The effects and burdens of power

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton.

It’s an interesting expression but unfortunately it has often been shown to be incorrect. One can wield immense power yet remain righteous and it turns out you can become corrupted with little power to speak of and I honestly cannot say that absolute power corrupted Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Hadrian, Emperor Wen of Han, Pharao Sneferu, Cyrus or Darius the Great. They wielded their power benevolently their entire lives.

Many a bureaucrat has shown that you can become absolutely corrupt without absolute power, only a little bit of power as an unaccountable member of a corrupt network is sufficient. A lack of accountability, of responsibility, might just be more corrupting than any power one can imagine. Corrupt colleagues, a corrupt ideology and a corrupt culture lead more to corruption than power ever does.

Acton’s mistake was viewing power as only a corrupting force and one that could be calculated as well. His perspective was oddly binary and simplistic. Similar to Nietzsche and his will to power. Ascribing one primary motivating factor to all human beings is both generalising and like a form of projection. Humans are both diverse and often unpredictable and complicated.

Which leads me to the additional question, does power corrupt or does power reveal?

That one depends, is a person’s nature static or fluid? Psychology has gone back and forth between the two extreme positions, humans are determined at birth or they’re tabula rasa. I think it’s a mixture of both, nature and nurture. This seems so obvious that the only real debate should be, which one of the two is more important? Is one of the two even crucial for everyone on the planet or does it differ per person?

When power reveals, bad people with proper self-control, get in a position where they can get away with no longer controlling their evil tendencies. But is that the reason that all rulers who go bad go bad? With some in takes years? The power, the ability to go bad, is a constant temptation for anyone who has only mildly bad tendencies, and resisting temptation for years and especially decades, can be very exhausting. Don’t bad tendencies risk becoming worse due to being constantly encouraged? Once you give in to corruption once it risks developing into a bad habit.

But power doesn’t just corrupt by encouraging bad tendencies like greed, narcissism, hypocrisy or complacency, but also due to the sacrifices and strains that often come with it, having to order unpleasant things, having to punish corrupt friends and even family, presiding over war and so on. Immense power and responsibility are a burden to the wise and noble. I am reminded of the Socratic dialogue Gorgias provided by Plato in which Archelaus I of Macedon is referenced as a competent ruler of whom it was questionable whether he could ever be happy, since he had to murder his 7 year old half-brother, uncle and cousin and marry his stepmother just to get the throne. In the days of monarchy and aristocracy, interfamily horrors were more common, nowadays the entire population commonly suffers from the caprice of terrible prime ministers. But that aside, since Archelaus intentionally murdered innocent people, including his own citizens, I don’t think he could be genuinely happy, since he cut himself off from true goodness. Ordering a just war or the execution of traitors and criminals is different, this was something which even his wise contemporaries questioned.

Ironically it was the the ruler of those savage Persians, Cyrus the Great, who showed mercy to kings he defeated. Rulers like Cyrus and Augustus are a testimony to how absolute power can be wielded wonderfully while the late Roman Republic and late Athenian democracy show the possibility of collective corruption.

In the end great wisdom and endurance is given to some, while basic virtue seems to be lacking in the masses of a culture that’s past its prime. Montesquieu already predicted how horrid democracies would be(come) without virtue.

Johan van Schaik

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