Ten years ago, I was a graduate student studying English literature. Hopefully enough time has now passed to safely confess that I had no idea what I was doing as a teacher in grad school. When undergraduates came to my office hours, we would talk for a while about books on the syllabus, or books off the syllabus, or sometimes a different subject entirely. A few came regularly. Their faces remain vivid in my mind, along with my own mild bafflement after our conversations. What do they want?, I used to wonder at the close of office hours. And do I ever supply it?
Gradually, a calling began to come into focus. I finished my PhD and spent three years teaching literature and composition at the United States Military Academy. But even then, it was still possible to become flummoxed. The last course I taught at West Point was a remedial intro class in the summer. One day our discussion centred on Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” a short story about an ill-tempered book critic named Anders who is shot in the head during a bank robbery. In the story, the omniscient narrator follows the bullet’s path through Anders’s brain as it sets off “a crackling chain of ion transports and neuro-transmissions” through synapses containing memories of important moments in his life. Debate veered from the text for a moment when a cadet wondered aloud whether so much of one’s life could actually flash before one’s eyes in the midst of a seemingly instantaneous death.
“Ma’am,” he asked, “is that really how it happens?”
For a moment I was taken aback. What surprised me wasn’t the number of faces that turned in my direction, but rather the way their expressions implied I might genuinely know the answer. My wheelhouse was paragraph cohesion, not the mechanics of shuffling off this mortal coil. So all I could do was laugh and observe that although I was the oldest person in the room, I had not yet died. We would all just have to take Wolff’s word for it.
What did they want that day? What would it look like to supply it?
Part of what they wanted was obvious. It’s the same thing people have wanted from stories for millennia: insight into the human condition. “Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom,” German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 in his essay “The Storyteller,” arguing that such wisdom is an indispensable part of every real story. But a sense of my own ignorance stayed with me. There was something else in play in that moment, and it took a different essay by another German philosopher to show me exactly what it was.
The cadets wanted to know whether things make sense: whether they ever had in the past, whether they might still. And to the extent that I was able to provide some reassurance that they do—hence their trust that I could tell them the truth about death—I had unwittingly become a figure of authority.
Authority as a concept has fallen into disrepair. Even fifty years ago, it was in bad shape. Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay “What Is Authority?” opens by claiming the real task is to understand what authority was, not is, since “authority has vanished from the modern world.” Half post-mortem, half an attempt to revive the patient on the morgue table, her essay aims to show what exactly we stand to lose with authority’s decline.
Because nature abhors a vacuum in human affairs as well as in physics, Arendt begins by revealing those concepts that have offered, in the modern world, to take authority’s place. Power, she says, can make us obey, through the threat of violence or other force. But power is not authority, for “authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed.” Persuasion, too, can alter thought and behaviour. But persuasion “presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation.” Authority arises within a hierarchical order, not an egalitarian one, and “where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance.” In the use of the word “authoritarian” to describe modern dictatorships or totalitarianism, Arendt sees a cynical functionalism: the belief that “authority is whatever makes people obey.”
These modern replacements disguise the true nature of authority, according to Arendt. Authority properly executed doesn’t make anyone do anything. The means of coercion is not external but internal—perhaps in the same way that one’s conscience compels one—and submitting to it involves no loss of freedom. Instead of threats or arguments, the person in authority offers something that is “more than advice and less than a command, an advice which one may not safely ignore.” The “authoritative character” of their guidance rests, at least in part, on the fact that it requires neither force nor persuasion to make itself heard.
Authority also rests on the fact that the authority figure is also—always, invariably—in submission to someone or something else. The dictator or tyrant submits to no one; everyone else must submit to him, and laws are of his own invention. But the bearer of true authority derives his or her authority from some external source, usually a transcendent, suprahuman one—a code not made by human hands but revealed to us, “as in the case of the law of nature or God’s commandments or the Platonic ideas.” This ultimate source of authority is always greater than whatever person or government embodies it, and where authority and power overlap, the unearthly source of authority serves as a check against earthly power. In this way, authority makes it possible to conceive of submission—whether to another’s will or immutable laws—as an action that is performed by those at all levels of a hierarchy, including the very top. It also makes it possible to see submission as an action that can be undertaken willingly, without hesitation, and without any fear that submission need compromise one’s own standing or personhood.
Such an attitude of ready, deliberate submission seems to be precisely what astonishes Jesus in his conversation with the Roman centurion in Matthew’s Gospel. The centurion asks Jesus to cure his servant, who is deathly ill. When Jesus offers to come to his home and heal the servant, the centurion demurs: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (Matthew 8:8–9; all Scriptures NRSV). At these words, Matthew tells us, Jesus “was amazed,” and he proclaims to those standing near, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). Within the hour, the servant is healed.
Though Arendt makes no mention of Matthew’s Gospel, her essay sheds some light on this remarkable exchange. It makes sense, in terms of intellectual history, that a Roman soldier should have evinced such powerful belief in authority. For it was the Romans who invented the concept.
Before the Romans, the Greeks had—as we perhaps stand to have again—only two options: coercion and equality. Coercion was used for household governance in ancient Greece, and equality in the political sphere. Wives, children, and servants could be kept in line by force; fellow citizens were to be persuaded in the agora. The limitations of these two options became painfully clear to Plato after the trial and execution of his former teacher Socrates. Both philosophers understood that persuasion alone cannot compel people en masse to be good. Truth, like conscience, can compel a person to do what is right, but not everyone is subject to this nonviolent form of “coercion through reason.” Persuasion, then, was not enough to achieve a just society, and violent coercion was too much, an unappealing and ineffective way to enforce the good.
So Plato began to look for a new model of unequal but benevolent relations. Many of the existing models he took as possible starting points will be familiar to Christians—indeed, uncannily so, since Plato was writing before the Hebrew Old Testament had been translated into Greek and well before the life of Christ. For instance, he considered the relationships “between the shepherd and his sheep, between the helmsman of a ship and his passengers, between the physician and his patient, or between the master and his slave.” Ultimately, Plato admitted that none of these made a perfect metaphor for why his imagined philosopher-king should be obeyed. He concluded, with considerable theological irony, that “no man, only a god, could relate to human beings as the shepherd relates to his sheep.”
Almost every modern vice follows the same pattern: sin and its wages are delivered with unprecedented speed and a frightening lack of room for error.
In the event, it was not Athens but Rome that invented a model of benevolent compulsion. The Romans revered their city’s legendary founding and greatly admired those who had laid the foundations. They called their ancestors the maiores—literally, “the greater ones”—and carefully passed down their wisdom from one generation to the next. In the Eternal City, Arendt writes, “religion literally meant re-ligare, to be tied back, obligated.” Here, the weight of the past leaned heavily and welcomely on the present. The citizen who could bear up well under such weight had gravitas, and the one who strengthened and augmented (from the Latin augere) the city’s cherished foundations had auctoritas.
After the fall of Rome, Constantine and Augustine helped transfer the Roman “trinity” of values—tradition, religion, and authority—to the Christian church. Thus, the resurrected Christ becomes the cornerstone, the foundation on which the church builds, with tradition, religion, and authority all working together toward this end.
The Roman trinity’s endurance to this point in history is, in Arendt’s assessment, “really almost a miracle.” But with the coming of the modern world, it begins to unravel. Indeed, the history of the last five centuries serves as a backhanded testament to “the stability of the amalgamation,” for wherever one of the elements of the Roman trinity, religion or authority or tradition, was doubted or eliminated, the remaining two were no longer secure. Thus, it was Luther’s error to think that his challenge of the temporal authority of the Church and his appeal to unguided individual judgment would leave tradition and religion intact. So it was the error of Hobbes and the political theorists of the seventeenth century to hope that authority and religion could be saved without tradition. So, too, was it finally the error of the humanists to think it would be possible to remain within an unbroken tradition of Western civilization without religion and without authority.
The consequences of authority’s erosion almost to dust in the present day can hardly be overstated, if Arendt is to be believed. The loss of authority as a concept, she writes, “is tantamount to the loss of the groundwork of the world.” If we are not careful, Arendt warned almost seven decades ago, the disappearance of authority will mean nothing less than “the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.”
These were chilling words to read at the start of 2022, the third year in a row that has threatened to veer off into directions that I at least do not want to go, and that fills me with nostalgia for the predictability, the security, of what came before. Today it seems likely that within the foreseeable future the United States will find itself unable to sustain a functioning democracy, and unable to provide its youngest citizens with the opportunities for housing, safety, health, and happiness that past generations enjoyed. At the global level, an increasingly destabilized political and natural world is leaving people everywhere with fewer and fewer places “fit to live in.”
Thus, at the macro scale, Arendt’s fears about the disappearance of authority seem to have come true incontrovertibly. Inheritances that were preserved with care and love and strength and wisdom for centuries are vanishing before our eyes. For my three-year-old daughter, for all young people, I feel no small amount of anger and fear.
But at the micro scale, some internal compulsion—conscience? the Holy Spirit?—refuses to admit defeat. If authority is a concept whose lack could inspire Plato to imagine something not far off from the Christian God, and if authority in action could amaze Jesus, then we ought to let it lead us, too, into wonder today. If Roman authority has died, then a new form of genuine authority—not force, not coercion, not persuasion—is needed to take its place.
But authority can be a tough sell. In a discussion of Arendt’s essay last fall with colleagues from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, several participants remained suspicious of authority. Its overlap with other concepts that have rightfully fallen out of favour, like colonialism and racism, cast a pall. The difficulty of knowing another’s subjectivity posed a problem too: How can I be sure that my attempts to exercise authority will not be experienced by another person as force or coercion? And living as we do in a society that prizes equality, it is tempting to hope that perhaps persuasion alone can suffice from here on out.
But, to start with the last point first, it cannot. We might flatter ourselves that persuasion alone could suffice, but—aside from the fact that mistruths, half-truths, and untruths are running riot in the twenty-first-century media ecology, while truth compels seemingly fewer people than ever before—that equation leaves out a crucial population: children. Arendt notes that politics “begins precisely where education has come to an end” and that in education “we always deal with people who cannot yet be admitted to politics and equality because they are being prepared for it.” She finds it “characteristic of our own time to want to eradicate even this extremely limited and politically irrelevant form of authority,” which had previously been accepted as both a “natural necessity” (required by “the helplessness of the child”) and a “political necessity” (required for “the continuity of an established civilization which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers”).
Americans, unlike the Greeks, have no long tradition of xenophilia, of welcoming the stranger. And there is something of the old hostilities toward newcomers—with the threat they pose toward a pre-established way of life, and their pesky need for resources—in our treatment of children today.
Insofar as the erosion of authority portends a levelling between generations, it is worth noting that it is not so much children who are now being raised up as older generations who are being debased and degraded and then dragging the young down with them. Internet pornography, to give one example, now permits teenagers to develop in short order a degree of spiritual disfigurement that past generations never reached in old age. Curiosity about sex is neither unnatural nor new; what is new and unprecedented is instant, even accidental, exposure to sex in its most extreme and disordered forms. Almost every modern vice follows the same pattern: sin and its wages are delivered with unprecedented speed and a frightening lack of room for error. Bullying and parental neglect are, sadly, as old as the hills; legal access to AR-15s before one’s prefrontal cortex has finished developing is not. Marijuana lends itself to dabbling; fentanyl, to overdose. In every instance, I would argue, the primary fault lies not with wayward adolescents but with adults, too many of whom have become incontinent and unstable in their own desires and yet refuse to change, regardless of the ripple effects that strike, as always, the most vulnerable populations the hardest.
The sad truth is that authority has likely fallen out of favour not in order to liberate the young but because it asks more from older generations than most Americans today are willing to give. When Arendt writes that “authority always demands obedience,” it sounds at first like kids these days ought to listen better. But when you look at the etymology of the word “obey”—which comes from the Latin roots ob (in the direction of) and audire (to hear)—the burden clearly falls on adults. If young people today do not readily incline their ears to their elders, who can blame them? Wherever the self has become the highest end in contemporary life, authority really has disappeared, and those under the thumb of what’s replacing it are right to bridle.
The sad truth is that authority has likely fallen out of favour not in order to liberate the young but because it asks more from older generations than most Americans today are willing to give.
In Jesus’s parable in the Gospel of John, by contrast, the good shepherd calls the sheep by name, and they follow him because they know his voice. He does not abandon the sheep in times of danger, but lays down his life to protect them (John 10:1–21). The image of God as the good shepherd brings us back to the issue of subjectivity posed by my colleagues above. For another way of saying that authority demands obedience—demands assent even before the first command has been spoken, demands a kind of submission that involves no loss of freedom for the one who submits—is that authority requires trust of the weaker party and trustworthiness of the stronger one. If this trust is misplaced, if it harms or oppresses the persons and institutions it should protect, then it is no longer authority but coercion in some charismatic guise, or a form of neglect that leaves those who deserve to be protected under authority vulnerable to other coercive elements. The hired hand runs away when wolves come.
So we cannot simply dismiss authority as an antiquated concept that’s no longer needed in a progressive age, or condemn it as inherently oppressive, lest we accidentally throw young people to the wolves. American childhood today bears little resemblance to the green pastures of Psalm 23. Parents and other adults urgently need to regain a coherent understanding of their own power, and a compelling model of how to wield it benevolently. Authority—as Arendt describes it, and as Christ both encountered and manifested it—is the best model we have for a benevolent power imbalance, and it’s worth rehabilitating.
In my experience, authority operates obliquely. It doesn’t grab someone by the collar, as it were, to bark orders. It’s more like a classroom-management trick someone taught me: if one student addresses all their comments directly to you, the teacher, and not to their peers, then look intently at another student as they speak. They will be forced, for obscure psychological or biological reasons, to follow your gaze.
Authority exerts a similar gravitational pull, or at least it did on me. I can think of two people who helped steer my life—one an advisor, one a former colleague—though neither tried to. I don’t remember any particular lightbulb moment, but both of them made me want to figure out their secret and gain for myself whatever it was that they had.
Doing so involved conscious, voluntary imitation of those habits of mind and action that I admired and they exemplified: Weigh the losses and gains that will follow from any decision. Listen carefully, to criticism and everything else; hand out praise gladly and receive it humbly. Delight in great art; delight in the people around you, and be curious about them. Laugh in the face of small irritations; put your head down and get on with it; lead from the front; dominate. This last exhortation, delivered aloud and on a few dozen Post-it notes from my West Point officemate over the course of a year, might sound harsh at first. But it comes from the Latin word for “govern.” In the process of thinking about why, and how exactly, the larger-than-life wit, productivity, and good cheer of these two individuals should have caused something in my internal compass to shift, I belatedly realized that what I most had to learn to govern was not others but myself.
In truth, I was probably exposed to dozens of positive influences before I met Sir Christopher Ricks and Col. Stoney Portis. But I couldn’t always understand them right away, let alone imitate them. An upbringing marred by alcoholism and abuse left gaps in my knowledge of eudaimonia that took a long time to patch. My family’s shortcomings were serious, but not uncommon, and our small-scale chaos was offset in important ways by a more orderly society thirty years ago.
My greatest fear is that children today, even those from the happiest families, face much larger obstacles than I did, given the current chaos on a cultural and national scale. Looking back at my adolescence and early adulthood, I see little lifelines everywhere: books, teachers, music, the tremor of a pipe organ, an intelligent sermon, a pious professor—all the little things that set my metaphysical Geiger counter to crackling, as Walker Percy puts it in The Moviegoer, all the clues that set me off on the search. It would seem that fewer such lifelines are available to young persons today, though the need for them has increased.
I see my fears realized in sociological data collected by the Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans aged thirteen to twenty-five. Their 2020 report “Relational Authority: The State of Religion and Young People” is full of what the authors generously call complexity, but what I would call—with equal generosity—contradiction. More than half of the young people who said they were affiliated with a particular religious tradition also said they have “little to no trust in organized religion.” A fifth of affiliated youth said that, despite their affiliation, they are not religious; nearly a third said they don’t think it’s important to have a faith community, and exactly a third said they attend religious services once a year or less. Among unaffiliated youth, the majority say that they are at least slightly spiritual (60 percent), while significant minorities say that they are religious (38 percent), that they “try to live out their religious beliefs in their daily lives” (28 percent), and that they attend religious gatherings at least once a month (19 percent).
Authority requires trust of the weaker party and trustworthiness of the stronger one.
My interpretation of this data is that young people are searching for something that they cannot find consistently in churches or synagogues or mosques, but that they cannot avoid seeking even when they have given up on institutions. It tells me that they are in possession of compasses and motors programmed to seek the good—that is to say, souls—but that they desperately need good models to help them find it. And that’s what authority, properly functioning, can do.
The happier news from the Springtide Research Institute is that young people are receptive to those who are willing to put in the work required to build authority anew in every classroom, every church, every home. They offer a vision of “relational authority” with five dimensions—listening, transparency, integrity, care, expertise—to help priests, pastors, teachers, and other youth leaders put it into practice. If Roman authority was vested in institutions, relational authority exists only between individuals.
My sense is that in previous eras, when objective reality was less contentious, unseen principles were more readily accepted. Authority then could reside in a law or a title or a church or a university. But vast reserves of institutional authority have been squandered through misuse or outright abuse. And the days of a shared empirical reality are now gone. If empirical truths are up for debate, then non-empirical truths are basically dead on arrival for most people. But relational authority can still create a little force field, a little stay against the storm; if someone holds fast to unseen principles, their conviction can radiate outward and maybe even pull another into its orbit.
It would be foolish to pretend I have a foolproof prescription for rehabilitating authority. But if my experiences as a teacher are anything to go by, it might start with curiosity. In my first year of college teaching, it became clear that punctuation was an occult mystery to my students; somehow they had never got a firm grasp on the basics. A concise introduction to punctuation (semicolon = hold that thought!; colon = ta da!) was met with, believe it or not, excitement. Likewise, I never heard a student pooh-pooh paragraph cohesion once they understood the concept, nor say that learning about Aristotle’s golden mean was a waste of time. They seemed happy to add these things to their arsenal.
They were not, I admit, happy about the grading, at least initially. That remedial summer class, the ones who were curious about Tobias Wolff and the phenomenology of death, practically threw their hands up in the air in protest when I returned their first essays. My expectations were too high, they said; I countered that if they’d wanted me to have low expectations, then they shouldn’t have had such intelligent discussions the first week of class. The cat’s out of the bag, I said. You’re smart. And when every last one of them earned an A or a B on their final essays, they could trust that it was earned; I still have those essays if anyone is curious.
And so exercising authority in my experience requires intellectual humility, in order to find out what you don’t know about young people and meet them where they are. You must never be too busy or important to attend to the basics. It also requires a certain inflexibility, an insistence on holding the line even if it makes you look like the bad guy at first. As long as you can give a compelling reason why a particular rule is there, and you submit to the rule yourself, and you are not miserable in your submission, they’ll come around.
Holding the line, it should be noted, does not require one to produce automatons. Students’ varied personalities and perspectives are not beside the point, as I first learned when a cadet observed, during a discussion of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” that it is a very different feeling to kill an animal larger than you than it is to kill an animal smaller than you. As a hunter, he knew something about the text that I couldn’t have known, and he made me ponder the visceral reality of Orwell’s account. Teaching has shown me that the real unit of a short story is not its Platonic ideal on the page but its Aristotelian instantiation in a particular time and place, with a particular reader or group of readers. This is also true for teaching the technical elements of writing: every coherent paragraph follows the same formula, but if all goes well, you can grade a stack of essays without ever encountering the same coherent paragraph twice, in content or style. It may well be true of chemistry and other subjects too.
And perhaps that’s part of what authority is meant to do. Virtue doesn’t reside in the sky, or the cloud, or any form of abstraction; it must be passed from one person to the next. By reinforcing and augmenting the foundations of civilization, we invite the next generation to become builders too. But a lack of authority deprives them of this role, tells them that civilization is already full (or maybe empty), and thus leaves young people with two terrible choices: despair or rebellion. Depending on their individual temperament and what they encounter in authority’s absence, drug use, suicide, bullying, vandalism, and violence come to seem like plausible alternatives to building.
To bring them back into the fold will require adults who can see the potential for good in young people, and who are committed to developing it. This will mean sacrificing one’s time and temporarily divesting oneself of grown-up prerogatives, in order to ask questions and then listen to the answers, to draw children and young people into a dialogue. It usually takes the better part of an hour for something to click, in my experience, or for a misunderstanding to be smoothed over. It will also require adults who don’t flinch if young people are initially distracted or unruly or confused by attempts at mentorship. Americans today are inundated by models of immorality and amorality and inanity almost from birth, and it takes a compelling and consistent message to cut through that noise.
Thankfully, this work requires no invention, no special genius, no toil. Part of what we as a country, as a culture, have forgotten is also what Anders forgot in “Bullet in the Brain,” if you remember where this all began. As the bullet travelled through his brain,
In a world brimming with rancour, division, and death, how can we rediscover “the pleasure of giving respect”? As a mother and a teacher, I’m acutely aware that any lasting change I’ve had a hand in bringing about was—as the angel told Zechariah—“not by might, nor by power” (Zechariah 4:6), but by means of my own enthusiastic and unfeigned conviction that some books are worth reading, some rules are worth following, and that my own life has been enriched, not constricted, by the bonds that tie past generations to future ones, and by the invisible flow of authority that peaceably connects them.
The Christian in particular is called to be a comforter, “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12). Each of us has a vocation, or two or three, full of joys and challenges and constraints, all guided by unseen truths. There is really no quantifiable reason in 2022 to bother with topic sentences, or to hope in a risen but imperceptible Lord. Plenty of people seem to get along fine without them. It’s only by taking a leap of faith, and submitting to what we cannot prove in abstraction but can know in practice, that we glimpse the reality of those invisible truths. God willing, we can do so in a way that is so joyful, so full of the life that is truly life, that it awakens something in the people around us—not all of them, and not suddenly, but gradually, subtly, in the ones ready to receive the message and join us in our joy.