No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Authority and Subordination

Seemingly one-sided relationships on closer inspection involve mutual influence and interaction. There is a desire for influence and a satisfaction derived from the impact one's actions or conditions have on others. This self-centered exercise of power is a form of societal interaction. Even in seemingly passive roles, individuals exert influence and contribute to the dynamics of the relationship. Even in situations of apparent dominance, an interaction of forces and mutual obligations exists. Dominance and subordination within groups contribute to both unity and conflict, even in cases where relationships seem purely mechanical. Dominance can manifest through individuals, groups, or objective powers, each impacting social dynamics differently.


Group subordination to an individual often leads to group cohesion, either through unity under a leader or through opposition to authority. Yielding to authority involves voluntary belief and trust. Authority can be based on personal superiority or institutional prestige, both involving some level of reciprocity and mutual acknowledgment. Whether unified or in opposition, subordination tends to consolidate the group, which creates a common identity and purpose. Subordination under an individual can result in either unity or disunity among subordinates, depending on factors like proximity to power and jealousy. Conflicts between subordinates can be mitigated or exacerbated by the presence of a higher authority. The role of a higher authority in resolving conflicts and fostering unity among disparate parties can provide a common ground for reconciliation or impose new qualities that facilitate cooperation.

Two forms of unification through common subordination are leveling and grading. When a group of people are uniformly subordinate to an individual, that makes them equal in that sense.


The correlation between despotism and leveling operates not only in the direction where the despot seeks to level the subordinates but also inversely, as a pronounced leveling can easily lead to despotic forms. Not every form of leveling is conducive to despotism. Homogeneous societies with different rank levels may resist despotism more effectively than those with diverse and disjointed elements. Despotism seeks to balance class differences because excessive dominance or subordination among subjects can compete with the ruler's own dominance, both materially and psychologically. Despotism finds overly suppressed classes or overly powerful ones equally dangerous. Suppressing certain classes too much might lead to rebellion, which could even target the highest authority if it doesn't take the lead in the movement. Some despots prefer mediocre servants as they exhibit an inner correlation with leveling. Despots may hinder the formation of aristocracies to maintain their absolute authority over all subjects. This reflects a broader tendency where despots prefer a certain level of leveling among their subjects to ensure their dominance. Despots may seek relative leveling by favoring the aspiration of lower classes to achieve legal equality with intermediate powers.

Differentiation supports governance

The structure of a society where only one rules while the majority are ruled relies on a division of personality. This division allows for the ruler's full personality to be engaged in the relationship, contrasting with the partial engagement of individual subjects. Governing larger groups may be easier when individuals are more differentiated, as it reduces the overlap of their personalities within the mass to be governed. Conversely, in societies where individuals are highly connected to the collective, ruling becomes more challenging. This leads to insights into the relationship between rulers and subjects, highlighting the role of differentiation among individuals and the subjective qualities of rulers in shaping governance structures.

Hierarchical social structures

A hierarchical social structure can be characterized by the dominance of a single ruler or it can resemble a pyramid, where power is distributed in gradual levels from the bottom to the top. In the first type, power emanates from a single individual, gradually diminishing as it filters down through various layers of society. This erosion of power can occur due to internal instability, lack of competence among rulers, or societal changes. The second type involves a deliberate effort by a ruler to extend and consolidate their power, organizing society into hierarchical levels. Here, the focus is not on the redistribution of power but on organizing individuals into ranks and positions. This hierarchical structure aims to concentrate power around the ruler, fostering a sense of unity and stability within the society. In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, both top-down and bottom-up processes contributed to the establishment of a hierarchical social order. The feudal system exemplifies the complexity of power dynamics, where individuals can occupy dual positions of authority and subordination simultaneously. Establishing and maintaining hierarchical structures is challenging, because human nature is inherently variable and unpredictable. Social hierarchies can be influenced by factors such as individual qualities, economic conditions, and political dynamics.

Hierarchical relationships, particularly within monarchies and social groups, are of a paradoxical nature, where both similarity and dissimilarity between individuals or groups can influence the dynamics of power and authority. Monarchies, even when facing external challenges, still uphold the monarchical institution as it reinforces their own legitimacy. For example, when French politics supported uprisings in neighboring countries, it weakened the monarchical principle, affecting even the French monarchy itself. Individuals may feel a sense of loyalty or opposition based on their relationship to a monarch or ruler. Even when the ruler's actions are detrimental, there can be a deep-seated loyalty or aversion based on personal or societal factors.

Social hierarchies operate based on proximity or similarity to those in power. In historical examples, groups preferred leaders from within their own ranks or from outside, depending on various factors such as impartiality, understanding, or strategic advantage.

The dominance of a majority or social entity over individuals or other groups involves an experience of uneven outcomes by those who are subordinate within these structures. Under majority rule, success for the subordinate is often inconsistent. Slaves in Ancient Greece preferred being slaves of the state rather than individuals, and certain groups fared better under state control compared to private ownership. Larger entities, whether ruled by a single authority or collective governance, tend to provide better conditions for those in subordinate positions, as seen in the case of British India under direct rule versus the East India Company.

Objectivity in governance tends to suppress certain individual feelings and impulses, and can lead to both positive and negative outcomes for those being governed. Larger organizations often behave more objectively, while smaller groups may exhibit more individual exploitation.

The psychological dynamics of collective behavior

Individual responsibility diminishes within a crowd, leading to both heightened impulsivity and suggestibility, as well as instances of extraordinary courage or enthusiasm. Conflicts arise when individuals are subject to multiple competing authorities, such as children caught between warring parents or small states caught between powerful neighbors.

Subordination in social structures and its implications for individuals at different levels of hierarchy. Subordinates may find themselves caught between conflicting higher authorities, leading to internal conflict and moral dilemmas. Historical and sociological examples illustrate how power dynamics and hierarchies can affect individuals' autonomy and well-being.

Subordinates can benefit when authorities clash

One key idea is the notion of "duobus litigantibus tertius gaudet" (when two quarrel, the third rejoices), suggesting that subordinate individuals can sometimes benefit when higher authorities clash, either by gaining autonomy or by having their burdens shifted downward. Examples include feudal systems where vassals had multiple lords, providing them with leverage and independence, and religious systems where believers could appeal to different gods for assistance, granting them a sense of agency.

Power dynamics

Power dynamics can shift depending on the structure of the hierarchy. In some cases, intermediaries between higher and lower tiers can exploit their position to exert control and isolate the lowest tier, leading to further oppression. Conversely, when higher tiers support and empower lower tiers, as seen in certain historical contexts like England's parliament or France's ancien regime, subordinates can find protection and support against oppressive regimes.

The Dynamics of Subordination under Objective Principles and Societal Influence

Subordination under an impersonal, objective principle is different from subordination under individuals or pluralities. While obeying an objective law may seem less constraining than obeying an individual, it still poses challenges to individual freedom. Psychological implications of subordination under an objective principle include the role of conscience and moral imperatives in shaping individual behavior. Moral commands, although perceived as impersonal, are often internalized as personal imperatives, reflecting the complex interplay between individual consciousness and societal norms. Individuals are influenced by societal regulations, either through instinctive adherence or conscious internalization of societal norms. Three types of subordination are distinguished: under power, under social impulses, and under moral imperatives beyond individual or societal origin. Society acts as a mediator between individuals and objective reality, influencing both intellectual and moral development. Objective law, embodied for its own sake, represents a later stage of development that precedes the demand for justice from social objectivity alone.

Evolution of Morality and Social Organization: From Personal to Objective Principles

Morality and social organization evolved from personal subordination to objective principles. Initially, morality is defined by altruistic social relations between individuals. Philosophical moral teachings later detach from personal relationships and focus on objective principles, such as the realization of the good or adherence to universal law.

Abstract ideal principles often precede real domination by individuals or classes. The development of familial authority shifted from subjective to objective ideals. Similarly, in labor relationships, there's a transition from personal subordination to objective economic processes, symbolized by contractual agreements. Domestic service, military hierarchy, and trade unions evolved from personal to objective subordination. Objective principles, whether economic or ideological, gradually replace personal dominance in shaping social relationships.

Dual Roles in Hierarchical Systems

Individuals play both the roles of leaders and followers. Individuals in positions of authority often act as representatives of larger organizations, while those in subordinate positions may take pride in representing their social circles or ideologies. Individuals navigate their roles within hierarchical systems. Sometimes, individuals dominate by inheriting titles or positions of authority without the necessary context to support their significance.

Group size versus social status

Group size, intensity of relationships, and the perception of dominance within social circles are related. Shifts in societal structures, such as the decline of Hellenistic civilization, can lead to the inflation of social status and the pursuit of empty ambitions. Individuals often seek positions of elevation in the absence of corresponding subordination. Dominance can emerge even without a clear subordinate counterpart, leading to a complex hierarchy within groups. Greek citizenship and the French Revolution illustrate how freedom and equality are intertwined concepts. Liberation from subordination often results in the pursuit of dominance or supremacy, rather than true equality. The desire for elevation drives individuals to seek superiority over others, leading to a perpetual cycle of striving for higher status. Freedom, when utilized, can lead to the domination of others, perpetuating hierarchical structures.

Within smaller, specialized communities, own jurisdictions and laws are established, which in turn can lead to a form of freedom for the group as a whole but subjugation for individual members. In medieval guilds and the Danish legal system, for instance, group autonomy sometimes led to stricter regulations than those imposed by larger governing bodies. Certain groups, such as guilds or unions, establish their own legal systems to maintain control over their members and ensure adherence to group norms. Movements for liberation or reform within a group can sometimes result in the consolidation of power among certain individuals or classes, leading to new forms of domination within the group itself. Alliances formed during social movements can often benefit the more privileged members of the group, while leaving others behind.

Freedom versus dominance in societal organization

The pursuit of freedom often accompanies the acquisition of dominance. Ideologies such as socialism and anarchism, attempt to break this connection by envisioning a society without overarching systems of domination and subordination. But the natural differentiation among individuals and the requirements of technological progress necessitate some form of hierarchical organization within society. Despite sporadic attempts throughout history to establish social systems that balance freedom with the elimination of domination, these efforts often stem from feelings of oppression and degradation among individuals rather than a purely rational assessment of societal organization.

Alternating dominance and subordination

Alternating domination and subordination can be a potential solution to the problems posed by traditional hierarchical structures. By periodically shifting power dynamics, individuals can avoid the personal disadvantages of constant subjugation while still benefiting from the organizational advantages of hierarchical systems. Examples like parliamentary government in England and the organization of marriage illustrate how this alternating pattern of dominance and submission can foster unity and stability within social relationships. Such dynamics were instrumental in maintaining solidarity within groups like Cromwell's army.

Conflicts arise when dominance and subordination overlap in the same realm, leading to disruptions in solidarity and stability. Examples are rebellions in the Spanish army and tensions within the American Episcopal Church. Domination and subordination initially stemmed from personal superiority but evolved into more objective forms over time. Social structures become more fixed and formalized, often detached from individual qualities, as seen in governmental hierarchies and money-based economies.

Socialism's approach to hierarchical organization emphasizes on centralized control; this contradicts its aim of equal opportunity for all individuals to fill positions of leadership. Pure democracy, where leaders are chosen by the led, still faces challenges in ensuring a meaningful connection between individuals and their positions of authority.

Challenges in implementing the rule of the best

The rule of the best idealizes leadership by the most qualified individuals; implementing such a system is challenging due to difficulties in identifying and placing the best. Coercion and dominance, whether from individuals or laws, are necessary for societal cohesion, even if the content of such dominance is not always optimal.

There is a discrepancy between individuals' potential for leadership and their actual attainment of such positions, since social structures often predefine who can occupy leadership roles. This selection process aims to breed leaders rather than selecting them based on existing qualifications. There is a tension between inherent lack of qualification for superiority and the eventual qualification gained through higher authority, particularly within institutions like the Catholic priesthood.


Simmel, G. (1908), Über- und Unterordnung, in: Soziologie - Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot.