December 23, 2006

"from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come"

We often refer to Orwell's Newspeak, which is the concept of destroying words or their meanings so that people will not be able to form certain concepts. He pictured it, in the book 1984, as the open policy of a tyranny, and we tend to imagine that it doesn't happen here and now. But in fact the destruction of language is commonly seen, and I just stumbled on an example in a very good book Charlene and I are reading.

The author is writing about the difference between authority and power. And I realized when I read it that the word authority, in its real meaning, has almost been obliterated from common discourse. (I myself, as a Catholic with a love of history, have something of a feel for the word, but would have been hard-pressed to use it as a sharp weapon. And if I do so now I will have to define it, or risk being misunderstood)

...St. Augustine long ago remarked, "If you ask me what time is, I can't tell you; if you don't ask me, then I know." Much the same thing turned out to be true regarding my own knowledge of authority. When I first took up this subject, I knew what authority was. Once, however, I started really working on it, I discovered I did not know. Furthermore, few who write on the subject bother to define the word. And, to make matters worse, many writers use "power" and "authority" interchangeably, as though they were synonymous or as though authority were a variant of power, i.e., legitimate power as opposed to illegitimate power.

Hannah Arendt is one of the few writers to raise and answer the question of what authority means. As she points out, while the Greeks had no specific word for or concept of authority, the Romans had a well-developed notion of it which was closely linked to their understanding of religion and tradition. In fact, religion, tradition and authority formed what Arendt calls the "Roman trinity".

The religious element in this trinity was the founding of Rome itself, understood not simply as a political but even more as a primordial religious event for which the gods were responsible. Authority, which is rooted in the Latin words auctoritas and augere meaning authorship and augmentation, was directly connected to and dependent upon this founding event. Since the gods had authored or instigated the creation of Rome, it was imperative that their wishes regarding its well-being be consulted at all times. Those invested with authority were thought to have the ability to augment or interpret the will of the Roman gods regarding all decisions having a bearing on the life of the city.

This authority was derivative or representational, since those in authority did not have that authority in their own right but only insofar as they represented the founding fathers who, because they had established the city in accordance with the will of the gods, were both eyewitnesses to and participants in that event and the first, therefore, to be invested by the gods with the authority to carry out their will. In the words of Arendt,
Those endowed with authority were the elders, the Senate or the patres, who had obtained it by descent and by transmission (tradition) from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come, the ancestors, whom the Romans therefore called the maiores. The authority of the living was always a derivative, depending upon the auctores imperii Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders who no longer were among the living.

The book is The Church and the Culture War, by Joyce A. Little. It is not about the actual battles of our current culture war, but about the theological and philosophical issues beneath it. (I'll have to add it to my list of great books I initially avoided because their titles mislead me. Such as Death Comes for the Archbishop or Bleak House!) I give the book five stars. Alas, it is out-of-print. It is Catholic, but would it be of interest to anyone who is trying to think clearly about the ongoing attacks on our civilization.

By the way, the word Newspeak itself is under attack by our contemporary creators of Newspeak. I once read an egregious left-wing propagandist who wrote that Newspeak is a characteristic of fascism, and gave as an example a Bush Administration statement something like, "the goal of the war is peace." This was supposedly like the Newspeak definition "war is peace." But of course it is not like that at all. The Bush statement is logically clear, and so if you don't like it you can argue against it. You can criticize it. It does not blur or confuse concepts.

Whereas using the term Newspeak in this way does blur the concept of Newspeak. In fact it tends to blur it towards meaning "any statement leftists don't like." This is similar to the way the word "hate-mongering" is used to mean "criticizing leftists." Rush Limbaugh is accused of hate-mongering not because he demands anyone be lynched or tarred-and-feathered, but because he uses argument and ridicule against his opponents....

Posted by John Weidner at December 23, 2006 1:14 PM
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