Lecture XVI

◄Lecture XV - Lecture XVII►

Must one obey one's parents under all circumstances?

A certain young man who wished to study philosophy, but was forbidden by his father to do so, put this question to him "Tell me, Musonius, must one obey one's parents in all things, or are there some circumstances under which one need not heed them?"[1] And Musonius replied, "That everyone should obey his mother and father seems a good thing, and I certainly recommend it. However, let us see what this matter of obedience is, or rather, first, what is the nature of disobedience, and let us consider who the disobedient person is, if in this way we may better understand what the nature of obedience is.

Now then, take this case. If a father who is not a physician and not experienced in matters of health or sickness should prescribe for his invalid son something which was harmful and injurious, and the son was aware of that fact, surely in not following his father's prescription he is not disobeying and is not disobedient, is he? It would not seem so. Or again, suppose the father himself were ill and should demand wine and food which he ought not to have, and which probably would aggravate his illness if he took it, and his son, realizing this, would not give it to him, surely he is not disobeying his father, is he? Certainly one cannot think so. And yet I fancy one would consider far less disobedient than in this case, the man who, having a money-loving father, is ordered by him to steal or make away with money entrusted to him, but does not carry out the order. Or do you think that there are no fathers who give such orders to their children? Well, I know a father so depraved that, having a son conspicuous for youthful beauty, he sold him into a life of shame. If, now, that lad who was sold and sent into such a life by his father had refused and would not go, should we say that he was disobedient or that he was showing purity of character? Surely even to ask the question is scarcely necessary. To be sure, disobedience and the disobedient person are terms of reproach and shame, but refusing to do what one ought not to do merits praise rather than blame. Therefore whether one's father or the archon or even the tyrant orders something wrong or unjust or shameful, and one does not carry out the order, he is in no way disobeying, inasmuch as he does no wrong nor fails of doing right. He only disobeys who disregards and refuses to carry out good and honorable and useful orders. Such is the disobedient man.

But the obedient person behaves in just the opposite way and is completely different from him; he would be the kind of man who listens to anyone who counsels what is fitting and follows it voluntarily. That is the obedient man. Thus in relation to his parents also, one is obedient when he does voluntarily whatever they counsel that is good and fitting. For my part, moreover, I should say that anyone who did what was right and expedient, even when his parents did not counsel it, was obeying his parents, and in support of my reasoning, consider this. In my opinion the man who does what his father desires and follows his father's wishes is obeying his father; and he who does what he ought and pursues the better course is following the wish of his father. How is that? Because surely all parents have the interests of their children at heart, and because of that interest they wish them to do what is right and advantageous. Consequently one who does what is right and useful is doing what his parents wish and so is obedient to his parents in doing it, even if his parents do not order him in so many words to do these things. This one thing only and nothing else should he take into consideration who wishes to obey his parents in each act—whether what he plans to do is good and advantageous. Thus if such a conviction be entertained, whatever a man's action may be, it is the act of one obedient to his parents.

And so you, my young friend, do not fear that you will disobey your father, if when your father bids you do something which is not right, you refrain from doing it, or when he forbids you to do something which is right you do not refrain from doing it. Do not let your father be an excuse to you for wrong-doing whether he bids you do something which is not right or forbids you to do what is right. For there is no necessity for you to comply with evil injunctions, and you yourself seem not unaware of this. You would certainly not submit to your father in musical matters if, with no knowledge of music, he should order you to play the lyre incorrectly, or if he knew nothing of grammar and you did, he should order you to write and read, not as you had learned but otherwise; and if, finally, with no knowledge of how to steer a ship, he should order you who did understand to handle the helm in the wrong way, you would not heed him. Well, then, enough of that.

Now if your father, knowing nothing about the subject, should forbid you who had learned and comprehended what philosophy is to study philosophy, would you be bound to heed him, or would you not rather be obligated to teach him better, since he is giving bad advice? That seems to me to be the answer. Perhaps by using reason alone one might persuade his father to adopt the attitude he ought in regard to philosophy if the father's disposition is not too obstinate. If, however, he should not be persuaded by argument and would not yield, yet even then the conduct of his son will win him over if his son is truly putting his philosophy into practice. For, as a student of philosophy he will certainly be most eager to treat his father with the greatest possible consideration and will be most well-behaved and gentle; in his relations with his father he will never be contentious or self-willed, nor hasty or prone to anger; furthermore he will control his tongue and his appetite whether for food or for sexual temptations, and he will stand fast in the face of danger and hardships; and finally with competence in recognizing the true good, he will not let the apparent good pass without examination. As a result he will willingly give up all pleasures for his father's sake, and for him he will accept all manner of hardships willingly. To have such a son who would not offer prayers to the gods? Who, having one, would not love him because of whom he had become an envied and most blessed father in the eyes of all men of sound judgment?

If, then, my young friend, with a view to becoming such a man, as you surely will if you truly master the lessons of philosophy, you should not be able to induce your father to permit you to do as you wish, nor succeed in persuading him, reason thus: your father forbids you to study philosophy, but the common father of all men and gods, Zeus, bids you and exhorts you to do so. His command and law is that man be just and honest, beneficent, temperate, high-minded, superior to pain, superior to pleasure, free of all envy and all malice; to put it briefly, the law of Zeus bids man be good. But being good is the same as being a philosopher. If you obey your father, you will follow the will of a man; if you choose the philosopher's life, the will of God.[2] It is plain, therefore, that your duty lies in the pursuit of philosophy rather than not. But, you say, your father will restrain you and actually shut you up to prevent your study of philosophy. Perhaps he will do so, but he will not prevent you from studying philosophy unless you are willing; for we do not study philosophy with our hands or feet or any other part of the body, but with the soul and with a very small part of it, that which we may call the reason. This God placed in the strongest place so that it might be inaccessible to sight and touch, free from all compulsion and in its own power. Particularly if your mind is good your father will not be able to prevent you from using it nor from thinking what you ought nor from liking the good and not liking the base; nor again-from choosing the one and rejecting the other. In the very act of doing this, you would be studying philosophy, and you would not need to wrap yourself up in a worn cloak nor go without a chiton nor grow long hair nor deviate from the ordinary practices of the average man. To be sure, such things are well enough for professional philosophers, but philosophy does not consist in them, but rather in thinking out what is man's duty and meditating upon it."[3]

◄Lecture XV - Lecture XVII►

1 Aulus Gellius (Noct. Att. II, 7) tells us that this was a favorite topic for discussion by the philosophers.

2 Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae II, 189, 6) treats similarly the problem of the boy who wishes to enter the religious life in opposition to his father's will.

3 12-16 Seneca (Ep. V, 1-6) warns his pupil Lucilius against attaching any importance to the conspicuous dress and mannerisms of the group of men who sought to gain attention as philosophers.