The Great Conversation:
Authority—Part III

By Gabriel Blanchard

"We hold these truths to be self-evident"; but are they?

Go here for Part I, or here for Part II.

In our last installment of this series, we looked briefly over various issues connected with autonomy, notably the idea of conscience. This was largely in the context of relations between individual people and some religious establishment, typically a church. However, conscience prompts the topic of the conscientious objector (whose objection is normally to warfare, occasionally to other mandates too). We have conjured at last the specter of the state.

A good number of writers from our Author Bank were conscientiously disobedient to the laws and norms of their society, and in many cases their writings first gained notice for precisely that reason: Plato, St. Athanasius, St. Catherine of Siena, John Wycliffe, John Bunyan, Voltaire, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr., to name just nine. Nevertheless, very few names on the Bank, and very few people in general, public advocate general disregard for the law. Besides its being (in substance, though not always literally) illegal, most people recognize the community in which they live as having some kind of claim upon them, and especially as having a claim upon those who violate accepted standards of behavior. Some people feel no need to examine this idea; those who do generally ascribe the authority of the law to at least one, and sometimes both, of two sources: God and man. (This related to, but distinct from, the church-and-state issue, which we shall return to momentarily.)

Most societies have some kind of myth* explaining their founding, and many such myths include a primitive lawgiver, who generally has a “halo” of some kind. Gilgamesh seems to have been the prototype in Sumerian culture; King Numa Pompilius was held to be the originator of most of Rome’s religious laws and rites; Arthur in Britain; Solon for Athens, Viracocha among the Inca, and of course, in the Judaic tradition, Moses. Of all these examples, only Solon is definitely not credited with some kind of divinely-appointed mission or message—and even he is one of the Seven Sages of Greece, seven being widely seen as a cosmic or mystical number then as now. Arthur, the next least-celestial of the bunch, has his quest of the Holy Graal. At the other extreme, Viracocha was himself a god,** a blending of roles also familiar in the Egyptian pantheon and in some forms of Hinduism.

The Empire, in the peace of the Emperor,
expected perfection; it awaited the Second Coming
of the Union, of the twy-natured single Person
                            ... and across the sea
saw coming, from the world of the Three-in-One
in a rich container, the Blood of the Deivirilis ...

In Indo-European societies (the precursors of  most European and may southern and western Asian cultures),† the distinction between religious and political authority may not have existed at all in the beginning. Archæological evidence in either direction is virtually nil, and the linguistic evidence is scanty and hard to interpret. The distinction between priests and warriors existed, certainly—but is a king more like a warrior or more like a priest? Different cultures give different answers to that question, but on the whole, priest would seem to be the usual favorite. Monarchs have an aura of the sacred about them, even in centuries-established republics like ours, and there is a lot more precedent for Charles III’s title Supreme Head of the Church in England than people sometimes suppose; in this, it is the Catholic schema that is innovative. This is partly because Roman religion was legally regulated, a common feature in many ancient societies.‡

It is also because paganism, as we now call it, is not exactly “a religion” in the first place. Innumerable beings and traditions were classified under Roman law as religio, but they were not necessarily thought of as parts of a unified whole. Most especially, paganism was not a church: it had no structure independent of the state, and priests, whose duties were ritual, were not understood to be teachers of morality or anything like that.

Christianity, thanks to ideas inherited from Judaism (though they saw quite different development in Judaic thought), considered the claims it made not only universal as distinct from ethnic or national, but also absolute, overriding all other conflicting interests. It would not be until the early fourth century that three countries would adopt Christianity as their official religion (Greater Armenia in the Caucasus Mountains was the first, soon followed by the Kingdom of Aksum in the Horn of Africa, and finally the Roman Empire, in the usual spot). The groundwork was thus laid for cooperation between state and church leadership to produce a wiser, more just, more compassionate civilization.

Unfortunately, and as we all know, we decided to throw ourselves a history instead. It is to the further progress thereof that we must turn.

Part III to come.

Suggested reading:
Æschylus, Eumenides
Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Numa Pompilius”
St. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship—To the King of Cyprus
The Augsburg Settlement
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evolution of Political Thought
C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, Arthurian Torso

*Myth in this context is the name of a literary genre, one intended to set forth certain moral and/or cosmic truths, and neither requires nor excludes historical fact—it may contain historical fact, but if so this is mere happenstance. (The story about Croesus misinterpreting the oracle that “If you make war with Persia, you will destroy a great empire” is in this sense a myth: it is not historically important to know why Croesus went to war and thus destroyed his own empire, but it is a well-told lesson to students about hubris, whether it is made up or factually correct or something in-between.)
**Gilgamesh was also reputedly divine: specifically, he was two-thirds god. How the parentage was worked out, I cannot account for.
Indo-European denotes the related languages native to nearly all of Europe, Iran, and most of the Indian subcontinent; this includes English, Latin and its Romance descendants, Greek, and many more. (The common ancestor of all these languages is proto-Indo-European.) The term Indo-European has been extended to the people and culture who spoke this vanished language; their time frame and homeland are hotly debated, but there is a loose consensus that they lived around Ukraine and southern Russia in the 3000s BC.


Gabriel Blanchard has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, and is a proud uncle to seven nephews; he has been working for CLT since 2019, and is currently the company’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you’re enjoying this series, you might like some of our other entries in the “Great Conversation” series, covering topics from the four loves to the reality of matter to the idea of quality. You can also find us on YouTube, and anywhere you get your podcasts.

Published on 25th May, 2023.

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