Six decades ago the thomistic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that, since the French Revolution, authority has had something of a bad reputation. More than any other act of rebellion, the Revolution effectively solidified in western consciousness something of the mythology of heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. Now many are inclined to identify authority per se with at least potential oppression, irrespective of what it actually does and how it functions.
At one time it was generally assumed that those defying authority were committing a grave sin imperiling their eternal salvation. They were acting so as to overturn a God-given social and political order, and were little better than common criminals.
Nowadays it is often, if not always, assumed that legitimate complaints undergird an insurrection, however violent its effects, and that governmental efforts to quell a rebellion are almost intrinsically repressive. During a church service near Toronto in early 1994, shortly after the Chiapas revolt broke out in southern Mexico, prayer requests were invited from the front. A parishioner stood up and asked that prayers be offered for the people of Chiapas, that they might receive justice and no longer find it necessary to rise up against the government to advance their cause. The request was duly noted and it was included in the subsequent prayer.
What is striking in this incident is that no one in the congregation found the request at all unusual or out of line. Of course, one would not wish to deny the likelihood of legitimate grievances underlying such an uprising, particularly as it follows upon centuries of oppression of the indigenous peoples of the region.
All the same, a few hundred years ago, if a popular revolt broke out against a sitting government, one might have heard a clergyman pray that God would bring down his righteous wrath on the rebels and that the governing authorities, whom he calls to defend justice and punish lawbreakers, might be instruments of that wrath. So thoroughly have attitudes changed that now, if someone were to stand up and request a prayer along these lines, she would likely raise eyebrows and cause discomfort in the pews.
Why have authority and its exercise acquired such a bad name? Simon gives four reasons. First, it would seem to stand in conflict with justice. If a government reflexively cracks down on malcontents, it may be guilty of overlooking the justice of their cause. Second, it appears to conflict with the spontaneity and vitality of human life by artificially inhibiting it. How many beneficial inventions might have been stillborn if a government had placed too many constraints on personal innovation?
Third, the imposition of authority is reputed to curtail the search for truth, a contention which John Stuart Mill advances in On Liberty. Fourth, authority seems often to be connected with human arbitrariness and thus opposed to the universality and stability of law. Indeed, whenever authority is abused, it inevitably reflects poorly on the authoritative office itself.
To Simon’s reasons I add numbers five through seven. Fifth, there is a persistent tendency to play off authority against personal freedom. Forty years ago, secondary school dress codes in North America were largely abandoned on the grounds that they impaired the freedom of the adolescent students to dress as they pleased. Especially in the United States, where the attainment of freedom has a strong place in the national civil religious narrative, this argument resonated with many, and those few defending the codes lost ground nearly everywhere. In such a context, if freedom and authority are conceived as polar opposites, then, whenever they are seen to come into conflict, freedom must necessarily triumph over the long term.
Sixth, there is a strong presumption on moral grounds against authority by the heirs of Immanual Kant, including the likes of Stanley Milgram, Lawrence Kohlberg and John Rawls. Kantians believe that being subject to authority is a sign of ethical immaturity and that progress towards full adult autonomy requires that a form of moral reasoning known as the categorical imperative be applied to every human action.
Seventh and finally, there is another school, including Marx and his heirs, as well as the more recent postmodern deconstructionists, which sees all authority as little more than self-interested (or, perhaps more accurately, class- or group-interested) domination by one set of people over another. Within this conception, any claim that an authoritative officeholder is acting in the interest of those under her authority cannot be believed. An hermeneutic of suspicion must therefore be applied to such claims in an effort to unmask the collective self-interested will behind what is essentially only an exercise of raw power. In this perspective, the classic writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are nothing more than the ruminations of those notorious dead, white European males attempting to protect their own material interests against everyone else.
For all these reasons and more young people sometimes wear t-shirts emblazoned with these powerful words: QUESTION AUTHORITY. However, it’s never been entirely clear to me why, in so doing, they should defer to the authority of a clothing manufacturer, whose very ability to produce these shirts depends on an authoritative structure co-ordinating the process as a whole. Much as the statement, “All truth is relative,” is self-referentially incoherent, so is the imperative statement, “Question authority”! Yet this will likely have little effect on those to whom such a slogan appears to give the moral high ground.
Yet what if that which we call freedom is just one more type of authority among many? If so, there is little reason to view freedom as consistently trumping these other kinds of authority where the two come into opposition. If freedom be defined as personal authority, then when it conflicts with another form of authority, the claims of both must be taken into account and adjudicated carefully and justly. In the case of the dress codes, the issue should have been conceived, not as authority against freedom, which prejudices the case in favour of the latter, but as one between the authority of the school and administration on the one hand and the authority of the adolescent student on the other. If it is framed in this way, its resolution becomes less obvious and its full complexity more so. Legitimate interests on both sides must be taken into account. A balanced approach, and hence justice, becomes more likely.
That such an approach would necessitate a break with historic liberalism, with its commitment to the primacy of the individual, is beyond doubt. Yet if we can bring ourselves to relinquish the hold of this tenacious political ideology, we will be better able to do justice to the legitimate pluriformity of authority in God’s world.