Resisting the Temptation of Authority

For many reasons, submitting to authority is extremely attractive. It takes the pressure off. We don’t have to think for ourselves. If any problems arise we don’t have to worry about deciding what to do. We can just do what the leader says and be confident that answer is the final truth.

This innate craving for authority is rooted deeply in the human psyche. In Freud’s philosophy, the mind is divided into three segments. The id is our primitive childish side. It causes our spontaneous desires for sex, food, and laziness. When you get an urge to quit working, take a nap, eat junk food, or look at pictures of scantily clad members of the opposite sex, that’s the id at work. The superego is the opposite of the id. When you feel compelled by success and ambition, the superego is exerting its influence. The ego is the moderator between the id and superego. It tries to balance the two and is perpetually torn between extremes. Authority forms a bridge between the superego and the id, allowing the ego take a vacation. When you submit to authority, the superego is happy because it believes you are doing the right thing, the id is happy because your childish craving for a father is satisfied, and the ego is thrilled because for once there is peace.

Authority is not constrained to a single personage. It takes the form of belief systems, religious doctrines, political parties, and any entity claiming to hold truth exclusive to all the rest. These entities appear to have our best interests at heart. They take us under their wing and shelter us from the world.

In our heart of hearts, we’re all searching for a great teacher, someone who has mastered life and will show us the way. Isn’t it invigorating to discover a potential authority? Whenever I find a new author that strikes a chord I can’t get enough. I read everything they have to offer, hoping to find that elusive truth. But inevitably, my naive enthusiasm wears off and I realize the answer isn’t there.

From childhood we are conditioned to submit to authority. Do what the teacher says or you will be punished. The desire for authority continues in adulthood and there is never a shortage of potential leaders urging us to join them. Consider the books and web pages you read. How many claim to improve your lives, if only you subscribe, tell your friends, and follow their instructions? Understand that all motivation is rooted in self interest, and be guarded against those who offer simple answers.

There is No One Right Way

I’m not saying that everything offering guidance is evil. There is much to be learned from authority. But it is harmful when accepted unconditionally. There is no ONE right way. The are many shades of truth and ways to live. Growth, intelligence, and perspective are developed by experiencing a broad variety and drawing your own conclusions. By submitting to authority you sacrifice originality and potential for personal growth.

Nothing Will Solve All Your Problems

Many people are of the opinion that if one party took over the government, or if some ideal system was implemented, our problems would be solved. Our problems are not so simple. The root cause is human weakness; greed, selfishness, aggression, and jealousy. There is no system of government that can change human nature. The conflict would remain and people would turn to another ‘answer’.

We see the same weakness exploited at a personal level. Supposed gurus preach miraculous programs. For a price, you can be cured. We are so desperate for authority we flock to these frauds, and in a desperate search for answers oversimplify our problems. Suppose the guru is correct and you make a million dollars, or fulfill some other dream, what then? Authority will give you no lasting peace.

Authority Exploits

When we submit to authority, we willingly pull the wool over our own eyes, exposing ourselves to manipulation. The greatest catastrophes of human history were caused by submission to authority. The Holocaust was caused by submission to the Nazi authority. September 11th was caused by submission to Bin Laden’s authority. Everyday people are suckered out of hard earned money because they blindly believe in authority. Be distrustful, question what you’re told, and don’t believe that anyone claiming to have all the answers has your best interests at heart.

It is a cold and lonely road to stand alone without authority and rely on your own judgment. But as Emerson said, “To be a man, is to be a nonconformist.” I hope you will choose to trust your own intuition above any outside authority. Be honest with yourself, live by your own principals, and you people will admire you for it. But don’t take my word for it, reflect and draw your own conclusions.

  • It’s amazing to me, with human nature being as you describe, that we have anything left of the Constitution. We all have feet of clay, and our lives are our responsibilities. There is no real escaping from this fact, but people keep trying to.

  • Just looking at a couple of your recent posts I’m amazed at how we seem to think alike. I just recently posted an article on The Price of Rice about How to hang on to your autonomy. I’ll definitely be back.

  • I love it! Have you read Brave New World?

  • Yeah, great book. It’s scary how much of it has come true.

  • Pingback: Personal Growth Warning! Dan and Jennifer Join the Positive Blog Network. « Ask Dan and Jennifer()

  • I’m lately convinced that submission to authority
    is man’s greatest weakness, creating masses of
    followers. Much death and destruction has come
    of it.

    That weakness is an addiction that I’m trying to break.

  • Having always resisted authority, even as a child, I’ve spent my life wondering why authority is so attractive. Your post didn’t tell me anything new (not a criticism, since I’ve learned a good deal about the subject), but it suddenly highlighted resistance to authority as one of many traits conducive to creativity. Thanks. Sometimes, insights come unexpectedly.

    • I agree with Catana. I’ve also wondered why authority is such an important figure. I know that it’s for law and order but what about those who are taking advantage of it?

  • Amen, Mr. Wesley.

    Id’ like only to add that so many of the most powerful systems of thought place at their center the phenomenon of choice. Indeed, that may be the one truly inalienable “right” common to everyone…life can be taken, liberty can be oppressed, the pursuit of happiness can be hindered. But we can never not choose. Faced with the information flowing to us from the world, we choose how to act, even how to *be*, in the world given that information.

    Submission to authority is the abnegation of that fundamental human ability…in a way, it is renouncing one’s claim to the ability to engage the world individually and authentically.

    Submission is a choice, to be sure, but it is inherently a self-destructive choice for this reason: when one chooses to base his/her actions on the choices of others, one puts his/her very consciousness in the hands of another, thereby making one’s self a mere extension of the consciousness that is actually making the choices.

    Submission to authority is willing existential slavery…it is a temporary death.

    However, authority is not to be rebelled against at all times either. This is simply allowing the authority to choose one’s path by automatically choosing the opposite. This is why most “non-conformists” seem quite in conformance with one another…you know who I mean…the anti-establishment wannabe revolutionary who wears the right outfit, listens uncritically to rage against the machine, and transmits the same tired critique of “the system” as their parents were doing back in the late 60s.

    The realized individual acts sometimes in accordance with authority’s dictates, sometimes against, and sometimes outside of that dichotomy. The reason is simple: as an individual, one’s choices are not likely to be ALWAYS in synch with another’s. Sometimes, the individual appears to submit, but only because that’s what he/she would have done anyway…that is, the individual acts according to one’s own honest judgment, and it may just so happen that such action conforms to the demands of authority. But as a general rule, because authority is inherently exploitative, the realized individual’s actions will be most often divergent from authority’s preferences.

    “Never give in, never give in, never never never never…in no matter great or small, large or petty…never give in.”– Winston Churchill

  • hi…good site.

  • John

    I agree with your comments on authority, but in what sense did the victims of Sept. 11 submit to Bin Laden’s authority? It seems that they had no choice in the matter.

  • I was referring to the terrorist underlings who did Bin Laden’s bidding. The victims didn’t submit because they never had a choice as you said.

  • Good piece, but I’ll have to object to your last comment. Look into “WTC7”, check what authority has to say in regards to it, and then stop blindly trusting in it, as you so succinctly suggested before.

  • RobertinSeattle

    Great blog and an incredibly wide range of topics. This particular post caught my attention in that I deal with this all the time: in my family (raising kids), in my life (dealing with relationships) and in my work (dealing with employees). I agree that part of the think-outside-the-box mentality places some emphasis on resisting the temptation to simply submit to authority. However, I also think a sister article entitled “Resist the Temptation to Always Submit to Anti-authoritarianism.” Over my lifetime of experiences, I’ve often encountered people in my work and personal life who — regardless of the situation at hand — will always take an anti-authoritarian attitude. I know every one of you has run into people like this. You know the type: No matter what the task or situation, you can count on them to do exactly the opposite, many times to the detriment of everyone else around them. Many of these people do so without thinking and with little or no consideration for the consequences.

    In many ways, these people are more dangerous than those who simply always do as they’re told when asked. Ask them to sit down quietly during a concert? Absolutely not, now that you’ve asked me to! Ask me not to talk on my cell phone in the movie theater? Screw you — I’ll talk when and where I want to! Their issues are deep-rooted and shouldn’t be my problem or anyone else’s. Maybe your Mother didn’t hug you enough or your Father beat the crap out of you when you were a kid. Maybe you didn’t get laid last night. Who knows? Who cares? It’s not my problem — it’s yours.

    Anyway, I think you get the point. Tavis Smiley says it well: “I have learned that there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting even if you win; and there are other battles that must be fought even if you lose. But, I don’t like to lose. And so I pick my fights carefully, because while I can do anything, I can not do everything.”

  • You make a very good point. I agree that in many cases, going along with authority does make a lot of sense, especially when it’s for the common good. However, always blindly submitting and never questioning is a dangerous attitude.

    As with all things, it’s important to use good judgment. Thanks for the insightful response.

  • Medieval Annelid

    “Many people are of the opinion that if one party took over the government, or if some ideal system was implemented, our problems would be solved. Our problems are not so simple. The root cause is human weakness; greed, selfishness, aggression, and jealousy. There is no system of government that can change human nature. The conflict would remain and people would turn to another ‘answer’.”

    True. Without any authority, however, human nature would control humanity even more than it does now.

    Of course, your strategy was not to examine all sides of the issue of authority, but to argue against a particular shade of its greyness. This is acceptable for the demographic you’re writing to, but can be dangerous to those who wouldn’t question it, or merely skimmed the article and didn’t notice some of the details.

    “I’m not saying that everything offering guidance is evil. There is much to be learned from authority. But it is harmful when accepted unconditionally.”
    It’s just an itty-bitty, highly ignorable, blurb in a large, passionately powerful article. The most crucial element that is included nowhere else in the argument is “unconditionally.”

  • “Whenever I find a new author that strikes a chord I can’t get enough. I read everything they have to offer, hoping to find that elusive truth. But inevitably, my naive enthusiasm wears off and I realize the answer isn’t there.”

    Excellent point, John. Says exactly the same what Marcel Proust writes about his reading experience as a child in his essay On Reading ( a preface to Proust’s translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies). Read it if you haven’t yet – you’ll be amazed at how close it is to the point you’ve made in the article!

  • Actually, “Stanford Prison Expirement” shows us how mankind has a tendency to submit authority. It is really interesting. You should check out.

  • Interesting, I think I’ve actually seen a document about the prison experiment before.

  • bob dylan

    Best post probably on this entire website. RobertinSeattle and Tezcatlipoca great follow up comments too.

    Good point on what I call, pseudo-rebels or type B people, non-individuals. They always get caught up in dogmatic ideology, usually anti-something. They thrive off being”alternative”. You have to be on the path of the individual to recognize them. It’d be too damaging for their egos to think individually but they’ll accuse you of “selling out” if you call them out.

    This is the if not A, B fallacy; if A is wrong, then B, it’s opposite must be right.

    Example: The mainstream believes the official 911 story. If the mainstream thinks it, it’s wrong. Conspiracies (Alex Jones/Michael Rivero/David Icke etc.) must be right.

    Replace “the official 911 story” and “conspiracies” with, “conservatives” and “liberals”, “capitalism” and “communism”, “in mainstream culture” and “” or modify the sentence to fit “preps” and “skater” or punks or goths or emo etc. it’s all the same fallacy.

    Once you’re aware of your own operating reality and realize its potential fallacy, you’ll be unstoppable. You can change it. I talk with much pompous dramatics, because I’ve seen too many people fall for A-B thinking.

    • a dude

      An excellent reply! But something’s slightly amiss:

      “This is the if not A, B fallacy; if A is wrong, then B, it’s opposite must be right.”

      Sort of. The person’s problem, however, is in thinking that his position, B, is an OPPOSITE position. If B is indeed the opposite of A, and A is wrong, then B would be correct. The problem is that taking position B is taking a contrary position to A; so if A is wrong, B could still be wrong. That is: BOTH positions could be wrong.

      This fallacy is called the False Dichotomy: it presents only two possible alternatives, one of which is bogus, so the other MUST be right.

      This is a fallacy we’re all familiar with, but it’s sometimes hard to spot; it’s rhetoric is part of our very recent history: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

  • I know nobody studies Freud anymore, but I think you got it wrong about Ego and Superego.

    OK, OK, I took Phych l0l at Ryerson Pyromaniacal Institute in Toronto. Ryerson has since become a real university, and I feel that was a downgrade move :)

    Anyway, the ego tries to find a practical way to apply your megalomania, while the superego is really your conscience—If I do this, how will I fail morally?

    Don’t worry, I screw up on basic tenets all the time.


  • That’s certainly possible, Ivan, as I’m far from an expert. I was just restating the way it was explained to me in a lecture I heard in college a couple years ago.

  • John Wesley (some notable historic Brit dude?):

    No matter.

    You have one mothergrabber of a blog anyway.

    Whoops! There goes old Sigmund again.


  • Eli Gottlieb

    As a reflexively anti-authoritarian individual, I think you’re full of sh!t with your idea that people somehow have an innate desire to submit to authority. Most people just have a few things they want, and they submit or don’t submit based on how it advances their own (or their own ingroup’s) agenda.

  • Tommie Miller

    I deeply appreciate the time you have taken to help bring light to our motives. If we understood that many, if not all , of our actions may be due to instinct, we might have hope.

  • Hart Matthews

    Nice piece, John Wesley.

    I might add that it’s equally important to resist the temptation to *exercise* authority. Assuming that we have authority over our own bodies, we frequently have difficulty exercising simple self-discipline. Exercising authority over others is that much more complicated.

    One bone to pick: I get your point about bin Laden, but I’m not sure the actual facts back up the point. There are too many questions about September 11, 2001, to believe what the voice of authority has told us about that day.

    Take care,

  • Katy

    Like your site and your writing; thanks for it.

    I’m curious how you’d respond to the thought that the anti-authoritarian voice is such a strong and prevalent one in contemporary, and especially American, culture that it often becomes, itself, a form of authority to which people submit unthinkingly?

    The first question we have to ask of any truth claim is, as you say, “Is it actually true?” But “Who says so?” and “What right, claim or expertise do they have to say so?” shouldn’t be secondary questions. They should be approached with the same fairness and care as the pursuit of truth. As a onetime journalist, I believe this for the simple reason that some sources are trustworthy and authentic, while others aren’t. Though “what is true?” and “who claims it’s true?” may be separate questions, it doesn’t do to overlook their relationship to each other.

    In short: under the graffiti slogan “Question authority,” I’m one of those who would scribble, “Says who?”

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  • Cindy

    Just for the sake of curiosity, did any other readers immediately think of religion being misused and widely abused while reading this article?

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  • Ironman

    I have to caution against adopting the assumption authority is inherently, or even generally bad. There aren’t many people who have EVER graced this earth who could do great things WITHOUT submitting to authority. I guarantee you Michael Phelps could not have done what he did without submitting to Bob Bowman (or another coach). Ok, enough with the inductive examples…

    In my experience, it’s not natural to submit to authority. You even conceed in the article submission is taught to us from an early age, meaning it’s not natural. I don’t know that I have ever met a child who wanted to comply with authority unless it pleased them because it was already in line with their personal interests (I’ll go to bed, but only because my show is over and I’m sleepy).

  • Excellent information here. This interesting post made me smile.

  • Dog Lover

    Thank you for this article. It has given me so much peace as I have the equivalent of emotional fascist in my life. But I am writing some computer exams and will be out here soon!

    Thanks again.

  • Dog Lover

    Oh, I forget, those exams I wrote and will write have all been done via self study. I don’t know about others, but having an instructor/teacher really gives a blow to independent thought and subdues the will. Believe in yourself folks.

    • Games

      Rubbish. Only if you have a weak mind and an instructor who is not willing to question his/her own perceptions. Doing it all by yourself is the hard way. Learning from others and then bettering it is a better way.

  • Priceless. Great stuff here. Successful people usually have problems with authority, because they have the capacity to become authorities within themselves.

  • I really wonder why there are so many people who question authority but do not do anything about it. It’s like they are too scared to meddle with the law just to prove a point, even if they are right about it.

  • It’s easy to get into that comfort zone where you rely on others to do the work for you. Thinking for yourself takes a lot of energy.

  • Hiten Gorecha

    It is a cold and lonely road to stand alone without authority and rely on your own judgment

  • “It is a cold and lonely road to stand alone without authority and rely on your own judgement”. Damn right it is. Very lonely, very scary, but I guess it must be done if you want something more out of life. 

  • Felixlalov

    “The Holocaust was caused by submission to the Nazi authority” – if we use the same reasoning,  since the worse deeds in human history were done by people who ate tomatos then …  tomatos are inherently evil!
    Authority is very imprortant for the forming of the bond between the teacher and a student! how you are going to teach physics or math or anything worth teaching if the teacher is not respected?


    Wow, I nearly always see religious doctrines listed near to authority and not the whole truth.  I don’t object to the idea of questioning authority – the reformation was based on the idea that each man could interpret scripture for himself and no man should be the highest authority of another man – but they were searching for TRUTH because it exists. When are you people going to learn that your OPINION is not worth squat unless it is based on TRUTH. This idea of personal TRUTH is a heap of rubbish if it based on some fantasy you like to believe because it seems TRUE for you. That’s just your nervous system convincing you you are right. TRUTH exists – TRUE TRUTH and all this shades of truth stuff is only worthwhile relative to its concordance with the actual TRUTH not your opinion. Jesus said I am the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE. He claimed to BE the one way. No-one has ever been able to prove Him a liar. You just don’t like His claims because you don’t want to know the TRUTH you want to know your own lies and believe them as truth.