Contributions to Self Clarity, Wholeness, & Health

Introducing: Foundations for a New Civilization by Will Crichton

From Chapter 13: Cultures of Obedience & Cultures of Freedom

In the evolution of human communities, as soon as communities became large enough to require organization and institutions, the functioning of those institutions required that individuals comport themselves consistently with that functioning. Otherwise, the institutions could not function, and members of the community would suffer. This led to a culture in which the principle of obedience to the requirements of the institutions was paramount. Prior to recent times, all organized societies shared this principle. Failure to adhere to it was feared as leading to social chaos and consequent violence and poverty, for it was easily perceived that there was a natural temptation to disobey. Plato, in the Republic, takes it for granted that the important question is not what is good for individual persons but what is good for the city-state.

But Plato and Aristotle are beginning to move away from the idea of an obedience culture. They reject the traditional idea that the gods are jealous of their secrets. Aristotle argues, perhaps illogically, that God could not be jealous, because the best thing we can do is to be as godlike as we can, and that entails seeking to understand things as well as we can. The author of the Adam and Eve story thought it obvious that the gods would see it as a trespass on their privileges if humans were to become godlike by eating the fruit of both the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. But Aristotle is thinking of God, not on the model of an emperor or tyrant, jealous of his power and in fear of rivals, but on the model of the ideal father and head of a family, not jealous of his children but eager to set them a good example and give them the best education.

In mediaeval Europe, a major move away from obedience culture was made with the courtly love tradition and the idea of a conflict between romantic love and arranged marriage in the interest of family connections. From then until now innumerable romances have been written on the plot of the triumph of marrying for love over marrying for family connections in obedience to family demands.

This draws attention to an interesting fact: Obedience cultures, or those with a literary component, have long contained the seeds of freedom culture in the form of poems and stories about person-to-person interactions and emotions.

In our time, the idea of an individual-centred way of life is being carried around the world by romance novels, Hollywood movies, and soap operas, and in general the symbols of Western culture. When individuals, especially women, get a taste of this idea, they like it.

But even when I was a child obedience culture was still very much alive. Elementary and high school seem in retrospect to have been largely obedience training. It is really since World War II that the individual-centred way of life, with its ideal of personal freedom, has become dominant in Western Europe and North America. (An incidental symptom of this is the decline of the holy orders in the Catholic Church.) The United Nations charter of human rights may have been signed by many nations, but I think, only half-heartedly by most of them. Their deep conviction is that rights belong to the institutions of society and duties belong to individuals. This is why, for example, the Chinese government is deaf to Western criticisms of their “abuses of human rights”. Those criticisms seem to them to have no bearing on social reality and the need to avoid disorder. Osama bin Laden and others of his persuasion are, it seems to me, engaged in a rather desperate program of preserving an obedience culture against the onslaught of the popular appeal of American culture. He has said that his program is one of revenge — “You kill us, we kill you,” but the deeper motive is that of religious reactionaries everywhere — a rearguard action in defence of obedience culture.

In defence of their view it must be said that freedom culture is more difficult than obedience culture. For freedom culture to be workable, individuals must be educated to a sense of moral responsibility not dependent on the concept of an external authority. In the absence of such an education, the defenders of obedience culture are in the right. And we see what happens in parts of the world where that sort of education is lacking when individuals acquire political power — they see it as an opportunity for wealth and self-aggrandizement. Obedience culture is not to be condemned. Rather, the conditions for the workability of a culture of freedom should be cultivated.