Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely? Absolutely not.
In the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the concept of a powerful entity revolves around the “domination of other humans as much as the exercise of control over one’s environment”. To have power, in its essence, refers to one’s ability to be so influential as to exert absolute supremacy over the behaviour of people; consequently, power can be at the root of selfish and unjust causes. By examination, the tendency to exert power can be argued to be inherent to the human condition: from Cain, who sought to murder his brother over a dispute, to today’s Tom, Dick and Harry.
There are three particular aspects that power entails: political, economic and social. Political power is the power of the government that is based on a constitution of laws, guided by the judicial system and enforced through the police. Economic power relates to the influence that wealth can yield, while social power is the influence one can exert in an environment by manipulating the social structure.
The phrase “power corrupts” was first used by Lord Acton, the 19th-century British historian. It refers to how power blinds people and tends to corrupt their mind. Moreover, the feeling of being powerful, or powerless for that matter, influences one’s perception of others. Once people are intoxicated with power, they begin to develop a sense of supremacy, and a belief that they are above that law that applies to everyone else, unaccountable to any authority. The more power one possesses, the more their potential for empathy declines, leading to a neglect of other people’s perception.
A well known literary example is that of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, in which he has portrayed the nature of power and how it can push someone to cross limits they would have never otherwise thought of. Readers see how the greed for power corrupted Lord and Lady Macbeth, and pushed them to extremity that led to the abstract decision of plotting to murder King Duncan in order to acquire his throne. Was this murder an act of power abuse or simply Macbeth’s intention all along? This essay aims to prove how power does not corrupt an individual, but reveals their true self.
Thus, an important question that arises is how does this power corrupt? It corrupts by giving license to neglectfulness and paving the way for laxity. It corrupts because it permits individuals to unreflectively exert their influence and will on others. It licenses individuals to disregard the reality that is around them. One of the many consequences is an ever-expanding ego which in turn feeds the individuals to believe there are no set restrictions and limitations inhibiting their thirst for power. The reality though, is quite the opposite of this. The neglect and laxity not only debilitates the potential for growth of the victim – who is subject to this suppression – but also has the same effect on the victimise – who is pulling the strings, much to his own dismay – not realising how he is also a puppet in this show. This failure to realise the bigger picture makes way for self-harm to be inflicted upon the individual and in turn, corrupts him just as much as those he has set out to corrupt.
In his acclaimed novel Animal Farm, George Orwell portrays how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. At the start of the story, readers are introduced to Old Major, a well-respected, wise and persuasive pig, who uses his influence and trust to stir the animals’ emotions into a rebellion to take control of the farm. The new leader, Napoleon was corrupted by his surge of power and began using several corrupt methods in a quest for more power and luxury – thus proving the statement power feeds on to more power. His fraudulent mind corrupted the idea of Animalism and he revised the Seven Commandments, changing a number of them to his own liking, for example the commandment that strictly forbade animals from killing one another was deceitfully changed and a number of supposed traitors were executed.
Napoleon was free to do his own bidding without any opposition, as opponents would be silenced by his guard dogs. Napoleon also abolished equality and passed the commandment “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” (Orwell, George. Animal Farm). Furthermore, the hierarchy of animal farm not only involves corruption of power through manipulative and strategic means, but also symbolises the power hungry politics of violence and aggression. This is most evident when the animals are dubious of Squealer’s explanation of Snowball being the actual culprit behind jeopardising the windmill.
The animals begin to protest, but they are silenced so threateningly by Napoleon’s dogs, that they succumb to accept it without question. It is important to remember the symbolic nature of the windmill – suggesting a meaningless concentration, as the idea is literally misguided. The windmill itself becomes a source of power for Napoleon, who employs it as a guise to direct the animals’ attention away from the growing shortages of the farm – showing readers how Napoleon is relentless when it comes to abuse of the power he enjoys over the farm.
However, if one probes into the story, they would discover that Napoleon wasn’t much of a saint before the rebellion either. Orwell introduces Napoleon in the second chapter of the story, clearly not in a flattering manner: “Napoleon was a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation for getting his own way”. Throughout the novel it is evident that Napoleon’s inherent manner of “getting his own way” involved an amalgamation of terror and propaganda, which none of the animals could escape from. Napoleon can be described as an epitome of the Latin phrase, “Veni, vidi, vici” (Ehrlich, Eugene, Brucia)- translated as “I came, I saw, I conquered”. He lived his reign by this principle. As soon as the animals won the rebellion, Napoleon was quick to steal the cow’s milk for the pigs.
It can be clearly seen that Napoleon possessed these rather Machiavellian traits even before he got hold of the power to exercise his control: the power was a means from him to convert his desires into action. To take a worldly example for instance, a serial killer was still a serial killer before he got his hands on the gun. This proves to us that all that Napoleon was lacking to put his plans into action were the proper resources and an army to threaten anyone who had even an ounce of courage to defy him. The significance of Napoleon’s army was to boost his security and act as a safety net. He maliciously took up the responsibility to bring up the dogs in order to foster a sense of loyalty which bound them to serve him. This depicts to us how Napoleon had already planned, since long before the revolution perhaps, to use the dogs in the future, when he comes to power.
The power that Napoleon got only aided in revealing his true self: he was corrupted on the inside all along. Before the rebellion, Napoleon wasn’t “much of a talker”, meaning his true self could not be revealed as he knew the time was not right to even express his opinions and thus, his mind was always at work during this time – giving him an adequate time frame to formulate his plans properly and pave the way for a swift takeover that would confirm his control over the Animal Farm. Also, another consequence was that no one really knew him personally, no one knew what went on inside his mind, no one had a hint of his moral values and ethics – whether they even existed or not. Snowball on the other hand was the complete antithesis to Napoleon.
When introducing his character, Orwell writes “Snowball is a more vivacious pig than Napoleon, quicker in speech and more inventive, but was not considered to have the same depth of character”(Orwell, George. Animal Farm). The power didn’t change him, or reveal a different self because he was already an open book, true to his nature. The animals knew him well and were fond of his friendly and lively nature. This gave Snowball the disadvantage of being too predictable, as everyone was aware of the way his mind functioned. This goes to favour the argument that if power corrupted people, it would have corrupted Snowball just as much as it corrupted Napoleon. Since that is not what happened, one can argue that it is not power that corrupts people, rather it merely reveals their true self and amplifies the desires that were in their hearts.
Power itself does not possess any moral qualities, and is simply a tool that may or may not be used, depending on who is in control of it – similar to a gun. For one to believe that it is power that corrupts a person, the following underlying premise should also be believed: when an object or entity corrupts a person, it is that object or entity that is corrupt and the person, victim to its influence, is weak and powerless, unable to make his own choices and gives in to the lure of such an entity. The situation doesn’t define a person any more than having a gun makes someone a killer. It depends on the person who is in possession of that weapon, he could chose to use it to defend himself, or to kill anyone, or chose not to pull the trigger at all. Human beings always have a freedom of choice, and no power can take that away from them. People who use power for corrupt purposes had corrupt instincts in their hearts before they got the opportunity to exercise control through power. Having the power merely allows them to fulfill their already existing desires which otherwise would have been forcefully kept inside due to insufficient resources.
Another example, one from contemporary literature, is illustrated in George R. R. Martin’s award winning novel saga, A Song of Ice and Fire. Over the course of the story, we see various examples of people fighting for power, and once they have it, then becoming so consumed by the power that they end up as epitomes of corruption.
First we see King Robert, who instigated a successful rebellion against the ruling dynasty. Some years into his reign, the once renowned swordsman is often seen indulging in savory feasts, only retiring to the company of numerous prostitutes. His abuse of power and resources allowed him to freely employ the adequate resources to exploit his true nature, and magnify his virtues and vices. He was corrupted to such an extent that his fondness for feasts, tourneys and grand hunting led to a great deficit in the crown’s treasury and almost, bankrupt the kingdom.
His heir, Joffrey, resorts to running the kingdom as a dictatorship, as he does not take into account the opinions and advice of the people who are part of his government. His psychological issues manifest themselves as violence turned outward against the weak and helpless. An example of this is when he, against the advice of the Queen Regent, orders the execution of Lord Stark, his late father’s closest friend, and mercilessly presents the head to his daughter – soon inspiring a revolt from the Stark family. A previous example is of the event where he initiated a fight against the Butcher’s boy, and when Arya retaliated – he ran off crying and complaining to his mother. At that time, the power did not rest with Joffrey – however, he used his parents’ influence as a privilege to hide behind and exploited the benefits from them.
Jon Snow, Lord Stark’s bastard son, is the antithesis to all that Joffrey represents. Born a bastard, he did not let that label define him, and worked tirelessly to prove himself. For this reason, he joined the Nights’ Watch and devoted his life to the purpose of defending The Wall. His determination can be seen in how he eventually was elected as the Commander of the Nights Watchby popular vote against a senior member.
Jon rose to a reputable position, among his fellow watchers, but remained a friend to his companions and did not let the position of power that he held influence the decisions he took. Leading his forces into battle, often putting his own life at risk for a cause that he understood was greater than one man, Jon showed several examples of how a heart that is not lustful cannot be perverted. Rather, it is the power-hungry desire in a person that lead to the abuse of power for selfish agendas – more often than not resulting in an unanticipated backlash.
Thus, it can be concluded that power itself, does not corrupt an individual; but only reveals the true nature and magnifies their intentions, which are translated into actions. Power also does not corrupt the whole of humanity. Such examples are observed in various human rights figures such as Martin Luther King who when bestowed with power, took the opportunity to legitimise his role as the leader and ran the country to benefit his citizens. Also, Barack Obama took up the role of president of the USA, and did justice to his position by establishing various platforms for education and health.
All in all, power only provides the tool by which one carries out his actions and sets forth his plans. It does not corrupt an individual, as the ability to corrupt is innate and determined by various factors, which are sociological and psychological – having nothing to do with power. A psychological exam can be viewed in terms of Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, whereby volunteers were randomly assigned the roles of either guard or prisoner. Those who had been given the role of a guard were given certain guidelines, that is they could not abuse their power by harming a prisoner. However, as the experiment progressed – the guards had begun to dehumanise the prisoners and harm them in any way possible. This shows how by getting the power of being a guard, their real self was brought forth and revealed their true nature. Thus, it can be said that power does not corrupt absolutely.
Griffin, John, and George Orwell. Animal Farm, George Orwell. Harlow: Longman, 1989. Print.
Ehrlich, Eugene, and Margaret A. Brucia. Veni, Vidi, Vici. New York: Harpercollins, 2010. Print.
Martin, George R. R. A Game Of Thrones: Book One Of A Song Of Ice And Fire. New York : Bantam Books, 2011, c1996. Print.