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Is Authority a Necessity for Social Organization?

In my post from yesterday, I mentioned that I was recently part of a group that exuded cult-like behavior, and because of that experience, I felt compelled to write about the role of “trust” in navigating how to live our lives. I would like to continue this discussion by expounding some thoughts about the role of authority in society. I just finished reading chapter thirteen from Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan and it’s inspired me to think about whether or not a supreme authority is necessary for social organization. Hobbes believes that it is necessary because without an authority, humans devolve into chaotic spontaneity, killing each other and fighting for individuals’ lives rather than for the group consciousness: the life of a solitary man is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (2), or in other words, animalistic. 

The closest I’ve come to experiencing the life of a “solitary man” is when I’m long distance backpacking. I think I enjoy solitary backpacking because it’s instinctual and I have the opportunity to shed my social expectations and stigmas. It’s an experience that feels simultaneously liberating and horrific. Fear oftentimes invades my thoughts and I become paranoid and uncertain: I’m unable to trust that I’m safe. When I enter this state of consciousness, I feel untethered and a little desperate, like I require the comforts of society to protect me from the ramshackle of my own mind.

When I leave the wilderness, my primal fear of immediate death dissipates, but it’s replaced with a sense of longing. Despite the discomfort of hiking alone, I want to return to the woods and be reminded of the mundanity of existence. While backpacking, I cry and I sleep and I talk to the trees because there’s nothing else for me to do. I can’t be a woman or a student or a feminist because there’s no one to validate those identities. So I walk; I walk and I look and I feel. I become a sentient being. A fearful, sentient being. Is this freedom or is this despair? Is freedom horrific? Is it lonely and isolated?

These are the questions I asked myself after reading Hobbes’ Leviathan. Why are our only two options as humans to live in isolated chaos or communal authority? Hobbes explains that the reason people are chaotic without a supreme leader is because we actually only care about ourselves and our own interests, and without someone to guide those interests, we’re bound to create our own personal universes of independent desires that will clash into and fight other people who don’t share those exact desires. Therefore, to live in harmonious peace, we need someone or a system to guide our interests into a single, communal consciousness. I see the logic of this: if we all have the same beliefs and attitudes, it makes it much easier to stay socially organized; however, how does this impact our creative potential as individual laborers? For example, if we all see and breathe “squares” because that’s how we were raised and that’s what we genuinely believe is meaningful, then aren’t we limiting ourselves from experiencing or imagining “circles”? Doesn’t this ultimately limit humanity and it’s capacity for growth and change?

Indeed, dissent itself is a direct result of the rare individuals who imagine the world to be potentially different than the overarching authoritative voice about how it should be, and I think dissent is generally regarded as a historically desirous outcome, resulting in “social progress,” despite the discomfort of its demands on social thought. However, Hobbes doesn’t mention dissent in the chapter that I read and I’m not sure how he feels about it. He’s more interested in the necessity of authority: “men have no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all” (2). 

Now, my thoughts turn back to trust. Is the reason why people have no pleasure except in relation to an authoritative structure have anything to do with trust? Without someone or something to trust, does fear fill that void? Fear of the unknown, perhaps? And how does this relate to trust of oneself, if at all? I’m struggling to understand how trust in oneself relates to general trust: are they mutually exclusive (are they related to each other?)? If someone has placed her trust solely in herself, does that mean that she can’t trust someone else? Is trust boundless or limited? For example, while backpacking, can I trust myself and my abilities to navigate the wilderness and still feel afraid of a spontaneous attack by a wild animal? When framing it like this, I think any fear that I experience in this context is a direct result of my lack of trust in myself: I’m afraid of being attacked by a mountain lion because I don’t actually think I could defend myself against one, or in other words, I don’t trust myself. 

To extend the metaphor to authority, if I were backpacking with a friend who I think is strong and capable of fighting a mountain lion, then what happens to my consciousness when I place my trust in him to protect me? I believe that I’m dependent on him to feel safe, which means that, to a certain extent, I’ve given him my life. Is that positive or negative? I think the answer to this question will determine the significance of authority in society. If it’s undesirable to give away your power to someone else then the role of authority is an obstacle, but if it’s beneficial to put one’s trust in someone else, then authority might not be a problem. The risk, and perhaps the unknowable, of this situation is how do we discern who has our best interests in mind? If we were attacked, my friend might decide to save his own life over mine, and then where does that leave me and my trust? Was the comfort of a stress-free existence worth an untimely death? Perhaps.

I think this devolves into a question regarding connection, and I think that’s where Hobbes is headed too. By putting trust in my friend’s abilities, I am able to connect with him because we are now operating as a team; an interdependent entity that works together rather than separately. If I were to only trust myself, and no one else, then I would live and die alone; however, as aforementioned, the pertinent risk of trust is the possibility of getting thwarted or caught off-guard, potentially resulting in an untimely death. In which case, the perennial seed of doubt is planted in all of us: who can we trust? How do we know this person is the “right” person to trust?

Perhaps the answer is that we can only trust others when we know we can trust ourselves. When I know I can defend myself against a mountain lion, I can trust someone else to protect me too because, if they fail, I’m prepared to hold my own. 

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