The Great Conversation:
Authority—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

The idea of religious authority swiftly brings us to what some people regard practically as its opposite, the question of autonomy ...

Go here for Part I.

In our last installment, we discussed religious authority. Some people believe God has spoken, or still speaks, through favored persons—mediums, mystics, prophets—or one or more appointed institutions (like the Imamate of Shia Islam, or the wonderfully titled “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” who leads the Latter-Day Saints). For such people, it is only logical to heed the voice of God and accept what this person, place, or thing says. But of course, no one simply decides one day, out of the blue, that from now on they will regard the Lubavitcher Rebbe or the Archbishop of Canterbury as an effectively divine authority. How does one choose, among the various religious schools available, which—if any—will be one’s own?

Here we come upon the intricate philosophical knot of autonomy; the Greek αὐτόνομος [autonomos] literally means “self-law,” and thus something like “independence, self-governance.” Insofar as the virtues consist in directing and (where necessary) restraining our instincts and emotions in order to behave like intelligent adults of good will, the concept of “authority over oneself” is no metaphor, but a literal truth. Courage and temperance in particular are about nothing but the control of the passions and appetites by reason.

What, then, is the appropriate relationship between the autonomous self and the claims of a religious authority? Here, it will be useful to borrow a distinction expressed by C. S. Lewis in his (sadly neglected!) book Studies in Words: one of the words he there studies with the reader is “conscience.” As he explains, the word has two senses today*: (1) the urge to do what we judge to be right, and to refrain from doing what we judge to be wrong; and (2) our judgments about what right and wrong consist in. Conscience in sense 1, he argues, is always to be obeyed—that is simply what the word means.

But conscience in sense 2 is more complex. It includes certain moral intuitions, e.g. that we should not hurt people or treat them unfairly. Yet it is not purely a matter of instinct: it is partly a matter of facts, and of evaluating the facts correctly. Suppose we see two people struggling over a valuable vase, each one accusing the other of theft. Our belief that stealing is wrong (correct though it is) and our urge not to allow theft to proceed unchallenged (healthy though it is) will not, individually or together, tell us whose property the vase rightly is. We have to use our brains to figure that out. And we can draw wrong conclusions—by warping our argument to serve a conclusion we want, or by making careless mistakes thinking things out, or even by a completely innocent lack of knowledge about some relevant fact. Yet the paradox here is, unless we take a pretty thoroughly utilitarian view of ethics, we will likely consider obedience to conscience more important than “being right.”

We mentioned in our last installment that “the Church” or “religion” in our material most often means Catholicism. Similar views are held by people of many other faiths, so it is worth glancing briefly at its doctrine of conscience. (The following selection is from §§1780 and 1782 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality …; their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally about concrete acts as yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized … by the prudent judgment of conscience. … Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience” …

I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.

It is in this light that one of the writers from our Author Bank, St. John Henry Newman, wrote that “Conscience is the aboriginal** Vicar of Christ.” It is ironic and remarkable that on this point, the Holy See and the Father of the Reformation speak with one voice: Luther closed his self-defense at the Diet of Worms in 1521 by saying, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me.”†

So on the one hand, the individual seems, in theory, to possess a secret trump card against any command from any authority, no matter how legitimate the authority or reasonable the command. Yet at the same time, genuinely following conscience will not permit us simply to do anything we want, at least not on the most common ethical theories. The Catholic Church is notorious for talking a big game about respect for people’s consciences, and then taking away with the left hand what she gave with the right. Historically, the monstrosities of inquisitors and witch-finders are the obvious examples, but even today many people argue that the Church is doing the same the by insisting that a properly formed conscience is indispensable. And that does sound terribly convenient, even if it is correct.

Now, there is an “off-ramp” here that would take us into another interlocking part of the vast topic of authority, namely the concept of hierarchy, long a key concept in Western philosophy. The shift from a primarily hierarchical outlook to a primarily egalitarian one, which mostly took place over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a fascinating subject in itself; like the twelfth-century shift about romantic love, it is one of just a handful of genuinely far-reaching changes in popular sentiment that can be discerned in the history of culture.‡ However, before we stray from the topic of autonomy, we should linger for a moment to look at the more secular and practical aspects of “authority over oneself.” Earlier notions of both the state and the church had generally focused on the common good of the members of these societies. This focus did not have to exclude “freedom” of some type, but it need not be a primary concern, either. Autonomy implies a certain kind of independence not only from the priest, but from the parent and the statesman too. Montesquieu gives an early example of this shift in Book XII of The Spirit of Law:

We ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy. The accusation of these two crimes may be vastly injurious to liberty, and productive of an infinite number of oppressions, if the legislator knows not how to set bounds to it. For as it does not aim directly at a person’s actions, but at his character, it grows dangerous in proportion to the ignorance of the people; and then a man is always in danger, because … the purest morals, and the constant practice of every duty in life, are not a sufficient security against the suspicion …

Autonomy (or under another form of expression “the consent of the governed”) became an increasingly central value as classical Liberalism developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and began to birth new philosophies in the nineteenth, some of which vied as sharply with Liberalism as it had done with the aristocracy. Self-rule as the highest ideal appears pretty fully developed in authors such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Pyotr Kropotkin, and Dorothy Day. Slavery and similar legal classes (like serfdom or indentured servitude) were obviously incompatible with this, and abolitionism flowered in tandem with Liberalism, especially following the French Revolution; despite the short lifespan of Napoleon‘s hegemony in Europe and the retrenchment of aristocratic powers after his fall, nevertheless, the bell could not be un-rung. And from here, we may pass from individual to collective …

Part III to come!

Suggested reading:
Plato, The Apologia of Socrates
The Kesamutti Sutta
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

*How the word came to have these two meanings takes up a good deal of this chapter in Lewis’s book, but unfortunately we have no space to do it justice here!
**In this context, this word has nothing to do with the “Australian Aborigines”! Most ancient or from the very beginning (ab origine in Latin) is the sense here.
†His wording is often given in the more impressive form “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” This appears to be a freely-worded translation, or even an embroidering of the account, on the part of writers and quotation-collectors; records from Worms itself show the wording included here.
‡This may sound confusing, as the public mood changes all the time. But “sentiment” here means a settled emotional attitude toward something. E.g.: we think of romantic love as something beautiful and precious, while conceding that it has much sillier and more crass aspects; twelve hundred years ago, our ancestors would doubtless have allowed that romantic love had its more positive or at least innocent aspects, but they were in general rather contemptuous of it if not disapproving.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. A Classicist by degree and a Catholic by religion, he is also a proud uncle of seven nephews and a freelance author.

If you enjoyed this piece, and are looking to hear more “Great Conversation” content on the go, check out our podcast, Anchored. If you’d like to see more from the Journal, take a look at our series of profiles on the men and women of our Author Bank, or the essays, poems, and short fiction submitted by our top students.

Published on 18th May, 2023. Page image of The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1602) by Caravaggio, based on the “Doubting Thomas” episode related in John chapter 20; author thumbnail taken from the engravings of William Blake, showing the entity Urizen, who embodies rationality, law, and repression.

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