|(Image: Christ Pantocrater, Monreale, Sicily)|
Such wondrous power God to his Saint will lend. – Milton
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord Acton (a Catholic, as it turns out) once famously wrote. In our culture, with its deep mistrust of power, this is a truism. Power is associated with tyranny and abuse. It enables big people to oppress little people. It is something dangerous that must be contained through checks and balances. If there are some that must have more power than others, we treat it as a necessary evil. After all, history can provide a litany of examples of people whose power seems to have led to terrible corruption.
Despite the apparently obvious truth of Lord Acton’s dictum, I would like to question it—most obviously because it carries the absurd corollary that God, who has infinite power, is absolutely corrupt. On the other hand, there really does seem to be a correlation between power and corruption that we can see any day just by reading the news. However, it is a fallacy to turn correlation into causation and claim that power directly causes corruption. In fact, power is of itself a good and in is really a lack of power that leads to corruption.
I have mentioned previously that everything that is, insofar as it is, is good. Now since it is the nature of power to actualise things, it must always be the cause of good. The power of electricity creates illuminates light-bulbs; the power of your legs is what makes you walk; the power of speech enables communication; the power of a politician is what makes him able to legislate. Corruption, on the other hand, is a process leading to lack of being: it is the decay of the actual. Consequently it is not possible for power to corrupt, except in an accidental sense. For example, if maggots cause a corpse to decay, the direct effect of their power is to nourish themselves, thereby sustaining their own life, which is a good. The decay of the corpse is a side-effect—and, if one thinks about it, not really an evil one—that is only tangentially caused by their exercise of power.
If someone has a great deal of power, it is not his exercise of it that causes corruption, but rather his misuse of it. The judge who accepts bribes is not using his power as a judge—if he were exercising the power of a judge, after all, bribery is precisely what he would not be soliciting. And yet, does he not exercise a type of power when he accepts bribes, even if it is inferior to his proper power? Indeed he does—and in fact by so doing produces a good. The result is (in a limited sense) good for him and for his parter in crime. What makes the result corrupt is not the fact that it is good for the two of them, but that the greater good that could have been actualised has gone unrealised. The small good which actually occurs because of the bribe is so limited that others suffer. But the suffering of the plaintiff who was cheated is not due to the judge’s exercise of power, but rather to the judge’s failure to exercise his full power.
What Lord Acton’s saw gets at is the human tendency to fail in the exercise of power. The more power someone has, the greater potential for corruption, not because of the possession of power itself, but because of human frailty and the failure properly to exercise power. Further, unlike God, we are not all-powerful. There are some types and degrees of power that we were not created to possess, and if we strain for them we will certainly fail. The tyrant who seeks absolute control will come to corruption because he cannot possibly wield the power he desires.
But turn from tyrants and think of those in your life who have had power and exercised it well: the parent who raised you with integrity, the teacher who encouraged you and at the same time pushed you to excel, the boss who brought out the best in you—perhaps even (could it be?) your Member of Parliament who is diligently working for the common good. There are many more examples of non-corrupting power around us than failures of power: these are what we are to aspire to. And they have something in common, for the greatest power is power that is willing to give itself away. If you think about it, it is remarkable that God should lend such “wondrous power” to his creatures.