The Great Problem of Power

“It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.”

J. R. R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

So Gandalf says of the Great Ring of Power when he explains its dire potency to Frodo.  Anyone who believes that he possesses the Ring will be in time possessed by the Ring.  Anyone who employs the Ring to do his bidding will in time do the bidding of the Ring.  And good and well-meaning mortals will not escape enslavement by the Ring of Power, because “neither strength nor good purpose will last—sooner or later the dark power will devour him.”

In other words, you should not deceive yourself with the beguiling thought that you are a principled man on the side of the angels, and an enemy of the dark power, for as Lord Acton famously said,

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But neither should you beguile yourself with the thought that you are a humble and modest man who has no hunger for power and would refuse it if it were offered, for Hobbes was right to declare in Leviathan (1651):

“I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death.”

This is the great Problem of Power, and to this problem there is no easy answer.  If you have no power, you will be destroyed by the men who do.  If you have power, you will be destroyed by power itself.  If there is an answer to this terrible dilemma, it would seem to lie in a balance of power, which we should understand as a cosmic principal and not only as a principal of American government.

Thus, when you pray “deliver me from evil,” you should understand this to mean “deliver me from domination, but not from opposition.”  If Tolkein, Acton and Hobbes are correct, the people who oppose me deliver me from the evil I would become in the absence of their opposition.

May I suggest that this means we should “love our enemies” out of gratitude as well as charity.

Here is a relevant passage from a curious and long-forgotten poem called A Poetical Description of Texas, which was published by a long-forgotten man named Hugh Kerr in 1838.

“In ev’ry age man has betrayed
            A ruling trait of tyranny;
Which, though it may at times be stayed,
            Resuscitates with energy.

That passion, to be gratified,
            Must league with suited instruments;
Opponents must be vilified
            And then consigned to punishments.

28 thoughts on “The Great Problem of Power

  1. Pingback: The Great Problem of Power | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: The Great Problem of Power – FOR GOD AND COUNTRY – Additional survival tricks

  3. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Popular and superbly pithy saying. Not sure I buy it. Power is not a binary. It is something that everyone has at least a tiny bit of. And some people (usually–and hopefully–through long-practiced virtue) gain quite a bit more of. Power is something one should earn. Power is something we all practice in our various spheres: at work, in the home, in communities voluntary and de facto. Power is a good. Power is good. Abusus non tollit usum.

    • Nickbsteves @ It’s good to hear from you again. You were a great friend of the Orthosphere in your old Week in Reaction roundup, and we all miss Social Matter. I know that everyone possesses some power. Even the power to evoke pity is a form of power–indeed nowadays it is one of the reigning powers of the world. And as I say in the post, no one can survive without power. Self preservation requires power not only to prevent absorption back into nature, by being, for instance, eaten alive, but also to prevent involuntary absorption into the projects and programs of other people. The power to say no is a significant part of what it means to have a self. The problem of power is that the appetite for power is insatiable in most if not all humans, and the pursuit of power to prevent the absorption of one’s own self very easily become a pursuit of power to absorb other selves. I know that I have seen more than one meek man blossom into a tyrant when he came into power, and I’m not at all sure I would be different.

      • Every unhealed codependent is a narcissist-in-waiting. Probably power should be kept to congenial alpha jocks who’ve had an easier ride in life – they probably wouldn’t have as much unresolved rage and frustration as our current lot.

      • That was one argument for hereditary power. The notion was that a man born to power was less likely to abuse it to revenge old insults. The theory is not crazy on the face of it, and I can think of several confirming examples.

      • @JMSmith
        The trouble is that said Hereditary power gets overthrown in revolution. By the power hungry like Lenin.

        With all potential claimants exterminated.

      • Hereditary power has several disadvantages, and these disadvantages are nowadays explained and re-explained to persuade us that our system of elective power is superior in every way. I think we should spend more time trying to understand the purpose of alternative political systems. The purpose of hereditary power was to (a) minimize disputes over succession, and (b) allow rulers to be educated for rule from childhood (as endorsed by Aristotle, say). Out system, on the other hand, is marked by disputes over succession that are often violent (witness the current election) and rulers who are not educated for rule.

      • “The purpose of hereditary power was to (a) minimize disputes over succession, and (b) allow rulers to be educated for rule from childhood (as endorsed by Aristotle, say). Out system, on the other hand, is marked by disputes over succession that are often violent (witness the current election) and rulers who are not educated for rule.”

        What about adoption of adult sons? The 4 greatest emperors of Rome were all adopted sons because they were Men who proved their worth.

        And in regards to hereditary power. The Tsar and his entire family was killed by the Bolsheviks to prevent Royal restoration. And to fulfill the genocidal urge of those responsible.

      • Adoption amounts to hand-picking a successor in a hereditary framework, and its aim is to avoid disputes over succession.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Smith, for this excellent insight. Having long thought that we should be grateful to those who wrong us because they give us an opportunity to forgive, I had never pondered that our gratitude should also arise because our enemies keep us from acquiring power that, left unchecked, will lead to our corruption. Indeed, although we might think otherwise, none of us can hold the ring as nonchalantly as Tom Bombadil.

    The idea that we might help one another to lessen our acquisitions of power suggests that our own gentle opposition to tyrants, particularly to the petty ones who rule over our localities, might be of great benefit to them, as well as to their descendants and societies.

    We are indebted to you, professor, for your magnificent writings and significant insights that, over the years, have lead us toward the truth.

    • Thank you for these encouraging words. I must confess that I am very seldom successful in feeling gratitude for those who oppose me, but I do at least understand the theoretical importance of opposition. I think of this as somewhat like the case of a highly intoxicated man who should feel grateful to those who deny him the additional drink that he craves and demands. He should feel grateful, but very, very seldom is.

  5. Nonsense.

    Power does not corrupt good, God-fearing men. This is a rotten, evil, mendacious anti-paternal carnard.

    Tolkien’s one ring is based on Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, which itself is a stand-in for usury. Usurious lending – finance capital – corrupts everything.

    • Why does a God-fearing man fear God? Because the God-fearing man knows that he, the God-fearing man, is not good. If he were good, there would be no need for him to fear God, since it would be impossible for him to earn God’s displeasure by sinning.

      The God-fearing man is obedient, which is better than sinful but different than good. He is obedient and God-fearing because he lacks the power to rebel, defy God, and do as he pleases. If he had infinite power–including power over death and pain–he would rebel, defy God, and do as he pleases. He would be Satanic, for Satan is the created being that comes closest to possessing infinite power.

      Usury is an abuse of one form of power, the power of the purse. But there are other forms of power, and they are no less subject to abuse. How many beautiful women abuse and are corrupted by the power of their beauty? Not all, but also not a few. How many clever men abuse and are corrupted by the power of their intellect?

      I believe we humans are most envious of money because it is easier to imagine ourselves as richer than it is to imagine ourselves as handsomer or smarter. When the dreams of avarice are answered, though, we find that people are often corrupted by the power (of money) that they coveted.

  6. I also disagree with Lord Acton’s little liberal phrase. Power doesn’t corrupt; it simply reveals the interior of man by allowing him to exercise his will. Whenever people like to mention “the worst man in history,” (which was during my youth invariably a dictator who played some part in WWII — though perhaps now our “literally hitler president” has supplanted them all), I muse about all the wicked bastards lurking around in obscurity — by providence and fortune robbed of the opportunity to act out the vices of their soul on the world stage. Professor, your point above is a wise one, though — I’ll acknowledge that acting on evil plans perverts the soul more than simply the desire to carry them out . . . and I accept that men get swept into corruption spirals. This, I think, is the truth behind the saying.

    However, when we survey political history, at least, where the issue of power is most magnified for convenient consideration, it doesn’t seem that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather, it seems that most of the atrocious acts that powerful men do result from their struggle to maintain power while barely hanging onto it. A man with absolute power (in mortal terms) would not need to liquidate his nearest rivals, good and noble may they be. For he would have no nearest rivals. The secure, sovereign lord can be a forgiving, patient, and lenient master. The king whose every minute is threatened by intrigue and rebellion cannot afford such a luxury, though he may wish to be such a ruler. In fact, it seems that tenuous power corrupts a whole lot more than absolute power.

    Also, God. And Satan. They’re both examples that serve as counterarguments.

    I moreover reject that whiff of Jansenism in your argument to Mr. Thomas above. There is a significant difference between the sinful character of a virtuous man and the wretchedness of the vicious. Christian theological pondering on ethics strikes me as the carpenter who requires mathematically perfect angles in his projects.

    • A couple of the negative commenters seem to have misunderstood what I meant when I titled this post “The Great Problem of Power.” I wasn’t indulging in the anarchist dream of a world without power; I was recognizing that power is, as some have said of women, a thing with which we cannot live with or live without. I routinely wish that I had more power. I wish people jumped when I spoke, and that I had powerful friends who were looking out for me and putting me in the way of good things. But, as you note here, I also recognize that I might do more harm than good if I possessed more power to impose my will on the world.

      I wrote a post about Acton’s dictum a couple of years ago (here). My argument there was that there must be people with extraordinary power in any civilized society, and that ordinary people ought to judge the people with extraordinary power more charitably than they commonly do. “Corruption in high places” is a situational hazard of high places, and if you or I are innocent of it, that is very possibly because we have been saved by the impotence of our low places.

      There is indeed a difference between the sinful character of a virtuous man and the wretchedness (I would say depravity) of the vicious man. The first is struggling with imperfect success and the second has “accepted himself for what he is.” But this difference is often, if not always, situational rather than ontological. It would be, for instance, easier to struggle against lechery in a situation where opportunities for lechery were very limited. One has no way of knowing if the struggle would continue if an access of power raised one to a very different situation. It has often been noted that the virtue of temperance is overwhelmed by sudden affluence.

      • I agree completely. Concerning your closing argument, such emphasizes the importance of inculcating virtue by education and by rectifying personal and civic habits and customs. “You do you” is the siren song of the antichrist.

  7. Power has its spiritual perils, but nothing corrupts so thoroughly as powerlessness. Ordinary power comes with responsibility, which usually has a positive effect on people. I’ve seen rebellious teenagers transform remarkably when they have to start paying bills and caring for babies themselves. “Victims” seem to be the worst sort of people, although it would be hard to say if it was their powerlessness or their peculiar sort of power that corrupted them. Official victims are like revolutionary governments in that they combine great power with an absence of responsibility. A revolutionary state claims to be insurgent against a still-reactionary society. The revolutionary government does not allow itself to be considered an establishment, and it never “owns” the status quo. The absence of the promised eschaton never becomes its fault.

    How long have anti-racism and feminism been our nation’s unquestioned creed? At what point do our feminist, anti-racist elite become responsible for the nation’s problems? The answer, of course, is never. Reactionary white men will always have all the responsibility, that is all the blame, even though we’ve had no power in this country for a long time (maybe not since the surrender at Yorktown).

    What about having responsibility but not power, like the rural conservative white men who are supposedly to blame for all the world’s woes and would lose their jobs if they are caught saying a word in their own favor? I would say that like everything unnatural this corrupts too.

    • @Bonald

      Its precisely those who are resentful and those who are barred from status or even would die if Men knew them that make the most loyal tools of power:
      https://bioleninism.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/biological-leninism/

      If they owe the party their very lives and power. They are absolutely loyal with which Satanic Power is able to exercise Totalitarian control

      Those without the pedigree that would make them royalty and gentry or even a commoner and who are considered scum of the earth.

      Are elevated to make this Leninist State possible.

      • They are not “barred from status,” but their status is entirely dependent on the bio-leninist system, so they are extremely loyal to that system. At least that is the theory. But human vanity is very powerful, and it allows men and women to explain all the gifts they receive as just deserts. This is a systemic weakness of bio-leninism. It requires the gratitude of people whose natural ingratitude it has exacerbated.

      • @JMSmith

        Perhaps. But it worked well enough to provide an adequately functioning state for Stalin to utilize.

        “It requires the gratitude of people whose natural ingratitude it has exacerbated.”
        As long as their status is granted by the party.

        Many of the proletariat and other people who would be despised in alternative arrangements that got promoted into the communist remained absolutely loyal to the end even when Stalin had them killed. I read some of the documents during that period and am astounded as to how Loyal they remained.

        They know that without the Party. They would be nothing.

        Perhaps Stalinist Terror played that role too. Many of the Communist Old Guard was shot.

        “Many poor people are extremely greedy, many Incels extremely lecherous, many nobodies extremely power-hungry.”

        That’s why they were weaponized to implement atrocities like the Holodomor. And to purge the Kulaks that was being counter-revolutionary. Resentment is a weapon of slaughter.

      • I think we should not lose sight of what is truly new in Spandrel’s theory of bioleninism. Leninism was accelerated Marxism, but it remained grounded in the resentment of class consciousness. Bioleninism grounds itself in deeper resentments, so it will likely be more destructive and long-lasting.

    • Like every dictum, Acton’s simplifies for rhetorical effect. I believe that our culture places too much moral blame on successful expression of vicious tendencies, and that it therefore wrongly gives a pass to all the vicious bunglers who cannot get what their black hearts desire. Many poor people are extremely greedy, many Incels extremely lecherous, many nobodies extremely power-hungry.

      Your second point is the great wonder of our age. This imaginary dead hand of the past functions like Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984. I see this in microcosm at this university. All of the top positions are occupied by progressives, but faculty continue to speak darkly of shadowy powers of reaction ensconced in some college other than our own. In my experience, the Ag. School is the most popular place to put these imaginary John Birchers. I amuse myself by imagining the offices of the Ag. School staffed exclusively by white men with flat-top haircuts and Barry Goldwater bumper stickers on their cars.

      • “Your second point is the great wonder of our age. This imaginary dead hand of the past functions like Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984. I see this in microcosm at this university. All of the top positions are occupied by progressives, but faculty continue to speak darkly of shadowy powers of reaction ensconced in some college other than our own. In my experience, the Ag. School is the most popular place to put these imaginary John Birchers. I amuse myself by imagining the offices of the Ag. School staffed exclusively by white men with flat-top haircuts and Barry Goldwater bumper stickers on their cars.”

        Indeed.

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