Respecting Authority When Authority is Not Respectable

“The guilty emperor exhausts the mandate of heaven.”

Mencius (c. 350 B.C.)

“Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”

Jesus (c. A.D. 32)

Legitimate authority is a public good that benefits everyone, and this is why everyone has a duty to respect legitimate authority.  When I say respect legitimate authority, you will quite naturally think of the duty that is laid on persons who are subject to legitimate authority.  You will quite naturally picture disrespect for authority as an unruly and insolent pupil, or a punk who taunts the cops.  Such disrespect on the part of underlings certainly weakens legitimate authority if it is not swiftly and publicly chastised; but a more destructive disrespect for authority is disrespect by the authorities themselves.

A subject shows respect for authority when he is respectful.   An authority shows respect for authority when he is respectable.  This word has unfortunately come to suggest in many minds the cramped conventionality of middle-class status seekers, but I use it here to mean the quality of being genuinely worthy of respect.  Perhaps I can best express myself by saying that an authority is respectable when he commands respect, and that he is not respectable when he is reduced to demanding respect.  A policeman who is fit and competent will normally command respect.   A policeman who is a bulbous clown will have to demanding it.  A teacher who is learned and lucid will normally command respect.  A bumbling dunderhead will either be mocked or become an officious martinet.

Destructive disrespect for authority is not, therefore, limited to the disobedience of subjects, but also takes in the abuse of authority by the authorities themselves.  When I say abuse of authority, I do not simply mean misuse of authority for personal advantage.  Abuse of authority usually involves such misuse, but the actual abuse is the abuse—the defilement, degradation and destruction—of authority itself.  When a father abuses his child, for instance, he also and more irreversibly abuses his authority as a father.  He disrespects the authority that was granted to him and consequently defiles, degrades and destroys that authority.  The body of the abused child may heal, but the authority of the abusive father is dead and gone.

In Chinese history a respectable emperor was said to enjoy the “mandate of heaven,” and so long as he enjoyed this mandate his subjects were duty bound to respect his authority.  The ancient Chinese scholar Mencius said that this “mandate of heaven” was at bottom the popular belief that the emperor was worthy of respect.  He was worthy of respect because the empire was reasonably orderly and prosperous, the religious rites were duly performed, and there was nothing unseemly or outrageous in the emperor’s personal affairs.  As the full quote from Mencius puts it,

“Heaven sees as the people see; 
Heaven hears as the people hear.
The guilty emperor exhausts the mandate of Heaven.”

In other words, the emperor destroys his own authority (“exhausts the mandate of heaven”) when he disrespects his own authority and thus makes himself unworthy of respect.  And when the people truly believe the emperor has irredeemably disgraced himself, and has by so doing lost the mandate of heaven, Heaven itself will never disagree.

Jesus told us that our religious leaders are to be respected for their fruits.  Not for their titles, not for their pedigrees, not for their vestment, not for the awesome temples in which they perform the religious rites.  We are therefore instructed, with all possible clarity, to judge a church by its members and their works, and not by its mission statement, its muniments, its monuments, or even its onetime glories from long ago.  Jesus judged everything by its tangible results, and he did not give a fig for any fig tree that had ceased to bear figs.

Jesus was himself engaged in hewing down the “corrupt tree” of Second Temple Judaism, which was replete with titles, pedigrees, vestments, and a very awesome temple, but which now yielded naught but the “evil fruit” of hypocrites and pharisees.  The high priests in the Temple demanded respect, but they did not command respect—not in the way that Jesus did when he entered their gates on an ass.  That’s why they hated and killed him.  They were sham holy men and Jesus was the real deal.  In the whited sepulchers of their souls, full of corruption and dead men’s bones, the high priests knew that they had “exhausted the mandate of heaven.”  This is why they stopped their ears and plotted a murder when Jesus spoke of throwing deadwood into the fire.

Since you are reading the Orthosphere, you are probably by nature respectful.  You understand that legitimate authority is a public good that benefits everyone, and you therefore honor your duty to respect legitimate authority.  Since you are reading the Orthosphere, you probably also sense with some degree of alarm that our intellectual, political and religious authorities are not respectable.  They seem too often to demand rather than command respect.  They seem to have lost the mandate of heaven.  They seem to know that you, and I, and Heaven know that this is so.

It is wretched for respectful men to wander in a wilderness where there is no respectable authority.  It is wretched for natural patriots to be ruled by rascals and clowns.  It is wretched when reverence is mocked by grotesque idols and hypocritical hierophants from Hell.  But this, my friends, is our lot.  Let us console, sustain, and be kind to one another.

4 thoughts on “Respecting Authority When Authority is Not Respectable

  1. I am not immediately seeing what earthly authorities in the past have been worthy of respect. And yet we have been told to respect them.

    • I think there have been fathers, priests, pastors, sheriffs, judges, and even kings that people respected. They have also respected institutions, and made large allowances for some of the officers in those institutions. I certainly have respected many people in my life, and of course disrespected one or two as well.

  2. ” For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul, Ephesians 6:12
    Kinda wondering: do I respect these authorities or do I wrestle against them?

  3. Therefore all Men ought to have leadership training. So that ruling Wisely and Justly should be as instinctive and breathing and as routine as shaving. Since every man is a potential Head of his own Family.
    Every Man needs training in this arena.

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