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Authority (Latin auctoritas, used in Roman law as opposed to potestas and imperium) is a key concept in political philosophy. Authority is a power based upon a certain legitimacy, justification, and the right to exercise it. Authority is often used interchangeably with the term "power," but power simply refers to the ability to achieve certain ends with or without justification or rights. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, such as through lynching, only the courts have the authority to order capital punishment. The legitimacy of political authority is, however, a central issue in political philosophy.

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 of leadership), intermediate organizations such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authority) and society-wide or inclusive organizations ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).

The jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority, the requirements of political obligations have been core questions for political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the present.

"The phenomena called authority is at once more ancient and more fundamental than the phenomena called state; the natural ascendancy of some men over others is the principle of all human organizations and all human advances."

Bertrand de Jouvenel

Max Weber on authority

The word authority derives from the Latin word "auctoritas," used in Roman law as opposed to potestas. According to Giorgio Agamben (2005), "auctoritas has nothing to do with magistrates or the people's potestas or imperium. The Senator…is not a magistrate."

In Weberian sociology, authority comprises a particular type of power. The dominant usage comes from functionalism, defining authority as power which is recognized as legitimate and justified by both the powerful and the powerless. Weber divided authority into three types:

The first type discussed by Weber is the Traditional authority which according to him derives from long-established customs, habits and social structures. When power passes from one generation to another then it is known as traditional authority. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example. There are several examples in this regard. The Tudors in England, and the ruling families of Mewar in Rajasthan (India) are some examples of traditional authority.

The second type of authority is Rational-legal authority. It is that form of authority which depends for its legitimacy on formal rules and established laws of the state, which are usually written down, and are often very complex. The power of the rational legal authority is mentioned in the constitution. Modern societies depend on legal-rational authority. Government officials are the best example of this form of authority which is prevalent all over the world.

The third form of authority is Charismatic authority. Here, the charisma of the individual or the leader plays an important role. Charismatic authority is that authority which is derived from "the gift of grace," or, when the leader claims that his authority is derived from a "higher power" (e.g. God or natural law or rights) or "inspiration" that is superior to both the validity of traditional and rational-legal authority, and followers accept this and are willing to follow this higher or inspired authority in the place of the authority that they have hitherto been following. Some of the most prominent examples of charismatic authority can be politicians or leaders who come from a movie or entertainment background. These people become successful because they use their grace and charm to get more votes during elections. History has witnessed several social movements or revolution against a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, which are usually started by Charismatic authority.

What 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. Social scientists agree that authority is but one of several resources available to incumbents in formal positions. For example, a Head of State is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged not just by citizens but by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders and in the long run administration and political apparatus of the entire society.

Authority and the state

Every state has a number of institutions which exercise authority based on longstanding practices. In India, the British created the institution of the Civil Service, which is still going strong even after 150 years. The Armed Forces of India is another institution which is subordinate to the government but is a very old and prominent institution. Apart from this, every state sets up agencies which are competent in dealing with one particular matter. All this is set up within its charter. One example can be that of a port authority like the port of London authority. They are usually created by special legislation and are run by a board of directors. Several agencies and institutions are also created along the same lines and they exercise autonomy in certain matters. They are also usually required to be self-supporting through property taxes or other forms of collection or fees for services.

The jurisdiction of political authority is widely discussed in democratic societies, including the United States. Because the Founding Fathers intended a system of checks and balances which ideally limits concentration of power in any one of the three branches, there is an ongoing discussion in U.S. politics regarding the legitimate extent of governmental authority in general. While there has been an ongoing trend toward consolidation of power in the federal government, and in the executive branch in particular, many critics argue that the Founders intended a system which afforded the populace with as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly.

Religious perceptions of authority

Most religions around the world, whether Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity have always considered God as the supreme authority. All the religious scriptures have considered God to have authority and wisdom, which is infinitely superior than any human being. The source or reason behind this authority usually involves tremendous power and compassion along with primacy in the physical and spiritual realms. That which is divine is usually thought of as the creator and therefore superior to ordinary creatures.

Divinity, as presented in the religious scriptures, makes claim to the final authority for all truth and reality, and provides rules and directions for the use of creation. The question of authority in such a system is "what does God want from me and how do I know this?" Although there are multiple methods of understanding the connection to a divinity, all seem to require some measure of faith in a divinity and contemplation of perhaps multiple methods of communication.

For example, in the modern era; the act of observing the communion or the Lord's supper comes from a combination of direct divine command, approved apostolic example recorded in scripture, and necessary inference. Jesus directly states to his disciples that they are to partake of this examination (found in the Gospels and rehearsed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians); there is an example of an apostle and others participating in this act of worship and obedience in the Book of Acts, where the day of the observance is mentioned; as with all Bible references, the reader must infer or understand how the direction from God to be applicable to today.

See also

  • Auctoritas
  • Authoritarianism
  • Anti-authoritarianism
  • Appeal to authority

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. ISBN 0226009246
  • Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0140186506
  • Friedrich, Carl J. Authority. Nomos, 1. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Harris, R. Baine. Authority A Philosophical Analysis. University, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1976. ISBN 0817366202
  • Popper, Karl Raimund. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. 1961.
  • Raz, Joseph. Authority. Readings in social and political theory. New York: New York University Press, 1990. ISBN 0814774148
  • Sennett, Richard. Authority. New York: Knopf, 1980. ISBN 039442803X
  • Weber, Max. 1993. Basic Concepts in Sociology. Translated and with an introduction by H.P. Secher. New York: Citadel Press (original work published 1962). ISBN 0806503041
  • Weber, Max. 1946/1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0195004620
  • Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press.

External links

All links retrieved August 22, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources

Social sciences


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