Why we need good authority

According to The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, the handbook of The Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Benedictine monastery located in Orleans, Mass., “Our common life is… sustained and directed through a mutually recognized order of governance, articulated in this Rule of Life and built upon the legitimate exercise of authority and the free exercise of obedience” (14). The Rule of Life states that shared life is based on a good relationship between authority and obedience. Yet why would anyone grant the claims of authority? How could this form of governance possibly bode well for each and all?

1. Examples of bad authority. “Because I said so.” “That’s just the way we do things here.” “If you don’t like it…” “It is what it is.” “That’s just the law, Buddy.” “Take it or leave it.”

2. Examples of bad obedience. “I’ll do whatever it is you say.” “You’re always right.” “I can’t do anything myself.”  “Yes to everything.” “I’ll go with you anywhere, do anything for you.”

3. Good authority is of a certain kind. It is legitimate, and it is exercised.

4. Good authority has limited scope. A good judge may not be a good parent. A good kite flier may not be a good engineer. Etc.

5. In our relationship, I may be an authority with respect to X and you may be an authority with respect to Y.

6. Authority must be embodied. It cannot be abstract, ‘unfaced.’ That is, there can be no authority without somebody being a figure of authority.

7. The authority figure gains her legitimacy from appealing to something outside herself: reason, tradition, God, revealed truth, established procedures, precedent, proven mathematical theorems, etc.

8. Paradoxically,the authority has access to this realm outside herself even as she embodies that realm ‘within’ herself. E.g., she reveals that she is a rational person in her appeal to rational standards. E.g., the car mechanic refers to technical terms to which the rest of us have no bloody clue.

9. Good authority is not a one trick pony. It has to be exercised in the right way time and time again. A good judge is a good authority on law in virtue of ruling justly again and again.

10. Good authority cannot be contrary to or in violation of the dictates of reason. (It does not follow that good authority is the same thing as reason.)

11. Let us say: P is a good or legitimate authority in virtue of embodying wisdom in her words and deeds.

12. Now, obedience is trust in the legitimacy of the authority.

13. Obedience cannot be coerced. Yet neither does it follow strictly as the conclusion to a logical argument. So, obedience is not the same thing as assent. Obedience must be given freely. It feels close to a certain ‘giving in’ and saying ‘OK, let’s see where this goes, but I’ve got my eyes open, Bub.’

14. Obedience implies that the authority is, and has to be, recognized as such. I, qua obedient, perceive something ‘in’ or ‘about’ you is constitutive of or that leads to my obedience to you. Now, P couldn’t be an authority were P not recognized by anybody as an authority. A joke: Robinson Crusoe anointed king.

15. Obedience implies some acknowledgement of ‘higher’ and ‘lower.’ The obedient one is ‘lower’ and aspires to be ‘higher,’ aspires to follow the radiant example of the authority (an important distinction: to be like the authority in some basic respect or respects but not to be or possess the authority).

16. The obedience/authority structure is necessary if the idea of guidance is to ever get under way. The good authority leads or shows forth. The obedient one follows or undertakes. The path heads from lower to higher.

17. Good authority and good obedience support good practices.

18. What are the aims of good practices? They are human flourishing (the path of self-understanding) and the common good (the well-being of the collective).

19. In a good community, human flourishing and the common good are one.


Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.