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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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I

The idea of authority has no single historical definition.
Originally, its dominant meaning was the capacity to
evoke voluntary compliance or assent, on grounds
distinct from coercive power or rational conviction.
Currently, its dominant meaning is the capacity to
evoke compliance or assent, whether voluntary or not,
on grounds which confer an official right upon coercive
power and a compulsory force upon rational convic-
tion. The substantive grounds of the original capacity,
moreover, like the substantive sources of the subse-
quent titles to power, have varied markedly with time
and circumstance. The history of the idea, therefore,
is not the simple course of a single category in response
to external changes of practical conditions and ideo-
logical associations. The history of the idea is composed
rather of the changing proportions between its own
dominant meanings and of the changing identities as-
sumed by both these dominant forms. It is a history,
then, in which the internal relations of the idea reflect
and clarify the variety of its external roles.

The chameleonic qualities of authority raise the
special problem of locating it within any historical
complex of ideas. The obvious key to the recognition
of authority in history is the application of an analytical
definition in terms of the constant social function of
authority. But the general danger run by this concep-
tual mode of intellectual history—the danger of
anachronism in the imputation to the past of concepts
relevant to the present—is confirmed in the case of
authority by its cumulative shift from one meaning to
another in its overall development. An analytical defi-
nition of authority in the current terms of such cate-
gories as dominion, government, and power must fail
to account for the changing relationship of these cate-
gories to authority in the past, and it is precisely this
relationship which is the primary historical problem
of authority.

To avoid this danger without reverting to the out-
worn philological mode of intellectual history—i.e., the
mechanical recognition of the idea by the word—the
following method will be used here: since the term
“authority” is a Latin derivative, the original ideas of
authority will be defined first by induction from the
kinds of situations which the Romans devised the term
to meet: these semantically defined ideas, in turn, be-
come the marks of recognition for subsequent forms
of authority, whatever their nomenclature. This
method, it should be noted, entails the exclusion of
non-Western and pre-Roman ideas of authority from
consideration, since the authority which is the object
of these ideas is a different kind of authority from the
composite object continuously derivative from initial
Roman usage.

Far from the linear development of the voluntary
to the coercible grounds of obedience which is the
superficial historical scheme of the idea of authority
in the West, the actual history which emerges from
the blend of philological and categorical methods re-
veals a spiral process from the ancient Romans to the
present. In this process the successive centers of cul-
tural innovation provoked successive recurrences of the
original idea of voluntary authority, to be followed at
each stage by the equally recurrent attenuation of its
voluntary character under the pull of antithetical ideas
of liberty and dominion and by the reformulation of
the idea of authority into a rationale of power. There
have been four such complete stages, each comprising
both a distinct period in Western culture and a specific
context for the recurrent process of authority. The
Romans devised the idea of authority with special
reference to law and ended with a legal justification
of sovereignty. Medieval men recapitulated the same
process for religion, early modern men for politics, and
most recently modern man for society. These dove-
tailed stages, each constituted by the two successive
basic forms of authority, make up the general history
of the idea.