Friday, April 3, 2009

Natural Authority: A Short Exercise in Etymology

One of the hallmarks of modern political thought is the denial of natural authority. Just think of the social contract theory. According to John Locke, authority is not something natural, but is rather created by individuals who freely give up their sovereignty. For Aristotle, on the other hand, political communities are originally made up not of sovereign individuals but of family units, organized as households. The head of the household already has some kind of authority without having to enter into any supposed social contract with his children. Where, then, does his authority come from? A look at the very word “authority” in a couple languages shows that authority has always been regarded as something natural.

The English word authority comes from the Latin word auctoritas. A person’s auctoritas depends on the fact that one is, in some sense, an auctor. The word auctor entered English as the word “author”; in Latin, however, it is not restricted to a person who produces a written work. A better translation would be something like “originator.” It is in this sense that we call God the “author of life,” auctor vitae. God, then, is an authority because He is the author of life. If we extend by analogy the notion of God’s authority to human society, we can quickly see whence a paterfamilias derives his authority: a father has authority over his children because he has made his children.

Interestingly enough, even though German adopted the Latin word as Autorität, there does exist in German a more literal translation of auctoritas: Urheberrecht. Urheber corresponds to the Latin auctor, and Recht is a cognate of the English word “right.” This word, though, has become a purely technical term for “copyright.” Nevertheless, it still retains the idea that one who makes something unique retains a special right—authority—over it.

The Greek word for “authority” is also very interesting: exousia. This word is a compound of two words: ex + ousia, meaning “from nature” (ex natura). For Aristotle and the Greeks, then, an unnatural authority was by definition unthinkable. The word also has an interesting parallel usage to English. The plural form of this word means “authorities” such as civic officials, just as the English term does. For an example of this usage, see Rom. 13:1.

All this etymology should at least raise the inference that authority is not something artificially created by men when they enter into society by contract.

Finally, I would like to emphasize the importance of the analogy of being. Properly speaking, only God is authority, while any authority we have comes from Him. What we have is not absolute authority, but we call it authority by analogy. This philosophical doctrine, I think, helps explain why (besides Greek idiom) St. Paul speaks in Rom. 13:1 of God’s “authority” in the singular, but of human “authorities” in the plural. Only God’s authority is absolute and utterly unique, and thus necessarily singular. No single man, on the other hand, can possess absolute unfettered authority, and so his authority must coexist with other men’s authority.
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