The meaning of the modern eclipse of authority
by Ken Myers
“The eclipse of the idea of authority is one of the essential characteristics of today’s world; in fact, it is the most immediately observable characteristic. Therefore, it can be said that the relevant literature is found not so much in the specific studies on this topic — which are mostly inadequate — but rather in the reflection about the contemporary world itself in its various aspects, taken as objects of study. This observation should be accompanied by the disposition to look at these aspects with a mind free from the dogmatic presupposition that the present state of affairs is superior or irreversible, or that it should be regarded as the starting point for a process of liberation that will take place in the future.
“There is no point in lingering on the various possible metaphors that express the eclipse of authority — which ultimately can be summed up in just one: ‘the disappearance of the idea of the Father’ — or on the description of its manifestations (crisis of the family, of education, of the Church). In order to understand the depth of this reversal and to gauge its amplitude, it will be enough to reflect on the opposition between the etymological root of the word ‘authority’ and the meaning that this same word has generally assumed today. Indeed, auctoritas derives from augere, ‘to make grow.’ A shared etymological origin ties it to the words Augustus (he who makes grow), auxilium (help provided by a higher power), augurium (also a word of religious origin: a vow made to obtain divine cooperation in growth). If other languages are considered, one finds a common ideal structure. Thus, the German auch (also) is the imperative of the Gothic aukan (to make grow). Therefore, the etymology of authority includes the idea that humanitas is fulfilled in man when a principle of non-empirical nature frees him from a state of subjection and leads him to his proper end, as a rational and moral being. Man’s freedom, as power of attention and not of creation, consists in his capacity to subordinate himself to this higher principle of liberation and be freed from the pressures from below. Conversely, today the common mentality by and large associates the idea of authority with that of ‘repression,’ and identifies it with what stops ‘growth,’ what opposes it, reversing what the etymology implies.
“Hence, it is important to realize that the present eclipse of authority represents the greatest among the reversals that have come to pass in history. It can be regarded as the stage that has been reached so far by the ‘total revolution,’ which is close to being fully realized in its pars destruens. The natural questions that arise are whether this eclipse marks the defeat of the revolution (its turning into disintegration, or into preservation of a disintegrated world) or whether it represents something irreversible. And whether such irreversibility, even when it is recognized in its philosophical significance, represents a process toward nihilism or whether the negative aspects of the present situation may rather be explained in terms of a crisis of growth.”
— from Augusto Del Noce, “Authority versus Power,” in The Crisis of Modernity (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014)
An excerpt from Del Noce’s The Age of Secularization is available here.
Michael Hanby engaged Del Noce’s work in a 2021 article summarized here.
Translator Carlo Lancellotti talked about Del Noce’s ideas on Volume 128 of the Journal, noting that the Italian philosopher’s reading of Marx was “very theological. He’s not interested in Marx as a political thinker or a political economist. He’s interested in Marx as a metaphysician, as a fundamental philosopher.”