Perhaps the two concepts – authority and authenticity – have similar roots. Tempting as this thought may be, the etymology of each are quite different, and may, coincidentally, offer an insight into two differing approaches to our democracy. I will return to that later in this blog, but first, let us look at the two concepts and their derivations.
Authority has its roots in the Latin word auctontatem, meaning invention, advice, opinion, influence, command. By the time the word entered the English language it had come to mean the power derived from a good reputation, the power to convince, or the capacity for inspiring trust. Hmmm… glimpses of authenticity there!
However, by the 1600s the concept of authority moved closer to the last of the original Latin meanings and came to indicate those in charge, those with police powers.
Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, authority is defined as a) the power or right to give orders, make decisions, enforce obedience, b) right to act in a specific way, and c) official permission.
Authenticity, on the other hand comes to us from Greek. The Greek word authentikos is a compound word made up of autos (self) and hentes (doer, being). Adopted into English it meant trustworthy, reliable, real, genuine.
It has a similar meaning today, as well as meaning to represent ones true nature or beliefs, and being true to oneself.
Are we now able to answer the original question: how authentic are our authorities? If trustworthiness is a measure then we would have to say “not very.” The Readers Digest has been surveying the trustworthiness of various professions for a number of years. Politicians are regularly found at the bottom of the list. In 2014 politicians were ranked at 49 out of 50 in terms of trustworthiness (just one place above door-to-door salespeople.)
Do we want our authorities to be more authentic? If so, then how can that be achieved?
The differing derivations of the two words – authority and authenticity – may offer an often unseen insight.
When the founders the United States became the first western nation to reject the rule of the monarchy they searched for an historical precedent upon which to draw. They looked to the Roman Republic, where Latin was the language of administration. Perhaps the most obvious method they borrowed from the Roman Republic was that of electing representatives. And, true to form, just as in the times of the Roman Republic, getting elected was more often a case of knowing the right people, and/or having enough money.1 Somewhere along the line, the word democracy was attached, unfairly and misleadingly, to this.
We often think of our modern democracy as deriving from the Greeks. Indeed, the word democracy does come from Greek. But, what the Athenians and other Greek city states understood as democracy, is not the form that was adopted in the United States and then transferred to other western nations.
The Athenians rejected elections as the method of choice in selecting their representatives. They chose selection by lot, today known as sortition. Aristotle, one of the most famous of Greek philosophers described the selection of officials by lot as being democratical, and the selection by election as being oligarchical.2 Hardly an endorsement for elections as a means for selecting authorities.
The Greeks used a more authentic approach to selecting their representatives. The sortition method had much going for it according to them. Primarily, it meant that anyone could have the chance to be a representative. it meant too, that because the outcome was random the possibility of influencing the outcome ahead of time, or corrupting a potential candidate, was heavily reduced. Sortition also meant that a greater diversity of opinion, experience, and knowledge was introduced.
And, importantly, the system engendered a greater degree of trust. The Greek democracies were more authentic.
Perhaps we should consider this option – sortition – today, so that our authorities become more authentic.
1. For a fuller description and analysis of the links between the US founders and the Roman Republic see the book Beasts and Gods: How democracy changed its meaning and lost its purpose, by Dr Roslyn Fuller, Zed Books, London, 2015.
2. Aristotle, Politics Book IV.