Disobeying the Letter
— It has often seemed to me the Letter. that, among the virtues, obedience does not come in for so large a share of commendation as the others. However, it is naturally a virtue in high requisition by one class of persons, who yet from their very position are spared giving it the premium it merits at their hands. I speak of those whom we characterize as “in authority.” The autocrat demands obedience, but does not necessarily on that account praise it. When he does so condescend, he praises only one species, namely, implicit obedience, that which gives him no trouble.
Now, I am no autocrat, and it has always struck me that the sort of obedience which we may call “ inborn,” and which is immediate and unreasoning, is less admirable in its quality, less to be commended, and even less to be relied on, than is another order of obedience. I, at least, more value the finally resolved upon obedience of a nature originally tentative for itself and unled. Having experimentally made the circuit of all the dangers that befall where allegiance is neither owed nor paid, such a nature is in its acquiescence more perfect, more scrupulous, more passionately for compliance, than the child and the inexperienced person can ever be. This is not only obedience to the word of command as uttered by some fellow-being or the body of the laws, but it has the additional quality of acquiescence with some perceived principle. And even when the obedience is intelligent of the necessity for compliance, but is yet humanly unresigned, there is displayed, to my thinking, a more engaging quality than is to be found in the obedience of simple adolescence and inexperience. Job’s strenuous but pathetic declaration stands for the expression of all such cases : “ Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him ; but I will maintain mine own ways before him.”
But to waive the more serious consideration of the subject, I should much like to inquire how it is that docile intelligence (in animals as well as in men) is often seen to insist upon varying the letter of the law, even while keeping its spirit. My young dog does not like to lie down in just the place designated, but compromises satisfactorily to his dog mind by dropping down in a spot a little removed from that indicated by the master. A like constructiveness as to orders given I well remember of myself as a child. (What, about the “ inborn ” obedience of the child ?) Obeying in effect, I still found it rather pleasanter to diverge a little from the literal injunction. A further illustration : if I ask a certain friend, of great obligingness of disposition, and of as great modesty as of clear intellect, to read a passage that has interested me (handing him the book), he will not at once comply with the request, but first reads all around the passage indicated (and perhaps looks at Alpha and Omega) before returning to the special paragraph or stanza. Another individual I know, who will never — not if she can help it ! — deliver a message in the exact words in which it was originally couched. Now, is this slight willfulness, this little dislocation in obedience, which I have noted, proof of the free will of creatures ; or is it a sign that they have so little free will they must needs ever assert it, even as some petty official arrogates brief authority, or as one whose inward dignity is small must always be insisting upon its existence by outward show of gravity and ceremonial ? In case of a capricious or “contrary ” subject, most admirable is the method of the Quaker disciplinarian with his persuasive note of inquiry, “ Had n’t thee better do so ? ” for it appears that such a subject finds it comparatively easy to take suggestion and obey, whereas direct injunction would but waken opposition. Whatever the underlying reason, implicit obedience appears somehow to be opposed to explicit command. But, Surely, a mere disobeying of the letter is a venial fault. At any rate, I for one will not chastise severely those who, contrary to the method of Macbeth’s “ juggling fiends,” break the promise to the outer ear, but keep it to the heart.