All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely

corrupted image of man

Are great men almost always bad men?

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

by Lord Acton (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902)
from Essays on Freedom and Power (1887)
image – stallio


We’ve all heard “absolute power corrupts absolutely” applied to despots and corrupt politicians. When Acton put these words together he was writing about the doctrine of papal infallibility. In 1870 the First Vatican Council went one way and some Catholic groups went the other. It was a big crisis. Not everyone who dissented spoke their mind freely or followed the break-away groups. Acton, a devout Catholic, was one who sympathized with dissenters, but did not take a public role in activism. The excerpt above is from a letter he wrote to a colleague.

But, does more power mean more corruption? Recent research out of USC, Stanford, and the Kellogg School of Management has shown that a little power corrupts more than absolute power.

The team argues that people who are in a position of authority but don’t have much perceived rank or status are more likely to abuse their power than those with high status. As they explain in their paper, this hypothesis flows from two basic assumptions. First, that being in a position of low status can feel demeaning, even threatening. Second, that being in a position of power gives people the ability to act on their internal feelings and impulse.
as reported on

It’s not the power that gets to you, it’s the almost-power. Maybe satisfied people act out less.

Now, consider a supreme power, a religious authority that believes it has a responsibility for the souls of all on earth, and let’s fill the jobs of those who make up that authority with mortal humans, from rank and file to the very tip top, Pope and all. Next to the infiniteness of a big G God, the Pope, pardon me, is middle management. There must be days when that sucks.

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