Culpable & Laudable Disobedience

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND The Wanderer September 7, 2017

My Dear Friend:

Once again I am going to question your knowledge of ancient Greece. I assume that you have read Antigone — this great work of Sophocles – in which the heroine chooses to contravene the will of the tyrant, Creon, who is prohibiting the burial of her dead brother.   

The argument which she defends is that the unwritten laws of the gods should be obeyed for they are immutable and exist from all eternity. Creon’s edict is not Zeus’; and Antigone’s conscience tells her that she can, therefore, override his purely human and illegitimate ordinance. She must obey the gods rather than man.

Creon is outraged and condemns her to death and, as tragedy breeds tragedy, the play ends not only with the death of the heroine, who hangs herself, but also with the deaths of her fiancé and his mother.

Both Socrates and Antigone stand for the validity of sacred unwritten laws — the natural law — which nevertheless can be known by man, provided his heart has not been darkened by his immoral life.

This leads me, once again, to the conflict between the state and the individual;  there is more than one similarity between the case of Antigone and the situation of our modern states.

A state that exercises legitimate authority and whose laws are just should be obeyed. Anarchism challenges the very authority of the state and for this reason considers that any means leading to its weakening or even of its destruction is legitimate.

Anarchism wages war on the notion of authority as such. Neither Socrates nor Antigone challenged authority; but they rightly chose to obey the dictates of a higher authority (the one of the gods) over the arbitrary dictates of a purely human authority.

The whole question hinges, therefore, on whether or not human laws are just or unjust. Socrates and Antigone would say just laws are in harmony with the unwritten laws that come from the gods. When a law is unjust and in clear violation of moral values, these laws are to be opposed by every possible legitimate means. (We say "legitimate means" because there are also illegitimate ways of doing it.)

When Hitler launched his abominable campaign against the Jewish people, and backed it up by laws that were no longer protecting their rights, it was not only legitimate to oppose these decrees, but it was also obligatory to do everything in one’s power to protect the innocent. (How many people perished in concentration camps because of their heroism?)

Alas, the United States had for a time laws permitting the treatment of the blacks as inferior; these laws were plainly unjust and, thank God, have been rescinded. But in the meantime, we have passed laws allowing the murder of unborn children; we have gone from one abomination to another, and are now as blind toward the new one as we were toward the old one. Alas, we remain blind.

The whole question is therefore: Is a decree, a law, an ordinance morally right or morally wrong? And this question makes sense only if moral good and evil are recognized to be objectively valid, and not the "product" of a particular society. Laws should protect the innocent (whether born or unborn) and punish the guilty. (Let us recall the poignant episode in Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides to help save Jim escape from slavery).

The best mothers are those who love their children so deeply that they do everything in their power to eradicate from the child’s character any trait that is evil.  Similarly, the best citizens — far from being those who slavishly follow whatever the state orders (good or evil) — are those who faithfully obey just laws, and oppose unjust laws; for any immoral law — apart from its evil character — will necessarily sap the very foundation of the state, which is justice.

By subverting moral laws, relativism and subjectivism undermine the validity of any objective norm, and will inevitably lead to the downfall of a society. Because our society has opted for these destructive philosophies, it is now bogged down in dreadful disorders, one of them being the confusion between legitimate opposition to the state, and illegitimate opposition to it, the latter being condoned in the name of "freedom."

There are many people who find that anarchists and revolutionaries have a right to express their views, even though some of them resort to violence, and these very same people — in defiance of any logic — will condemn any overt opposition to immoral laws, even though they be conducted in peaceful demonstrations. How many innocent people go today to jail for protesting against abortion, and how many criminals go scot-free!

In fact, there are two types of people who go to jail: hard-boiled criminals and heroes. Let us not forget that Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Maximilian Kolbe — just to name a few — were imprisoned for opposition to diabolical political systems.

The cases of Socrates and Antigone being similar, I need not go into more details. What stands out is that those who revolt against the state are often at antipodes.  This is because their reasons for doing so are as disparate as anything can be: defense of truth as opposed to the defense of error, defense of justice as opposed to defense of injustice.