Monday, September 8, 2014


Over time, it has come to be the case that while I tell a significant number of people—my students and children—what to do, there are few people who tell me what to do. My Department Chair rarely tells senior faculty what to do—though he does make suggestions. The higher administration may pass policies, but rarely do they tell tenured senior faculty what to do, in the way I tell my students. My parents advise but don't command.

All this is an unfortunate state of affairs. One of the human virtues is that of obedience, a virtue particularly well suited to teaching humility and guarding from pride and arrogance. I confess to finding the exercise of authority to have a fair amount of pleasure about it, and to enjoying not having much authority exercised over me. And while there are genuine goods here, and goods are to be enjoyed, my enjoyment is nourished by and nourishes vices as well.

It is not uncommon for this to happen as one ages. As one gains seniority, the ratio of authority exercised over one to authority one exercises often shrinks. But the greatest of the vices is pride, and obedience is a genuine virtue. It is important to fight the authority imbalance.

Being a religious superior who had few people to tell him what to do, St Philip Neri talked of the value of at least having his doctor to obey. Those of us in the envied but aretaically unenviable position of commanding much more than we are commanded need to make an effort to come to be under various authorities, to seek out activities where one will be under the authority of others, however much that may grate the old Adam. Join a club or fraternal organization but don't be an officer. (Particularly valuable might be a setting where much younger people get to tell one what to do.) Get a personal trainer. Serve in one's parish while avoiding positions (official or unofficial) of authority, except when one's parish really needs one.

Perhaps such things can help develop a habit of wanting to obey rather than be obeyed, a habit that will make one's exercise of authority always be appropriately reluctant.

This has snuck up on me.

Orate pro me.


Cyrus North said...

I never thought I would say this to someone suggesting I be more obedient, but this is really insightful. Thanks for sharing it.

Heath White said...

1. I don’t think obedience per se is particularly virtuous. (I have never heard it mentioned as a virtue either. Does somebody do this?) Probably obedience *to a qualified authority* is virtuous. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking suggestion to *seek out* qualified authorities to become obedient to.

2. I agree that finding ways to serve, which are not authoritative ways, is spiritually salutary.

3. I once read a book about leadership, and it drew the conclusion that the most essential thing, to be a leader, was (wait for it!) to have followers. This seems trivial but is not, because our educational institutions are constantly training young people to be “future leaders” while nobody trains them to be followers. Yet without followers there will be no leaders. I have some thought that (a) there is a general difficulty organizing people and getting things done in non-coercive contexts these days, e.g. political movements, church organizations, other forms of civil society, and (b) this is due, not to lack of leadership, but to a lack of willingly obedient followers in the broad society.

4. The habits of mind encouraged by contemporary philosophy are not conducive to the virtue of obedience. Philosophers tend to prize independence of thought (and, therefore, action). Yet you point out that this might in certain contexts actually be a vice. One more way in which the lists of Christian and pagan virtues diverge. It would be interesting to explore that more.

Alexander R Pruss said...

No doubt it would only be obedience to a qualified authority that is virtuous.

That said, on reflection the term "virtue" may not be right. I'm reflecting on these very interesting quotes from saints. The theme there is not so much of natural virtue as of self-sacrifice. (Some of the quotes need to be cautiously interpreted.) For instance, St John of the Cross: "Obedience is a penance of reason, and, on that account, a sacrifice more acceptable than all corporal penances and mortifications."

But a sacrifice is something that isn't the exercise of a natural virtue. It is a giving up of a natural good for the sake of something higher.

The Catholic tradition talks of the three "evangelical counsels" that form the basis of religious orders: voluntary poverty, obedience and chaste celibacy. These are supererogatory but the Church has found them spiritually fruitful.

A lot of the quotes are on obedience in a religious order, and that's a much more total obedience (subject only to the qualifier that what is commanded is not wrong) than I am talking about in my post. It could be that a more moderate degree of obedience is a general virtue, while only some are called to a total kind.

Limitations on wealth and sex are a part of general human virtue, although voluntary poverty and chaste celibacy are not--they are sacrifices of human goods for the sake of the Kingdom. It's plausible that likewise limitations on autonomy are a part of general human virtue, although the kind of near-total obedience found in religious orders is not--it's a sacrifice.

Moreover, even those of us not in a religious order can benefit from partial sacrifices under the heads of the three counsels, especially in a way fitted to correct our particular vices, when this can be done without harm to self or others. Giving up wealth over and beyond what we owe to the needy. Giving up marital relations for a time (Paul talks of this; think of how the Eastern Church has traditionally required abstinence in Lent). Putting oneself under obedience.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Interesting post, thanks. I also agree with Health´s first point, especially first sentence. Why exactly is obedience a virtue? The only thought that comes to my mind is that obedience in somehow special way reminds us of our being ab alio, because we naturally tend to be "as much a se as possible". But this leads me to very difficult and gnawing question: where stems this desire for one´s own aseity? I think that if such a desire wouldn´t be somehow natural, Adam would never fall, so such a desire is not a result of original sin. The result of original sin could at most be only its character or quantity ...

Gorod said...

The most obvious and enriching way of putting oneself under obedience is having spiritual direction. That way you get periodic advice that you can choose to obey.

Many of the saints in the quotes you linked received, gave and recommended this practice.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That assumes that one can find a good spiritual director, though.

TP said...

Alex, I offer you, in addition to my prayers, my services as an authority under which you may abide.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Why, thank you. :-)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


There is this thing called servant leadership. It is described here in the Gospel of Mark:

"42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

In the Gospel of John Chapter 13, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This was considered a servant's job, not a master's job.

We must place ourselves under obedience to Jesus. If we love Him, then we are obey His commandments.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

It is kind of hard to find a spiritual director period these days. Especially in my area. Everyone who does spiritual direction has told me that they cannot take on another person.

One way to be obedient that hasn't been mentioned by anyone is submitting to the "Honeydew List". :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's good advice!