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.