What is Authority Made Of?

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Martin Powers


In a letter to M. Coray, Thomas Jefferson distinguished two distinct notions of political authority. The first was that of ancient Greece, which was characterized by “slavery” and the subjection of the population. Jefferson’s characterization was astute insofar as Aristotle regarded some groups as privileged to rule “by nature,” while all other hereditary groups were fit only to be ruled. The second type, referring to governments of “the present age,” rejected that standard in favor of equality and the promotion of the people’s “happiness.” Unexpectedly, the dichotomy between hereditary privilege systems and egalitarian service to the people maps onto the contrast between “feudal” and “bureaucratic” systems in late imperial Chinese theory. In other words, this insight into the nature of authority was known to theorists both in China and in the “West,” suggesting that it captures something fundamental about the nature of “authority.” This essay probes the dichotomy in two ways, theoretical and historical. In theory, “feudal” systems, east and west, seem to be informed by a substance metaphor, and so both Aristotle and his early modern followers conflated authority with social status, and imagined the latter as a hereditary, noble substance such as gold. In this model, social groups are necessarily ranked, with gold being nobler, for instance, than brass. Because authority inheres in the person as a substance, authority is personalistic. In other words, there is no clear, external standard for checking abuses of power. Classical Chinese bureaucratic theory imagined authority as a tally. In that case, an officer’s performance had to match the office’s public charge. Because the assignment of office is merit-based, tally systems tend to be more egalitarian. Moreover, they naturally provide an external standard for checking abuse, namely, the officer’s effect on the people’s “happiness.” Historically, these two paradigms clashed in England and Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when translations of Chinese texts became available. Using translingual analysis, this essay traces the transformation of authority from a substance model to a tally model in the thinking of several Enlightenment writers, culminating in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.

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How to Cite
Powers, M. (2021). What is Authority Made Of?. Journal of World Philosophies, 6(1), 73–98. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/4546
Author Biography

Martin Powers, University of Michigan

Martin Powers is Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, University of Michigan. He was formerly Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures, and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies. His first two books won the Levenson Prize for Best Book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies in 1993, and in 2006, the Yale University Press and Harvard University Press East Asian Series respectively. In 2009 he was a Fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Together with Dr. Katherine Tsiang, he co-edited Looking at Asian Art and the Blackwell Companion to Chinese Art.