Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Oliver O’Donovan on Authority and Truth

In Resurrection and Moral Order Oliver O’Donovan lists four types of “natural” authorities that are encountered in the world, along with a fifth that is due to Adam’s sin. These, he thinks, can provoke a response of obedience without critical reflection:

The forms in which we may encounter and respond to authority are very man; but the underlying factors which command us and compel us, the ‘authorities’ themselves, are few and recurrent. We may mention four: beauty, age, community and strength (a word which includes the whole range of natural virtue, from might to wisdom) have the capacity, as we encounter them in individuals, in human institutions and in the natural world, to inspire and order our actions in distinctive ways. And to these four instances of ‘natural authority’ within the created order we must add a further striking instance of an authority which would be classed as ‘natural’, according to medieval thinkers, ‘in a relative sense’, which is to say that it belongs to the natural order as it is encountered under the conditions brought about by Adam’s sin: the authority of injured right to command our resentment and vengeance, the authority which shapes our structures of justice and government. (p. 124)

But these “authorities” are, for O’Donovan, subject to a higher authority which enters the picture upon critical reflection: the authority of truth.

Natural authority is not unconditional; it is subject to the review of a higher authority which can presume to order and criticize it. The higher authority, to which any form of critical reflection turns, is the authority of truth. (p. 125)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.