Authority and the Lack Thereof

By S.D. Plissken | January 1, 2019

Many have written on authority and its nature: what it is, how it is asserted, acknowledged, or granted, and how it may be ignored, withdrawn, lost, or refused.


The English word authority is derived from the Latin auctoritas. The Romans took that to refer to someone having a certain amount of prestige. Such a one would have the ability to rally others to support his (or her) endeavors. While it did have a political aspect, its use was not limited to politics. It would be possible to exert this quality in religious, judicial, commercial, familial, personal and other spheres.

It was partly a respect granted to those who were deemed wise, successful, or otherwise blessed. They had influence. Their endorsement or recommendation had weight.

For the Romans, it had roots also in ownership. The auctor was the author, creator, or founder. He (or she) was the maker, the homesteader, the originator, the inventor, the owner, or the one who augmented, enlarged, or expanded an existing property or enterprise.

The Romans made a political distinction between auctoritas (authority) and potestas (power). The Roman orator Cicero said, “Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit,” which may be translated, “While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.” The Classicist Theodor Momsen defined auctoritas as being “more than advice, but less than a command.”

Note that, as described, the components of auctoritas may be lost or withdrawn. The prestige of those whose advice, endeavors, or endorsements fail might be shaken. A succession of poor outcomes might cause one’s authority to diminish markedly or even evaporate entirely.

The Mandate of Heaven

The Chinese had a similar concept, which they expressed as the Mandate of Heaven. Its manifestation or evaluation seems to have been retrospective. Its expression might even be termed post hoc (or after the fact).

Heaven embodied the natural order and will of the universe. It bestowed its mandate on a just ruler. Heaven did not say so out loud or at the outset. The just and successful ruler was assumed to be enjoying the Mandate (or approval) of Heaven. The poor or unjust ruler, who experienced a succession of calamities, be they natural, military, or political, or who was overthrown or defeated, was presumed to have experienced Heaven’s disapproval: they lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Intrinsic to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler (Wikipedia, 2018)

A successful rebellion was taken as a sign that Heaven had withdrawn its approval from an unjust ruler and shifted it to the rebel leader. By virtue of his success, the new ruler now held the Mandate of Heaven.

The New England author, Miss Sedgwick expressed a similar line of thought, in which talent and worth deserve distinction, and of which the Almighty signifies his approval:

Talent and worth are the only eternal grounds of distinction. To these the Almighty has affixed His everlasting patent of nobility.

Voluntary Servitude

The sixteenth century Frenchman Étienne de la Boétie penned his seminal essay, the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude in or around 1576. (A fascinating read). In this essay, he introduced the concept of voluntary servitude, or political acquiescence, so to speak. Even the tyrant will have always his active supporters, his beneficiaries and hangers-on, his toadies, if you will. Those who benefit directly from his rule.

But neither these active supporters, nor the several layers of similar beneficiaries and partial beneficiaries beneath them, are enough to keep the ruler in his seat. It requires also that the bulk of the ruled at least acquiesce in their own enslavement. The tyrant remains in place only because the ruled permit it, albeit passively, and perhaps even contribute to it.

De la Boétie advised them:

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.

Many writers, across a wide variety of academic disciplines, have acknowledged and echoed De la Boétie’s fundamental insight. Tyrants rule only because those ruled acquiesce in it. If the subjects withdraw their support, continued misrule becomes impossible.

The Lack Thereof

I have intended to write on this topic for some time. A recent social media post caught my interest and draws me out now. (Perhaps half-cocked). It pointed out that Milton’s various Boards and Committees have trouble finding members to serve upon them. Their meetings are sparsely attended. Voter apathy is at an all-time high. (A substantial majority of the registered voters do not bother to vote). These have not been my words. Its author is well intentioned, but is mistaken in thinking exhortations alone can change anything at this point.

Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. Milton is a failed state. A succession of unjust rulers, running from near the turn of the current century, have all imposed the impossible: tax increases that were more than the rate of inflation. The current administration is only the most recent iteration of this pernicious run of failures.

Less than a year ago, one-sixth of the voters chose to dissolve the Town government entirely. Talk about withdrawing support. Bravo! I challenge the selectmen to put that measure back on the ballot themselves. Have the Town lawyer spruce it up, give it some real teeth. Do it as a sort of vote of confidence. You do imagine you enjoy the voters’ support, don’t you? The numbers of disincorporaters could not possibly increase.

From the social media description, it seems that Milton’s voters – those bearing the burden of its unconscionable tax increases – have already taken De la Boétie’s advice: few vote, fewer attend, and fewest of all fill seats on the boards and committees. The electorate need not put its hands upon the Town government, but only cease to support it.

And the effects may be seen in the Roman sense too. A succession of failures have reduced the Town government’s auctoritas. Its most recent budget failure has certainly diminished its authority, as it well it should have. No one wants to be a part of that.

The next administration must reverse course immediately, right from the outset, or they will fail too. One hopes that the change is not already too late. Budget cuts, large ones, with concomitant tax cuts, large ones, are the only path to restoring any kind of authority. Otherwise, it is just another exercise in potestas. And support ebbs even faster in the face of that.

Milton has not yet lost the Mandate of Heaven, although that must inevitably come. Nobody can say exactly when the tipping point will come. It is only after the Mandate is irretrievably lost that it is acknowledged to have been lost.


De la Boétie, Étienne. (1576). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2018, November 11). Auctoritas. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2018, December 4). Catherine Sedgewick. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2018, November 21). Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2018, December 24). Mandate of Heaven. Retrieved from

Author: S.D. Plissken

I thought he'd be taller.

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