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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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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.


There is common agreement that the idea of author-
ity, in the full range of meanings that have given it
an integral intellectual life to the present, had its ori-
gins during the Roman Republic with the coinage of
the distinctive term, auctoritas, to cover several kinds
of primarily, albeit not exclusively, legal relationships.
The problem with the ancient Roman origins of au-
thority, indeed, is an embarrassment of riches: it is the
problem of inferring a characteristic and coherent
Roman idea from the welter of literal usages developed
for the term. The wealth of scholarly inquiries into
the Roman term and concept has resolved part of this


problem, in that several ideas of authority have been
identified from classifications of the term's myriad
functions (Heinze, pp. 349-55; Fürst, passim; Lütcke,
pp. 13-29). But what the commentators agree on
stresses the importance of what remains problematic.
They agree that the frequency and variety of the
Romans' applications of these ideas to both their pri-
vate and their public life demonstrate the fundamental
importance of authority for the whole of Roman soci-
ety, and they agree too that this importance implies
a cultural coherence among the Roman ideas of au-
thority. But there is no consensus on what this coher-
ence was.

The reason for the disagreement at this level would
seem to be the insistence upon a rigorous coherence
in the form of a definite hierarchy among the ideas
of authority or in the form of one definite, integral
idea which logically or semantically comprehends the
rest. But the actual contexts of the partial ideas of
Roman authority are simply too variegated and irre-
ducible to bear such a stringent unity. What was com-
mon to them was not a synthetic idea to which they
contributed but a general attitude which underlay
them all. The coherent Roman idea of authority is a
formulation of this attitude. It can be ascertained
through an inquiry into the pattern formed by the
various partial ideas that went into it and into the
historical development of this pattern.

Three partial ideas of authority can be inferred from
the types of application which the Romans made of
the term since remote republican times.

First, among the earliest traceable meanings shared
by ideas clustered around the distinctive term, auc-
(or the root term, auctor, signifying the agent
whose identifying capacity was his auctoritas), was the
extra confirmation or guarantee of a transaction which
was added to its normal legal sanctions by a special
responsibility of one party in the transaction. In the
field of private law, for example, “the authority of the
trustee” meant the trustee's confirmation of a ward's
action which made the action legally binding and the
trustee legally accountable to the ward for all resulting
injuries. Again, “the authority of the lord” (auctoritas
) meant an imposition of the lord's will upon
the slave in addition to the lord's regular right of
coercive command (iussum), and where the related but
more inclusive “authority of the patron” spelled out
the legally incremental quality of authority by specify-
ing it as that which the paterfamilias exercises in addi-
tion to his governing power (imperium) over his family
(including slaves) and without governing power over
his clients.

These private-law applications of authority help to
identify an analogous meaning of political authority
in Roman public life. The most overt link between the
two fields for this meaning of authority was provided
by the idea of “patriarchal authority” (auctoritas
), which was permanently associated with “the
authority of the Senate” (auctoritas Senatus), synony-
mously during the early Republic and as one of its
formal capacities during the later. Denoting the Sen-
ate's function, as a council of elders, of approving the
resolutions of the popular assemblies before they could
become law, the patriarchal authority of the Senate
was obviously the public analogy of the private au-
thority inherent in the certificatory function of the
trustee. This aspect of senatorial authority was a formal
instance of a public authority expressly recognized in
all high governmental officials as a consequence but
not a derivative of their legal prerogative or power
(imperium or potestas). It was a prime example of what
we may call the incremental or tutelary idea of
authority—the idea, that is, of a kind of control over
men that is additional to regular legal sanctions and
is itself grounded in fiduciary legal status.

A second, even more pervasive, meaning of author-
ity, diffused as it was through the literature of Roman
private life as well as of law and politics, was the
imputation of the personal—especially moral—
qualities of agents, counsellors, or officials to their
decisions, judgments, and regulations for the purpose
of extending the trust in these model persons to their
official deeds. This partial idea of authority has been
characterized as “personality-power” or “prestige-
power” by subsequent commentators. Where the first,
or incremental, idea of authority was distinguished
from command and power in order to complement
them, the second, or personal, idea of authority was
distinguished from counsel and opinion in order to
complement them.

Scattered profusely through Roman literature in
references taking the general form of “doing something
by someone's authority” (ex auctoritate alicuius), dis-
tinctively personal grounds of authority were imputed
to propositions, testimony, and arguments. They ranged
from the advice of any trustworthy individual in his
private capacity to the private and public recom-
mendations of poets, philosophers, and scholars revered
as seers or experts—which were mere counsels and
opinions in themselves but whose source made them
accepted as law and truth, obligating their recipients
in fact far beyond their formal capacity to bind. Cicero,
whose habit of joining Stoic principles to Roman prac-
tice has made him a veritable source-book for the
personal and moral genesis of social and political au-
thority, explicitly substantiated this genesis by analyz-
ing it into the qualities of nature—i.e., virtue—and of
time—i.e., original talent, wealth, experience, knowl-


edge, and age—which made certain personalities espe-
cially imposing and their activities especially influen-
tial upon other people.

In political contexts the Romans also attributed au-
thority to such socially oriented personal qualities as
“honor” (dignitas), or “influence” (gratia: literally, the
disposition to make connections and dispense favors),
or meritorious acts, or old age (auctoritas maiorum).
The authority attributed to these personal qualities
often shaded insensibly into the incremental authority
of public office. In its application to such executive
officials as consuls and military leaders the preeminence
derivative from personal merits and the preeminence
derivative from the perquisites and responsibilities of
the offices themselves were obviously osmotic, and even
in the case of the Senate the moral prestige of ancestral
families and of noble lineage merged into the incre-
mental political role of the council of elders.

But the distinctive features of personal authority—its
continuity with example and advice and its contrast
to official power—nonetheless retained their identities
as persistent ingredients of the characteristic Roman
approach to political authority. Their most notable
political contributions were to the crucial, related, and
otherwise undefinable Roman ideas of the authority of
the Senate and the authority of the princeps.

“The authority of the Senate” grew, during the later
Republic, to be something more than the above-
mentioned incremental patriarchal authority with
which it had been wholly identified, and the homage
paid to the personal qualities associated with Senators
participated in this growth. The authority of the Senate
came now to mean the specially effective consultative
function which was in fact the elusive mode of gov-
ernment of the Republic's sovereign organ—a function
which, in the memorable phrase of Mommsen's
Römisches Staatsrecht, made auctoritas “more than a
counsel and less than a command; rather a counsel with
which one could not properly avoid compliance”
(Mommsen, III, 2, p. 1034). This idea of authority
covered all the characteristic operations of the Senate,
including both its enactment of final decrees (senatūs
), which had the formal force of law, and its
recommendation of imperfect resolutions, which did
not have the formal force of law. Both activities were
subsumed under counselling, and the Senate's “author-
ity” was attributed to the actual binding force of its
counsels, whatever their form.

Thus Cicero acknowledged “authority,” in this sense
of factually prescriptive consultation, to be the princi-
ple of the Senate's political preeminence, and he con-
trasted it explicitly with “the power” (potestas) of the
magistrates and “the liberty” (libertas) of the people
in one context or with the “power” and the “sover
eignty” (potestas and majestas) of the people in other
contexts. For Cicero as for other witnesses, moreover,
much of the prescriptive force that was imputed to
the “counsels” of the Senate stemmed from the per-
sonal attributes of lineage, propertied wealth, and
character associated with the Senators.

Related to senatorial authority but even more defi-
nitely personal in its origins and extralegal in its opera-
tion was the Roman idea of a “principal authority,”
or auctoritas principis (Magdelain, pp. 1-76). Obviously
of decisive importance for the transition from republic
to empire during the period of the “principate,” the
concept of the authority of the “princeps” (for lack
of a precise equivalent, the Latin term has been carried
over into English) developed its characteristic conno-
tations, which the emperors and their legists would
later use, during republican times. In its explicit Cice-
ronian version the princeps is the “ruler of the com-
monwealth” (rector rei publicae) in a purely ideal sense:
as princeps, he occupies no official position and pos-
sesses no legal power, but he actually guides the balanced
constitution of the Roman state from the outside as
it were, whatever his formal political function, by dint
of the magnetic moral virtues and merits which made
“the best citizen” (optimus civis) also “the first, or chief,
citizen” (princeps). Working preferably—albeit not
necessarily—upon the Senate, the first citizens's char-
acteristic mode of de facto government is, like the
Senate's, from personal preeminence and through
“counsel” (concilium), a mode of government which
is summed up in its entirety as auctoritas. But unlike
the Senate, which as a council of elders was a regular
constitutional organ however irregular its function, the
authority of the princeps not only characterized his
political activity but constituted his very existence.
Hence not only was authority something “of the first
citizen's” (auctoritas principis) but someone was a first
citizen through authority (princeps auctoritate), and
Cicero's synonymous use of “honor” in this context as
the constituent property of the first citizen (princeps
) clearly indicate the personal focus of the
princeps' authority during the republic. It was con-
firmed by the extraordinary function, also attributed
to the princeps by both Cicero and Augustus, of sup-
plying “private counsel” directly to the body politic
(res publica) for the purpose of “liberating” it from
the degeneration of its public organs.

The third and final partial idea of authority for the
Romans was the quality of creation or initiation which
we still primarily associate with the terms, “author”
and “authorize.” In its references to general human
relations, this kind of authority denoted the source of
a rumor or of a doctrine or of a decision, with the
definite implication that the very identification of this


sponsor, independently of his legal function or of his
moral qualities, carried with it grounds for others to
conform voluntarily to what he authorized. And this
in either of two ways. His designation as source (auctor)
implied either his own continuing responsibility for the
information, opinions, and actions in question or the
rightful origin of information, opinions, and action
whose original right had been transferred.

In the first alternative, authority referred to the
special respect that was due to the accountable origi-
nator (author) of a complete idea or activity by those
who simply comply with it; in the second, authority
refers to the originator's (authorizer's) rightful transfer
of his claim on this special respect to those who comply
with his original incomplete idea or activity by com-
pleting it. A prominent instance of original authority
in the first sense was the inclusion of the proposal of
law within the function of an official's “authority,” as
shown by the synonymous use, in this context, of auctor
and lator legis (Berger, pp. 368-69). The most
far-reaching applications of original authority in the
second sense were obviously to political power. This
kind of authority, for example, was central to the
princeps' function—over and above his personal or
private counselling functions—of public counselling on
critical issues. Not only was he himself “the leader”
(dux) of the state solely by virtue of his “authority”
as the initiator (auctor) of proposals—a respect for
initiative entirely comprehensible in the normal stasis
of a balanced republican constitution—but the regular
public organs which enacted his counsel into legislation
acted as much by the transferred authority which they
acquired along with his counsel as by the coercive
power of their own offices.

The Romans themselves never either reduced or
synthesized their three categorical ideas of authority—
the incremental, the personal, and the initiatory—in
a single coherent concept, although subsequent com-
mentators have not been wanting who have tried, on
etymological or logical grounds, to do it for them. It
is generally agreed that the etymological root of
Roman “authority” (auctoritas) is “augment” (augere),
and Cicero did occasionally identify auctoritas with
a function of “increasing” honor or the general welfare.
But however close to the incremental idea this verbal
root may be, the lack of a direct etymological connec-
tion between this root and other, very different mean-
ings of the word—such as authorship, from auctor
which are appropriate to the other partial ideas of
authority has led to a simple repetition of the intellec-
tual problem on the etymological level. Hence there
is general disagreement on the relevance of the ety-
mology to the concept of authority (Heinze, p. 352;
Lütcke, p. 23).

Conceptually, moreover, both in their relationships
with the idea of “power” and in their relationships with
the idea of “reason” the partial ideas of authority
showed themselves to be not merely heterogeneous but
mutually opposed. In their relationships to “power”
the respective ideas of authority were sometimes ex-
plicitly defined in contradistinction from it and some-
times explicitly asserted as the basis of it. In their
relationships to “reason” the ideas of authority were
sometimes implicitly tied to it (as in the authority
associated with counselling), sometimes made explicitly
compatible with it as a kind of shorthand for an alter-
nate path to the same truth (e.g., Cicero's acceptance
of the “authority” of the Greek philosophers when they
do not “deliver their reasons” [rationem redderent]),
sometimes explicitly opposed to it—and when opposed
to reason authority was deemed sometimes an option
to be preferred and sometimes an option to be rejected.
These variations in the external relations of the various
partial ideas of authority highlight the difficulty of
arriving at a generic Roman idea of authority by either
a semantical or logical analysis of its parts.

But it is possible to arrive at such a generic idea
by a historical analysis, which aligns variations along
a temporal axis and demonstrates them as coherent
stages of an idea in the process of change. Roman
public law—always, as we have seen, a crossroads for
the sundry partial ideas of authority—furnished the
context for the historical passage from republic to
empire which makes the integration of the various
forms of authority a matter not so much of histori-
ographical interpretation as of historical fact. The
crucial document in the reconstruction of this history
is undoubtedly the famous Chapter 34 of Augustus' Res
into whose formulation of authority republican
ideas flowed and from whose formulation the pattern
of the imperial idea emerged. Describing the position
which was his after 27 B.C., when the Senate conferred
upon him the title of “Augustus, for my reward,” in
gratitude for his formal reestablishment of the republic,
the consul Octavius delivered the most revealing pro-
nouncement in the whole history of the idea of author-
ity: “After this time,” he wrote, “I was superior to all
by my authority (auctoritate omnibus praestiti), but I
had no more power (potestatis... nihilo amplius) than
the others who were also colleagues in the magistracy”
(Magdelain, pp. vii, 53). The appeal to the typical
republican idea of a personal and unofficial authority,
categorically distinct from official power, seems obvi-
ous enough, but what is equally significant, albeit more
covert, was the new constitutional role which its asso-
ciation here with the title “Augustus” symbolized for
this authority.

The implicit link in this association was the function


of the princeps, which was identified both with
Octavian's republican reference to his personal moral
preeminence and with his definition of his official title
in the initiatory sense of the princeps' authority as “the
author of the best condition of state,” i.e., auctor optimi
(ibid., pp. 56-62). Through its connection with
the extralegal republican ideas of authority on the one
hand and with the legal title of “Augustus” on the
other, the Augustan principate initiated, under per-
sonal auspices, the process which would be completed,
under institutional auspices, in the later Empire: the
compression of loose-jointed authority, in response to
the needs of official political organs, into a compact
legal basis of constitutional power.

In Augustus' hands, indeed, the various strands of
the princeps' authority were unified while the discrete
powers of his sundry other offices—each was granted
in a different senatorial decree, at a different time, and
for a different period from the others—were deliber-
ately kept separate, with the result that authority be-
came recognized as the unitary basis of the several
formal powers in the Empire. Augustus achieved this
status for his authority by explicitly asserting both his
princeps' authority and his magisterial power as official
capacities and by implicitly blending the various
meanings of authority into a single principal idea of
it in the service of its political function. He combined
in himself and secured legal sanction for both kinds
of authority associated with the two traditions of the
princeps (the initiatory public counsellor of the Senate
and the personally revered private counsellor of the
people). He merged these, moreover, in a new third
type of princeps' authority—a guardian authority as
trustee of the commonwealth (custos, or pater patriae),
officially charged by the Senate with the safekeeping
of the whole community (cura et tutela rei publicae).
Although still without coercive power itself, this au-
thority both partook of and contributed to the legal
obligation of the statutes through the continuous per-
sonal identity and overall controlling function of
Augustus as both the official bearer of the authority
which attracted obedience and the official magistrate
with the power to compel it.

With the development of the Augustan empire from
a covert to an overt absolutism, the uneasy personal
balance between authority and power in Augustus was
resolved into a definite legal and logical connection
in his successors. The legal texts and commentaries
from the second century A.D. onward, abound in refer-
ences to “our authority” and to “the authority of the
laws” as the valid source of particular statutes. They
are applied, moreover, not only to “our” authority in
the traditional sense of “the authority of the princeps”
(principalis auctoritas) and to the “authority of the
resolutions” (constitutionum auctoritas) which were his
characteristic mode of recommendation, but also to
“our” authority in the novel sense of “imperial” and
“sovereign authority” (imperialis auctoritas and auc-
toritas nostrae majestatis
) and to the “authority” of the
regular coercive laws of the sovereign power (auc-
toritas juris
and auctoritas legum).

The official context and the juristic commentaries
make it clear that these references to both a principal
consultative and a governmental coercive agency of
authority were not, as in republican times, references
to two different kinds of authority, but rather to one
continuous function of authority. This function was
part of the legal and political process which merged
the offices of princeps and Imperator and gave to the
“resolutions” (constitutiones) of the princeps the formal
coercive “force of the law” (vigorem legis) which was
the Emperor's by virtue of the people's delegation of
their sovereignty to him.

With the juncture of deliberative authority and
magisterial power in the legislative sovereignty of the
princeps-Emperor, the varied ancestral, moral, and
initiatory grounds of traditional Roman authority con-
verged into a single epitomal quality of the laws them-
selves, conveying the sense of an obligation to obey
them beyond the application of either adequate reason
or adequate compulsion. Hence the Imperial jurist,
Ulpian (third century A.D.), revealed the political func-
tion as well as the legal destination of the Roman idea
of authority when he declared the decrees, edicts, and
judgments of the “emperor” (imperator) to be “stat-
utes” (leges) which were “popularly” (vulgo) called
“resolutions” (constitutiones) of the princeps.

The historical development of the Roman attitude
to authority demonstrates an essential attribute of the
general idea which reappears in every stage of its
history and runs through its history in the large: the
instability—stemming from the elusiveness of its origi-
nal fragmented meaning—which made its proponents
susceptible to the attraction of settled political power.
But the Roman development also reveals, within the
original fragmented idea of authority, the potential
coherence which was actualized by the magnetic re-
quirements of political power and can be traced
through its response to them.

Both the terminological persistence of “princeps” as
an Imperial title and of “consider,” “assess,” “resolve”
(arbitror, censeo, placet) to define the activity of the
princeps, and the formal logical priority which “au-
thority” as the source of law and over the “power”
which specified and executed it, were traces of the
idea's original meanings which lasted through the
Empire as compatible supports of the Emperor's sov-
ereignty, and furnish clues to their common meaning.


The idea of authority in general arose when men freely
chose final human depositories for their trust, and the
various principles on which the choice was made be-
came mutually reinforcing when they were aligned in
a series directed toward the crucial problem of estab-
lishing a basis for government beyond the specific
punishments its organs could impose, and the specific
benefits they could deliver. In this constitutional con-
text the personal basis of authority was conceived in
terms of a civic morality; the creative basis of authority
was conceived in terms of a political initiative; and
the commitment of both to validating the origins of
political power served to reinforce the trust reposed
in the legal guardian who added his responsibility for
its results. Thus both of the main discrepancies in the
various meanings of authority—the discrepancy be-
tween the personal grounds and public effects of moral
authority and the discrepancy between the initiatory
and confirmatory grounds of responsible authority (that
is, between the rights of authorship and the duties of
augmentation)—were resolved into sequential relations
when they were spread out along a legal axis to supply
the organs of government with a single principle of
origins and of guaranteed results that was more vener-
able and more unified than the combination of political
appointment, physical sanctions, and promised welfare
associated with official power.

This political integration of authority made manifest
the three common traits which had always underlain
the original variety of its overt principles. First, au-
thority was essentially fiduciary: where the correlative
of reason was conviction and the correlative of power
was obedience, the correlative of authority was trust.
Secondly, authority was essentially transitional: its
function was to bring principles from a higher realm
of being to bear upon the activities in a lower realm
of being: ideas of authority modulated the principles
so as to make them relevant without divesting them
of their superiority. Thirdly, authority was essentially
hierarchical: where power and liberty could both be
located anywhere and exercised in any direction, men
who used the idea of authority distinctively assumed
that the superiority of the realm of its origin over the
realm of its exercise required a parallel hierarchy
within the realm of its exercise; only higher principles
which were selective in their application were author-
itative principles; those who appropriated them were
the superiors, and those who recognized them were
the subordinates.

Thus two generic ideas of authority emerged from
the Roman experience: an actual idea which was a
quality of sovereign power and a potential idea, inde-
pendent of the idea of power, which persisted under
the cover of the legal actuality. With the actualization
of the coherent idea of autonomous authority under
new auspices at the start of the next era, the overt
relations of the two ideas came to constitute the intel-
lectual history of authority.


Overlapping the later Roman Empire, absorbing the
forms of its culture while assisting at its demise, the
Christian Church perpetuated Roman ideas of author-
ity along with the Latin terms for them. But the
Churchmen introduced these ideas into new situations
and used them in new contexts which both changed
the substance and reinforced the pattern of relations
already established between the autonomous and the
hybrid ideas of authority. Starting from the reformula-
tion of Roman concepts under the theological and
ecclesiastical auspices of the Latin Church Fathers and
running through the Protestant and Catholic Reforma-
tions of the sixteenth century, the idea of authority
was revitalized by the special affinity of Christian
religiosity for it. Association with an intellectually and
institutionally autonomous Christianity restored the
independence of the original pure idea of authority
and made the Church, both in its internal and external
relations, the main arena in the medieval history of
the idea.

The new authority in the Christian dispensation was
attributed to God's revealed truth. Its pervasive impact
stemmed from the combination of its acknowledged
supremacy over all other kinds of authority with its
continuous relevance to all forms of temporal life in
general and to temporal government and power in
particular. The initial effect of this new Christian di-
mension of authority upon the Roman traditions of
authority which it absorbed was to loosen the Imperial
combination of authority with temporal political
power by intruding a source of authority independent
of political power. Subsequently, the theologians and
the canonists re-knit the bonds between authority and
political power to include the originally autonomous
authority of religion in a hierarchical system of official
Christian authorities.

The three main steps in this medieval process of
successive disruption and re-integration which would
become paradigmatic for every new stage in the history
of the idea of authority were: the development of
Revelation into a Christian authority sui generis; the
primary interaction of Christian religion and ecclesias-
tical politics in the constitution of the Catholic Church;
the conclusive interaction of religion, Church, and
temporal government in the organization of the uni-
versal Christian community. Each step contributed an
analytically distinct source of the idea and, despite the
overlap among them, these religious, doctrinal, and insti-


tutional ideas of Christian authority also represented
successive chronological emphases within the Christian
era. The Reformations of the sixteenth century, in this
schema, can be viewed as so many attempted restora-
tions of the initial, purely religious idea of authority
which developed, under the pervasive late-medieval
conditions of religio-secular interpenetration, into
conflicting versions of institutional authority.

1. Religious Authority. The idea of a transcendent
and ultimate depository of human trust, not dependent
in principle on earthly offices, took several compatible
forms in early Christian disquisitions.

First, the idea of “divine authority,” stipulated by
Augustine (in his De ordine) as the “supreme” (summa)
authority, juxtaposed notions of authority grounded on
origination (God as author or cause of his creation),
on metaphysical hierarchy (God as the worker of mira-
cles for the limited human capacity of comprehension),
and on responsible power (God as both infinite power
[potestas] over men and as infinite mercy [clementia]
for men). Second, the idea of “Christ's authority”
(auctoritas Christi) juxtaposed the notion of authoriza-
tion (delegation of the Creator's authority to the medi-
ator), the anthropological belief in family hierarchy
(the derivation of the authority of the Son from the
authority of the Father), the appeal of personal influ-
ence (the person of Christ as authoritative “example”),
and the commitment to an ultimate source (Christ as
“author of the Gospel”). Third, the idea of “Scriptural
authority” (auctoritas divinae scripturae) juxtaposed
the notion of authorization (the Bible as the Word of
God, embodying “the authority of God”) with the
incremental respect due the guarantor (the Bible as
“apostolic authority”—that is, the testimony of apos-
tolic witnesses who confirmed the truth of the Gospel
for future generations of believers). Fourth, the idea
of patristic authority (auctoritas patrum or auctoritas
) juxtaposed the notion of authorization (the
inspiration of the Fathers by Holy Scripture), the
notion of persuasion apart from or prior to rational
demonstration, the notion of personal expertise in the
juristic formulation of a canonical faith, and the
anthropological reverence for the elders (auctoritas
as the respect due the fathers of a Christian
doctrinal tradition). The idea of church authority
(auctoritas ecclesiae), finally, juxtaposed ideas of au-
thorized power (the delegation of “divine authority”
to the Church by Christ), of unbroken binding tradition
(the authority of the Church as the transmitter of the
authoritative “tradition of the elders”), of universal
persuasion (the real meaning of Augustine's famous
declaration in his anti-Manichaean Contra epistolam
quam vocant fundamenti
that “I would not believe
the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did
not impel me to it”), and of confirmation (the role of
the Church in reinforcing Scriptural faith).

Despite the linkage of “authority” and “power”
which Christianity carried over into theological ideas
of the Divinity and which led medieval men to use
the terms interchangeably in many contexts, the addi-
tion of the specifically Christian dimension to the idea
of authority endowed it with a renewed independence
in its relations with the idea of power. The authority
in the authority-power syndrome referred always to
the higher, otherworldly source of the force being
exercised, whereas power referred to the source of the
force within the realm of its exercise. If the easy con-
vertibility of authority and power testified to the inter-
penetration of spiritual and natural realms in the Mid-
dle Ages, the spiritual explosions in the name of
authority both at the beginning and the end of that
period testified to the countervailing effort to keep a
realm of superior being at once apart from and influ-
ential upon the powers of this world.

This general contribution of Christianity, as a reli-
gion, to the idea of authority—its combination of
transcendence and immanence to provide a platform
outside this world for the agencies which could bind
men within this world—had its model in the specific
contribution of Augustine. He traced the ultimate
source of authority over men to the person of Christ:
it was through His “authority” that the power of God
was modulated into the power of the Church and it
was the relationship of His divine to His human nature,
at once distinct and effluent, that epitomized all Chris-
tian authority, at once transcendent and effective.

2. Doctrinal Authority. Between the early appli-
cations of Roman legal concepts to the Christian State
Church in the fourth century A.D. and the church-state
polemics of the late thirteenth, Christian ideas of au-
thority developed primarily under the impetus given
by the internal organization of the Catholic Church.
Of the two organizational levels—the doctrinal and the
constitutional—it was the former that proved to be
the more provocative of distinctively Christian ideas
of authority.

The articulation of a Catholic doctrine shaped ideas
of authority by defining them vis-à-vis the ideas of
tradition on the one side and of reason on the other.
As the set of religious practices and beliefs hallowed
by long usage and predicated upon the universal con-
sensus of the faithful over the generations, tradition
took its place during the early Middle Ages alongside
Scripture, official administrative position, and canon
law as separate, frequently competing, subheadings of
authority. This position was eroded away by the
growth of papal power and the consolidation of a
hierarchical official order within the Church, until by


the end of the Investiture conflict in the twelfth cen-
tury the idea of tradition as an explicit kind of authority
had all but disappeared. It was subordinated to papal
discretion, absorbed into official canonical jurispru-
dence, or, alternatively, distilled into constitutional
doctrines of conciliar authority (Morrison, pp. 33,
345-46, 354-55). Among the sources of doctrinal au-
thority, tradition clearly represented what was most
distinctive in the original idea of uncoercive authority.
The historical process which made the definition of it
a function of the claimants to official authoritative
power in the Church reflected the process of unification
and subjection undergone by the idea itself.

The shifting theological relationship of authority and
reason shows, mutatis mutandis, a similar tendency
toward the collapsing of authority's distinctive flexibil-
ity. The history of this relationship is tortuous, for it
assumed a different shape with each medieval theolo-
gian of consequence and, indeed, along with the issue
of reason and faith, was a prime topic for the articula-
tion of doctrinal conflicts. As in the case of the relations
between authority and tradition, the changing course
of the relations between authority and reason postu-
lated a change in the predominant idea of authority
as such.

In its early medieval phase the emphasis was on its
spiritual source, its personal incidence, its originative
function, and its practical effectiveness: it was the
active counterpart of faith; it was faith translated into
a rule for living in this world, compatible with the
faculty of reason, to which it furnished first principles.
In its middle phase authority became a bridging prin-
ciple, one of the crucial concepts which lent verisimil-
itude to the scholastic syntheses of transcendental
Christianity and Aristotelian naturalism by represent-
ing each overlap of faith and reason as an identifiable
principle. The idea of authority could have this func-
tion because of its inherited spectrum of meanings,
ranging from the claims of spirit to the demands of
power. In a figure like Aquinas Scripture and Aristotle
were dovetailed as “authorities,” and the idea of au-
thority itself could be used both for “the principle of
origins... in divine matters” and for the agency of
“coercive force” in “public” affairs (ed. Deferrari, pp.
96-97). The effect of the idea in its synthetic employ-
ment was to provide an ontological backing for the
dominion of some men over others: thus Aquinas could
assert authority to be the natural relationship of supe-
rior to inferior in any society of men, whether pre-
lapsarian or postlapsarian, on the principle that
through their guidance and direction the superiors
were the causes or authors of the actions of their
inferiors. In its late medieval phase the idea of author-
ity, which was disjoined from reason along with the
disjunction of faith and reason, tended itself increas-
ingly to become a quality of will and power. Duns
Scotus merged the worship due God for his authority
as “author” or “cause” of life with that due God for
his “omnipotence” (Scotus, VIII, 816-17). When John
of Paris distinguished between direction and dominion
as modes of control, he assigned the label “authority”
(modum auctoritatis) to dominion (ed. Alan Gewirth,
pp. xlix-1). Ockham finally epitomized the subjugation
of authority as a distinctive concept by denying it any
role as intermediary between faith and reason. The
disjunction between the realms of faith and reason
entailed, in this view, the primacy of the power of
will and of the principle of individuation within each
realm. In matters of faith, authority was subordinated
to the power of the Holy Spirit over individual con-
science. In matters of reason the authority both of logic
and the moral law was subordinate to individual exist-
ences and prescriptions created directly by divine

3. Institutional Authority. The early institutionally
conditioned idea of authority found its archetypal ex-
pression in the fifth-century formula of Pope Gelasius
I on the twofold government of the world: “the sacred
authority of the popes (auctoritas sacrata pontificum)
and the power of kings (potestas regalis), with the
former the greater of the two by virtue of the account
which the popes must render of the kings themselves
to God” (Ullmann, p. 23). Authority in this distinctive
phase had four characteristic connotations. First, it was
spiritual in the double sense that it was the direction
of men toward the salvation of their souls and that
its agency was separate from the agency of coercive
force. Second, it was unified in the double sense that
only a unified guidance could lead to man's single final
end—i.e., salvation—and that it was indivisible, in con-
trast to power, which could be divided. Third, it
was superior, in the sense that it prescribed what was
executed by the wielders of power. Finally, authority
was literally transitional in the sense that it was the
transfer into the temporal world of what was power
in the spiritual world.

In its internal ecclesiastical applications, conse-
quently, there was from the start the tendency toward
a terminological confusion of auctoritas and potestas,
since the inherited distinction between the capacity
to evoke assent and the right to command obedience
was blurred in its application to the “principate of the
Roman Church,” conceived to be a realm of spirit
innocent of physical coercion but yet ordained with
a spiritual “power of the keys.” “Plenary authority”
and “plenary power,” for example, were used inter-
changeably to characterize the administrative mandate
conferred on popes and bishops by election (Tierney,


pp. 143-46). By and large it may be said that down
to the thirteenth century the ideas of authority and
power tended to merge in their application within the
Roman Church but, as the persistence of the Gelasian
formula indicates, they retained their distinctive
meanings in their application to the relations between
the organized Church and the Christian society as a
whole. The net result was an attitude toward authority
which equipped its bearers with the power of ecclesi-
astical coercion in spiritual matters and with the influ-
ence to guide action in temporal matters.

But from the thirteenth century conditions both
within the Roman Church (heretical and conciliar
movements) and outside it (conflict with the temporal
powers) converged with the revival of classical modes
of thinking to produce a notable change in the medie-
val idea of authority. The change tended to blend the
meanings of the idea in the spiritual and temporal
realms of the Christian society, and to produce a sim-
plified notion of authority as the basis of coercive
power. Because spiritual authority within the Church
became disunited and disputed during this period,
Papalists and Conciliarists alike resolved the ecclesias-
tical ambiguity of authority and power in favor of the
more manageable idea of power, with the idea of
authority adduced simply to add the connotation of
rightful origin to the rightful title already inherent in
the idea of power. This idea of authoritative spiritual
power within the Roman Church had its analogue in
the relations between the emerging separate institu-
tions of church and state, for whether in the Papalist's
form of the Pope's “authority” in temporal affairs or
the Conciliarist acknowledgment of the temporal
ruler's independent “authority” over the externals of
ecclesiastical organization, the idea of authority in
church-state relations too became inseparable from
coercive dominion.

The Papalist version of the late medieval idea of
authority was the more explicit. The Papalist writers
came to rely increasingly upon the doctrine of the
“plenitude of power,” redefined during the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries so that it no longer signified
the circumscribed papal and episcopal “plenary au-
thority” within the Church, but now referred to the
Pope's exclusive and unlimited sovereignty, derived
from Christ through Saint Peter and applicable to
spiritual and temporal matters alike. Within the
Church this doctrine was accompanied by the emphasis
on “the power of jurisdiction”—i.e., the governmental
power over the Church transmitted from Christ to the
Pope alone—and on the subordination of the “sacra-
mental power” bequeathed by Christ to all priests
(Wilks, pp. 375-77). Outside the Church, the Pope's
plenitude of jurisdictional power was called “author
ity” no longer, as in the Gelasian formula, to charac-
terize a mere spiritual superiority over the power of
temporal rulers but to denote the “supreme temporal
power” itself, as it was possessed in its integrity by
the Pope before he delegated it to be exercised by
secular rulers under his direction. Papal authority, in
short, was the form taken by the Pope's spiritual power
in the temporal arena.

Against this papal offensive, the intellectual defend-
ers of the secular rulers sought in the main to make
a cogent doctrine out of the traditional pluralism in
the medieval attitude toward authority. This they did
by streamlining the functional multiplicity of the sev-
eral ordained authorities into a dual track of ecclesias-
tical authority in the realm of spirit and an Imperial
or royal authority in the temporal realm, with this
“regal authority” equivalent in function and superior
in power to pontifical authority. Only the Conciliar
writers, engaging the Papalists all along the extended
and wavering line between the spiritual and temporal
realms, developed a mirror image of the Papalist idea
of authority and carried even further the idea of au-
thority as the absolute spiritual ground of political
power. Where the Papalists used the ambiguous mean-
ing of the “church” (ecclesia) to include within its
spiritual power a spiritual aspect of the temporal
realm, the Conciliarists used the ambiguous meaning
of the “state” (civitas or regnum) to include a temporal
aspect of the spiritual realm. Moreover, when the
Conciliarists argued Christ's direct authorization of “a
general council composed of all Christians or of the
weightier part of them” as the “principal authority”
in the Church and carried it over by implied analogy
to “the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part
thereof” as the “primary authority” in the state
(Marsilius, pp. 45, 280), they placed a Christian im-
primatur on the pyramidal model of political authority,
operating through representation, to counter the
Papalist legacy of the hieratic model of authority,
operating through delegation.

Reformations of the sixteenth century initiated
nothing essentially new in the principle of authority,
but they did mark the denouement of its medieval
stage. The Protestant reformers sealed off further de-
velopment of the Christian idea of authority by merely
recapitulating its medieval development. But while
they did not significantly change the idea, they did
significantly change the conditions to which the idea
applied, and they contributed thereby to the change
of the idea under other auspices. Whether Luther's
break with the Roman Church is explained in terms
of religious individualism, arrogant disobedience, or the
revolt of the son against the father, it is clear that what
he wanted was the institution of different authorities


in religion rather than no authorities in religion, and
it is clear too that the main-line Protestant reformers—
Zwingli and Calvin—followed him in this. To all three,
the Word of God was the supreme objective authority
for all individuals; this authority took a form external
to individuals, since it was manifest in Scripture, an
externality epitomized by radicals' reference to the
main-liners' Scripture as the “paper Pope.”

For the determination of right doctrine and the
correct administration of essential sacraments, Scrip-
tural authority was vested in community churches, and
the individual's submission to their transmitted author-
ity thus became necessary to salvation. Submission to
the temporal authorities was prescribed, finally, for all
occasions save the most flagrant political violation of
God's Word, on the grounds of the divine ordination
of the temporal hierarchy to make possible the un-
trammelled spiritual operation of the true Church
(Davies, passim). This generic position of the main
Protestant church-fathers shows even their original
conception of their mission to have been not the over-
throw of ecclesiastical authority in the name of reli-
gious liberty but the reversion to the early spiritual
type of religious authority against the late medieval
tendency to make the ideas of authority and power

And yet the Protestant churches of the Reformation
developed precisely in the same direction as the Cath-
olic Church which they attacked. Whether in the form
of theocracies or of state churches, ecclesiastical au-
thority and political power tended increasingly to
merge in Lutheranism, Zwinglianism, Calvinism. The
sectarian movements of the radical Reformation re-
sisted the merger precisely as the heretical movements
of the later Middle Ages had resisted the merger of
authority and power in the Roman Church, and even
more strongly in the Protestant than in the Catholic
case, the radical sects carried their despair of official
authoritative churches to the point of condemning
authority along with power in all matters of religion.
They called instead upon the immediacy of the Holy
Spirit in individuals to replace the authority of tradi-
tion, community, and Scripture itself in the mediation
of salvation. And when the Protestant churches—
notably the Calvinist—did devise a doctrine of resist-
ance to authority in the name of religious liberty during
the latter part of the sixteenth century, it was given
the same label (monarchomach) and it took the same
form as the concurrent Catholic doctrine of resistance
to Protestant authority—a form that meant not a new
development away from the idea of ecclesiastical
authoritative power but only a denial of it to the wrong
Church. The problem of authority versus liberty in the
determination of ultimate religious truth would, to be
sure, develop into a perennial and provocative concern
of Protestant theology, but it did so only in tandem
with the more general confrontation which had its
main focus in a secular sphere.

The competition of analogous Protestant and Cath-
olic doctrines of authoritative power marked the outer
limit of creative religious authority. The situation of
several ecclesiastical authorities striving for the mo-
nopolistic direction of coercive power was obviously
untenable. Since the idea of authority had come to
provide a necessary higher unity for the collective
thought and action of human communities, a more
unified authority than the competing claims to divine
ordination could afford became an urgent intellectual
and practical necessity. The resulting shift in the locus
of authority, from transcendent religion to natural
politics, and the concomitant revival of its autonomous
function, was part of the new mentality which intro-
duced the modern period of Western history.


The third period in the history of the idea of author-
ity comprised the era from the late sixteenth to the
late nineteenth centuries, the era in which the realm
of politics became its central arena and the contiguous
realm of nature was consistently invoked as its source.
The older hybrid traditions of authority as the titles
of one or another power-wielding hierarchy—family,
church, aristocracy—persisted in the new era, but
political authority now overshadowed them, paradox-
ically as the one kind of authority that underwent
change by being distinguished in principle from the
power it exercised. It was also the one idea of authority
that was to have a continuous history in the period,
hardening gradually into an attitude which subjected
political authority once more to the idea of power.
But if this rigidification of the idea of political authority
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a fa-
miliar process, there was one development of authority
in its political period which was entirely unprece-
dented: a liberal response to politicized authority arose
which for the first time accepted the necessity of power
to authority, conceived human freedom as the anti-
thesis of rather than an assumption for the exercise
of authority, and rejected the very principle of author-
ity as a dominant value of the human community. The
categorical character of this break in the development
of the idea makes it advisable to distinguish the early-
modern from the modern phase of political authority.

1. The Early-Modern Idea of Political Authority.
The pioneering political theorists of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries detached human nature from its
upper linkages to the sources of divine, moral, and
ancestral authority and retained its lower linkage with


men's political communities. The cause of the detach-
ment was the conflict among the religious, ethical, and
familial principles of authority which vitiated their
crucial function of providing an unquestioned unified
basis of social organization, and the result was to con-
nect nature with politics as the rationally necessary
source of the social unity that states were achieving
in practice. Authority was now conceived to be the
voluntary creation of natural individuals for the ex-
pressly political function of providing the coercive
power of governments with an origin and a purpose
which transcended this power but was directly relevant
to it.

The idea of authority thus became the characteristic
principle connecting natural with political man; the
orbit of authority became an outermost ring of politics.
The establishment of this uncoercive sphere within an
expanded realm of politics meant more than the formal
dislocation of authority from the acknowledged supe-
riority of higher over lower realms in the human hier-
archy to the acknowledged superiority of the final over
the instrumental orbits of the same realm. The shift
also brought with it a substantive alteration in the
grounds of authority: whereas the older mediation had
stressed the origins of the authority as the primary
ground of its validity, the newer stressed the insepara-
bility of the origins of the authority and the ends for
which it was originated.

One of the consequences of this change, obviously,
was to prepare the way theoretically for the modern
emphasis on the attainment of ends as the dominant
criterion of the validity of authority. But a more im-
mediate consequence was the paradoxical authoritari-
anism of the early-modern phase whereby the political
authority produced by the joint decision of roughly
equal individuals was deemed by those individuals to
be more irresistible than had been the traditional au-
thorities who were part of the fundamental structure
of the universe. The obvious reason for the in-
tensification of a political authority theoretically
grounded in the free consent of its constituent subjects
was the voluntary factor originally built into it, but
more important for the irreversibility of this authority
was the stipulation of social unity as a final end for
this authority which transcended any particular exer-
cise or abuse of its coercive powers.

Integral as this distinctive idea of political authority
proved to be, its formulation was the gradual product
of the various emphases brought to bear by different
early-modern theorists on the several aspects of the
process. Machiavelli, for example, suspect and misun-
derstood as his apparent focus on naked power may
have been, did contribute the detachment of the au-
thority of divine providence, Christian morality, and
“ancestral usages” from politics. However ambiguous
his position on the ends of politics was, moreover, his
distinction between the insecurity of de facto princely
power, on the one hand, and the pre-coercive authority
of the people who empower their elected officials or
the uncoercive authority of the “legislator” who estab-
lishes the principles of government and then divests
himself of its power, on the other, adumbrated the
differential origins of political power and authority as

Jean Bodin, in turn, was ambiguous on the origins
of political authority, attributing it alternately to the
free choice of family-heads and “to all those who have
recognized power to command another,” but he con-
tributed to the conversion of old antitheses between
political and suprapolitical goals into a hierarchy of
instrumental and final ends, appropriate to the exercise
of political power and authority, respectively. From
the point of view of power—i.e., “necessity”—the
material activities of the state have priority, followed
by its moral activities and its intellectual activities in
that order. From the point of view of the state's au-
thority—i.e., “dignity”—the priorities are precisely
reversed (Bodin, pp. 5-18).

For the combination of these factors making for an
independent idea of political authority—that is, for the
combination of natural origins prior to the exercise of
power with the final ends exceeding the exercise of
power—we must look to Hobbes. Positing a natural
equality of human capacities, wants, and necessities
which abolished the natural and moral hierarchies
behind traditional authority and positing too an idea
of power as a natural force which “no man can transfer
... in a natural manner,” Hobbes developed an explicit
definition of political authority which was both consis-
tent with the presumption of extra-political equality
and indispensable to the establishment of a distinctively
political—that is, of transferred—power. Hobbes de-
fined authority literally and exclusively in terms of
authorization—that is, as the “right of doing any act”
which is commissioned by an “author,” who has the
original right, to a “representative,” whose actions in
this commission continue to be “owned” by the original
author and are thus “done by Authority” (Hobbes, pp.
83-85). This general definition of authority, moreover,
was obviously preliminary to the political definition
of the sovereign as the “common representer,” “one
person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual
covenants one with another, have made themselves
every one the author, to the end he may use the
strength and means of them all... ” (pp. 87, 89). The
authorities of individual men are thereby unified into
the one authority of the sovereign, since each member
of the multitude avows himself in advance to be “the


author” of the acts undertaken by the “one will” of
the sovereign. It is thus through the medium of author-
ity that “power and strength” are conveyed to and
legitimated in the sovereign.

This function of political authority in Hobbes and
his followers was obviously an attempt to re-think the
origins of temporal government so as to root it in the
new atomized and unhierarchical conception of reality:
political authority in this sense was the concept which
represented the conversion of ultimate individual wills
into the support of a single collective power. But the
function of political authority here was also crucially
related to the ends of temporal government. Ostensi-
bly, the end of the state in Hobbes is simple: “peace
and common defence” (ibid., p. 90). Actually, however,
this formula masks an apparent dilemma between the
prudential versus the moral character of this end and
of the obligations prescribed by it. On the one hand,
the sovereign power to achieve the common peace and
defence is the product of a positive calculation by
which individuals “confer” their natural power, in
exchange for the benefit of security; the obverse is the
negative calculation whereby each individual limits his
natural power over things in consideration of an
equally tangible “fear of punishment” by the sovereign
power. But, on the other hand, Hobbes also insisted
that when individuals “confer” their natural power
they do more than merely exchange it for visible bene-
fits or limit it in view of visible punishments. The
conferment of individual powers upon a sovereign
power creates a moral obligation of obedience over
and above any finite calculation of benefits because the
subject has “authorized” every action of the sovereign
in advance and because the subject is bound by his
own “intention” in instituting government. Both
grounds refer to a source of obligation which tran-
scends the public power—that is, to political authority.

The expansibility of the state by the dimension of
its authority so clearly implied in the curious flexibility
of the rigorous Hobbes, was precisely stated by his
follower, Samuel Pufendorf, in his correlative concepts
of the ruler's “imperfect rights” and the subject's “im-
perfect obligations” (Pufendorf, II, 289). These rights
and obligations referred to rulers' prescriptions and
citizens' compliance which were both valid and unen-
forceable. Here, exactly, was the operational increment
added by political authority to political power.

2. The Modern Idea of Political Authority. The
early-modern consensus on political authority as the
valid authorization of political power developed into
two opposing attitudes toward authority. A liberal
attitude, by and large predominant henceforward,
made authority an aspect of political power and re-
duced it to the status of a necessary evil, inevitably
opposed and normatively inferior to individual free-
dom. A conservative attitude resurrected the autonomy
of extra-political authority—that is, of the old social
and ontological hierarchies—and made political power
their logical consequence. This conservative version
stressed the voluntary and even spontaneous commit-
ment of subordinates to their authorities, and con-
trasted it to the potential reality of a democratic dicta-
torship which made the enforcement of equal liberty
an aspect of political power.

In each of these versions the inferior principle was
acknowledged as valid in its own sphere, however
inferior: the liberals reluctantly recognized a delimited
sphere of authoritative power, and the conservatives
admitted the validity of an individual liberty whose
exercise must be regulated. Despite their overt conflict
over the value of authority, liberals and conservatives
thus shared mirror images of the proportionate relation
between authority and liberty. They also shared a
susceptibility to the intellectual currents of the modern
period. The actual content of modern ideas of political
authority came from the succession of empirical, ideal-
ist, and scientist intellectual modes which affected
liberals and authoritarians alike. The sequence pro-
duced, as exemplars, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and Mill
in the liberal school, and Burke, Hegel, and Comte
in the conservative school.

The initial assumptions of the liberal position were
set by Locke when he used the empirical employment
of reason to posit the primacy of intellectual freedom,
and the natural-law idea of government to posit the
primacy of freedom in politics. For Locke and the
empiricists who followed him, intellectual authority
was associated both with the repressiveness of sectarian
dogma and with the compulsion of deductive reasoning
from putatively self-evident axioms on the Cartesian
model. What was freely embraced as self-evident by
some must be taken on trust by others, and what was
necessarily concluded from it must take on the aspect
of coercion from the outside. In politics, analogously,
the empiricists associated authority with power and,
by virtue of this association, remained chronically sus-
picious of it. Locke persisted in refuting as invalid
“paternal power” that which Filmer justified as
“fatherly authority,” and Locke himself referred to the
legislative sovereign, which he so stringently limited,
indiscriminately as the “Supream Authority” and the
“Supream Power” (Filmer, pp. 58, 62; Locke, pp. 162,

But the generally hostile attitude of the empiricists
toward authority, based upon their view of it as an
aspect of power, was qualified by their acknowl-
edgment of an uncoercive dimension of it, transitional
and subordinate in scope but adequate to explain the


limited validity which was conceded to authoritative
power. Thus Locke implicitly accepted the temporary
intellectual authority of men who show the way to
truth through their exemplary use of the “natural
faculties” common to all over those who first receive
such truth as “imperfect and unsteady notions.” In
politics he explicitly provided for a valid if sporadic
autonomous role for authority when he legitimated the
exercise of supreme legislative power over society only
“by Authority received” from the society itself; and
the supreme power, therefore, was a trustee of this
authority (Locke, p. 374). Since Locke declared the
supreme power to be sacred and inviolable in its ex-
ecution of the trust, save for egregious violation, the
original authority was confined to an emergency role
while the transferred authority simply legitimated the
daily exercise of political power.

Rousseau pioneered the application of idealism to
the liberal idea of authority, laying down the doctrines
that would run as assumptions from Kant to Giuseppe
Mazzini. The anti-authoritarian cast of liberal idealism
was patent in Rousseau's use of equality to provide
the uniformity which had been the traditional function
of authority. He rejected any “natural authority” of
one man over another, and he made no distinction
between the invalid claims to such authority and the
invalid exercise of power by the claimant. Moreover,
his labelling of the general will interchangeably as the
“sovereign power” and the “sovereign authority” left
little autonomous scope for an idea of authority be-
tween the equal rights of the constituent individuals
and the collective legislative power into which they
were immediately converted. Thus an act of sover-
eignty on the one hand involves no “superior” and
“inferior” or even any conformity of one person's will
to another's; but on the other hand it is guaranteed
by “the public force” (Rousseau, II, 27-45). The social
contract produces, not authority as in seventeenth-
century theory, but the transmutation of one kind of
liberty (natural) into another (civil and moral).

But Rousseau did provide for one kind of exceptional
authority, distinct both from the citizen's rights and
the government's powers. In appearance an atavistic
classical revival, it foreshadowed the one generally
acceptable function of autonomous authority in mod-
ern times. Rousseau resorted to the initiative of the
unofficial, extralegal “Legislator” who, “capable of
using neither force nor reason, must recur to an au-
thority of another order, which can engage men with-
out violence and persuade without convincing them”
(Rousseau, II, 51-53). This was an archaic formulation
of the inimitable innovative role of authority. In the
form of a temporary dictatorship of the virtuous elite
who would inaugurate regimes of democratic freedom
Robespierre and Mazzini would modernize this role
of authority into the one kind of power that was not
reducible to men's liberties and yet would be a final
resort of liberals in search of a lever for change.

Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, each in his own
way, applied the logic of science to the principles of
liberal idealism and thereby developed the liberal atti-
tude toward authority into a definite but compound
concept of authority. In this liberal concept authority
was indissolubly joined to power, but there was in it
a categorical distinction between the conservative
function of authority which subordinates it to the needs
of any established power and the innovative function
of authority which subordinates the executive powers
to its own transcendent design. For Marx, authority
in the first function was a simple rationalization of
oppressive power and material exploitation; as such,
it has characterized every stable society. Authority in
the second sense would be embodied in the dictatorship
of the proletariat, as the transitional agency with the
function of directing political power beyond the class
purposes which are essential to political power into
the classless society which dispenses with political
power. “Revolution,” admitted Engels in his article
“On Authority,” “is the most authoritarian thing there
is” (F. Engels, “Über das Autoritätsprinzip (Dell' Auto-
rità),” in Die Neue Zeit, 32, 1 [1914]).

Mill articulated his idea of authority as a principle
of control even more precisely when he pronounced
the most prominent theme in modern history to be the
persistent “struggle between Liberty and Authority”
in which liberty was the superior principle and author-
ity, in the sense of political power abetted by the social
tyranny of the majority, the threat to it (Mill, pp.
121-33). In the main line of Mill's argument, authority,
power, and compulsion were equivalent, and they
represented the collective antithesis of liberty—
conceived as exclusively individual—which must nec-
essarily either limit them or be limited by them. “The
authority of society over the individual” was inevitably
a coercive authority, using political power and social
constraints as equivalent means and validly employed
only in the compulsive function of enforcing the pro-
tection of its members from injury. In his essay “On
Liberty,” Mill denied the whole category of uncoercive
authority which had traditionally mediated between
official power and individual freedom, for he rejected
the functions it was designed to perform for individuals
in favor of functions to be performed by individuals
for themselves. When he addressed himself to the
time-honored function of authority in producing social
unity, Mill not only denied authority as a means but
repudiated the hitherto sacred quest for unity as an
end, exalting individuality and diversity in its stead.


For men to act “in a way prescribed to them by au-
thority, and, therefore, by the necessary conditions of
the case, the same for all,” is to follow “a narrow theory
of life” (Mill, pp. 177-78).

But like other liberals Mill too resurrected an auton-
omous authority as a kind of Rdeus ex machina to initiate
movement between the rigidly balanced spheres of
freedom and power. Mill's theoretical stasis resulted
from the antinomy in his theory of anti-authoritarian
democracy: the majority of the individuals whom he
declared liberated from superior authority themselves
formed a coercive uniform authority over the rest,
imposing thereby not only a new kind of egalitarian
tyranny but, by crushing originality, a paralysis of
human affairs. “No government by a democracy or a
numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in
the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it
fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except
insofar as the sovereign Many have let themselves be
guided... by the counsels and influence of a more
highly gifted and instructed One or Few” (ibid., pp.

Characteristically, in view of the political orienta-
tion of the period, Mill proposed that this innovative
authority occupy a higher, uncoercive level within
government itself. His formula for government was
“the greatest dissemination of power consistent with
efficiency, but the greatest possible centralization of
information and diffusion of it from the center,” and
he expected that in contrast to its limited “actual
power” the central governmental organ of this function
would issue “advice,” which “would naturally carry
much authority” (ibid., pp. 227-28). Thus in the final
analysis, even this remnant of independent innovating
authority remained connected with the authority in
power, with the effect of merely softening the harsh
impact of necessary coercion upon human liberty.

Conservative theorists of authority between the
mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries re-
versed the relationships posited by the liberals and
emerged with a different idea of authority itself. Where
the liberals aligned authority with power and ac-
knowledged a subordinate place to both vis-à-vis free-
dom, conservatives aligned freedom with power and
acknowledged a subordinate place to both vis-à-vis
authority. Since the theory of conservatism (as distinct
from men's hoary conservative attitude) arose to
counter the offensive of liberal theory the corre-
spondence is hardly surprising. The conservatives, like
the liberals, acknowledged the association of authority
with political power—in view of the period's actual
focus on political and constitutional issues they could
hardly do otherwise—but where the liberals acknowl-
edged persistent authority as a function of power the
conservatives acknowledged power as an outgrowth of
persistent authority. And where liberals tended to con-
ceive the relationship of authority and liberty disjunc-
tively, as an opposition of coercion and freedom, rec-
oncilable 'only through the intermittent innovative
function of authority, the conservatives conceived the
relationship conjunctively. For them men's liberty and
the authoritative control over its valid extent were
complements; men's continuous assent to the perma-
nent ordering function of authority made for a constant
harmony between liberty and coercion.

The conservative theory of authority first arose from
Edmund Burke's empirical approach to the stratified
reality of the eighteenth-century political society in
his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He
made ideas out of the facts of most men's persistent
loyalties to their traditional institutions, and deliber-
ately opposed them to the despotic union of freedom
and force. Declaring that “liberty, when men act in
bodies, is power,” Burke invoked an organic compound
of accepted institutions, traditions, and beliefs—a
compound covered by the idea of autonomous authori-
ties—to restrain the liberty and shape the power. When
it acts “as if in the presence of canonized forefathers,
the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and
excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.” The gov-
erning power, similarly, should be viewed as consti-
tuted by a whole series of “establishments”—“estab-
lished church,” “established monarchy,” “established
aristocracy,” and “established democracy”—whose
function is to build the authority of religious principle,
fundamental law, permanent property, and local at-
tachment into the very exercise of political power.
Thus is “power” rendered “gentle” by the support of
“ancient opinions and rules of life” (Burke, pp. 19, 33,
43, 62, 90-91, 105-08).

The same idealistic impulse which developed the
idea of liberty into the doctrine of freedom elaborated
the revived appreciation of tradition into a new phi-
losophy of authority. Starting from the insight vouch-
safed by the individualistic premisses of the liberal
spokesmen, conservative idealists approached authority
as a fundamental type of interpersonal relations. The
most profound of these—indeed, the most penetrating
and fruitful analysis of authority ever written—was
undoubtedly in Hegel's discussion of “Lordship and
Bondage” (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) in his Phe-
nomenology of Mind
of 1807 (Hegel, Phenomenology,
pp. 228-40). As in the rest of the Phenomenology the
reference of the analysis was at once historical and
ontological: the master-servant relationship of a past
era was the historical form of the universal relationship
of independence and dependence among individuals
which has been built into every consciousness as a


persistent category of human experience. The differen-
tiation of individuals into superiors and subordinates,
in this analysis, is a necessary moment in the essential
process of the individual's realizing his own identity
by becoming conscious of himself as an independent
being. This process is a common social enterprise be-
cause individuals can become certain of their own
identities only when they are confirmed by the recog-
nition of others, and the distinction between superior
and subordinate consciousnesses is an essential mode
of recognition in this common enterprise. The distinc-
tion is essential originally because there is an inevitable
superiority of the individual who secures recognition
of his independence over the individual who recognizes
it by serving him. But if the ascertainment of individual
identity through recognition thus starts from an initial
one-directional hierarchy of independent and depend-
ent individuals, with equal necessity its realization
requires the development of reciprocity and of mutual
recognition. The relationship thus begins to assume the
character of a division of function within the common
enterprise of achieving the self-identity of all individ-
uals. For the master becomes dependent upon the
servant for the recognition of his independence and
requires an independence in the servant for this exter-
nal recognition; the servant, analogously, internalizes
the independence he recognizes in the ruler and con-
firms his own identity in the external form which he
gives to his labor for the master.

The crucial features of Hegel's analysis were, first,
the demonstration that the recognition of the superior
by the subordinate for his function in an enterprise
common to both is the fundamental factor in an au-
thoritative relationship and, second, his explicit infer-
ence that this relationship must inevitably transcend
the power of the master over the servant to entail the
mutual dependence of their functions and the recipro-
cal independence of their identities as superior and

Thus unlimited hierarchical power, the original form
of authority, was essentially modified in Hegel's scheme
by the equalizing exchange of its qualities between the
superior who becomes dependent and the subordinate
who gets oriented toward independence as each looks
to the other in their joint realization of authority. From
this scheme two consequences could follow: the master-
servant dialectic could proceed to the complete equal-
ization and mutual identification of the parties or the
original hierarchy and determinate identities of supe-
rior and subordinate could be synthesized in an open-
ended process which would preserve the essential ele-
ments of both. The Young Hegelians, including Marx,
would draw the first conclusion. Hegel himself pro-
ceeded to draw the second. He produced the standard
conservative philosophy of political authority, in which
the publicly recognized political power of the sover-
eign over his subjects was the mold which gave a
hierarchical form to the ultimate values of free indi-
viduals. Political authority furnished the only principle
of hierarchy whose origin was acceptable to free indi-
viduals and whose purpose transcended the range of
its original power. For Hegel, this authority of the
state, vis-à-vis its constituent individuals and families,
was both “their higher power” and “their immanent
purpose.” The function of the sovereign monarch is
precisely to unite authority and power in the state.
The princely power, and the other powers of the state
a fortiori, are valid only as organs in the service of
the “unconditioned,” “self-starting,” and “self-deter-
mined” authority of the monarch to realize the
moral unity of the state (Hegel, Philosophie des
pp. 209-16, 240-45). For Hegel, and for
conservative idealists in general, the coercive powers
of these organs are appropriate instruments of this
moral authority.

Scientism, in the shape of French positivism, pro-
vided still a third dimension to the conservative doc-
trine of authority. Positivism as such, with its rejection
of belief and its insistence upon observation, experi-
ence, experiment, and a posteriori reasoning, seemed
to offer a hostile environment for ideas of authority,
as Mill's version of the doctrine attests, and even in
its native French form it would sponsor progressive
sociology as well as authoritarian politics. But the
conservative political line of positivist origin was not
therefore merely fortuitous. The commitment to au-
thority which seemed eccentric and ambiguous in
Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, would be
regularized into firm political principle in later posi-
tivists like Hippolyte Taine, Charles Maurras, and Vil-
fredo Pareto. For the mechanics of scientific political
conservatism it is nonetheless to Comte that we must
look. His combination of the modern claims for social
science with the equally modern view of political
authority as the official exercise of power first revealed
the distinctive feature in the modern conservative idea
of political authority—the insistence both upon the
immunity of social superiors from political power and
upon their capacity to employ political power.

Comte explicitly posed the problem by declaring the
crucial issue for society to be precisely the relationship
between spiritual and temporal authority. Spiritual
authorities—i.e., the intellectual elite—direct social
belief through “neither force nor reason,” but rather
through the “confidence spontaneously accorded intel-
lectual and moral superiority.” Temporal authorities—
i.e., the political governors—control social action
through the application of “practical or material


power.” Comte's overt solution of their relationship
was to assign spiritual authority innovative priority in
the direction of social progress (in “dynamic sociol-
ogy”) and political authority conservative priority in
the maintenance of social order (in “static sociology”),
and to insist upon their mutual separation and inviola-
bility. Actually, however, he went beyond this nominal
solution, which scarcely differed in principle from the
liberal Mill's, to the characteristic conservative device
of connecting the uncoercive authority of the innovator
or the founder with the coercive authority of the organs
which would enforce the innovation. Comte created
the conservative model of this device by stipulating
the orderly mission of the innovation and the quasi-
political structure of the innovating authority. Thus
the function of spiritual authority in the static positivist
society of the future will be to educate men continu-
ously in the understanding of the social order as a
whole. As such, spiritual authority was associated with
temporal power in the sense of “attaching morality
to politics as the latter's point of departure.” By dint
of this attachment, in turn, spiritual authority assumed
the equivalent of a political structure. This authority
is a “moral government”; it “rules ideas and morals”;
it must “institute a system of public and private man-
ners (habitudes) favoring the growth of the feeling of
social solidarity, on the model of [medieval] Catholic-
ism”; it arbitrates social disputes and includes interna-
tional relations within its competence. In its social
monopoly over education, the intellectual authority is
“decisive,” as is the temporal authority in the sphere
of politics (Comte, II, 485-602).

Comte's innovative intellectual authority may be
viewed as the limiting case for the modern conservative
idea of authority in general. Whenever the function
of nonpolitical authority was conceived to be the ex-
tension of human community rather than training for
the rights of man, this authority was deemed both
continuous with and formative of valid political au-
thority. Whether such nonpolitical authority was pro-
gressive and intellectual like Comte's or traditional and
corporate like Taine's, its political role was made theo-
retically possible by the osmotic exchange through
which conservative theorists modified the principled
independence of social from political authority. They
admitted a social equivalent of political power in the
functioning of social authority and a moral equivalent
of social authority in the ultimate ends of political
power. They sought thereby to regularize and modern-
ize the principle of hierarchy which was being com-
pressed by the dominant liberal temper of nine-
teenth-century Europe to the status of a chronic
anachronism with at best a transitional validity.


In the recent period of its history, the idea of au-
thority has been examined most intensively in its social
context and the idea has been developed most reveal-
ingly in social science and social theory. As in the other
main periods and contexts of its development, two
distinct stages must be identified. From the late nine-
teenth century to the 1920's changes in the approach
to authority were embodied especially in the writings
of sociologists who took over from the preceding pe-
riod the integral association of authority and power
in politics but who sought to work out autonomous
roles for social authority as such, consonant with the
autonomy of the social science which they were estab-
lishing. In its second stage the ideas of social authority
have been reunited with political power both approv-
ingly in the ideology of fascist totalitarianism and
reprovingly in the equally total revulsion of the
New—i.e., post-communist—Left from it.

1. Sociology of Authority. Because they reflected
the new preeminence of industrial society as the pri-
mary unit of human association and the main arena
of collective activity, the great pioneers of sociology
assiduously recast authority into a social relation signi-
fying a voluntary or conventional interaction categor-
ically detached from its political connection with
coercive power. But because this early age of the
industrial society was also a period of democratization
these founders of sociology had also to take into ac-
count the interpenetration of society and state. They
tended also to be political sociologists who approached
politics as a special kind of social relation. Hence they
sought to develop the idea of autonomous social au-
thorities which were independent of the modern state
in their origins but were integrated into it, as a social
dimension of politics, in their contemporary effects.
They thus carried one stage further the sociological
politics of the conservative positivists and reversed
their priorities: where the positivists extended the state
into society and applied political criteria of coercion
to social relations, the sociologists extended society into
the state and sought to develop double-edged concepts
appropriate to the intersection.

The only pure—i.e., spontaneous and uncoercive—
social authorities in the new sociology tended to be
dead authorities. Almost invariably these authorities
were identified as prestigious individuals, patriarchal
elders, hallowed traditions, or divinely anointed men
and offices whose origins in and relevance to an earlier
stage of society were emphatically acknowledged by
the sociologists. They also acknowledged the persist-
ence of such authorities into modern times, to be sure,
but only as atavisms. Thus the early Émile Durkheim


(1893) assigned authority to the declining repressive
type of society and equality to the progressing organic
type. “The authority of the collective conscience is...
in large part composed of the authority of tradition,”
and, in turn, “it is the authority of age [the old people,
the unique intermediary between the present and the
past] which gives tradition its authority.” Both of these
associated authorities—of tradition and the elders—
“necessarily diminish” along with the archaic, seg-
mental type of society from which they come
(Durkheim, Division of Labor, pp. 291-93).

The sociologists' atavistic definition of social author-
ity received a precise terminological confirmation from
Max Weber, divergent as his sociological assumptions
were from Durkheim's in other respects. Weber care-
fully distinguished from the concept of “power”
(Macht) the “more precise sociological concept of 'au-
thority'” (Herrschaft), defining power as “any proba-
bility of imposing one's will within a social relationship
even against resistance” and authority as “the proba-
bility of securing obedience to definite commands from
a relevant group of men” (Weber, Grundriss, pp.
28-29). Weber's general definition of authority was
obviously designed to include within the sociological
concept the social dimension of political “commands”
which produced obedience without coercion, but, as
the connotation of Herrschaft—lordship or dominion—
indicates, this general definition enclosed an ambiguity
between the more or less compelling motives of obedi-
ence. Weber made no explicit distinctions of principle
within authority as Herrschaft, since he acknowledged
“the belief in legitimacy” to be the indispensable basis
of all its forms, but in his elaboration of the three main
types of authority a verbal distinction appeared which
reflected a subtle differentiation within his idea of
authority. When analyzing the concept of Herrschaft
in the context of the “compliance,... the will to obey”
on the part of its objects, Weber added the imported
term Autorität in apposition with Herrschaft, and in
his analysis of the three legitimate bases of Herrschaft
he applied Autorität to the charismatic and traditional
types of authority but only Herrschaft to the legal, or
bureaucratic, type (ibid., p. 122; Weber, Religions-
I, 268-73). Since Weber thought of the
three types as successively dominant in the develop-
ment of society he was implying a distinctive connota-
tion of authority—Autorität—for the two types he
recognized frankly to be primarily representative of
“the past” and to extend only “as survivals” into the

The obvious point of this historical approach to
social authority was to indicate as sociological fact
what had for some three centuries been proposed as
anthropological principle: that the religious and natu-
ral hierarchies, such as the church and the family,
which had traditionally anchored the social roots of
authority were now declining institutions, supported
rather by the inertia of past social relations than by
relevance to contemporary society. But this empirical
confirmation was not the main function of the social
analysis. Its main function was rather to set in relief
the separate identity of the principle of authority
which was relevant to the contemporary industrial
society. This modern principle of authority had to be
defined both in terms of the new dependence upon
the rational calculations of coercive power which dis-
tinguished it from the outmoded autonomous social
authorities of the past, and in terms of its inheritance
from these social authorities of the past. Hence the
sociologists analyzed the relationship of the old and
new authorities as both a difference of type and a
succession of stages for the purposes of demonstrating
the political categories dominating modern ideas of
authority and examining the modern role of the ata-
vistic social authorities. The results of these inquiries
indicated, in general, the actual role of modern ideas
of authority to be the social buttressing of political
hierarchy, but their normative role to be the rational
organization of the highly integrated modern industrial
society. For an example of the first kind of analysis
we may refer to Pareto's revealing categories. For an
example of the second we may refer to the collabo-
rative sociological study by Max Horkheimer's Institute
for Social Research on “authority and family.”

Although Pareto, in The Mind and Society, distin-
guished formally between “a governing, political elite”
and “a non-governing, non-political elite” within the
generic elite class and defined membership in this
generic elite by a superior capacity in any social activ-
ity whatsoever, he proceeded to work out the authority
of this elite in terms of its relations with political
power. It became, in the context of its authority over
the nonelite, simply “the higher stratum of society,
which usually contains the rulers”; their superior
capacities were epitomized into what was suitable for
“keeping them in power” and “exercising the functions
of government” and what kept them “willing enough
to use force” (Pareto, #2041-57). The circulation of
elites, moreover, is a process which is effected primar-
ily in the lower-class nonelite's moving into the gov-
erning elite and in elitists' dropping out of the govern-
ing class through a process which demonstrates the
inevitable triumph of superior political capacity,
wherever it may be found, over social “label.” Thus
Pareto's theory of the elite served both to blur the lines
between social and political dominant classes in favor


of the latter and to subordinate authority, as a tool
of social persuasion, to the ever-changing possessors
of political power.

In their monumental Studien über Autorität und
(Studies of Authority and the Family) of 1936,
the team of democratic socialists associated with
Horkheimer in the Institute for Social Research (Insti-
tut für Sozialforschung
) faced squarely the decisive
problem raised by the sociological approach to author-
ity: that social authority was a characteristic product
of the declining, pre-industrial stage of Western civili-
zation and yet that authority in some form remained
a prominent feature of the industrial age. Alerted by
the recent rise of fascist totalitarianism—in Hork-
heimer's words, by “the transition to so-called authori-
tative forms of state in the present period”—the Insti-
tute team, which included Erich Fromm and Herbert
Marcuse, saw authority, in the general sense of the
“affirmed dependence” of “the larger part of men”
upon “the smaller,” as a central category of “all forms
of society,” both archaic and modern, and they con-
ceived their mission to be the understanding of the
changing forms of authority which corresponded to the
changing forms of society (Studien, pp. 22-25).

The most striking theoretical contribution of the
project was embodied in the convergent demonstration
(by Horkheimer, Fromm, and Marcuse from their re-
spective sociological, socio-psychological, and socio-
philosophical approaches) of the underlying authori-
tarianism in the apparently anti-authoritarian attitudes
of the modern, liberal. “bourgeois” era. Liberals, in
this view, created a new form of authority by stressing
the voluntary submission of putatively free individuals
to natural, metaphysical, or psychic constraints which
were actually reified forms of authoritarian control by
a dominant social group. The Institute team acknowl-
edged, from this historical analysis, that authority had
both progressive (innovative) and reactionary (repres-
sive) functions for society. But they stopped short of
applying their models of authority to the mature in-
dustrial society of their own day. The signs of dissolu-
tion in the characteristically bourgeois forms of
authority—the forms of economic exploitation—were
both obviously perceptible and theoretically account-
able, but contemporary forms of authority to replace
them were not. For there was a profound difference
between the team's theoretical expectation of a “ra-
tional authority,” freely accepted by “the executors”
from “the directors” of joint social enterprises in the
common interest of both, and their actual perception
of the “total-authoritarian state” which made impossi-
ble “the hierarchy of authorities” in society necessary
for any “system of authority” (ibid., pp. 48, 134-35,

Nor was the problem posed by the gulf between the
normative and actual tendencies of modern authority
resolved by the Institute's empirical inquiry into the
structure of the contemporary family, which was ap-
proached not as an archaic locus of authority but rather
as a social microcosm of all authority. The empirical
section of the Studien was a progress report, stipulating
the completeness of the method and the incompleteness
of the result. Only the tentative indication of a social
split between a peasantry still involved in the patriar-
chal family, an urban working class inclined toward
the matriarchal family, and a lower middle class
(Mittelstand) caught indecisively between both tend-
encies, furnished a substantive confirmation of the crisis
of divided social authorities which was throwing the
social “education for authority” into the hands of the
totalitarian state (ibid., pp. 75, 304-18, 905).

2. Totalitarian Authority. Even the furthest socio-
logical advance toward the definition of a modern
principle of social authority fell short of the reality
of contemporary society and remained an essentially
historical definition. The further development of the
idea of authority lay with the political totalitarians and
with the radical antitotalitarians who have reacted
constructively against them. Both groups acknowledge
that the contemporary vacuum of social authority is
being filled with political instruments of social control.
Both the totalitarians and the radical antitotalitarians
of the twentieth century have thus gone a crucial step
beyond the conservatives and liberals of the nineteenth:
where nineteenth-century political thinkers had de-
fended the superiority of authority or liberty respec-
tively but admitted the autonomy and subordinate
validity of the opposite principle, their twentieth-
century socio-political successors asserted the exclusive
validity of authority or liberty respectively, and cate-
gorically worked out the entire absorption or denial
of the opposite principle.

The development of a distinctive totalitarian idea
of authority has been largely the work of fascists, for
however authoritarian in practice the structure and
policies of communist parties and regimes may be, they
correspond to no viable idea of authority. Soviet ideol-
ogy has tended to exacerbate the special ambiguity of
authority which arose when Lenin specified Marx's
innovative dictatorship of the majority to be in the
charge of a centralized and disciplined professional
vanguard who would use violence and terror to initiate
the regime of freedom—the ambiguity, that is, of
stressing power and liberty to the detriment of any
intermediary concept of authority. Thus the occasional
ideological concessions, during the Stalin period, to the
factual conversion of the revolutionary vanguard into
a long-term political and bureaucratic elite—conces-


sions manifest in such concepts of authority as “the
vocation of leadership” and the “monolithic Party”—
remained theoretically isolated, alternating with the
more frequent endorsement of democratic controls
from below and excluded from the dominant theory
which justifies present political power in terms of fu-
ture freedom from politics (Moore, passim).

Despite the actual penetration of state and party
into the society, moreover, communists distinguish in
principle between the political power which withers
away and the social organization which remains, a
distinction which again obscures the idea of authority.
For it remains uncertain, in doctrine, whether the
replacement of the government of men by the admin-
istration of things is making for a rational society with
an uncoercive guiding authority or for a free society
with a functionally differentiated collaboration among

For the fascists, on the contrary, the idea of authority
was so central to both their programs and their policies
as to escape the problems of interpretation which the
professed instrumentalism of their doctrine and the
glaring inconsistencies of their theory and practice
raise for so many of their other ideas. Certain of these
problems, indeed—like the relations between the con-
servative and revolutionary facets of fascism—are illu-
minated by the clarity of their approach to authority.
For the fascists, the political model of authority—the
recognition of legitimacy in the organs which actually
exercise the collective power of the society—was the
model of authority as such, and the conservative reten-
tion or the revolutionary dismantling of the existing
social authorities varied with the requirements of the
political model.

The political definition of social authority was ex-
plicit in La dottrina del Fascismo, published under
Mussolini's name but written by Giovanni Gentile,
philosopher of Italian Fascism: “The State not only is
authority which governs and molds individual wills
with laws and values of spiritual life, but it is also
power which makes its will prevail abroad.... For
the Fascist, everything is within the State and...
neither individuals or groups are outside the State....
For Fascism the State is an absolute, before which
individuals and groups are only relative” (Mussolini,
pp. 12-16, 33). The Fascist model of political authority
thus extended through the social structure and the
external spheres of private rights to implant the rule
of coercive power within the innermost spirit of the
individual. “The Fascist State... is the form and
internal norm of the whole person.... Fascism aims
at discipline, and at an authority which penetrates the
soul and rules there incontestably” (ibid., pp. 17-18).
For, as Gentile would explain in his own name, there
is no essential distinction between “the two terms
'State' and 'individual': far from being “a limit to his
liberty,” the State “is the universal aspect of the indi-
vidual,... the concrete actuality of his will” (Gentile,
pp. 124-31).

Like fascists in general, the German National So-
cialists used the idea of authority in a political context
to link the public power with an original principle
detached from any roots in and responsibility to social
tradition or democratic rights. In Mein Kampf Hitler
almost invariably referred to authority as “state au-
thority” (Staatsautorität) and he repeatedly charac-
terized the Nazi conception of authority as one “which
knows only an authority which proceeds downward
from the top and a responsibility which proceeds up-
ward from the bottom” (Speeches, I, 180, 201, 502).
But unlike the Italian Fascists, the Nazis denied the
cultural primacy of the State and hence undermined
the ultimacy of its authority as the valid source of
political power. For Hitler, the belief that the very
existence of the State is the ground of its sanctity and
requires “the dog-like veneration of the so-called state
authority” was a “legitimist” absurdity which distorted
a means into an end-in-itself. Actually, the State is “a
means to the end of maintaining and promoting the
racial nation (Volkstum),” and the State authority is
“the sovereign incorporation of a racial nation's in-
stinct and common will for self-preservation” (Mein
pp. 426, 433, 440). For the Nazis, then, politi-
cal authority was explicitly instrumental, and they
referred it, for its own legitimacy, to the suprapolitical
good of the race whose instrument it was. Here was
the basis in Nazi doctrine for the later claim, to be
made by Nazis and anti-Nazis alike, that National
Socialism neither espoused nor realized the totalitarian
state, since political institutions composed but one of
its several lines of control. But it was precisely because
it was deemed a political instrument that the principle
of authority became crucial in the Nazi scheme, for
it became the transferable means of applying the po-
litical model of power to all the lines of fascist control—
Party, corporate, and personal—and made possible a
plural totalitarianism transcending the traditional
organs of state.

The idea of authority was the point at which the
traditional principle of hierarchy and the modern
principle of national sovereignty were joined to be-
come compatible means of power for all social orga-
nizations whatsoever. Hitler, for example, endorsed
two ideas of authority which were reminiscent of its
original meanings, but he now linked them closely to
the exercise of coercive power: first, “the authority of
personality,” which cannot brook control by “any ma-
jority”; secondly, the authority of leadership in the


sense of initiation, which is a power conferred by the
community, is “a high responsibility to the commu-
nity,” and makes the fundamental natural relationship
between “initiation” (Führung) and “execution” (Aus-
) the justification of the power relationship be-
tween “domination” (Überordnung) and “subordina-
tion” (Unterordnung) (Hitler, Tischgespräche, p. 171).

Thus Hitler, and the fascists in general, took the
distinctive ideas of authority out of their original per-
sonal and social contexts, applied them to the justifica-
tion of coercive power, and in this politicized form,
reapplied them to the organization of man's social and
personal activities and to the molding of his ideas about
them. Since, indeed, the idea of authority laid particu-
lar stress upon the voluntary component in the submis-
sion to power, it was particularly appropriate to total-
itarian use for thought-control.

3. Post-totalitarian Ideas of Authority. The con-
temporary intellectual opposition to fascism tended to
defend familiar liberal ideas, including those of the
democratic limits upon and accountability of authority.
The intellectually significant response to totalitarianism
has been a post-fascist phenomenon. The change from
the liberal view of authority to a radical attack on
authority was developed after World War II by the
movements of the New Left, which sees in fascism not
a case of the political abuse of authority but a key
to the ubiquity of oppressive authoritative power
throughout society.

This conviction of the New Left has taken two forms,
depending on whether the oppression in the power-
authority syndrome is seen to come primarily from the
power or from the authority. The first of these alterna-
tives has been developed by those in the New Left
who represent a connection with the old: for them
social authority, in the sense of the force for voluntary
submission in men's primary relation, is the charac-
teristic means of power produced by advanced indus-
trial society; it is essentially a pre-coercive power
which controls men's will by determining their needs
and as such it is continuous with the coercive political
power which is merely its extension. “Contemporary
industrial society,” in the formulation of Herbert
Marcuse, a prominent spokesman for this group, is
“one-dimensional.” It “tends to be totalitarian. For
'totalitarian' is not only a terroristic political coordi-
nation of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-
technical coordination which operates through the
manipulation of needs by vested interests.... Under
the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made
into a powerful instrument of domination” (Marcuse,
One-Dimensional Man, pp. 3, 7).

But this strand of the New Left has not gone the
whole way to the rejection of authority. It condemns
every real form of authority because of its unvarying
association with repressive power rather than the idea
of authority as such. Marcuse, for example, asserts the
desirability of “the combination of centralized author-
ity and direct democracy” and implies the authority
of Reason in the shape of the “dialectical concept”
and “the critical theory of society”—forms of authority
devoid of social or political power. The categorical
rejection of authority is the result rather of other
spokesmen of the New Left whose deliberately formless
attitudes are most clearly grasped in the glosses they
have contributed to anarchism. The most obvious shift
of emphasis in the new anarchism has been from the
concentration on political authority characteristic of
“historical anarchism”—i.e., the anarchism of Godwin,
Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin—to “the rejection
of authority as such, whatever its form or field”
(Heintz, pp. 9-12).

But this shift has been more than one of scope, for
along with the expansion of the anarchist target from
all political forms to all social forms of authority has
come a shift from the denial of authority as the source
of compulsive power to the denial of the very elements
which have always distinguished the idea of authority
from the idea of power. First, where the historical
anarchists denied the validity of any natural hierarchy
or scale of moral values or conferral of rights which
could serve as the basis of the legal authority of some
individuals over others, the neo-anarchists insist upon
the natural, moral, social, intellectual, and personal
equality of all individuals and upon the consequent
illegitimacy of any relationship based on the pretended
superiority of some individuals over others, whether
innate, ethical, conventional, or contracted. Second,
neo-anarchism condemns all institutions—that is, en-
during arrangements—not only because of their inevi-
table tendency toward bureaucratization (as in histori-
cal anarchism) but more fundamentally because as such
they inevitably entail the authority of the past over
the present. Finally, the neo-anarchists insist on the
spontaneity, the open-endedness, and the planlessness
of their enterprises because the definition of universal
ends and the elaboration of programmatic designs to-
ward those ends entail the authority of the future over
the present.

In this set of rejections the New Left clearly denies
the whole set of original, unperverted meanings of
authority. It denies the personal authority of natural
capacity and acquired merit; it denies the creation of
authority by transfer or delegation of rights; it denies
the authority of age and experience, whether in fami-
lies or traditions; and it denies the authority of the
author, both in terms of a special regard for founders
and their foundations and in terms of the viability of


designs which require the execution by some of what
is initiated by others. And all these authentic kinds of
authority are denied, moreover, not because they have
been corrupted by their association with power but
because they are in themselves illegitimate exercises
of power and because the functions of personal respect,
social continuity, and communicated creation which
these authorities purport to serve are better served by
the untrammeled interaction of absolutely free and
equal individuals.


The ideology of totalitarian fascism has been in
abeyance for a generation, and the resonance of the
total antifascism of the New Left remains uncertain.
Still, their extreme formulations of the idea of author-
ity, opposite in their evaluations but coincident in their
convictions about its pervasiveness in modern society
as the official mark of power, do seem to signify a
logical conclusion to the long development of the idea.
They represent the categorical extremes of prevalent
attitudes toward social authority which elide its origi-
nal tensions vis-à-vis the governmental powers and
view it simply as a stable form of control.

But there are indications that the present generation
may be attending at the birth of still a fifth stage in
the history of the idea of authority. The arena of this
fifth stage would be the individual himself, and author-
ity would be a quality of the internal relations among
his psychic elements. Certainly the hierarchical ranking
of the individual's faculties and the attribution of au-
thority to the higher over the lower have been promi-
nent features of Western thought at least back to the
ancient Greeks. But heretofore the internal polity of
the individual has been in concordance with the exter-
nal and conditioning structure of the outside world,
whether of nature, super-nature, politics, or society.
The best known of the recent discussions of authority
and the individual, indeed, have been those which have
internalized the social relations of authoritative power.
Some of our most familiar contemporary characters
are precisely such internalizations: the submissive ref-
ugee from freedom (in Fromm's Escape from Freedom,
1941); the “authoritarian personality,” “continuously
molded from above” to be both “jealous of his inde-
pendence and inclined to submit blindly to power and
authority” (in T. W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian
[1950], pp. ix, 976); the “inner-directed”
and “outer-directed” “character types,” equally and
successively programmed by society toward “conform-
ity” (in Riesman's Lonely Crowd, 1950). But if these
analyses are in the familiar mold of demonstrating the
continuity between the hierarchy of the cosmos and
the hierarchy of the psyche—just as the analyses of
Plato, Saint Augustine, and Descartes did in past
eras—such exercises in social psychology also contain
the possibility of a new departure by looking to a
revised psychic hierarchy as a crucial lever for the
dismantling or at least the scaling down of social hier-

The implication of such concluding unscientific
postscripts for a distinctive psychological idea of au-
thority has been obscured by their persistence in a
social context which makes any psychic assertion by
individuals against social repression an act of “auton-
omy.” But within the field of individual psychology
itself—and especially in the field of psychoanalytic
theory—recent doctrines point toward the transcend-
ence of social repression not through the mere permis-
sive freedom of individual desires but rather through
the substitution of uncoerced authority for repression
in the relationship of the elements within the psyche
and through the assertion of this authority, in its origi-
nal sense of moral direction, against the repressive
power of the society.

The incipient articulation of a psychological context
for authority is being most prominently undertaken by
neo-Freudians who have begun to develop in theory
a structure of harmonious authority within the psyche
with the mission of eradicating coercion from social
authority as the necessary condition of its own realiza-
tion. Where Freud himself could not get beyond the
dualistic and pessimistic mutual convertibility of
“ontogenic” and “phylogenic” repression—a limit di-
rectly related to the coercive idea of authority through
the paradigmatic figure of the “Primal Father” in both
the myth of the species and the fantasies of the indi-
vidual child—radical neo-Freudians like Marcuse and
Norman Brown have proposed the reversal of the
psychic hierarchy of super-ego, ego, and id to serve
as the ground for the reorganization of social relations.
The neo-Freudians insist, like the later Freud, on the
continuity of individuals and society, but whether in
the form of Marcuse's “idea of non-repressive sublima-
tion” (Eros and Civilization) or Brown's “construction
of a Dionysian ego” (Life against Death) the proper
ordering of the instincts (pleasure and reality, love and
death) and reason becomes a psychic model for the
whole society, creating “its own hierarchy” and re-
placing (in Marcuse's terminology) “irrational author-
ity” by “rational authority”—that is, replacing
an authority that is not compatible with freedom by
an authority that is (Eros, pp. 205-06).

In general, however, both psychoanalytic doctrine
and the common language of the age tend to charac-
terize such reversions to voluntary hierarchies, whether
of psychic factors or of individualized moral values as
conditions of freedom rather than as forms of pure


authority. In part this preference testifies to the tradi-
tional reference of authority to interpersonal rather than
to intrapersonal relations, but in part too it testifies
to the cumulative history of the idea of authority which
has led to the general acceptance of the meaning which
associates it indelibly with the exercise of coercive
power. But even if it is not literally identified with
the original idea of authority, the current commitment
to a normative psychic hierarchy which should serve
to direct the reorganization of society is an indication
that the recurrent pattern of a pure, uncoercive au-
thority remains viable. With whatever idea it will
henceforth be identified, the diffusion of cultural inno-
vation by men who have no access to the means of
power persists as a recurrent theme of the idea of
authority, balancing its more dubious contribution to
extending the range of compulsion in men's lives.


No comprehensive history or bibliography of authority
exists. The following have been used in the preparation of
this article.

Sources. T. W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Person-
(New York, 1950). The 'Opus Magus' of Roger Bacon,
ed. John Henry Bridges, trans. Robert Belle Burke (New
York, 1962). Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth,
trans. M. J. Tooley (Oxford, n.d.). Norman O. Brown, Life
against Death
(New York, 1959). Edmund Burke, Reflections
on the Revolution in France
(1790; New York, 1961). Carolo
du Fresne du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latin-
(Paris, 1678; 1840-46). Auguste Comte, La philosophie
ed. Jules Rig (Paris, 1880). Roy J. Deferrari and
M. Inviolata Barry, with Ignatius McGuinness, A Lexicon
of St. Thomas Aquinas
(Baltimore, 1948). Johannes Duns
Scotus, Opera omnia (Hildesheim, 1968). Émile Durkheim,
The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson
(New York, 1964); idem, L'éducation morale (Paris, 1925).
Robert Filmer, Patriarcha, ed. Peter Laslett (Oxford, 1949).
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York, 1941).
Giovanni Gentile, Genesis and Structure of Society, trans.
H. S. Harris (Urbana, 1960). G. W. F. Hegel, Grundlinien
der Philosophie des Rechts,
4th ed. (Hamburg, 1955); idem,
The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York,
1931). Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, new ed. (Munich, 1943).
The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, ed. Norman H. Baynes (New
York, 1942). Hitlers Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier
ed. Henry Picker (Stuttgart, 1963). Thomas
Hobbes, Leviathan (1651; New York, 1914). John Locke, Two
Treatises of Government,
ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge,
1964). Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses
(New York, 1950). Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization
(New York, 1962); idem, One-Dimensional Man (Boston,
1966). Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, ed.
Alan Gewirth (New York, 1967). Robert Michels, Political
Parties: a Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies
of Modern Democracies,
trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New
York, 1959). John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Selected
ed. Maurice Cowling (New York, 1968). Mittel-
lateinisches Wörterbuch bis zum ausgehenden 13. Jahrhun-
(Munich, 1967). Benito Mussolini, La dottrina del
(Milan, 1935). Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and
new ed. (New York, 1963). Samuel Pufendorf, De
jure naturae et gentium
(1672; Oxford, 1934). David Ries-
man, et al., The Lonely Crowd (Garden City, n.d.). Jean
Jacques Rousseau, The Political Writings, ed. C. previous hit E next hit. Vaughan
(New York, 1962). Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur
(Tübingen, 1922); idem, Grundriss der
Sozialökonomik; III. Abteilung: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft

(Tübingen, 1932).

Commentaries. Authority, ed. Carl J. Friedrich (Cam-
bridge, Mass., 1958). Leon Baudry, Guillaume d'Occam
(Paris, 1949). Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of
Roman Law
(Philadelphia, 1953). Rupert previous hit E next hit. Davies, The
Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers
1946). Fritz Fürst, Die Bedeutung der Auctoritas im privaten
und öffentlichen Leben der römischen Republik
1934). Peter Heintz, Anarchismus und Gegenwart (Zurich,
1951). R. Heinze, “Auctoritas,” in Hermes, 60 (1925).
Bertrand de Jouvenel, Power: the Natural History of its
(London, 1948); idem, Sovereignty: an Inquiry into
the Political Good
(Cambridge, 1957). Harold Laski, Au-
thority in the Modern State
(New Haven, 1919). Karl-
Heinrich Lütcke, “Auctoritas” bei Augustin, mit einer
Einleitung zur römischen Vorgeschichte des Begriffs
gart, 1968). A. J. MacDonald, Authority and Reason in the
Early Middle Ages
(London, 1933). André Magdelain, Auc-
toritas principis
(Paris, 1947). Theodor Mommsen, Römisches
(Leipzig, 1887-88). Barrington Moore, Jr., Soviet
Politics—The Dilemma of Power: The Role of Ideas in Social
(Cambridge, Mass., 1959). Karl F. Morrison, Tradi-
tion and Authority in the Western Church, 300-1140

(Princeton, 1969). Anton von Premerstein, Vom Werden und
Wesen des Prinzipats
(Munich, 1937). Staatslexikon, 6th ed.
(Freiburg, 1957). Studien über Autorität und Familie (Paris,
1936). Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory
(Cambridge, Mass., 1955). Walter Ullmann, The Growth of
Papal Government in the Middle Ages
(London, 1955); idem;
Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages
(London, 1961). Howard Warrender, The Political Philoso-
phy of Hobbes
(Oxford, 1957). Michael Wilks, The Problem
of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages
(Cambridge, 1963).


[See also Constitutionalism; Democracy; Liberalism; Marx-
Reformation; Social Contract; State; Totalitarianism.]