Friday 9 February 2018

The modern loss of authority means that authority really has been lost

The loss of authority - which has been remarked on frequently as an aspect of modernity, especially since the nineteen sixties (and is, indeed, discussed in Pascal's Pensees from about 350 years ago) has proved to be an intractable thing.

There are many well-argued defences of the necessity and benefits of authority, but they seem ineffectual. And anyone who attempts to live under authority will rapidly discover that it has gone, is absent, cannot be found.

(Someone who tries to 'find' authority and then submit to it is, indeed, engaged in an essentially paradocical exercise.)

Yes, there is charisma, there is expertise, there is power (to bribe and harm), there is sheer, dazzling fame (a lot of that)... but these are all known to be arbitrary.

It seems that authority is one of those things that exists only unconsciously; and evaporates under explicitness.

This applies with particular force to the primary authority, which is religious authority.

Religion used to be based-on authority; but is no longer. In general, legalistic bureaucracy has replaced authority - not just in practice, but also in people's conceptualisations - they actually imagine and experience authority as bureaucratic, indeed they can't even think of authority in any other way.

So - let's say that in a public sense authority is gone, cannot be found anywhere in the modern world. And let's assume that once authority has gone, the state is permanent - that authority cannot consciously be created, that its erasure is a solid fact.

(The best hope of those who wish to restore authority and see no alternative to authority seems to be a kind of re-set in which humanity forgets everything... and then authority can spontaneously re-emerge so that it is again unconscious and understood/ felt as wholly natural.)

What should we then do? Clearly we cannot really live without guidance, and equally I think we can immediately intuit that any source of guidance other than the authoritative is not genuine guidance but either something arbitrarily imposed or else self-chosen - and therefore no real guidance at all!

I see this apparently irreversible disappearance of authority is one of those ways in which things are coming to a point in the modern world.

We are all being painted into a corner, a corner from-which we may either look for divine guidance from intuitive sources (direct knowledge by prayer and/or meditation); or else we have no guidance at all... and life becomes intractably arbitrary, purposeless and meaningless.

If authority is gone, really gone as it seems to be, then direct guidance from God is our only hope.

And, that being the case, and given the nature of our God, we can each of us be absolutely confident that sufficient guidance, objectively-valid guidance, from these inner sources will be forthcoming.



MultiplayerMario64 said...

While I see your observation of how things are turning out as insightful I have difficult time figuring out how do we do all the communal business we are supposed to be doing as Christians if the quest for authority is futile?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MM64 - Well, clearly people are finding this very difficult.

lgude said...

I don't think you go too far in saying that authority is gone and the problem has proven intractable. In rereading Nietzsche;s Zarathustra recently I felt forced to recognise that his assertion that "God is dead" is gaining increasing acceptance and one of the results is the disappearance of external authority. So, in my experience, we have "turned to look for divine guidance from intuitive sources (direct knowledge by prayer and/or meditation)." I first remember encountering "God id dead" as a graffiti on the white tiled wall of the 116th street station when I was a freshman at Columbia in 1960. I can still feel my sense of absurdity that anyone - even a callow undergraduate like myself - could take the idea seriously. I was aware even then that in I rejected the authority of the Church - and I did - that I needed to consider carefully and with ruthless honesty what the great religious traditions provided as guidance. My approach was to try to find God by studying comparative religion, and not just by intellectually comparing them but by immersion in them until I discovered that I had to engage them at the level of practice. It took about 50 years, but I finally began to recognise and have 'direct knowledge' in a consistent and progressive way. I reckon I'm a real Speedy Gonzales. ;-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Igude - When I became a Christian I spent 4-5 years trying to find an authority that I could legitimately obey - without finding anything that worked. People would claim to subordinate themselves to an authority (e.g. inerrant scripture, the church hierarchy, tradition) but they did not really do so, were not convincing in this, disagreed among themselves. There was, indeed hardly anybody who even claimed to be a Christian authority, worthy of obedience. I looked around for someone who might be a spiritual father, or guide - but really there was nobody. At most one could find a teacher. Unsurprisingly, all the churches were riven by deep and intractable disagreements over important issues. The better the individual, the more they tended to emphasise that personal discernment and revelation was vital. This seems to be the basis of our path in modern times - whether we like it or not.

ted said...

Maybe no watertight authority figures in the Church today, but there is a watertight Person in its tradition.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Self-chosen guidance is not necessarily "no real guidance at all." I can understand a field well enough to recognize who understands it better than I do and then choose such people as sources of real guidance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - That's what I do as well, and it is the normal for modern people. But this is a qualitative change from the unconscious acceptance of authority, of the past.

Plus, of course, it was/is mostly used as an excuse to indulge in short-termist hedonism which would be forbidden by established authority - a new authority was *chosen* which allowed/ encouraged whatever it was (usually sexual) that someone wanted to do.

Many modern people, perhaps most, glibly claim to live by following internal guidance - but in this claim they are being dishonest.

It is indeed a terrible sin to pretend to be following profound internal guidance when this is merely being used as an excuse to follow hedonism, build a career, or be a conformist to the prevalent behaviour of one's social group.

However the perps cannot see this, because their metaphysical assumptions are incoherent and unexamined - many indeed have sold their souls to become servants to evil.

As you know, by my understanding, this era in the modern West is the most 'sinful' in the history of the world; not because of what we 'do' but because of our increasingly explicit, positive and strategic advocacy of the-inversion-of-Good.

It is our motivations, rather than our actions, that are evil - and this is the worst kind of evil.

A good example (you probably don't know what I mean!) is the current, post-Harvey Weinstein, wave of feminist pseudo-Puritanism - which entails an attack on some aspects of the astonishing hyper-sexualisation of modern life., Despite that some individual recommendations seems reasonable (e.g. not having scantily clad women paraded around gratuitously at public events), the motivations of this movement are (very obviously, from an evaluation based in Christian metaphysics) deeply and strategically evil.

As usual, *some* of the right things are being advocated for wrong reasons - and therefore going along with such movements will strengthen the forces of evil.

In a primary sense, it is Not possible to 'do the right thing for the wrong reason' - because this is to starve God and feed the devil.

Nigel Worthington said...

Curious post/discussion Bruce - so what are the motivations of the pseudo feminists? Virtue signalling? I really don't know.

Also Isn't all authority contextual? And in the past wouldn't the weaknesses, lies and abuses of authority have been transparent to many as well? I'm not sure I understand the distinction between past authority and present authority other than people now have more choice over what authorities to submit to.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NW - Your best bet is to 'read old books' and try to identify with the characters, and how they regard authority as natural, taken for granted, part of the basic set-up.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Authority requires authorship.

It is not difficult to find authority when you find authors.

The problem is not that the questioning of authority has caused authority to be lost. The problem is that the lack of moral authorship (real and direct involvement in positive contributions to the moral good of society on the part of recognized social leaders) has left a vacuum of genuine authority, and this has created the necessity of questioning such claims.

But if you look for those who are engaged in moral authorship, you will find moral authority.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - As an example of what I mean, consider Tolkien. He has authority in the sense you suggest - yet his authority is rendered ineffectual, for many people who sense it, by the modern metaphysics which states that Lord of the Rings is Not True, did not happen, is made-up... thereby his authority isreduced to a variety of entertainment (or 'escapism'). In other words, the metaphysical assumptions destroy even any *possibility* of benefitting from Tolkien's authority - his authority is pre-negated.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I do at least know that there is a Two Minutes Hate going on, centered on the alleged sexual misconduct of a Hollywood bigshot called Harvey Weinstein, but am blissfully ignorant of any details of the allegations or of the ensuing pearl-clutching. Anyway, I know the sort of thing you mean and the catch-22 it involves. Joining in the booing implies that you support the Party, but refusing to do so implies that you support whatever horrible thing the victim is being accused of.