What Is Authority?


What is authority? In the social sciences and political philosophy, authority is defined as the legitimate authority that a particular group of individuals exercises over others. In a modern civilized society, authority is generally established by a judicial board and an executive office of government. The concept of authority was very important to the modern person; however, in the early history of mankind there was little real distinction between what was authority and what was not.

For instance, every tribe has its own form of authority or law. It could be called traditional authority. Every country has its own set of laws. Authority is frequently defined by reference to the authoritative position occupied by an individual or group of people, rather than by reference to any standard of conduct recognized by a body of laws. A tribal member who slew an enemy was not an authority among his people, but he was acting in accordance with the customary law of his tribe.

The concept of authority was very important to the early Christians, because they could not bear the fact that their authority was not universal and rested on a commonly agreed upon basis. They had to make a distinction between what was authority and what was custom. This was not always easy, for the early Christians were required to demonstrate that they were following the rules of the nation in which they lived. Thus, there were two distinct types of authority: group authority and individual authority.

What is group authority? This is the authority that a body of men unites under one head, such as a church. Authority of this kind is derived from a bunch of men. Often a religious sect is a collection of groups or churches.

What is individual authority? This is the authority that a man establishes for himself alone. It is derived from the group itself. A thief may decide to break into a store and work alone. Of course, this conduct would be unlawful if discovered by the general public.

So far we have dealt primarily with groups and churches. But the same ideas apply to all institutions, whether they are large or small. What is authority then to a judge, a president, a king, a landlord? These are merely authorities at the point of view of that particular man. Their authority is not inherent in the structure of the polity, as it is to the individual.

So how do we get to the answer? We must begin by distinguishing between what is actual authority, what is customary authority, and what is customarily authority. Once we have done this, we can go on to examine each of these types in turn. Each of them has its own peculiarities, its own peculiar problems, its own necessities, and its own rewards.

For instance, while a king may rightfully claim the authority to rule his country, that alone is not enough. He has to have legitimate kingship, legitimacy, and military support too. Just as every man who claims the right to govern should have a justifiable group of supporters, each group of followers within a kingdom should have a justifiable authority.

The question then becomes, what is the authority in the group? What is a justifiable authority? What is the size of the justifiable authority? These questions and others like them are the concerns of any reasonable thinking person.

The problem is compounded for a man who claims that he alone is the ruler, that he alone rules the world, that he alone is entitled to command the lives of all men. Because he is so ego-centric, he also believes that he knows best. He is arrogant, presumptuous, and thinks he knows better than those who have been around much longer than he has. His arrogance is reflected in his attitude toward those who follow him. He views them as lesser beings, perhaps not of his generation, perhaps not of his blood.

What is authority then? For Aristotle, authority is defined as the control of all that is important to one person over another, especially that which affects his own desires. This definition is important because one can’t be in control of everyone or anything, as there is no such thing as total freedom in the world, as everyone is always affected by everything that occurs around them. What is authority then?

For some, it is a social gain, and for others it is merely the end result of their actions. It is the result of a process of becoming and understanding where one stands in the scheme of things. For some, what is the authority is the glory of being the master, the prize that one eventually attains at the end of the day by beating the competition. For others, what is the authority is having the ability to use one’s own life to help society, by creating a just social contract and sharing the wealth equally. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of what is the authority, and it’s completely up to each individual to look at his own situation objectively, and decide for himself what it is that defines his existence.