What is authority? How is it different from force, or power, or persuasion? Authority, according to O’Donovan, is something we submit to without needing a reason. Beauty has authority: no one needs to tell us to look at (or make) something beautiful. It is worthwhile “just because”. Likewise truth has authority: scholarship is an end in itself, even if it never makes you rich or popular. For political authority to be authority, it must have this same characteristic.

But there’s more to it. This is difficult to follow, but political authority is a different kind of authority: we freely submit to it even when it means giving up good things. Political authority performs a balancing act:

  • it makes us give up doing things we want to do for the sake of “the good”
  • but at the same time we recognize that it is “our good”

Political authority has a purpose that I would not have planned for myself, but a purpose that is nevertheless a blessing to me. Examples abound. Political authority has me give up driving my car as fast as possible down the road (a thing worth doing for its own sake, as most young men can tell you) for the sake of the world’s good, but I know that the law is not just being a buzzkill: the speed limit is also good for me, and if I’m honest I’ll admit it. Political authority places limits on my authority over my children: I may not decide whether they live or die (as fathers in some cultures may). Parental power and authority are limited for the sake of the children and society at large. But that limitation is also presented as somehow good for me, the father who is being limited. It’s not just a matter of taking something from me and giving it to others. It’s somehow right even for me.

How can political authority do both? How can it limit my good in the name of the good, and simultaneously maintain my good? It’s got to be different from force or power: anyone with a gun can get someone else to do things against his will, but that’s not “authority”, it’s force. Power is an even broader concept: someone can possess power in the form of wealth or beauty or education or age, and this will enable her to dominate another without regard for the other’s good. Persuasion is focused on someone’s good (mine or everyone’s) but it is always standing at the door begging, as it were; it does not have the right to expect to be obeyed, as authority does.

This question – what is authority? – is basic to political theology.


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