1 minute read


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. 495–429 B.C.E.) praises Athenian democracy as the rule of the many according to the rule of law, Plato (c. 428–348 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. 1588–1653), 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 (1632–1704) 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 (1729–1797), 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 (1753–1821) saw the abstract ideas that inspired the French Revolution as undermining the "throne and altar," which were the traditional authorities that held society together.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: A-series and B-series to Ballistic Missiles - Categories Of Ballistic MissileAuthority - The Sources Of Authority, Authority And Legitimacy, The Purposes Of Authority, Some Definitions Of Autobiography