On the sources of political authority

Authority without expressed consent is nothing short of autocratic power or as the Ancients called it, tyranny. On the other hand, to preside over a politically educated, active citizenry is true democracy. If authority is the ultimate justification for exercising power, sovereignty remains the very foundation of its legitimacy. It is in the name of popular sovereignty that revolutions erupted in America, France and Russia. The very moment the legitimacy of a political leader is undermined, authority soon erodes to finally become an empty word.

Confucius regarded authority as the culmination of years of experience when a man finally becomes respected for actions wisely undertaken in the light of a long tradition inherited from his elders and adopted to new circumstances. Plato had no such regard for tradition: writing ‘The Republic’ in his mid-forties, he did not ascribe any superior virtue to age and experience, despite his unfailing admiration for his old mentor, Socrates. The authority of his fifty-something Guardians derived from their philosophical knowledge of the human psyche but also their consummate understanding of what political power in an ideal state entails. No need for consensus in the best possible world of pure Forms!

Until the seventeenth-century, European monarchs ruled in the name of a divine right harking back to biblical times. The king was not only the representative of God on earth but he was also, in the eyes of absolutist theorists like Robert Filmer, the Father of his people. Forced into exile by the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes elaborated in his ‘Leviathan’ (1651) a new conception of authority taking into account the voluntary submission of subjects to a sovereign in whom they have delegated the power to defend them from the continuous risks of a descent of society into violent anarchy. Over a century later, Rousseau was to transfer this absolute authority and power to the representatives of the people as living embodiments of ‘the general will’.

In 1689, John Locke lay the foundations of modern parliamentary democracy in his ‘Second Treatise of Government’, following on his detailed critique of Filmer’s paternalistic theory, in his first pamphlet. The British Parliament came out of an unprecedented constitutional crisis in a stronger position than ever as it could now challenge any royal decision and rule the country in the name of the people. Locke had already made it clear that the legislative power is established for the preservation of civil society and for this reason ‘is not only the supreme power of the Commonwealth, but sacred and unaltered in the hands where the community have once placed it.’ (Chapter XI in the ‘Second Treatise’) And so did the assembly of the people eventually assume the ‘sacred’ character previously embodied in the person of the sovereign.

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