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Take Me to Your Leader

Authority

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 206 pp., $10.00

Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat

by Michael Walzer
Basic Books, 310 pp., $15.00

Professor Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man has been much admired; it gave us a jolt and made us think about the life of politics in a new way. Authority is a study of “the emotional bonds of modern society,” and it approaches this study through analyses of these emotional bonds in a variety of “cases.” These include the case of Helen Bowen, who has a black lover to spite her father, but in this reveals her dependence on him; the case of two employees of a modern corporation engaged in negotiation about the professional status and future of the junior of the two; and several cases arising out of the relations between accountants within a firm. There are also short accounts of the relations between the railway industrialist George Pullman and his workers in the model town he established and of attempts to establish model communities on similar principles in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts. Anthropological and historical information is used to illuminate the problems under discussion.

There are some attempts to link the discussion of private relations with questions of political authority. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is Sennett’s discussion of Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” in the Phenomenology; it is used as an account of the stages through which we may pass on our way to a critical, mature acceptance of authority. We end with Dostoevsky’s parable-story of the Grand Inquisitor, as posing the question whether we are to accept or reject “the logic of repression”; and Sennett tells us this is where he began.

It was in thinking about the ambiguity of this parable that I began to wonder how the rhythms of authority in intimate life might serve as a response to the illusions of authority and their negation in public life. Authority as a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation makes sense in intimate affairs; it does not in public. There are structural reasons for this; the rhythm of growth and decay in a life is not the rhythm of growth and decay of society. There is an unbridgeable gap—or, to put it positively, each of us can reimagine authority privately as we cannot in public. We have a principle by which to criticize society based not on abstract deduction about justice and right but on our intimate knowledge of time.

This is the clearest and most vigorous passage I can find that seems to express what Sennett wants to tell us. Even in its context, and with the rest of the book’s argument behind it, I find it difficult. I don’t understand how authority can be a process of interpretation—of course, we can go on interpreting our experiences in different ways so that in the end we come to think differently about this or that authority, though this would not be the same thing as thinking differently about authority. Again, I don’t understand the force of the “in public” of the penultimate sentence. It seems to correspond to “privately” which precedes it in the sentence, but I am not clear why we cannot say out loud, as distinct from saying it silently to ourselves, what our new imagination is. I suppose Sennett is suggesting there is some asymmetry between what is private and interpersonal and what belongs to the public life of law and politics. But what this may be isn’t brought out.

I think the book begins badly and leaves us in a confusion from which we don’t emerge. Sennett knows that giving an account of such concepts as emotion and authority is traditionally a philosophical task, and he begins by citing venerable names. Unfortunately, what he has to tell us about Aristotle and Descartes on the emotions doesn’t just stray from the received view: it is wrong. “Change occurs in what we feel, Aristotle wrote, because jealousy, anger, and compassion are the results of sensations reflected upon.” No reference is given to justify this account. (There are no references in Authority. There are many quotations, some of them substantial, from ancient and modern writers; and there is no bibligraphy, so one doesn’t know what editions are being used, where this would be important to know.) Most of Aristotle’s works contain materials on the emotions, but I can find nothing in the Poetics, or the Politics, or the Rhetoric, or the De Anima, or the Nicomachean Ethics, that would justify the account given. Something stranger follows.

Many of Aristotle’s contemporaries thought emotions were visited on men by the gods; this view reappeared in the Middle Ages, so that lust was the voice of the Devil speaking, compassion an echo of God’s love for man, and so on. Descartes wrote a treatise on emotion [I suppose Les Passions de l’Ame is intended, though again there is no reference] which revived Aristotle’s ideas, but most of his scientific contemporaries were replacing medieval superstitions with concepts of emotion as purely physiological states.

This is wild and so variously wrong that it would be absurd to go on at length about it. What Descartes writes about the passions is a long way from anything in Aristotle.* And the notion that Aristotle, on the emotions or anything else, needed to be revived after the Middle Ages had closed is excessively curious. A popular thought, which could be defended, is that Europe needed to be freed from the Master’s authority and that in this venture Descartes had a notable role.

Again, I find it hard to understand what, elsewhere, Sennett means by “emotion.” Consider the following. “Authority, fraternity, solitude, and ritual are four distinctively social emotions…. As expressions of feeling about other people, all these emotions require historical study: which people are we talking about, when, and under what circumstances?” But none of these is the name of an emotion, except, sometimes, fraternity. To reverence or to despise authority in general or an authority in particular is not to reverence or despise an emotion. Solitude is a condition that may be feared or welcomed. Rituals may be practiced perfunctorily, or with devotion, or in such a way as to be suspected only by the onlooker of being rituals. Further, authority and the rest can’t be expressions of feeling about other people. Ritual could be used to express feeling but wouldn’t thereby be an expression of it, for the same ritual could be performed without a desire to express a feeling. In solitude we may long for the company of others or be pleased by its absence. When Sennett talks about emotions as he does here I simply don’t know what is going on.

Authority” is one of a network of related concepts, all of which stand in implicative relations to one another. (Compare, in politics, sovereignty, command, rule, law. One could teach the meaning of any one of these to a student who understood the other three. To teach someone all of them would be like initiating him into a new game.) One dictionary definition of authority is “power and/or right to enforce and/or command obedience.”

Here all the difficulties come upon us. Does one who has the power to enforce obedience necessarily have the right to do so (the Germans in occupied Europe 1940-1945, or the USSR in the Baltic states)? What of legitimacy? Bishop Butler said of conscience that if it had power, as it has authority, it would rule the world. This seems intelligible and if it is, it follows that an ineffective authority may all the same be a genuine or legitimate authority. That N has power over me doesn’t as such imply that I owe him obedience; someone may have a right to the obedience of another where there is no question of the exercise of power, as, for example, an unarmed man physically feebler than others, who nevertheless has the skill and foresight needed in desperate situations (perhaps Piggy in Lord of the Flies is a sketch of such a one) and may exercise authority on such grounds. And what of the distinction between the authority of a given man and the authority of his office? In a lucid moment Lear remarks that a farmer’s dog chasing a beggar and the beggar running before it is “the great image of authority: a dog’s obey’d in office.”

Many kinds of authority are conditioned by higher authorities. Authority may spring from consent, as in the authority husbands and wives have over each other; it may spring from a natural relationship, as in the authority parents have over their children. In some cases the question of legitimacy forces itself upon us, as when in the United States the actions of public authorities are brought before the Supreme Court; and parents are commonly thought to exceed their natural authority in torturing or killing their children.

The discussion of the concept of authority could go on at book length. I do not complain that Sennett hasn’t gone into it on this scale; but it is a matter for complaint that he doesn’t seem to want to get clear about the concept. There are a few references to the problem of legitimacy, but they don’t meet the problem squarely, and once again it is hard to know just what Sennett is saying. He argues that we are accustomed to rejecting particular authorities, especially in modern society, because we feel they lack “integrity.” He adds: “Another person is not legitimate to make demands upon us; if we can come to believe that, then we have a weapon against his making us feel weak or ashamed.” This is, as well as obscure, a strange use of the language.

Sennett’s account of modern history is sometimes ill-informed. He begins his second chapter as follows:

The era of high capitalism destroyed in order to build. The growth rate of cities in the 19th Century, for example, was unprecedented, as was their sheer size. For this growth to occur, the countryside was drained of its population; villages were deserted, the land not tilled.

Once again there are no references, so we don’t know where these deserted villages and untilled fields were to be found. In England, the example par excellence of high capitalism, agriculture was still in 1870 the largest industry, and the population in the rural areas was plentiful—too plentiful, many economists believed. Agriculture was far more productive than it had been in the previous century. In Europe the persistence of peasant agriculture continued to astonish both liberal economists and Marxists. The vast population increase of the period made it possible for cities to grow, North America to gain a new population, without depopulating the countryside.

I conclude that Authority is an album or notebook in which Sennett has put down, often without much reflection, materials toward a study of the emotional bonds between parents and children, employers and workers, superiors and inferiors in industrial hierarchies, citizens and public authorities. These are rich topics, and important ones, for, as Sennett sees, we are becoming, as it were, Wycliffites in our attitude to public authorities of every kind. Just as the followers of Wycliffe thought moral fault in ecclesiastical authorities dissolved their legitimate powers, so we are inclined to think moral weakness and error—sometimes even understandable mistakes—take away the authority of a given man or group of men. The only indubitable authorities are the pure and the successful.

  1. *

    On this see Anthony Kenny’s Action, Emotion, and Will (Humanities Press, 1963), especially the first two chapters, and the articles by Kahn, Sorabji, and Fortenbaugh in Articles on Aristotle, vol. 4, edited by Barnes, Schofield, and Sorabji(St. Martin’s Press, 1979).

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