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.