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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 (384–322 B.C.E.) discussion of the golden mean, Niccolò Machiavelli's (1469–1527) 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 (1921–2002) 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 (1588–1679) 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 (1530–1596), 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 (1751–1836), 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 (1817–1862) 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.


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

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