The problem of authority is the problem of unbelief
by Ken Myers
On Volume 29 of the Journal, Ken Myers talked with historian John Patrick Diggins (1935–2009) about his book, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (Basic Books, 1996). In the opening pages of book's third chapter, “Authority and Its Discontents,” Diggins quotes from a letter that Max Weber wrote to his mother in 1914. At the time, Weber was 50, his mother 70 years old. In the letter, Weber commented on the domestic trials that his mother had endured because of her husband’s mercurial temperament.
“Certainly all of us have a fair view of him today, and now that all the difficult tensions have been forgotten, we can rejoice at what he was in his surely uncommon, solid, bourgeois mentality. We know that the rifts in his life were the tragedy of his entire generation, which never quite came into its own with its political and other ideals, never saw its own hopes fulfilled and carried on by the younger generation [of his era], which had lost its old faith in authority and yet still took an authoritarian view of matters where we could no longer take such a view.”
Diggins comments that in this letter we can see a reference to “the problem of authority that would haunt Weber the rest of his life. He had also lost faith in authority but, unlike his father, he could no longer carry on as though the dull comforts of bourgeois existence would provide reasons for believing and obeying. Authority for Weber became an emotion as much as an institution. In seeking to give it a rational foundation in sociology, would Weber ever be able to respect authority?
“The crisis of authority that Weber sensed reverberated throughout the intellectual world of his era. Combine liberalism with modernism and we are left with the overthrow of authority and the endless search for its substitute. Such was the dilemma formulated by the American political philosopher Walter Lippmann, who spent the first half of the twentieth century in a futile search for the foundations of legitimacy. During Weber’s period of recovery [from a long struggle with a debilitating depression], 1903–1905, he had been involved in a similar search, but the institutions and ideas that once fulfilled the role of authority could no longer command credibility. Authority was once assumed to have an objective basis in God, nature, or reason. But Weber saw authoritative institutions as historical and contingent upon the conditions of their development. He asked readers to observe how authority gets itself accepted in modern society. ‘The reason for this fact lies in the generally observable need of any power, or even of any advantage of life, to justify itself.’ Authority as power and domination relies upon reason not as critical reflection but as rationalization and conventional modes of legitimization. Forms of authority may institute themselves without reference to anything objectively true and authoritative.
“While recovering Weber had been working on his now-famous thesis, ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.’ Its author described the modern market world of business transactions as evolving from an otherworldly theological angst long lost to history. The possibility that one could reverse the process and return from economics to religion as a source of authority was foreclosed in the essay: Weber saw this as impossible in the Western world. In the past, Protestant religious convictions could inspire people to bring about a revolution in behalf of faith and to abide by church doctrines. Similarly, the authority of the State could be regarded as an ‘indispensable instrument . . . for the social control of reprehensible sins and as a general condition for all mundane existence pleasing to God.’ With the coming of the Enlightenment, however, reason would soon displace God and science dismiss sin.
“Weber had been working on methodological questions during his recovery, and it may have been his own illness that convinced him of the limits of reason, and that led him to think of the mind as more a dissolving acid than an integrating agency. Whether or not methodology would help Weber reestablish his identity, the self’s freedom still depended upon reason as an analytical faculty. Reason was once regarded as the vessel that contained truth; in Weber’s era it had become an empirical technique, a process of obtaining knowledge by eliminating error. Methodology itself could scarcely deliver the conclusive truths necessary to propping up authority. On the contrary, Weber’s idea of inquiry aimed to interrogate what passed for truth in order to demonstrate that it had a functional status only, and that its existence depended upon it being believed without question. The capacity to criticize one’s own beliefs, Weber wrote to the Dante scholar Karl Vossler, requires enduring criticisms that have no resolution. Later, in his essay ‘Science as a Vocation,’ Weber would explain how our beliefs are chosen rather than derived, and that their selection has no more basis than emotional preference. The realization that beliefs are purely subjective and personal is, he pointed out in another essay, the ‘fate of a cultural epoch that has eaten from the tree of knowledge.’ The problem of authority is the problem of unbelief.”
— from John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (Basic Books, 1996)