I'm trying to precisely define some political and philosophical concept and i realize i can't figure out what the difference is between Authority and Power.

a few researches gave me that :

Authority is defined as the power to command, to oblige, to be obeyed. There seems to be a notion of accepted superiority that gives that power.

Same with Power. Wikipedia

But authority may or may not be perceived as legitimate (whatever "legitimacy" may mean). It feels like : authority is power granted by some kind of legitimacy, but power has to be granted too, legitimacy, or force. But in relations of domination, there seems also to be authority granted by coercion : fear, psychology

So can someone help me figure this out ? Thank you.

  • Blackmail is a good example of power without authority - if that helps at all – OMGtechy Sep 12 '16 at 19:34

Authority of a subject over its object refers to its legitimate capability to manipulate the objects followed by Subject's belongingness.

Power of a subject over any object refers to its legitimate or illegitimate capability to manipulate the objects followed by Subject's superiority.


  • Thank you very much for your reply. Adding the notion of capabilities, subject and object really helped me make my ideas clearer. – joseph M'Bimbi-Bene Sep 10 '16 at 10:31
  • My pleasure. :) – Mr. Sigma. Sep 10 '16 at 10:36
  • Is the concept of Authority like a subconcept of the concept of Power ? I'm not sure whether an Authority is a kind of Power of whether they are 2 separate things – joseph M'Bimbi-Bene Sep 10 '16 at 11:03
  • Yes, authority is the subconcept of power. We can understand as power to be a parent notion of authority. – Mr. Sigma. Sep 10 '16 at 11:18
  • This answer completely lacks even a minimum of sourcing. – Philip Klöcking Oct 14 '16 at 0:52

I would use the definitions of Allan Buchanan, who is arguably one of the most influential writers in political philosophy. In his essay Political Legitimacy and Democracy (Ethics 112, 4 (July 2002): 689–719) he gives the following definitions:

Political Legitimacy

...an entity has political legitimacy if and only if it is morally justified in wielding political power,... (p.689)

Political Power

..., where to wield political power is to attempt to exercise a monopoly, within a jurisdiction, in the making, application, and enforcement of laws. (pp. 689-90)

That means that political power, which has the three components of

  1. making, applying and enforcing laws,
  2. within a certain territory and
  3. with the aspiration of doing so as a monopolist,

is part of the definition of political legitimacy.

Legitimacy just adds the conditional that the power has to be morally justified in its doings.

Political Authority

Both have to be distinguished from political authority, which he defines as follows:

I shall say that an entity has political authority if and only if, in addition to (1) possessing political legitimacy it (2) has the right to be obeyed by those who are within the scope of its rules; in other words, if those upon whom it attempts to impose rules have an obligation to that entity to obey it. To say that X has a right to be obeyed by P implies that if P does not comply with X’s rules P wrongs X. (p. 691)

This means that in addition to political legitimacy, for political authority there has to be some kind of reason for the people the rules are made for to comply. This may be e.g. that the institution, government or state is simply perceived as having the right to impose rules. This is not necessarily identical with having moral justification or even realising that it is in fact politically legitimate. Therefore, it is more than that. It is one of Buchanan's essential arguments that we should distinguish here.


This means basically that political authority (PA) entails political legitimacy (PL) plus the (either perceived, factual, or principal) right to be obeyed. At the same time, political legitimacy entails political power (PP) plus moral justification. Or, even shorter:

PP ⊂ PL ⊂ PA

  • 3
    Excellent answer ! Just wanted to add that John Simmons, the philosophical anarchist, defines legitimacy and authority the other way around. Robert Ladenson, Hobbesian, thinks there are no distinctions among the above three terms. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Jun 9 '17 at 15:50

Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, wrote a short essay what is Authority which you might find useful; but its much more broadly constituted than your question and is really looking into the loss of authority of the Western tradition a la Heidegger and Adorno.

In her theory of human action, which to her was a political category; she distinguished between strength, which is situated in an individual, and power which is situated in a group; she writes about these her book The Human Condition. Again, I'm not sure, though, that these are quite the concepts you are looking for - judging from the content of your question; but you might find them useful.

Hobbes would be another candidate where he defines the several powers which hang together in his notion of authority - sovereignty; another might be Agamben - where going from Schmitt - he explores Sovereignty - as an exception; it is both within the judicial order, and outside it; inside it, as a power that upholds order, and outside it, as legislating power; however he is really obscure - I mean difficult.


I have pondered this for a while and I think that authority is a modern bastardization of an older concept. When you study something enough, you gain the knowledge that enables you to author a book on the subject. In the development of language, authorities in a subject often invent new terms to denote specific elements within the subject. Someone who wants to engage the subject, perhaps, for example, to learn to cook, will find an expert or "authority" from whom to learn.

When a subject uses authority to control an object, the object necessarily loses its intrinsic control. Really, this never happens, but we are made to feel it happen when, for example, we are threatened into obeying. One may say that "you can't break the law" and this is true for real laws, like the law of gravity and the conservation of momentum, but for human laws that are made up by legislators, it's obviously not true. We still say it, and that evidences a kind of superstition, as Larken Rose puts it.

Power, on the other hand, is simply the ability to control. One may say that the difference between the (coercive) authority you mean in your question and "power" is that authority only exists because of the disposition (superstition, belief, abdication of conscience, whatever) of the object, whereas power exists regardless of the internal state of the object.

  • etymologically, authority is directly related to 'augere' -- to nourish and cause to grow. The author has grown the book from the seed of knowledge, the authorities have 'fed and watered' the subject matter. So at least in principle, it is unrelated to control. So the discontinuity you point out, to me, is the confusion between cultivation and parenting. But it is very fixed in the tradition, as it figures strongly in Locke's, and Libertarians' (especially Objectivists) notions of the real source of property rights in production, and underlies Marx's 'labor' theory of value. – jobermark Oct 14 '16 at 4:58

According to the book "The Paradox" (James Hunter), power is coercitive, authority not. A priest has authority, he can make people do things just by asking, but a dictator has power, he can force people to do things. Having both is possible (Hitler) but using only authority is noble (Gandhi). Personally I find it appropriate.


From a perspective in Nietzsche power takes many forms, including domination, art (for an audience), and creation (art without an audience). For some others following him, these three constitute the full range of power and point to identified, distinct forms. They often make a strident point on this because it is too easy to interpret power primarily as domination, which leads to a reading of Nietzsche as an aspiring totalitarian or an outright beast.

These three forms of power are elaborated more directly by Starhawk as shaped by Karen Horney. In "Truth or Dare" (a book with three themes, one of which is authority) Starhawk names these as 'power over', 'power with' and 'power within'. For Horney, they are the direction of resources against, toward, or away from others.

Less quaintly, they are

  1. the kind of power one uses to control others as objects, regardless of their will;
  2. the kind of power one derives among people as subjects, in groups, through interdependence with others; and
  3. the kind of power one has whether or not others are present at all, through one's own capabilities and resources.

These shade into one another and constitute a sort of circular continuum.

Authority is, in name and history, the variety of the second form of power -- power with or toward others -- that lies closest to the first. The word goes back to the Latin word for 'nourish', and authority is rightly, in terms of its etymology, the kind of power a parent has over a child or a keeper has over an animal, which helps them to grow or survive appropriately. It controls the child or charge, in his/its own best interest, though that best interest is also a direct interest of the agent wielding the power.

Authority gives one the right to control the action of others because of a relationship they have with you. But as we use the word most often, that relationship is an abstract agreement which is no longer negotiable and often does not involve equal concern for the agent and the one affected.

So, often, in 'patriarchal' society, we are treated as the nominal children of some parental figure for our whole lives (be that a person, some system playing the part of a clan, or God in the form of some contract he has provided.) Since we have reduced most of that public 'parental' role to 'fathering' as contrasted with 'mothering', this usually crosses over the natural boundary and makes the word 'authority' code for the first form of power masquerading as the second.

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