A Whimsical Look at Fallacies: Appeal to Authority -- Part 2: A Nuanced Guide to Authorities

As you doubtless have realized by now, the questions that ended Part 1 of this series have never been answered in 25 centuries of Western philosophy. They undermined the appeal-to-authority argument like acid eating away at the foundations of an ethnocentric view of the world.

Naturally, this hasn't stopped anyone from appealing to authority as a reason for believing something, or deterred others from employing this fallacy whenever they could. However, cultural relativity is only one way of exposing this fallacy. What follows is another, as we'll see in this part of our story.

Time passes, and your initial alarm slowly subsides as you begin to view "authorities" in a more nuanced fashion. (1) There were some "authorities" who were unworthy of their calling. In love with power, fame, or preferment, they sold their souls to the powerful, who wished them to brainwash the people, to control and exploit them through guilt, fear, or terror, or to unite them for political reasons.

(2) Some were charlatans and mystagogues who distilled their toxic brew of bigotry and obscurantism as truth from on high to those susceptible to specious argument and theatrical manner. They brought great comfort to this audience, since their message was always the unverifiable outpourings of their fevered imaginings.

(3) Some were self-appointed prophets with a following, which needed these authorities to take control of their lives and assure them that they, indeed, had a purpose and destiny if only they'd comply with their masters' desires. It is so much easier to obey as a child than to become an adult.

These authorities did much mischief in the world by inflaming their followers to advance their designs with a clear conscience. There is nothing so heinous that people won't do if made to feel righteous in doing it.

(4) There were other authorities who sincerely gave their heart to tradition and did their best to preserve it intact from one generation to the next.

(5) Others saw that tradition as narrow and rigid. It needed to develop as its people developed. Every age saw itself and the world differently and was entitled to a tradition that reflected that change.

(6) Others thought that that same tradition should never change since truth never changes. Adapting to the present was the supreme betrayal of that tradition, which was the people's North Star amidst turbulent times.

(7) Others saw the tension between (5) and (6) as healthy, since it reflected two valid views of tradition, each of which needed the other for balance.

(8) Others were appalled by the scandal caused by this tension and feared that the people would grow restive and lose confidence in their authorities.

(9) Others saw such tension as the essence of a vibrant tradition that either must change or die.

(10) Others thought that this tradition was wrong from the outset - it should never have been about what you believed, but about the life you led. Tradition should never be a loyalty oath to a fixed set of doctrines, but commitment to living a good life.

(11) There were also traditions where the authorities never viewed themselves as "authorities'' in having "the answers," or in wanting to be seen that way by the people. Rather, these authorities saw themselves as "seekers," who did their best with the light they were given. They would have been amused at being called "authorities," since they were always in ferment, forever outgrowing their former positions, which were stages and way-stations on a continuous journey toward a deeper understanding of truth.

They knew they were erring, fallible creatures, never wanting their names to be conjured with as portals to truth. They suffered the embarrassment of passing for "authorities" for those in need of a guide, yet uneasy about keeping them children.

They thought their views were right not because they were "authorities," but because of evidence. Yet, they knew that they might also be wrong, and so didn't want their views imposed upon others, nor accepted as oracles by posterity but debated as opinions, since during their lives other authorities, no less learned than themselves, had always disagreed with them. The earth belongs to the living, who should never be controlled by the dead.

Nor did they see themselves as their tradition's jailor, but wanted it to be free to grow as a living thing. They felt suffocated by tradition and sought the stimulus of other traditions in the conviction that no one tradition contained all of truth. "Heresy" was but an invitation to wider horizons, since they felt confined within a tradition that thought if could force the universe into a thimble.

Like wandering deer heedlessly traversing national boundaries, they saw no demarcations when searching for truth. They embraced every tradition, thinking that each contained an aspect of truth, one piece of a larger mosaic. Revering every tradition opened their eyes to hidden treasures that could only enrich their own.

Yet they were always wary about how much insight their age could bear, since the flame-keepers of orthodoxy were always in search of someone to burn. They offered their views as modest opinions, which after their death might become official doctrine that redounded to the glory of the institution they served. Or they might never have held the views placed on their lips by those bent on exploiting their name in some later sectarian battle.

A final word to students. Slowly, everything is transformed. The old paradigm is gone. You begin to see all traditions as so many "confines, wards, and dungeons" that imprison the mind; mental software that programs its people to think and behave in predictable ways.

You also see that there are different kinds of authorities within these traditions. These authorities are not machines, but flesh-and-blood human beings conditioned by specific historical contexts. To what extent are they biased? To what extent can you trust them? Are you naive if you do, or should you approach them with care and critically evaluate their claims? Do they offer only fallible opinions that illumine a question from different perspectives? Or is this the most you can expect from anyone?

Which tradition is right, or are they all right? Is one tradition as true as another? Is a tradition true if it helps you to grow and become a better person? Does any tradition contain all of truth, or should you listen to all of them? Or is there a danger in being too open-minded, or can you ever be open-minded enough? Does subjective conviction prove that you're right, that you're wrong, or what does it prove? Can any of these questions be answered with certainty?

In reading these authorities, take account of the times and culture within which they lived and how their historical context shaped what they said. Distinguish the essentials from the accidentals of their message, and focus only on what is important to you. Were they speaking in symbols and metaphors, or were they presenting the literal truth?

If you feel the need to be led by others, resist the temptation. Don't let anyone diminish you or rob you of your autonomy by doing your thinking or controlling your life. Beware of any person, group, organization, institution, or tradition that would enslave you. These "authorities" need not be adults. They could also be other young people, or even your friends, should they want you to become whoever you're not.

Immanuel Kant once wrote a famous essay about becoming your own person. "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage. Sapere Aude! Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding!"

C. G. Jung also said something relevant in this conncection: "The greatest and most important problems of life can never be solved, but only outgrown." So away with authorities, apart from the only three you will ever need - a critical mind, a courageous heart, and the will to press on.