A few days ago, while walking home from the local library, I recalled an expression I learned in a class on early Christian history: primus inter pares. This notion was used by early church leaders (e.g., the Bishop of Rome, now the Pope) and present day patriarchs to indicate a status of “first among equals.” Perhaps this could help me with my question of what to call benevolent dictatorship in open content communities. But, the sentiment wasn’t quite right and it would be difficult to coin a term out of that Latin expression. But as I followed links from the primus page I encountered the terms “patriarch,” “ethnarch,” “archons” and finally “auctoritas.”
The Oxford Classical Dictionary defines patrum auctoritas as: “the assent given by the ‘fathers’ (patres) to decisions of the Roman popular assemblies. The nature of this assent is unclear, but it may have been a matter of confirming that the people’s decision contained no technical or religious flaws. The ‘fathers’ in question were probably only the patrician senators, not the whole senate…” (Momigliano and Cornell 2003). Auctoritas is the Latin root of English words authority and author. Given that “benevolent dictators” are often the founding author of open content projects, it seems appropriate. (In the Internet standards context, I spoke of “elders.”) While I was convinced for a time my term would include the root “arch,” for “ruler,” the more I read of auctoritas the more I liked it.
Additionally, the form of power inherent in auctoritas fits my notion of leadership. It is not a coercive order but a recommendation with a normative force based on the prestige and charisma of a leader. Theodore Mommsen wrote of it as a force that is “more than an advice and less than an order: it is an advice whose compliance it is not easy to evade…” (Mommsen, as cited in Lottieri 2005:15). Lottiere’s concludes his discussion of the notion by writing:
For all these reasons we can say that auctoritas wa[s] on the edge between the legal world and the social life, the beliefs, the customs. It is in condition to influence the decisions by its prestige. Therefore, people refusing the auctoritas can ignore it, but they know that by the decision they are out of the community. (Lottieri 2005:15).
And this dovetails into the possibility of forking!
So, I find the term to be a surprisingly good fit. Now I need to figure out how to pronounce “auctorical” or “auctorial,” or maybe even “authorial,” leadership. Is this too awkward?