A Question of Authority

Achilles Slays Hector

Three Religious Texts: One Common Idea

The opening of the Illiad always commands some attention. In Robert Fagles’ translation, it begins with the words "Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, who cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus moving to its end." Even translated, that kind of opening has pizzazz. Recently, I've decided to read through the work again as I don't remember much about the first time I read it. Also, it's one of those books that always seems to fall at the top of the English cannon as a mark of great literature.

Yet great literature though it is, Homer's story is intriguing for another reason. Students in ancient Greece were compelled to read this story and viewed the body of literature as a religious work. This idea becomes increasingly interesting in the religious context when you look at the opening book, which deals with the problem of authority. Agamemnon does not want to yield to the authority of a priest of Apollo who wants his daughter back and thus calls on Apollo to avenge him. When Achilles goads him into returning the priest’s daughter, Agamemnon retaliates by taking Achilles' prize, Briseis. This action then spurs Achilles wrath, propelling him to recount the injustices of Agamemnon’s actions: “Never once did you arm with the troops and go to battle or risk an ambush packed with Achaea’s picked men – you lack the courage, you can see death coming. Safer by far, you find, to foray all through camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you. King who devours his people!” (I.265-270). Although Achilles bows to Agamemnon’s order, he calls upon his mother, a goddess, to avenge his wrong by going to Zeus and making the situation harder for the Achaeans. This would then cause Agamemnon to seek Achilles' support. While this stirs into motion a long series of events, suffice it to say that not all's well ends' well for Achilles, whose name becomes associated with his heel.

According to scholars, the Iliad was taught primarily as a way to show by example the bad effects of going against authority. More than just a religious text or a work of literature, teachers wielded this as a way to make citizens obey those in authority. If Achilles landed in trouble for going against someone as crooked and unjust as Agamemnon, then the argument that one shouldn't obey authority because authority is unfair would be invalid. And as Socrates' death proved, the worst practice one could pick up back then was to question and disobey authority.

In the Bible, a similar message becomes very clear in the Pentateuch. When Aaron and Miriam question Moses' authority, Miriam becomes leprous and has to leave the camp for seven days. When Korah becomes convinced that he and a few others are being wrongfully denied the privileges of participating in the priesthood, the ground opens up and swallows him. Granted, Moses does offer a test to him to see which of the two were right, but Korah refuses. Later when the Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron again, a plague begins to start and Moses and Aaron have to stop that. Even when Moses doesn't perfectly obey God, his authority, he is denied the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.

The Other Side of Obedience

In the New Testament, Christians are also commanded to obey authority. Paul states specifically:” Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2). This idea of obeying authority as a part of a religious practice then is not unique to just one religion. Yet it is this idea of obeying authority that critics often find fault with in regard to religion. Critics state that religion is used primarily to control others. This idea appears in popular fantasy as well. In his trilogy His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman writes against this idea of obeying authority by presenting the ultimate Authority as illegitimate. Harry Potter notoriously struggles to obey authority and even rule-follower Hermione goes against authority's dictates from time to time. Bella from the Twilight saga offers yet another example of disobeying the authority of her father. But literature and religion aside, what is the best answer for obeying or not obeying authority?

This answer is not so clear cut as either body of literature would have us think. Going against an unjust boss might get you fired. Yet following a boss's instructions could mean accepting abuse, harassment and other injustices. Going against orders in a wartime situation could lead to chaos. But then, the Nazis were just obeying orders, as Milgram's experiment proved.

Arguments could be made for both following and not following authority. But let's not be too presumptuous: let's clarify exactly why authority should be followed. Ideally, authority should be followed if it is promoting the good of all. Didn't Rome collapse when authorities became more interested in benefitting from position than the good of all? Didn't Peter continue to preach Christ after being told by the Pharisees to keep quiet? If authority has become as corrupt as to issue orders that would be counterintuitive to the whole, the best action would then be to resist. Take the midwives in Exodus. When their authority gave them an order counter productive to the good of their society, they resisted. Even more surprising, the God who insists on obeying authority blessed this. And who can forget Moses, the product of parents' disobeying authority?

What then are we to do about authority? Going from the above examples of Troy, Moses and the Midwives, I would argue that to obey or disobey authority depends on the situation and who the decision affects. Achilles should have obeyed Agamemnon for the good of the community. Nazis should have disobeyed their orders for the same reason. Yet while this may sound well and good, a snag remains. Regardless of personal consequences, it is the good of all that should determine obedience or disobedience to authority. A Civil Rights worker in the sixties ought not to be concerned with being thrown in jail as they suffer for the good of all. Gandhi opposed British authority at great risk to himself for the good of all, even to the point of his death. A soldier still has to obey his commanding officer even if he risks death or dismemberment. Even Christ, if you believe in Him and his claims, suffered under authority for the good of all.

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Comments 4 comments

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Mention history, Christ, and mythology and problems with authority in the same post and you've earned a fan!


Luminous Musings profile image

Luminous Musings 6 years ago

As a child of the 60's I can say with assurance--the only way to be--to live--is to question authority!! However, the counterculture of that time did not represent what could be deemed "as the good for all" by the establishment. The "good for all" was determined by the majority and clearly the counterculture represented the minority. Jesus and Socrates were martyrs--I think you are talking about altruism as being represenative of the "good for all." The biologist, Richard Dawkins wrote a book about this: The Selfish Gene. I think you may appreciate it given your interest/background in biology. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene) I enjoyed reading this Todd. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

I think Albert Einstein answered this question best when he said something like, Never do anything against your conscience-even if the state demands it." At least that is the ideal that I try to live up to.

Sorry that L.m. thought this was mine! heheh. We don't really look alike!


Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Excellent comment, LM. It seems that too much authority continues to go unquestioned. It is interesting to see the establishment's definition of good as opposed to the peoples. A child of the sixties? I had a prof criticize youth today as not knowing how to protest like they did back then. Do you think this true?

I like that Einstein quote! It reminds me of George Orwell's quote: I'd sooner betray my country than betray my friend.

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