Every Drop of Blood, That Every Roman Bears…

Today was a particularly pomp-filled day for the New Zealand government. With the election results finalized, and John Key having completed the necessary deal to remain Prime Minister, it was time to swear in the 51st Parliament. This requires every Member of Parliament to either swear
I, …, swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
or affirm
I, …, solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law.
They can do this either in English, or in Maori, but they must abide by the precise text of the oath or affirmation, as prescribed by law, or else be sent out of the House to have to swear properly at a future date. And they aren’t MPs until they have so sworn or affirmed.
This is proving to be somewhat more controversial than you might expect. There have been ructions among some MPs about the Oath of Office and that the MPs are not permitted to adapt the wording. This discomfort came from two (partially overlapping) groups:
  1. Some of the republican MPs feel uncomfortable pledging loyalty to the House of Windsor.
  2. Several of the Maori MPs would have preferred to swear to honour the Treaty of Waitangi since that is closer to their hearts than the Monarchy.

This led me to ponder the nature of oaths and what they are supposed to signify in a modern word.

On one level, the wording of the oath/affirmation is prescribed by law, and if Members of Parliament can’t follow the law, on their first day at work, why should anyone else be expected to? On the other hand, why do we still insist people swear loyalty to the Queen specifically? It’s not like the role of a Member of Parliament in New Zealand has much of anything to do with the Queen in practice. At least the Congressional Oath of Office is on point:

I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

And it can’t just be that she’s the Head of State because not all countries require members of the legislature to swear loyalty to the Head of State. There’s nothing in the above oath about bearing allegiance to the President. Indeed, I would expect most Americans to find the idea repugnant. I strongly suspect the practice is only tolerated by New Zealanders precisely because it’s an empty gesture.

This further led me to wonder why we require people to swear oaths at all. The history of the practice could be traced to the medieval practice of swearing oaths, based on the superstition that God would more harshly punish one who swore falsely in his name than one who simply broke a promise. If this is the reason for requiring an oath it serves little purpose in a modern, secular nation. For one thing, the idea of permitting an affirmation makes no sense if the point is bring God into it. But then the practice of oaths isn’t really a Christian one either. Jesus warned against oaths (“let your yes be yes, and your no, no”) and some sects of Christian refuse to swear oaths on that basis. Arguably, oath swearing is more of a Roman tradition than a Christian one. And yet our modern governments are even less Roman than they are Christian.

Perhaps in the past, oaths carried more weight than other undertakings – historically a man could be bound by an oath. But that’s not a good fit for the modern world either. The law grants no special weight to oaths, and can bind you to your promises without any oath (a contract can be legally binging even if the two parties never directly communicated with each other, let alone swore oaths). What about social expectation then? Would you trust someone to keep their oath, even if you wouldn’t trust their word otherwise? If so, why? If not, why ask for an oath in the first place?

Or is it that I am overthinking this? Is the point of the thing to merely formally mark the start of an MP’s term, thereby accepting the powers and duties that come with the office. In that sense, an oath is the ancestor to the more modern, statutory declaration. The idea of formally delineating a change in status has merit (even if we don’t have an equivalent ceremonial mark at the other end), but if that’s what it’s for, why does none of the wording say that? Why not have them stand up and say “I, ____ accept the role of Member of the 51st Parliament, with all the rights and obligations that entails”. For that matter, why do it verbally; barring old traditions that have been grandfathered in, our society (and law) tends to place higher weight on written than spoken pledges. So why not give each new MP a declaration to sign that outlines their powers and obligations, and have the Clerk of the House formally accept the signed declaration from each MP, ensuring it is in order?

Ultimately the matter of the oath doesn’t amount to much in practice, it’s a fossilised ceremonial practice, a real-life version of the Space Shuttle Booster whose measurement was determined by the width of a Roman chariot. But when you start to think about things like this you can’t help but wonder how many other things do our governments do simply because there was a reason at some point, even if that reason has long since disappeared?

How do you feel about this practice? Do you feel oaths still matter? If you do, what is it about an oath that speaks to you? If not, do yuo agree that it might be symptomatic of the tendency of governments to cling to history too tightly?

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29 thoughts on “Every Drop of Blood, That Every Roman Bears…

  1. Its the ceremonial bit, I think. The specific features of ceremonies are extremely path dependent. This particular thing is done this way just because this very similar thing was done in some similar way (even and perhaps especially if the particulars of the ceremony seem arbitrary and have no practical value). If the particular elements of the ceremony had actual current practical value, the symbolic value would be obscured and people’s resistance to changing it in response to changing circumstances would be lowered. It’s symbolic value lies in the fact that the particulars of the ritual have no other practical value. Compare to the idea that the reason that some thing makes a good stable currency is that it has no other practical value.


  2. In law school, my evidence professor scoffed at the notion of having people swear to tell the truth before they testify as primitive psychology unnecessary for today’s world. As a practicing lawyer, I’ve seen enough people getting very truthful after swearing to tell the truth that I think it still has a lot of practical uses. It might be primitive psychology but its powerful primitive psychology.


    • Join. This really happens. And it’s odd to see, often disturbing to the parties who had called these witnesses expecting different testimony.

      OTOH, plenty of people obviously lie under oath after making some kind of rational assessment of the risk of punishment and the reward of being relied upon.


    • Sure it’s primitive, which is another way of saying it’s emotional. We still have constructs in our brains that are primitive, and they are powerful and important to our functioning. I know a lot of people who think of themselves as rational and unaffected by such things, but I think a very fundamental reason that they are rational is that it makes them feel good.

      Speaking engages more of us than signing something. Speaking in front of others is even more significant.


  3. People in the modern world have an uneasy relationship with ritual and ceremony. Many people see the entire concept of taking oaths, being sworn in, and other such rituals at best as a dreadfully dull waste of time and as worse as archaic and contrary to how we do things now. We are supposed to enlightened, rational people capable of getting down to business without all this fuss that takes time. Others find a lot of meaning in these rituals. It establishes a continuity with the past and adds color to civic life. Civic rituals can also reinforce the meaning of a particular office.


  4. A couple of thoughts, both related to things LeeEsq has said above.

    1. Laboratory game theory studies show that people are more likely to contribute to the group and not defect when they all promise. From a pure game theory perspective this is irrational, but it demonstrates not only that there are values outside the winnings in the game but that one of those values has something to do with public commitment. Oaths may perhaps have some of the same strength.

    2. Oaths to a believed-in vengeful god may have greater strength, but as the game theory studies show, an oath/promise does not have to explicitly reference such a concept to have some strength. So in a modern secularized society, oaths may still be valuable, and they may be more valuable (at least to the secular) if they do not reference a god, because the reference to what the secular see as a foolish superstition might (I’m being entirely speculative here) might cheapen the whole thing. E.g., were I asked to swear an oath to the great all-knowing and benevolent Sqrzx, I’d be unlikely to take the oath seriously.

    But as a communal activity, referencing particularly those within the group, I think an oath can be taken seriously. For legislators, that could be a public commitment to protecting the interests of the specific community* their legislature represents. Perhaps better, to keep legislators regularly on track, they should have to recite the oath frequently, so that it becomes an engrained part of their thinking.

    I have to wonder if the ceremonial aspect of this matters as well as just the oath. That is, there may be an important communal aspect of saying the oath together, rather than signing it on paper (or maybe they should do both). Ceremony seems important to humans, I suspect as a matter of building group identity. I often find this a bit puzzling, as I find most ceremonies trivial and annoying, but I not only recognize its importance to (apparently) most people, I find I like certain ceremonies as well provided they’re brief and to the point.**
    *This doesn’t eliminate any of the inherent problems of “community interests” or agency, of course.
    **I hate graduation ceremonies, but I like the singing of the alma mater at the conclusion of the ceremony. If we just sang the alma mater, said “congrats,” and had a drink, I’d love graduation ceremonies.


    • Ceremony matters a lot, in my book. It needn’t be an elaborate, pomp-filled affair, but a formal and shared act — gathering to sign a piece of paper — helps with closure and to impress the importance of the event on its participants.


      • Sometimes, I like ceremony. the ones surrounding the courts are kinda cool.
        The ceremony, the rituals surrounding going to the doctor (particular the disease-infested waiting room), I could do without.


    • My personal relationship with pomp and circumstance is interesting. If it drags on long enough than I grow bored and frustrated with it but many archaic and ritualized ceremonies can be things of beauty if done right. Many of them are like well-choreographed dances and I love dance. They are fascinating things to observe or even participate in. Modern ceremonies seem to miss the point because they try to conform to modern tastes and needs. It ends up being kind of chintzy. Civic rituals require a sort of formality and stateliness that lots of people in the present don’t have the patience for.

      The New York bar places a great emphasis on ceremony when swearing in new lawyers. In Manhattan, the swearing in takes place in the main court chamber of the First Appellate Division, which is gorgeous and filled with beautiful stained glass. An appellate judge gives a speech on the nobility of the law and lawyers swear an oath. Its a remarkable ceremony. In other states, everything is done in a less elaborate manner. According to Saul, the California Bar just takes a bunch of new lawyers to a place that could fit them and swears them in. Simple but not exactly fulfilling.


  5. I sympathize with the folks wanting to invoke the Treaty. As I see it, that is more a compact between, if not equals, at least responsible people agreeing to abide together. And to swear to abide by it, to keep the treaty in word and deed, is to affirm that you’re bringing something to the British Empire (or what the Brits want to call the areas which still affirm the Queen as their sovereign).


  6. I suspect it has to do a lot with giving people a reminder “Hey, you are about to do something really really important and it has serious powers and responsibilities.”

    Interestingly, I think it probably is more effective for juries, people giving testimony in court and depositions, and people being sworn as judges and into the military or the Bar than it is for people being sworn into Congress.


  7. Perhaps most of society doesn’t consider oaths of much import. I do. It’s one reason I passed on being a god parent to my niece. I can’t and won’t sweat an oath in a church to raise the kid up Roman Catholic when I neither believe in god or that church’s teachings.

    And that’s why I take the betrayal of the oath of office: congressional, presidential, etc. as a serious violation of the public trust: they LIED. That’s not forgivable.


    • , I hear where you’re coming from but I feel the need to push back a bit. The fact that someone swears an oath (or more generally, makes a promise) and then later breaks that pledge doesn’t necessarily imply that they were lying when they swore the oath. One can sincerely intend to fulfill a pledge but then for any number of reasons, good, bad, or indifferent, fail to do so.

      Example: Something like 50% of all marriages end in divorce and of the ones that hang together a substantial number of those do so despite infidelity on the part of one or both partners. Were all those people lying when they promised to love and cherish etc etc till death do us part? Probably a few I suppose but that’s a pretty harsh blanket judgment to make. Similarly for folks who file bankruptcy. Were they lying when they took on the debt or did shit just not work out, as shit is often wont to do?

      And these are situations where it’s pretty clear that a promise has actually in fact been broken. I understand your desire to climb on a high horse and condemn those lying, thieving, good-for-nothing politicians that constantly violate the sacred Constitution. But first it has to be established that a given action that you declare unconstitutional is, in fact, so. Suffice it to say, opinions vary. And they vary greatly among learned folks who have devoted their lives to interpreting that document. Not to put too fine a point on it but your opinion is hardly dispositive.

      Not that you’re not entitled to an opinion, but so am I and so is everyone else. And we can discuss and argue and have a grand ole time doing so, but it’s hardly worth getting all upset about.


      • Then you explain WHY you are breaking your promise, and you justify that for reasons that mean something to the people that put you in power…political expediency ain’t one of them. I’m not a religious man, but I’ll quote something vaguely religious, words that have power and meaning. To me at least.

        “Remember that howsoever you are played, or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone. Even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say “but I was told by others to do thus” or that “virtue was not convenient at the time.” This will not suffice. Remember that.”

        I live honorably. And I suffer none around me who do not.


    • I can understand being incensed at someone breaking their word, and I would be as uncomfortable as you making a promise I wasn’t prepared to keep.

      I’m not sure if you recognised the posts’ title, but it comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The conspiracy to assassinate Caesar is underway and some of the group want to swaer an oath to see the assassination through. But Brutus opposes the idea, and this is why he says they shouldn’t swear:

      Every drop of blood, that every Roman Bears, and nobly bears, is guilty of a several bastardy, should he break the smallest particle of any promise that hath passed from him.

      Brutus opposed an oath, not because promises don’t matter, but because all promises matter.

      But does it being an oath matter more than a promise? I consider nay promise, freely given, to be binding. If someone won’t keep their word, I wouldn’t trust them to keep an oath either.


  8. Hi James,

    As I’m sure you already know (but I’m throwing it out there to be specific) the Queen in this oath is specifically HRM Elizabeth the Queen in Right of New Zealand. So it is useful to bear in mind that the oath being sworn is to New Zealand’s own Monarch, not to the Monarch of a foreign nation. Now some might aptly observe that this particular person has a lot of hats, she rules the dominions of Australia, Canada and Scotland to name but a few. I’d retort that she’s served the role ably and a lot of people wear many hats. I’m a card carrying member of my local Magic the Gathering society, An employee of a National Bank, a Registered Democratic Party member and a loving son to my sainted mum.

    Now I can understand that some people (Republican Traitors!!1!one!!1!!*) take issue with the monarchy and want to replace this ancient and tolerably functional separation of powers with another political patronage position. Fair (traitorous*) enough but right now this is the system of government that New Zealand enjoys with the implied consent of her people. If individual MP’s had problems with the oath I would expect that they should have brought that up prior to being elected. Surely there was at least a few slow moments in the campaign for that to be dropped in?

    To the meat of your musings I will concede that in many ways the oath is a religious and traditional fiction. This is true but what is the law in general but a fiction that human beings agree to adhere to? Shred any human being or chunk of matter down to its constituent atoms, sift and sort them out and I promise you’ll find not one molecule of justice, not one atom of law among them. Fossilized ceremonial procedures? Rote rules that we abide by without thinking about much? Isn’t that the law in its’ majesty and solemn weight in a nutshell?

    *Just kidding


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