Freedom Through Obedience: Did Abraham do the right thing?
In any individualistic culture, obedience is disparaged. It immediately summons up images of SS soldiers and suicide bombers — and rightly so. Blind obedience is dangerous. But it is more than caution that characterizes the individualist’s hostile response to obedience. There is also something insulting about it. To curtail my freedom, in order to exercise the will of another… unthinkable.
But what if freedom depended on obedience? What if what you thought was your freedom was really just a bunch of meaningless options? What should I wear? What should I eat? What career? Etc.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han is correct when he says that the ‘freedom of Can generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should’, because ‘Should’ has a limit while ‘Can’ has none: ‘Thus, the compulsion entailed by Can is unlimited. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation’.
The paradox of freedom ‘bringing forth compulsion and constraint’, hints at the opposite possibility. Can you achieve freedom through obedience?
According to the controversial philosopher and esotericist Julius Evola, there is a fascinating precedent in the ‘world of Tradition’:
In Islam, long before nihilism, the initiatic Order of the Ismaelis [the Order of Assassins] used the very phrase “Nothing exists, everything is permitted.” But it applied in this order exclusively to the upper grades of the hierarchy. Before attaining these grades and having the right to adopt this truth for oneself, one had to pass four preliminary grades that involved, among other things, a rule of unconditional, blind obedience, taken to limits that are almost inconceivable for the Western mentality. For example, at a word from the Grand Master one had to be prepared to throw one’s life away without any reason or purpose (Evola)
For those at the top of the hierarchy, ‘everything is permitted’. (I came across a similar concept in a Netflix documentary about a mysterious Christian group known as ‘The Family’). But what Evola is talking about is not oligarchic privilege. It is not through nepotism or allegiance that you gain this freedom. It is through initiation. But more importantly, it is not permission that you earn, but a change of state:
The state in question is that of the man who is self-confident through having as the essential center of his personality not life, but Being. He can encounter everything, abandon himself to everything, and open himself to everything without losing himself. He accepts every experience, no longer in order to prove and know himself, but to unfold all his possibilities in view of the transformations that they can work in him, and of the new contents that offer and reveal themselves on this path (Evola)
When you are no longer bound to life through the instinct for self-preservation, when you abandon life and embrace Being, that is when you are free.
Søren Kierkegaard discusses a similar state in his book on Abraham’s (quasi) sacrifice of Isaac.
As the story goes, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, but just as he was about to slit Isaac’s throat, God substitutes him for a ram. For obvious reasons, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son has been subject to much scrutiny. Some praise him for his incomparable faith, others denounce him for his insanity.
In Kierkegaard’s discussion of Abraham, he asks ‘is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?’; meaning, can you do a bad thing for a greater good? If we are to judge by his praise of Abraham, the answer is yes:
There was one who was great in his strength, and one who was great in his wisdom, and one who was great in hope, and one who was great in love; but greater than all was Abraham, great with that power whose strength is powerlessness, great in that wisdom whose secret is folly, great in that hope whose outward form is insanity, great in that love which is hatred of self (Kierkegaard)
It is through extreme obedience to God that Abraham achieved this ‘greatness’. Through the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ he went ‘beyond good and evil’, into a state Kierkegaard calls ‘infinite resignation’ — a state very similar to that described by Evola:
In infinite resignation there is peace and repose; anyone who wants it, who has not debased himself by–what is still worse than being too proud–belittling himself, can discipline himself into making this movement, which in its pain reconciles one to existence […] I can see then that it requires strength and energy and freedom of spirit to make the infinite movement of resignation; I can also see that it can be done (Kierkegaard)
In the context of this state, the question ‘did Abraham do the right thing?’ becomes meaningless. Abraham ‘believed [in] the strength of the absurd’, thus, ‘all human calculation had long since been suspended’. His faith meant there was no choice. His faith made him free.
“Nothing exists, everything is permitted.”