The Vocabulary Of Power

The mechanics of power are complex and easily misunderstood. Modern English vocabulary on the subject does not help; it is often imprecise and equivocal (e.g. the word influence), lumps together different types of power (e.g. authority), and frequently conflates power and morality (e.g. rights). The result is that it’s difficult to think clearly about how things work without resorting to nonstandard terms.

The ancient Romans used much clearer concepts to talk about power. This is not surprising, considering the Roman obsession with the subject. What follows are the four most useful concepts I’ve acquired from studying Roman ideas about power.

(I should note that I do not speak Latin. I learned this mostly from translations and secondary sources, and only a little bit from actual usage. I am likely missing some nuances at the very least. Nevertheless, I’ve found these concepts to be extremely useful for understanding the modern world.)

 

Imperium refers to control over violence. It was held by the imperator, the commander-in-chief of an army. He held the power of life and death over his soldiers, and through them, over everyone in the territory the army controlled.

No other type of power can block the use of imperium to destroy, but on its own imperium cannot be used to build. It is the most fundamental type of power, but also the crudest.  Imperium is the type of power to use for conquest, expropriation, and extortion, as well as for enforcing legal decisions or defending against others’ aggressive use of imperium.

Imperium survives in English in the word emperor, via imperator, which was among the titles of what English-speakers call the Roman Emperors. In modern usage, the term closest to the original meaning of imperium is the monopoly on legitimate violence. However, the Latin term avoids the connotations of moral or social approval which sneak into the English term.

Potestas refers to formal control in a nonmilitary organization. It is the type of power your boss has over you. It can be held by a CEO over a company, a principal over a school, or (in Roman times) a patriarch over a household.

This is the most common and visible form of power, and also the easiest to understand and use. Nearly every worthwhile project requires potestas to achieve the close internal coordination that is the foundation of any effective organization. A holder of potestas is always embedded inside the domain of a holder of imperium and relies on it for defense against some threats. Potestas is the type of power to use for “normal” hierarchical projects like restaurants, software companies, nonprofits, or the IRS, where it’s important that specific tasks get done reliably and on time.

The words potestas and power both come from the same root, potis. Power remains the closest English equivalent to potestas, as a relatively generic term that matches people’s everyday experience of formal control, although it is less precise than the Latin.

Dignitas refers to a rough amalgamation of wealth, formally-recognized accomplishment, family or class, connections, and charisma. It is held by politicians, magnates, and other leading figures.

It is more nebulous than imperium or potestas, and exists somewhat more “in the eye of the beholder”, although beholders have a remarkable tendency to reach the same conclusion. When used as a means, dignitas serves mostly to amplify other powers or skills. If used on its own, it must usually be piloted skillfully in order to accomplish anything more noteworthy than the acquisition of groupies. Yet, for many people of moderate ambition, dignitas takes on the character of a goal in itself. Dignitas is the type of power to use to get introductions and gain access, or to gain renown for its own sake.

Dignitas is, of course, the root of dignity. However, the closest word in modern usage is status. The difference is that status is about a person’s relation to their immediate surroundings (and so is highly context-dependent), whereas dignitas is about a person’s relation to their entire society (and so is context-invariant).

Auctoritas refers to the public recognition that a person has the appropriate standing to decide (or at least opine on) particular topics. In the context of ancient Roman politics, this described the power of the Senate, a judge, or an influential statesman. In the modern world, a parish priest holds substantial auctoritas over his congregation, while journalists wield some auctoritas over society as a whole. Constitutional monarchs still hold a great deal of auctoritas even if they rarely use it.

Of the forms of power described here, this is the most subtle. It is more than persuasion yet less than command. Like dignitas, auctoritas has a nebulous quality, although auctoritas is somewhat easier to codify and attach to formal roles. Like potestas, auctoritas applies only within a particular domain. Auctoritas is the type of power to use to guide a movement, change a culture, or spread an idea.

Auctoritas is the root of authority, although the modern English term refers to an unclear and inconsistent combination of potestas and auctoritas. The closest modern equivalent to auctoritas is legitimacy. The difference is that auctoritas is not necessarily so formal and codified, nor as moralistic.

 

These words are a closer match to the underlying mechanics of power than anything in modern English. I’ve found that much of the world, and much of my own life, is easier to think about in terms of these powers and their relations.

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