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AUTHORITY is a constant and pervasive phenomenon in the history of religions. One often speaks of traditional authority, scriptural authority, ecclesiastical authority, or imperial authority based on religious claims. As legitimate power to require and receive submission and obedience, it is found in primitive and archaic religions as well as in founded religions wherever the question of order is involved. At different stages of history, a variety of religions have contributed to the creation and maintenance of order by providing the necessary sources of authority. These sources are diverse, but the following may be counted among the major ones: (1) persons, usually classified into various types of religious leadership such as kings, founders of religions, and other leaders of religious communities, (2) sacred writings, (3) traditions, oral and/or written, constituting doctrinal truths and ethical precepts, (4) religious communities with a priesthood and sacramental rites, and (5) personal experience. The question of the legitimacy of this or that authority has been a cause of tension and conflict in and between individual religions, for any authority recognized as legitimate must be respected and placed in proper order, while a rejected authority must be combated.

Authority in Primitive Religions

Among many primitive peoples authority is embodied in orally transmitted traditions of the tribal community. Oral traditions reign supreme, imposing a binding authority on the tribal community in which they are preserved. Especially authoritative are myths, as distinguished from legends and fables. Myth carries authority in primitive society for at least three reasons. First, myth is a "true" story, never a fable, a fiction, or a childish fancy tale. Second, it is a sacred story narrating the acts of the gods and other divine beings that took place in the beginning of mythical time. What occurredin the words of Mircea Eliadein illo tempore ("at this time") represents for the primitive peoples a reality higher and greater than any kind of historical reality known to them. Myth is authoritative because it reveals the "absolute truth" of the events at the beginning of mythical time. And third, this transhistorical reality that occurred in illo tempore serves as the exemplary model for the activities of man in primitive society. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, myth functions as the "charter" of established social facts, including religious beliefs and practices, morality, and everyday rules of conduct.

This divinely sanctioned authoritative tradition is transmitted orally from elders to adolescents during rites of initiation. The candidate for these rites undergoes the process of symbolic death and rebirth, and it is precisely in this process of spiritual regeneration that he receives knowledge about the secrets of the tribal tradition: the myths serve as bearers of traditional authority; they tell of the gods and the origin of the world, the names of the gods, the role and origin of the initiation ceremonies, and, of course, codes of morality and rules of conduct. Thus the initiate comes to obtain gnosis, true authoritative knowledge, essential for his life as a human being, that is, knowledge about the higher and greater reality that sustains the order of the primitive society in which he lives.

Authority in Archaic Religions

The rise of the great civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China during the third and second millennia bce marked a significant turning point in history. All these civilizations originated and unfolded along rivers. Irrigation systems had to be worked out in order to control nature and produce a good harvest, and this necessity called for the formation of the efficient administrative organization, which was accompanied by the institution of kingship. A system of writing was a sine qua non for this new development.

Under these circumstances, the authority of the oral traditions, which had characterized primitive culture, tended to be replaced by that of written traditions embodied in literary texts. These texts were primarily the creation of royal courts and temples, and those who were engaged in the interpretation and transmission of the texts were scribes and priests. They were professional carriers of the written traditions. In China, for example, government officials were thought to possess magical charisma by virtue of their familiarity with the Confucian classics. These officials made the study, interpretation, and transmission of the words of the master Confucius the focal point of their efforts. Their vision was preeminently political in orientation, and eventually they achieved an extraordinarily stable social order. In India, brahmans occupied the authoritative status in society on account of their esoteric knowledge of the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the many other sacred writings. Not only in China and India, but also in the ancient Near East, the scribes and priests who served as guardians of the written traditions were the chief religious figures vested with authority.

It was the king, however, who exercised supreme authority. In archaic civilizations, the state functioned as a religious community, as a cosmos, and the king was the person supremely responsible for the maintenance of this cosmic order. Imperial authority was sustained by both the kingship ideology, which was grounded in myths, and the celebration of rituals, especially the New Year festival. The ideology used for the legitimation of imperial authority was different from one region to another; that is, the nature of the king's person and his role in the given cosmic order was variously conceived in different societies, depending on their religious outlook on life and the universe.

In ancient Egypt, for example, the king was believed to be divine in essence. His coronation, usually celebrated at the beginning of a new year, signified not an apotheosis but an epiphany, or self-manifestation, of the god. As long as he ruled, the king was identified with the god Horus; in fact, he was Horus incarnate in his earthly existence, but upon his death he was mystically assimilated to Osiris, the god of rebirth and immortality. Egyptian kingship was also intimately associated with the theme of cosmogony. The dais, for example, on which the new king was seated symbolized the hill of sand, the "first" land, which, according to the Egyptian cosmogonic myth, emerged out of the primeval ocean at the time of beginning. Ascension to the royal throne represented a ritual reenactment of the emergence of a cosmos out of chaos, the primeval waters. Thus, the king repeated the act of creation at his enthronement.

In Mesopotamia, too, the king played a part of vital importance in the well-being of the cosmic order. The Enuma elish, the Babylonian epic of creation, was recited and reenacted during the New Year festival. The primary purpose of this recitation and ritual reenactment of the cosmogonic myth was the renewal and regeneration of the cosmos; the king, representing the god Marduk on earth, repeated what took place at the time of absolute beginning, as narrated in the myth. However, the king in ancient Mesopotamia was generally not conceived as a divine being. More properly, he was viewed as divine only while he participated in the ceremonies as representative of Marduk. He was essentially a mortal being, not divine; he represented the gods on earth as their "chosen servant."

The king in ancient China was called the "unique man" as well as the "Son of Heaven" (tʿien-tzu ). The Son of Heaven was one who received the mandate of Heaven (tʿien-ming ). This notion of the mandate of Heaven implied that imperial authority could not become a permanent possession of the ruler, that Heaven had the complete freedom to confer or withdraw his mandate, just as in ancient Israel God was absolutely free to confer or withdraw his charisma or "gift of grace" from the ruler on earth. The Chinese Son of Heaven obviously had nothing to do with the genealogical concept of kingship, such as in ancient Egypt or Japan, where the king was considered the descendant or incarnation of a certain god; he was simply the earthly representative of Heaven, or heavenly will.

The Chinese king was also conceived as the unique man, one supremely responsible for the maintenance of the cosmic order. He maintained the cosmic order by assisting Heaven in the regulation and harmonization of the yin and yang principles, as best exemplified by his performance in the ceremonial building, the ming-tang. This structure was an imago mundi ("image of the universe"); it had a square plan symbolizing the earth and was covered by a circular roof, symbolic of the sky. Other features, such as the building's twelve rooms, reflected the cycle of the year. Thus the whole structure was a vast space-and-time diagram, a microcosm. Here the king observed the rituals of worship and sacrifice to Heaven and Earth and myriad spirits in order to secure their favor for the entire universe. When he was to inaugurate the seasons and months, he placed himself in an appropriate room of the building: in the second month of the spring, for example, the king took his position facing east, clothed in green, the color of spring and the east, while in the fall he faced west, clothed in a white ceremonial dress appropriate for the fall and the west. Thus, the king assisted Heaven in guaranteeing the ascendancy of the yang principle in spring, while in the fall he helped the rise of the yin principle. In essence, the Chinese king was expected to be the harmonizer of the cosmic movement.

Authority in Founded Religions

The emergence of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam is an innovation in the history of religions. While in primitive and archaic religions authority is embodied in the sacred kings as well as in oral or written traditions of the tribal community and state, in these founded religions authority is ultimately derived from the founder of a new community of faith, and/or his religious experience. Consequently, the founded religion, whatever it is, develops its own structure of authority and authoritative tradition, which is distinctively different from that in primitive and archaic religions.


The Buddha's authority was grounded in his conviction that he had discovered the dharma, the universal law of existence, through his personal experience of enlightenment. He himself lived in accordance with it, and on his deathbed he urged his disciples to depend on it as the sole guiding principle of life.

But this truth was not self-evident; it was the truth taught and interpreted by the Buddha that his followers accepted. After his death his closest disciples assumed a new responsibility for the successful realization of the Buddhist ideal. Inevitably, important traditions emerged that were transmitted orally until they were put into writing in the first century bce. These authoritative oral traditions included the memories and interpretations of the Buddha's own teaching concerning the dharma and the rules of conduct, the Vinaya, which he had established for the regulation of the sagha, or Buddhist community.

However, there exists no single canon of scriptures that is universally recognized by all Buddhists. The development of such a canon was impossible because of the decentralized nature of the Buddhist community or the lack of a central ecclesiastical authority to determine orthodoxy. From the beginning of its history, Buddhism allowed its local monastic orders to function as autonomous, self-governing bodies in accordance with the teachings and disciplinary rules that they had inherited. As might be expected, the development of the autonomous monastic orders, or "schools," led to the rise of different versions of the canon without, however, invalidating the importance of the concept of canon or the theoretical unity of the Buddhist community as a whole.

Underneath all this evidence for a virtual absence of the canonical and ecclesiastical authority is the Buddha's insistence on the primacy of self-knowledge, the immediacy of experience, or the personal realization of truth. The canon of scriptures in Buddhism was generally authoritative in concept, but in practice it functioned meaningfully only on the level of particular monastic orders or schools. Moreover, the concept of canonicity itself was often in conflict with the Buddhist belief in the immediacy of the experience of enlightenment.

This general trend, away from the traditional scriptures and toward the exploration of new insights, wisdom, and interpretations, is more evident in Mahāyāna Buddhism, which arose in the first century ce, than in Theravāda, that is, Buddhism in more traditional forms, especially regarding the concepts of the Buddha and the dharma. The concept of the Buddha in Mahāyāna has changed so much that he is no longer simply the person who attained enlightenment in the sixth century bce, but is regarded as a self-manifestation in history of the dharmakāya, a cosmic principle immanent in all beings, the ground of all expressions of the eternal Buddha nature. The Buddha preaching on the Vulture Peak, as he does in Mahāyāna scriptures, is not a human teacher talking to a band of his disciples but a transhistorical being addressing himself to representatives of the whole universe. Mahāyāna scriptures purport to be ever-recurring revelations of the eternal universal principle (dharmakāya ) and tend to be dissociated from the tradition that is deeply rooted in the particular life of the historical Buddha. A scripture is considered useful insofar as it can lead one to the same religious experience that the Buddha himself had during his life. The implication is that scriptures can ultimately be dispensed with. This implication is most evident in Zen Buddhism, which claims to be based on a "special transmission outside the scriptures" and stresses only the immediate personal experience of kenshō ("seeing into one's true nature"), or enlightenment.


During his public life of ministry, Jesus of Nazareth rejected the authority of the oral Torah in Judaism, which is often referred to in the New Testament as the "tradition of the fathers." For this he substituted his own authority as interpreter of the written Torah (the Mosaic Law), namely, the authority of the one who proclaimed, in word and deed, God's will as well as the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus thus presented himself as the ultimate source of the new traditions, which were to become authoritative for the emerging church or community of Christians.

After the resurrection of Jesus, his immediate disciples understood the meaning of his life, suffering, and death in the light of the Hebrew scriptures: Jesus was the Messiah (the Christ) and the fulfillment of God's promise. Naturally, the church assumed responsibility for the creation and transmission of the traditions concerning the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. For the primitive Christian community these traditions were the most appropriate and correct interpretations of the written Torah; they were, in effect, the oral Torah of Christianity. It was especially the apostles and Pauleyewitnesses to the earthly life and to the resurrection of Jesus Christwho played a vital role in the interpretation and transmission of the traditions, just as in Judaism scribes and rabbis made essential contributions to the transmission of the oral Torah. Here emerged the authoritative apostolic tradition, which was initially transmitted orally, then written down in the various literary forms, and finally codified by the church as the canon of the New Testament. This New Testament took its place beside the canon of the Old Testament. While Protestantism accords supreme authority to the combined Old and New Testament as the sum total of the apostolic tradition, distinguishing it from the postapostolic tradition, Catholicism asserts the ongoing tradition of the church as having equal authority with the apostolic tradition embodied in the scripture. For Catholics there is no fundamental opposition between scripture and tradition; they are manifestations of one and the same thing, the apostolic tradition.

The essence of the Roman Catholic church lies in its institutional character as the objective organ of salvation, which is embodied in tradition, sacraments (seven in number), and priesthood. The church stands for the eternal presence of Jesus Christ in history, and the papacy is based on the founder's explicit designation of Peter as the foundation rock of the church. Roman Catholics claim a direct succession of papal authority from Peter to the present pope, and this claim to legitimacy, which under the pope's sanction extends to the entire Roman Catholic priesthood, is a vital element in grounding the authority of the church. Sacraments are the objective and tangible channels through which God's grace is communicated to the faithful. The objectivism of Roman Catholicism is best exemplified in its interpretation of the Eucharist, namely, the theory of transubstantiation, officially proclaimed as doctrine in 1215. As to the teaching of the church, it is the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church, the pope, who determines the legitimate interpretation of scripture and tradition. From medieval times, membership in the Roman Catholic church has involved submission to papal authority. This is certainly a typical example of institutionalized charisma, and over the centuries it has proved its strength as a source of authority in the lives of its adherents.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism agree that the church possesses the divinely given infallible authority. Eastern Orthodoxy differs from Roman Catholicism, however, in that its church has no organ of infallibility; the quality of infallibility resides in the mystically conceived church itself, not in any fixed office like that of the Roman Catholic papacy.

The Protestant understanding of authority is inclined more or less toward subjectivism in contrast to the objectivism of medieval Christianity. The Protestant Reformation hinged upon two main principles of complementary importance: justification by faith and the authority of scripture.

The question that most preoccupied Martin Luther was soteriology, that is, the question of personal salvation and its certainty. According to Luther, man is justified before God by faith alone; the church with its priesthood, sacraments, and tradition can by no means guarantee man's salvation. Hence Luther reduced the sacraments to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper. While justification by faith is the "material" principle of the Reformation, scripture alone is its "formal" principle. For Luther, as well as for John Calvin, the Bible, not the church, is the final authority for Christian life. While Calvin in his practice of interpretation seems to accept particular words of the Bible as the revealed word of God, Luther distinguishes between the words of the Bible and the word that God speaks through them: the words of the Bible are the "cradle of Christ." Accordingly, Luther does not support the literal interpretation of the Bible, nor does he find the word of God equally in all its parts, but regards some as inferior in quality. The corollary of the two main principles of the Reformation is the theory concerning the priesthood of all believers: each and every individual is a priest to himself or herself and as such is to serve God by listening to the word of God within the words of the Bible. This emphasis on personal conscience constitutes a great innovation of the Reformation, but it has also opened the way for uncontrolled interpretations of the Bible as well as the proliferation of an ever-increasing number of Protestant denominations and small sects led by conscientious, "inspired" leaders.

Trends away from the Roman Catholic type of objectivism and toward subjectivism are even more evident in many sectarian Protestant communities. They insist on the importance of Bible study, prayer, and the personal experience of salvation and its certainty; and for members of these communities the ideas of sin, salvation, and faith in Jesus Christ assume an intense and vivid personal reality. One of the best examples of this Protestant emphasis is George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Fox organized a community of the faithful without priesthood or sacramental rites. He was convinced that true religion consisted not in the church or in the creeds, but in the personal experience of what he called illumination by the Holy Spirit; the source of final authority for him was the personal experience of the inner light.


For Muslims the Qurʾān is the immediate and complete revelation of God's message to mankind through Muammad. It is the heavenly book of revelation, the word of God par excellence. While controversies have raged among Muslims as to the sense in which this is true, that it is true has never been questioned. The Qurʾān for some Muslims is "created," but for the majority it is not a historical creation; just as the Torah in Judaism is of celestial origin, deriving from the time prior to the creation, the Qurʾān, although composed in Arabic, reflects its heavenly archetype. Thus the Qurʾān is "uncreated," not conditioned by time and history. The Qurʾān is unquestionably the supreme source of authority for the ummah, or Muslim community.

The Muslim community has also accepted the adīth ("tradition," i.e., the record of the words and deeds) of the prophet Muammad as the normative authority for its beliefs and practices. While Muslims do not consider him the savior in the Christian sense of the word, they are firmly convinced that Muammad was divinely guided in the years after receiving the revelation; he is God's prophet and apostle and the perfect man, the exemplary model and spiritual guide for humanity. For Muslims, everything Muammad said and did during his life is worthy of study and imitation.

Still another tradition, which is accepted as authoritative by the orthodox Muslims (Sunnīs), is the adīth of the first four caliphs. In his later years, when he was in Medina, Muammad attempted to build up a socioreligious community on the basis of Islamic principles, and after his death this ideal was carried on by his four immediate successors (caliphs), known as the ideal rulers. The Muslim community then was in need of detailed rules for ordering both its communal life and the life of its individual members. These rules of life, called sharīʿah, or Islamic law, are based on the interpretation of the Qurʾān and the adīth s of Muammad and the first four caliphs who followed him.

Significantly, the caliph as head of the community had no pontifical or even priestly functions. His task was not to expound or to interpret the faith, but to serve as the guardian of the public order. The task of interpreting the Qurʾān and adīth s and applying them to the actual life of the community was carried out by the ʿulamāʾ. They were not priests and claimed no priestly power or authority, but, on account of their learning in the Qurʾān and adīth s, played an important role quite analogous to that of the Jewish rabbinate.

While the Sunnīs consider the adīth concerning the first three caliphs as one of the sources of authority for Islam, the Shīʿīs have rejected it as such, because they view the three caliphs as illegal usurpers and recognize instead ʿAlī, Muammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the first caliph, or, more properly, the first imam. What underlies the Shīʿī contention is the belief that Muammad's personal charisma, which he received from God, is transmitted genealogically only in his family tradition. This view is remarkably different from the Sunnī view that Muammad's charisma is channeled through the office of caliph regardless of its occupant: while Sunnī orthodoxy is committed to the principle of institutional charisma, the Shīʿīs reject it and uphold the principle of hereditary charisma. Accordingly, the Shīʿīs have replaced the adīth of the first three caliphs with the adīth of the twelve imams.

In sharp contrast to the caliph, who has no legal authority, the imam is authorized to interpret the aqīqah, or inner mysteries, which are hidden in the Qurʾān and adīth s. He is endowed with such a spiritual gift because, through the chain of direct transmission, he has received from Muammad a body of gnosis, or esoteric knowledge. Consequently, the imam is charged with a power at once political and religious; he is one who rules the community with mercy and justice but who also interprets Islamic law and its inner meanings. Naturally, the Shīʿīs are persuaded that the final authority for Islam is in the hands of the imam himself. According to them, the last, or twelfth, imam, the so-called hidden imam, did not die but entered a prolonged "concealment." One day, so they believe, from that state of concealment he will emerge as the Mahdi ("expected one"), that is, the messiah. Until he comes, a group of leading lawyer-theologians, called mujtāhid s, will continue to exercise an extensive authority on matters of religion and law.

Tension between Religious and Secular Authorities

While tension between religious and secular authorities may be present in primitive and archaic cultures, it arises in its sharpest forms only after the emergence of the founded religion. Then it occurs between rival principles, each claiming universal supremacy, and only under particular cultural and historical circumstances.

Islam has rarely experienced tensions analogous to those between church and state in medieval Western Christendom because the Muslim community has been founded on the principle of theocracy, and a distinct ecclesiastical body powerful enough to challenge secular authorities has never existed.

Buddhism knows of no such tensions either, but for different reasons. While it succeeded in establishing a theocratic state in Tibet, in many other Asian countries it has been placed in a defensive position vis-à-vis the indigenous institution of sacral kingship and its ideology; the Buddhist community has either been headed by the king or indirectly put under control of the state. Consequently, it has been constantly exposed to the temptation of soliciting favor from secular authorities. It may be noted, in this connection, that Buddhism developed a theory for peaceful interdependence between its own community and the state: the ideal of the cakravartin, a righteous, universal king. Whereas the Buddha was depicted as a universal king in the spiritual domain, who set in motion of wheel of dharma, the cakravartin, essentially political in nature, was widely expected to appear as a universal king and to turn a wheel of dharma in the secular domain. The Buddhist community saw in Aśoka, the third emperor of the great Mauryan kingdom, the realization of the cakravartin ideal: he converted to Buddhism, supported its community, sent out missionaries, and governed people in accordance with the dharma. To the eyes of the Buddhists, the two wheels of dharma, one in the spiritual domain and the other in the secular, should go hand in hand. This theory, a kind of caesaropapism, has exerted enduring influences on Asian countries.

The Christian church in its early centuries had no ambition to stand against the Roman imperial authority. It desired only freedom from persecution. This whole situation was changed by the conversion of Constantine, in the fourth century, and by the subsequent spread of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. What emerged in the arena of church-state relations was caesaropapism. The Byzantine emperors transformed the church of the Eastern Empire into a state church closely dependent on the imperial government; these emperors claimed the right to control the church and decide any disputes that arose in the ecclesiastical sphere, and the prelates of Constantinople accepted their claims.

In the Western Empire the situation was different. All effective imperial power gradually declined during the early Middle Ages, and this resulted in the emergence of the popes as temporal governors of Rome and its surroundings. Moreover, they abandoned their old allegiance to the Byzantine emperors and formed a new alliance with the Frankish kings. The climax of this Frankish-papal alliance occurred with Leo III's coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans in 800; thus Leo established the precedent, followed through the Middle Ages, that papal coronation is essential to the making of an emperor, and in so doing he implanted the germ of the idea that empire is a gift to be bestowed by the papacy.

The king's office, however, was conceived to be as sacred as the papacy, a view supported by Old Testament texts; kings were regarded as the Lord's anointed, as ministers of God, and were hailed as vicars of Christ. As such, they aspired to supreme power, both spiritual and temporal. It soon became customary throughout Europe for kings to choose bishops; they gave them great fiefs and invested them with the ring and pastoral staff that symbolized episcopal office. This practice proved beneficial for the kings, but it was a radical departure from the sacred tradition of the church. A measure of this imperial power can be illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1046. When Henry III of Germany arrived in Rome for his imperial coronation, he found there three rival candidates for the papal throne, each claiming to be the rightful pope. Henry settled the issue in high-handed manner: he dismissed all three and installed his own choice. It seemed to Henry that he had as much right to appoint a bishop for Rome as for any other diocese in his territory, and as vicar of God he was also very much aware of his duty to appoint the best man available to such an important office.

The clash between papal theocracy and imperial theocracy became inevitable in 1073 when Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII and asserted the church's independence from, and indeed its domination over, the imperial power embodied in Henry IV of Germany. Henry could not give up the right of appointing bishops without abandoning all hope of welding Germany into a unified monarchy, and Gregory could not acquiesce in the imperial claims, which included a claim to appoint the popes themselves. The Roman pontiff maintained that as God's vicar he possessed a direct authoritynot only spiritual but also politicalover all men and all their affairs in the Corpus Christianum. He even asserted in the Dictatus Papae, issued in 1075, that the pope could depose emperors. Henry then appointed a bishop of Milan and strengthened his position by summoning a council of German bishops, which accused Gregory of gross abuse of papal authority. Gregory replied in 1076 with a decree in which he declared Henry excommunicated and deprived of his imperial authority. Rarely has the history of religions witnessed more direct clashes between religious and secular authorities.

See Also

Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Canon and Canonization; Canon; Imamate; Intellectuals; Kingship; Myth; Papacy; Politics and Religion; Scripture; Sunnah; Tradition; Truth.


There are no comprehensive presentations on the theme of authority in the general history of religions based on comparative or typological studies. On the authority of myth in premodern society, see Mircea Eliade's Myth and Reality (New York, 1963). This book contains an excellent bibliography. Bronislaw Malinowski has attempted to elucidate the authentic nature and function of myth in primitive society on the basis of his fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders in New Guinea. See his classic work Myth in Primitive Psychology (New York, 1926), which has been reprinted in his Magic, Science and Religion (New York, 1948), pp. 93148.

The best single book on the problem of imperial authority in the ancient Near East remains Henri Frankfort's Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago, 1948). The eighth International Congress for the History of Religions met in Rome in the spring of 1955 to discuss the theme of kingship. Its proceedings have been published as The Sacral Kingship (Leiden, 1959). On imperial authority in ancient China and Japan, see D. Howard Smith's "Divine Kingship in Ancient China," Numen 4 (1957): 171203, and my own "Conceptions of State and Kingship in Early Japan," Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 28 (1976): 97112. On the structure of authority in the Buddhist community, there is an excellent discussion in Sukumar Dutt's The Buddha and Five After-Centuries (London, 1957).

The sources of authority in Islam are succinctly presented in Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb's Mohammedanism, 2d rev. ed. (New York, 1961), which still remains the best introduction to Islam.

The origins and development of the structure of authority in the early Christian church has been masterfully studied by Hans von Campenhausen in Kirchliches Amt und geistliche Vollmacht (Tübingen, 1953), translated by J. A. Baker as Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, Calif., 1969). On scriptural authority in the modern period, there is much useful material in J. K. S. Reid's The Authority of Scripture: A Study of the Reformation and Post-Reformation Understanding of the Bible (London, 1957) and in Georges H. Tavard's Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (London, 1959). Concerning authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, see Georges Florovsky's Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Belmont, Mass., 1972).

On the manifold relations of church and state, a useful comparative and typological study has been presented by Joachim Wach in his Sociology of Religion (1944; Chicago, 1962), pp. 287330. The standard work on the confrontation between papal and secular authorities in the Middle Ages remains Walter Ullmann's The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. (London, 1962). The primary sources relating to the subject have been skillfully assembled by Brian Tierney in The Crisis of Church and State, 10501300 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964).

New Sources

Abraham, William. "The Offense of Divine Revelation." Harvard Theological Review 95 (July 2002): 251264.

Berkey, Jonathan. Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East. Seattle, Wash., 2001.

Engler, Steven. "Religion, Consecration and the State in Bourdieu." Cultural Studies 17 (May 2003): 445468.

Keyes, Charles F., Laurel Kendall, and Helen Hardacre, eds. Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and Southeast Asia. Honolulu, 1994.

Lincoln, Bruce. Authority: Construction and Corrosion. Chicago, 1994.

Siebers, Tobin, ed. Religion and the Authority of the Past. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton, 2004.

Wills, Gregory. Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 17851900. New York, 1996.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 14 2018


Three topics have dominated philosophical discussion of authority: the nature of authority, the point of authority, and the sources of authority.

The Nature of Authority

In providing an account of the nature of authority, the focus in this entry will be on de jure practical authority, though the differences between de facto and de jure authority and between theoretical and practical authority will also be briefly considered at the end of this section.

What is authority? Authority is a relational matter: A has authority over B with respect to some domain D. What follows is first a consideration of items A, B, and D that enter into this relationship, and then of the nature of the relationship among them.

With respect to A: while A need not be a person, it must be something that can have a say-sothat is, it must be the sort of thing about which one can truly assert "A says that B must ϕ." So, A can be a natural person, or a corporate person, or an institution, or a text. With respect to B: while B need not be a natural person, B must be the sort of thing that exhibits agency. B must, that is, be able to act on reasons: B must be capable of ϕ-ing because B has good reason to ϕ. In a relationship of practical authority, then, the authority-bearer must be a speaker, and the person under authority must be an agent.

With respect to D: Authority relationships are characteristically limited to a specific context and are characteristically limited by certain constraints within that context. An employer may have authority over an employee with respect to job-related matters, but may have no authority at all outside that context. And, further, it is not as if an employer has unlimited authority over an employee within the domain of job-related matters: if the employer told the employee to work until the employee dies of exhaustion, one would not take that to be within the range of the employer's authority. With each purported authority relationship there is assumed a domain for that authority, even though that domain is often poorly defined.

What, then, is the relationship between speaker A and agent B that makes for practical authority within a given domain D? Surely it is at least that the speaker has some control over the agent's reasons for action, and control of a specific kind: A's say-so makes a difference to the reasons that the agent B has by giving B a good reason to act a certain way. This good reason is, either in whole or in part, A's say-soA's say-so produces a reason for action for B not merely causally but constitutively. So if A has authority over B, then A's telling B to ϕ is itself a reason for B to ϕ. If, for example, parents have authority over their children with respect to household chores, then a parent's telling the child to clean his or her room is itself a reason for the child to clean the room. By telling the child to clean the room, the parent has added to the child's reasons to clean the room; aside from the fact that the current condition of the room may be aesthetically displeasingand even a health risk to the childone reason for the child to clean the room is that the parent told him or her to do so.

In de jure practical authority a speaker has constitutive control over an agent's reasons for action. But it is not enough for authority simply that the speaker's say-so constitutes a reason for action for the agent; the speaker's say-so must constitute a particular kind of reason. Reasons of authority play a certain role in the proper decision making of the agent under authority: where there is practical authority, and in the domain in which that authority is effective, the authority's say-so is decisive with respect to the agent's rational action. Authoritative dictates have the function of bringing deliberation to a close by fixing the action selected by the authoritative dictate as the reasonable choice to make.

One prominent way of expressing this idea has been offered by Joseph Raz, whose work has been the most important in explicating the nature and justification of authority. Raz says that the way that authoritative norms fulfill this function is by providing what he calls "protected reasons" (Raz 1979, p. 29). A protected reason to ϕ is both a reason to ϕ and a reason to disregard reasons not to ϕ. Raz claims that the way that authoritative norms fulfill their function of decisively terminating deliberation is not by providing enormously weighty reasons, reasons that compete with and always best any reasons that militate in favor of rival options; rather, authoritative dictates fulfill their function by giving reasons that insulate a course of action from competition. When an authority tells one to ϕ, that is a reason not only to ϕ but also to disregard in deliberation courses of action that preclude ϕ-ing. One might dispute Raz's claim that authoritative norms are always protected reasons, but the more fundamental point is that where there is authority, there is a speaker whose say-so the agent has reason to treat as setting the rationally preferable course of action within some domain.

In sum: if A is a genuine practical authority over B in some domain, then in that domain A's telling B to ϕ is a decisive reason for B to ϕ. Whereas in practical authority, speakers have authority over what agents do, in theoretical authority, speakers have authority over what agents believe. There are, nonetheless, striking similarities between genuine practical authority and genuine theoretical authority. If A has theoretical authority over B in some domain, then A must be a speaker and B must be one who can believe things for reasons; and if A tells B that it is the case that p, then A's telling B that it is the case that p is a reason to B to believe that p, a reason that is decisive from B's point of view. If an accomplished chef tells a novice that this is not the best way to make a roux, then the novice has decisive reason to believe that this is not the best way to make a roux. Practical authority, being concerned with reasons for action, is an object of investigation within the province of moral philosophy (and political and legal philosophy as well); theoretical authority, being concerned with reasons for belief, is an object of investigation within the province of epistemology.

One can also distinguish between de facto and de jure authority. People often ascribe authority (practical and theoretical) to speakers even without holding that their assertions or commands are reasons for believing or doing anything. Authority is sometimes used as a term of classification and explanation in both the social sciences and in everyday talk without any attempt to evaluate the claims of these putative authorities to give reasons for action. Authority in this sense is de facto, as opposed to de jure, authority. But there is nevertheless a tight connection between them: no speaker can be correctly described as a de facto authority without that speaker's either claiming to be or being widely regarded as a de jure authority.

Here is why. Suppose that one wants to argue that A is a de facto authority over some group simply because as a matter of observable behavior, if A tells members of that group to ϕ, then members of that group, by and large, ϕ. But that would surely be an insufficient basis for ascribing de facto authority; if it were a mere accident that the behavior of the group fell in line with the commands issued by A, one would not say that A bears de facto authority. One might try to complete the case for de facto authority by adding a causal condition: that it is A's commanding the members of that group to ϕ that results in those members' ϕ-ing. But this addition would be insufficient; if it were simply a quirky feature of the individual psychologies of the group's members that believing that A told them to ϕ caused them to ϕ, then one would ascribe a nervous disorder to the group members rather than de facto authority to A. The moral here is that if one wants to appeal to agents' responses to a speaker to establish that the speaker is a de facto authority, one will have to argue that those agents act in accordance with A's say-so because they take A's say-so to be a reason for them to complythat is, because they believe A to be a de jure authority.

One can make a similar argument from the side of the speaker: it is not sufficient to treat a speaker as a de facto authority that the speaker can (for example) have people locked up if they fail to obey. What makes the difference between effective kidnappers and de facto state authorities is, inter alia, that only the latter claim that their commands are binding standards, the violation of which justify locking people upthat is, that they are de jure practical authorities. Although there is no doubt a difference between de jure and de facto practical authority, de facto practical authority must be understood in terms of de jure practical authority.

The remainder of the entry will focus on genuine, de jure practical authority. Under what circumstances is it desirable for authority relationships of this sort of exist? And how are such authority relationships to be explained?

The Point of Authority

What is the point of authority? Is there anything of value realized through such relationships?

Raz has written that the normal way of justifying authority is to show that those subject to it act better on their other reasons for action under authority than they would in the absence of authority. He calls this the "normal justification thesis." Practical authority provides a servicethat is, the service of enabling persons to act more reasonably (Raz 1986).

There are several distinct contexts in which practical authority might provide this service. Practical authority might enable one to act more in accordance with what reasonprior to and apart from any authoritative impositiondeterminately requires. It may be that a certain regimen of drug treatment is necessary for a person to regain her health. This is just a fact about the world, and given the value of this person's health, it would be unreasonable for her not to follow that regimen. But even if it is perfectly clear to her that this is the regimen to followbecause her doctor prescribes it, and her doctor's views are in line with the consensus of the medical communityshe may fail to be motivated adequately by the doctor's theoretical authority alone. She might do better in acting in accordance with what reason requires if she had further reason to go along with the doctor's prescriptionperhaps by placing herself under the doctor's authority. Some people do this sort of thing with personal trainers (or career mentors, or spiritual directors): they treat the trainer's (or mentor's or director's) prescriptions not as pieces of advice but as authoritative dictates, and they better reach their health-(or career-, or sanctification-) related goals by having trainers (or mentors or directors) that are not merely dispensers of advice but practical authorities.

Another context in which practical authorities can help persons to act on their other reasons for action is that in which their reasons for action require actions that are, to a significant degree, vague or otherwise indeterminate. The most pressing of such cases are those in which persons need to act in a coordinated way. The standard example is the rule of the road: While there is strong reason for persons to drive on the same side of the road, it is indeterminate which side they should drive on. Although a solution may be reached through trial and error, it would be helpful if there were a party that could set the rule of the road in a clear and determinate way prior to the disasters that can occur on the way to a convention established by trial and error.

There are several ways in which such indeterminacy presents itself. In some cases, there are a number of instrumental means to a single well-defined goalfor example, keeping people from driving into each otherand practical authority's job is to select one such means as a common plan of action. In some cases, there are a number of ways to fill in a vague rule. For example: one should not drive an automobile if one is intoxicated. But: What counts as "intoxicated"? Is it to be fixed by actual level of impairment? By blood alcohol level? And, in either case, at what levels? This is a matter that can be resolved by authoritative imposition: a practical authority can set what counts as intoxication, thus helping persons act in a coordinated way both with respect to their driving behavior and with respect to the claims that they make on one another with respect to their driving behavior. For the rule about drunk driving matters not only when one is deciding whether to drive; it is also important both in deciding whether to make claims on another for the damages that the other has done while driving with alcohol in his or her system and in deciding whether to accept claims made on one by others for damages that one has done while driving with alcohol in one's system.

Raz's normal justification thesis brings out the points that practical authority calls for justification (and thus can fail with respect to this call) and that the usual way that practical authority is justified is by showing that our other reasons are better served by adding reasons of authority into the mix. Whereas this may indeed be the normal way of establishing the point of authority, it is not the only way. Here is another: Practical authority is not just an ability to change others' reasons for action, it is also a (typically) positive status. Because practical authority is a (typically) positive status, placing someone in a position of practical authority can be a way to honor that person, or a way to give that person what he or she deserves. So one justification for practical authority might make reference not to the ways in which those subject to authority are served by it but by reference to the way that the bearer of authority is appropriately honored or rewarded by it. There may, for example, be in some group no particularly pressing reason to institute structures of authority for decision making, but in light of the need to honor a person who has made great contributions to that group's aims, it would make sense to confer authority on that person.

There are also more tedious reasons for being in an authority relationship. Employers often have limited authority over their employees, and employees enter those authority relationships by contract. From the employer's point of view, the salient reason for the authority relationship is to bind the employee to performance of duties; from the employee's point of view, the salient reason for the authority relationship is that, unless he or she is willing to enter it, he or she will have no job, and no paycheck. This is a far cry from authority's helping an agent to act on his or her preexisting reasons or from authority's being conferred on someone in order to do him or her honor, but it cannot be denied that a number of more-or-less limited authority relationships in which people find themselves are justified in this way.

It is important to note, though, that practical authority has its drawbacks. Recall that what distinguishes the reasons of practical authority is their decisive role in deliberation. If reasons of authority are absent, then something else will have to fill the role that brings deliberation to its conclusion in these casesoften, the agent's own free, rationally underdetermined decision. If one takes the making of free, underdetermined decisions to be a good, then there is something lost by persons who are under practical authority (see Wolff 1970). So it is not as if practical authority is costless. And, furthermore, it should be noted that there may be bad psychological tendencies associated with certain sorts of otherwise worthwhile authority relationships, at least in certain classes of people. Even if practical authority is, properly circumscribed, necessary and valuable, there may be broad types of person who tend to act worse when placed either in such positions of authority or under such authority (see Milgram 1974).

The Sources of Authority

Suppose that person X claims to have practical authority over person Y, and Y is rightly curious about the correctness of this claim. When Y challenges X, X's response is: "You are under my authority because I am I, and you are you. You are under my authority because I am X, and you are not." X's case is poor; not only is it unconvincing, but it borders on incoherent. It borders on incoherence because authority relationships are normative matters, and whether a normative fact obtains depends not on irreducibly particular facts but on general ones. So just as claims about one's duties and rights are correct not in virtue of the particular identity of the person to whom those duties and rights are ascribed but in virtue of the general properties instantiated by that person, claims about who holds authority depend on the general properties instantiated by that person. It might fundamentally matter with respect to the presence of authority whether one is a parent, or is morally good, or is powerful, or has a loud voice; it cannot fundamentally matter whether one is Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan, or Bozo the Clown.

How, then, does it come to be the case that one individual is a practical authority over another individual, given that it is not simply as that individual that one is an authority bearer or a person under authority? There are two ways to try to answer this question. The first is to begin with general practical principles, and to show that in certain circumstances those practical principles imply that one party has authority over another. It is crucial that one select a practical principle that stands a chance of generating the crucial features of authority, that is, that at least under some possible set of circumstances it implies that one party's say-so is in some domain a decisive reason for action for another party.

Here is one principle that has been invoked in a number of contexts to explain practical authority: the principle of promising. The principle of promising, stated loosely, is that if one promises to perform an act of ϕ-ing, then one is morally bound to ϕ. One's valid promise is, in standard cases, a reason for the promisor to perform the action promised, and it is a reason of a certain kind: that one validly promised to perform an action is characteristically decisive, again, at least in standard cases. But one can promise to act in accordance with another party's commands: one can promise to obey the personal trainer's commands with respect to one's exercise regimen, or to follow the policies of one's immediate superior in the performance of job duties, or to do the bidding of the king. If one has validly promised to act on another person's commands in some domain, then it seems that there is good reason to suppose that authority has been generated.

This way of accounting for practical authority can be called the "top-down" approach. It begins with practical principles of broader application and proceeds to show that in some circumstances the application of that general principle yields a relationship that bears all of the defining conditions of genuine authority. A rival approach, the "bottom-up" approach, takes authority relationships as basic, not to be explained as implications of other practical principles. The guiding idea of this way of proceeding is that relationships of practical authority are no less familiar thanand perhaps may be more familiar thanthe general practical principles that users of the top-down approach have employed. The task for the user of the bottom-up approach is simply to describe the general features of the various relationships of genuine practical authority with which we are familiar, and so far as possible to exhibit the unity among them (either the precise features they share, or analogies between them). So, the bottom-up theorist might note (for example) that people commonsensically accept that parents have authority over children, and thus take his or her task to be to define more precisely what counts as the parent/child relationship in which authority exists (is it biological? social? legal? some combination of these?) and what defines the scope of the parent's practical authority (is it over all domestic matters? does it extend beyond that? does the size of its domain remain constant, or not?). He or she may wish to answer similar questions about the authority of the state and of God, and to draw the appropriate connections and disanalogies between these cases of authority.

There are potential drawbacks to both of these approaches. The bottom-up approach seems to be extremely deferential to de facto authorities, offering them the presumption of de jure status. As such, employment of the bottom-up approach is unable to ease the suspicions of the authority skeptic, who is concerned either in particular cases or in a more global way about the existence of de jure practical authority. The top-down approach, by contrast, runs the real risk of failing to hook up with de facto authority relationships in any straightforward way. If there is a clear lesson to be drawn from the history of uses of the top-down approach in investigating questions of practical authoritymost attention has been paid to parental, political, and divine authorityit is that it is extraordinarily difficult to generate plausible accounts of the de jure authority of common social institutions from standard applications of widely held general practical principles.

parental authority

It is commonly thought, especially among parents, that parents are practical authorities over their children. But employing the top-down approach to explain parents' status as authorities over their children has proven to be a difficult undertaking.

A preliminary difficulty for this undertaking is specifying the window in which this authority is supposed to obtain: at what age does a parent's authority over children begin (babies are not under authority, as they cannot yet act for reasons), and at what age does it cease? Suppose, though, that the time frame in which parents are to be authoritative over children is settled; how is one to explain why parents are authoritative during this stretch of time? A child's requirement of obedience to his or her parents cannot be a matter of voluntary undertaking, as Hobbes erroneously (and even inconsistently with his own view) supposed it to be (Hobbes 1651, ch. 20). So no principles of moral obligation founded on consent or voluntary acceptance of benefits will do. One might appeal to the requirements of gratitude, but this suggestion is rife with difficulties: Why does gratitude, which typically does not require obedience, generate such a requirement in this case? If it is a parent's duty to care for children, why is gratitude owed as a consequence of a mere doing of one's duty? Isn't gratitude characteristically conditioned on free acceptance of benefits, whereas children are typically not free to refuse such benefits from their parents or to seek the benefits elsewhere?

Locke argues, plausibly, that a parent's authority over children is due to the child's deficiencies in reason and choice, and it is only so long as those deficiencies remain that the parent has authority, for it is as a help to remedying those deficiencies that the parent has authority (Locke 1690, §55). These claims seem to be true, but this argument concerns the point, or value, of parental authority, not the explanation of how parents come to be authoritative over children. These are distinct questions. Even those who grant the value of parental authority can find its existence and explanation mysterious indeed. Little progress has been made in providing a top-down account of the authority of parents over their children.

political authority

Political authorityits desirability, its scope, and its explanationis one of the few truly perennial problems of political philosophy. The most familiar explanation for political authority is the consent account. On this view, most fully elaborated during the early modern period, citizens characteristically make an agreement, either explicitly or tacitly (Hobbes 1651, ch. 18; Locke 1690, §119; Rousseau 1762, bk. 4, ch. 2), to obey their rulers. It is in virtue of this original agreement that subjects are duty-bound to obey their political authorities. Whereas this view has been tremendously popular, it is subject to overwhelming objections, which are catalogued in David Hume's influential "Of the Original Contract" (1753). Hume convincingly argues that there is little evidence that explicit agreements have generally taken place, and that the tacit agreements that consent theorists find themselves forced to posit to explain state authority are in fact no more than a myth.

Hume's recommended account of political authority is a utilitarian onethat is, that it is simply in virtue of the public benefit brought about by having a political authority in place that the de jure authority of the state is established. As Hume puts it, public authority is necessary for the public good, and public authority cannot be sustained unless subjects pay "exact obedience" to their rulers. But this is unpersuasive: states maintain de facto authority in the face of quite a bit of disobedience, and so Hume has not explained why the need for de facto authority yields the conclusion that states have de jure authority over their subjects.

During the latter half of the twentieth century there was a revival of attempts to provide an account of state authority. Some were attempts to retrieve the old consent view, offering new accounts of the tacit consent that was necessary to bind that vast majority of persons who never explicitly consent. Some were attempts to revive Hume's utilitarian-style argument. H. L. A. Hart (1955) and John Rawls (1964) offered arguments from fairness, holding that the authority of law is based on the fact that those who accept the benefits of legally ordered cooperation would be unfairly free riding on the efforts of others were they not to obey as well. Others appealed to an argument that appears as early as Plato's Crito the idea that citizens owe a debt of gratitude to their political authorities for the goods that they receive through them, and this debt is to be repaid through obedience.

Despite the ingenuity of writers attempting to provide top-down accounts of political authority, the most important writers on political authority at the end of the twentieth century were "philosophical anarchists"they held, that is, that none of these attempts to account for genuine, de jure political authority is successful, and thus people have reason to reject the view that modern states are genuinely authoritative. Some of these writers, such as Robert Paul Wolff (1970), hold that this is a necessary truth: there cannot be a genuinely authoritative state. But most of themmost prominently, A. John Simmons (1979), Joseph Raz (1979), and Leslie Green (1990)argue simply that under current political conditions no state holds the wide-ranging authority that it claims for itself.

divine authority

Recent scholarship employing the top-down approach has had difficulty exhibiting the sources of authority of the two likeliest bearers of wide-ranging authority: parents and political institutions. One might think that even if such human institutions were bound to fall short in this respect, surely divine authority would be an easier matter. After all, whereas God's existence remains a philosophically controverted matter, it is widely accepted by both theists and nontheists that if there is such a being as God then that being is practically authoritative over human beings.

It turns out that accounting for divine authority using a top-down approach raises difficulties that are just as pressing as the difficulties that attend accounting for parental or political authority in the top-down way. One might think that being a practical authority is a logical consequence of traditional divine attributes, such as omniscience, omnipotence, or perfect moral goodness, but this is wrong: omniscience and perfect moral goodness give us reasons only to think of God as a theoretical authority, not a practical authority; and whereas omnipotence of course enables God to control the circumstances in which our reasons for action have application, it does not of itself entail that God's commands constitute reasons for action for humans. One might think that traditional moral principles concerning gratitude for benefits or property in what one has created would yield a moral obligation to obey God, but it turns out that there are severe difficulties in demonstrating that the conditions of application for these principles generate such an obligation of obedience (Murphy 2002). The top-down approach has fared no better in the case of divine authority than in the cases of parental and political authority.

It is unclear what moral should be drawn from the failure of top-down philosophical investigation to generate plausible accounts of parental, political, and divine authority. On the one hand, one might take it simply to be an indication that, given the nature of authority, it is bound to be hard to show that one party has genuine authority over another in nonstylized contextsthat is, contexts that are not created for the purpose of generating authority relationships (e.g., employer-employee contracts). On the other hand, one might take it to be a reductio ad absurdum of reliance on the top-down approach. One might claim that among people's sturdiest considered moral judgments are the judgments that these authority relationships are genuine. To the extent that distinct general moral principles fail to illuminate the authority present there, this failure gives people reason not to jettison the view that these authority relationships are genuine but only to insist on a bottom-up approach, taking practical authority as a basic feature of the moral world.

See also Civil Disobedience; Cosmopolitanism; Postcolonialism; Republicanism.


For considerations of the nature and justification of authority, see Joseph Raz, The Authority of Law (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1979) and The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1986). Several important discussions are collected in Authority, edited by Joseph Raz (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1990). For philosophical skepticism concerning the possibility of de jure authority, see Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). For some discussion of the deleterious effects of submission to authority, see Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

There is a vast literature on the sources of de jure authority, almost all of it focused on political authority. The classic contract account may be found in Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994; first published 1651), John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), reprinted in Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett (Cambridge, U.K.; Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, in The Basic Political Writings, translated by Donald Cress (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987; first published 1762). David Hume's skeptical treatment of contract views may be found in his "Of the Original Contract" (1753), reprinted in Political Essays, and edited by Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Accounts justifying political authority in terms of fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of rule following are to be found in H. L. A. Hart, "Are There Any Natural Rights?" (Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 175191), and John Rawls, "Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play," in Law and Philosophy, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1964). A gratitude view is suggested in Plato's Crito, in The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1975). Recent accounts skeptical of all extant theories of political authority may be found in A. John Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), Raz's The Authority of Law and Leslie Green, The Authority of the State (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1990). There has been less recent work on parental and divine authority. For a discussion of parental authority, see Michael Slote, "Obedience and Illusions," in Having Children, edited by Onora O'Neill and William Ruddick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); for a discussion of divine authority, see Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Mark C. Murphy (2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018


Development of the concept

Contemporary uses

Research and problem areas


The concept of authority, like the related concepts with which it is frequently associated—power, influence, and leadership—is used in a variety of ways in political philosophy and the social sciences. In part, the diversity stems from the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Whether it be defined as (1) a property of a person or office, especially the right to issue orders; (2) a relationship between two offices, one superior and the other subordinate, such that both incumbents perceive the relationship as legitimate; (3) a quality of a communication by virtue of which it is accepted; or (4) countless variations on one or more of these logical forms of definition, the phenomenon of authority is basic to human behavior. One philosopher, Bertrand de Jouvenel, has put it more strongly: “The phenomenon called ‘authority’ is at once more ancient and more fundamental than the phenomenon called ‘state’ the natural ascendancy of some men over others is the principle of all human organisations and all human advances” ([1955] 1957, p. xiii). In any event, the problem of political authority, as distinct from the quest for a precise definition of the concept, is at least as old as government itself. Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has been a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority); small groups (informal authority or leadership); intermediate organizations, such as schools, churches, armies, industrial and governmental bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authority); and society-wide or inclusive organizations ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and international organization (political authority). To what extent these are different kinds of authority remains an open question. Definitive answers must await more research on their interrelationships: for example, how attitudes toward parental authority condition subsequent attitudes toward civic participation and how the dominant style of political rule affects the ways in which authority is exercised in primary and intermediate organizations.

Development of the concept

The implications of man’s involvement in the state, i.e., his obligations as a citizen, are given their classic statement in Plato’s famous dialogues, Apology and Crito. The trial and conviction of Socrates poses the basic problem of political authority. What is man’s relationship to the state? Is he obliged to obey an unjust law? For Socrates, the contractual relationship with his state, entered into by every citizen upon reaching adulthood, provides only limited alternatives to complete obedience, even to the point of death. On the one hand, the citizen may argue, persuade others, or attempt to change the law. On the other hand, he may abandon his citizenship and leave the country. (The existence of these two alternatives is still crucial in distinguishing between democratic and totalitarian states.) Unsuccessful in the first alternative and unwilling to adopt the second alternative, Socrates accepts the verdict of his trial as legitimate and drinks the fatal hemlock.

The justification of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority, the requirements of political obligation —these have been core questions for political philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to the present. Yet these great thinkers, their most important successors (Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), and particularly twentieth-century social scientists have not been concerned solely with questions of what ought to be. They have also addressed themselves to questions of what is—how authority and power are in fact distributed in society. To the extent that these political philosophers and social scientists have arrived at different conclusions, they have often been led to use these concepts in different ways.

Perhaps the seminal treatment of the concept of authority in the twentieth century is that of Max Weber (1922). He distinguishes between three pure types of authority—(1) legal-rational, (2) traditional, and (3) charismatic—according to the kind of claim to legitimacy typically made by each. In the last two cases the obligation is to a person, the traditional chief or the heroic or messianic leader. Legal authority is more restricted in scope; obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal network of positions ([1922] 1957, pp. 325–328). Weber’s treatment of legal-rational authority, which distinguishes between, but does not elaborate on, authority inherent in office and authority based on technical knowledge, provides the basic framework for most contemporary analyses of bureaucracy (Peabody 1962). His treatment of charismatic authority, or more precisely, charismatic leadership (Bierstedt 1954, pp. 71–72), has been followed up in studies of national political leadership (Lipset 1963; Neumann 1942; Pye 1962).

But social scientists are by no means agreed on how the concept of authority should be used. For example, Michels, in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930, p. 319) defines authority as “the capacity, innate or acquired, for exercising ascendancy over a group.” However, Bierstedt (1954, pp. 67–81) takes issue with each of these points. Authority is not a capacity; it is a relationship. Furthermore, it is neither innate, nor a matter of exercising ascendancy. Bierstedt argues that Michels has confused authority with competence. Yet both agree as to the close relationship between authority and power. For Michels, authority “is a manifestation of power” (1930, p. 319); for Bierstedt, “authority becomes a power phenomenon….it is sanctioned power, institutionalized power” (1954, pp. 79–80).

Contemporary uses

The use of authority by contemporary political scientists is no more free from dispute. Thus, Lasswell and Kaplan, in a widely quoted definition paralleling Bierstedt’s, define authority as “formal power” (1950, p. 133). However, Friedrich (1963, chapters 9–13; p. 207, n. 15; p. 226, n. 20) explicitly rejects this definition by Lasswell and Kaplan, and defines authority as “the quality of a communication,” which is “capable of reasoned elaboration” (1958, pp. 35–36; 1963, pp. 218, 224). They are also in disagreement as to whether power or influence is the more inclusive term: Lasswell and Kaplan arguing that “power is a form of influence” (1950, p. 85); Friedrich maintaining that “influence is a kind of power, indirect and unstructured” (1963, p. 199, p. 207, n. 15). It seems of limited value to pursue a definition of authority as a special case of power or influence (the genus-anddifferentia form). Social scientists have not as yet been able to formulate a precise and widely accepted operational definition of power. These concepts, even if given operational definition, would appear to open up more difficulties than they resolve.

Several conclusions emerge from a review of these various attempts at definition and explication. First, what clearly distinguishes authority from coercion, force, and power on the one hand, and leadership, persuasion, and influence on the other hand, is legitimacy. Superiors feel that they have a right to issue commands; subordinates perceive an obligation to obey. If the character of the communication is questioned, then authority is diminished and the bond that holds the participants together is in danger of being severed. Authority is strongest when subordinates anticipate the commands of superiors even before they are voiced. Second, authority is exercised most characteristically within a network of clearly defined hierarchical roles: parent–child, teacher–pupil, employer–employee, ruler–ruled. These authority relations are institutionalized: duties and obligations are specified, behavior is reasonably predictable, and the relations continue over time. In a system of well-established authority, men of great ability are less in demand. Charisma is transformed through routinization; the entrepreneur is replaced by the bureaucrat. Finally, most social scientists agree that authority is but one of several resources available to incumbents of formal positions. The policeman may initially depend upon authority symbolized by his uniform and badge to lend legitimacy to his orders. But if his authority fails and persuasion is not successful, then he must resort to the threat or use of physical force, or even firearms, in order to bring about compliance. In cases in which one criminal is joined by others, the policeman can call upon other policemen, the governor, the national guard, and, if need be, the supreme commander and the army. In the final analysis, it is this nesting of authority, and the possibility of tapping greater and greater resources, that explains why criminals get arrested despite their failure to consent to a policeman’s authority. A head of state is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged not just by citizens but, more importantly, also by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders, and, in the long run, the political and administrative apparatus of the entire society.

Research and problem areas

The usefulness of authority as a general analytical concept in the social sciences would seem to be dependent on further research directed at answering the following questions:

(1) What is the impact of the dominant style of political authority in a given country on the ways in which authority is exercised in the many different primary groups and intermediate organizations making up the society? Societies may be characterized by the congruency or diffused and fragmented nature of their multiple layers of authority patterns. Little is known about the way in which the dominant style of political authority—totalitarian, autocratic, constitutional elitism, mass democratic, or some combination of these—structures the attitudes and practices in the primary and intermediate groups and organizations in society. Bendix’s pioneering study of the impact of four different cultures—Russia under the czars, Engand in the process of industrialization, America during the first four decades of the twentieth century, and East Germany after World War II—on management-worker ideologies is suggestive of the kind of research that is needed (1956). From a related orientation, Eckstein (1961, pp. 6–12) hypothesizes that the stability of a government is related to the congruency of its style of authority with the other authority patterns of society. The leadership practices of British political parties and the British cabinet structure are put forward as an example of high congruence. The experiences of the Weimar Republic, where democracy was largely confined to the level of parliamentary government, illustrate the opposite case (pp. 17–21).

Studies of totalitarian dictatorships—Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Russia under Stalin —stress the creation of a vacuum between the elite and mass and a resulting disintegration of communication affecting all traditional authority patterns. “…the bonds of confidence in social relationships are corroded by the terror and propaganda… . The confidence which ordinarily binds the manager of a plant to his subordinates, members of a university faculty to each other and to their students, lawyer to client, doctor to patient, and even parents to children as well as brothers to sisters is disrupted” (Friedrich & Brzezinski 1956, p. 166). Although the basic pattern of authority may be quite different, the totalitarian government also seeks congruency, a stability imposed from above. The objective is a system of authority in which parents are totally responsible for their children’s behavior, as is the party secretary for the cell, the chairman for the collective, and the central leadership for the whole of the Soviet Union (Mead 1951).

(2) How are attitudes and behavior shaped in infancy, childhood, and adolescence so as to affect the degree and kind of subsequent political participation and attitudes toward political authority? The second problem area, political socialization, is shaped by but also affects the first. The training of the young—character building, education, instruction in citizenship—has obvious consequences for adult political behavior. At least in the United States, the single best predictor of a child’s choice of a political party is his parents’ party preference. Much of the literature on the development of personality, authoritarianism, and voting preferences testifies to the importance of attitudes formed in the early years of life as a conditioner of later, mature civic activity (Hyman 1959). While the survey literature of the United States abounds with evidence of an adult cynicism toward politics and the low or ambivalent status of politicians, these attitudes are not apparent among young school children (Greenstein 1960). Family tradition, the extent to which a family is politicized, does, however, have a substantial impact upon an individual’s orientation toward politics and political authority, influencing the degree, kind, and direction of his political participation. Cross-national studies of political socialization are still relatively rare (Hess 1963).

(3) What are the strengths and bases of support of differing forms of political authority at the local and national level and between governmental institutions as diverse as the chief executive, the bureaucracy, the legislature, and the courts? Easton (1953) has equated the study of politics with the analysis of “the authoritative allocation of values.” Much of the community power literature has focused on how choices are made between competing values, who makes them, and once made, why citizens accept them as “authoritative.” While many of the early sociological analyses of community power stress the importance of a business elite, more recent studies by political scientists emphasize the integrative role played by public officials. Banfield (1961) found that the mayor of Chicago was able to provide a degree of informal centralization through party organization of what would otherwise be a fragmented formal authority resulting from multiple and overlapping governmental jurisdictions. Dahl (1961) and his associates traced a historical shift in political influence in New Haven, Connecticut, from oligarchy to pluralism, through the intensive analysis of three key decision areas: political nominations, public education, and urban redevelopment. What coordination and continuity exist in a system characterized by dispersed inequality of resources is largely brought about by elected officials, particularly the mayor of New Haven.

Numerous studies of the multiple centers of authority and power in modern industrial states have been undertaken—the executive, the legislature, the courts, the bureaucracy, political parties, and interest groups. However, social scientists are only beginning to understand what takes place when conflict erupts between competing centers of authority, such as that which characterized the promulgation of the United States Supreme Court decisions in the school integration cases. Neustadt’s analysis of how a president makes his extensive formal and legal powers work for him should facilitate comparisons with other national heads of state. The problem of implementing authority is common to all: “how to be on top in fact as well as name” (Neustadt 1960, p. vii).

One of the advantages that democratic forms of government have over more autocratic or totalitarian forms is that conflict and tensions are decentralized and dispersed. Successions from one administration to another or one regime to the next provide a critical test. As Friedrich and Brzezinski note in their study of totalitarian dictatorships, succession “exposes a regime’s authority to its greatest strain, since the passing away of the ruler calls not only his, but the system’s, authority into question” (1956, p. 54). This strain, while not without its frictions, is considerably reduced in a democracy.

(4) How does political authority vary from culture to culture and from traditional to modern societies in terms of each of these three problem areas? Ultimately, clarification of concepts and the development of generalizations about authority patterns must come from cross-cultural comparative analysis. Single-nation studies, for example, Benedict’s study of Japan (1946) and Mead’s analysis of Soviet attitudes toward authority (1951), have set the stage. A basic norm of Japanese culture is “taking one’s proper station,” a norm that is learned and meticulously observed in the family and later extended to the wider fields of economic life and government. Benedict outlines at some length the extensive system of hierarchical obligations and their reciprocals in Japan (1946, p. 116). Ward (1963) traces the development of democratic and pluralistic tendencies leading to the dilution and modification of the oligarchic pattern of rule in Japan.

Mead portrays a contrasting, if not always internally consistent, theory of Soviet leadership. Each party member is enjoined to be a model for those beneath him, but those below are urged not to take their cues from their immediate superiors but instead to model their behavior after the top leader, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and their successors (Mead 1951, pp. 68–69). The Soviet industrial worker “is expected to respond, not with a careful delimited measured response to the particular demands of his job, but with total devotion and spontaneity” (p. 35). After experimenting with the belief that the socialist society would assume full responsibility for the upbringing of children, the Soviet government shifted to encouragement of the growth of the close-knit family and strong parental authority.

By utilizing comparative case studies of policy making in the United States and the Soviet Union, Brzezinski and Huntington have substantially advanced our understanding of political authority and politics in the two systems (1964).

Research stimulated by the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics has begun to break through the limitations of single-nation studies and to reap the benefits of systematic theory, cross-national analysis, and the use of survey research techniques applied simultaneously to a number of countries. Almond and Verba (1963) compare the political cultures of five nations, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Mexico, basing their analysis upon stratified, multistage probability samples of about one thousand respondents in each country. They distinguish three pure types of political cultures—parochial, subject, and participant—as well as various combinations of these types. Several implications of each main type in shaping attitudes toward political authority are immediately apparent. The political cultures of African tribal societies and autonomous local communities described by Coleman (Almond & Coleman 1960, pp. 254–256) are clearly parochial in orientation. Political roles are not specialized. Diffuse political, social, economic, and religious roles are combined in headmanship or chieftainship. Members of the society expect little in the way of change or progress. In the subject political culture, the citizen “is aware of specialized governmental authority; he is affectively oriented to it, perhaps taking pride in it, perhaps disliking it; and he evaluates it either as legitimate or as not” (Almond & Verba 1963, p. 19). But the relationship is essentially passive. In the third type of political culture, the participative culture, individual members are oriented to both the input and output aspects of the political system. They endorse the norm of active participation in governmental decision making, although they may vary greatly in the degree to which they themselves are involved. As Pye (1962) points out in his study of national character and political attitudes in Burma, perhaps the top priority problems in emerging nations are the quest for new collective as well as individual identities, the inculcation of a sense of national loyalty, and the development of a propensity to obey the regulations of central governmental authority.

The diverse uses of authority as a political concept have been illustrated. The ambiguity of everyday language, the mixture of fact and value implicit in the term, the omnipresence of the phenomenon in all cultures, and the multiple approaches to the study of authority by social scientists from a great range of disciplines—all these factors have contributed to the confusion often accompanying the use of the concept. Yet, precisely because relative superordination and subordination are so fundamental at the family, group, organizational, and national levels, authority remains an almost indispensable general analytical concept.

Robert L. Peabody

[See alsoLegitimacy; Political theory; Power. Other relevant material may be found underLeadership.]


Almond, Gabriel A.; and Coleman, James S. (editors) 1960 The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton Univ. Press.

Almond, Gabriel A.; and Verba, Sidney 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton Univ. Press.

Banfield, Edward C. 1961 Political Influence. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bendix, Reinhard 1956 Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York: Wiley. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bierstedt, Robert (1954) 1964 The Problem of Authority. Pages 67–81 in Morroe Berger et al. (editors), Freedom and Control in Modern Society. New York: Octagon Books.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew; and Huntington, Samuel P. 1964 Political Power: USA/USSR. New York: Viking.

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) 1963 Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

de Grazia, Sebastian 1959 What Authority Is Not. American Political Science Review 53:321–331.

Easton, David 1953 The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science. New York: Knopf.

Eckstein, Harry 1961 A Theory of Stable Democracy. Center of International Studies Research Monograph No. 10. Princeton Univ., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Friedrich, Carl J. (editor) 1958 Authority. American Society of Political and Legal Philosophy, Nomos, Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1963 Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. (1956) 1966 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2d ed. rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. > A paperback edition was published by Praeger in 1961.

Greenstein, Fred I. 1960 The Benevolent Leader: Children’s Images of Political Authority. American Political Science Review 54:934–943.

Hess, Robert D. 1963 The Socialization of Attitudes Toward Political Authority: Some Cross-national Comparisons. International Social Science Journal 15:542–559.

Hyman, Herbert H. 1959 Political Socialization: A Study in the Psychology of Political Behavior. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de (1955) 1957 Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French as De la souveraineté: À la recherche du bien politique.

Lasswell, Harold D.; and kaplan, abraham 1950 Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Yale Law School Studies, Vol. 2. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by the Yale University Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1963 The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Basic Books.

Mead, Margaret 1951 Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Problems of Soviet Character. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Michels, Roberto 1930 Authority. Volume 2, pages 319–321 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Miller, Walter B. 1955 Two Concepts of Authority. American Anthropologist New Series 57:271–289.

Neumann, Franz L. (1942) 1963 Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944. 2d ed. New York: Octagon Books.

Neustadt, Richard E. 1960 Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership. New York: Wiley.

Peabody, Robert L. 1964 Organizational Authority: Superior-Subordinate Relationships in Three Public Service Organizations. New York: Atherton.

Peabody, Robert L. 1962 Perceptions of Organizational Authority: A Comparative Analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly 6:463–482.

Pye, Lucian W. 1962 Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Ward, Robert E. 1963 Political Modernization and Political Culture in Japan. World Politics 15:569–596.

Weber, Max (1922) 1957 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Edited by Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in German as Part 1 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The conceptual history of authority reveals it to be an essentially contested concept because of the many debates about its sources, purposes, and limits, as well as its proximity to the concept of power.

Since Plato's critique of Athenian democracy, physical force and rhetorical persuasion have been viewed as types of power but not authority. Hannah Arendt observes that "[i]f authority is to be defined at all, then it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments" (p. 93). Indeed, it is only when authority fails that force or persuasion is used to elicit compliance. This distinction is reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (17121778) discussion of what a legislator must do to form a political community guided by the general will:

Since, then, the legislator can use neither force nor argument, he must, of necessity, have recourse to authority of a different kind which can lead without violence and persuade without convincing. That is why, in all periods, the Fathers of their country have been driven to seek the intervention of Heaven, attributing to the Gods a Wisdom that was really their own. (pp. 207208)

In this passage, religious authority is so widely accepted and unquestioned by the people that, if it is appealed to, no force or persuasion is necessary.

Rousseau's legislator, however, might be engaging in deception by invoking religious authority as a proxy. To be authoritative, the legislator's statement should be accepted or rejected on its merits. As Richard Friedman states, "[i]f there is no way of telling whether an utterance is authoritative, except by evaluating its contents to see whether it deserves to be accepted in its own right, then the distinction between an authoritative utterance and advice or rational persuasion will have collapsed" (p. 132). Deference toward authority may not be automatic, as those affected by it evaluate its statements to judge whether they are, in fact, authoritative.

Given this, it may be said that if power is the ability of some individual, group, or institution to control, coerce, or regulate others, authority is the recognition of the right of that individual, group, or institution to exercise power. In short, those over whom power is exercised recognize that whoever or whatever is exercising that power is doing so legitimately. There is an element of trust, faith, and recognition on the part of those following authority that the person exercising it possesses some quality (for example, wisdom, expertise, or the fact that the person was elected by the people) that ought to be deferred to. If this is the case, then authority, rather than simple power, exists and must be followed, adhered to, and, within limits, obeyed.

The Sources of Authority

One approach to authority focuses on the question of who has a right to rule, and on what this right rests. Early notions of authority based it on the right of the strongest, the many, or the wisest to make laws. For example, while Pericles (c. 495429 b.c.e.) praises Athenian democracy as the rule of the many according to the rule of law, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) views it as an unstable form of government that rests on the opinion and force of the majority. Instead, he prefers authority be given to those who possess reason and wisdom. Also, from antiquity to the Middle Ages, authority is often related to the divine, with rulers seen as "gods" themselves or as receiving authority from a divine power. In the European Middle Ages, the notion of civil and religious authority was clearly tied to the Catholic Church. For example, papalism asserted that the pope had final authority over both ecclesiastical and civil realms. Also, the notion of divine right monarchy, promoted by Robert Filmer (c. 15881653), asserted that the absolute authority of monarchs rests on Adam's patriarchal authority in the Garden of Eden.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the intellectual flourishing of the Renaissance led to the rediscovery of the notion of self-government in the form of republican city-states such as Florence, Italy. In turn, this influenced the emergence of the social-contract theory of John Locke (16321704) and Rousseau that rests legitimate government on the consent of the citizens of a political community. Locke's theory of consent and the right to revolt helped shape the Declaration of Independence and the republican character of the U.S. Constitution. However, the social-contract theory was criticized as resting on abstract notions of consent, reason, equality, and liberty. Edmund Burke (17291797), for instance, favored moderate reforms of existing institutions, and stressed that members of each generation must respect their entailed inheritance that obliged them to follow traditions established by previous generations. Furthermore, Joseph-Marie de Maistre (17531821) saw the abstract ideas that inspired the French Revolution as undermining the "throne and altar," which were the traditional authorities that held society together.

Authority and Legitimacy

Another approach to authority focuses more on the question of whether those who are ruled accept authority as legitimate regardless of its source. This approach originated with Max Weber (18641920), who distinguished three ideal types of authority: traditional authority that rests on history and tradition; charismatic authority that rests on the personality of the leader; and legal-rational authority that rests on impersonal rules and powers and is associated with the office rather than the personal characteristics of the office holder. If those affected think that power is exercised legitimately, then any of these three types of authority is legitimate, regardless of its moral justification.

Weber suggested that as societies modernize, authority transforms from traditional, to charismatic, to legal-rational. This implies that only one type of authority exists at a time, or that authority is a linear sequence from traditional to charismatic to legal-rational. Clearly, these three types of authority coexist. This is illustrated by distinguishing between the notions of "an authority" and "in authority." For example, the U.S. Congress possesses legal-rational authority, and representatives and senators have certain powers that derive from their office. Representatives and senators are "in authority" but are often influenced by individuals called to testify before committee hearings who, because of their charisma or expertise, are "an authority."

The Purposes of Authority

The purposes of political authority are as contested as its sources. For some, authority should promote a virtuous society. The desired virtues differ depending on whether one looks to Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) discussion of the golden mean, Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) discussion of republican virtue, religiously inspired notions of Christian or Islamic virtue, or the emphasis on character as evident in Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues. For some, authority should promote a just society. Similarly, the definition of justice differs depending on whether one looks to Plato's ideal republic or John Rawls's (19212002) view that justice is the fair distribution of resources and opportunities in a society. And for some, authority is needed to provide stability and order. Here too are found differences ranging from Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) emphasis on an absolutist government created by the consent of the people who simply desire protection and order, or the republican tradition that suggests that stability comes from dividing authority among different branches of government that check and balance each other.

Since authority is valued but exists in tension with other social values, there is a debate about its limits. Some, like Filmer and Jean Bodin (15301596), defend absolute authority in the hands of one person, and oppose the separation of its powers, on grounds that absolutism alone can provide stability and order. Others, such as Locke and James Madison (17511836), suggest that absolute authority in the hands of one person or group of persons inevitably leads to arbitrary and excessive power that squelches political and civil liberties. Thus, authority must be divided among separate branches that can check and balance each other, and operate within certain constitutionally prescribed limits such as the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, the authority of government can conflict with the demands of conscience or standards of justice that transcend government. Thus, civil disobedience, as Henry David Thoreau (18171862) suggests, can be justified on grounds that individuals should not be coerced into supporting an evil they otherwise oppose.

Several controversies continue to surround authority in the early 2000s. Issues such as identifying the origin of the social-contract tradition and delineating the limits of obedience continued to attract scholarly attention. Other debates are both scholarly and politically important. For example, the proper relationship between religious and secular authority remains controversial in the United States, France, and in some predominately Islamic countries debating democratic reforms. There are also ongoing concerns that all types of authority are not respected or deferred to as much as in the past. Cultural conservatives in the United States especially bemoan the loss of respect for and faith in authority, and point to a culture that promotes relativism, cynicism, and irony as the culprit. Finally, the U.S. government's reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Patriot Act have each, in different ways, sparked controversy. For example, there continues a global discussion about the appropriate use of unilateral or multilateral military force. And, within the United States, the tension between governmental authority and civil liberties remains controversial. From these examples, one can see that the historical debates regarding the sources, purposes, and limits of authority remain important in this era.

See also Civil Disobedience ; Democracy ; Liberty ; Power ; Republicanism: Republic .

Some Definitions of Autobiography

Philippe Lejeune: "A retrospective account in prose that a real person makes of his own existence stressing his individual life and especially the history of his personality" ("The Autobiographical Pact").

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson: "Our working definition of autobiographical or life narrative, rather than specifying its rules as a genre or form, understands it as a historically situated practice of self-representation. In such texts, narrators selectively engage their lived experience through personal storytelling" (Reading Autobiography ).

Leigh Gilmore: "As a genre, autobiography is characterized less by a set of formal elements than by a rhetorical setting in which a person places herself or himself within testimonial contexts as seemingly diverse as the Christian confession, the scandalous memoirs of the rogue, and the coming-out story in order to achieve as proximate a relation as possible to what constitutes truth in that discourse" (The Limits of Autobiography ).


Arendt, Hannah. "What Is Authority?" In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Enl. ed. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Friedman, Richard. "On the Concept of Authority in Political Philosophy." In Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy, edited by Richard Flathman. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "The Social Contract." In Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, edited by Sir Ernest Barker. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Gregory W. Streich


views updated May 21 2018


A moral power that exercises an essential function as a cause of united action. Using a two fold analysis, one negative and the other positive, this article considers respectively the disrepute into which authority has fallen, the kind of case briefed by antiauthoritarian philosophies, what is meant by the essential function of authority, and various views of its source.

Disrepute of Authority. In a century devoted to excessive egalitarianism, authority is held in considerable disrepute. Some writers have gone so far as to suggest that one ought to talk about what authority "was" and not what it "is" (e.g., H. Arendt). Long before the current disrepute, G. W. F. hegel suggested that the leading thought of his day was the principle of "interiority," which regards both externality and authority as impertinent and lifeless.

Generally speaking, social philosophers rarely question the fact that social happiness depends on a felicitous combination of authority and freedom. No matter how well-defined they are, however, the terms authority and freedom imply, even on the level of ordinary understanding, a kind of opposition and a kind of complementary quality. The opposition arises because authority suggests coerciveness, and coerciveness at once is considered antinomical to freedom. And indeed, even ordinary analysis suggests that unless authority is balanced by freedom, tyranny is almost inevitable. But if freedom is taken as an absolute and if it be not balanced by some kind of authority, then it leads to chaos or degenerates inevitably into abusive license. An excess of the one or the other, of freedom or of authority, leads to mutual self-destruction.

A more critical analysis of the suspicion against authority has been furnished by Yves simon. Persons in authority enjoy positions of privilege and have access to goods and honors not available to the majority of men; thus it seems that authority is in "conflict with justice." And because vitality is evidenced by immanence and spontaneity, it may appear that the core of freedom is weakened by authority, which is in "conflict with life." Sometimes authority seems to be in "conflict with truth," since lovers of truth see all too often that authority is a kind of tool used to keep people in a state of ignorance favoring the status quo. Even more, many think that law can take the place of authority, that law is stable and orderly, free from the contingencies of the exercise of authority; thus they envision authority as in "conflict with order." Despite all of these suspicions that continue to undermine authority in the 20th century, however, every community manifests an undeniable form of authority. It must be cautioned that there is no necessary connection between authority and any specific form in which it is embodied. But embodied it must be, if any community is to continue in existence.

Philosophers have long claimed that it is natural for man to live in society, to unite with others. Society in this sense implies only reasonable members, not in any superficial connotation of acting reasonably, but as human beings who belong together by nature and exist together by reason of their common end. Natural sociability is not like membership in a club or union, into which one enters at will or from which he may withdraw arbitrarily. Aristotle states this truth most powerfully: "He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god" (Pol. 1253a 28). It is because society is natural to man, whether it be the society of the family or of the state, that authority is necessary. For authority has a necessary function to perform in attaining the goal of any society.

Antiauthoritarian Philosophies. Some antiauthority theorists assert that authority is necessary only on a provisional basis because of the "insufficiency" of its members, as in the case of children, the illiterate, and the primitive. The implication of this position is that once (and if) the deficiency is removed, authority is no longer necessary. A subtle justification of sterilization and euthanasia has sometimes found its roots in such a theory. The basis of the deficiency theory of authority springs from the myth that there is a direct proportion between social progress and the progress of personal freedom. The next logical step in the theory is to equate social development and personal freedom with the inevitable or proportionate decay of authority.

The Comtian ideal of a society based on enlightened reason is summarized in the famous formula "Savoir pour prévoir pour pouvoir." Although covert antiauthority theories of society originating in some sociological circles have not been fully developed in technical fashion, they tend to imply constructs such as Edward Shilss "consensual collectivity," in which a so-called process of illumination is thought to modify individuals and finally result in collective self-transformations. The theory of enlightened reason is expressed by Shils thus: " the very difference between the states of mind induced by attachment to or repulsion from authority and the detached and dispassionate states of mind induced by the exercise of sociological analysis means that different images of man, the world, and the authoritative self will almost inevitably persist."

The function of authority extends beyond the work of merely supplying for deficiency or waiting for the dawn of enlightened reason. The natural sociability of man demands association not for material needs alone, and not merely for defense against animal life, hunger, and disease. Man needs man for the furtherance of knowledge, for reciprocal spiritual profundity, for the enrichment of the "otherness" that underlies friendship in a profoundly existential sense. The endless quest for totality is proper to man. This totality is one and the same for the single individual and for the collection of individuals; it is the totality that is, in fact, what was meant initially by the term common good. The glory of human society goes beyond the glory of the individual it is meant to serve, a collective glory to which each individual brings himself as a proper gift and contributor. The human community so understood is a good itself that stands to serve mankind and every individual. It is this kind of good that demands a kind of common life wherein authority is properly necessary.

It is, of course, conceivable that some communities will attain their end without authority. In such instances, it merely happens that the good of one member coincides with that of another; here it is sufficient that an arbitrary contract effect the desired end. In these cases, the collective action can be achieved by a "consensual collectivity," since what is desired is not a proper common good but the interdependence of private goods. Even in these instances, however, if bad faith or some unforeseen circumstance intervenes, authority may have to be invoked to achieve the end sought through the contract. The authority of the courts would then be invoked to achieve a judgment in line with the laws governing contractual relationships. An unrealistic view of society might lead one to suggest that all of human society could be composed of such simple partnerships. Were this possible, authority would not be necessary save for accidental reasons.

It may be noted here, however, that there is an authentic substitutional function to authority in the society of the family. In this case, parental authority is necessary for survival and for education of offspring. Children go through periods of insufficiency in which the authority proper to the home is provisionally indispensable. In case of parental deficiency in this matter or in case of death, society takes over the exercise of such a parental function. Authority on this level aims at its own disappearance. In fact, the postponement of the period of self-determination is a genuine deficiency in any theory of parental control and child training.

Essential Function of Authority. A more realistic view of human societies suggests that few if any societies can survive for any length of time unless there is a firm and stable principle at work to assure, by unified action, the achievement of their common end. A multiplicity of practical judgments is inevitable in every nontheoretical situation. The weakness of every social theory of the "consensual collectivity" type is its inability to assure uniformity of action in such a way that it can extend to all the concrete particulars of a social situation. Unanimity cannot be such a principle since it overlooks the obvious differences existing among humans, such as those traceable to ignorance, ill will, selfishness, vested interests, and the like. All judgments made for an action are surrounded with contingencies that make it impossible to demonstrate the necessity of any given prudential judgment. It is true that certain circumstances may generate a kind of spontaneity, such as that which takes place in times of emergencye.g., an unjust attack or a natural disaster. Even here, however, society has to fight against plunder and treachery, factors that make unanimity highly improbable. Simon states that "unanimity is a precarious principle of united action whenever the common good can be attained in more than one way."

The main thesis of this article, then, is that authority is a moral power exercising an essential function as a cause of united action. The basis of this proposition is that the rich plurality of means for achieving the common good of any society demands the election of one from among many. The power to make such a choice lies in authority, which is a moral power residing in the regulator of the society. The desired unified action that is indispensable for the attainment of the common end comes from compliance with rules that bind all the members of the society in question. Therefore, except for the cases mentioned above, authority must exercise a vital function to guarantee consistent unified action.

It must be pointed out, however, that the need for authority in society and the need for any given form of governing personnel are quite distinct; the confusion of the two leads to multiple confusions. The power to issue commands for the sake of a common action neither implies nor excludes the actual use of coercion or persuasion. It is commonly held that the actual use of coercion or persuasion implies a failure of authority. The basis of this position is that persons who hold positions of authority and those who are said to be under authority must recognize that they are not equals; but persuasion ought to exist only among equals; therefore persuasion in society implies a contradiction. But if authority lacks the power to enforce the rules it makes for common action, then it is inefficacious. Thus the right to influence opinion by persuasion belongs to authority as a fitting instrument, just as the right to use coercion belongs to it, and both for the sake of the common good. It goes without saying that both persuasion and coercion are valid instruments only insofar as they respect the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

Source of Authority. The position stated above stands in direct opposition to that of J. J. rousseau, whose dialectic of authority led to the social contract. In the latter analysis, one is led to the myth of the general will, in which the individual human will is annihilated by an initial voluntary act; this theory terminates in a general formality making authority a power that resides in a multitude, i.e., as an attribute of multitude itself. Such power, then, could emerge without authority and makes possible the usurpation of power by the state. The 20th century has already provided many examples of such a rise to power without authority.

It is generally held among Catholics that civil authority is of God, not by any specifically divine institution, but by the fact that God is the author of nature and nature demands authority. In this general position, submission to authority is enjoined. The designation theory holds that the power proper to authority comes from God but that human beings designate the ruling person by cultural conventions. This is a modification of the divine-right theory, which holds that power is from God and that the person in whom it is vested also is designated by God. The transmission theory holds that civil authority is proper to the civil multitude; that the multitude not only designates the ruling person but also transmits to him the authority originally given them by God. Both the designation and the transmission theories guard the integrity of the individual while enjoining obedience to authority. The position of T. hobbes and that of Rousseau, on the other hand, ascribe the source of authority to the multitude alone, who yield all powers to the state (Leviathan), thereby destroying the freedoms of the individual.

Teaching Authority. Sometimes authority is used in reference to a pedagogical process. In such a case, authority is, once again, properly substitutional and is necessary only as long as the learner fails to observe the relations between mind and object. In science, properly speaking, there can be no authority, since demonstration begets the kind of authentic objectivity that alone can necessitate the mind to its assent.

Totalitarianism. A persistent tendency in the 20th century would identify authority with totalitarianism. This tendency is rooted in the confusing of authority with tyranny. A proper authority ultimately rests on law, whereas every form of tyranny springs from the subjective interests of the tyrant. Power in totalitarianism rests on sources external to the political structure itself; these are unlike the legitimate sources of power in a properly democratic government or society. In all circles, familial, political, and ecclesiastical, authority does, indeed, imply obedience, but an obedience that is consonant with a proper freedom. If one fails to see that the source of authority transcends not only power but also those who are in power, then he has little hope of escaping a deepening suspicion of every kind of authority. Continuing aversion to authority springs from apodictic and authoritarian statements concerning its nature.

Conclusion. Reduced to its essence, then, authority is indispensable for the achievement of the common welfare of any society. It is not necessary as a contract, nor is it established by convention or force, nor is it the result of sin. It is necessary because the nature of society demands it. The moment the connection between authority and the common good is severed, the community begins to weaken and finds itself preparing the way for the kind of anarchism espoused by L. N. tolstoi. If and when authority is abused and issues into arbitrariness, such an issue is traceable only to accidental causes and is not proper to authority as such. Justice and a proper political friendship are the cement of society and are assumed in any reasonable theory of authority. It should be noted that the common good here mentioned, referring as it does to any and all natural societies, is not the absolute end of the person. Authority on the human level, whether familial or political, is thus indirectly related to the absolutely ultimate end of man, viz, eternal life. Therefore authority in the political community ought to look with equity and justice toward the possibility of each person's achieving his ultimate destiny. In the overall view, this demands that there be an authority that is proportionate to the natural and supernatural destiny of man (see authority, civil; authority, ecclesiastical).

See Also: society.

Bibliography: y. simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame, Ind. 1962); The Nature and Function of Authority (Aquinas Lecture; Milwaukee 1940); Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago 1951). j. maritain, "Democracy and Authority," in his Scholasticism and Politics (New York 1940). h. arendt, "What Is Authority?," in her Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York 1961). g. j. lynam, The Good Political Ruler According to St. Thomas (Washington 1953). j. wright, "Reflections on Conscience and Authority," Critic 22 (AprilMay 1964) 1115, 1828. m. weber, "The Types of Authority," in Theories of Society, ed. t. parsons et al., 2 v. (New York 1961) 1:62632. c. bernard, "The Theory of Authority," ibid. 1:63241. e. shils, "The Calling of Sociology," ibid. 2:140548. r. michels, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. e. r. seligman and a. johnson, 15 v. (New York 193035) 1:31921.

[g. j. mcmorrow]


views updated May 14 2018



In the first volume of Economy and Society (1978), Max Weber defines authority as the belief in the legitimacy of individuals to exercise power, such that they are able to influence others to do their will even with resistance, and a specific group will likely follow those orders.

Weber develops a schema of legitimate authority, identifying three pure forms. Legal authority, sometimes referred to as rational authority, is based on rules and laws. Under these laws, people have the right to exercise authority through the office they occupy. It is the position itself that holds authority, with obedience being owed to the office, such as chief executive officer or the presidency. The office continues to hold authority after the officeholder vacates it. Traditional authority is based on tradition or custom. Obedience is owed to individuals such as tribal leaders or kings through tradition. When the individual vacates the position, tradition determines who will fill the position. Finally, charismatic authority is based on dedication to the extraordinary personality of an individual and the standard or norm he or she establishes. Obedience is owed to the individual charismatic leader. Weber considered charismatic authority to be a revolutionary force in that it renounces tradition and submission is guaranteed through proof or the display of a miracle.

Jürgen Habermas notes the importance of discourse, or speech, as it relates to authority. Mark Warren (1995) recounts Habermass argument that authority is created through discourse, particularly in those settings that prevent other forms of authority from intruding. Through discourse, citizens in a democracy make known the issues that concern them and are able to understand others. The result is a form of consensus by which laws are created and normative changes are instituted.

Theodor Adorno and colleagues, in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), notes that an individuals submission to the authority of a parent may be linked to submission to authority in general. In particular, he finds that opposition toward parents authority is often evidenced as resistance to authority in general. As a result of this study, Adorno identified an authoritarian personality type. As James M. Henslin (2005) summarizes, this individual is highly prejudiced against minority groups, while also being highly conformist and respectful of authority.

Ralf Dahrendorf, in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959), identifies authority in relation to class. One class exercises authority in industry yet may also be subject to authority from others. Others are subject to authority from supervisors but do not exercise their own authority. The classless do not exercise authority and are not subject to authority, such as independent workers. Thus, class is determined by the degree of authority one holds. Since industry plays a large role in ones life, a persons authority may be influential in other spheres, including the family.

Stanley Milgram (1974) experimentally tested individual obedience to authority. Authority is contextual in nature, meaning that a person with authority in one situation will not necessarily have the same authority in another. Authority comes from a persons power in a social situation, not from personality. In certain situations, there is an expectation that an authority will exist. The authority becomes apparent through (1) self-identification of the individual with authority; (2) external objects, such as uniforms, identifying the individual as an authority; (3) the lack of a competing authority; and (4) the lack of obvious inconsistencies. In his infamous shock experiments, Milgram found that individuals, who may have protested against the shocking of individuals, were willing to continue with the experiment when an authoritative individual encouraged them on.

Organizational theory has further developed the notion of authority. Philippe Aghion and Jean Tirole (1997) note the distinctions between formal and real authority. They define formal authority as the right to decide while real authority is defined as the effective control over decisions (p. 1) with the former not necessarily granting the latter.

SEE ALSO Aggression; Alpha-male; Conformity; Experiments, Shock; Leadership; Legal Systems; Milgram, Stanley; Personality; Power; Social Dominance Orientation; Social Psychology; Weber, Max


Adorno, Theodor, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Aghion, Philippe, and Jean Tirole. 1997. Formal and Real Authority in Organizations. Journal of Political Economy 105 (1): 1-29.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1959. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hagan, John, John Simpson, and A. R. Gillis. 1987. Class in the Household: A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency. American Journal of Sociology 92 (4): 788-816.

Henslin, James M. 2005. Politics. In Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, 7th ed., 421-424. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Henslin, James M. 2005. The Authoritarian Personality. Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, 7th ed., 335. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Meyer, Marshall W. 1968. The Two Authority Structures of Bureaucratic Organization. Administrative Science Quarterly 13 (2): 211-228.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

Presthus, Robert V. 1960. Authority in Organizations. Public Administration Review 20 (2): 86-91.

Robinson, Robert V., and Jonathan Kelley. 1979. Class as Conceived by Marx and Dahrendorf: Effects on Income Inequality and Politics in the United States and Great Britain. American Sociological Review 44 (1): 38-58.

Warren, Mark E. 1995. The Self in Discursive Democracy. In The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, ed. Stephen K. White, 167-200. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gabriela Guazzo


views updated May 11 2018

48. Authority

  1. cathedra throne indicative of religious power. [Folklore: Jobes, 307]
  2. crook staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  3. crosier bishops staff signifying his ruling power. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 21]
  4. cross and ball signifies that spiritual power is above temporal. [Heraldry: Jobes, 387]
  5. crown headpiece worn as symbol of royal authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  6. double bar cross signifies archbishops, cardinals, and patriarchs. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 386]
  7. eagle attribute of Zeus, thus of authority. [Art: Hall, 109]
  8. fasces rods bundled about ax; emblem of magistrates, Fascists. [Rom. Hist.: Hall, 119; Ital. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 399]
  9. gavel small mallet used by judge or presiding officer to signal order. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  10. globe in Christ childs hands signifies power and dominion. [Christian Symbolism: de Bles, 25]
  11. Hoyle authoritative rules for playing cards and other games. [Misc.: Barnhart, 590]
  12. keys symbolic of St. Peters spiritual authority. [Christian Symbolism: N.T.: Matthew 16:19]
  13. Lords Anointed, the Jewish or other king by divine right. [Judaism: O.T.: I Samuel 26:9]
  14. mace ceremonial staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  15. miter bishops headdress signifying his authority. [Christian Symbolism: EB VI ]
  16. nimbus cloud of light signifying might, divinely imparted. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad ]
  17. Ozymandias king of ancient Egypt, evoked by Shelley as an example of the perishability of power. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 749]
  18. pectoral cross worn by prelates on chain around neck. [Christian Iconog.: Child, 255; Jobes, 386]
  19. purple color worn by persons of high rank. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  20. rod wand or staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  21. scepter symbol of regal or imperial power and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  22. Stone of Scone coronation stone where kings of Scotland were crowned. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 970]
  23. throne seat of political or religious authority. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 1567]
  24. triple cross three upper arms; symbolizes authority of the pope. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 386]


views updated May 18 2018

au·thor·i·ty / əˈ[unvoicedth]ôritē; ôˈ[unvoicedth]är-/ (abbr.: auth.) • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience: he had absolute authority over his subordinates. ∎  the right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organization to another: military forces have the legal authority to arrest drug traffickers. ∎  official permission; sanction: the money was spent without congressional authority.2. (often authorities) a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere: the health authorities the Chicago Transit Authority.3. the power to influence others, esp. because of one's commanding manner or one's recognized knowledge about something: he spoke with authority on the subject. ∎  the confidence resulting from personal expertise: he hit the ball with authority. ∎  a person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert: she was an authority on the stockmarket. ∎  a book or other source able to supply reliable information or evidence, typically to settle a dispute: the court cited a series of authorities supporting their decision.PHRASES: have something on good authority have ascertained something from a reliable source: I have it on good authority that there is a waiting list.


views updated May 17 2018