“Today, authority has to earn respect by the intrinsic value of what it says, not by the force of its imposition.”
Like most children my parents were my first authority. They spoke, and because I respected them, I listened more than not. There was a degree to which my respect was earned. My parents showed their love and responsibility by providing for my needs. Every time they punished fairly I gained confidence in their discernment. Originally, however, the authority of my parents was derived entirely from the sheer fact of their office.
My home was an oligarchy, and all the power was consolidated in The Parental Office. It dictated my mealtimes, my wardrobe, my school and church attendance, and the other authorities to whom I was expected to listen. Parental authority was translatable, its crown resting upon whomever they bestowed their seal of approval. As I grew up, however, the oligarchy willfully loosened its hold, and my parents’ seal of approval decreased in influence.
‘Authority’ denotes the right to control, jurisdiction, or power. Thomas Jefferson would say true authority requires ‘consent of the governed.’ I (and I’m sure some great philosopher before me) take this concept a step further, believing all power is ultimately given by those over whom it is wielded. The alternative may be unpleasant, even fatal, but the act of yielding power to an authority (ostensibly creating the authority) is, ultimately, a choice.
Belief is, at its core, an act of submission to power. As I mentioned in “Authority,” most of what a person holds true—what she ‘knows’ about the blue sky or gravity—is believed on authority. Our adherence to second-hand facts is an expression of willful submission to an external entity, and when I recall that I am giving them power over a sector of my life, I examine these entities—these potential authorities—much more closely.
When I was a child my parents chose my authorities for me, along with my breakfast, and school clothes. But just as it is no longer appropriate for my parents to dictate my meal choices or personal style, it is necessary to my development as an intellectually mature individual that I choose the authorities to whom I yield. And since I am no longer satisfied with the voucher of my parents (side-effect of growing), I must decide upon my own criterion for reliable authorities.