I’ve mentioned “legitimation” in several of these blogs: Religious Traditions: Statics; The Laws of Manu; and The Pentateuch. Now is an apt time to expand on this concept.
Suppose I wrote something in this blog that you doubted. You might write me and say, “How do you know?” In asking this question, you’re asking for me to legitimize my point. You are asking for a legitimation.
Being something of a scholar, I might have mentioned that my thoughts on the subject of legitimation follow those of Max Weber, specifically, his theory of “the types of legitimate authority” as set forth in his major tome, Economy and Society. It’s a well-known theory, and many thinkers have found it useful for explaining how the human world works. They’ve modified it, but they still acknowledge its explanatory power. Weber remains, as if by coincidence, something of an authority on the issue of legitimation.
My example shows how legitimation works in ordinary secular life, how it is important and how we make our decisions based on our judgment of how persuasive an argument is.
In the world of traditional religion, legitimation takes a standard form. Let’s say there’s a mindset common to the traditional religions, great or small. Let’s say that those who share this mindset think about legitimacy assuming three unstated axioms and several corollaries. (The first of these axioms also exists in the minds of most nontraditional, secular people.)
The first axiom is that there are directives that should guide human behavior and thought. The second, that these directives come from a charter, which consists of myths, whether they be cosmogonic, founder, both, or other, and whether the myths are passed along orally or are set down in writing. The third axiom is that the charter has a source. This source is always something beyond the everyday, the ordinary, the natural. It can be a god or gods, ancestors, heroes, or some impersonal metaphysical reality. Supernatural is a term that comes to mind.
As for the corollaries, they augment the axioms by clarifying the traits of the charter. They concern the relation between a charter and its source. The first corollary is: The charter partakes of the source. It is, or contains, a mythology (a set of interrelated myths); the mythology concerns the relation between the higher power(s) and the transcendent. A second corollary is that the charter is superior to and thus authoritative for the community that takes it for its own. It belongs to that transcendental, supernatural order that the traditional mind-set assumes to be eternally in place and that the center spends its time interpreting.
The charter is significant. It tells the community what to do: what the ritual taboos and requirements are; what is moral and what immoral; what the proper human relationships are. Last of all, the charter is univocal. It speaks with a single voice. It contains no contradictions.
So when a question arises within the community concerning the proper course of action, it knows where to go for answers. It knows that any such course must be legitimized by appealing to the authoritative, significant, univocal charter, which reflects the ultimate source to which it is bound.