Is absolute power absolutely corrupting?

Lord Acton portrait painting

I’ve been thinking about Lord Acton’s famous remark “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” For, it has been my wariness of this outcome that has seen me shy away (in some small way at least) from opportunities to enhance my ‘power’ lest I too fall victim to its corrupting influence.

However, this morning I remembered a dream I had a while ago in which I discovered I had magical powers. Any thought I entertained became physically manifest in the dream; for example, I held a steel ball and ‘willed it’ to inflate like a big silvery balloon, and it did. I experimented with my powers in a few other ways, and it appeared I could shape the reality within the dream in any way I wanted simply by thinking about it. Soon after I had this realization – i.e., that I was now omnipotent – I experienced a powerful wave of confidence and euphoria, a bit like winning the lotto, maybe. I realized that I could do anything I wanted. However, the next thoughts to occur to me had nothing to do with how this power could be used to dominate, but how it could be used to help almost everybody on a personal level with the troubles that they faced. The elation I felt at that point was intense; the possibility for good was infinite.

This led me to wonder whether power really does ‘corrupt absolutely’. The problem with the concept involves our definition of ‘power’. What is it? What constitutes real power? Thinking about those people we consider to be powerful – world leaders, the rich, the captains of industry, etc. – within those ranks, corruption is rife. Then, I thought about what it is that makes us behave immorally; it’s not power – it’s weakness, vulnerability and desperation. A starving person will do anything to eat; a person drowning will drown anybody who approaches them if it means they can get another vital breath of air.

So, perhaps those whom we normally consider to be powerfeul don’t actually feel powerful; rather, they feel weak and vulnerable. This made sense to me because I knew that most of the fortunes of the super wealthy could not have been amassed without lies, deception, violence or otherwise treading on the throats of the many. No wonder the position feels precarious! Political leaders are at the mercy of a fickle public, so their ‘power’ is also tenuous –maintained through a delicate PR balancing act. These people are not corrupt because they are powerful, they’re corrupt because they’re weak! They have a deep existential fear of losing that power, and rightly so, so they constantly seek to shore up that power in corrupt ways.

So, what is real power? Ultimately, for power to be real, it must be unassailable. Therefore, real power is never fearing; to be equanimous as to whether your wealth or reputation endures, to have figured out your personal truth and made peace with it, to realize that your own death is an impending certainty and to feel that when that moment comes, you’ll be able to accept it gracefully. Honesty toward everyone else is easy once one is fully honest with themselves, and from that position even if being honest invites upon you the derision of the world, it is but a whisper. As T.H. Huxley puts it “veracity is the heart of morality”.

That’s the real power – fearlessness that derives from humility and a commitment to honesty. Making that principle more important to you than your life itself, one automatically achieves omnipotence in their personal universe. As they say, it’s better to live a single day in truth than a lifetime of lies.

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