The Great Conversation:
Authortity—Part V

By Gabriel Blanchard

The authority of the scholar contains certain ironies that may not show at a glance ...

This post is Part V of a series; follow this series of links to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Just to keep ourselves up to speed, let’s review. In our first installment in this series, we discussed authority as embodied in religious institutions; from there we passed to the ideas of autonomy and the individual conscience. Parts III and IV examined state authority. This leaves us with two further types of authority to consider: the authority of the expert, and the authority of the family.

Let’s begin with the former. This is unusually well-expressed by the word authority, coming as it does from the word author; the same relation exists between the two words’ Latin ancestors, auctor and auctoritas. There has long been, and still is, a curious air of authority or legitimacy to books—perhaps it descends from the double meaning of the word spell in Old English, as it meant both a word spoken and a spell of the magical variety. In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis notes the same attitude in the medievals: “They are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctour has written is simply untrue.”

The authority of the expert involves us in certain oddities. In theory, this authority is the only one that is unambiguously “earned”: religious authority generally claims to originate with some kind of divine being or message, individual (and, as we shall see, parental) authority ostensibly comes from the inherent nature and relationships of people, and state authority is widely held to come from the consent of the state’s members. Expertise, however, comes from learning things, remembering them, and being able to analyze them intelligently. It is therefore the only one for which hard work is the prerequisite; yet at the same time, the amount of work it calls for to gain the same level of knowledge varies widely for different people—someone with an eidetic memory may only need to make a fraction of the effort invested by someone who lacks this advantage, for instance.

Moreover, though the acquisition of knowledge may be “democratic,” the possession and use of it are not so. When we say things like Everyone is entitled to an opinion, we mean either “Everyone has a legal right to be free of state-enforced punishment for their opinions,” or “Everyone has a moral right to pretend anything they like is true”; and only one of these is correct. Treating one man’s ignorance the same way as another man’s knowledge is sheer folly. 

Yet a third paradox here is that the power to discern who understands something, and whose understanding is greater than whose, is possessed only by people who have at least a rudimentary grasp of that thing themselves (e.g., you need to know how to spell to recognize good and bad spelling). This is quite an ancient paradox, appearing in the writings of Aristotle. It has a sort of inverse, too, in our day dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect: the gist of this is that the less we know about a topic, the easier it is to overestimate our knowledge of it, with the ironic result that the ignorant layman will probably speak far more confidently and absolutely than the seasoned scholar, whose familiarity with the field’s unanswered questions and long experience of correcting and updating her own knowledge will probably move her to be modest and qualified in what she says. Unluckily, because confidence is attractive, this can make discerning truth from deceit and wisdom from folly much more complicated than we would hope.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

More troublesome than either of these paradoxes, though it is related to the latter, is the problem of certification. As a cartoonist with a background in astrophysics pointed out, anybody can simply pretend to be an academic; worse, they may take advantage of genuine disagreements among experts in a field, feigning that the difference between their ignorant or dishonest claims and the scholarly consensus is merely the same kind of difference as we might find between one qualified scholar and another.* This is not so terrible when it applied to questions that have little in the way of practical consequences: not much would change about our lives if, say, the Loch Ness Monster turned out to be real. However, when brought into practical fields, like medicine or navigation or engineering, the consequences can be disastrous. The nineteenth and early twentieth century were aflush with what are sometimes called patent medicines—the sort with names like “Doctor Hardiman’s Richly Vitaminised Nerve Syrup” or “Miss Shillingbrow’s Cure-All Tonic of the Mystical Orient.” They claimed to treat everything from headache to tuberculosis, epilepsy, and paralysis! (You would think these wouldn’t be lies that could be told for money more than once, but of course you would be wrong.) The ingredients of these medicines were, sometimes, effective; but, especially in the earlier decades of the period, there were no laws requiring that all ingredients be listed, and manufacturers and advertisers freely lied by omission—if no more—about what was in their particular snake oil. Moreover, since drugs were also far less regulated at the time, it was not at all unusual for, say, an “infant soothing elixir” to contain ingredients like laudanum, which is opium dissolved in alcohol. (One begins to see where the poorly-named temperance movement was coming from!) Only a person with a pretty thorough knowledge of both chemistry and medicine, and possibly sciences like botany as well, would be in a position to guess for themselves whether a given elixir was likely to be helpful, harmful, or nothing-ful.

We thus come to the need for certification: anyone can claim to be competent in such-and-such a field, but only those who truly are can gain recognition from fellow competent people as competent. From one perspective, this merely reintroduces the expertise paradox: how am I to recognize a group of experts without being an expert myself (in which case I may not need another expert anyway)? On the other hand, daily life is full of epistemic** paradoxes like this, and it interferes with our daily business surprisingly little. How do we even know English, except by talking with other self-reported Anglophones?

In any case, it is from this need that we get things like school accreditation, college degrees, licenses to do everything from drive to practice law, and the like. The idea behind all certifications is to serve as a guarantee on the part of the certifier that the person who bears them has in fact done the work of learning that renders them expert, or at least proficient, in the subject or skill concerned. And if the expertise in question is immediately useful or widely respected, it’s common for other authorities to appeal to the certified experts in that field, like governments taking the advice of the medical establishment on whether to impose vaccines by law or merely offer them as advisable (or, indeed, do neither). But this suggests our fifth and final authoritative sphere …

Part VI to come!

*Especially in the field of medicine, this kind of pseudoscientist is known as a quack, an abbreviation of the older word quacksalver. This in turn comes from Middle Dutch, in which it meant “one who hawks salves,” i.e. a pedlar of supposed miracle cures.
**I.e., having to do with epistemology, the philosophy of how we know things (from the Greek ἐπιστήμη [epistēmē], “knowledge”).

Suggested reading:
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
– Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
– St. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
– Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
– Clarence Darrow, “Why I Am an Agnostic”
– Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning


Gabriel Blanchard has a baccalaureate from the University of Maryland, College Park in Classical Languages and Literatures. He is CLT’s editor at large, a freelance author, and an uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like a few of our other posts here at the Journal as well, from author profiles to essays from top-scoring students to analyses of pivotal individuals in literature and history. Thank you for reading, and have a happy summer!

Published on 8th June, 2023. Page image of a mosaic unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii, depicting Plato’s Academy.

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