What is the Source of Power and the Criterion of Legitimacy?

What is the Source of Power and the Criterion of Legitimacy?

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

How the individual or the community will form governments due to their principles; why they will not comply with the current administration, rules and order; In which situations it is appropriate to obey and in which situations it is appropriate to oppose constitutes the problem of the source of power.

The formation of order and power and its observance are based on different reasons. In political philosophy, this also means the problem of legitimacy (lawfulness on the one hand and social consent on the other). Legitimacy; It is where the ruler gets his power to rule, why the ruled obey the ruler. This situation is called the problem of the source of power in the most general sense.

The debate on the source of power has led to the emergence of different views. If we consider three of the prominent ones, the first one says that the state emerges from people’s needs for protection and security. In this sense, the state exists as a social necessity. The state says that the rulers hold the power to govern in order to meet this need. This view is referred to as the naturalistic view.

The second view is based on religious explanation. Rulers exist to keep God’s commandments. Since the source of power is seen as God, people have to obey the rules of the state. The source of power is considered as divine commands.

The third view is based on the assumption that people make a social contract in order to meet people’s needs, social harmony, order and security. The social contract is the collective agreement of people. This gives the rulers the power to exercise their power.


The problem of legitimacy of power is closely related to the source of power.

Because, every power can be considered legitimate as long as it adheres to the principles and bases of its own source. If the rulers of the state do not base their power on a legitimacy, that power cannot be permanent. For this reason, the criterion of legitimacy can be explained based on the sources of power.

About the source of power;

The first approach says that power stems from the need to protect society against internal and external dangers.
The second approach sees God as the source of power. According to this approach, power is God’s representative on earth.
According to the third approach, the source of power stems from the common will of the people living in the society, and their views come to the fore.

The problem of legitimacy is tried to be explained as follows:

According to the first approach, the state and power emerged in order to respond to the moral maturation needs of individuals. It is legitimate to the extent that it fulfills this purpose.
According to those who defend the approach that the state is God’s representative on earth, power is legitimate on the basis of the fulfillment of a religious mission.
According to Marxism, the state is a tool that serves the dominant classes to hold the means of production.
According to another approach, the state is the representative of the common will. The practices of the state are legitimate as long as they serve the common will.

According to these explanations, the sources of power are generally four.

a) The source of power  derives from “human nature”. Power arises from the society’s need to be protected against internal and external dangers. The power that fulfills functions such as protecting people, meeting their basic and social needs, maturing morally and raising virtuous people is considered legitimate. Its important representatives are Plato, Aristotle, Farabi and Ibn Khaldun.

b) The source of power is “God”. The state is an institution that God wants. Those in power are God’s representatives on earth. Power is legitimate as long as it rules society in accordance with these laws set by God. It is the understanding adopted in Islamic societies and medieval Europe. Notable representative St. Augustine (354-430).

c) The source of power  derives from “the desire of the individuals in the society to live together based on a contract”. In other words, the state is a product of the common will (contract). Power is considered legitimate when it realizes what is deemed to be the will of the common will. According to Hobbes, man in his natural state threatens his own existence. People came together not out of love for each other, but because they were afraid of each other, and they transferred their authority to use some of their rights to the superior power, namely the state. If the state does not exist, people harm each other. In other words, the state was born out of the people’s desire to co-exist. Its important representatives are T. Hobbes, J. Locke and J. J. Rousseau.

d) According to the understanding of Marxism, the state remains legitimate by protecting the interests of the class it serves.

Compiled by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Atatürk University Department of Sociology Lecture Notes for Grade 1 “Introduction to Philosophy” and Grade 3 “History of Contemporary Philosophy” (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook