Author on Authority

This is a little meta to begin with, but please do indulge me, for we will get there. It all started this morning when I happened to read this little piece of not-even-wrongitude:

Authority by consent is no authority at all, like I say. Unless you can force people to listen to you, they won’t obey commands unless they agree with them. And if they won’t obey commands unless they agree with them, you’re ultimately not leading anything, you’re a mouthpiece spouting what they want to hear.

Hold onto your togas, kids, we’re off to Rome, and we’re going to learn exactly what authority is by examining auctoritas. Your free clue is that it is precisely not what the above quotation claims it to be.

(Obviously, the Romans did have the concept of forcing people to listen to you and do what they’re told. That one wasn’t auctoritas, though. That was imperium, which is where the strapping lads [the lictors] with the bundle of sticks and an axe – yes, that one – would proceed to do the needful unto anyone who didn’t get with your program. This equipment and the chaps carrying it were a warning – who you were not, for the most part, allowed to go without – to everyone that you were allowed to deal out corporal and capital punishment.)

Auctoritas, from whence our authority (and also, point of curiosity, “author”) had approximately buggerall to do with the ability to force people to listen and obey, because the whole point of having auctoritas is that you don’t need to.

Let me quote Bret Devereaux’s excellent blog here:

Roman political speech, meanwhile, is full of words to express authority without violence. Most obviously is the word auctoritas, from which we get authority. J.E. Lendon (in Empire of Honor: The Art of Government in the Roman World (1997)), expresses the complex interaction whereby the past performance of virtus (‘strength, worth, bravery, excellence, skill, capacity,’ which might be military, but it might also by virtus demonstrated in civilian fields like speaking, writing, court-room excellence, etc) produced honor which in turn invested an individual with dignitas (‘worth, merit’), a legitimate claim to certain forms of deferential behavior from others (including peers; two individuals both with dignitas might owe mutual deference to each other). Such an individual, when acting or especially speaking was said to have gravitas (‘weight’), an effort by the Romans to describe the feeling of emotional pressure that the dignitas of such a person demanded; a person speaking who had dignitas must be listened to seriously and respected, even if disagreed with in the end. An individual with tremendous honor might be described as having a super-charged dignitas such that not merely was some polite but serious deference, but active compliance, such was the force of their considerable honor; this was called auctoritas. As documented by Carlin Barton (in Roman Honor: Fire in the Bones (2001)), the Romans felt these weights keenly and have a robust language describing the emotional impact such feelings had.

Note that there is no necessary violence here. These things cannot be enforced through violence, they are emotional responses that the Romans report having (because their culture has conditioned them to have them) in the presence of individuals with dignitas. And such dignitas might also not be connected to violence. Cicero clearly at points in his career commanded such deference and he was at best an indifferent soldier. Instead, it was his excellence in speaking and his clear service to the Republic that commanded such respect. Other individuals might command particular auctoritas because of their role as priests, their reputation for piety or wisdom, or their history of service to the community. And of course beyond that were bonds of family, religion, social group, and so on.

In ‘verse terms, now, while the correspondences aren’t absolutely perfect, what we are talking about is korás (“coercion”), the power to make people do what you want by threatening them (or more directly), versus argyr (“worth, merit”), and in the specific case of governance coronargyr (“sovereign’s merit”), that authority sufficient to lead the people to confer upon one the Imperial Mandate, that contract which gives one the power to rule.

(Most governances do try to make use of the latter as well as the former, even though/when the latter is the ultimate basis of their power, inasmuch as it’s very hard to have enough jackboots to keep everyone’s face stomped forever, and so not having to trot them out all the time is most convenient.)

The Empire, of course, is an extreme case of ruling, insofar as it is possible, only by coronargyr and banishing korás to solely those few responsive purposes laid out in the Fundamental Contract, on which it has no monopoly. This is something of a necessity when your citizens are (a) functionally unintimidatable, and (b) respect little except competence/virtue/excellence/awesomeness, which they respect greatly. You can’t drive people (i.e., what that initial quote thinks “leading” is) like that with any hope of long-term success; only lead them, and that by being so bloody good at it that people want to follow you.

Start thinking that they should follow you because of who you are, not what you can do, and you’ll swiftly find yourself here.

So, to sum up the thesis of this post:

  • A Society of Consent, like the Empire but also like any other number of actual-anarchist societies, does not have korás / coercion.
  • What it does have is argyr, or auctoritas. In fact, it has a lot of it, probably more than societies that are able to take the quick shortcut of substituting the former for the latter when it gets difficult.
  • Many of the most terribad arguments against consensual societies are assuming that opposing/eliminating the former necessarily means opposing/eliminating the latter, which it doesn’t. A gun is not an argument, but an argument isn’t a gun, either.

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for Buggy Buggy says:

    I usually respond in discord, but I figured I might as well start posting here. It’s better for posting more in-depth responses, anyway.
    Note: I am assuming the politics ban that applies to the Discord server does not apply here. I am unable to find any posts about rules after several minutes of searching, so I am assuming there is no such rule here. While I try not to mention anything particularly divisive, it still works better if I give some examples.

    I would have to sum up my response as “The quoted person’s conclusion is wrong, but it’s perfectly understandable why they came to that conclusion.”.

    Nowadays, auctoritas is almost exclusively seen in close personal relationships: Parent-child, friend-friend, (sociable)boss-worker, etc. Relationships where the individuals know each other and act based on that social relationship.

    A friend, for instance, does not have to (and couldn’t) force you to do something; instead, they would ask and rely on your friendship. If you want to get cynical about it, you could model it as a sort of favor-trading system where friends are expected to do favors for each other, with the amount ‘owed’ by each side balancing out over sufficient time and further favors, but I digress.

    But on the other hand, auctoritas is, to put it bluntly, functionally extinct in any modern organization one would call a ‘government’.

    A person will do what a government official or delegate (example: police) tells them to do because of the threat of a stick, or because it’s something they want to do anyway, assuming there is no pre-existing social relationship there (complying with a police officer because they’re your friend, or because they’re particularly nice and charismatic, does not count).

    Imagine a simple, generic example: the Mayor of wherever you live, or closest equivalent, holds a press conference and emplores everyone to do X. How many people do you think do it?
    If you’re not quite sure of that answer, let me ask another question: Do you know the last press conference your Mayor held? Do you know what it was about? I am going to go out on a limb, and guess that your answer is “no”, and that rather speaks for itself.

    To give a more concrete example: Consider all the sensible things that the CDC and various other officials said about Covid-19 and precautions thereof. Now consider how long it took people to follow them. Oh, and yknow, toilet paper.

    Next, consider the very working principle of elections, as seen in any modern government that has them. Generally speaking, someone attempting to be elected appeals to other people, saying and doing and promising things they want. You end up with people doing things, like put up posters, or talk to people to convince them to vote, or any of a variety of other things, and sometimes the electee specifically asks for those things… but often they don’t. People just do them, without input, because they want to.
    The electee is a genie, and if electors rub the lamp enough, they get their wish. And the entire time, the electee is there, trying to drum up support, convince as many people as possible, become (or pretend to be) the right genie for them.
    And so, auctoritas plays no role; the winner is he who appeals, becomes, pretends to the most, the best.

    I can go on. If you want another example, here’s two words: America. Police.

    The takeaway from this is not “auctoritas does not exist”, but it is completely understandable if you look at every extant example and then make the mistake of generalizing.

    Personally, my takeaway as such:
    1: Current governments are terrible. (See above)
    2: Current governments are better than past attempts. (See history textbooks)
    3: Current governments are near the local optimum that humanity is capable of achieving. (See lack of further progress)
    Conclusion: Humans are, in this context, the equivalent of a chicken which drowns when it rains because they forget to close their mouth.

    In-verse, the eldrae have achieved a good solution because they can. They are not human; the precursors took that out/fixed them.
    Many other, different minds are capable of building something functional, though it may (and likely would) be different than what the eldrae use.
    Humanity… cannot. Any individual exceptions which could function in something sane are just that: exceptions.

    So if anyone has ever wondered why i’m a transhumanist, there’s part of the answer. Speaking from both knowledge and personal experience, being human really sucks and I would like to stop as soon as possible thank you very much.

  2. Current governments are near the local optimum that humanity is capable of achieving. (See lack of further progress)

    Is the lack of further progress really statistically demonstrable, or is it simply perceived because we’re living through the attempts to improve it, and we’re biased into thinking it could not possibly happen quickly enough?

  3. Proposition 1: Granted, with the note that certain current governments are slightly less terrible than others.
    Proposition 2: Granted with gusto.
    Proposition 3: Insufficient data to draw such a sweeping conclusion, because there are numerous feedback loops creating a chaotic phase space.

    To wit: Any society with greater freedom terrifies its more coercive neighbors, who (given means and opportunity) will move to contain the outbreak of less restrained positive-sum interactions. See reactions of established coercive elites in: 1776; 1789; 1793; 1848; 1917; 1956; 1968; 1989; 2011.

    I have very little doubt that the korásan of Eliera did just the same, though with less success. Not all of the Earth events numbered above were successful; eldrae, with their instinctive craving for balance and greater resistance to charisma, probably had fewer hiccups. The positive-sum consequences of liberty outperform coercive systems, so given enough head start, freedom has an edge on surviving in some fashion.

    But regardless of the parameters, the point is that the feedback loops and dynamic responses make any attempt to describe ’local optima’ pointless. A potential surface doesn’t actively fight back against a rolling ball’s motion.

    So when you say:

    you might possibly be right, but we haven’t been in a position to test it enough to really know.

    And I would just like us to fork and cache our civilization and its capabilities as much as possible (preferably to offworld storage to the extent possible) before we go rewriting the kernel code of our operating system? Bluescreening the only world we currently have is not a prospect I relish, either, and power cycling society is not guaranteed to work. In fact, the ROM is likely to load that clunky, low-function coercive protocol all over again.

    Transhumanism can get you Commander Data and Julian Bashir. It can also get you Khan Noonien Singh. Step carefully.

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