The robed, wigged magistrate looked down from his lofty bench above the gathered crowd. He pointed to me and accused me of treason. The judge stated that he knew I was an American and had betrayed sacred loyalty to the Crown. I felt stunned by the judge’s charges until he accused another person of another high crime.
This happened during a visit to see my friend Graham in the UK several years ago. We toured a theme park depicting 18th century and older London. There were a few other peculiarly frightening occurrences during the park visit, but the few minutes our tour group had spent in the courtroom in front of the magistrate were some of the most memorable of that day.
Regardless of the nation or municipality where a courtroom exists, the atmosphere of authority is implicit. In the case of the magistrate in the theme park, There was a tall, impressive bench. The actor depicting the judge wore a traditional judicial powdered wig and a black robe. He wielded a formidable-looking gavel. He spoke in a booming, assertive manner. The judge gave the aura of someone imbued with Royal, if not Divine powers.
I thought about the English theme park magistrate last year during my first jury duty call-up. I had been selected as a possible jury member in Madison County, Nebraska. There was a reverential tone about the entire process. It took place within a wood-paneled courtroom among the sheriff’s deputies, and all the rest. As the judge entered the courtroom we were told to rise for him, just like in the movies and teevee. The judge wore a black robe and behaved in a very solemn manner. He has the actual enforceable power to umpire the cases before him. Any disrespect towards the judge is a serious crime.
During a lull in the jury selection proceedings, I reflected on the pomp and drama of both scenarios. In the theme park, the magistrate at the bench was a charade performed very convincingly. However, the actor’s words and gestures did not come from a place of legal legitimacy. Whereas the judge in Madison County Court was an ultimate arbiter of guilt or innocence backed up with the full force of the law.
If time travel was possible, and if I had actually been in front of a magistrate in London in the 1700s, the consequences would be quite dire and severe. Judicial authority wielded by an actual wigged and robed judge would have been frightful. Instead of being hustled to the next park attraction, I would have been hauled off by police to be held in a dank prison cell or dungeon.
Authority is a fascinating concept. The people look up to authority figures. There is an air of apprehension. For the most part, people prefer to be led. The people are reluctant to accept full responsibility as citizens. This is true in instances of the state, a political party, and religion. In authoritarian systems there is no buffer between the citizen and ultimate judgment. It doesn’t matter if the authority figure is a cleric, a judge, or a head of an institution. In an authoritarian system, what the ultimate leader desires, is final; there is no further review.
It’s good to objectively study the politician, the clergy, the leader of the group we belong to. What are our motives as to why we submit to the authority they command? Is it through threat of punishment or is it because of some idealistic opinion? It is easy to fall under the sway of certain hierarchical, organized belief systems and to disregard the legitimacy of others. If we are compelled to obey authority under threat of exile or death we cannot act as autonomous, free individuals.
The setting up and legitimizing authority figures are acts of relinquishing freedom of thought and action. Authority gains its power through fear of punishment and hope for reward. Authority is a concept that those who possess authority do not want us to seriously contemplate very deeply. When authority rules, appeasement is the only way to gratify the leader. It is important to remember that freedom cannot be sold, or bought, or given by another.
True freedom and personal authority can only be discovered and possessed by looking within.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a line from the historian, philosopher, and writer, Voltaire. “Men use thought only as authority for their injustice, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts.”