What’s in an oath?

In September 2015, all 17 candidates in the Republican primary purportedly signed a loyalty pledge, assuring the party of their support for the eventual Republican nominee.

With just over a week to election day, three of those 17 have yet to support Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. The names of those who reneged are Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham. With such little time left, it does not appear as if they will honor the pledge.

If, as the saying goes, a man is only as good as his word, what does this tell us about these three men? Though this question resonates well, it does not get at the deeper question: Should we expect these men to stay true to their pledge and just how significantly should pledges be treated? The latter part must be answered before the former.

I am far from the first to devote attention towards the question of the significance of oaths.To show how oaths have been treated throughout humanity’s existence, I begin near the past edge of history, at a time considered ancient by even the Romans of old. During its peak, the ancient Persian empire, one of the first great civilizations, was ruled by Darius the Great. Ancient inscriptions authored by Darius portray lying as not just wrong, but as evil. The first historian, Herodotus, records that Persians considered lying to be the most disgraceful thing in the world. Furthermore, Persians treated lying as an act which could be punished by death.

It is readily apparent that under the rule of the Persian empire, getting caught in a lie could bring extreme consequences with it, not least of all death. Yet this should not be taken to signify that the Persians were lovers of truth for the empire produced few, if any, notable philosophers. And it’s not because philosophizing had yet to be done — indeed, Zoroaster was preaching his teaching in Persia over a thousand years before Darius’ rule. It is more accurate to say that the Persians hated lying.

If we lived in a society with a similar hatred of lying, Jeb, Kasich, and Graham could never hope to hold office again.

The Greeks also grappled with the significance of oaths. And here we see that the Persian approach is rejected in favor of a nuanced treatment. In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, a character speaks the line “My tongue swore, but my heart did not.” And even in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, the women’s oath to withhold sex from their men is portrayed as something comic — this oath is something the audience is meant to laugh at. From tragedy to comedy, it is clear that some malleability was afforded to those who took a vow. Certainly, pledges were not devoid of meaning, and to add significance, they were often undertaken in a holy ritual or a sacred place. Oaths had a backing which helped add a sense of moral necessity.

And in Rome, perjurers were thrown to their death from the Tarpeian Rock. This cliff, located in Rome, served as a constant reminder to the politicians assembled nearby. Even the great Roman statesman Cicero, who wrote the book on obligations, defended the breaking of promises in the interest of reducing harm and serving the common good. Cicero saw Julius Caesar as a great threat to the republic, and it would not be surprising if a scholar of Cicero today saw similar problems with Donald Trump as Cicero saw with Julius Caesar — namely, the welcoming of kingly treatment and prerogative, as well as a fundamental distrust of the established political system. The three Republicans who have not honored the pledge would (at least on that front) likely be safe from Cicero’s scorn.

Today, elected officials in the United States take an oath of office where they swear to uphold and defend the Constitution in addition to executing their responsibilities to the best of their ability. The ceremony usually involves the person swearing on a Bible, hearkening back to the ancient tradition of adding a religious or transcendent backing to oaths — break the oath and you don’t just wrong people, but also God. This sort of backing is sure to make the oath more significant to some who undertake it.

The Republican loyalty pledge had no backing but a candidate’s signature. These men are politicians, and as a quote attributed to the French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle goes: “Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word.” This is reminiscent of the public/private position debacle, a controversy which many politicians could (unsurprisingly) be enmired in.

Statesmen are expected to be duty-bound. One duty may take precedence over another. Oaths can conflict. Should a signatory think their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution is incompatible with a party loyalty pledge, that can serve as legitimate grounds to forego the pledge.

What’s more, this sort of contract was not regarding property, but was rather dealing with a person’s thoughts. The contract was supposed to be a dictate on what the signatories are to think. If this was a pledge requiring all candidates to convert to a certain religion, it would appear readily absurd. Even Thomas Hobbes, a notorious proponent of absolutism, recognized that if a religious dictum was imposed on the subjects of a regime, one may expect the subjects to profess the religion in public. But nobody can rationally expect a person’s private thoughts and beliefs to align with such a dictate on thought.

Before I conclude, there is yet one aspect of the loyalty pledge I have not addressed: Donald Trump, one of the last to sign the pledge, was one of the first to revoke it. Trump recently questioned how his primary rivals who are not supporting him can live with themselves. If Trump had not received the nomination, it is almost certain that he would not have supported the nominee. And he shouldn’t be expected to just because he signed a pledge. Support, whether it be for a person, a law, or any action, should not be based on a pledge, but on free and independent thought which has arrived at a conclusion. A pledge can add significance and publicity to a conclusion one has arrived at, but a free and independent conclusion cannot be derived from a pledge.

While truth should certainly be more esteemed in our society and the lies of politicians should be less-readily tolerated, it is ultimately a good thing to have obligations take precedence over oaths. This accounts for human error, the adjusting of thoughts based on new information, and allows people to carry out their actions on the basis of morality instead of a promise which may not align with the moral good. The quest for the good and the truthful should come before all else, even if it is apparently detrimental to honor.