AUTHORITY (Latin auctoritas—influence, significance, importance, ruling authority)—in the most general and usual sense, the term “authority” is used to designate socially recognized importance in some higher area of life.

Commonly an authority is a person, group of persons, or an institution, but it also includes products of man’s work (doctrines, opinions, science, etc.). The term “authority” is used in a psychological sense (the relation of dominance and submission), a social-legal sense (ex lege), a praxeological sense (in the area of defined skills), a political sense, with respect to customs, a moral sense, a religious sense, and others. Only God as the Creator and end of creation and the exemplar cause of creation possesses absolute authority. By participation, a man (and his products) may possess only a non-absolute and aspective authority (in the field of knowledge, practical skills, social position, morality, sanctity of life, etc.).

HISTORY. The conception and concept of authority are a historical and non-univocal (analogical) category that was known and developed in antiquity. In the beginning authority was associated with the practice of recognizing the importance of traditional institutions in society (the opinion of elders, the faith of fathers, ancient customs, objects of worship, etc.). With the appearance of science and rational argumentation, the conception of authority developed in two currents: rhetorical- philosophical, and legal-social.

In the rhetorical-philosophical current in antiquity (Aristotle, Cicero) views or writings of generally recognized authors who had great social influence were regarded as authoritative. Their opinions were used in argumentation, and they were cited as rhetorical examples. This also include argumentation on the basis of testimony (ex testimonio), which was regarded as kind of source of truth. The role of authority thus understood was often criticized (e.g., by the Skeptics). The critics accepted authority as an ancillary argument in practical situations.

In Christian antiquity, the concept of authority was considered in the context of theology and faith (the authority of Revelation). Christ himself as he gave witness to the truth, to the will of the Father and Holy Spirit, as he attested to the books of the Old Testament, and bore witness by his own deeds, especially the resurrection which was a sign of divine authority, was the highest authority. In the primitive Church, authority was extended to the witnesses of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the apostles). A tradition formed that recognized in the persons and writings of the apostolic fathers and the Fathers of the Church another authoritative witness besides the Bible.

The authority of pagan thinkers and philosophers, however, was based the knowledge of truth and good on natural reason as they were unaware of Revelation. Their authority was often questioned (e.g., by Tertullian). However, the majority of Christian apologists drew on ancient writers and saw in this method the authority of reason beside the authority of faith (St. Augustine). The authority of natural reason (philosophy) was recognized as a participation in God’s authority. The Middle Ages moved in a similar direction. The medievals initially minimized the testimony of the reason and often saw in the reason a purely ancillary role to theology. Starting with St. Anselm of Canterbury, however, and later with St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, the model for the rationalization of theology became a fact (fides quarens intellectum). They looked to ancient writers (e.g., Aristotle, Roman jurists) and used them for Christian thought. The doctrine of St. Thomas also became widely recognized as an authority in theology. Toward the end of the Middle Ages this approach was opposed by authors who were inclined to fideism and were concerned about excessive rational speculations in theology (W. Ockham, J. Gerson).

In modern times, the appeal to authority as it was understood in the Middle Ages (e.g., the practice of commentaries on classical authors) was called into question. A historical- philological method was introduced (the humanists). They investigated the authenticity of sources, even preferring personal opinion. The role of authority was limited to the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church (Erasmus of Rotterdam). The questioning of argumentation based on authority also increased in theology (the subjectivization of theology, and fideism in the Reformation), and in philosophy, especially anti-rationalism, skepticism (Descartes), radical empiricism, the doctrine of Kant that limited authority to the practical domain, and then in positivism and various kinds of atheism. Argumentation based on authority was also question in modern philosophy, especially in commonly illusory ideology. This questioning often consisted in replacing some authorities with others (e.g., in Marxism, atheism, and fascism). In ideologies the fight against authority often assumed an instrumental character ordered to practical ends and a defined triumphal idea.

In the legal-social current, authority was conceived not only in the area of the knowledge of truth or of argumentation, but also in action. The meaning was therefore juridical and especially concerning the authority of political rule and its sources. In Roman antiquity authority was derived from the authority of senate and judicial authority as it interpreted the law. In Christianity, the Bible was given a juridical character after the model of imperial law (Tertullian), for God is the highest authority. Therefore social decisions, whether matters of law or individual decisions (in the Church) were based on divine authority (Sacred Scripture, Tradition), on the act of faith. On the basis of this conception they explained religious-political dualism. They divided ecclesial authority (the pope) from secular authority (the emperor). In the Middle Ages, hierarchical feudal authority was based either on the authority of the Church, or on secular authority, while it was thought that every authority (including secular authority) participates in divine authority (following the teaching of St. Thomas). For this reason the authority of the popes and their writings, as well as that of the Holy See and the Church’s institutionalism that flowed out of it, were strengthened. This led further to the increase in the authority of the Church and in civil authority. The spread of the Church’s authority into more and more new areas of life led to religious monopolism.

In modern tims the authority of the Church was diminished in various fields, especially in social and political life. By virtue of the natural law, which beginning with H. Grotius was secularized, the highest divine authority was transferred to the sovereign (according to Hobbes), who as the result of a social contract obtains unlimited ruling rights. Hence the saying, auctoritas non veritas facit legem (authority and not truth makes law) became widely accepted. The full sovereignty of the ruler and legal positivism lay at the foundations of the absolute monarchies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Rational law established by the absolute ruler replaced divine law and expressed the natural law (in the understanding of the school of natural law). In the eighteenth and nineteenth century they also began to analyze theoretically the role of authority in the process of man’s education. The predominant view was that authority is necessary in education (the authority of parents, teachers, and schools), but only in the initial stage. At later stages of education, friendship, collaboration, and partnership are dominant (J. Locke, J. A. Komensky, J. F. Herbart, F. E. D. Schleiermarcher). J. J. Rousseau thought that authority is harmful in education because it destroys the individual’s freedom and elicits attitudes of submission, subordination, and dependence. These conceptions were based on the secular conception of the natural law and the Enlightenment’s ideals of freedom.

THE PROBLEM OF THE CONCEPT OF AUTHORITY. Authority is not an univocal but an analogical conception. Considering the historical variation of the scope of the concept of authority and the ways it has been used, and considering the subjective elements and value- judgments associated with it, the concept is difficult to analyze as a whole with scientific precision.

The fundamental understanding of authority (the prime analogate) considers both its subjective and objective aspects. An authority is a person (or group of persons) who because of some special competence in some domain have the possibility of influence the formation of judgments and the conduct of another person or a group of persons. Thus authority concerns interpersonal relations. In psychological categories authority is described as a relation of domination and submission, which constitutes the basic definition of authority. There are many aspects in the description and explanation of authority, and these are complex. Yet the existence of authority as an objective or subjective phenomena seems to be inseparable from human interpersonal relations and is connected with the hierarchical and aspective mode of social existence. The characterization of the occurrence of authority always considers the specific character of the domain of human interpersonal relations (politics, law, religion, morality, pedagogy, etc.). This is the personalistic approach to authority, in which the absolutization or even mystification of authority is avoided (e.g., money, discipline etc.), at authority is always connected with man as a subject, who as being an authority in some province is subject to the authority of other persons. The characterization of authority includes elements such as: (1) the members of the relation; (2) the relation itself; (3) the reason for the relation’s existence; (4) the appearance of the relation. Each of these elements may take various forms and give a specific color and permanence to the relation of authority.

In its derivative meanings, the term authority is used to describe products that stand in the place of a person (surrogates, products, symbols, functions, institutional authorities, etc.). Thus authority may be someone’s reason or conscience, talents, a social group (family, nation, race), political authority, and social institutions (state, church, party, association, school), religious systems, ideological systems (idols), abstract structures (science, language), constructs of culture (custom, fashion, television, the written word), and phenomena of nature.

Considering its equivocity and primary character, the term authority is used to designate situations sometimes loosely linked with the primary understanding of authority (the authority of a state official, the authority of an elder, of an expert, etc.). There may be conflicts in the domain of authority, the greatness of authority, crises of authority, etc.

AUTHORITY IN BEHAVIOR. The existence of authority in a natural way appears with particular strength in the area of behavior, especially in preschool and school-age children (even in the process of self-education it always accompanies man), and it occupies an important position in the theory of education (pedagogy). At present there is a tendency to limit as much as possible tendencies that maximize authority in the process of education, and to accent other sources of correct behaviors that do not violate man’s autonomy so drastically (freedom in education). Authority based on strength, punishment, coercion, blind obedience, proper in certain spheres of life or objective situations (war, natural disasters, the army etc.) are eliminated in the individualized educational process where authority so conceived carries the danger of depersonalization. The complete elimination of authority in the educational process is nevertheless impossible and it is theoretically wrong. It leads to anarchistic voluntarism, individualism, and subjectivism, which is a source of selfish attitudes that disintegrate the personality. Such an elimination is also contrary to the real psychological needs of the one who is being educated.

Without doubt there is an hierarchy of authorities and they may come in conflict in the process of education. In the process of education (and self-education) the substitution of lower authorities by more perfect ones is very important (especially the elimination of pseudo-authorities) by way of the conscious development of one’s own personality. Authority places a special role in the religious sphere. Considering the fact that religious authorities (God, Christ and his doctrine, saints, the Church as an institution called by God, etc.) engage the whole man and motivate his action, they are a most profound road-sign in life. They always contain two inseparable elements: internal positive motivation (personal decision, transformation of life) and external motivation (law), namely authoritative, legal-disciplinary means. In religious education personal models (Christ, the saints) play an important role, whereby religious authority is at the same time moral authority. The sphere of morality is inscribed into the sphere of religion.

F. W. Foerster, Autorität und Freiheit, Kepten, Mn 1910, 19113 (Autorytet i Wolność [Authority and Freedom], Wwa 1913); G. Rensi, La filozofia dell’autorità, Mi 1920; E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom, NY 1941 (Ucieczka od wolności [Flight from freedom], Wwa 1970); K. Benne, A Conception of Authority, NY 1943; H. Rowid, Podstawy i zasady wychowania [Foundations and principles of education], Wwa 1946, 1957, 255–279; B. Russell, Authority and the Individual, NY 1949; T. W. Adorno [et al.], The Authoritarian Personality, NY 1950; L. Janssens, Droits personnels et autorité, Lv 1954; G. Bowe, The Original of Political Authority, Db 1955; M. T. Foley, Authority and Personality Development According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Wwa 1956; M. Marsal, L’autorité, P 1958; D. Sternberger, Autorität, Freiheit Befehlsgewalt, T 1959; W. Strzelewicz, Zum Autorität Problem in der modernen Soziologie, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 11 (1959); M. Horkheimer, Autorität und Familie in der Gegenwart, in: Erkenntnis und Verantwortung, D 1960; Y. R. Simon, A General Theory of Authority, Notre Dame 1962; J. M. Todd [et al.], Problèmes de l’autorité, P 1962; G. Wunberg, Autorität und Schule, St 1966; E. Lichtenstein, Erziehung, Autorität, Verantwortung, Reflexionen zu einer pädagogischen Ethik, Ra 1967; J. Sztumski, Autorytet i prestiż [Authority and prestige], in: Rozprawy filozoficzne [Philosophical treatises], To 1969, 349–355; F. Donocik, Autorytet jako czynnik wplływający na proces kształtowania kultury [Authority as a factor influencing the shaping of culture], SF 14 (1970) n. 4–5, 171–191; B. Lesboue, Autorité du magistère et la vie de foi ecclésiale, Nouvelle revue théologique 103 (1971), 337–362; Authority, Ox 1990.

Krzystof Wroczyński

<--Go back