There are three Delphic Maxims that speak very clearly and very redundantly (in case you missed their council the first time!) on the subject of making promises, oaths, and pledges. The advice is simple…don’t. Don’t make oaths, don’t make promises, don’t make pledges, and if you have to…run away rather than making one, no matter who you would be making it to.
I’m thinking this has less to do with the idea of commitment in and of itself, and more to do with the potential for breaking an oath. In ancient Greece (as in many ancient cultures), oath making was a Big Deal. The oath in Greek society had 3 main parts–the actual commitment itself, the swearing of that commitment to the gods, and the acceptance of a curse should the oath not be fulfilled.* For example, the Hippocratic Oath is made to the gods Apollo (as The Physician), Asclepius, Hygieia, Panaceia, “and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses”, and ends with the caveat, “If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.”
It makes sense then, that the advice concerning oaths, would be to avoid them completely. Oaths in ancient Greece were present in all of society, from oaths of political office, to business contracts. And they were unbreakable–meaning, if you broke one, you had consented to punishment from the gods (and from the legal system). Breaking an oath in ancient Greece was perjury, and perjury was a sin in the eyes of the gods, particularly the Furies (according to Homer) and to Apollo (according to Herodotus), who would punish the descendants of the perjurer. Between the various philosophers there was some dissension on what precisely constituted oath breaking–if one was unable to fulfill an oath, due to circumstance…was that perjury or not? And over time, the views changed as well as to what exactly was “breaking” a oath.**
But what does that tell us for today? Should this maxim still stand? If we read it as “Don’t make promises you have no intention of keeping, or doubt your ability to keep”, then I think yes. We should hesitate before we make an oath. Our automatic response to promise-making should be not to make one, unless we really, really, really think it is that important, and really, really, really intend to fulfill it.
From the girl that took the Oath of Enlistment some 10 years ago, it is a Big Deal.