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Civil Authority

Nature, sources, limits, divisions, origin, and the true and false theories of authority

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Authority, CIVIL, the moral power of command, supported (when need be) by physical coercion, which the State exercises over its members. We shall consider here the nature, sources, limits, divisions, origin, and the true and false theories of authority. Authority is as great a necessity to mankind as sobriety, and as natural. By “natural” here is meant, not what accrues to man without any effort of his own (teeth, for example), but what man must secure, even with an effort, because without it he cannot well be man. It is natural to man to live in civil society; and where there is civil society, there must be authority. Anarchy is the disruption of society. Speaking generally, we may say no man loves isolation, solitude, loneliness, the life of a hermit; on the other hand, while many dislike the authority under which they live, no man wishes for anarchy. What malcontents aim at is a change of government, to get authority into their own hands and govern those who now govern them. Even the professed anarchist regards anarchy as a temporary expedient, a preparation for his own advent to power. Authority, then, in the abstract, every man loves and cherishes; and rightly so, for it is his nature to live in society, and society is kept together by authority. The model of hermits was St. Simeon Stylites, so called from his living on the top of a style, or pillar. That was his special vocation; he was no ordinary man. But the political philosopher considers man as man ordinarily and normally is. Two things would strike a stranger from Mars looking down upon this planet: how men on earth love herding together, and how they love moving about. Ordinary man can no more afford to be solitary than he can afford to be stationary, though Simeon Stylites was both. Solitary confinement is the severest of punishments, next to death. It is hard to say whether the solitude or the confinement, proves the more irksome. This simple point, that man cannot live alone, must be insisted upon, for all errors in the theory of authority are rooted in the assumption that man’s living in society, and thereby coming to be governed by social authority, is something purely optional and conventional, a fashion which man could very well discard if he would, as he might discard the wearing of green clothes. Men who would make society a conventional arrangement, and authority a fashion of the hour, have appealed to the noble savage as the standard of humanity proper, forgetting that the savage is no solitary, but a member of a horde, to separate from which would be death, and to ignore the control of which would be death also. Man must live in society, and, in point of historical fact, men have always lived in society; every human development is a social progress. It is natural to man to live in society, to submit to authority, and to be governed by that custom of society which crystallizes into law.

And as it is natural to the individual, so is it natural also for the family to unite with others. Society cannot stop short at the family. As the individual is not self-sufficient, neither is the family. The family grows and then multiplies. We have a society of families; and that society grown great, and controlled as it needs to be controlled by some common authority, passes into a self-sufficient, autonomous society, otherwise called a State. Hence civil authority is defined as the moral power of command, supported (when need be) by physical coercion, which the State exercises over its constituent members. Civil authority is of God, not by any revelation or positive institution, but by the mere fact that God is the Author of Nature, and Nature imperatively requires civil authority to be set up and obeyed. Nature cannot tolerate intemperance, nor anarchy either. And what Nature absolutely requires, or absolutely refuses as incompatible with her wellbeing, God commands, or God forbids. God then forbids anarchy; and in forbidding anarchy He enjoins submission to authority. In this sense, God is at the back of every State, binding men in conscience to observe the behests of the State within the sphere of its competence. “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God…. Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. . For they are the ministers of God…” (Rom. xiii, 1, 5, 6).

Obedience, being a practical thing and not a speculation, cannot abstract from the concrete facts of the case; it is paid to the powers that be, to the authority actually in possession. Obedience is as disobedience; men are never disobedient except to the government of the day. But there are limits to civil obedience, and to the competence of civil authority. As domestic obedience is not to be carried to the extent of rebellion against the civil government, so neither is the State to be obeyed as against God. It is not within the competence of the State to command anything and everything. The State cannot command what God could not command, for instance, idolatry. The authority of the State is absolute, that is to say, full and complete in its own sphere, and subordinate to no other authority within that sphere. But the authority of the State is not arbitrary; it is not available for the carrying out of every whim and caprice. Arbitrary government is irrational government; now no government is licensed to set reason aside. The government of God Himself is not arbitrary; as St. Thomas says: “God is not offended by us except at what we do against our own good” (Contra Gentiles, III, 122). The arbitrary use of authority is called tyranny. Such is the tyranny of an absolute monarch, of a council, of a class, or of a majority. The liberty of the subject is based on the doctrine that the State is not omnipotent. Legally omnipotent every State must be, but not morally. A legal enactment may be immoral, and then it cannot in conscience be obeyed; or it may be ultra vires, beyond the competence of the authority that enacts it, in which case compliance with the law is not a matter of obedience, but of prudence. In either case the law is tyrannical, and “a tyrannical law, not being according to reason, is not, absolutely speaking, a law, but rather a perversion of law” (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., 1a, 2ae, q. 92, art. 1, ad 4). Man is not all citizen. He is a member, a part of the State, and something else besides. “Man is not subservient to the civil community to the extent of his whole self, all that he is and all that he has” (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., la 2ae, q. 21, art. 4, ad 3). To say nothing of his eternal interests in his relations with his Maker, man has even in this life his domestic interests in the bosom of his family, his intellectual and artistic interests, none of which can be called political interests. Social and political life is not the whole of human life. Man is not the servant of the State in his every action. The State, the majority, or the despot, may demand of the individual more than he is bound to give. Were human society a conventional arrangement, were man, being perfectly well off in isolation from his fellows, to agree by way of freak to live in community with them, then we could assign no antecedent limits to civil authority. Civil authority would be simply what was bargained for and prescribed in the arbitrary compact which made civil society. As it is, civil authority is a natural means to a natural end, and is checked by that end, in accordance with the Aristotelean principle that “the end in view sets limits to the means” (Aristotle, Politics, I, 9). The immediate end of civil authority is well set forth by Suarez (De legibus, III, xi, 7) as “the natural happiness of the perfect, or self-sufficient, human community, and the happiness of individuals as they are members of such a community, that they may live therein peaceably and justly, with a sufficiency of goods for the preservation and comfort of their bodily life, and with so much moral rectitude as is necessary for this external peace and happiness”. Happiness is an attribute of individuals. Individuals are not made happy by authority, but authority secures to them that tranquility, that free hand for helping themselves, that restful enjoyment of their own just winnings, which is one of the conditions of happiness. Nor does authority make men virtuous, except according to that rough-hewn, outline virtue, which is called “social virtue”, and consists mainly of justice. When the ancients spoke of “virtue” being the concern of the State, they meant justice and efficiency. Neither the virtue nor the happiness of individuals is cared for by the State except “as they are members of the civil community”. In this respect, civil differs from domestic, or paternal, authority. The father cares for the members of his household one by one, singly and individually. The State cares for its members collectively, and for the individual only in his collective aspect. Hence it follows that the power of life and death is inherent in the State, not in the family. A man is hanged for the common good of the rest, never for his own good.

This, then, is one measure of authority, the end which the State has in view. Another is the stage of development at which any given particular State has arrived. For there is not one measure of authority common to all States. As the State develops, it grows in unity, and greater unity means an ampler measure of central authority. There is far more authority in the England of today than in the England of the Heptarchy. There was more authority in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom than in a horde of savages. In early civil societies there is no legislative authority, and no law, but only immemorial custom. There is little judicial authority, but injured men, or their families after their death, right their own wrongs, murder is restrained, not by judge, jury, and executioner, but by blood-feud. On the other hand, in highly civilized societies, especially those of a democratic character, the will of the people continually thrusts new functions upon government, such as education, the care of public health, the carrying of letters, the sending of telegrams. The recognition of this fact has been called “the principle of voluntary control”. By it civil authority may be enlarged beyond its natural and essential limits. Like other principles, “the principle of voluntary control” may be pushed too far. Pushed to the limit, it would involve Socialism, Authority, though varying in amount, is as universal as man is everywhere. Man cannot live except under authority, as he cannot live out of civil society. It is by no convention, compact, or contract, that authority takes hold of him. It is a necessity of his nature. But while civil authority, or government, is natural and universal, the distribution of authority, otherwise called the form of government, or the constitution of the State, is a human convention, varying in various countries, and in the same country at different periods of its history. It is scarcely too much to say that there are as many various distributions of civil authority, or various forms of government, as there are varieties of vertebrate animals. They are classified as monarchies, aristocracies, democracies; but no two monarchies are quite alike, nor two democracies. Thus a democracy may be direct, as in ancient Athens, or representative, as in the United States. The monarchy of Edward VII is different from that of George III.

The one point fixed by nature, and by God, is that there must be authority everywhere, and that the authority existent for the time being, under such and such a form, be under that form obeyed; for since there is no actual authority in the country except under that form, to refuse to obey that is to refuse authority simply, and to revert to anarchy, which is against nature: just as a man having nothing but bread and cheese to eat, and refusing to eat his bread and cheese, under pretense that he much prefers mutton, condemns himself to starvation, which again is unnatural. But we must beware of saying of any particular form of authority, monarchy for example, or democracy either, what is true only of authority in the abstract, namely, that all nations are bound to live under it, and that never under any pretense can it be subverted. A country, once monarchical, is not eternally bound to monarchy; and circumstances are conceivable under which a republic might pass into monarchy, as Rome did under Augustus, much to its advantage. Authority rules by Divine right under whatsoever form it is established. No one form of government is more sacred and inviolate than another. Change of persons holding office is usually provided in the constitution, sometimes by rotation, sometimes by vote of the legislative assembly. No monarchical constitution provides for the change of the person of the monarch otherwise than by death or resignation. Change of the form of government can be effected constitutionally, but, as history shows, as often as not, it is brought about unconstitutionally. When the change is complete, the new government rules by right of accomplished fact. There must be authority in the country, and theirs is the only authority available.

DIVISIONS—The progress of civilization subdivides authority into legislative, judicial, and executive, and the latter again into civil and military. The king, or president, is chief of the executive. Authority again is subdivided into imperial and local, the latter emanating from the former and subordinate to it.

ORIGIN.—The question of the origin of authority seems first to have been raised by the Roman lawyers. In their hands it assumed the concrete form of the origin of the imperial power. This power they argued to reside primarily in the Roman people; the people, however, did not exercise nor retain it, but transferred it by some implicit lex regia, or king-making ordinance, as a matter of course wholly, and irrevocably to each successive emperor at his accession. With the advent of Christianity, St. Paul’s doctrine came into prominence, that authority is of God; yet in no clear way was it made out how it came of God until St. Thomas Aquinas showed that it was of God inasmuch as it was an essential of the human nature which God has created, according to the doctrine of Aristotle above exposed. Before St. Thomas arose, some churchmen had shown a disposition to cry down the civil power. They could not deny that it was of God, but they regarded it as one of the consequences of the sin of Adam, and argued that, but for the Fall, man would have lived free from coercive jurisdiction. They rehearsed the legend of Romulus, and the asylum that he opened for robbers. States, they said, usually have their origin in rapine and injustice. Others invested the pope with the plenitude of secular as well as spiritual authority, by the gift of Christ, and argued that kings reigned only as his vicegerents, even in civil matters. The Aristoteleanism of St. Thomas was opposed to all this. On the other hand, the imperial and royal party made a pope of the king or emperor; the civil ruler was as much an institution of Christ as the pope himself, and, like the pope, enjoyed a God-given authority, no portion of which could validly be taken from him. This is the doctrine of “the divine right of kings”. According to it, in its rigour, in a State once monarchical, monarchy is forever the only lawful government, and all authority is vested in the monarch, to be communicated by him, to such as he may select for the time being to share his power. This “divine right of kings” (very different from the doctrine that all authority, whether of king or of republic, is from God), has never been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. At the Reformation it assumed a form exceedingly hostile to Catholicism, monarchs like Henry VIII, and James I, of England, claiming the fullness of spiritual as well as of civil authority, and this in such inalienable possession that no jot or tittle of prerogative could ever pass away from the Crown. Against these monstrous pretensions were fought the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby.

Against the same pretensions a more pacific warfare was waged by Francis Suarez, S.J. Suarez argued against James I that spiritual authority is not vested in the Crown, and that even civil authority is not the immediate gift of God to the king, but is given by God to the people collectively, and by them bestowed on the monarch, according to the theory of the Roman lawyers above mentioned, and according to Aristotle and St. Thomas. Authority, he asserted, is an attribute of a multitude assembled to form a State. By their nature they must form a State, and a State must have authority. Authority, therefore, is natural to mankind collectively; and whatever is natural, and rational, and indispensable for human progress, is an ordinance of God. Authority must be, and God will have it to be; but there is no such natural necessity of authority being all centerd in one person. Authority is a Divine institution, but kings are a human invention. The saying is a platitude in our time; three centuries ago, when Suarez wrote, it was a bold and startling pronouncement. Suarez saved his loyalty by the concession that the people having bestowed the supreme power on His Majesty’s ancestors ages ago, their posterity could not now resume it, but it must descend, like an heirloom, from the king to the king’s son for all time. This concession was not everywhere borne in mind by posterity. Indeed it would appear a restriction on the development of a State for the distribution of authority to be thus fixed forever. In England at any rate the restriction has been broken through, and the king is not what he was in Stuart times, nor the Parliament either.

THEORIES.—There have been two great outbreaks against excess of royal prerogative; one in England, in the middle of the seventeenth century; another in France, at the end of the eighteenth. Each of these two periods was marked by the appearance of a great political writer, Thomas Hobbes in England, Jean Jacques Rousseau in France. Hobbes was a philosopher, Rousseau a rhetorician. Whoever knows Hobbes well can have little to learn from Rousseau. Hobbes is rigidly logical; such inconsistencies as appear in him come from a certain timidity in speaking out, and a humility that approaches nigh to hypocrisy. Rousseau always speaks boldly, makes no pretense to orthodoxy, and frequently contradicts himself. His brilliant style won him the ear of Europe; he popularized Hobbes. To the philosopher, Rousseau is contemptible, but Hobbes is an antagonist worthy of any man’s steel. The best that can be said of Rousseau in philosophy is that he drew out of Hobbes’s principles conclusions which Hobbes was afraid to formulate. Hobbes made of the king a despot; Rousseau showed that, on Hobbesian principles, a king is no better than the people’s bailiff, unless indeed, by military force or otherwise, he can prevent the people from assembling and decreeing his deposition. Hobbes starts, and Rousseau after him, by contradicting Aristotle. According to Aristotle, man is “by nature a State-making animal”; the individual man, if he is to thrive at all, develops into the family man, and the family man into the citizen; and wherever there is a city, or a nation, there must be self-government, or, in other words, civil authority, whether vested in one or in many. Authority is the very breath of man’s nostrils, as he is a progressive being. Isolation and anarchy are fatal to human progress. Effort, without which man cannot thrive, though it be an effort, and not an initial endowment passively received, Aristotle calls “natural”. The State-making effort is “natural” to man; so is authority “natural”, and, as such, of God, adds Thomas Aquinas. But Hobbes took “natural” in quite another sense. That he held to be “natural” which man is, antecedently to all effort and arrangement on his part to make himself better. Further, his philosophy was tinged with the Calvinism of his day, and he took it that man is of himself “desperately wicked “What was natural, then, was bad, bad on the whole. Reason being an original endowment of man, Hobbes allowed reason to be natural. He allowed also, with Plato, that wickedness is irrational, by which concession Hobbism is marked off from a celebrated theory stated at the beginning of the second book of Plato’s Republic, to which theory in other respects it bears a strong resemblance; the theory being that right by nature is the interest of the stronger, and only by convention becomes the interest of the State.

This allowing of wickedness to be against reason is a weak point in the logic of Hobbes. But Hobbes would have it that reason is by nature utterly unable to contend with wickedness, that it is overborne by, and made subservient to, passion, and so is degraded into cunning, man becoming more wicked by his possession of reason. Of himself, in his “state of nature”, Hobbesian man is a savage, solitary, sensual, and selfish. When two human beings meet, the natural impulse of each is to lord it over the other. By force, if he is strong, by stratagem, if he is weak, every man seeks to kill or enslave every other man that he meets. Man‘s life in this state of nature, says Hobbes, is “nasty, brutish, and short.” So it would be, in an English fen, and in most other places. But Rousseau’s imagination carried him to the Pacific Isles; he became enamored of “the noble savage”. He fell in with Hobbes’s notion of the “natural”, as being what man is and has antecedently to all human effort. But the “citizen of Geneva”, as he called himself, was curiously free from Calvinistic bias, and believed enthusiastically in the primitive, unmade, natural goodness of man. In Hobbes’s view, though not in Rousseau’s, man had every reason for getting out of his “nasty” state of nature. This was done by a pact, or convention, of everyman with all the rest of mankind, to give up solitude with its charms, its independence, and its liberty of preying upon neighbors, and to live in society, the social body thus formed having all the rights of the individuals contributing to form it. This compact of man with man to quit solitude and live in society, to abandon nature and submit to convention, was called by Rousseau, “The Social Contract“. The body formed by it, commonly called the State, Hobbes termed “The Leviathan”, upon the text of Job, xli, 24, “there is no power upon earth that can be compared with him… ”

To Hobbes and to Rousseau the State is omnipotent, containing in its one self absolutely all the rights of the citizens who compose it. The wielder of this tremendous power is the General Will, measured against which the will of the individual citizen is not only powerless, but absolutely nonexistent. The individual gave up his will when he made the Social Contract. “No rights against, the State”, is a fundamental principle with Hobbes and Rousseau. To live in the State at all means compliance with every decree of the General Will. But there is a difficulty in locating this General Will. Hobbes, with laudable perspicacity, seeing that tyranny is better wielded by one man than by a multitude, contemplates the multitude resigning all their power into the hands of a Single Person, and denying themselves the right of meeting without his calling them together; so that, by the simple expedient of never calling them together, the Single Person may incapacitate the people from ever resuming the power which is only theirs when they are all assembled. The General Will in that case is the will of the Single Person. Hobbes’s location of the General Will is not lacking in clearness. But Rousseau would have the sovereign authority to be the inalienable right of the multitude—hence called the “Sovereign People”. They may, if they will, employ a king, or even an emperor; but his majesty, in Rousseau’s phrase, is “Prince” not “Sovereign”, and at stated times, without his calling them together, the Sovereign People must meet and decide, first, whether they will continue to support a throne at all; secondly, whether the throne shall further be filled by the present occupant. Rousseau’s location is also clear, so long as it is understood that the General Will is simply the will of the numerical majority of the Sovereign People. Such a General Will is ascertained by the simple process of counting heads. If in a State of 20,000 citizens, 15,000 vote aye, aye is the General Will, not the will of the majority only, but of the whole 20,000 together; for though 5,000 persons detest the proposal, such detestation lies only in the individual will, sometimes called the “casual will”, and the individual will has ceased to exist by the Compact. Personally they detest the measure, but with their “Real Will” they approve it. Thus, as Rousseau says, they remain as free as the wild man in the woods, obey none but themselves, and follow their own will everywhere.

But a cankerworm lies at the root of this, as of all ultra-democratic doctrines. All originate in a manifestly false supposition, that one man is as good as another. In any sane polity, the predominant Intelligence must guide the counsels of the State, not the predominant Will, which may be no better than caprice. But intelligence is not necessarily attached to majorities. Rousseau himself falters in presence of this awkward truth, and restates the General Will, as the will which the people have of good in general, albeit in a particular case they are mistaken in what they take to be good. Thus they will one thing, and vote for another. The Real Will in this case is not to be gathered from the actual vote of the majority. The Real Will is of that which the majority would have voted for, had they known better. Rousseau’s theory contemplates “a people of gods”, so he assures us. Such a people would scarce require any government. The ideal, sylvan creatures whom his imagination brings together to form the Social Contract, if not all very intelligent, may be supposed to be all good listeners to intelligent teaching, and thus Intelligence will govern the majority, and the vote of the majority will be an ideally Real Will. Government is an easy matter on such optimistic presuppositions. The eye, however, glances back upon Hobbes’s ruffian primeval, “brutish and nasty”. Hobbes’s view of human nature must check that of Rousseau. Both views are extreme, and the truth lies between them. The democratic rule of a numerical majority is not of universal application. One has to consider the character of the people, and peoples vary. If in one age or place the people approximate to the character of “a people of gods”, or angels, in another country or another time they may be more like devils. “Force, devoid of counsel, of its own bulk comes to a crash”, says Horace (Odes, III, 4). That is the danger of the General Will. Rousseau, with Hobbes to guide him, starts from a false supposition, that the natural state of man is savage solitude, not civil society; he proceeds through the false medium of the “Social Contract“, false because society is not a thing of convention; false again, because out of all keeping with the evidence of history; and he is apt to end in the tyranny of a brute majority, trampling upon the rights and consciences of individuals; or again in anarchy, his disciples putting too literal a construction upon the promise that henceforth no man shall obey any other than himself.

The doctrines of Rousseau have not escaped the censure of the Church. Rousseau may be recognized in the following propositions, condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX: “The State is the source and origin of all rights, and its rights are unlimited” (n. 39): “Authority is nothing else than numbers, and a sum of material forces” (n. 60): “It is allowable to refuse obedience to lawful princes, and even to rebel against them” (n. 63). Leo XIII, not content with condemning, teaches positive doctrine against Rousseau, to wit: the Aristotelean and Thomist doctrine already stated. Thus the Encyclical “Immortale Dei”, of November, 1885: “Man‘s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society; for he can not, if dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his faculties. Hence it is Divinely ordained that he should be born into the society and company of men, as well domestic as civil. Only civil society can ensure perfect self-sufficiency of life an Aristotelean term]. But since no society can hold together unless there be some one over all, impelling individuals efficaciously and harmoniously to one common purpose, a ruling authority becomes a necessity for every civil commonwealth of men; and this authority, no less than society itself, is natural, and therefore has God for its author. Hence it follows that public power of itself cannot be otherwise than of God.”

In the theory of Hobbes and Rousseau, Authority is the outcome of contract, not between people and prince, but of every man with every other man to relinquish solitude and its rights, and live in civil society. Rousseau is instant in pronouncing that between people and prince there can be no contract, but the prince is a tenant at will, who may be turned out of doors, with or without reason, any day that the Sovereign People assemble to vote upon him. But there is another theory of contract, centuries elder than Hobbes, a theory greatly cherished by Locke and the English Whigs, who found in it the justification of the expulsion of James II in 1688. In this theory, the contract is said to lie between the people and their ruler; the ruler is to be obeyed so long as he fulfils certain conditions, known as “the constitution”. If he violates the constitution, he forfeits his authority and the people may cast him out. Thus ruler and subject are two “high contracting parties”. The ruler has no superiority of status, but of contract only. On this it is to be observed, first, that such a contract lies not in the nature of things, and therefore is not to be taken for granted; but evidence in each particular case should be forthcoming of the contract having been made on those terms as a fact of history. Secondly, this asserted contract labors under the inconvenience that Job declared of old: “…in judgment. There is none that may be able to reprove both, and to put his hand between both” (Job, ix, 32, 33). The contract cannot be enforced at law, for lack of a judge; in case of dispute, each party pronounces in his own favor, and they are like to fight it out. The result is civil war, as between Charles I and his Parliament. But really ruler and subjects are not two “high contracting parties”, as two nations are. The theory is prejudicial to the unity of the State, and countenances revolution. The theory was brought up to meet that delicate inquiry, “What is to be done when Government abuses its authority?” On which see “Moral Philosophy” (Stonyhurst Series), 338-343.


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