way that leads to greater excellence qua human being; that is, in any way that makes me more fully and excellently human.

Furthermore, if the one being obeyed is not perfect (for example, any and every human being), then their commands and directives will at least sometimes be inappropriate or wrong, and so my good judgement will require me not to obey.

Even in the case of the Gods, it is not the obeying as such that, as philosophers, we should blindly or mindlessly encourage. Rather, the virtue seems to consist in becoming like them: willing what they will, not (simply) because they will it, but rather, because I appreciate the same genuine good that they do, and pursue that good together with them, in imitation of them. I come to align my will with the Gods not simply in regard to the end that is willed, but also (insofar as possible for a human being) in the process by which that end is determined. Here, obedience can be a help, pointing as a source of guidance and correction, but it will not be a virtue sui generis, and certainly not in the way that it is talked about in so many contemporary (especially fundamentalist) circles today.

Piety and the Gods

As always, though, that little caveat of being like the Gods insofar as possible for a human being is doing a lot of heavy lifting. What does it mean, in this case, to translate the “willings” of the Gods into human terms? This question will require quite a lot more work in its own right. But one place we might start looking for answers or inspiration is in understanding exactly what it is that the poets show us, when they present the (apparent) conflicts between different divine wills—all of which are ultimately generative, even constitutive, in a harmonious way, of the entire cosmos.

Here, I will not try to recapitulate Edward P. Butler’s illuminating essay on the Euthyphro, nor Proclus’ inspired reflections on the nature and status of poetry. But I will offer some simple reflections on piety as a virtue, and perhaps as a mean, as another starting point for discussion.

If piety is the human virtue that pertains to the sphere of our religious and devotional lives, and the most important part of our religions is the relationship to specific, individual divine persons, then it seems that to a first approximation, the virtue of piety should be something like a dynamic relationship with the Gods, as a mean between getting lost in myself and the mundane world on the one hand, and total self-abandonment on the other. And yes, with some care, I think this leaves an appropriate space for that special and wonderful sort of fulfillment in the Gods that characterizes the religious mystic. Piety will transform and transfigure me, but it will not annihilate me. If it makes me more like the Gods qua Gods, and the Gods (to the extent that we can characterize them as a “class” at all) are unique, individual persons, then becoming like the Gods through piety and devotion will involve becoming more fully a unique, individual person myself.

Precisely because this is about the relationships of persons, it will necessarily be unique, personal, in every case. Yet note what it does suggest in general terms: both parties (the Gods and myself) must have their personhood respected, and precisely in doing this, we both come to be more fully and completely “alive” and present here and now, in this place and time in the world. I become like the God, I am filled with her or him, I live and act in an elevated, divinized way. Meanwhile, the God’s power and providence flow into the world through me—as of course they also flow into the world through other elements in different times and places: through other humans, and other living and non-living beings. I can situate myself more or less “fully” in this chain of procession, even while never being totally apart from the Gods, since nothing that participates in being can ever exist totally apart from them.

And so, it is not (blind, unthinking) obedience as such that is at the core of the virtue of piety, but rather, assimilation, becoming like the Gods insofar as possible, which runs so very much deeper.

The Ladder of Virtue

In Platonic philosophy, as expounded by all the Neoplatonic commentators, the same set of core human virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance—is repeatedly instantiated at each level in the ascent of the soul. We thus distinguish the inborn, physical virtues; the ethical virtues (in the strict sense of that term) which, while they can be given philosophical justification, are in practice inculcated by habit, typically in our early years of life; the political virtues, based in the exercise of deliberative reason, which arrange both our inner constitution and the constitutions of political communities in the modern sense; and onward to purificatory virtues, contemplative virtues, and beyond.

One wrinkle that I have not considered in the foregoing, is whether obedience might be an expression of the virtue of piety at the level of ethical virtue alone; that is, as the version of the virtue of piety which is purely habituated, but in which reflective rational awareness plays no constitutive role for the person exercising the virtue. Yet this still leaves the door open for (a) a rational understanding that goes deeper than mere habituation on the part of the teachers of piety as a habitual virtue, and (b) the move to the higher levels of virtue, in which a deeper piety will entail a deeper kind of assimilation to the Gods, as described in the previous section, which goes well beyond mere obedience.

More generally, though, if it has any relation to virtue whatsoever, I am inclined to see obedience (toward both Gods and humans) as playing at most an instrumental role in developing the actual virtues, and to play that role exclusively at the ethical/habitual level.

Afterthoughts

If I’m right, that obedience as such is not a general human virtue, why does it so often get taken for one? While I’m sure there are more factors than just these, two things come to mind.

A Stifling History

First, certain historically dominant or influential groups in our society—political, religious, and otherwise—have assumed both of the following premises (where the second is typically derived from the first):

  1. There is, and can be, only one right answer to any of the most important questions of life orientation and behavior.
  2. It is absolutely essential that everyone get that answer right, regardless of how or why they end up there.

So, from (2), we have an emphasis on outcome, understood very narrowly, over the process of self-cultivation. And from (1), we have a stiflingly narrow account of what the acceptable outcome can be. Given the truth of those two premises, obedience as something good in and of itself might make a kind of sense.

I, however, reject both premises.

The Virtues of Narrow Domains

Second, those who claim obedience to be a virtue may be confusing the virtues or requirements of specific activities, occupations, or endeavors with human virtue in general.

I remain open to the possibility that there might be some such narrow domains—perhaps for being a good soldier—in which obedience is necessary in and of itself, and may even be one of the virtues of (the practitioner of) that discipline. At the very least, I haven’t thought enough about the particular case, nor spend enough time exploring the idea with actual soldiers, who unlike myself have the actual life experience relevant to fully understanding the issue. But the possibility is there.

More generally, this is a version of another problem which goes back at least to Aristotle, who notes that we can distinguish between “good” in an absolute sense and “good” in more narrow, relative senses. By way of example, we could give an account of what a good assassin or hit-man is, which might combine careful and meticulous planning, expert marksmanship, and a willingness to snuff out any human life for the right price, in such a way that the hit-man passed his or her entire murderous career undetected and free from arrest or punishment. But it should be apparent that being a good hit-man is not the same as (nor is it even constitutive of) being a good human being, qua human being. In fact, being a good assassin entails not being a good human being. Other cases need not go so far: mastery of melody and rhythm are (partially) constitutive of being a good musician, while they are neither required for, nor opposed to, human goodness in general.

It seems to me that, at best, obedience may be involved in some such goodness that is more narrow than the human good as such. But that’s a question for another day.

5 thoughts on “Is Obedience a Virtue?

  1. I would generally agree. From a Platonic perspective, if one perceives something to be true, then one acts in accord with it. Enkrateia, the self-control to act in accord with what one knows to be true, has a sort of liminal status as a virtue; it is this which would in some sense occupy the space of “obedience”, which is never spoken of as a virtue in itself to my recollection. Clearly, acting in obedience to what is false cannot be a virtue; but perhaps we may say that it is a form of practical virtue to act in accord with that of the truth of which we are uncertain, where we judge that the results of such action are beneficial.

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  2. Since obedience wouldn’t be the virtue at play here, to pull on your last paragraph in the “Virtue as Mean” section where you discussed the appropriate judgment aspect, I wonder if the actual virtue would be something related to etiquette. When people are asked to be obedient, they’re frequently being asked to observe power dynamics (which, as you pointed out, can be a problem in some cases) and to behave according to some pre-established social norm.

    The actual virtue would be something between having a total disregard for such important things and to be too rigid about them, where the former leads to a chaotic life and a sea of burned bridges and the latter leads to a life that is like being a conscious marionette. The midpoint would be more situationally adaptive, and “what is most appropriate for this relationship or for me to do in this role?” would be the key question at play — and to extend to the Gods, this covers those cases when we make offerings because it’s appropriate to acknowledge a specific God, not necessarily because we feel an overflowing of divine connection to lim in the moment. (I don’t mean to make this sound unfeeling; the real-world instances would be much more dynamic.) And in the last section about the Platonic virtue ladder, etiquette is something that seems like it would most often surface at the ethical and political levels, but it could likely be expanded out? Perhaps this could get to your bit about piety extending into other levels.

    I don’t know if this is useful or not; the connection to etiquette solidified in my mind by the time I’d read to the end of the first section, so perhaps I’m reading a bit skewed regarding what you wrote later on. 😅🙇‍♀️

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    1. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections, which give me a lot to consider.

      As to etiquette: On the one hand, I suspect we’re going to run into a version of the same situation that we find with obedience. That is, instead of being the virtue itself, it may be the kind of thing which is frequently (though not, in the philosopher’s sense, necessarily) indicative of some other excellence or right action beyond itself. This concern might be one way of unpacking your observation that “it would more often surface at the ethical and political levels.” If that were the case, then just like with obedience, it would be relatively unlikely that would we find it at higher levels in any familiar way.

      Then, though, I’m wondering if hospitality might be sufficiently general to capture what you’re after here, while being more conducive to elaboration at higher levels. I fully acknowledge that this might be an ultimately trivial quibble about vocabulary.

      But, I can see hospitality being straightforwardly elaborated as a mean, along the lines of the (overly simplified) account of justice I gave in the post: a balance beween care for myself (expectations that my guest behave and treat my household with decency and respect, etc.) and care for my guests, human or divine. Whereas any particular set of etiquette norms will eventually become an impediment rather than a help toward expressing justice, hospitality, moderation, piety, and the like, I think that an account of hospitality that’s as abstract as the one I’ve sketched here can always be applied in a way that is virtuous.

      And if something like this distinction between hospitality and etiquette is correct, then it may be a useful tool for modern polytheist communities, to help with distinguishing between reconstruction for reconstruction’s sake (blindly repeating old cultural norms, whether or not they’re appropriate to our present, living relationships with the Holy Powers—that is, the cognate of etiquette) and the living, dynamic practice of navigating relationships with the Gods.

      But perhaps I’m being unfair to the notion of etiquette as you have it in mind, in which case I’d be delighted to hear more!

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      1. I think the virtue I am thinking of may be similar to pietas (or identical to it) — etiquette certainly captures some parts of pietas. Pietas is applicable within cultus and in everyday life, so it would address different virtue levels.

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