I think about oaths a lot. I take oaths very seriously. I am often surprised how not seriously some people take oaths. Here are some thoughts.
In the SCA, we are attempting to recreating the Middle Ages as the should have been, or could have been. So we give oaths and we value chivalry. Or at least give lip service to that. I am sure there are many people who actually also treat their oaths seriously but there are visible few who don’t.
In our modern society, there really is only one oath that has consequence. If you are called to testify in a judical proceeding, you will be asked to take an oath to tell the truth. If it is then discovered that you lied, you can then be tried for perjury. Just about all other oaths have no real consequence. The oaths of marriage are easily dissolved. The oath of office for public service or the military are often overlooked. Again, as long as the people vote for you again or your superiors don’t care, the oath is hollow.
And there is a reason our modern society went this way. If there was honor in the real Middle Ages, it quickly was used for nefarious purpose. Old Anglo-Saxon laws allowed those of high station to swear an oath as proof they didn’t do something. I am sure originally it was felt that honor would rule the day but it probably didn’t take long for someone to simply swear they didn’t do something and suffer no consequence. As society evolved, it was clear that most oaths didn’t mean anything.
Back to the SCA then. I talked to a few friends about this. Advice I got ranged from “some people just don’t think they are in the wrong and therefore believe they are true to their oath.” to “for some, taking oaths is just part of the game.” And of course, there are many who believe the oaths they take.
Back when Sir Seto was on vigil, I made a replica of Oathbinder in stained glass for him. I gave Oathbinder a motto (maybe it already had one). I felt all good swords should have a motto. I put on the stained glass, “No one may speak falsely within my reach.” I intended a double meaning. One, that the magic of the sword would not allow you to speak falsely. Two, the fact that a naked blade was presented to you, you would be unwilling to speak falsely under threat of beheading. It may be foolish to hope for a magical blade that made it impossible to say that which is not true. Oaths would be binding then. You literally could not say words that you didn’t believe.
In some way, the modern business culture of mission statements and values is like oaths. We are encouraged at my company at least to reflect on that mission statement and corporate values daily. How will I engage in teamwork today? That kind of thing. We should do the same with our oaths. We should mediate on those words. For me, since I am only a member of the populace, I would think “to serve where I might according to my knowledge and ability.” How will I do that today? For those of you who do reflect on your oaths, I applaud you. We need more who will “champion the good”, “protect the innocent”, “work for the common good”, and “promote the diverse arts.”
For those of you who don’t really reflect on your oaths, maybe you should. Your word should have meaning. When you take an action, you should reflect back, did I act in accordance to my oath? If not, what will you do about it? I really wish there was a good mechanism for enforcing or giving consequence for violating one’s oath.
Just some thoughts about oaths.