Someone recently suggested that I have a problem with authority—not for the first time in my life! It might well be true.
But, then again, I might well ask such a person by what authority they make such a claim, or on what authority should I accept it? And if they say “A,” then I might ask, “And on what authority ought I to accept A’s authority in this matter?” And so on. But I do not think there is an infinite regress here.
I was brought up with a lot of emphasis on “respecting authority.” One might say it was ingrained in me from a fairly young age. Over time, I learned that the practical meaning of “respect” was to obey, or to accept whatever a person claiming authority, or designated authority by others, asserted. Teachers, for example, elders generally. Sometimes, authority seemed simply to mean the ability to punish. Other times it referred to someone having a superior body of knowledge than I did.
And I was generally quite obedient—that is what I was taught.
And “respecting” authority also meant that one did not question that authority—at least beyond certain bounds, which the authority itself would generally declare.
So, I learned not to question authority. Was this a “problem with authority?”
A slave obeys his master. That is to be expected if the master has the ability to punish the slave, if the slave is powerless against such punishment. And perhaps the slave has been convinced to accept some other kind of authority, that says it is somehow in the natural order for the slave to be a slave, and the master a master. But what would we say when the slave begins to worship the master? Would we not wonder why? Might we not wonder if the slave has been brainwashed?
Later, I began to question authority. This was not easy (perhaps never has been easy) for me, because it went so counter to the cultural matrix which I had absorbed when young. I might, with “fear and trembling,” begin to question this authority or that authority—but I still suspected that there must be some authority somewhere, that would tell me what was proper to believe or not to believe, to question or not to question. Some authority whose claim to authority was obvious and beyond all reasonable question.
Now, at this point, someone might say, “God.” But what god? Whose god? No god, for example, has spoken to me in a way that it was beyond reason to question if this wasn’t something going on in my head (and I don’t have so paltry a view of the power of the mind that it could not be so). Some one says, “The God of the Bible” (or another putative revelation—I’m not concerned with the particular religion here, nor am I concerned with the existence of a god; I am concerned with this question of authority). And I say, “Why should I accept the Bible as an authority, on what or whose authority ought I to do so?”
“Read it sincerely, and see.” I have. Sincerely. The question remains. “Trust what person X says. She is surely an honest person.” I do not doubt X’s honesty about what she believes; I question the authority bestowed by X’s honesty as opposed to Y’s honesty. Sincerely. The question remains.
The question is: to what or to whom do you give the authority the tell you what the truth is—and by what authority do you accept their authority?
Does this question show that I have a problem with authority?
What exactly is a “problem with” authority?
Some people, I accept, have a superior body of knowledge in certain areas than I do. In such cases, I accept their authority on that subject—pending my acquiring the requisite knowledge to mount serious questions, or seeing that someone else, who appears to have an equal knowledge of the subject, is doing do. Then perhaps I will hold judgment in abeyance: but on what/whose authority do I do so?
Ultimately—my own. Regardless of whether and how I am convinced to make such a decision by others, and regardless of what authority I grant them in certain areas—ultimately, I grant even that on the basis of my own considered authority. If I have an experience that leads me to draw certian conclusions, on whose authority do I admit this experience as authoritative? My own.
I think this is inescapable—for anyone. To whatever or whoever we grant authority, we do so on our on authority. To claim otherwise is self-deceptive. The self-deception might be quite innocent: one has not simply realized the fact of it. The self-deception might be purposeful (even if subconscious): an attempt to avoid the responsibility that goes with the authority.
And that, I think, is the real “problem with authority”—that even our decisions to accept the authority of another, even in the light of convincing evidence, is ultimately made on our own authority. Even accepting what evidence there is as being somehow convincing, even accepting it as convincing because “everyone else” has done so.
The basic decision, regardless of the matrix or ground or reasons under which it is made, is ours. Inescapably.
As long as we have some ability to choose, even in the face of dire consequences, it is our own authority to make the choice that we finally cannot escape.