So, I recently finished reading my birthday present (given to me by my family before I left for Rome, so I’ve had it for a few weeks). It was the Book of the New Sun, the epic sci-fi/fantasy tetralogy by Gene Wolfe (the four parts, which are not at all stand-alone, being the Shadow of the Torturer, the Claw of the Conciliator, the Sword of the Lictor, and the Citadel of the Autarch).
Now, the Book is amazing. I’m not even going to try to give a detailed review of it because I could not possibly do it justice. I really need to re-read it to try to understand it better, because it is just so dense.
I just want to talk about one small part of it – the nature of the Order of Seekers for Truth and Penitence, better known as the guild of torturers.
The guild’s pride is in the fact that, in a society where everyone is trying to get the upper hand and no one in the Commonwealth is really working for the common good, the guild members are the only ones who can really say “we obey”. They do not question their orders – they do what those who have lawful authority over them say to do, no matter what. It is not their place to decide whether the ‘client’ (their term for victim) is guilty or innocent, and decide whether or not to administer the punishment; that is the judge’s place. They simply carry out the sentence.
There is a certain power behind that philosophy. If you are going to claim to have a legitimate government with legitimate authority, you can’t have servants of that government taking the law into their own hands whenever they think the government has made a mistake. You can’t have prison guards deciding not to guard the people they think aren’t guilty, without having those people actually acquitted in a court of law. It would be chaos. It seems like every government needs this sort of stable foundation – and that’s what the torturers say they provide, the foundation for the government of the Commonwealth.
But that is also a philosophy that excuses, for example, the soldiers who worked in the Nazi death camps. I don’t think we want to do that. We want to say that when the government is evil the people should resist it. But we also want to say that people can’t take the law into their own hands whenever it suits them.
So what are we to do? These seem to be incompatible…
The only solution I can think of, and it is not altogether satisfying, is that one ought to be able to say, “We Obey”, and mean it, or one ought to be against the government, totally and without reservation. If you are a governmental servant and you cannot say “We Obey”, you are not really a servant of the government at all. You are fighting against it, subverting it. If you believe the government is evil, fine, fight against it, and do not say “We Obey”. But I don’t think you can say, “the government is for the most part good, but I don’t like ____, so I’m going to go against them on that”. That position does not seem internally consistent.
But that is what all of us do all the time. Almost no one can actually say “We Obey”, but almost no one actually wants to overthrow the government either…