by Daniel A. Kaufman
Hannah Arendt maintained that one has authority, when one commands obedience from others, not by exercising power over them, but because they recognize and respect one’s right to do so.  To accept authority, then, is to accept hierarchy, which, in turn, is to accept a substantial if not formal inequality that may derive from a number of sources: from different levels of expertise, as is the case between physician and patient or teacher and student; from an asymmetry in natural fitness and capability, as we find between adults and children; from disparities of culture and class, as obtain between nobleman and commoner; or from imparities in divinely granted prerogatives, as exist between priesthood and laity.
The story of Western modernity is in good part the tale of an escalating rejection of authority and of the beliefs, sentiments, and forms of life upon which it depends. This began over the course of two major developments in Western history: The Protestant Reformation, which denied the authority of the institutional church; and the Scientific Revolution, which rejected the authority of the medieval [Aristotelian] scientific paradigm and moreover, denied authority any role whatsoever in science. The Enlightenment saw this challenge extended to the social and political arenas, where the proposition that authority is exclusively contractual, grounded only in the natural authority that each person exercises over him or herself, would form the heart of modern political philosophy.
Equally significant was the Scientific Revolution’s materialism and mechanism which, having replaced supernaturalist and animist explanations of the nature and behavior of physical bodies, became a force for general demystification in the political sphere; one that undermined the idea that socially constituted institutions and forms of life might be purposeful, significant and authoritative in their own right. After all, from the standpoint of nature, conceived as the reductive materialist does, human beings are all pretty much the same, and social and political asymmetries are inherently wrong, except for those that are the result of mutual agreement. As John Locke put it: “There being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection…”  Meanwhile, the spiritual individualism of the Reformation, when brought into Enlightenment political thought, was transformed into a deadpan, hyper-individualism that suggested that all relationships between human beings are essentially contingent, self-interested, and contractual. From its earliest days, then, liberalism has run the risk of devolving into its degenerate, libertarian counterpart.
This hyper-individualism not only de-legitimized virtually every form of association and relationship not grounded in explicit or tacit agreement, it also cut a person off from his contemporaries, ancestors, and future generations in a way that undermined any authority they may have once exercised. When taken in the context of the modern nation-state, this hyper-individualism effected a catastrophic social atomization [which only has worsened with modern communications technology] and fueled a resentment of givenness and dependency that has insured this atomization is characterized by personal sanctimony and mutual hostility.
This decline of authority in the West has occurred not because the picture of human nature on which it rests is so compelling or well-founded [I have argued on many occasions that it is not], but because it has succeeded in bathing opposition to authority in the light of Justice. The trouble, of course, is that the idea of a civil society in which hierarchy is entirely absent and authority grounded entirely in contracts is fantastical and only serves to fuel envy and resentment. As Robert Nisbet observed:
There is no form of community that is without some form of stratification of function and role. Wherever two or more people associate, there is bound to be some form of hierarchy, no matter how variable…or how minor…Our gravest problem at the present time, in many respects, is the disrepute into which this word, this unavoidable necessity, has fallen as the consequence of the generalized philosophy of equalitarianism…We have seen institution after institution weakened or crippled in the social order…in the name of a vain and vapid equality. 
In the case of Locke and the mainline Enlightenment political tradition [which bore fruit in England’s evolution into a modern, democratic nation and in the American founding], equality was understood to obtain only amongst a relatively small — though growing — cadre of people, who belonged to an already existing hierarchical civil society into which non-contractual authority was already built. Looked at in this way, American notions of freedom, equality, and democracy were not revolutionary or even new, but marked the latest stage in the gradual expansion of the upper and middle classes and of their civil and political prerogatives; a distinctly Anglo-Saxon development that stretched all the way back to the English Middle Ages and to the ancient prerogatives of feudal lords and freemen, held independently of those of the Church and the Crown.
When we examine the Enlightenment of the European continent, whose intellectual origins lie in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and whose politics were exemplified by the French Revolution, Great Terror, and subsequent Napoleonic Imperium, the egalitarianism is more radical and the rejection of authority more brazen. Rousseau may have devoted one of his three Discourses to the subject of inequality, and he may have begun On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right with the announcement that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” but it is difficult to think of a more illiberal political philosophy. Indeed, one might accuse Rousseau of being a most talented propagandist, for only a master of the “big lie” could have expected people to believe that liberty and equality are accomplished by way of wide-ranging State censorship;  by replacing traditional religion with “civil religion,” in which the object of worship is not God, but the state;  and through exclusive state control over the raising and educating of children.
[J]ust as each man’s reason cannot be left the sole arbiter of his duties, so the education of children can all the less be abandoned to the knowledge and prejudices of their fathers, because it is a matter of greater importance to the state than to their fathers. If children are bought up in common in the bosom of equality, if they are steeped in the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will…let us not doubt that they will thus learn to love each other as brothers, never willing anything but what society wills…and one day becoming the defenders and fathers of the homeland whose children they will have been for so long. 
Rousseau also was an inspired critic of the mainstream Enlightenment and uncovered the two biggest weaknesses in the Lockean social contract and modern, liberal political philosophy, more generally. First, he demonstrated that the materialism and individualism that characterizes the modern picture of “natural man” renders us unsuitable for civil society; that the combination of selfishness and practical reason is insufficient for the purpose of forming meaningful social bonds amongst otherwise disconnected people and cannot provide the grounds for authority-sustaining institutions and communities.
He who in the civil order wishes to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants. Always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his wishes and his duties, he will be neither a man nor a citizen. He will be good neither for himself nor for others. He will be a man of our day—a Frenchman, an Englishman, a bourgeois. 
Second, Rousseau realized that the modern rhetoric of equality could never be squared with the hierarchy; that it is too powerful a force for envy and resentment and is bound to destroy the reciprocity that must exist between those occupying the different levels of a hierarchy and the fealty that all must feel towards the hierarchy itself, if authority is to be responsibly exercised. Indeed, Rousseau’s own work is a testament to this fact, redolent as it is with a bitter hatred for all things traditional, customary, or otherwise inherited [his occasional paeans to the Spartans, notwithstanding]. 
Thus, Rousseau found himself confronting a dilemma: Authority could not arise naturally, from the grounds of untrained human sentiment, for the philosophers of the Enlightenment had maintained that human beings are essentially unconnected and human nature is intractably selfish, but it also could not be recovered from Europe’s pre-modern social and political institutions, because the egalitarian genie, once loosed from the bottle, could not be returned. Consequently, Rousseau believed that we are left with a choice — a “fork” — between, on the one hand, anarchy, in which civil society and political authority do not exist, and in which we remain in our natural condition, and on the other, a political reality, in which civil society and authority have been absorbed by the state; where the atomized mass of individuals are gathered under an artificially created superstructure that is managed by state power and justified on the grounds that the state embodies the “general will.”
Equality may appear abundant in such a system, but it is a false equality; one that stems from the equal distribution of inequality, rather than from the equal distribution of genuine prerogatives or rights. “All political theories regarding tyranny agree that it belongs strictly among the egalitarian forms of government,” Arendt reminds us. “The tyrant is the ruler who rules as one against all, and the “all” he oppresses are all equal, namely equally powerless.” 
It is hard to imagine that any person living in today’s Western democracies really believes that he enjoys more equality with political and business elites than did his medieval predecessors. The disparity in power, influence, and wealth that exists between, say, a sitting United States President and an ordinary American citizen or between the Chief Executive Officer of a multinational corporation and an average consumer is greater than that which obtained between a feudal landlord or medieval merchant and a freeman or a peasant. What has happened is that the space between ruler and ruled has been widened and emptied of many of the intermediate levels of hierarchy and authority it once held, so while the ruled have the appearance of having more in common with one another, it is only because the distance between them and their rulers has become both vast and bare. “If we stick to the image of the pyramid,” Arendt says, “it is as though all intervening layers between top and bottom were destroyed, so that the top remains suspended, supported only by the proverbial bayonets, over a mass of carefully isolated, disintegrated, and completely equal individuals.” 
In Rousseau’s politics, as authority has been replaced by state power, so the institutions, sentiments, and forms of life necessary for authority have been replaced by proxies of their own: community is replaced by formal citizenship; fealty by artificial patriotism and fear; and religious devotion by a shallow, reactionary nationalism. What is initially mystifying is that it would seem obvious that these proxies are no more likely to give rise to feelings of solidarity between otherwise disconnected, atomized, selfish individuals than Locke’s rational self-interest. So, it is unclear why Rousseau’s state would not fall to precisely the same objections that he used so effectively against the Lockean commonwealth.
The solution to the mystery is that the Rousseauian proxies for the beliefs, sentiments, and institutions of civil society are not intended to provide an alternative to rational self-interest; their job is not to create solidarity among citizens. That task, for Rousseau, can only be accomplished by controlling the minds of citizens, a task which is left to a system of civic education that is the sole prerogative of the state and the aims of which eerily presage those of the system imagined by Huxley in Brave New World. “If it is good to know how to make use of men as they are, it is better still to make them into what one needs them to be,” Rousseau wrote. “[T]he most absolute authority is that which penetrates a man’s inner being and is exerted no less on his will than on his actions. Certainly, people are, in the long run, what the government makes of them…Form men, therefore, if you want to command men…”  Far from serving to sustain a people and their place, then, the Rousseauian proxies for the institutions, habits, and manners of civil society constitute the critical behavioral reinforcers that are required to maintain a citizenry that is the creation of the state. They are to the citizens of Rousseau’s utopia, what neo-Pavlovian conditioning, mandatory promiscuity, and Soma are to the castes of Huxley’s increasingly realistic-seeming dystopia.
Immanuel Kant may have thought that enlightenment was humanity’s greatest weapon against tyranny; that only under the light of one’s own reason and volition could one remain free and in charge of one’s own destiny.  What he seemed not to understand was that a world in which the only authority is that which one exercises over oneself or loans to others is one in which tyranny of some sort is inevitable, and the freedom and equality one thinks one has is ultimately illusory. For it is only through interceding layers of authority that we, as individuals, are protected from state or other totalizing powers.
 Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (1961) (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 93.
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 8.
 Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (1975) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p. 217.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762) in Rousseau’s Political Writings, pp. 164-5 (Book 4, Chapter 7).
 Ibid., pp. 166-173 (Book 4, Chapter 8).
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy (1755), in Rousseau’s Political Writings, pp. 73-4.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, tr. Barbara Foxley, Book One, §27.
 See, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, reprinted in Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings, tr. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, pp. 7-8; p. 11.
 Arendt, “What is Authority?” p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 99.
 Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy, pp. 66-7.
 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”