As above, so below

I’ve been thinking lately about codes. Not cryptography, but rather the codes by which we govern our lives.

At the societal level, the two critical poles come down to trust or control (or liberty or authority).

At the individual level, this becomes a choice to be governed by duty or by authority. Similar to how we can aim to maximise for freedom from responsibility, the Rousseau-style juvenile “liberty” of a child who has no responsibilities or legal consequences for their choices, but has to submit to rules (and limited choices) in exchange; or freedom to take on responsibility, the freedom of the adult who must suffer the consequences of his choices, but whom is allowed to make (and live with) those choices for himself.

Our lives, as such, can be governed primarily by duty, which originates within ourselves and our own chosen value code (bottom up), or by outside authority (top down).

From the outside, individuals and households who are governed by authority and rules on the one hand, and duty and values on the other may look the same. Close up, the rule-bound highly religious family in the Poisonwood Bible draws a strong contrast with the happy voluntary recluse monks depicted in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; even though, from a distance, given today’s binary thinking, both groups would be caricatured as “religious conservatives”. The behaviour is the same, but the reasons for that behaviour differ dramatically – for one group, the action is enforced, for the other it is innate. (Of course, a strong code of duty may result in stronger self imposed bonds and restrictions than those imposed by an outside authority over submissive subjects.) However, the inner workings are very different, even if only revealed when the authority in question departs dramatically from basic human values.

Most people live governed by submission external rules rather than by personal responsibility to internal values. This point is made only too clear in reading about the second world war, where the the (rare) value-governed families like the ill-fated innocent Scholls were the exception that proved the rule.

For someone governed by rules, rather than values, an instruction or an action is validated by the authority figure and responsibility for the outcomes to those decisions are delegated to the authority (a very attractive proposition). The fact that an authority figure has authority (in the church, the state, the office) validates his point. Right or wrong is made right or wrong by who is deciding it. Authority derives from position, rather than from the person. (The second half of Leviathan, which Hobbes spends rather frantically trying to justify that by the very act of holding power, the power holder is justified to hold power and is therefore worthy of submission is an excellent example of this desire to have someone to defer to, someone to be responsible to, rather than for.)

For someone governed by duty, or from the inside out, there is no leader to defer to to validate right and wrong; they have no one to blame for the consequences of their actions. Authority is derived from the person’s personal code (be it religious, based on natural laws, or personal struggle), by which any authority figure is checked. Any authority that violates that code loses authority over this subject – authority is derived from validating and upholding this code, and is, as such separate from position and subject to the code, rather than the other way around.

Watching generations raised to respect and submit to authority come face to face with the fallibility of the flesh and blood office-bearers makes me think we may have let them down by not letting them fall down and find their own ways.

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