Does Power Corrupt?

by Jaye
Copyright © 2005 by Jaye Emrys, all rights reserved

          The adage states that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But does it?

          Formal logic arranges concepts into three-part syllogisms. The first statement says that "all" or "no" members of a category have some characteristic:

          The second statement includes an individual in that category:

          The third concludes, therefore, that the individual has said characteristic:

          The syllogism about power would therefore run:

          If even one case can be found of a "Jack" who is not corrupt, then the syllogism is false. In order to prove the syllogism true, one must sample all "Jacks" -- all people in power in the history of the world -- in order to find out if there have ever been any exceptions. Assuming that, "All people in power are corrupt," just because we have never seen an upright person in power is basing a belief on too little information.

          In this article, I will discuss several assumptions. First, that various factors affect the effect power has on people. Second, the idea that power may affect people differently at different points in their lives, and why. Third, that we may choose how power affects us, and that our destiny is changed by our choices.

Fiction vs. Life

          Fiction "reads" or "watches" well when it resonates with peoples' experience. The reason some people resonate to romance, others to action adventure, and still others to science fiction is that different people have different experiences, and different ways of making sense of the experiences they have. Different "filters," if you will. Have you ever sat in a car with someone who sees the world differently from you? One of you sees others as hostile people, out to cut everyone off and grab parking spaces, full of road rage? The other of you laid back, offering to let others go first, driving gently? The difference between you is your "filters." You are both seeing the same events. You are interpreting them differently. The two of you probably enjoy very different books and movies. Different music. You probably have very different ideas about the nature of government leaders.

          Re-watching the fifth season opening episode of "Buffy" tonight, in which Buffy tastes Dracula's blood and experiences her own darkness, from which her slayer's power comes, I realized something. Some of us see our power and turn toward it, embrace it. Others may turn toward it for a time, but then renounce it. Buffy saw her attraction to her darkness, and was immediately repelled.

          This is fiction. Yet fiction must be a mirror of life -- or at least be seen as one by a significantly large group of people -- in order to sell to the masses. So though the "absolute power corrupts absolutely" paradigm resonates to a large percent of consumers who buy books and pay for movies based on it, a sizeable audience also pays for the "Buffy" view of power -- that while some people/vampires do gravitate toward power, others are repelled by abuse of it, turn from it, repudiate it in themselves.

Kinds of Power

          Power comes in many forms: economic, social influence, managerial, political, familial, physical, "the most toys," status, possession of status symbols, fame, expertise, command, knowledge, and ecclesiastical, to name a few. Some people have one kind, others many. A person barred from other kinds of power often resorts to having the loudest stereo in his car. "If I can't make my presence known any other way, at least I'll make sure they hear me coming." A homemaker barred from other power may devote her life to maintaining a showpiece home. I always envisioned engraving on my mom's headstone, "She kept an immaculate house."

Orientations to Using Power

          How we deal with challenges to our power often sets the tone of our lives, our peace of mind, and our health. Can we accept gracefully the challenges to our power base? Or do we fight like wild dogs to have everything our way? Do we drive ourselves to ulcers or high blood pressure when we are balked? Do we create friction in our relationships, or even sever them? How much trouble do we make for ourselves when our sense of control is threatened?

          What makes the difference in how we use power? How we respond when we see its effect in our lives?

          Several things, I think

          Our basic nature must have something to do with it. Some of us have a lot of energy, a basically "take charge" attitude. An active minds with many ideas. When they see a better way of doing things, they suggest them. It bugs them to see things done inefficiently.  Others don't care or lack energy or ideas.

          People with a background in which being out of control was equated with danger come to need that sense of control. It becomes an addiction. Their control urge can rise to the point of megalomania, as in the case of Hitler, or it can become paranoid and self-destructive, as in a case of someone who believes everyone is against him and ultimately alienates those very people as they turn away in self defense.

          Finally, personal philosophy guides people toward or away from power. Author Jacqueline Lichtenberg (personal communication, 2005) said "...the fuel, the powerhouse behind all great stories is philosophy." Many cultural and religious groups believe that people cannot develop a valid internal morality, and so must be controlled from the outside. Many Native American nations believe in the principle of "right action" -- that the individual has within himself the ability to discern and choose the correct course in a given situation. When a youth comes to an elder for advice, the elder listens to the youth, then reminds him of his ability to choose right action.

          Many families also run on the principle of control. They run on domestic violence. Violence spawns violence. Domination spawns domination. Submission spawns submission. How many times have we seen a parent smack a child, telling him, "Don't you hit your sister!" This child "hears" the smack so loudly the words will not go in. As he grows up, he is likely to hit his wife and children, who will then hit their own.

          The Western European nations are heavily influenced by Christianity. The teaching is that the conscience has been subverted by Original Sin, and is incapable of choosing wisely. The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is able to guide the Christian into "all truth," and also that God will write his Law on our hearts, but for some reason, this is ignored by most organized religion. Therefore, people steeped in the various Christian traditions often orient themselves to the idea that someone in touch with the Godhead in a special way must act as the conscience for large groups of followers, parceling out wisdom and Truth for them. This results in an immense amount of Power over people's minds. Power that is not always rightly used, as shown by Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and more recently, Pat Robertson.

          If Christians were to truly trust the Holy Spirit, we would see a great Awakening in the Western world: a world in which people trusted themselves and their children to judge wisely for themselves with the help of the Holy Spirit rather than listen to the judgmentalism and divisiveness of the preachers of doom who have led us into war and strife, into using force of arms against an "enemy" that can in reality only be "overpowered" by love.

Orientations to Power

          Some people are oriented to control others. The more of the factors in play, the stronger the urge is likely to be. The motive for controlling others comes from the factors leading to the need to control: innate characteristics, family of origin, and philosophy. The most insidious philosophy in needing to control others is the above mentioned one, stating that people's consciences are subverted and need outside "help." I will explain more about my views on that subject in a later article.

          Other people need to protect the self. For some, it is less an issue of having power over others as of not letting others have power over them. For others, it is about having power over others. To them, if others are not doing the right things at the right times, in the right ways, the world is not a safe place.

          A third group of people approach power in order to help people. At least at the first, they sincerely want to help. They are the honest cops, the good soldiers, the people in the Coast Guard. The people who know that in order to protect the law-abiding citizens, they must control those who prey on them. This group also includes teachers, who know they must contol students in order to maintain order in their classrooms. The best policemen and teachers maintain the minimum order necessary to teach and patrol. They may touch on overcontrolling, but they self-monitor, and bring themselves back within the line.

          Most people have a mix of the three within them. No one is purely any of the types -- at least not at first. It is possible with work to become mostly altruistic, or with slippage to descend into mostly one of the undesirable ones.

          Philosophy in most people is unconscious. We can address it and make it conscious, a point at a time, however. Unconscious philosophy rears up and grabs you by the behind at the most inopportune times. Conscious philosophy is a cooperative friend. You and it can change as the need arises. Making it conscious is an arduous, painful process, but more than worth the effort.

How Power Affects Different People Differently

          Put power onto different people, and it looks different.


          First, type of power affects the person. Consider people with physical power, those who gain political control, who accumulate vast knowledge, who move in the upper echelons of finance, royals, and religious leaders. What characteristics do each bring to their personal lives, their relationships and the world in general? Media attention? Fear of those close to them? The ability to leverage vast amounts of capital? Who could control the largest number of people? Whose control over their children, employers, and followers would be most absolute?

          Second, socioeconomic status, the degree of sophistication -- which determines a person's ability to work well with others and inspire loyalty, cooperation, and belief in the power-user's good intentions, and of course, as previously mentioned, the power-user's philosophy -- his rationale and orientation to the power he uses.

          For a chilling exploration of one possible result of the abuse of power in family, see When a Child Kills1, by Paul Mones. Toward the end of the book, the author discusses the special problems the children of the rich and powerful have in abusive homes -- how much harder it is for them to get help than for the children of average parents because rich or powerful parents are so much more skilled at both cutting the child off from those who would otherwise listen, and at forestalling any investigation that might occur if someone should listen.

Why Power affects People Differently

          The short- and long-term consequences affect how the power-user wears his power. The adage in behavior psychology is, "Behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated." "Reward" does not consist only of M&M's and doggie treats. It extends to social approval, money, and status. Anything that a person sees as increasing his margin of safety, economic standing, or good-feeling tends to be repeated.  Anything that tends to make him feel less sure of himself, less good about himself, less the way he wants himself to feel may tend not to be repeated -- unless there is also a temporary good feeling, too. Things become very complex when both good and bad things happen as a result of an action. Think of getting drunk. You feel high and euphoric, but the next day you have a hangover. Most people decide the hangover makes it not worth it. Not the alcoholic. The alcoholic forgets the hangover, but remembers the euphoria, and wants the euphoria again and again. Some people are that way with power. Remember Hitler, jailed after the fiasco in his youth? He wrote Mein Kampf and came out to run for national office -- and win.

          Eventually, it brought about his death.

Power affects us Differently at Different Times

          Have you been offered the same type of power at different times in your life and responded to it differently? Have you wondered why?

          The difference may be that your philosophy had changed.

          Each culture, each religion, has its own orientation to who wields authority (another word for power) in what situation or arena, and who decides it. If you have been exposed to a new religion or culture, and have partly or completely accepted its tenets -- especially its tenets about when it is and is not acceptable to exercise authority over others, or have internalize your own faith at a new level, it is very natural for your response to power to change. If you have been exposed to the great philosophers, or have had another type of life-changing experience that has caused you to question your orientation to the deeper things in life, or if you have had issues that have caused you to rethink relationship structures, it is natural to reorient yourself to the subject. Lastly, if you have been exposed to fiction -- be it film, TV, or literature -- that addresses relationships from a point of view you have not thought of before, it may have begun to sink in and called your assumptions about the role of power in relationships into question.

The Effects of Power Use on Us

          Robert Heinlein2 wrote that slavery is degrading -- to the slave owner. Most forms of power are not as absolute as slavery, and do not degrade as badly as slavery -- but all besmirch our character. Add enough blots together, and it is a wonder that any of us functions. I find that the more integrity I exercise in avoiding manipulating others, the less energy I need to spend avoiding feelings of guilt and shame. The more "honor pleasure hits."3

Making it Personal

          Someone who believes that relationships -- be they intimate relationships or international ones -- must be power-based tries to gain the power needed to be "on top." When the person or nation lets that go and tries consensus relationships, a new world opens up.

          Let me make it personal.

          Take a look at my article "A Little Change." In 1985, I discovered Jacqueline Lichtenberg's books, specifically the Sime~Gen and First Lifewave ones. It would be many years before I found her articles on using fiction to change one's life (Rereadable Books), but those two sets of fiction started a "three-degree" philosophical change on an unconscious level. Started me to San Francisco instead of Los Angeles.

          Up until then, I had managed my relationships along the lines of those of my family of origin. One person had the power. Everyone either struggled to be that person or gave up and disappered into depression. Fighting to be that person was usually dirty. Slowly, after reading the books, my outlook changed. With the help of therapy, I rearranged my outlook. I did not know why I changed until recently, rereading the books, but it was as if the "light" of my philosophy had entered a prism, refocused from white light into colors, and re-emerged as a rainbow of beauty.

          What is your prism? Have you located it? What do your relationships look like? Are you attracted to power? Afraid to live without it? Try sharing power for one month. One week. One day. See if you don't like life better.

          Blessings on you, and on your house.

  1. Mones, Paul A. (1991) When a Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents. New York, NY, U.S.A.Pocket Books.
  2. Heinlein, Robert (1978). Citizen of the Galaxy Del Rey Books. New York, NY.
  3. Lichtenberg, Jacqueline (1998). Identity and The Intimate Medal of Honor

Suggested Readings
  1. Bach, George and Deutsch, Ronald M. (1983). Pairing: How to Achieve Genuine Intimacy. Dresden, Tennessee: Avon Books.
  2. Peck, M. Scott (1985). People of the Lie. Riverside, New Jersey, Touchstone.
  3. Shay, Jonathan (1995). Achilles In Vietnam : Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character New York, NY. Simon & Schuster.
  4. Lichtenberg, Jacqueline (1993-2005) Rereadable Books.

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