Concern with authority is as old as human history itself. Eve’s sin was to challenge the authority of God by disobeying his rule. Frank Furedi explores how authority was contested in ancient Greece and given a powerful meaning in Imperial Rome. Debates about religious and secular authority dominated Europe through the Middle Ages and the Reformation. The modern world attempted to develop new foundations for authority – democratic consent, public opinion, science – yet Furedi shows that this


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One Response to Authority

  1. Jurriaan Bendien says:
    2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    An important contribution to the history of ideas, February 16, 2014

    Furedi’s treatise is a multi-layered, meta-theoretical story: both a history of the sociology of authority, and a sociology of the history of authority. Obliquely, in a reflexive “postmodernist” way, it also comments on his own experience of being an authority. His scholarly story tells you – very politely and diplomatically – that the thinking by the intellectual elites about authority has often been rather preposterous or wrongheaded, if not a dismal failure, and that this becomes a problem for everyone. After all, everyone is affected by what the powerful decide is best for society.

    In that sense, “Authority” is very much a leftwing book, though refreshingly it doesn’t refer much at all to contemporary leftwing thought, and instead tries to engage seriously with conservative and liberal elite opinion. In doing that, Furedi displays a formidable political intellect, and the book is worth a read already for that reason alone. Although “Authority” doesn’t deal with Stalinism, Maoism and Castroism, Furedi implies – quite rightly I think – that that the Left knows not how to deal with the problems of authority either (for more about that, see his 1986 debut work, “The Soviet Union Demystified”).

    By the same token, “Authority” offers no real answers or quick solutions for policymakers, claiming only that each epoch of Western history has bequeathed us some intellectual discourses about authority, which emerged, became fashionable, and then disappeared again after a while. Why, then, is discussing the topic of authority so pertinent right now?

    What is especially characteristic of modern times, Furedi suggests, is that social thought as a whole has failed to probe authority issues historically, comprehensively and in depth, in a profound way, and for that very reason fails to solve the problems of authority, even as the problems grow bigger and bigger. Defying intellectual myopia, he seeks to think big, and believes we all should think big: his story unfolds on a truly historical grand canvas, from Greek antiquity to the present day. Yet, actually, a lot of his arguments are more implied than explicitly stated. You can only really understand them, if you have a good background in the subject.

    I got a copy of this book for my own study of Fukuyama’s theory of the political state, and I found “Authority” both better and worse than I had expected. Better, because the contents are really very comprehensive, critical and thoughtful, and stretch across the entire ideological horizon of Western thought about authority. Furedi can write pretty reliably on these topics, because he has read, thought and taught a lot about them across many years, and talked to people who know a lot about it. Worse, because the book just doesn’t provide any explicit answers to the problems associated with authority, and does not set out any positive theory (or theories) of what the nature and modalities of authority actually are. The plotlines of “Authority” are quite ingeniously and shrewdly constructed, in that sense. They seek to provoke and challenge, yet also to avoid all kinds of discussion in which the author just doesn’t want to get involved.

    In the competitive, commercialized academic factory of today, the “publish or perish” pressure rules, because academic publications are a key output which justifies financial input. Furedi is a prolific writer, and can slog it out with the best of them; aided by an editor, he can publish more in one year, than many of his colleagues would publish in five or ten years. But there is a price: what gets published is not all of consistently high quality. So too with Furedi’s “Authority”. We are really dealing with a massive draft manuscript that is rich in nuggets of insight, but really unfinished. It has been spruced up, edited and structured together for publication, under various suitable headings. Certainly, it reveals Furedi again as a major theorist. It is difficult to disagree with him about the contest of authority. Yet it would, I think, have been preferable to work on the narrative much more, and structure it more clearly, and in a more logical way – even if there is no “Logos” in the history of human authority. The production result is, that some chapters are truly excellent and really hit home, while other chapters are more in the nature of a meandering (and sometimes rather turgid and boring) literature review, or a summary, seemingly inserted because they had to be in there, although they turn around ideas which still remain to be developed further. Alas, the modern scholar does not even have the time anymore, to complete his own text as he should, or would ideally like.

    This is obviously not a book one can read and master in one sitting…

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