Obey the Tyrant? Only if You Hate Him! (Summer in the Republic 28!)

Obey the Tyrant? Only if You Hate Him! (Summer in the Republic 28!) July 3, 2018

We should be kind and the kind man does not shout at the people he loves.


The other night we turned into the wrong lane and one family member, very kindly, shouted to the driver to get into the other lane quickly. Something generally wrong, shouting at the beloved, turned out to be very right in a particular circumstance. Shouting was the greater kindness in this odd circumstance and to refuse to shout out of a desire to be “kind” would have been cruel, yes, even to death! Some actions are always wrong: you can never morally burn down a circus for fun. Other deeds are more often good than they are bad: you generally should not yell, except when you must.

Paul in Romans 13 says: All of you must yield to the government rulers.

This allows us to live in peace. We should do this generally. Theologians have pointed out that this is general moral advice, not exceptionless eternal moral precepts. They are right, I assume, but as a philosopher there is another reason to think that Paul’s generally wise advise cannot always be followed.

If you obey the ruler as ruler, then sometimes you will be disobeying the ruler. What? Is that just tricksy?

No. Follow an argument Socrates makes in Republic Book I. He is talking to Thrasymachus, a man who gets paid to justify the ways of the powerful to the rest of us. Thrasymachus argues that justice is whatever the powerful man does. Support the powerful! Yet Socrates finds a problem:

Tell me, do you think that it is just and right to obey men in power?


How about those in power? Are they always right, or do they sometimes make mistakes?

They will certainly make some mistakes.

Then what they ordain will come out right some of the time and some of the time not?

I suppose so.

When the rulers legislate rightly, the laws will conform to their interest. But to the extent that they miscalculate in their lawmaking, the laws will be contrary to their interest. Is that right?


The subjects must nevertheless obey all the laws enacted by the rulers? You call that justice?


Then it follows from your argument that it is just to serve the interest of the stronger but equally just not to.

What are you saying?

Socrates is right. If we should always obey our rulers, then we will sometimes obey them to their harm. The tyrant will not always act in his own interest and the tricksy subject of the tyrant will obey the mistakes of the tyrant carefully, meticulously, and even base his entire citizenship on it. The rebellious subject might even be able to destroy the tyrant by obeying the tyrant’s bad ideas with passion!

If we love the tyrant, and a Christian is commanded to love even his enemies, then we cannot ever merely obey the tyrant, because if we do, then we will harm the tyrant’s soul! If a leader legislates evil, then he is damning his immortal soul and harming his ability to rule by making errors.

You cannot do what is in the interest of the ruler, obeying him, and do whatever he says. You will have to judge what is in his best interest and what would it profit a leader to save a whole nation and lose his soul? We could not ask this of any man!

If we always obey our rulers, then we will hate our rulers when they make mistakes. Christians must love first and foremost and so our best obedience and service to a tyrant will be to disobey him.

Rebellion against mistaken authority is only hope of tyrants.


*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28.

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