The Inter-Action of Power and Authority – J.J. Vila-Chã

2. Degenerative Power 

Emanuel Mounier clarified how authority establishes power and, while remaining one of its foundations, finds in it the instrument it needs.[16] In line with the Christian personalism of the twentieth century, we can say that power owes its value and finds the law of its proper exercise in the presence of real authority. Every factual power, therefore, is grounded in a given authority. On the other hand, all authority finds expression in and through the exercise of power.[17]  

As in all things human, there is always the danger that power, the natural instrument at the service of authority, degenerates into something different from its proper nature. In ancient Greece, the notion of degeneration appears inseparable from the good city, that is, from where human nature can best be implemented. According to Aristotle, the good city has characteristics such as legislative stability, implements adequate to the well-being of the citizens, excellent education.[18] A polis would then be good whenever it provides adequate education, is endowed with a sound constitution and, no less, enforces administrative measures that ensure the survival and the prosperity of all citizens. In this sense, the perversion of power happens whenever situations are created that diverge or contradict the purpose for which power was established.[19]

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt made clear that the exercise of power and the uses of violence are not the same. She writes: “Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence. The word itself, its Greek equivalent dynamis, like the Latin potentiawith its various modern derivates or the German Macht (which derives from mögen and möglich, not from machen), indicates its “potential” character. Power is always, as we would say, a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength.”[20] The implications of this passage are many, but here we just underline the fact that whenever violence emerges, politics is denied and that with the denial of the political the inevitable result is in every case the degradation of power. H. Arendt is also particularly illuminating in the attempt to understand the totalitarian phenomenon, especially Nazism and Stalinism.[21] Of special interest to us today, however, might be the consideration of the degrading nature of situations associated with the development of bureaucracies entirely divorced from the metaphysical force constituted by personal responsibility.[22]

Since the beginning of his papal ministry, Pope Francis never tires of reminding his listeners of the dangers caused by degenerative uses of power. Such is the case whenever the logic of the Spirit gives way to the vain aspirations of the human heart. Whoever holds power in a vain and superficial manner, normally, becomes addicted to holding it and, by necessity, never stops in yearning for more. Abuse, therefore, is always associated with a dynamic in which the person is overwhelmed by an insatiable yearning for power and by the search for more and more durable forms of power, for power less and less challenged and more and more disconnected from the real and concrete situations of human life. As a rule of thumb, “whoever, with vanity, aspires to power, always and in any case, first, loses concreteness and, second, becomes entangled in purely personal forms of self-incensement, instead of leading and carrying out his mission responsibly.”[23] Vanity constitutes a psycho-social dynamic that frequently induces people, including in the Church, to either lack concreteness or entirely dismiss personal responsibility in the exercise of power. Pope Francis insists in a particular way upon the dangers of self-referentiality when in conjunction with the exercise of power. As such, self-referentiality implies the denial of truth as it induces the human subject, especially the one endowed with real power, to embrace self-centeredness, even to the risk of self-idolatry, as a way of life. In this, we might recognize one of the reasons why demagoguery and false populism constitute a major threat to democracy. 

[16] Emmanuel Mounier, “Le destin spirituel du mouvement ouvrier: Anarchie et personnalisme,” Esprit 5, no. 55 (1937), p. 109 f.

[17] Cf. Rocco D’Ambrosio, Il potere e chi lo detiene (Bologna: EDB, 2008), pp. 16-17. 

[18] Cf. Ibidem, pp. 58-59.

[19] Ibidem, p. 59.

[20] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 200.

[21] Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New ed., A Harvest Book (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).

[22] Cf. Emmanuel Lévinas, Autrement qu’être; ou, Au-delà de l’essence, Phaenomenologica 54 (La Haye: MNijhoff, 1974).

[23] Rocco D’Ambrosio, op. cit., p. 114.