On Obedience And Disobedience

We spend most of lives in obedience to one form of authority or another.  Rarely, if ever, is it counted as a virtue worthy of discussion by us moderns.  On the contrary:  we are expected to applaud disobedience, disorder, and challenges to authority, as if such disobedience were automatically exempt from scrutiny.

Now I understand that periodic revolt is a healthy thing that wards off a society’s arterial sclerosis; every system needs a jolt now and then, an application of a powerful electric current to the chest cavity.  So let the body convulse from the current, to some extent:  only let this remedy be infrequent.  It is a mistake to think that we are always competent to know when to revolt, and when not to.  It is not popular to say so, but it seems to me that submission to lawful authority and obedience have, over time, proven to be more beneficial than upheavals and revolts.  Nothing can be accomplished without obedience and discipline:  no project can be pursued, no plans can be implemented, and no benefit can be realized.  History has very little good to say about chaos and disorder, for they usually destroy far more than they create.  It is as the poet Lucan (VII.292) says:

Videor fluvios spectare cruroris

Calcatosque simul reges sparsumque senatus

Corpus et immensa populos in caede natantes.

Which means:

I appear to see rivers of gore,

Kings trampled at the same time,

Broken bodies of senators,

And numberless peoples

Swimming in death.

There are some who will say here, “Well, any idiot can follow orders!”  Yet when we consider this statement, we will find it to be less true than we think.  No, not every idiot can follow orders.  If you do not believe me, try occupying a leadership position for any length of time.  If you do this, you will quickly realize that obedience is most definitely a rare virtue in today’s world, a virtue that has received little attention from the philosophers.  We can understand the reason for this.  Obedience is not glamorous; it is more passive than active, and every man likes to think of himself as active.  Perhaps we moderns are too quick to see the virtues of disobedience and revolt, and too slow to appreciate the historical and social merits of obedience.

Obedience was perhaps more valued among the ancients.  They never suffered from our modern, individualistic delusions about questioning authority.  Projects required labor, and labor demanded conscription and the levying of vast numbers of men; conquests required armies, and the lifeblood of armies was instant obedience.  Readers may recall the prologue to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  The general (Sun Tzu himself) arms a retinue of the king’s concubines with halberds, explains to them how to face right, left, and center, and then begins to drill them with the proper commands.  At the first command, they burst into laughter, unable to contain themselves.  With patience, he explains the commands again, noting that “it is the commander’s fault if the commands are not properly understood.”  At the second volley of commands, the concubines again burst into giggles, refusing to take the matter seriously.  The general notes, “It is the commander’s fault if commands are not properly explained; but if they have been made clear, then it is the fault of the subordinates if they are not carried out.”  And with this, he ordered some of the subordinates to be decapitated.  The horrified king, watching all of this from the reviewing stand, attempts to stop the executions from being carried out, reminding Sun Tzu how pleasing the women are to him.  Sun Tzu respond with “When the general is in the field commanding troops, he may use his own judgment in disciplining his men, and need not listen to the sovereign.”  The decapitations were carried out.

Obedience was a prized virtue before the modern era.  We find evidence of this everywhere.  I was reading recently of the mutiny aboard the US brig-of-war Somers, which took place in November 1842.  While the ship was at sea, Philip Spencer, the mutiny’s ringleader, induced several members of the crew to attack the ship’s captain and officers, and take control of the vessel; his plan was to sail to the Isle of Pines and begin a career as an outlaw.  Spencer wrote out the details of his plan in writing, but his scheme was betrayed to one of the officers, who quickly informed the captain, whose name was Mackenzie.  Under brisk questioning, Spencer took the position that his plan was meant to be a joke, and was never seriously contemplated.  Mackenzie did not believe him, and had Spencer and his associates put in irons.  After a brief hearing aboard ship, the accused were all hanged; it was an unprecedented action, the first and only time that the death penalty was applied on a US naval vessel for the inchoate crime of conspiracy to commit murder, rather than for actually committing murder and mutiny.  When the Somers eventually returned home, a formal investigation was carried out by the navy.  Mackenzie himself asked for a court-martial to be held as a way of clearing his name; the trial took forty days and resulted in the captain’s complete exoneration.  The Somers incident is recognized as the first incident of conspiracy to commit naval mutiny in American history.

Herodotus (III.36) relates an illustrative anecdote about the Persian king Cambyses.  The Lydian king Croesus once displeased Cambyses, who then ordered that he be put to death.  Yet the king’s palace servants, familiar with the kind of angry outbursts that often came from Cambyses, instead kept Croesus hidden in their chambers; the servants reasoned that, once Cambyses’s foul mood swing had passed, he would want to rescind his execution order.  And when this hopefully happened, the servants imagined they could reveal Croesus’s presence, and secure for themselves some reward for having saved Croesus’s life.  If Cambyses did not change his mind, they reasoned, then they could always quietly have Croesus killed at any time.  It soon happened that the king did regret his order, and wished Croesus was back; when the servants learned this, they produced the Lydian, expecting that Cambyses would reward them handsomely.

This turned out to be a miscalculation.  The Persian king certainly was delighted to see Croesus again, and thanked the servants for saving him; but he was at the same time angry that his orders had been disobeyed, and so ordered all the servants involved to be executed.  This command was speedily carried out.  I will not here cite the example of the Roman consul Titus Manlius Torquatus, who, according to legend, had his own son executed for not following orders on the battlefield; if this event did in fact happen—which I am inclined to doubt—it clearly goes too far, and is evidence more of despicable cruelty than good leadership.


Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: