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The Sources Of Authority, Authority And Legitimacy, The Purposes Of Authority, Some Definitions Of Autobiography

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 (1712–1778) 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. 207–208)

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.

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