I was recently engaged in a debate on political legitimacy, so I decided to look up the sorts of things people have published about where and how political legitimacy is present. I came across the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with a lengthy summary of some 20 or so treatments of the topic, everyone from Hobbes and Locke to Weber, Bentham and Rawls. I was frustrated at the insistence on turning the topic into quasi-technical language, that made it difficult for anyone but a true poli sci type to follow the points in real detail. So I refuse to follow that path.
In general, there are either 2 or three levels of recognizable status for political capacity to rule: raw power is the condition in which a person gives orders and they are carried out. Many times this power resides in people who have a right to be giving orders, but in some cases it is not: a mafioso don gives orders (both to his minions, and to people he has successfully cowed) and his orders are followed. I don’t call this political power, because the organization is too small to call a polity, but it illustrates the principle. When a colonel in the army “takes over” and starts giving orders in Libya, at the first he may have nothing more than raw power, but it is political power, because virtually the whole state follows his orders, once he has consolidated his power (note, we don’t say, “consolidated his authority”).
At the next level, I think, there is authority: when you have authority, you have the right to give orders that is independent of whether you are actually being obeyed. I think that a right to give orders is a very close correlative of the moral obligation of others to obey, although not absolutely (not when the orders exceed the authority held, for example). The really odd thing about the article was that although it talks about sources of authority (and of legitimacy), it virtually ignores the position that says God is the source of authority. Since this is an extremely important philosophical position, it is a glaring oversight.
Finally, (at least for this discussion) there is legitimacy: the legitimacy of a political authority is present with the public recognition, or validation, that this person has authority. Most times we would not admit that a person has authority, without there having been some event(s) or state of affairs that provided the validation. But it is not always a one-to-one correspondence. When a father gives orders to his 16 year old daughter, and she sniffs at him and walks away and (regularly) does whatever she darn well pleases, his “public” is not “buying” the validity of his authority, but the authority is real nonetheless. It is conceptually possible that the authority may be present without a public recognition thereof, and vice versa there may be public acclamation of acceptance of rule without the ruler actually having authority. So it is necessary to be ready to discuss them distinctly.
I am not going to get into the details of a debate about whether God is actually the source of authority, not at this time. For the purposes of this discussion, the existence of God the Creator and sustainer of the universe is a given. Since he has absolute sovereign authority over his creation, all other authority must be in some fashion related to his. That’s a good enough starting point for me. I am willing to entertain any point of view within that: for example, maybe God gives authority directly to each ruler, or maybe he gives it to the body politic and lets them place it in a ruler, or maybe he permits a body politic to identify who will receive the authority from him. All three of these are compatible with the principle that no authority in the universe can be wholly disassociated from the authority that is absolutely sovereign over every particle of the universe. (Maybe if I get ambitious in the future on I will tackle what the philosophical picture looks like when you don’t assume that sovereign authority over the universe resides in God.)
What I am especially interested in is the way that validation or recognition occurs ties up with the manner in which authority to rule (politically) comes to rest in some individuals. It seems to me that there is a mysterious “gap” in what happens with a coming-to-authority. Looking at changes of governmental orders (e.g. moving from aristocracy to democracy, or from kingship under the Stuart line to kingship under the Hanoverian line, not just the handing on of the baton under existing law, as the swearing in of a new president), it seems that there is a problem in describing WHAT happens to achieve the end result that authority eventually rests with a totally new order. And this mystery is, I think, what leads to there being so many different theories about where legitimacy and authority come from. So that’s what I want to pull up a microscope to look at. To do so I will look at the difference at least indicated between making a ruler – that is, forming them so as to have authority – and identifying them as ruler – that is, the public validation of that authority, in the Bible: The making of Saul as king, and of David.
Samuel anointed Saul in private first.
(1 Samuel 10:1) Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not that the Lord hath anointed thee to be prince over his inheritance?
Later Saul became the recognized king by casting lots:
(1 Samuel 10:17) and ye have said unto him, [Nay], but set a king over us. Now therefore present yourselves before Jehovah by your tribes, and by your thousands. 20 So Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken. 21 And he brought the tribe of Benjamin near by their families; and the family of the Matrites was taken; and Saul the son of Cis was taken…24 And Samuel said to all the people: Surely you see him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people. And all the people cried and said: God save the king.
(1 Samuel 12:1) And Samuel said to all Israel: Behold I have hearkened to your voice in all that you said to me, and have made a king over you….. But seeing that Naas, king of the children of Ammon, had come against you, you said to me: Nay, but a king shall reign over us: whereas the Lord your God was your king. 13 Now, therefore, your king is here, whom you have chosen and desired: Behold the Lord has given you a king…And Samuel said to Saul: The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel… When you were a little one in your own eyes, were you not made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you to be king over Israel.
It seems possible that, in Sam’s eyes, it is the anointing that constituted Saul as king, that’s the moment he received authority from God, not the casting of lots. But clearly in the eyes of the people, the anointing (done in private) was not enough to tell them who held the authority of prince, the validation of the authority to them required another act, and this was supplied in the casting of lots.
Now, interestingly, David too is anointed long before his kingship is proclaimed publicly:
(1 Samuel 15:23) Forasmuch, therefore, as you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has also rejected you from being king… And Samuel said to Saul: I will not return with you, because you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel… And Samuel saw Saul no more till the day of his death: nevertheless, Samuel mourned for Saul, because the Lord repented that he had made him king over Israel…(1 Samuel 16:1) And the Lord said to Samuel: How long will you mourn for Saul, whom I have rejected from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and come, that I may send you to Jesse, the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons. 2 And Samuel said: How shall I go? For Saul will hear of it, and he will kill me. And the Lord said: You shall take with you a calf of the herd, and you shall say: I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. 3 And you shall call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you are to do, and you shall anoint him whom I shall show to you… and Samuel said to Jesse: The Lord has not chosen any one of these. 11 And Samuel said to Jesse: Are here all your sons? He answered: There remains yet a young one, who keeps the sheep. And Samuel said to Jesse: Send, and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither. 12 He sent therefore and brought him. Now he was ruddy and beautiful to behold, and of a comely face. And the Lord said: Arise, and anoint him, for this is he. 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward: and Samuel rose up, and went to Ramatha…
After years of Saul’s nonsense against David even though David did nothing to actually claim the kingship, Saul and Jonathan die, and finally David accepts official title – but only in Judah:
(2 Samuel 2:3) David also brought along the men who were with him, each with his family. They settled in the cities of Hebron. 4 The men of Judah came and there they anointed David as king over the people of Judah.
Eventually (after more intrigue in Saul’s remaining family and 7 years) David is accepted by the rest of Israel.
(2 Samuel 5:1) All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron saying, “Look, we are your very flesh and blood! 2 In the past, when Saul was our king, you were Israel’s general. The Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel; you will rule over Israel.’” 3 When all the leaders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, King David made an agreement with them in Hebron before the Lord. They designated [“anointed” – Am. Standard, Douay, and King James] David as king over Israel. 4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned for forty years. 5 In Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned for thirty-three years over all Israel and Judah.
So, I am going to suggest that even within the context of assuming that all authority comes from God, it is a natural, essential feature of political authority in exercise that there be a public act or condition under which it is recognized, before the ruler can rightly and appropriately demand obedience.
Other than the sheerest direct intervention by miraculous sign, this public event or condition is at the hands of men: it is men, for example, who design and regulate the law of succession from one king to the next. In many cases, it is the oldest son, but in some cultures a group of elders select which son it is. Men can change the rule of succession without a revolution against the existing order. So, it seems to me correct to say that whatever we say about whether God puts the authority into the hands of the body politic as a whole for them to pass on, or not, it must be the case that God normally permits the designation of who shall hold authority as a matter for men to determine. (And this does not imply democracy.)
There are lot’s of other examples to pick from. There are a whole host of events around the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of new non-communist governments in Eastern Europe, and, eventually, Russia. Some of them were, I think, bloody ousters of the dictator, while others were more complex situations involving people resisting the government until the government itself chose to accept a new order. Or, maybe that characterization is inaccurate – I am only passingly familiar with the events.
Feel free to suggest your own examples, if you have one that makes things clearer. The matter is a little different for American independence: the states had real authority as colonial entities, and these authorities persisted throughout the change, and these formally declared the new order. There was no cessation of the prior political authority in toto, there was instead a transference of ultimate sovereignty away from the British king.