Anarchy or Order: A Study in the Sociology of Authority


THE sociological treatment of a problem is directed primarily to those tacit assumptions which pass untested from mouth to mouth and derive their sanction from tradition, until some restless sociological inquirer discovers that the problems really only begin where others see solutions. The mathematician presupposes space, time, and number; the natural scientist, the existence of a material universe subject to strictly causal laws; the theologian, the existence of God; the jurist, the institution of property, as finished undebatable data or experiences. For the sociologist, on the other hand, all these resting places of thought are transformed into just so many question marks. For us, the phenomenon of authority is a socialpsychological problem — indeed, more accurately, the central problem of group psychology.

According to Spencer, human beings of all times and climes, from the moment of forming aggregates of over a hundred persons, absolutely cannot get along without social differentiation, without hierarchical gradation, or without a system of subordination and superiority. Not merely is this an indisputable fact of comparative ethnoggraphy and of general history, but also and preëminently it is the basic phenomenon of social psychology. The psychology of the crowd, dealt with by Sighele and Le Bon, and concerned with the suggestive effect of the leader upon his followers, of the orator upon his audience, of the founder of a religious sect upon his adherents, of the great artist and the great scholar upon their respective disciples, — this crowd-psychology has its scientific backbone in the problem of authority.

By ‘authority’ we mean logically the ‘untested acceptance of another’s judgment.’ To submit to authority implies the surrender of one’s own judgment in favor of another’s. It means refraining from the expression of private judgment in view of the binding force of the judgment of persons, books, or institutions recognized by us as bearers of authority. The psychic basis of all need for authority is the belief in the superiority of those accepted by us as authorities, be they physical or hyperphysical persons, works, or institutions. When we conform our thoughts and corresponding actions to the command or counsel of authorities, either set up or consented to by us, these authorities become moving springs of our action. We subordinate in this case our own wills to that of another, be that God or King, religious revelation, or secular law. What the authorities have felt before us we have to feel after them; what they have thought we have to think; what, finally, they have willed, we have also to will. Command there, obedience here. The authorities fix the rules, norms, and laws of thought, feeling, and action. Those who submit to these authorities or their bearers are but executive organs —the administrative arm, so to speak, where the authorities represent the legislative. The authorities are organs for retarding or accelerating our wills, as the case may be. They create the values of general validity. They mint the coin, while their adherents merely put it into circulation.

Whence, then, this voluntary enslavement and self-imposed guardianship of the entire human race? Since the beginning of authentic history we know of no people among whom there has not been in effect, an above and a below, a cleavage between those who commanded and those who obeyed, those who ruled and those who served; in short, a social differentiation into classes. Can it lie a mere accident that the aboriginal state of anarchy has everywhere yielded, with advancing civilization, to externally regulated convention and law, to a more or less complicated, usually graduated, system of subordination and superiority? Why do the forms of authority differ according to conditions of climate and soil, exactly as do languages and religious beliefs, while the principle of authority appears over all the earth to be just as necessary and irresistible as it is necessary and irresistible for all languages to contain within themselves a common logic?

If the craving of human nature for authority or support were only an historical category, that is, conditioned by space and time, consequently something relative — a fortuitous result that might also have appeared as something else — then that ‘general consent’ which has among all peoples and in all times and climes produced authority would remain a sociological riddle. Examples of such authority are the subjection of children to parents (patria potestas), of pupils to teachers, of citizens to the State, of the faithful to their church, of the laymen to specialists, of common soldiers to officers, of city dwellers to the officials, of political parties to their leaders. Without a subordination of the individual to a collectivity, the societal equilibrium among personalities as sensitive and responsive as we civilized men are, would in the long run be impossible to maintain. At any rate, in the economy of the history of mankind the principle of authority plays the rôle of social regulator. In this sense I have characterized authority and anarchy as the two extremes of human association. (Sinn des Daseins, p. 240.) I have defined these concepts as follows: authority is the unifying, integrating, species-conserving principle, while anarchy is the dissolving, disintegrating, species-injuring one. On the one side, altruism; on the other, egoism; on the one side, the general interest of the race; on the other, the special interest of the individual.


The fundamental conflict of human history is the perennial opposition between the individual and the race, between personality and community. Personality resists the engulfing and leveling effects of authority, the more stubbornly and confidently as time goes on. The theme of modern history since the Renaissance, the age of Humanism and the Reformation, is the struggle for personality, for autonomy against heteronomy, for individuality against authority.

Over against the political slogan of Stahl, ‘Authority, not majority,’ there stands sharply and irreconcilably that of Fichte, — ‘Be a personality,’ — the ‘Individual’ of Stirner, and the ‘Superman ‘ of Nietzsche. In the first position, the interests of the race are asserted just as one-sidedly at the expense of the individual, as in the other the interests of the individual are placed in the foreground quite divorced from those of the race. The antitheses: authority and anarchy, communism and individualism, race interests and individual interests, are always formulated by the dogmatic adherents of the respective philosophies as an exclusive alternative: either authority or anarchy. No third possibility is presented, But a sociological treatment of the problem of authority will no more admit of the bias on the right than on the left. Where doctrinaire antagonists see only an absolute‘either . . . or,’ the sociological observer discerns a possible ‘both . . . and.’ The problem of authority involves, then, a reconciliation of opposites. Lacking all authority the human family could no more be educated and guided than it could by means of an authority that smothered and leveled down all personality. Bolshevism as a philosophy was wrecked upon the problem of authority. The place of Tzar Nicholas was taken by Lenin. At extremes the human race can never permanently come to rest, for every societal principle, carried to its logical limit, upsets the equilibrium and finally succumbs to its own anemic onesidedness. Thus the communistic historian, Hippolyte Castille, once wrote: ‘The principle of authority is a perpetual safeguard of human society.’ Robespierre was a remarkable man not on account of his gifts and virtues, but because of his sense of authority. In fact, even predatory states, like those of the Filibusters, find themselves forced to set up and obey authorities. This psychic urge to social organization, which breaks forth with elemental force even where personality is in inner revolt against whatever species of authority, proves unmistakably that the problem of authority, exactly like the problem of faith, its twin sister, concerns not historical but psychological categories. That the Bolsheviki had to substitute for the dictatorship from above one from below, is a classical example for the sociology of authority.

In his posthumous Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, Hume has shown that the religious urge of the human race represents the same kind of psychological necessity as was later asserted by Kant for the metaphysical need in human nature. Now I wish to set alongside of the religious and metaphysical needs a third fundamental attribute of original human nature with its race experiences, namely, the need for authority. Schleiermacher, Goethe, and Feuerbach have reduced religious impulse to an affective necessity; Kant has referred the metaphysical impulse to a necessity of thought. Similarly I propose to demonstrate the need of authority in original human nature as a necessity of purpose, as an economy of the will, as an expression of the law of least effort. The temporal and local elements in religion, we know, are only the creed; what is universal in all religions, that which represents their eternal aspect, is the irresistible urge of human nature to create gods for itself, to overthrow old ones only to replace them with new ones. An exact parallel is presented in the evolution of the numberless languages, dialects, and idioms in their relation to the one dominating logic. The laws of logic, which are common to all men and even to animals, rest upon just such a psychic urge as does the structure of the religious idea.

Only the forms of authority are historically necessary, but the principle of authority is psychologically necessary. The species-preserving instinct of the human race demands imperatively that authority as such be established. But what kinds of authority are to be set up or acknowledged, is conditioned by time and place. It depends on soil and climate, fauna and flora, topography and, finally, on historical factors. The forms of authority, as historical categories, are varied, exactly as are the forms of divine worship or the grammatical forms and phonetic symbols of the various languages. But the same irresistible impulse of human nature, which by psychological necessity has led to the formation of language and of religion as such, was also at work to produce from inner necessity the principle of authority as the social regulator.


In my book, Sinn des Daseins (pp. 240-271), I attempted a psycho-genetic derivation of the principle of authority, by demonstrating that fear, imitation, and insight are the three ascending forms in which the principle of authority reveals itself in history. Here I am concerned with laying bare a still deeper layer of the principle of authority by ignoring for the moment the manner in which the principle manifests itself in history, and asking: How is the problem of authority to be grasped sociologically? Why do men surrender their original freedom and unrestraint in speech and thought, in feeling and action, by subjecting themselves voluntarily in speaking, to the rules of grammar; in thinking, to the laws of logic; and in acting, either to the legal or to the moral code? The progressive restraint of the individual on the part of the collective whole, to which the individual adheres either of his own accord or under compulsion by the State, is a striking characteristic of every highly developed system of civilization. A sociological explanation is demanded for this voluntary fettering of the modern man, who has conquered for himself political and religious liberty, freedom of press and speech, by violent revolutionary convulsions after centuries of struggle, and who none the less submits without struggle in his speech, thought, feeling, and action to the innumerable dictates of grammar and logic, of use and wont, of convention and law, of etiquette and fashion, lest he be considered an outcast. If with advancing civilization men generally have left the state of anarchy in the wilderness or in the desert, only to impose upon themselves a multitude of controls in a governmentally ordered state, deep-lying motives must have been effective to account for such a surrender of original freedom for a manifold restraint of the individual within a closed system of civilization. The historical category of authority, — which has hitherto supported itself upon common sense and justified its sociological existence on the ground that all known civilized peoples have instituted and honored some sort of authority, — this must in the last instance be reduced to a psychological category, to an irresistible psychic urge, evidenced in the fact that the need for authority represents an inalienable characteristic of original human nature. We have to do, accordingly, with the psychological and, beyond that, with the biological and sociological foundation of the principle of authority.

An item in the heritage of the individual from the race is the social regulator of the authority principle, which I wish to interpret as an economy of the will. As Ernst Mach has derived all science and logic on the basis of the economy cf thought, so I should like to justify the principle of authority as a function in the economy of the will, and thereby to raise this principle to the rank of a psychological category in the same sense in which Hume has accomplished this for the religious problem. Nietzsche once said, anticipating the pragmatism of James: ‘“true” means adapted to the existence of man.’ The belief in authorities is in this sense, like every belief, an expression of the confidence with which we approach the bearer of the authority —a man, a tradition, an institution, a dogma, or a commandment. All belief in authority is inseparably bound up with the nature of belief or acceptance of the opinions or traditions of others. In the absence of confidence in those truths which the preceding generation transmits to that which succeeds it, in the form of firm convictions and irrefragable doctrines, each generation would have to start anew. But that would violate the law of parsimony in nature by a useless expenditure of energy. Where a tradition of our ancestors has been tested, or where the counsels or direct commands issued in authoritative quarters in the common interest have been found helpful, they have a claim to credibility and confidence. What has proved useful a hundred times in the past, admits the conclusion that the future will in that respect resemble the past, and thus it is understandable that Herbert Spencer, for example, saw in ancestor worship the origin of all religious feelings. Ancestor worship, veneration of the dead, of the departed souls of one’s own ancestors, and hero worship, are psychologically most intimately related. The departed souls leave us their oral commands or written testaments and contribute to mould the will of their descendants by the force of their authority. The deceased ancestors or heroes are not only the first representatives, in point of time, of the principle of authority, but also the most effective sources of authority in the present. Whoever holds sacred the memory of his fathers or of national heroes, determines his own actions preferably in accordance with the ideals to which they aspired. Authorities in this form are veritable stereotypes of the will. Ancestor worship is probably the most rigid form of authority, for the intent of the dead is a judgment from which there is no appeal. The deceased cannot be controverted. Thus are evolved, particularly in feudal stocks with great family tradition, veritable chains of social heritage which, as motives of authority, act so effectively as frequently to crush the individual personalities by the excess of familial authority.

That which the continuity of family tradition and the veneration of ancestors mean for the individual, the three Testaments mean as manifestations of the supreme authority — God — for the three monotheistic religions; that, also, constitutions and legislation mean for political organizations. All these centres of authority represent, so to speak, summaries of social-will motives. Every authority is an apparatus of inhibiting or inciting the will—a formula for abbreviated confidence. The individual is absolutely unable to carry out every one of his actions quite independently, merely out of his own voluntary decision. It is, indeed, agreeable to his love of ease — a parallel to the law of inertia in nature — instead of deliberating for himself every time and accepting, along with the choice, the pain inevitably connected with it, to act as his authorities advise or command him to act, irrespective of whether these be parental or religious, political or social authorities.


What Mach says of prejudice is valid also of authority, if we pass from intellect to will, from thinking to acting: it is a reflex movement in the realm of the will. Authorities are centres of power and summaries of will, stereotypes of action, which serve as convenient sources of judgment to those individuals who submit to the authorities in question and thus infinitely facilitate their own choosing and testing. Not every individual, placed in the exigencies of life, has in himself the capacity to choose correctly between two possibilities for his weal or woe. Without authorities, not only to think in advance for them but especially to will and to act for them in advance, human beings would, like Buridan’s ass, starve spiritually between two bundles of hay. As it is, however, man in his average daily routine refers his acts of will to the particular centres of power or motivations respected by him as authorities. He goes to church as his religious affiliation demands, to the polls, as the State or his Party requires of him, to his occupational duties according to the dictates of his professional moral code; he walks and stands, drives and rides, salutes and smiles, as use and wont, convention and etiquette, fashion and good form dictate. By far the largest part of all of man’s indifferent actions — the Stoics called these ‘adiaphora’ — take place in accordance with the requirements of the numberless centres of authority, whether it be the written law of the State or the unwritten law of social ethics and morality. And it is well thus. For these convenient stereotypes of the will relieve our will power and liberate it for truly important moral tasks, which only the individual can achieve. Authorities as reflex movements in the realm of human action save us, in perhaps ninety per cent of cases, the superfluous effort of an independent quest for motive sources and of a choice between competing motives. As in our prejudices we follow the pioneer thinking and feeling of others, so in accepting authority we follow their willing. What prejudice means in a logical sense, whether for good or ill, that also authority means in the ethical field, for good or ill, namely, a kind of antecedent will. As in prejudice one abdicates his thinking in deference to another who has prejudged for us, so in authority one abdicates his will in deference to others who have already willed in advance and thereby have shown us the way. The utility in this psychological category of authority is the enormous relief it offers to our daily acts of will. As a scientific formula saves me the effort of going through the entire process of thought which has been reduced to this formula, exactly so it is with the various centres of authority that serve as motive sources for our action — that is, they relieve our wills. What the sciences are for thinking, authorities are for action.

The forms of authority vary and disappear, but the principle of authority as psychological category endures.

Having revealed the authority principle in its useful capacity as biological function, we now have to discuss the historic bearers of this principle. The authoritarian function is biologically necessary; the bearers of this function, however, are historically determined, i.e., conditioned by climate and topography, myth, and tradition.

What the principle of self-preservation means for the individual, that also the principle of authority means for the preservation of the race. Though the individual may behave according to whim and caprice, inclination and temperament, impulse and mood, in the practical conduct of life, not so with the race. The societal principle of selfpreservation imperiously demands the setting up of rules and canons, norms and laws, which exclude individual preference. The collective whole issues public commands to which the individual has unresistingly to submit, failing which he is subject either to physical punishment or to moral ostracism. Such commanders or lawmakers, who force under their sway the individuals who voluntarily or under compulsion come under their imperatives, are known as authorities. Wherever the dominating will of preëminent personalities, such as founders of religions, lawgivers, despots, prophets, apostles, geniuses, heretics, or leaders of sects, sets up general rules of behavior which are faithfully accepted and followed, there, as we have shown, stereotypes of will are formed, which affect the particular individuals through use and habituation, in the course of centuries, with almost automatic certainty. The normal, i.e., the submissive, individual acts, as a rule, in conformity to the dictates of his family tradition, his environment, his church or State authorities. By means of the principle of authority, which represents a perpetual biological safeguard for the preservation of the human species, a certain uniformity, indeed, a beneficial identity among the activities of human groups is effected, which forms a natural counterpoise against the anarchic will of the individual.

Those functions of order which elevate man above the beast may all be classed as autonomy of the human racial intelligence. Sense images which enter our sphere of perception in thousandfold variations are received by us civilized men from the outside world exactly as by animals, savages, idiots, and children. But we alone are capable, by means of our logical categories, to introduce into this apparent confusion of impressions that conclusive order which is found in astrophysics and in the descriptive natural sciences.

Against this stressing of the principle of authority it might be objected that, in our age of autonomy of the human personality, it is the part of boldness to break a lance for the alleged antiquated and scrapped principle of authority. My answer is, that although the forms of authority change and arc transmuted with time, as we believe we have demonstrated, the biological selective principle of authority as social regulator of the preservation of the human species is immutable. The historic bearers of authority come and go, but the sociological category of authority abides immovable in the flux of time.


The historic bearers of authority are either personalities and their traditions, or public institutions. Ancestorand hero-worship stand at the threshold, not only of all religion, but also of all authority. For that reason, the parental power (patria potestas) is the original bearer of all authority. God himself is mythologically personified as father of the human race (God, the Father), and eminent monarchs are glorified as fathers of their countries, thereby assuming the highest rank as bearers of authority. The elders and church fathers have always been privileged sources of authority. The historic bearers of authority are: (1) the parental; (2) the divine; (3) the sacerdotal; (4) the royal; (5) the governmentalmilitary; (6) the legal; (7) the scholastic; (8) the scientific.

Authority is the quiescent, persistent, assured character of the general will, in contrast to the fluctuating, fleeting, and arbitrary character of the individual will. Authority is, in all its bearers, the representative of the collective will of mankind, which supports itself for the most part upon the race experience of past generations, as over against the unconsidered impulse of the individual. The eternal tragedy of man is his restless oscillation between self-preservation, which pushes him to the forceful assertion of his self-interest, and the preservation of the species which urges him to surrender his own will in deference to the collective will.

The later historic sources of authority are found in the Decalogue; the ten tablet legislation of Solon; the twelve tablets of Sulla; the three testaments of the monotheistic religions; the Roman law, empire, and papacy; councils and synods; laws and constitutions; parliaments and governments. The concrete authority of the father, which survives as a last vestige in ‘God, the Father,’ ‘Holy Father,’ ‘Father of the Country,’ ‘Little Father Tzar,’ is everywhere being attenuated into impersonal institutions and legislations. The personal source of authority embodied in the ‘royal will’ gives way in the ascending historical rhythm to the impersonal ‘ public weal.’ The principle of authority, too, is democratized. Since the great French Revolution, heteronomy is replaced, the more completely as time goes on, by autonomy.

The bearers of authority are no longer imposed from above, but are elected from below, and that means self-determination in contrast to alien control. Laws as impersonal sources of authority are to-day no longer forced upon us by a foreign will, whether of ancestors or heroes, of gods or despots, of councils or synods whose composition has not been determined by the sovereign will of the people; but they are enacted by legislative bodies which in constitutionally governed states represent in the last instance the popular will. All enfranchised citizens are coenactors of those laws, to which they submit so much more willingly as these laws represent not alien commands but self-given commands. For this reason, in the pre-war time, the constitutionally governed states were better disciplined than the clay-footed giant, Russia, where a shadow authority had to support itself upon fear and imitation rather than upon insight, as the modern, autonomous principle of authority demands. No state has ever been so decayed and internally undermined as the Russian. Even the ruined Germany remained a firm state organization. And Russia collapsed like a house of cards because it was not a constitutional state.

With the spread of the knowledge of nature, the mythological form of authority everywhere yields to the logical. So too with the rise of commerce and industry, the mystical representatives of authority retire to make room for consciously instituted bearers of authority. The cult of Lenin in Russia is a regression toward that political mysticism which is hereditarily characteristic of the Russian nature.

Natural and moral laws are valid absolutely, but the social imperatives of authority only relatively, for they are conditioned as to time and place. They establish not rigid laws but only tendencies or volitional inclinations of human nature. Mathematical or logical (‘eternal’) truths are necessary postulates of thought; authorities, however, are only postulates of the will, establishing a disposition. Their validity depends upon the complete realization of their object. If the bearers of authority have failed to conceive or to realize those ideals in whose service they stand, and as the living incarnation of which they have been instituted, their commands have no indisputably compulsive character. Postulates of purpose can be annulled at any moment when they no longer adequately fulfill their functions. Our present-day bearers of authority are subject to public control for the reason that, as functionaries of the collective whole, they have to give evidence in their public conduct that the centre of confidence and power shall continuously remain justified. Formerly, the authority had only to command; the individual, only to obey. To-day, however, the bearers of authority are of our own establishing. As the historic fact that men have destroyed images and idols only to fashion ever new gods compels us to infer that the concept of a god represents a spiritual necessity of human nature in its cultural evolution, precisely in the same way the fact that old authorities are overthrown only to permit new ones to be erected in their stead, irresistibly enforces the conclusion that authority represents a social-psychological necessity.

For America, the national heroes — Washington, Franklin, Lincoln — are the bearers of the national idea of authority. Their names are celebrated by the nation, as in the Middle Ages those of saints, and in the feudal-militaristic period those of heroes. This respect for his authorities protects the American citizen from loss of restraint and direction. America furnishes in her form of democracy the pattern of an authority constituted by the free choice of her citizens. Bossuet is confirmed.

Where everyone may do as he likes, no one may do as he likes; where no one is master, everyone is master; where everyone is master, everyone is slave.

The way out of this slavery toward an authority sociologically established, is pointed by the doctrines of social optimism here developed.