RICHARD SENNETT, the celebrated author of The FALL OF PUBLIC MAN, has again joined the insight of psychology and sociology to the perceptions of history, especially intellectual and cultural history, to produce a readable extended essay on authority in the modern world. Sennett's method makes the most of anecdotal case studies (he personifies authority in the person of the conductor, Pierre Monteux), while fleshing out the more schematic concepts via elaborating paragraphs.
In his introduction, Sennett states his own position, that the present reflections on authority -- "the emotional expression of power" -- should be understood as the "the first of four related essays on the emotional bonds of modern society." (The others will be on solitude, fraternity and ritual, themes which, from Sennett's point of view, are in their socio-psychological context, ambiguous, dissonant, unstable and therefore needful of interpretation.) Sennett here betrays more than he means to, but the reader can hardly say that he or she has not been warned.
So much for the virtues of Sennett's enterprise. What Sennett claims for authority is both too little and too much. It is too little in that he limits, though not explicitly, his discussion of authority to the history of western or developed culture since the time of the American and French revolutions. Although he makes isolated references to the remoter past, to primitive tribes and to cultures outside the west, his perspective on authority is that of a westerner living now.
Even with all of Sennett's care in locating his enterprise and with all his historical sense, he shares the myopia of some current social scientists in assuming that his perspective holds for all cultures, historic and contemporary. The invocations of Athens, Sparta, medieval feudalism. La Boetie, Piero della Francesca, Machiavelli, Adam Smith and Hegal in the western tradition -- and of the Ibo tribe and "most non-western societies" outside it -- do not obviate the general judgment that Sennett uses these examples for what they contribute to the understanding of our view of authority rather than for an understanding of theirs.
Sennett claims too much for authority by insisting that it is an inevitable part of modern society. Consequently he maintains not only that it exists everywhere but that it should exist. He is, to be sure, concerned with man's ubiquitous fear of authority and with our illusions about it these days. Not only does he interpret everything, including the past, in terms of authority, but his appeal is for an authentic authority to replace a false one.
Thus Sennett's long disquisition on Hegel's chapter, "Lordship and Bondage," in The Phenomenology of Spirit explains Hegel's notion of "the unhappy consciousness" as if Hegel were entirely concerned with authority; there is not even a hint that the philosopher was also concerned -- indeed primarily concerned -- with the emergence of selfconsciousness through the interaction of master and servant. Again, Sennett explicitly attributes both the denial of authority and the definition of autonomy, not to a rejection of authority as such but to a rejection of bad authority, an authority that loses love and authenticity as it moves from the private to the public sphere. Authority, then, can be a good thing, if the public chain of command, is democratically confronted, disrupted and deformed, "based on the right and power to revise through discussion decisions which come from higher up."
Now this is a perfectly reasonable position, and the ubiquity of authority leads Sennett to some unprecedented insights into the nature or 19th-century paternalism (as well as the distinctions between paternalism, patriarchalism and patrimonialism), into such figures as Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, Gide and Kafka, and more essentially into the process of demystifying public authority. It also leads him to dwell on the 19th century and on its authoritarian aspects, in counterpoint to its presumed enthronement of the free market and of personal liberty. All this is to the good, but the reader should be aware that Sennett has a positive set toward authority as it should be, and that this set is conditioned by his view of authority as one of the emotional commitments which men do and should make to one another in a well-functioning community.
If the above defects of Sennett's virtures are dubious and open to discussion, there is one that is not a fast and loose treatment of specific facts seems to be a part of Sennett's genius for popularization. The absence of footnotes and index is an inconvenience not only to scholars but to those readers who would like to read some of Sennett's sources for themselves. His specific errors do not inspire confidence. Thus Gaetano Mosca was known as a liberal, not a Communist; Hannah Arendt was not a member of the Frankfurt school, even marginally; Authority and Family has indeed been translated into English; the derivation of "nation" is not from father, as are Vaterland and patrie; "social controls of free societies" are indeed more "benign" than totalitarian ones; Diderot's Encyclopedia was published from 1751 and hardly characterized the period "toward the close of the 18th Century"; Tocqueville, in the second volume of his Democracy in America, was not "the first to write about the belief in autonomy as freedom"; "the ennobling of suffering" was hardly "the moral foundation of Romanticism"; the "recent . . . writings of Jean Paul Sartre" are characterized as "Maoist" only by Sennett, to my knowledge; there were no "Enlightenment democrats," save possibly Rousseau, whose relationship to the Enlightenment is quite complicated, and certainly d'Holbach and Sieyes were not, Sennett notwithstanding, democratically inclined.
But aside from these particular flaws, whoever wants a contemporary criticism of authority as it is from the point of view of authority as it should be can now go to Sennett for arguments.