The bonds of authority

At some point, in considering the life of our times, it seems necessary to reflect on what is generally referred to as the breakdown of authority. This is a good time as any to do so, and I am prompted by the recent publication of a book by the sociologist Richard Sennett, bearing for its title the simple word "Authority," appearing under the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf. Sennett goes at some length into Paternalism, or the authority of false love; and Autonomy, the authority that is without love. I cannot follow him into all the byways of his complex theme; but I must say that I liked the scholarly pun at the center of his argument: namely, that authority involves two meanings of the word "bond."

First, there is the bond that ties us down and limits us -- the bond from which the captive would be set free. Second there is the bond that implies a relationship between human beings. The first meaning is negative; the second, positive. The first suggests fear, the second love. And love, I like to think -- or if not love, at least respect and decency and mutual deference -- lies at the heart of that mysterious force that brings men and women into a natural order, saving them from the anarchy that, in the words of old Hobbes, makes the life of man brutish and short.

For the young, of course, authority is a bad word. Like the word "tradition" it sets their teeth on edge. Why, they ask, should any power outside themselves set limits to what they may do or not do, to what they may dream or dare?

One sympathizes with this attitude; it carries within it the whole vast potentiality and charm of youth. Yet in the end it is the young themselves who suffer most when authority within their world is lacking. The bored, the indifferent, the teen-ager unable to decide what to do next, the man of woman for whom life has become drab and meaningless at 21 -- they are victims of a society where the gentle persuasion of authority has lost its potency to guide or inspire them.

For the democratic citizen, too, authority has always been anathema. The pure democrat (with a small "d") has liked to think of himself as one who has overthrown -- or whose ancestors have overthrown -- the powers that be. Kings, churchmen, bureacrats and (in the modern world) corporation heads have been cast down. The individual man stands sovereign at last; he is free to be himself and to do whatever he likes.

At this moment of liberation, however, an awful doubt invariably presents itself. One is sovereign -- but to what purpose? One is free -- but does one really know what one chooses to do? The old kings may have been enslavers, but while they sat upon their thrones there was not apt to be confusion about one's task in society or even about one's own identify. If they told us nothing else, these kings made us aware of a desire to unseat them in some splendid and historic upheaval.

The democrat and the teen-ager end by constructing for themselves new sources of authority. In place of the dethroned father-figure the youth elevates a rock musician or some hero of the sports world. The democratic citizen creates his own myths and half-unknowingly succumbs to their spell. I suppose this is as it has always been. Authority is forever breaking down, and forever being renewed in unexpected forms. "When half-gods go," said Emerson, "the gods arrive." But these latter gods, too, turn out to be vulnerable to time and to time's changes.

Nevertheless, life is surely at its sweetest and most serene when the sources of authority are legible within a society, and when people -- young or old -- are in basic accord upon what merits respect and deference. Our own age seems in a singular degree to lack this underlying agreement. As a result it does appear to be a cacophony of untuned desires and discordant ambitions.

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