Bend the Knee to an Unjust King

A guest post from our dedicated commenter Scoot and his colleague and interlocutor Hambone:

The virtue everyone loves to hate is obedience. Obedience is easy when it is easy, but there’s a common misconception that having a bad authority exempts us from the duty of obedience. As the late great Zippy Catholic used to say, it is a fallacy of modernity to confuse the question of which authority is just with the question of whether authority in general is just. There’s a fundamental truth hiding behind this misconception that we as fallen humans are often afraid of: That all authority comes from God. Not just good authority – all authority.

If democracy has every man as a king, then the collapse of spiritual authority that snowballed out of the Reformation has every man a Pope. This endlessly fractures the Body of Christ and allows wounds and heresies to fester and spread. “Bad” Popes, Bishops and Priests have been accounted for since the beginning, like their predecessors in the Temple of Jerusalem who did not live up to their offices. How many more such rotten priests might we expect, when every man is a priest untrammelled? The same goes then for political authority: the usurpation of the royal office by the demos is just as unjust as the usurpation of the demotic or familiar offices by the tyrant.

There are three reasons we ought to humble ourselves and bend the knee to unjust men.

1- Bend The Knee to the Office, not the Man

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.

Matthew 23:1-3

Before excoriating the Pharisees (qua men) as vipers and worse, Christ stresses that they wield valid authority in virtue of their offices. Then, to summarize, he says, “do as they say, but not as they do.” Did this submission to a hypocrite perhaps injure the pride of the common man? To see the duplicity of the man in his active disobedience to the mandates of his divine office? I’m sure it did. Is that not itself however, a source of sanctifying grace?

The important thing about the Pharisees is that they are “sitten on the chair of Moses” – and not that they, as men, stand on their own authority. They validly, legitimately, hold offices which were passed down from Moses! The presence of God incarnate did not invalidate their office. Christ himself affirms their authority! But he doesn’t praise them as men – in fact, he rebukes them. Their misdeeds as men do not violate their, authority which comes to them from God through Moses, by way of their offices.

Christ himself admonishes us through these scriptures, to obey authorities who come to us from God through Jesus, and if they do not serve as good examples as men then we ought not follow their example as men, even as we bend the knee to them and obey their lawful commands as authorities. Bending the knee to an unjust man is a twofold grace: first, in stretching our virtuous obedience to God given authority; second, as noted above – sanctifying us through humiliation under the lawful authority of an unjust man.

2- Bend the Knee as an act of Trust in God

So David and Abisai came to the people by night, and found Saul lying and sleeping in the tent, and his spear fixed in the ground at his head: and Abner and the people sleeping round about him.

And Abisai said to David: God hath shut up thy enemy this day into thy hands: now then I will run him through with my spear even to the earth at once, and there shall be no need of a second time.

And David said to Abisai: Kill him not: for who shall put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and shall be guiltless? (…) As the Lord liveth, unless the Lord shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go down to battle and perish: The Lord be merciful unto me, that I extend not my hand upon the Lord’s anointed. But now take the spear, which is at his head, and the cup of water, and let us go.

1 Samuel 26:7-11

Here we see David standing over his enemy, the unjust King Saul. Abisai praises God for delivering the enemy into their hands. Yet David chooses not to kill him. Responsibility for exacting justice for misdeeds in God’s holy office belongs to God, not to David.

Modern analysis would suggest David is a big stupid idiot, and complicit in Saul’s continued injustice, for not killing him then and there. But David knew that Saul was still anointed by God, and so was an authority to whom David owed allegiance. David could rebel against Saul’s injustices, but could not perform the final act by killing Saul. David accepted this fact, and entrusted proper justice to God.

This is what we miss, as residents of modernity: we forget that we must trust God in all things. That as we patiently bear injustice, we also trust that God is keeping score and will relieve us from injustice according to His will – not a moment sooner, not a moment later. It is a virtue to extend our trust to God in patiently bearing wrongs from our peers, subjects, and especially our authorities.

3- Bend the Knee as an act of Humility

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me!

From the desire of being esteemed … from the desire of being honored … from the desire of being praised … from the desire of being preferred to others … from the fear of being humiliated … from the fear of suffering rebukes … from the fear of being ridiculed … Deliver me, Jesus!

Excerpt from the Litany of Humility

Ultimately the problem is a question of humility. Do we think we are due some special deference from our authorities, or do we think we owe some special deference to our authorities? The most common response is that we think that they owe us some special deference – why wouldn’t we think that? Modernity trains us to expect special treatment, to think our wounded pride is worse than their unjust act – that our feelings are more important than, and trump, the majesty of their offices, that hold authoritative sway over us, willy nilly. Modernity trains us to think we are responsible for exacting justice, and not God. Modernity trains us to think we must keep the tally, and remind God what is owed to us.

Maybe we have problematic authorities because God wants to teach us these lessons. Maybe we are being humbled by God so that we can learn to trust him again, with our lives and livelihoods, that He will in the fullness of time under his Providence exact justice on the unjust authorities in our lives?

The Litany of Humility is a powerful prayer. It calls out by name each of the faults of modernity which, if left unchecked, will grow like weeds that overwhelm the garden, and which we are generally too blind to notice until things in the garden have got catastrophically out of hand. So then we, blind gardeners, start by protecting the weeds! So doing, we scorn the flowers of virtue that struggle to grow amongst them.

Obedience to what seems to us to be unjust authority is the ultimate act of humility, because it is a type of our fundamental act of obedience to God in the face of our overwhelming impulse to reject authority as such. Will we succumb to countervailing winds, are we merely fair-weather sons of Christ, are we only obedient when the times are good? Or, will we obey our governors to the limit of personal justice we can attain, even when find wanting the justice of their mandates?

AMDG

96 thoughts on “Bend the Knee to an Unjust King

  1. Wonderful post, Scoot. Ours is an age which denies human authority, sinfully substituting for it subjective feelings, “checks and balances” bureaucracy, anger, boredom, cynicism, etc etc. “We would have built and managed the household differently and better” is always the cry of the brat. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • Thank you, Wood! I am glad you enjoyed–authority is one of those challenging topics only because we over think it. We don’t like to be hurt and live in a society that makes us feel like we have control. Surrendering to the feeling that we do not in fact have control requires trust. The only trust that is never misplaced is in God, and stretching our obedience by trusting in fallible human authorities will confer plenty of graces.

    • “These authoritarian doctrines look like self-infantilization to me.”

      Thanks, Dr. Freud. So good of you and the other commenters (INCEL! Get out of your mother’s basement!) to do free psychology over the internet.

      Have you repented of taking the death-shot yet? Because that’s what you should really be worrying about, not the actual moral obligations imposed on you by authorities, that have authority whether you like it or not.

      What if we could actually talk about ideas, and not
      feelings or nonsense that came to some guy in his day-dreams?

      Vile hypocrite, look to the beam in your own eye. You whited sepulchures have rejected the Church for false doctrines, like the Pharisees adding your super special intuitions because of your lust for power, in order to not bend the knee to men who are so much more wicked and ignorant than you. Thank God you are not like those men! Vipers, you are the one’s causing the little ones to stumble when you publicly deny Christ’s Church. Where’s the millstone when you need it?

      • You are a very strange authoritarian who choses which authorities to follow and then sneers at those who chose other authorities. On what ground did you thumb your nose at the National Center for Disease Control, Mr. Follow the Leader? On what ground do you ever say anything but “Yes, Sir”?

  2. Greetings all! I’ve read here for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment. Scoot’s post has created a bit of confusion for me, and I hope he’ll clarify.

    My example is the past two years of an alleged pandemic. Authorities mandated face coverings and then jabs (“vaccine”). Many reports have come out of people experiencing adverse reactions including death from these jabs. Authorities also mandated children be jabbed in order to attend school. If one follows these mandates from authorities and then experiences either a significant adverse reaction, or worse, dies, how should the spouse or family react to this? Was this person correct in following the authorities and thus the loss of spouse or father/mother should be looked at as an opportunity provided by God to learn a lesson?

    What if a parent had some skepticism or misgivings about getting their child jabbed but decided that since it’s important to follow authorities despite the parent’s wish to disobey in this case they went ahead and had their child jabbed and then the child experiences a serious reaction. How should the parent feel? He/she did not disobey authorities and yet through the parent’s obedience he/she caused serious harm to the child. How should the parent look at his/her decision making?

    • gwen99 @ I’d say that parents were correct to obey authority at first, but also justified in growing more incredulous and disobedient as the pandemic progressed. It is very hard to judge someone who has been duped by a false teacher or a quack doctor, but I would hinge on (a) the critical capacity of the one who was duped and (b) the skill of the swindler. If I were the parent you describe, I would ask myself if I was easy to dupe because I was too lazy to read the evidence suggesting the doctor was a quack.

      Scripture makes clear that God deals much more harshly with false teachers than those who swallow false teachings, but I’d guess his judgment of dupes hinges on (a) the critical capacity of the one who was duped and (b) the skill of the swindler.

      Parents whose children were harmed because they obeyed public health officials must also decide if those officials were swindlers or simply mistaken. A good doctor can give bad advice without committing malpractice. Many people have died from unnecessary medical procedures that were recommended in good faith by authorities who were acting on the best available evidence.

    • Hi Gwen99, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree with JMSmith, who well describes the crux of the problem. It is hard to put ourselves in a position of blind ignorance when we are looking back on it. At first we are faced with competing priorities: An authority who gives us a command they are lawfully authorized to issue and which is not inherently morally repugnant. Obeying that authority is good–we presume that authorities take their duty of custodial care seriously. When we see negative consequences, the responsibility for them is on the authority whose edicts caused the harm.

      The other side of the coin is that choosing to disobey an authority also has consequences. I write in my space about how I am an accountant, and the firm I work for is in the healthcare industry. My firm required me to get the vaccine, and I was not happy about it. I tried to get an exemption and was denied, so I accepted the vaccine because disobeying the authority meant I would be out of a job. I did not appreciate that they made that requirement, but it became a condition of my employment. I had to obey or lose my job. It is for God to decide whether my employer exercised their authority with justice. If I have any ill effects as a result, now or in the future, God will weigh that against my employer, and not against me.

      To quote Zippy again, obedience to authority is voluntary. Obedience is also mandatory. We always have a choice, and sometimes the mandatory aspect is applied more forcefully than we are comfortable with.

      • I would argue in this particular example (and I did, with my employer) that in this case your employer exceeded their authority in making this a requirement and you were not bound by obedience in this respect. Obedience is conditional on legitimate authority. (N.B. legitimate authority does not boil down to “I agree with this” or “I don’t agree with this,” as Zippy would carefully point out. Too, a legitimate authority can give bad commands.) Legitimation of authority is based on not exceeding the scope of the given authority by usurping the authority of a superior.

        In the example given, my claim is then that your employer cannot (not should not, but cannot) morally bind you to such inoculation as a condition of employment. Thus, what was used was violence.

      • Thanks Rhetocrates,

        Maybe they did exceed their authority, or maybe not–they require the flu shot as a condition of employment as well, and I can’t really tell the difference between the two requirements. My employer is legitimately my authority, and even if we agree that the COVID mandate was a bad rule (poorly thought out, poorly executed, minimal effectiveness), it was still from a legitimate authority, and it wasn’t inherently morally repugnant, so it is not obvious to me that it is an act of violence. At worst, I consider it an act of incompetence? I’m sure there’s a valid argument to be made, as you successfully did, I just chose to bend the knee first and ask questions later. If the exemption was easy I would have gotten it, but it wasn’t. Oh well.

    • I would say that, regarding obedience to authority, one must first ascertain whether the person giving orders actually has authority to give those orders. Different offices have different authority attached to them. If an officer commands, or forbids, you to do [A], but his office does not confer upon him authority to command or forbid [A], then one is under no moral obligation to obey that particular order, even though one is morally obligated to obey him in those matters where he does have authority. Put another way, the jurisdiction of an office, and of those who hold it, is not unlimited. County-level officers have no authority to give orders outside the county in which they hold office; zoning-board officers have no authority to decide education policy.

      The question then becomes, do the officers in question have the authority to mandate masks and/or jabs? I am not familiar with the laws in every jurisdiction; however, my suspicion is that, for the most part, the laws establishing the offices in question do not confer such authority upon them. Therefore, even though the mandates were issued by those in office, the mandates were not within the scope of the authority attached to those offices. Consequently, disobeying the mandates would not have been disobeying authority.

  3. “Before excoriating the Pharisees (qua men) as vipers and worse, Christ stresses that they wield valid authority in virtue of their offices.”

    “By all means do whatever these hypocrites say because they have set themselves in Moses’ seat!”

    How do Catholics lack the capacity to see sarcasm in text? I mean honestly, how idiotic can someone be?

    • As Scoot and Hambone make clear in the OP, it is perfectly possible to do what the Pharisees rightly say that one should do, even as what they do contravenes what they say one should do.

      The thing that it is hard for us to understand about Omnipotence and his Providence is that *even the evil that evil men do* redounds at last to our all joint and universal salvation. All that we need do to take advantage of this fact is to ally ourselves to that salvation. How? Dunno. Just do it. Get on with it, in fear and trembling, lest you muck it up by your own foolishness.

      • If everything, even evil, “redounds…to our salvation” then my resistance to authority does the same.

      • Evil that other men do to us can be sanctifying. Evil that we do is damning. This is a basic calculus–growth in virtue will always be good, indulgence of vice will always be bad. Obedience is a virtue. QED.

      • Scoot has nailed the first order distinction at work in this process: the evil that *I* do redounds to my own damnation (unless I repent of it, do penance, and amend my life in respect to it); but the evil effects of my evil acts upon others – aye, and even upon me in the future – redound to their (and the future my) salvation. This, of course, provided that they (and the future I) respond properly to those evil effects, by, e.g., refraining from doing evil in return.

        The Book of Job is the archetype of this dynamic. Job was blameless. The evils that befell him at Satan’s hands had the ultimate effect of confirming him in his holiness and his obedience to YHWH. Likewise Noah’s suffering redounded to his exaltation. Ditto for many other heroes, in many traditions: Theseus, e.g., or Odysseus, or even Oedipus. So likewise then Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and so on.

        The bottom line is that Omnipotence uses *everything that happens* for his Providential purposes. Thus all the evil acts of the devils somehow or other serve the Providential Plan of Salvation. This, even though the logic of how they do thus serve is mysterious to us, and to them. On Omnipotence, creaturely disobedience of YHWH becomes an ontological lever by which he generates great good. So, when Lucifer opts to rule in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, all he is doing is ruining the circumstances of his own servility.

        He’s a servant of the Most High whether or not he wants to be, and whether or not he realizes it.

        So, yeah, your resistance to authority does indeed redound to salvation, albeit not perhaps to your own. If you yourself want to be saved, it behooves you to pledge yourself a loyal vassal of the Logos. And that will entail submission to authority. Then the real work begins: discerning that authority, from one moment to the next, and then taking the costly decisions that obedience thereto entails.

      • St Augustine describes God as the creator of good wills and the exploiter of evil ones Sicut naturarum bonarum optimus creator, ita voluntatum malarum justissimus ordinator” De Civ Dei XI 17.

        Hence it is said in Ps 134:6: “Whatsoever the Lord pleased He hath done, in heaven, in earth.” And the Council of Toucy (PL, CXXVI, 123) adds: “For nothing is done in heaven or on earth, except what God either graciously does Himself or permits to be done, in His justice.”

  4. Yes, the Catholic theological/philosophical patrimony is famous for its idiocy (/sarc). Sarcasm means saying one thing and meaning another. Not sure you want that to be your personal scriptural exegesis. The point is that there *is* authority and your *interpretation* or *consent* is irrelevant. Parables are famously multivocal.

  5. Another interesting point I just noticed is if you ignore the chapter division and go back to the last 3 verses of chapter 22, we find a contrast of seats. There Jesus questions the Pharisees about how Christ is said to sit at the LORD’s right hand till his enemies are put under his feet. And then in chapter 23 we find the Pharisees have set themselves in Moses’ seat. Its a clear contrast of God putting Christ on a seat at his right hand vs the Pharisees without any authority taking to themselves Moses’ seat. Its similar to what is said in Hebrews that the Levitical priests did not just take that honor to themselves but were chosen by God—-that is absolutely not true of the Pharisees who were usurping the authority of the Levitical priesthood which was primarily Sadducean.

    Jesus says that the Pharisees shut the door of the kingdom to others (vs. 13) and are blind guides who if you follow them you will fall in the ditch (vs. 16) and if you do as they say about oaths you will be breaking oaths (vs. 17-19) and those proselytes which they convert they make twice a child of hell as themselves (vs. 15). So there is no sense to the argument that you can do as the Pharisees say, because they teach destructive things.

    “As Scoot and Hambone make clear in the OP, it is perfectly possible to do what the Pharisees rightly say that one should do, even as what they do contravenes what they say one should do.”

    To do that you would have to compare what they said to the Law yourself, not trust them. And at that point you would be as good off just reading it yourself or listening to the Sadducees and comparing what they said to the Law, because it would work out the same in the end.

    “The thing that it is hard for us to understand about Omnipotence and his Providence is that *even the evil that evil men do* redounds at last to our all joint and universal salvation.”

    Not by following them though, but by avoiding them by it clearly being seen what they are.

    • You should live by the Law of the Pharisees, and not by the Life of the Pharisees. Those things are plain–it is not un us to evaluate the legitimacy of our authorities. They have lawfully come to the offices, it is our duty to obey them. Whether the candidate you voted for wins or not, the person who wins the election is your elected official in our democratic system, no matter what you think of them. You don’t get to choose who you are subject to unless you secede from every authority you don’t like until you are only subject to yourself. Lo and behold–anarchic individualism is the ultimate end of the easy and popular “I can ignore authorities I don’t like” line of thought.

      • Rousseau makes this point very well: “When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken” ( Du Contrat Social II 2)

      • Yes, Don Colacho/Nicolas Gomez Davila has a similar saying. Something to the effect that the True Democrat when he loses a vote must not merely confess to having lost but admit that he was wrong.

  6. And the idea that Jesus was even telling people to keep the ceremonial law even during his lifetime is false. He dismisses the kosher even in his lifetime saying what you eat does not defile you but what comes out of the heart, but you would have us believe he is anything but sarcastic in telling them to keep kosher as the Pharisees tell them to. Its absurd.

    • Half remembered scripture says something to the effect of “I came not to nullify the law but to fulfill it”–Christ is the perfection of the law, but nowhere in salvation history is the old law given by God undone—it is perfected.

      • Matthew 5:17-20

        Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

        Those who think that Jesus abolished the dietary laws misunderstand what He said in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-21; the debate in those passages is not about God’s dietary laws, but about the Pharisees’ traditions. Jesus says that the Pharisees’ traditions are not morally binding; however, at no point does He say that any part of God’s Law is not morally binding.

        One must also remember that in declaring all foods clean, Jesus is using the Leviticus 11 (and Deuteronomy 14:3-21) definition of “food”. According to those passages, the flesh of unclean animals is not food at all. In declaring all foods clean, Jesus did not declare that which is not food to be food. Likewise, one must remember that, per Leviticus 11, eating unclean things only makes one unclean for a brief time; it does not cause a permanent moral stain (it does not defile).

      • Also, we should keep kosher? I’m sorry, none of this makes sense. “Authority” does not mean “power,” it means rightfully used power. “All authority comes from God” means that the rightful use of power belongs to Him. It does not mean that He is responsible for every tinhorn dictatorship and fascist regime. They don’t come from Him because they are not authority. Egypt had power, but no authority, so Moses defied them. The money-changers had “authority” according to the Pharisees and, I guess, according to you, but Jesus defied them, whipped them, drove them away. I think He was right. How about you?

      • Zippy has a good article which is short enough that I can quote in full:

        Power is a material capacity to make this thing happen rather than that.

        Authority is a moral capacity to oblige a subject to choose this thing rather than that.

        Enforcement is a power associated with an authority, specifically to punish those who disobey authority and extract restitution from them.

        Tyranny is a false pretense of authority, frequently accompanied by enforcement of the false claim.

        A basic problem with modern people is that they don’t believe in authority: they don’t believe that other men can oblige them to do or not do particular things independent of consent to the obligation

        Source: https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/because-i-said-so-thats-why/

        Authority means you are the one who can tell subjects what to do. Power is the means by which an authority tells subjects what to do. “Rightfully used power” is a characteristic of authority, not a requirement. If your acceptance of authority is dependent on the just exercise of authority, you aren’t actually accepting authority, you are a nation of 1 entering into a temporary alliance with another body.

        God’s authority is the font from which all authority flows. God can overrule authorities downstream, but no authority downstream can overrule upstream. God told Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt. The Pharaohs authority was moot. When I say God is the source of all authority, I mean anyone with authority has received a delegation from God in order to exercise that authority–they are acting on behalf of God, essentially. The just, moderate exercise of power is important because of this delegation from God. Abuse of this power is extremely bad and will be likewise punished severely by God. We ought to pray for our authorities for this reason.

      • So you’re a Judaizing Hebrew Roots type. Go ahead and keep your kosher and see where it landa you. After all (and this is an argument I’ve literally seen Messianic Jews make) the Talmudic Rabbis are the Pharisees so if Jesus yold us to obey the Pharisees (and wasn’t juat being sarcastic) then you have to obey the Talmud. Get to studying that encyclopedia set therefore boy.

  7. This means the American Revolution was wrong, and refusing to get on the train to Auschwitz would have been wrong as well. Sorry, I call nonsense. The word authority comes packed with the proviso “just.” No one is obliged to obey unjust authority.

    • “This means the American Revolution was wrong”

      Correct.

      Obedience extends to lawful commands. One need not obey if the King tells you to kill yourself. You must obey a lawful command from a sovereign who does things you find distasteful.

      • The colonists believed that, according to tradition, Parliament had no authority over the colonies’ internal affairs (including taxation). The American Revolution started as a revolt against Parliament’s attempts to usurp the authority of the colonial legislatures, not as a revolt against the king. It only became a revolt against the king once it became clear that the king was siding with Parliament against the colonial legislatures, because the colonists believed that, in so doing, the king had overthrown the tradition from which he derived his legitimacy. Simply put, the colonists only repudiated their allegiance to the king after the king repudiated the foundation of that allegiance.

      • You are seriously saying the American Revolution should never have been fought, that it was wrong because it defied authority? And you didn’t answer the other hypothetical, but it would seem that Nazi authority (which was lawful), according to you, was as legitimate as any. If you are saying either of those things, we’re done here.

      • You are seriously saying the American Revolution should never have been fought, that it was wrong because it defied authority?

        Is it really that inconceivable that one might answer ‘yes’ to both questions? (I would).

      • I will follow Jesus’s example when he challenged the (“legitimate”) authority of the money-changers by whipping them and driving them out of the Temple. A fairly clear message, that.

      • You did, when you said we should bow to authority. Authority is made of laws, and when these are unjust they are not laws at all, meaning the authority is not authority at all.

      • Authority comes from God, laws come from Authority, law does not make authority. Law can codify it, but law does not make authority. That is a fallacy of classical liberalism.

      • None of you are addressing the difference between power and authority. Yes, authority comes from God. But that does not mean that anyone in power has authority. Many people feign authority who do not have it because they use power to express things contrary to God’s commands. God commands us to be free to love Him and love our neighbors and tell the truth. You would applaud the naked Emperor as if he were clothed — a lie and an offense to God — if the Emperor had power he called “authority.” No. Power that poses as authority (“You must call trans women ‘women’!) must be defied and, if possible, destroyed.

  8. “An unjust law is no law at all.” — St. Augustine. Ditto unjust authority. If in using the word “authority” you fail to distinguish just from unjust authority, you are not talking about authority at all, but only about power.

    • But Socrates says in the Crito “Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name which you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: “Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you about? are you going by an [50b] act of yours to overturn us — the laws and the whole state, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?” What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be carried out; [50c] and we might reply, “Yes; but the state has injured us and given an unjust sentence.” Suppose I say that?

      Crito. Very good, Socrates.

      Socrates. “And was that our agreement with you?” the law would say; “or were you to abide by the sentence of the state?”

      • Plato at his worst. Crito, free of Plato, might have rejoined, “Agreement? What agreement?” I’ll take Aristotle, who was right twice as often as his teacher, who fled Athens when Alexander died so that the “State might not sin twice against philosophy.” He knew the difference between authority and power.

        I had no idea before reading this post that Moses was wrong to defy Egyptian authority. Or that Christians were wrong to defy the authority of the Soviet state and continue to worship. The poster’s mistake turns on the concept behind the word “authority,” which he takes to mean “power.” They are different words because they label different concepts. Slavery in the U.S. was made possible by those in power over the slaves. When the North saw this as unjust authority it went to war and usurped that power, instilling the just authority of freedom in its stead. To the poster, slavery was legitimate authority, then the North violated the ethic of “bending the knee” and overthrew those in power, becoming the new legitimate authority, even though it represented the opposite of the old legitimate authority. This makes no sense unless by “authority” you mean “those in power,” which is an absurdity.

      • “When the North saw this as unjust authority it went to war and usurped that power…”

        To conquer is to give laws. In the same way, the armies of Napoléon gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation. That has no bearing on the internal workings of a state.

        I do not read Plato as arguing for anything more than passive obedience, or non-resistance. While refusing to offer sacrifice to the Emperor, St. Mauritius, the unconquered martyr and leader of the Theban legion had this in mind when, as St. Eucharius reports, he answered the emperor in these words: “We are your soldiers, Emperor, but also servants of God, and this we confess freely . . . and now this final necessity of life has not driven us into rebellion: I see, we are armed and we do not resist…”

        Socrates would have approved.

        Even if the supreme power were in the hands of madmen, usurpers, murderers, or politicians, we would not, even if passively obedient, be powerless. Subjects, including subordinate magistrates, can render it impossible for immoral people to be in power by simply refusing to carry out orders that would force people to violate the laws of nature – “A revolution of folded arms,” as Proudhon called it.

    • Yet St. Augustine didn’t say “an unjust authority is no authority at all”. Because there’s no such thing as a civil authority that’s unjust without qualification. No society can exist without government, therefore any government that exists uncontested is by definition a lawful one. Even if many of the things it does are unjust.

  9. There’s a big difference between obeying a hypocrite (someone telling you to do good things that he himself does not do) and obeying someone telling you to do evil.

    • I agree–that is not the subject of the OP. Obey an unjust man who issues lawful commands. The man being a hypocrite does not negate or abrogate his authority to issue commands.

      • You have, and it is starting to make sense now. The following concerns your situation and not what gwen99 described, which JM Smith has addressed well in his comment.

        You will probably neither like nor accept what I say about what you have revealed. Nevertheless, I hope my words will at least get you to consider the spiritual implications of your choices and the personal responsibility you appear to be denying.

        “An authority who gives us a command they are lawfully authorized to issue and which is not inherently morally repugnant. Obeying that authority is good–we presume that authorities take their duty of custodial care seriously. When we see negative consequences, the responsibility for them is on the authority whose edicts caused the harm.”

        The “safe and effective” emergency-use product your employer mandated was unsupported by the necessary clinical trials, evidence, data, etc. This immediately raises questions about their duty of custodial care. What is not debatable is the inherent moral repugnance of their actions, which relied heavily on coercion and manipulation.

        “My firm required me to get the vaccine, and I was not happy about it. I tried to get an exemption and was denied.”

        OK. So your employer held a metaphorical gun to your head when they pressured you with job loss for non-compliance. You discerned that the vaccine mandate was unjust/morally repugnant, that it was not in the interest of the common good or your good, that your employer had overstepped its “lawful” authority and its custodial care duties, that it was using coercive and manipulative tactics against you in its effort to force you to do something you did not want to do or saw any need to do. This explains why you sought an exemption. Unfortunately, that exemption was denied.

        “. . . so I accepted the vaccine because disobeying the authority meant I would be out of a job. I did not appreciate that they made that requirement, but it became a condition of my employment. I had to obey or lose my job.”

        You chose to give in to save your job. You could have chosen to leave your job but decided not to. Fine. I could go on about where you chose to place your trust in and obedience to God. I could mention how choosing job loss may have demonstrated greater trust in God and His Divine Providence. I could also suggest that your initial rejection of the mandate may have been the voice of God within you, speaking to you via discernment.

        Have you considered that it may have been better to listen to and obey this internal voice rather than surrender to external authority? That listening to this voice may have resulted in true obedience to God, and that God may have extended his Providence to you had you made that choice? That choosing job loss may have been a choice for a minor but still significant form of martyrdom? A way of proving your faith in God? Whatever. You chose to keep your job. Fine.

        “It is for God to decide whether my employer exercised their authority with justice. If I have any ill effects as a result, now or in the future, God will weigh that against my employer, and not against me.”

        I’m afraid that’s not how things work. What you have done here is alleviate yourself of all personal responsibility for your decision. As noted earlier, you discerned the mandate was wrong, you did your best to avoid it by seeking an exemption. When the exemption was denied, you willingly gave in to save your job. God will weigh this against your employer, but He will also weigh this against you – until you repent!

        Why? Because you discerned injustice (I’ll call it evil) and then made a noble effort to avoid cooperating with it. When this failed, you chose to comply with evil to save your job. Like it or not, you need to repent that choice. You cannot write off the evil as non-evil. You cannot wholly pass off the responsibility onto your employer. You cannot claim virtue. Nor can you extract yourself from the part you played in the decision.

        You can, however, repent the decision and ask for God’s forgiveness, which He will readily grant you provided that you acknowledge your weakness and wrongdoing. But if you continue to maintain your “it wasn’t my choice; it’s not my responsibility” mentality, God *will* hold it against you. Moreover, if you regard your obedience to evil as a virtue, God will *certainly hold it against you*.

        And this isn’t only about potential health effects. When you gave into the mandate, you helped increase the demonic pressure and its inherent coercion and manipulation, thereby expanding evil. There is nothing virtuous in this at all.

        My overall point? Evil can force us to do repugnant things against our will. It can force us to commit the most horrible of sins on pain of death, but committing horrible sins on pain of death does not release us of responsibility.

        It is not enough to say we had nothing to do with it – that we were only following orders – that we would have been executed if we hadn’t complied. And under such circumstances, we most certainly are not at liberty to claim that we have done the right thing! We must repent the sins we commit, even when the sins are literally forced upon us by unjust/evil authorities.

        My current status as an “Enemy of Christianity” pretty much guarantees that everything I have noted here will be challenged and/or dismissed by pointing to Romans 13:1-2 or some other part of the Bible or Tradition. That’s to be expected. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope you will personally consider the points I have raised before they are ultimately buried beneath an avalanche of “quas” and “excursus” in the comment thread.

      • Francis Berger,

        You discerned that the vaccine mandate was unjust/morally repugnant, that it was not in the interest of the common good or your good, that your employer had overstepped its “lawful” authority and its custodial care duties

        You suppose incorrectly here. My concern was with the use of fetal tissue in the development of the vaccine. I tried to get an exemption because while my bishop said the vaccines were OK I felt it necessary to make some effort to get an exemption. When it didn’t work (my priest didn’t give me the letter I required), I had nothing stopping me from obeying my bishop and obeying my employer.

        I will add also that after an exempted employee died from COVID, my employer reviewed all exemptions again with a more strict bar to ensure safety. So even if I got through the first time, I might not have gotten through the second.

        I don’t believe the act was evil, so I did not comply with evil. The entire predicate of your argument–at least in my specific case–is invalid. As I said upthread, my employer mandates the flu vaccine as a condition of employment, and I really can’t explain why that is different.

      • Francis Berger,

        You write about the moral repugnance of the authorities’ actions vis-a-vis the vaccine, of which there have no doubt been many, but there is nothing in itself intrinsically immoral about mandating a vaccine. Neither is there anything intrinsically immoral about coercion, but you seem to write as if there is.

        Also, why would the mandate suddenly make receiving the vaccine a sin?

      • Just out of curiousity, is the morality of a mandate affected when the secular authorities promulgating the mandate go out of their way to say sketchy and infantile things like the following?

        https://www.yahoo.com/now/york-gov-hochul-tells-christian-221200535.html “Yes, I know you’re vaccinated. You’re the smart ones, but you know, there are people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants. You know this. You know who they are. I need you to be my apostles. I need you to go out and talk about it and say, ‘We owe this to each other. We love each other,'” she continued. “Jesus taught us to love one another. And how do you show that love, but to care about each other enough to say, ‘Please get vaccinated because I love you. I want you to live.'”

        https://twitter.com/TPostMillennial/status/1567179233855770633 “I really believe this is why God gave us two arms. One for the flu shot and the other one for the COVID shot.”

        My point being. In ‘normal’ eras, pro-social law-abiding Christians are of course preferable to anti-social Christians. This is not a normal era, and in this case the mandates are not even normal vaccine mandates; they are specifically intended to mock and humiliate Christians in particular (“If you don’t get the vaccine you don’t love Jesus!”), and anyone who likes the truth in general (“We know everything there is to know about the new version because we’ve tested it on an entire eight mice!”). Anyone who doesn’t sense that intent, of course, may be excused by their ignorance. Anyone who does, feels obliged to treat the authorities in this situation differently from an honest medical authority attempting to mandate a medical treatment honestly. (This is before we even go into a discussion about the concepts of informed consent and the right of refusal being developed by medical authorities who were serious and sincere enough to recognize that they’re not omniscient enough about cause-and-effect to assume the moral culpability of imposing even a well-intentioned treatment over a patient’s objections.)

        Otherwise, the consequences of submitting to a policy meant to humiliate you are, well, that you will be humiliated. Repeatedly, for as long as you continue to submit. True Christians are not strangers to humiliation, but they generally do not feel obliged to pretend that the authorities doing the humiliation have their best interests at heart or could plausibly conceivably have their best interests maybe I’m just too foolish to understand it the HR people do command “assume good intent” etc.

  10. Democracy does not have every man a king and Protestantism does not have every man a pope. Democracy welds a mass of men into a collective Leviathan before which each individual man is a powerless nullity. Protestantism is an umbrella term, but the vast majority of Christians who we call protestants are organized into churches that have creeds, bishops, church disciplines, and established standards of biblical exegesis. An unchurched individual Christian falls under the umbrella of Protestantism, but we can hardly liken him to a pope since he does not claim authority over any spiritual children.

    The essence of the position you are arguing against is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was very logical and not an anarchist, so we may suppose that his dictum does not entail a recommendation of anarchy. It does however entail a recommendation of decentralized spiritual and temporal power. In Catholic thought this is called subsidiarity. Authority is legitimate power, so Acton’s dictum would also seem to entail decentralized legitimacy. What I mean is that the decentralized spiritual and temporal powers are, as it were, deputized (legitimized) by God, and not by a king or pope who says he is God’s deputy.

    The doctrine that power corrupts seems to me exceedingly strong, not only on the basis of historical and personal evidence, but because the Fall of Adam was occasioned by Eve’s lust for power. The solution to the problem of power is not anarchy because Hobbes was right that anarchy is a war of every man against every man. The solution, or rather compromise, is decentralization of power and legitimacy, which together make authority. Decentralized legitimacy means that my right to the portion of power that I have is God-given—I am deputized by God, so there is no man on earth who has the authority to “take away my badge.”

    I will say that I an puzzled by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:1-3, since “whatsoever they shall say to you” would seem to include the scribes and Pharisees telling the multitude to reject, crucify, and later spit on the memory of Jesus. The only solution I can see to this problem is that the multitudes should heed the scribes and Pharisees when they actually speak like men who “have sitten on the chair of Moses,” and that they should otherwise ignore the pests. On top of this we have the fact that Jesus elsewhere excoriates the Pharisees as children of the Father of Lies

    In your exegesis you slyly or carelessly change “have sitten” to “are sitten.” I suggest that Jesus places sitting in the seat of Moses in the past because power has corrupted the spiritual authority of the scribes and Pharisees. Their teachings are not altogether false, but they are adulterated and this adulteration is about to get far, far worse.

    My answer to the general question of this post is that an authority does not have to be perfect in order to wield legitimate power. My local priest may be a little too fond of drink, or a little too quick to anger, but these flaws do not invalidate his authority. But this charity towards flawed authorities is very different from the absolute legitimism you seem to be advocating here. Obedience to imperfect authorities, yes. Obedience to wicked or ignorant authorities, no.

    • ‘Whatsoever they shall say to you’ seems to have the same flavour as ‘render unto Caesar.’ There are many things even a Czar is not permitted to command of his subjects, because it is beyond his sphere of authority. There would likewise be many things people demand whilst sitting in Mose’s seat, that they cannot demand with any authority – because the seat/office itself does not possess that particular authority.

      I’m not sure how Kristor can possibly hold up his position when millennia of martyrdom rebukes him. ‘There needs be evil, but woe unto him through whom evil comes.’ Do we have a millstone laying about somewhere here in the Orthosphere?

    • “Decentralized legitimacy” seems to mean you recognize authority only when you like it, and not if it makes you unhaaaaaaaapy.

      Absolute authority is a strawman. There isn’t and never was an absolute authority. Liberalism certainly has tried to make such a thing, but it is like squaring the circle.

      ‘What I mean is that the decentralized spiritual and temporal powers are, as it were, deputized (legitimized) by God, and not by a king or pope who says he is God’s deputy.’

      That is not what Catholic subsidiarity is at all. Subsidiary authorities are neither equal to nor rivals with superior authorities because authority coinheres or it doesn’t exist. The moral law does not demand impossibilities.

      ‘Decentralized legitimacy means that my right to the portion of power that I have is God-given—I am deputized by God, so there is no man on earth who has the authority to “take away my badge.”’

      Does this not equally apply to superior authorities? No sovereign can rebuke you for abuses of your authority but you may freely relieve yourself of allegiance to him when you’re unhaaaaaaaapy? How can inferiors judge superiors but not vice versa? The obvious incoherence of liberalism does have anarchy at its center.

      Christ built the Seat of Moses, He can very well do what He pleases with it. The poor Jews could not on their own have installed anything better in its place without Him. Eve was unhaaaaaaaapy that God was her superior authority, He’s obviously ignorant and wicked.

      Yes, I know, Joseph Smith read some plates out of a hat, and now you don’t have to go to church anymore. Yippee! Maybe you can finally stop the train at your ultra special station this time. But no, the ride never ends.

      • You should set aside your childish stereotypes of those who disagree with you. I recognize authorities whose pronouncements make me unhaaaaappy, and I reject authorities whose pronouncements would make me happy.

        You are right that subsidiary authorities are not equal to superior authorities. They are independent of those authorities. The authority a farther has over his children is not delegated by the president, the king, or the pope.

        You are also right that superior authority has that authority by right, but it does not follow that anyone who says he is a superior authority is a superior authority. It is our right, indeed our duty, to ask for his bona fides before we submit to his authority. It also does not follow that he cannot forfeit that superior authority.

        The followers of Joseph Smith that I know attend their church very faithfully. Their personal discipline puts most Catholics to shame. So much for unhaaaaappy.

    • Power corrupts, but powerlessness corrupts worse (consider the absolute irresponsibility, vindictiveness, and selfishness of Victims), hence subsidiarity as a way to spread power and foster the virtues called for by acknowledged responsibility.

      Everyone agrees that we should obey wicked and ignorant authorities when their commands are consistent with the common good (you’re not allowed to start shoplifting just because the president is a bad man), and we all agree that commands that violate the natural or divine positive law should not be obeyed. The tricky thing is unwise and destructive commands that do not involve intrinsically immoral acts. If authority means anything, we generally must obey them. If I only obey orders I agree with, that’s not authority at all. I feel uncomfortable elevating this requirement to an absolute rule, as I’m sure we can all think of thought experiments where a legitimate authority commands something crazy.

      • Absurd orders from a legitimate authority are the real test of this authoritarian doctrine. What if Congress lowered the speed limit to five miles an hour? What if my bishop declared that all men in the diocese must grow beards? Authoritarians say such absurdities will never happen, and they are probably right, but reductio ad absurdum is a valid form of argument.

        You are right that weakness corrupts because it excuses irresponsibility. These authoritarian doctrines look like self-infantilization to me.

      • I reject the idea of voting, but if my Bishop told me to vote I would. If my Bishop told me to grow a beard I would too, likewise if congress lowered the speed limit to 5 miles per hour. That’s the whole point of what I’m advocating. We aren’t the determiner of what makes a legitimate law, we just have to know how to discern morally evil commands from morally good commands. Growing a beard isn’t evil.

      • “The tricky thing is unwise and destructive commands that do not involve intrinsically immoral acts.”

        Berkeley famously argued that the wisdom and power of individuals is seriously limited, and the wills of individuals are in constant conflict. So if individual wills are not “combined together, under the direction . . . of one and the same will . . . the law of the society,” a state of anarchy will prevail. In this state, “there is no politeness, no order, no peace, among men, but the world is one great heap of misery and confusion.”

        Obedience to “unwise and destructive” (but not intrinsically immoral) commands is, even as a prudential matter, more likely to be conducive to the common good (which is the object of political association) than anarchy.

        Born in 1683 in Ireland, Berkeley would have grown up among people who remembered the War of the Three Kingdoms (English Civil War) and the Glorious Revolution and was a grown man at the time of the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745, so his opinions were not purely speculative.

    • That’s a bit rich. I’m beset by cheap stereotypes while you “freedom fighters” call everyone vipers, vile hypocrites, whited sepulchures, casting about for millstones to murder us and, of course, Nazi!

      You object to authorities that are wicked and ignorant. Surely, your authorities being so makes you unhappy? You say you accept some authority that makes you unhappy, by what criterion? Hypocrite, you accept power, like everyone else. The Church is weak so you reject Her, the State is strong so you accept it.

      A father is not independent of the Sovereign. “My bible, my gun, my family and me” is fantasy land. They are interdependent, and hierarchical. Of course, a father has his authority by the fact of owning his household and siring a child, but that does not make him independent anymore than the city is independent of the county in which it exists.

      I know the mormon church by its fruits, they reject sound doctrine for what is pleasing to men’s ears.

      • You certainly seem know a lot about me. Presumably those who follow Christ should follow his example by using words like “vipers,” “hypocrites,” “whited sepulchers,” and “millstones.” And I don’t mean they should use these words simply as insults. They should use these words to understand reality.

    • I will limit my comment to this:

      The Pharisees sitting on the chair of Moses is an office they hold as pharisees and even if they behave badly it does not remove them from the office they hold. Listen to their laws, disregard their lives. The word change you highlight was not sly so I can only assume careless transcription, the error was not intentional. Now that I think about it, I don’t think it changes the meaning–I have sat at the office, I am not currently sitting at the office, that doesn’t make me no longer an employee. Only those appointed to the office manifested by the chair of moses may sit on the chair of moses, so it is important to note that they have taken up the office. It is theirs permanently, like the priesthood, or Fatherhood–you don’t vacate the office by being bad at it.

      What is the difference to your mind between imperfect and wicked authorities? I am advocating for obedience to lawful commands by legitimate authorities. Your local priest was installed by the bishop, ordained by the bishop, and can issue lawful commands (do penance, do works of mercy, etc). If he is evil (lets say, enriching himself from the poor box) but tells you to pray three our fathers as penance in the confessional, you aren’t relieved from your obligation to do that penance. You still have to do them–he still is a priest. God will judge him, it is not for you to decide whether he retains enough legitimacy to assign you penance.

      This belief simplifies the world, because it stops us from deciding who we need to listen to, and allows us to just begin listening.

      • Your last sentence encapsulates the problem with this belief–it simplifies a world (actually a moral life) that is not simple. “Just following orders” is superlatively obedient, but obedience is very far from being the primary virtue. If obedience comes into conflict with charity, for instance, charity wins hands down. Casuistry has gotten a bad name, but moral life is nothing but overcoming moral dilemmas where two duties conflict and cannot be both satisfied. You may try to fold faith, hope and charity into obedience, but when you do this they become obedience and stop being faith, hope and charity.

        My distinction between imperfect and wicked (and between inconvenient and absurd) is an attempt to soften your extreme anti-Donatism. Let me give an example. The head priest in my parish was for many years a man with very pronounced homosexual mannerisms. I don’t know that he acted on the homosexual desires that he almost certainly had, and I did not investigate or inquire. Chances are that he was imperfect, but so am I, and he had many other very fine qualities. I could obey his authority. But if he had been openly living with another man and had routinely defended sodomy from the pulpit, he would have gone to far.

    • While sitting in Moses’s seat, one was only allowed to read from the Torah. So doing what the Pharisees say while sitting in Moses’s seat simply means to obey God’s Law revealed in the Torah; it does not mean that the people were to obey absolutely everything the Pharisees said.

      • Which of course makes the Pharisees redundant once the people know how to read, and thus can set in Moses seat themselves.

    • “The solution, or rather compromise, is decentralization of power and legitimacy, which together make authority.”

      But sovereignty means there must be some person, or body of persons, who can make and unmake any law whatsoever. This is the norm or criterion from which all other laws derive their validity.

      Quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem: utpote cum lege regia, quae de imperio eius lata est, populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestatem conferat. – “What has been pleasing to the ruler has the force of law; inasmuch as by the Lex Regia relating to his sovereignty, the People transfers to him and into his hands, all its own right and power.” (Dig. 1.4.1. pr. Ulpianus 1 inst.)

      • Outside of caesaropapism, a sovereign is not sovereign of everything. As an American, I live under two temporal governments, bout of which are sovereign in their own sphere

      • “As an American, I live under two temporal governments, bout of which are sovereign in their own sphere.”

        That is to say, the “sovereign” consists of a number of distinct groups of people. The supreme power (Sovereignty) resides with those who can amend or replace the Constitution (Both Houses of Congress, plus the legislatures of the several states.)

        In the UK, the “sovereign” consists of Queen, Lords and Commons. Thus, when we say the Queen is “over all persons and in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as temporal, throughout her dominions supreme,” we mean “The Queen in Parliament,” or “Parliament” for short; Parliament being the body that can make or unmake any law whatsoever (and no other person, or body of persons, can make any law without the authority of Parliament). That is why we have no written constitution – It can be written on a postcard.

        In the Republic of Ireland, the people are sovereign and can alter the basic law by a referendum; the government being their appointee or agent.

      • Lord Acton’s dictum needs to be seriously qualified for it to be true. Power in itself is not corrupting. Power is good.

        A comment I left on one of Kristor’s posts a while back:

        Absolute power belongs only to God, Who is of course perfectly incorrupt and incorruptible.

        As a general rule intended only to apply to fallen mortals, I’m not so sure how true it is either: men become more powerful when they become husbands and fathers, yet we don’t typically think of this as a corrupting influence, but rather as an ennobling one and something that as a general rule imbues them with a greater sense of responsibility. When men do become corrupted in fatherhood, we recognize this as an aberration. So likewise with many other positions of power, such as clergy or noble or monarch. The saying probably gets its force from the fact that liberalism hides accountability behind a web of procedures, bureaucracy, and formal qualifications in order to avoid the perception that personal authority is being exercised and to bolster the illusion of neutrality. In this way power becomes alienated from accountability and responsibility.

        If the aphorism were modified to be: power creates the capacity for corruption, and greater power creates the capacity for greater corruption, then I might agree with it, but then, that’s not nearly so pithy. Or perhaps: power with lack of responsibility corrupts; power with absolute lack of responsibility corrupts absolutely.

        Of course, I’m also partial to Donald Regan’s quip: “Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat.”

      • Thanks for enlarging. I think the word “absolute” is the key to Acton’s quote, and that you lay your finger on this when you say “lack of responsibility.” My answer is that lack of responsibility is inherent in power because a powerful man doesn’t have to answer his critics. I would qualify Acton’s quote with the dictum that “powerlessness also corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.” Here again it is a matter of irresponsibility.

  11. At the same time when dealing with unjust Authority. It behooves us to dance around the persecutions of Saul and living in the margins until God deposed the unjust Authority:

  12. In reality David was a brigand seeking to ovwrthrow Saul and Samuel was helping him. All the atories of David having it in his power to kill Saul but not doing it are made up later to turn the brigand into a saint. If Samuel could have areanged for David to get close enough to Saul to kill him then they would indeed have done it. David was for a long time in league with the Philistines againat Saul anyway and Saul was killed by the Philistines or committed suicide when they were about to capture him, so it is likely David had arranged this by telling the Phimistines where Saul was.

    That Samuel was more politician than prophet is clear from his absurd reaction to Saul keeping Agag and some sheep alive to sacrifice at Gilgal rather than killing them all in Moab. Samuel had only commanded Saul to kill all the Moabites and their sheep—not to do so in the borders of Moab. So bringing some sheep and the king into Israel’s borders to kill them in a big celwbration was NOT actually a violation of the command. But Samuel proclaims that it is and then priclaims the kingship will be given to someone else because of this violation. LOL! Then Samuel takes the glory by offering Agag as a human sacrifice ar Gilgal himself! So not only is Samuel more politician than prophet but even as prophet he is a pagan who does human sacrifice and his follower Saul was a pagan in his same religion. Samuel was probably a prophet of Baal that the Jews have whirewashed actually. So these stories have no authority over Christians.

      • Another point I have discovered in thinking on this:

        This guy is over the top but under his cynicism about scripture there is a point that inerrantists should nonetheless learn, i.e: The Samuel passage is not even about oBeYiNg an unjust king. David simply was able to assasinate Saul on a few occassions but didn’t because Saul was understood to have been directly appointed by God through a prophet. Yet he did NOT obey him. David continued to be on the run from him thus not obeying a command to turn himself in. And even in David’s refusal to kill Saul this is because he was understood as directly appointed by God through a prophet (through a prophet!) and not due to some vague principal of a divine right of kings.

  13. The amount of pilpul in this post and in the comments is staggering. Absolutely nothing of consequence has been said here. The entire post is nonsense. It’s a logical moebius strip, it doesn’t go anywhere. The reason most of the responses are strawmanning is that the OP doesn’t actually say anything. At all.

    Scoot: Since Zippy Catholic is dead, may God take him into His presence, if you’re going to “quote” Zippy, PROVIDE A REFERENCE YOU MISERABLE PIECE OF EXCREMENT. You don’t get to go around “quoting” dead people to support your current nonsense without actually, you know, quoting. Someone on here should be able to explain to you how references are done. In fact, here you go: Zippy in at least one post clearly distinguished between Authority, which “is a moral capacity to oblige a subject to choose this thing rather than that,” and Tyranny, which “is a false pretense of authority, frequently accompanied by enforcement of the false claim.” These actual quotes come from Zippy’s post titled, “Because I said so, that’s why” from April 24, 2014.

    Also Scoot: Confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that God has raised Him from the dead.

    Also Scoot: Go find a girl, get married, and have some kids. Lord help you dude, I’ve seen what you’ve been spending your time on. Son, making up fantasy constitutions for fantasy nations isn’t the kind of thing actual grown men waste our time on.

    For any of the rest of you pretending that you are Catholic: go look behind your bookshelf to where your copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church fell down, because y’all clearly ain’t been reading it. Had you been reading your Catechism, you would have known that there is an entire BOLD section on “Authority” in the index, which says actual things about authority, unlike anyone here has done. Many of you seem to be looking for paragraph 2242, but do read all the entries.

    You’re all welcome for having your heads pulled out of where you’ve stuck them. I will not be checking this comment section further, because anything you need to know and any response I would need to give you IS IN THE CATECHISM.

  14. Rhetocrates, thank you for your reply.

    I agree with you, but I wanted to know if I was misunderstanding Scoot. Apparently I was not misunderstanding him.

  15. If democracy has every man as a king, then the collapse of spiritual authority that snowballed out of the Reformation has every man a Pope.

    Democracy does not have every man as a king. God made every man king of his own household; democracy denies there is such a thing as kingship. That God established every man a king of his own household is the logical implication of Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9.

    Rulers of social units larger than the family derive their authority from husbands/fathers, because it is in husbands/fathers that God (the ultimate authority) has vested penultimate authority. The only exceptions to this pattern are those larger social units which God has directly established; however, the Church is the only extant larger social unit which God has directly established. Within the Church, God established decentralized penultimate authority; the papacy is a human invention, deriving whatever authority it has from more local clergy. And pretty much every Protestant group which has ever existed has had spiritual fathers of some sort; I know of no Protestant group which has ever had “every man a Pope.”

  16. Scoot says, “We aren’t the determiner of what makes a legitimate law.” Yes, actually, in a republic, WE ARE! Do you seriously not understand this? What nationality are you? Apparently not of the USA. I guess I am too much of a Yankee to do anything but laugh at this unbelievably thin statism, which has NOTHING to do with Jesus, who visibly disobeyed the authorities when he drove out the eminently authorized money-changers. “I am in agreement with (Jefferson) who said, that government is best which governs least, and would take it one step further to say, that government is best which governs not at all.” – Thoreau. Amen.

  17. The theory of authority espoused here possesses three attractive qualities from the perspective of an abstract theory: it is clear, simple, and complete, i.e., it covers all cases. However, it does not succeed at fully capturing the nature of authority as it exists in the world. I would endorse the examples given by JMSmith and Rhetocrates, such as that authorities are limited to a particular scope outside of which they cannot command assent.

    A theory of authority that wants to capture more aspects of how authority works must weaken at least one of the other three criteria, and probably all three, i.e., it must be less clear, less simple, or cover less cases. But this is to be preferred because this fourth criterion outweighs the others. Unlike mathematical theories which can be studied in isolation, the purpose of a theory of authority is to accurately describe the world.

    The assumptions made in this theory are too strong and furthermore, they are unecessary. They are only necessary if a further assumption is made about the nature of theories of authority, i.e., the metatheory of authority. If one assumes that the metatheory is itself as simple as possible, that is, that the only admissible theories of authority are this one and its opposite (“obey no authority”), then these assumptions are necessary.

    But this is itself too strong an assumption, as is shown by the fact that there are indeed other theories of authority which do not say, “obey all authority” or “obey no authority”. For instance, those referred to by JMSmith and Rhetocrates

    I have written my comment in this way because I want to avoid mentioning all the other emotive issues that come up in this discussion. Scoot, from reading your blog I know that you are a systematic thinker and so I think you probably have a strong sense of aesthetics for the nature of theories. I would argue that in this case your preferences for what an abstract theory should look like have led you to make assumptions that are too strong and not needed.

    • Thank you NLR for your thoughtful comment. This is probably the best response I have received so far, and I am exceedingly grateful for your moderate approach and clear explanation.

      I understand you to mean by this:

      But this [“If one assumes (…) that the only admissible theories of authority are this one and its opposite”] is itself too strong an assumption, as is shown by the fact that there are indeed other theories of authority which do not say, “obey all authority” or “obey no authority”. For instance, those referred to by JMSmith and Rhetocrates

      That the existence of other theories of authority means that the theory I am proposing is neither simple nor necessary?

      I think the theory I am proposing is that the middle cases require some discernment on the part of the subject of who they should listen to and obey qua sovereign. No one asks my permission to be president, I didn’t choose my CEO, etc etc. When they rise to their office, I am subject to their office first, and the man second. A man who wears ugly christmas sweaters all year long might be offensive to my sensibilities but it doesn’t make the authority he exercises invalid. I don’t get to make that choice.

      I appreciate the argument you are making though–you are ably explaining why my theory of authority has received such a tremendous backlash, because it is too strong and it’s assumptions are not necessary. But I think it’s strength is part of what makes it a good theory–we can reduce obedience down to a binary, and not some nuanced system of discernment.

      God bless you, NLR, and thank you for your engagement.

      • Thanks for the response.

        I’ll elaborate a little more on what I meant. Your theory is simple in terms of itself; the existence of other theories means that the metatheory (the theory of theories of authority and how they relate to each other) is less simple, that is, that it contains more than two theories.

        By not necessary I mean that there are other theories which preserve authority, i.e., different initial assumptions can be made and still lead to theories which value authority.

        I wrote an earlier response but mistakenly posted it on JMSmith’s post here (https://orthosphere.wordpress.com/2022/09/04/im-with-the-disobedient-pipsqueaks-or-cheek-is-a-christian-virtue/). I’ll post part of that here because I think it touches on another important part of your theory which is, “how is it known what the authorities are?”:

        Scoot, if I understand properly, one of the principles underlying this post is that by participating in society, we thereby become bound by what that society declares authoritative. For example, by the action of taking a job, we subject ourselves to our employer’s authority for so long as we are employed by them.

        (As a side note: Is that why you advocate not voting? That by not participating in the political system you are not a part of it and hence not bound by obedience to its principles?)

        Where I would disagree with this is that I do not believe the conventions of society are sufficiently fundamental to determine authority. The conventions of society themselves depend upon other things. For example, in a medieval town, if someone is chosen as mayor, I would suppose that it would be someone whose family had lived there a long time, who was recognized as an upstanding citizen, who genuinely cared for the town and its people. While in a city in the modern US, if someone is chosen as mayor, most of the time, you won’t know them personally, they may not have any real attachment to the city or its people and certainly not in the sense that a medieval man would have.

      • Thank you NLR for this discussion!

        Re your side note: No–I advocate for not voting that I might be more fully subject to my authorities, that I may surrender fully to God the outcome of elections and remove any fear, anger, sadness, any trace of investment–in other words, that I might achieve political detachment–in liberal political outcomes.

        Scoot, if I understand properly, one of the principles underlying this post is that by participating in society, we thereby become bound by what that society declares authoritative. For example, by the action of taking a job, we subject ourselves to our employer’s authority for so long as we are employed by them.

        Let me put it this way. My status as a citizen of the USA means that I am subject to the laws of the USA, to the Sovereign of the USA (not the president, but “the people” as a collective, as you may have seen me discuss at my space). Whether I vote or not, whether I agree with the current ruling party or not, this status–citizenship qua subject and subject qua authorit–is irrevocable unless I renounce my citizenship so I am no longer a subject and no longer subject to the sovereign.

        The employment example demonstrates this. Employee:Citizenship::Employer:Sovereign. I am an employee. If I do not like the edicts of my Employer, I can renounce my employment and seek employment elsewhere. So long as I am subject to my employer, I am bound to obey their edicts, as long as they are not morally evil. Carelessly unstated here, because I have discussed it in my space but did not make explicit in this post, is that God takes primacy, the Church takes second place, civil authority follows.

        Disagreement with me on this thesis seems to be based on some combination of misunderstanding:
        Objection 1) “So if I’m ordered to commit some moral evil, I have to obey?”
        No. You are obligated to obey a man whose character and intent you may consider unjust, but whose commands are not morally evil.

        Objection 2) “My employer can’t order me to grow a beard, they don’t have authority over that. Authority has scope.”
        No. Obedience to my father, when I was a child, was unconditional. Likewise obedience to a sovereign. As long as their mandates are not morally evil, we have an obligation to obey. If my employer decides it will fire me if I do not grow a beard, I would lose my job. Whether or not their edict–which is not morally evil–is legal is a separate question.

        Objection 3) Confusion surrounding the definition of authority, power, enforcement, etc.
        I am using Zippy’s definitions which I linked to upthread.

        Objection 4) Confusion surrounding overlapping authorities and competing priorities
        We are obligated to obey God first, the Church second, civil authority third. God can override any authority below. No authority below can override any authority above. The USA cannot abrogate our commitment to the 10 commandments.

        This was largely a tangent. let me return to your comment.

        Where I would disagree with this is that I do not believe the conventions of society are sufficiently fundamental to determine authority. The conventions of society themselves depend upon other things.

        I hope my digression above has helped illustrate why this is not what I think. Conventions of society are not imbued with any special authority. Social mores serve as a predicate for law and precede it. They serve a value in society but do not determine authority. If you don’t know to whom you are subject, that is a different problem, but my whole point is that we don’t get to pick and choose the authorities to whom we are subject, neither do we get to pick and choose the edicts from those authorities which we must obey–provided they are not repugnant to God, the highest authority, to whom all other authorities are equally subject.

        I hope this is clarifying. Thank you again.

      • Scoot,

        You write:

        If I do not like the edicts of my Employer, I can renounce my employment and seek employment elsewhere. So long as I am subject to my employer, I am bound to obey their edicts, as long as they are not morally evil. …

        And:

        Obedience to my father, when I was a child, was unconditional. Likewise obedience to a sovereign. As long as their mandates are not morally evil, we have an obligation to obey. …

        I’m in general agreement with your overall thesis, but here I think you go too far: earthly authority is always limited in its scope or jurisdiction and so cannot justly compel obedience outside its proper sphere.

        Since you’re fond of quoting Zippy (who is indeed a solid authority on authority), here’s a comment he made that I think supports my point, with my emphasis added:

        My position has been that the ‘license to disobey’ – which is really an inherent limitation on the juridical authority of husband/owner/government, not a permission slip for disobedience – is very circumscribed. In my view the ‘disobedience’ is permissible (actually mandatory) when the authority attempts to create a moral obligation to do evil, that authority in general does not obtain outside of its defined spheres, but that authority to command morally good acts within the sphere of juridical authority remains intact even for the ‘tyrant’.

        To simplify a complex discussion: a legitimate authority has the capacity to create moral obligations. That’s what “authority” means. By definition he cannot create moral obligations to do something immoral. Furthermore, the notion that authority is limitless even in the sphere of commanding morally neutral acts just sets us up for the tyranny/anarchy antinomy. So all earthly authority has limits outside of which the tyrant merely pretends to create moral obligation: there is no actual moral obligation in such a case.

      • Thanks Ian, this is a fair point and well taken. The challenge I would suggest is that this runs into problems when brought into practice.

        Let me try to simplify.

        Given authority A has scope (S). They can create a moral obligation that is within scope S, a moral obligation that is outside of scope S, and an immoral obligation which is always outside of scope S.

        The immoral obligation we have already established is ok to disobey, but the moral obligation outside of scope is trickier.

        Implicit in authority is enforcement, as you well know. Authority will seek to enforce its mandates on any subject, regardless of scope. So in effect, the idea of scope is a voluntary limitation on authority, as an exercise in justice.

        One theoretically could protest against moral
        Obligations which are outside of scope S, but at the same time the fact that the authority is trying to create the obligation means there is an enforcement mechanism behind it.

        Your options, if not mere obedience, are: register a complaint while complying with the overreach of authority in accepting the moral obligation which is out of scope.

        Fight against the enforcement of the out of scope moral obligation—challenging, depending on the authority you are up against. Also, not really productive especially if the obligation is a moral (and not immoral) one. Again—immoral obligations are always out of scope and always bad to comply with.

        Renounce your union to that authority and find a different authority whose moral obligations and scope are more in alignment with what you want/expect.

        There are more challenges associated with trying to get out of complying with an out of scope moral obligation. I would suggest the best option is to attempt to correct the authorities error (register a complaint), but as subjects there is really very little we can do. The authorities must limit themselves to their appropriate scope.

        In the case of parents, their scope is indeed unlimited because their charge is the holistic care of their child. I would argue a sovereign, properly construed, has a likewise unlimited scope of the holistic care of their subjects. Employers have a limited scope unless the employment is like hiring a household staff in which case the duty is still the holistic care of ones domestic staff.

        Other kinds of authority may have more clear limitations in scope but the big ones would seem to me to be unlimited due to the nature of the relationship. The whole point of custodial care is to care for the whole person and not just the aspect of the person that is within your narrow scope.

        I hope i have explained the minute wrinkle of this argument I am exploring. Thank you for your comment and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      • Scoot,

        It’s true enough that in practice, it may be prudent more often than not to obey a command that falls outside the commanding authority’s proper sphere. But this is a question of prudence rather than of principle.

        I don’t agree though that enforcement is implicit in the concept of authority. Consider: a man who is a cripple and who is unable to enforce disciplinary measures on his young children is no less of an authority over them for that: they still have the obligation to obey. Or: King Louis XVI did not lose his authority upon being led to the guillotine simply because he had no ability to enforce it.

        [T]he idea of scope is a voluntary limitation on authority, as an exercise in justice.

        To paraphrase Zippy, I would say: Limiting one’s exercise of authority to his proper sphere is voluntary. Limiting one’s exercise of authority to his proper sphere is mandatory. For example, a state might be more powerful than the Church or the family, and so has the power to encroach upon their respective spheres: for the state not to encroach upon these spheres is therefore voluntary, since he has the ability so to encroach but has chosen not to; but it is also mandatory because it has a moral obligation not to intrude into the proper spheres of other legitimate authorities.

        In the case of parents, their scope is indeed unlimited because their charge is the holistic care of their child. I would argue a sovereign, properly construed, has a likewise unlimited scope of the holistic care of their subjects.

        Don’t these two statements conflict? A child is both a child of his father and a subject of his sovereign: for the father and the sovereign both to have unlimited scope over him would imply that there is no way rationally to adjudicate between conflicting commands between the two authorities issued to the child: it will just be a matter of power. And indeed, one can imagine scenarios where one or the other authority takes precedence over the other: for example, I would say that the state has no right to force children to attend the public schools, as this usurps the father’s proper authority (and this would be so even if the public schools were not teaching pernicious doctrines), but that the state does have the right to force young men into the military in times of emergency, even against their fathers’ wishes and even if these sons are still living under their fathers’ authority.

        Of course, where exactly the boundaries are to be drawn is not always an easy question. But that reflects the messiness of reality.

      • Ian,

        Excellent excellent points. I agree with you but something isn’t sitting right–there’s a distinction we are missing, and I am not quite sure what it is.

        I don’t agree though that enforcement is implicit in the concept of authority.

        The examples you give are good, but those aren’t exactly the situations in question, right? Louis XVI had authority but no power–he would have been right if he said “let me go, by order of the King, unhand me!” and they would have been wrong to disobey his lawful command, but they had power to enforce their will and he did not. Thus the divorce of his head from his body.

        Furthermore, the crippled father giving lawful commands to a child, the child would be demonstrating willful obedience and disobedience would be wrong, even though the father has no power to enforce his will.

        If an authority issues an out of scope command that is moral and they choose not to enforce compliance, it is OK not to obey, but it is also OK to obey. If an authority issues an out of scope command that is moral and they DO choose to enforce it, then both of those things are still true: it is OK not to obey, and it is also OK to obey. Not obeying comes with extra steps, however–a legal battle, other persecutions perhaps. You might be in the right, but just because you are right doesn’t mean a given authority will listen to a discourse on the nature of authority.

        Kind of my thesis is that it is better to obey in these situations–and, perhaps, plot your departure from the habitually out-of-scope edicts from the authority in question.

        To paraphrase Zippy, I would say: Limiting one’s exercise of authority to his proper sphere is voluntary.

        We find ourselves in perfect agreement here. The challenge is when the authorities choose not to limit themselves, we find ourselves in the situation above.

        Don’t these two statements conflict? A child is both a child of his father and a subject of his sovereign

        This is where I need to think more. You make valid arguments. Perhaps the limiting factor is a matter of scale? The sovereign does not send a child to his room when he misbehaves, but governs him as part of a multitude of persons known as subjects, the needs of which are a little more abstract. I don’t know.

        This needs more thought which I will probably write about in my space. Thank you for highlighting this important gap–it’s these gaps where conflicts happen, so it’s important to get right. “Messiness of reality” is absolutely right!

  18. Dear all,

    My most hearty appreciation to everyone for commenting and engaging. Thank you Kristor for agreeing to publish this essay, and my gracious hosts at the Orthosphere for allowing this controversial discussion to take place. It is clear that this conversation stirs up peoples passions, and not without reason. This is a very important topic, and a fundamental one to living in human society. We all must understand our relationship with authority.

    That was my mission–to get this theory of authority in front of the eyes of the esteemed readers of the Orthosphere, where I have seen a lot of discussion on the topic. This essay serves as a counterpoint to other theories which I have seen discussed here.

    Know that I am praying for you all, I am grateful for your engagement, and I feel blessed to be able to contribute to a community such as this one.

    I will likely post follow ups to this article and continue the discussion in my space, which many of you know how to find already and I will not compound my public failures with self promotion. If you are interested in continuing the conversation, you know where to find me!

    Thank you again, and God bless!
    -Scoot

    • “If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.” G W Hegel, “Philosophy of Right” 258

      • Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life.

        What a load of crap. Do you really need the State to tell you that you shouldn’t lie, cheat or steal?

        I think conservatives simply don’t want to think the unthinkable: that our institutions are wholly stupid and evil. They are beyond reform and lack any mechanism for self-correction. They will eventually start a nuclear war with Russia or China or both or a lab doing gain-of-function research will experience a leak of things they had no business messing with.

  19. Pingback: CCCLXV – Nothing We Have Is Ours – Times-Dispatch of Vichy Earth

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.