Monday, February 09, 2009

Following the King's High Road

I just finished reading Charles Williams' book Many Dimensions -- he was a Christian writer, a friend of CS LEwis's and a member of the Inklings. Towards the end of the book he quotes John Braxton as saying:

Attribuat igitur Rex legi, quod Lex attribuit ei,videlicet dominationem et imperium. Non est enim Rex ubi dominatur voluntas, et non Lex.

He translates this as

"Therefore let the king attribute to the law that which the law attributes to him, namely, domination and power. For where the will rules and not the law is no king."

From what I understand, the context is British constitutional development -- this was the thought process that gave rise to the Magna Charta in England. It reminded me of Charlotte Mason who wrote much about the role of authority and how it relates to the role of parents.

During the summer I was blogging about Charlotte Mason's ideas on Habits. I planned to continue during the year, but as is typical, I got caught up in the practical details of homeschooling and couldn't keep both balls in the air at the same time. But going through Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Montessori ideas and seeing how they overlapped with some of CM's thoughts on child-raising made me get out my scuffed old copy of Home Education.

Also the Real Learning board has been hosting some discussions of habits in their various aspects: habits for kids, for teens, for the household, and for moms. It seems to me that perhaps the Ordinary Season between Christmas and Lent is a good time to think about these things. So I wanted to pick up the CM thoughts focusing mainly on her Volume 1 which focuses on children under the age of 9. This intersects nicely, it seems to me, with the Dorothy Canfield Fisher focus on children of preschool age.

Charlotte Mason talks about obedience in much more depth, and so it will probably come up again, but in the meantime, it's important to remember that we are talking about obedience in its highest sense, and that there are perils in trying to train mechanical, unreasonable obedience. Humans are not animals, not slaves, and they are not cogs in somebody else's system of order; Immanuel Kant, who got some other things wrong, got it right in saying:

"Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."

I tend to be a rebel, temperamentally and naturally, as a melancholic (and as half Scottish Celt, as well). My first question when faced by a simple command or statement is always "Why should I?" or "Why should it be so?" This can manifest as both a strength AND a weakness. That's probably why I usually get reflexively stopped in my tracks whenever I see the word "obedience". On the other hand, say the words "loyalty" and "fidelity" and my heart rings. But in some ways, they are the same concepts at their core.

When I first read what Charlotte Mason said about the nobility of obedience, it came together as it never had before. I didn't have to impose servility on myself or on my children. Mothering was not a power struggle -- me asserting my will over that of my small, beautiful children.

Obedience was loyalty to the Good, True and Beautiful -- which can never be anything but expansive and ennobling. My only problem then was convincing my rather balky reason, will and body to fall into step together alongside of that glorious banner. ... and of course, to make clear to my children the high dignity of doing so and the fact that they are fellow soldiers or adventurers or questers after Beauty and Truth; not slaves.

Obedience is a virtue only to the extent that it is free. Perhaps if you think about it in terms of Pride and Dignity and the Chivalrous Temper, it makes this clearer. I think of King David, certainly a great man, whose "delight was in the law of the Lord". He did not think it was undignified or demeaning to follow another.

I mentioned this part once before on the blog. ...When I was reading the Catholic Catechism I found that the etymology of "obey" is from "audire" meaning to hear or hearken to. Here is Proverbs 22:17, in the same vein:

Incline thy ear, and hear the words of the wise: and apply thy heart to my knowledge.

In this respect, it can be the highest of human acts. There is something intrinsic to me, in that connection between listening -- hearkening -- and "logos" -- word, or reason. You have to listen in order to hear words. And the obedience bit is where one's will comes in; will implies voluntariness, as Charlotte Mason says:

let him (the child) know what a noble thing it is to be able to make himself do, in a minute, and brightly, the very thing he would rather not do.
My task as a mother got much easier when I realized that my authority as a mother was not a matter of my superior power of intelligence or physical strength (that seemed like tyranny to me) or even my superior virtue (because I, being older, had sinned more than my children). It was my role, insofar as I represented the Good. I had to represent something bigger than myself "what is right". It is a high responsibility but we are placed in that role by virtue of being parents. We all have to grow into it to some extent, I think.

Charlotte Mason writes in Home Education (Some Moral Habits)

Children must have the Desire to Obey.––It is only in proportion as the will of the child is in the act of obedience, and he obeys because his sense of right makes him desire to obey in spite of temptations to disobedience––not of constraint, but willingly––that the habit has been formed which will, hereafter, enable the child to use the strength of his will against his inclinations when these prompt him to lawless courses.

It is said that the children of parents who are most strict in exacting obedience often turn out ill; and that orphans and other poor waifs brought up under strict discipline only wait their opportunity to break into license. Exactly so; because, in these cases, there is no gradual training of the child in the habit of obedience; no gradual enlisting of his will on the side of sweet service and a free will offering of submission to the highest law: the poor children are simply bullied into submission to the will, that is, the wilfulness, of another; not at all, 'for it is right'; only because it is convenient.
If you notice, this implies that (1) the child's growing abilities to reason and will must be directed towards doing what is right and (2) that the parents and those in authority are entrusted with using their ability to lead in the way that is best for the children themselves. You don't want a child who disobeys whenever there is no one to look.

This is what Dorothy Canfield Fisher is saying, too ( I quoted her on that before). She points out that adults (hopefully) don't refrain from stealing or hurting simply because they are afraid they will go to prison. She points out that we don't want the obedience that would make things easy for a dictator like Hitler. We want free, reasoning consent to what is right.

The parents and the children should both be doing what is right. Their roles are not oppositional; they should be aimed in the same direction. The bigger role in one sense belongs to the parents -- to show the beauty and dignity of obedience to good things and that parents, too, are subject to what is right and ought to resist what is wrong.

Obedience is dignified by its very nature IF freely chosen and directed towards the right. Our obedience is a trust; it does not give us permission to do what is wrong. Similarly, and for the very same reason, authority is a trust. Think about it this way -- as Bob Dylan said, "You gotta serve somebody..." and there is solid truth in that. The person who does everything to please himself is a slave to whatever he is striving to please ... his appetites, his personal temperament. A person who does something only because he fears what will happen if he doesn't is a servant to fear or aversion.


Susan said...

That was a fascinating article on obedience. I'd heard about that experiment before but not all the details. Quite shocking, really.

I know what you mean about requiring obedience. I much prefer my children to obey because they want to do the right thing. It's my job to teach them that. I have one son, though, who I joke should have a label saying "NO" since he's so very contrary. His favourite expression for a while was "I hate..." which continued until I told him that it was rude and threatened him with a time-out. He must get it from me, I'm similar to what you described... I'm never happy to simply obey, I need to know WHY I should obey.

I'm going to have to find some time to read Charlotte Mason's original works. Thanks for the inspiration!

Melanie B said...

Thank you for this, Willa. A very helpful reflection indeed. The virtue of obedience is one I've struggled to articulate before and I think this is the best articulation I've seen so far. "Loyalty to the Good, True and Beautiful" is so vastly different than the blind, unthinking servitude that the word conjures for most people. You've given me much to chew on.