Lord Acton’s Power Quote

A Goodreads member asked me this question:

Can you give an explanation on Lord Acton quote, please? “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” -Marvin

Thank you for your question. Lord Acton’s quote, while written with the Catholic Church in mind, applies equally well to any position of power. Power tends to corrupt when the holder of power uses it for personal gain or to preserve the position of power itself. Absolute power corrupts absolutely because of the nature of man. We are imperfect and therefore ill suited for anything such as complete control over other men.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings provides an excellent example of the power principle. Even a creature so devoid of the tendency for corruption such as the Hobbit eventually succumbs to the evil side of power. Frodo doesn’t actually succeed in throwing the ring in to the molten lava, the ring has gained power over him and he is unable. Only a tussle with Golem and his unfortunate plunge into the abyss saves mankind from the one ring and absolute power.

The men who found themselves in possession of the ring, even for brief periods declared they only wanted it to do good, but that is the slippery slope of power. Rather than do what it takes to negotiate a resolution, power provides a quicker and simpler route without the mess of compromise. We want to do the right thing and often justify the means (the use of power) to achieve an end (something good and just). Unfortunately, the means can be destructive even if the end product is just. The crusades are an example of a just mission that used corrupt means to restore the Holy Lands to Papal control.

In The Betty Chronicles, we see power wielded by men in back rooms with no natural constituency to rein them in: bad people are assassinated; governments subverted; the monetary supply of nations diluted; and the moral dilemmas of what lines are beyond the pale of the righteous use of power are explored.

Marvin, I appreciate your question.