Absolute power

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This is one of those sayings that everyone utters while nodding to themselves, with the warm glowing feeling in their tummies of being very smart.

Except it is not true.

Just a quick look at recorded human history is sufficient to see why this saying is stupid. The reason is simple: for most of our history, we were ruled by absolute rulers. Sure, there is the occasional Nero and Caligula, and other crazy kings (or effective kings), but the fact is that by and large the institution of absolute monarchy has been quite successful as a political system; and this would not have been possible if the long line of absolute rulers were absolutely corrupted by their own power. (By the way there are some indications that neither Nero nor Caligula were as crazy as they were made out to be.)

On the other hand we do have the examples of people getting into power and being corrupted by it, so there is some truth in the saying, though. But can these two things (long line of absolute rulers ruling relatively successfully and power-crazy tyrants popping up here and there) be true at the same time?

I think the context is the key here. Most rulers were brought up with power; their education focused on how to be rulers, how to handle the responsibility –even if they were not singled out for succession, by large they came from the “upper classes”. These people were very well equipped to deal with absolute power –within reason, of course. There are no saints here; Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII were certainly not nice people, and they did abuse their power, but they were not consumed by it, as the saying would suggest.

However, in the more modern age, people who are quite unprepared for it can grasp absolute power now and then –and I think this is what the saying is referring to. A regular Joe, such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and the rest (all your petty dictators and revolutionaries who turned out to be worse than the monsters they replaced) will probably fare much worse resisting the siren song of absolute power than someone who was trained to wield it from childhood.

I understand that nuances and sayings do not exactly go well together, but it still annoys me when I hear it; it puts a lie to at least six thousand years of history. There are way more Dariuses, Sun Kings, Ramseses and Hamurappis than Napoleons.


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