Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2012

Historical Authority (Part I)

Yesterday I spoke about power dynamics in society.  In short, I contended that each of us has unique needs (though a great deal of overlap exists) and each of us has unique skills.  These two things in parallel means we will always have power over some people and be subject to the power of others.  I also differentiated between power over others, responsibility for others, and authority, which combines one and two.  We recognize some people as authority figures, noting that their power has in some way been regularized by society and constrained by the rules of society.  Now I freely admit to the existence of tyrants and dictators who seemed to have limitless power (though I also note that they have been constrained by practical limitations of administration, communication, and staffing – it’s so hard to find good minions these days).  Most authority figures, however, have been limited by the cultures in which they exist.

In the US, the police are bound by the law, which is written by legislatures, bound by the limits of the constitution, as interpreted by the courts.  There’s a great balance of powers, but we’ll get there soon enough.

In the church, priests and ministers are bound by canon law and by oaths and held accountable to ecclesiastic authorities, who in turn are accountable to scripture, God, and colleagues.  I don’t think that system works quite as well, but it is an attempt.  In the Episcopal Church we have a legislature as well, and that helps.

The point of all this is to say that societies regulate power through the construction of social roles – authority figures.  Much of the ethics of society, whether you subscribe to natural law, divine mandate, social contract, or some other theory, deals with questions of how those authority figures are limited and monitored.

Under the Roman Republic, the Senex, the old men gathered together to represent the powerful families and keep an eye on one another.  Hence, Senate.  Turned out they weren’t efficient enough at that job.  Some military leaders became too powerful to oppose, even when all the families joined together.  This lead to one overall Imperator, ruler, or emperor.  Here one person held all the power in theory, but they couldn’t get to it easily.  They had to delegate their power to bureaucrats, managers, and generals.  Those individuals had to be managed and their interests constrained what an emperor could and could not do.

In Western Europe, that much management proved too much for a single person and the empire crumbled.  The period from 500 to 1500 can be seen as one long exercise in a balance of powers.  I know it’s usually represented as a time of excess and autocracy, but the more I think about it, the less I believe this to be the case.  During the Dark Ages (say 500-800) all authorities were local and military.  What we would call gangs or mobs ruled by force, extracting tribute from those they threatened.  In exchange for tribute, they provided defense against other gangs.  Gang leadership allowed for local stability.  One major downside came from the limited time period.  When one strongman died, you would need another to replace them.  That process often involved a small war to get things settled again.  Occasionally a strong leader might have strong followers who would set up his offspring on the throne, protecting them during their minority.  More often, a leader would appoint his son or other heir as co-leader as soon as he was old enough – to insure the succession and insure it didn’t happen too soon.  Complex hierarchies were introduced to keep stability over longer periods of time.

From 800-1500 two major types of hierarchy were introduced – feudal and ecclesial.  The feudal hierarchy regularized the strong men.  It concentrated power and responsibility in the hands of families.  Primogeniture was developed – the art and science of figuring out who the next ruler would be.  It was usually the firstborn male son of the current ruler, but what if there wasn’t one?  What if he was incompetent?  Regularizing the rules aided stability.  The balance of power and responsibility became clearer.  Lords provided order, protection, and stability.  In return vassals provided food, livestock, and workers for the Lord.

At the same time, a church hierarchy was developing.  Bishops often had vassals, but they were elected by the people, appointed by a lord, or sent by another bishop.  Monks experimented with communal property and labor, often led by a prior or Abbot elected by the community.

As the middle ages proceeded, both hierarchies became more centralized, but they also balanced one another.  Both locally and internationally, secular and religious authorities fought over who had the right to exercise what power.  The Holy Roman Empire evolved in central Europe with a super Lord – the Emperor – elected by a small collection of powerful lords.  All civil authority flowed to him for much of Europe, with each level having obligations both above and below.  Likewise, the Papacy evolved in Rome as more and more bishops came under the influence and control of the Roman bishop.  I can say whether I’d rather live under a feudal bishop or a feudal lord, but I can say that the existence of both stopped either from becoming to powerful.  Vassals could, and did, revolt when their superiors failed to maintain order or departed from the standards they were expected to uphold.  The system became very stable, even for a period allowing the church to regulate that war could only be conducted on certain days of the week.

In the Renaissance, population pressures (or lack thereof) and technology led to the rise of a merchant class.  This was a new kind of power and a new kind of responsibility.  Feudal structures were personal; power flowed from Lord to vassal (and back).  Merchant power had more to do with capital and taxes based on location.  Hence territorial “States” replaced feudal fiefs and holdings.

Coming soon: Part II


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