Authority

One of the things I occasionally think about is authority.  In the Middle Ages, authority was a prized thing: one wanted to bring in all the auctores one could to support one’s argument, and even if one thought he might one day be an auctor himself, he didn’t really talk about it.

I was reading Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man today and thought: now here’s someone who talks about how much he’s dependent on his authorities, but really wants to be one himself as well.  He threw down the gauntlet of nine hundred theses on all topics to the Pope and the College of Cardinals in Rome: he was 23 or 24, hardly Thomas Aquinas in the height of his reputation and knowledge writing the summation of that knowledge.  (But Pico was pretty cool even so.)

We don’t tend to talk so much about authority in the modern world as those in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance did, although perhaps we accept it rather more patiently than they did.  So much of our lives depend on experts outside of us: we use computers, telephones, pens, paper, electricity, all sorts of things which we did not make and for the most part could not have made; cannot even fix ourselves most of the time.  We accept on authority that it is safe to use cell phones, that the Sun is a star, that it’s a good thing to promote job creation, that money works, that there are no such things as miracles, that romance is possible.

But there are other sorts of authorities, too.  Last night I had chorus practice.  We’re singing Carmina Burana in concert in under a fortnight, and the conductor of the NS Youth Orchestra (who is playing with us) came to take us through the first half of the piece.  We have a good director who has been teaching us — or, if I may only speak for myself, me — a great deal — but he doesn’t conduct us so much as play along with the keyboard and help us learn that way.  It was quite marvellous the difference it made having someone actually conduct us.

It made me think of why people like serving under good masters (I am going to use that term, loaded as it is, as it covers a far wider and — I have to say I think — nobler ranger of occupations than the modern ‘manager’); why there is something lovely about watching a well-trained horse or dog with its master.  Being well directed as a group we sounded better, and it was more fun: it was more orderly, more organised, more shapeley.  Oh, we were often raggedy and we need to practice still — or I do — but yet, there was something in it that I think we tend to find unseemly to mention in this day and age.  Part of that is our efforts at achieving democracy (which I don’t think necessarily means dropping all of this, but many do); more of it is the shadow of that other sort of authority that is authoritarianism falling over it.

I’ll keep turning these thoughts over, but I think there is definitely something to be said for thoughtfully and willingly submitting to a good auctor.  Medieval etymologists said the word auctor came from augeo, which means ‘to grow’ or ‘augment’ (clearly the same root), and that’s what it felt like: under the authority of the conductor, our collective creation grew.

Being thoughtful, willing, and careful in the choice is, however, crucial.

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