Swans Commentary » swans.com November 3, 2008  



What Is Authority?


by Michael Doliner





[ed. This essay is about the US Constitution, the idea of a foundation, and the history behind it, based on Between Past and Future, a book by Hannah Arendt, originally published in 1961 and reprinted in 2006 by Penguin Classics edition, Penguin Group New York, NY, ISBN 0-14-310481-0, 298 pages (paperback). Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt from 1965 to 1969.]


(Swans - November 3, 2008)   Some time around 1958, Hannah Arendt wrote an essay called "What is Authority?" that is reprinted in Between Past and Future. Arendt claims that we don't know what authority is because it no longer exists. At the start she tries to clear away the prejudices of both left and right; on the left the reflex thought that all authority is a restriction of freedom, and on the right the idea that authority requires an ever more rigid enforcement of laws. These prejudices reinforce one another and leave authority itself completely hidden. Seeing the world in terms of them obscures important distinctions between political regimes of tyranny, democracy, authoritarian rule, and totalitarianism that, with these prejudices, seem to blend into one another. At this point Arendt recites what can only be called political history that illustrates just how deep our own problem is. Even back then, in 1958, Arendt points out that the crisis in authority has reached the level of childrearing in which parents lose authority because they have nothing really stable to pass on. This is really an extension of the political problem. The kaleidoscopic changes in the world have only accelerated since Arendt wrote the essay. A quick sketch of this history will show us, in terms we are not used to using, at least a perspective on where we are today.

"Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation." (Between Past and Future Penguin Classics, New York, 2006 p. 92.) One aspect of our concept of authority is Platonic. Socrates' trial and death sentence were a Platonic obsession. They convinced Plato that persuasion alone could not control the passions that the political realm could release. He sought for some control on these passions that would retain freedom as the Athenians knew it. That freedom was political freedom, the power to speak, be heard, and influence events, in other words, the ability to appear in public. Our idea of free speech, that is, speech that nobody listens to, would have had no more interest for the Greeks than it does for us. To say, "I disagree with what he says but I will fight for his right to say it," is precisely the wrong idea, for it promises at the start that you will not listen. Freedom requires others to hear, others who are also free, free to let words and meanings enter their minds, and then to judge. Thus, as Plato often points out, the tyrant is not free, nor are any of his subjects. Freedom involves a plurality of equals who have the opportunity to listen, the ability to weigh what is said, and the power to act upon it. When done right it makes a society very smart in human affairs, a genius, an Athens as it were, among nations. Thus Athens, thus republican Rome. It allows people to think together about their most pressing concerns. Minds are honed against minds. Obviously, we are not doing it right. Too bad, too. Because the Chinese are very smart and are kicking our butts. And the Russians, once they got rid of thinking they needed to play an expensive game called "Cold War" with us, look damn formidable. They know what we apparently do not: that imperialism is over. If we can't get rid of this crappy government, we're doomed.

Plato's problem was this: how could political freedom be preserved and the passions that destroyed Socrates be controlled? According to Arendt, Plato never found the answer. Because the Greeks had no political experience of authority he had to find his model elsewhere, and he looked to the household, where he saw a despot. Plato looked for a despotic force that also preserved freedom. Clearly what is needed is a force external to those actually in power, "an external force which transcends the political realm." (p. 97) Near the end of Plato's life he proposed the laws for this job. Plato hoped that the laws would supply this "external force." To force "the many," to whom reason cannot reach, to obey the laws, Plato produced the myth of Er, the first description of the later Christian hell. Fear of hell was supposed to keep the many from giving license to their passions. The "ideas" would persuade "the few," to whom reason does speak. But the ideas proved inadequate for the job. The ideas are eternal unchanging truths. Arendt argues that the original ultimate idea, as Plato saw it, was "the beautiful," "that which shines most brightly," rather than "the good," "the useful." He needed "the good" to make the ideas applicable in the lower political world. Since in the realm of ideas the beautiful is higher than the good, bringing the ideas into the political realm corrupts them. For in the political realm we sacrifice the beautiful to the good (useful). Thus the philosopher, in trying to bring the ideas into the political realm, ceases to be a philosopher, for he corrupts the ideas. Power also corrupts him, but even before power corrupts him, entry into the cave, so to speak, corrupts him by forcing him to misrepresent the ultimate idea. The image of the cave also offers a second problem in that it portrays the citizens as merely looking on rather than speaking and taking part. As a sideline I mention that all this is a philosophical challenge to anyone, like Leo Strauss, who might think to have philosophers rule.

Plato argues for the authority of his philosopher king by analogy with experts in other activities. When it comes to health we defer to the doctor, for steering a ship we let the helmsman rule. So too in the political realm we should defer to the expert in ideas and the laws. So persuasive is this image that we accept without question the right of "experts" to rule. But the analogy is false for there is no expert in the affairs of human beings; that is, political affairs, or wasn't one until Plato's view dominated men's minds. Political affairs, the truly democratic Athenians believed, can only be run through free and open discussion in which the words and the appearance of their speaker actually have the power to persuade. You want to listen to the person who has the best grasp of the present situation, and he is not necessarily the one who has studied what he thinks are the precedents. In practice we doubt this pseudo expert who must bolster his authority and augment it with violence, either in the hereafter, in the mythical Er that the many believe in, or here and now, in the form of police. But with violence, even its threat, freedom disappears.

The need for despotism is taken from analogy to the household, and the philosopher's authority from an analogy with the expert. Politics is, or should be, a community of equals, so both are improper analogies for the political realm and distort it. Aristotle tried to solve this by substituting the analogy of teacher and pupil for that of captain and sailors. The pupils are not slaves (those who do what others think or what necessity demands) and will become equal with their teachers. But, Arendt insists, this too fails because the relationship in the educational analogy is temporary and political rule is not. She remarks that when a politician claims to educate he conceals an effort to dominate. In any case the Greeks took none of this seriously and continued in various ways with various amounts of democracy, but no authority.

It was the Romans who discovered the true nature of authority in their idea of foundation. Whereas the Greeks found it quite easy to take off from their native cities and found colonies, the Romans were never able to do so. There was one city, Rome. The Romans saw Rome as growing and developing, an edifice slowly taking shape upon a foundation, the foundation was its founding, a unique event. Life was a process of looking back to the foundation and adding to this edifice. The word auctoritas derives from the verb augere ("augment"), and what authority or those in authority constantly augment is the foundation. The elders had authority "and had obtained it by descent and by transmission (tradition) from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come,..." (p. 121) All authority rested upon the wisdom of the founders who were no longer among the living. The foundation was sacred and bound all future generations. In this way the true authority was outside those who had actual power, that is, it is in the ancestors.

Arendt describes the trinity of religion, tradition, and authority as three legs upon which the political structure could stand. The whole edifice was mostly within the human mind, not so much in ideas as in attitudes. Roman religion comes from religio, to tie back. It made one feel it was important to be pious, which meant to accept the transmission, through tradition, of what was needed to continue to build upon the foundation. Those in authority interpreted the meaning. They had to be old and in every other way plausibly connected as deeply as was humanly possible to the foundation itself. They were supposed to give advice that drew from the wisdom of the ages, but they made no attempt to bestow absolute standards, as our laws do. The Roman auctors were not the men who met in public, debated in the forum, and became the massive figures in Roman history. No, for the most part they read the augers in entrails or the flight of birds, drew upon the well-known events in Roman history, gave warnings, and cautioned against certain enterprises. It was generally considered catastrophic to avoid their advice.

When Rome waned and the church replaced it, it too founded itself upon a "rock," a foundation. "The basis of the Church as a community of believers and a public institution was now no longer the Christian faith in resurrection (though this faith remained its content) or the Hebrew obedience to the commands of God, but rather the testimony of the life, of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historically recorded event." (p. 125) The church was now an edifice, growing in history on the foundation of the historical facticity of Jesus, evidence of which was transmitted through the church. The church draws its authoritative wisdom from the stories in the bible. So the adaptation of the Roman-type foundation when the church became political changed the Christian religion itself.

The Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle, were the Roman "fathers" of thought and culture. With the collapse of Rome, the church, now as a political entity, growing as it did among people used to this foundational model, naturally adopted it, and with it, Plato and Aristotle. The Church established itself with a new foundation, and started over with a new Year One, at that point already well in the past. The church then found itself with Plato's problem, how to control the passions, and took Plato's solution, sort of. In place of the laws they put the commandments and injunctions of the Bible, and in so doing they tried to institute an absolute set of values, a "measure of measurements." But whereas the ideas compelled belief through argument, and not through any form of violence, the church needed to adopt Plato's myth of Er, the Christian hell, to compel obedience to the commandments. Thus it introduced violence into the foundation, and corrupted it. For even the threat of violence is violence, and its use, politically, destroys authority and therefore political freedom. For the purpose of political violence is to coerce speech away from belief. Adopting Er corrupted the church itself, for those high in the church had to admit that one of the greatest pleasures of heaven is watching the sinners writhe down below. Evangelical Christianity is built upon this frisson, which is just about as far away as you can get from Jesus' original teachings. But, as a temptation, this frisson has been there smoldering within the church from its beginning as a political entity.

Thus the foundation within the church was always flawed and needed the threat of violence for support. The mistake seems to go back to the longing for absolute rigid standards compounded by the need to use the commandments in the Bible in place of the laws. With no justification the commandments needed the threat of violence to coerce obedience and with it inevitable corruption of the elite who would now enjoy watching from heaven over others suffering in hell. Such a foundation not only did not guarantee, but actually closed down, whatever political space there was. But over the centuries, for various reasons, fear of hell waned. With the waning of the fear of hell, men no longer feared the consequences of violating the canons of "good."

By the time of Machiavelli, church and state were thoroughly corrupt. Perhaps because all foundational structure had collapsed into tyranny Machiavelli was able to understand the essence of this Roman structure. He had the idea to reestablish the "state," a name he invented for such foundation-based edifices. Arendt claims Machiavelli sounds like Robespierre and he conceived of revolution, a new start, a new foundation. But whereas the Romans located their foundation safely in the past, Machiavelli (and Robespierre) had to "make" theirs, and they were willing to use violence or any other means to do so. For to think of "making" a foundation is to take a household category, that of making, for a political one. Thus their efforts were necessarily doomed from the start. For, as Arendt pointed out, where violence is used authority is already dead.

So, as we have seen, creating such structures is a tricky business. The foundation has to have some august presence just to persuade people that it is worth building upon. Both the church and Rome were fortunate to have foundations conveniently in the past. It is much harder to start anew with a foundation actually laid in the present if you are going to expect people to respect it and consider it the wisdom of the ages. Arendt claimed that all such attempts, save the American Revolution, had failed. Americans did treat their document as a sacred document, its framers as Founding Fathers. She speculates that the American "Revolution" succeeded because it had not grown out of a violent revolution, but a war with England, a quite different thing. The defeated were not part of the new body politic, or if they were the Constitution was not a document written by the victors to rule the vanquished. Most importantly, the Constitution did create a new body politic, something that had really never before been done on a fully conscious founding like the Constitutional Convention. Also, Arendt guessed, the Constitution succeeded because it copied already existing charters, so it didn't have to create a foundation on bare ground. There was some measure of casting the foundation back in time to the elders.

Given the difficulties, the American success in creating a foundation that actually protected political freedom was something of a miracle. And if that is so we can see just what a precious and precarious thing this foundational "state" is. That the political space within it is now closed there can be no doubt. Although the Bush administration, since 9/11, has slammed the door to political freedom shut, it had been closing for some time. Arendt holds out little hope for its resurrection. "Authority as we once knew it, which grew out of the Roman experience of foundation and was understood in the light of Greek political philosophy, has nowhere been reestablished, either through revolutions or through the even less promising means of restoration." (p. 143) From this perspective, revolutions, which we think of as a radical break, are actually an extension of the tradition, for a revolution is an attempt to set up a new foundation. Since they are the only means of salvation provided by the tradition when things go wrong, and since all revolutions since the French have failed, apparently this means of salvation is inadequate.

The phony politics, the undermining of the Bill of Rights, the lying, the political violence, all show that the American foundation is gone. It cannot be revived because its contents, a system of checks and balances, which were supposed to check and balance the passions, have not been able to resist the onslaught of these passions upon the Constitution itself. When the time came it could not deploy impeachment, its only tool for redress, in its own defense. The premise of the Constitution is that its structure will control passions. If something from outside the Constitution now restores it, say Barack Obama's good will, then the Constitution's structures to control human passions were both ineffective and superfluous, hence unnecessary. So its restoration will only show its superfluity.

Regimes without political space quickly exhaust themselves. They become ever stupider. Real life, Arendt argues elsewhere, is lived within political space. Once that opportunity disappears a person becomes, in Arendt's word, embarrassed. He cannot be himself. The expression, which used to be heard in every American home no matter how humble, that "even a boy who grew up in a log cabin could become president," energized many an American life. Now that this is no longer believed, Americans are dragging themselves across the landscape. Galveston and New Orleans are still not cleaned up and their former inhabitants are all but abandoned. Clearly restoration of the old foundation is impossible, not only for the reason above, but because of all the American political violence. And we might as well admit that we won't this time be able to create a new foundational structure free of violence that would have sufficient majesty and plausibility. The first time required Fortuna's rare, oh so rare, smile. We will not see it again. That leaves either the possibility of a form of government without any political space, a tyranny or a totalitarian movement, with all that horror and boredom and transience, or some kind of democracy without any foundational structure, à la Athens.

Americans, never having been without a foundational structure, cannot imagine doing without it. Our foundation has been in law, interpreted by scholars, the latter-day philosophers. But is it so obvious that senators should be lawyers, Supreme Court Justices, "legal scholars," and that advice should come from "think tanks"? Is it so obvious that someone who has the ability to listen to evidence and come to a conclusion that seems just to most people, needed to have studied a lot of "precedents"? We already know that in real life, for example where it concerns the abortion issue, precedents are meaningless. Judges simply lean one way or the other regardless of precedent. And we already know that a lawyer's subtle arguments from precedent often produce injustice. People have lived without a foundation before.

The United States is far too big to be a single foundationless democracy; that is best suited to a city state. It might break up. But it is hard to imagine Americans not desperately trying, again and again, to set up a new foundation. It is, after all, all they have ever known. More than likely, given the general lassitude the end of freedom has produced, the United States will try to hold up the shredded and now hollow Constitution and continue to try to fool itself for as long as it can that, somehow, all the pieces can be fit back together again, and, somehow, what has happened can be forgotten. They will wave the tattered Constitution like a sad little paper flag.

The only hope is what is always the only hope, the sudden flowering of political space in which those who are making the most sense, rather than those who hew to a particular line, are heard. At this point this is, admittedly, a fantasy. Given the immense differences in attitude in the United States, the unbridgeable gap of racism, the growing separation of classes, the institutional stupidity of the ruling elite, the anomie within monomaniacal capitalism, the paranoia whipped up behind 9/11, and the panic as real problems begin to destroy social structure, good sense will not be easy to hear or distinguish from self-serving propaganda. So the idea of political freedom suddenly flowering within the United States is hard to believe in. Passions boiling over do not augur well. But, if the Athenians could rationally take the step to abandon their city in the face of the huge Persian army and fleet bearing down on them, thus making an almost unimaginable political move in the face of panic-inducing imminent disaster, perhaps we too can do something. Who knows?

There is an alternative to entering this unknown, something brand new, never before considered in this whole story. I propose it here for the first time. I propose that we get ourselves a "Gadfly," an official Socrates as it were. This figure is sacrosanct. Anyone who threatens him will die the most unpleasant possible death. That ought to be enough to protect Socrates. But he has no power other than to ask questions of anyone any time any place. Now, of course, such a person is a real pain in the ass. So although it is verboten to threaten the Gadfly it is perfectly all right to heap verbal abuse upon him if he, say, engages you incessantly with nonsense. Of course, if he finds himself unable to speak in a public square because he is outshouted by idiots and lunatics, he would no doubt retire to a private house with intelligent company. I admit getting this started in America with its cacophony will be a challenge. But Socrates was also fascinating and serious, and people remained quiet to hear what he had to say. The problem, Americans might think, would be whom would we choose as Gadfly. But that would be easy. It would be a sport, like a tournament at first, in which the contestants would have to engage in a Socratic argument with one another. There is always a winner or a loser, but the Gadfly will also have to do more than win: he will have to attract a crowd. Arguments about stupid things bore us, as do arguments carried on at stupid levels. On the other hand people talking about what we need to talk about on an intelligent level, and perhaps with irony and logic, fascinate us. Socrates mesmerized Alcibiades, the most beautiful and jaded and resourceful youth Athens ever had. The Gadfly will have to, with talk alone, be so fascinating that people will be dying to hear what he has to say. It's a very tall order. There has only been one Socrates, ever. In America the whole thing might degenerate into a stand-up comedy act, but I don't believe it would. I am surprising optimistic on that part. The Gadfly would be rewarded with decent varied food to eat, decent clothes to wear, and an average house where he can get off by himself. His children would be brought up at the expense of the state. Other than that the Gadfly lives a life of poverty. No fancy anything.

Now, here is the scary part. This Gadfly can ask anyone, even the president, anything. He can go anywhere, into any meeting with his television cameras. One television station will have the right to follow him and will share in his absolute immunity from the slightest threat under pain of the most horrible possible punishment from which hell itself would be a vacation. The station will be supported entirely by the public and will have no programming other than watching the Gadfly whenever he wants it to do so. It will have no advertising itself but will have advertisements on all other channels saying simply when there will be a "gadfly show" and whatever the gadfly wants to say about it. No flash of any kind. Of course this setup would be the end of secrecy. There would be no secrets, no secret meetings. Holy shit, they would know where our bombs are! Yes I suppose it does require us to recognize that there is really no possibility, no remote possibility, of civilization surviving another major war. We would have to recognize that the global contest cannot any longer be waged with war. The ecosystem would no longer support us after that. Although there might possibly be Homo sapiens still around they would not be living anything like we do. Resources are too precious to even engage in minor wars. Our wars are bleeding us to death as the Soviet Union's bled them.

To be this institutional Gadfly is the punishment Socrates proposed for himself in place of the death sentence, so to establish the position of "Gadfly" would, in some measure, right the wrong of Socrates' execution. Perhaps then we could end this long twentieth century, which, in the form of science, has been philosophy's finest gift and its revenge for Socrates' death. The world would have been completely different if the Athenian Assembly had taken Socrates up on his offer, and the Gadfly become an essential political office. Now having a Gadfly is not the same as having a real public space, and a Socratic elenchus is not a form of political speech, but it would go a long way towards breaking up all the crap that is preventing the public space from opening up again.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published November 3, 2008