“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Over the centuries, this famous saying voiced by Lord Action has been analyzed and dissected numerous times by historians and philosophers. Some individuals say that power does not corrupt, it only attracts the corruptible. However, to judge fairly, past and current events accurately depict the ideology that power corrupts absolutely, and has convinced me, that its meaning holds true. Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Louis XIV of France, Henry the Second of the Roman Empire, Katherine the Great, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler – these names all frame some of the most dictating and ruthless leaders in history whom have reigned with tyranny. These individuals all have one simple attribute in common – all were leaders who tried to maintain complete and absolute power over all subject matters and attempted to coerce others to be subordinate to their commands. Thus, the question that I wish to address in this essay should be how leaders corrupt absolutely and why. Those who choose power over meaning wreak havoc for those around them, and ultimately, lead to their own tragic debacle.
Leadership is at its core, all about power and influence; however, there is a distinction between two types of power. Socialized power is used to benefit others, and personalized power is used for personal gain. In many cases, individuals start out with the aim to benefit others, but once power is acquired, they use it for their own gain. Thus, socialized power and personalized power is not mutually exclusive. There are copious instances of historical dictators whom started out with good intentions corrupted absolutely because they became consumed by the obsession for more power, more authority. The recipient of the Nobel Price, William Golding, is the sagacious author of the novel, The Lord of the Flies. The idea that power brings corruption, is the dominant and a potent theme in this powerful literary work. Golding also shows the relationship between socialized and personalized power in the one of the characters, Jack. Golding uses teenage boys to represent the diverse actors in our modern society. The antagonist, Jack is symbolized as the dictatorship and corruption evident in our world.
Commencing with the facade of being an innocent young boy, corruption is illustrated by Golding as Jack becomes dependent and thrives off the power he assumes as the leader of the hunters. By the finale of the novel, Jack becomes consumed with attaining absolute power, and abuses his leadership by committing atrocious acts of violence. The desire for power breaks down the boundaries set by rules and order, causes strife and competition, and governs the actions of many of the boys on the island. Once achieved, power has the ability to either improve or corrupt its holder. Jack’s rise to power is in some aspects, similar to that of Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Peoples Republic of China. Absolute power is prevalent in communist nations. Mao was the greatest revolutionaire in Chinese history, and was an individual replete with leadership.
He led the revolution to better the lives of peasants and strengthen China, but after claiming victory, he also acquired leadership over all of China. Mao also started out with the goal to benefit others. However, over time, Mao began to lose his authority as the absolute leader in China, and he attempted to resurrect his previous glory with more revolutions. In the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese were manipulated and killed, much of China’s culture was destroyed, and the economy was damaged for years to come. Mao’s desire for control over people, and his acquisition of it hurt China for years to come. One last example of socialized power turning into personalized power is the Catholic Church during the Medieval/Renaissance times.
During the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, the Church had an over-brimming amount of power matched (if not more) with European Monarchs. The Church had great power over almost all Europeans, and became corrupt because of it. “Religion was created to free the oppressed; but now it has become the oppressed.” In ancient times, the Church cared for its followers, but as time passed and its power grew, the Church began to sell indulgences, practice nepotism, and generally became immoral. Spain and England also consistently persecuted and massacred people in great numbers due to their religion preferences.
Another reason of why leaders become corrupt are because power licenses individuals to impose their will and commands without have properly engaged and processed through the reality at hand. It licenses them to be able to unreflectively, unilaterally do whatever they want with apathy. These individuals lose track of their rationality of what their limits are, and delude themselves into thinking that they have the right to rule above all others. This is when reality seeps through the cracks of their hands and gets washes away by their erroneous ego. These people begin committing atrocious acts as a way to exercise their power, and also just because they can do it. Adolf Hitler was the leader of Germany from 1933-1945. During his reign, he persecuted, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of Jews, because he tried to create what he thought was the (Aryan race) “Perfect Race”.
Using his charismatic oratory and propaganda, he advocated to all of Germany and Europe that the Jewish people were evil and needed to eliminate from the face of earth. To this day, people inquire why Hitler abused his power to kill Jews. The answer is not complex, and very simple. It was because he could. Using his authority, he had the power to do what he believed was the right thing to do. Slowly, he edged away from reality, and became intoxicated by his power to whatever extent he wished, and became all-consumed by the crazed obsession to utilize his power to accomplish atrocious acts. Using the basic dislike and dissatisfaction as a foundation, Hitler was able to turn that into a diabolical hatred using his power.
“It is much safer to be feared than to be loved.” Nico Machiavelli is the author of The Prince, his classic 16th century treatise advocating manipulation and cruelty as the best means to power. Many leaders follow the ideology that in order to win the battle for power, and keep that power, it will require force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. Thus, another reason why many leaders abuse their power is because they think that they have to be cruel in order to stand and prevail in brutal battles for power. This is particularly true when we reference to the long history of corruption in European Monarchs. Mary I of England was cruel, deceptive, forceful, and carried out many things by coercion.
Similarly, Ivan the Terrible of Russia did not care, and did not need to care for the well-being of his people. The dominant concerns of his life were to acquire vast amounts of land, and gain access to the Baltic Sea. In the novel, The Animal Farm, Mr. Jones, the owner of the pigs could also be depicted as a leader with absolute power (at first).He was fearful figure, and the pigs dared not approach him. Mr. Jones quite simply did not care about the pigs, and would much rather have the pigs fear him than to be sincere, friendly, and win their respect.
Many are familiar with the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” but many do not know the sentence that follows. Lord Acton also said, “Great men are almost all bad men.” Even when you give “good”, “righteous” people power, they will not, more than others, be able to act rationally do what’s right. It is what many psychologists refer to as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped a leader accumulate all the control in the first place disappear once they rise to power. The reason is that power can profoundly influence our character and how we think. When we climb the ladder of social status, our inner arguments gets warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished.
Instead of worrying and fretting about the results, consequences, and effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. And sometimes, because we are already in control of all the power, we don’t care if we are being loved or feared. In some cases, it is easier and more beneficial to be feared in order to get people to subordinate to your wishes without complaint. Power gives us the license, the right to impose our will upon others without care or remorse for the results or consequences. Power is danger, it is a person’s ultimate destruction and debacle – but once we get it, we do not consciously realize it. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.