Questions that must not be asked

What makes human beings worthy of love?  An abstract, ontological analysis could address that.  Why do I love this woman rather than some other?  This question cannot be answered.  If it had an answer, it would not be love, since love must be as particular as its object.  Not because she’s the kindest or the prettiest, because then it would be a quality I treasured rather than her.  But it’s not just that I can’t answer this question; I should not try to answer it–I should not even ask it.  I must be silent before the mystery of apprehending another being’s haecceity.  Looking for a reason in the realm of qualities will only obscure this vision.

Why must there be polities, and why must they have authority over their members?  Human nature supplies the answer to that.  Why should my allegiance and my neighbors’ be to the USA rather than to eastern Washington State, to North America, or to the people of the Northern Hemisphere?  Why is America a people, and not these other groups of which we are part.  Why is America’s government in Washington D.C. our sovereign, rather than some other group that might claim to represent us?  These also are unanswerable questions.  If there were a quality that made us Americans, America would be a class rather than a particular, historical people.  If it were a quality that made our government sovereign, e.g. that our representatives are the most intelligent men in the nation, then they wouldn’t be sovereign–they would have to bow out the moment a more intelligent man arrived.  We all sense that a man who asks “why should these particular men rule us?”, he is being seditious.  There is no answer–there can’t be–and he knows it.

The question of authority–why am I morally obliged to obey earthly rulers?–was, from what I can tell, not a major issue for the great classical political philosophers.  For Aristotle, the key question was, given that the polis exists, who should have a share in its administration.  This he saw as a matter of justice to those with a rightful claim.  Equals should be treated equally, superiors should be treated better, but what is the appropriate measure?  Wealth?  Birth?  Freedom?  Numbers?  Aristotle draws the sensible conclusion that the real measure is contribution to the common good; different qualities contribute in different ways and should be acknowledged variously through a mixed constitution.  This is the pagan way of framing the political question:  given the existence of authority, how do we equitably share participation in it?  With the coming of Christianity, politics came to be addressed from an entirely different perspective:  given the existence of God and His Church, why should I obey an earthly master at all?  The question of authority’s origin was, as far as I know, first asked by Saint Paul.  His answer, of course, is that temporal magistrates are God’s representatives and have authority derived from Him.  Even those who don’t think this a particularly profound answer–what else would a Jew and an Apostle say?–should appreciate the newness of the question.  Really great conceptual leaps always come from asking new questions rather than finding new answers.  Ask the right question, and the answer will often be obvious.  For Saint Paul and his scholastic descendants, there is no question of justice to the ruler.  Unlike Aristotle, Paul doesn’t imagine that any man has a claim to rule us because of his or his class’s intrinsic qualities.  We owe the king nothing in himself, but obedience to him is something we do owe to God.

Answering the Christian’s question doesn’t answer the pagan’s question:  why should we regard this particular man or this particular senate as God’s representative?  The Church’s philosophers will not answer, and their refusal is wise.  Their answer of sorts is “establishment”:  this king is God’s representative because everybody knows that he is.  Isn’t this circular?  “He has authority because he has authority.”  Somewhat, as it needs to be to deflect dangerous questioning.  A man is king because all his subjects recognize him as such.  In this sense, kingship lies in the subject rather than the king.  It’s what they think, rather than what he thinks or any objective fact about him, that matters.  This absolutely does not mean that authority derives from the consent of the governed.  To recognize is not to consent.  All those subjects may wish they had another king, but because they recognize that this man is their king, he is their king.

Real authoritarians positively boast of their belief in ontological equality.  “Why should one man obey another?”  asks Louis de Bonald.  Nothing about a man commands obedience from his ontological equals, he answers, but only God’s will made known in authoritative institutions.  Authority begins in God.  From there, according to conservative political theory, it passes to the “unwritten constitution” of a people.  This is a people’s sense of where legitimacy lies.  It has no explanation.  It makes its own reality.  One can’t cook up a people or an unwritten constitution, as the social contractors try to do, but we are fortunately not in a position of having to do such a thing.  History has created for us peoples and authorities that those peoples recognize as valid.  The social contractors may try to destroy a dynasty by asking “Why him?”, and they may destroy a people’s sense of identity by asking “Why us?”, but they can never replace what they’ve taken.  Abstractions can never justify a particular loyalty.  Who should be allowed to vote on their contract, and why should I be bound by the will of this particular group?  If I step outside the world of particular loyalties, how shall I ever get back in?

Fortunately, peoples exist, and sovereigns rule them.  The only thing for the Christian to do about it is to ennoble mens’ obedience by reminding them of its divine origin.  The only thing for conservatives to do about it is to defend authority against unanswerable questions.

7 Responses

  1. How interesting, I was just thinking today about the nature of authority, in relation to duty, the state, the purpose of it, the understanding of authority then v. know, etc. Eventually I will make it into a blog post, but it can be awfully difficult to sort the disparate thoughts on the subject. I unfortunately don’t know more than the basics as found in Church teaching, do you have any reading recommendations on the nature of authority?

  2. Preserving established authority that comes from time out of mind is generally a good thing, imho. But as an American, I have to be aware that there are times and places where challenging the reigning form of legitimacy is justifiable and that people of good will can participate in building something to replace it.
    One could argue that the American Revolution was really more like yet another civil war between factions of English elites. There is a lot to that view. But it does not cover the whole story. The new Constitution specifically banned the formation of many of the old forms of heirachy – like Titles and hereditary Ranks. It certainly banned the notion that any one person or faction had a “divine right” to rule anything.

  3. Hi trent13,

    Of course I can’t resist recommending my own dissertation on the topic: The Conservative Vision of Authority

    This work of mine owed some inspiration to rkirk’s essay The Nature of Authority

    As for books:

    Yves Simon (a mid 20th-century Thomist) wrote an iteresting book (from a somewhat different perspective than mine) on the nature of authority: A General Theory of Authority.

    A reactionary’s take on the attack on the attack on authority is given in Thomas Molnar’s Authority and its Enemies (reviewed by me here).

    The idea of unwritten constitutions goes back to de Maistre, and its fullest exposition and application to the American situation (albeit with more concessions to democracy than I’d like) is Orestes Brownson’s great work The American Republic, reviewed by me here.

  4. If you’re interested in traditional Christian ideas about political authority, I’d recommend Ernst Kantorowicz’s “The King’s Two Bodies”, which deals with mediaeval Christian kingship. It’s a very long and rather academic book, but it quotes extensively from the original sources.

    As a Brit, I like to think of an unwritten constitution as a characteristically British idea, though as a lawyer I do feel an itch to write it all down. The US is a good example of a society where a written constitution has transcended its role as a legal document and become a kind of semi-sacred text. It’s almost as if American democracy derives its legitimacy from the constitution rather than the constitution itself deriving its own legitimacy from the popular will.

  5. Pascal again

    “On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it…

    Nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself; all changes with time. Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just obeys a justice which is imaginary and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more. He who will examine its motive will find it so feeble and so trifling that, if he be not accustomed to contemplate the wonders of human imagination, he will marvel that one century has gained for it so much pomp and reverence. The art of opposition and of revolution is to unsettle established customs, sounding them even to their source, to point out their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, get back to the natural and fundamental laws of the State, which an unjust custom has abolished. It is a game certain to result in the loss of all; nothing will be just on the balance. Yet people readily lend their ear to such arguments. They shake off the yoke as soon as they recognise it; and the great profit by their ruin and by that of these curious investigators of accepted customs.”

  6. “What makes human beings worthy of love?”

    Nothing. Nothing at all. We are all unworthy of it.

    It isn’t something we deserve, and therefore have a right to complain about when we don’t get it.

    Rather, it is something so undeserved, so unexpected, that we should be astonished when it comes to us. Astonished, and humbly grateful.

  7. […] or passionate desire (wanting to be with someone), is directed towards one thing: the essence, the haecceity (this-ness) of the […]

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