To be truly a Master is to have authority. To claim to be a Master is to claim to possess authority. We can be confident that more persons claim to have authority than do truly have it. What is less easy to determine is who in fact does possess it. The place of authority in human life is both centrally important and irretrievably contentious. The personnel of the 'Modern Masters' series may simply map the credal disorder of our days, the fitful intellectual allegiances of a society of masterless persons. Past Masters, however, are, or at any rate ought to be, figures of historically proven authority. It is easiest to see historically proven authority as essentially the authority of continuing traditions. One question, therefore, which Keith Thomas's series must confront at the start is simply whether for us as moderns any continuing traditions do (or even could) retain their authority. (An entire school of sociologists, for example, seeks to define modernity as a categorical denial of authority to tradition in its entirety.) What, then, is authority? And more particularly, how far is it genuinely open to us to think of authority as something which can be incarnated, realised in the historical persons of individual human beings?
LRB 22 May 1980 | PDF Download