How Power Corrupts II

In my last post, I used The Lord of the Rings to explore the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum ― “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There is another novel, similar in many ways, though perhaps not superficially, to The Lord of the Rings, from which we might also learn something about the corrupting effects of power. It is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. 

For those who have not read it, The Master and Margarita is a double narrative. The main story is that of the devil’s visit to Moscow one spring week in the early 1930s, and that of two lovers whose paths he crosses, the Master and Margarita of the title. But within the main story there is a second one, ostensibly a novel that the Master has written, about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri, Jesus, which takes place one spring week 19 centuries earlier.

The crucial sentence about power is uttered by Yeshua as he is being interrogated by Pilate:

All power is violence done to people. There will come a time when there will be no power, neither that of the Caesars nor any other. Man will pass into a kingdom of truth and justice, where there will be no need for power.*

These are the words which earn Yeshua his death sentence. By the time he uttered them, Pilate, though initially hostile, was becoming convinced of his innocence and inclined to let him go. No longer. Pilate is now much too afraid that any leniency towards what might ― and, in the paranoid climate of the reign of Tiberius, inevitably will ― be interpreted as treason and lèse-majesté. Pilate thunders “[t]here has never been, there is not, and there never will be a power greater or better for men than the power of emperor Tiberius!” ― and goes on to sign Yeshua’s death warrant.

Pilate’s behaviour illustrates one corrupting effect of power ― the fear it breeds, in both those who wield and are afraid of losing it, and in those who are subject to and are afraid of being crushed by it. Pilate represents power, and power always worries about it challengers. Pilate is also subject to the absolute, unforgiving, vicious power of the emperor. And, though fearless in battle (as indeed he makes a point of telling us), he is scared out of his wits, and condemns a man whom he knows to be innocent, only to go on and say, desperately, that “cowardice is the worst of all the vices.”

But Yeshua’s words point to another form of corruption that power works. Power, he says, is violence. And violence corrupts the person who engages in it. It is often said that the death penalty demeans not only the person being killed, but also, albeit in a somewhat different way, the executioner (just by way of example, see the famous words of Justice Blackmun, in Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (dissenting from denial of certiorari): “The path the Court has chosen lessens us all.”) And the death penalty is, of course, only the most extreme form of the violence that the state can inflict on a human being, and that it will inevitably inflict on human beings. The exercise of power is, inevitably, the exercise of coercion, which stains or takes something (innocence? kindness? the capacity for empathy?) from the person engaged in it.

And it will not do to argue that some exercises of power at least are legitimate, say because they conform to some theory of justice that reasonable people ought to accept. Never mind that reasonable people disagree about what such a theory of justice might look like, to the point that, as Jeremy Waldron once put in during a seminar, “we have theories of justice coming out of our ears.” Suppose there were such a theory. But the fact that reasonable people ought to accept it doesn’t change the fact that some people are not reasonable, and the best and most just power will still be doing violence to them. This is not to say that we can or ought to get rid of power altogether. The kingdom of truth and justice which Yeshua expected has not come, and so far as we can tell is not about to. But the fact that the exercise of power is necessary does not negate its corrupting effects.

That said, it is also true that these effects can be reduced and checked. Limiting the time during which one is able to exercise power is one way of doing so. Limiting the scope of power any one person is able to exercise is another. Subjecting power to law is a third. As some Rule of Law theorists, especially prof. Waldron, argue, the subjection of power to law makes it more respectful of human dignity ― less brutal, less violent. Good law, no more than good intentions or a good heart, does not fully protect against the corruption that power works. But it just might make the evils we must put up with tolerable.

* The translation is my own; the word Bulgakov uses, власть, can mean either “power” or “government.” It is also the word which is used to render Lord Acton’s dictum in Russian.

UPDATE: I have just come across a sentence by David Post, in this article, which very nicely captures what I have been trying to say about power and violence:

“Collective action,” … is another way to denote the use of coercive force to bind some portion of the polity to act in ways that others think necessary for the common good. (1458)

One thought on “How Power Corrupts II

  1. Pingback: How Power Corrupts III | Double Aspect

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