Human Mind Reptilian Mind

Power or Strength: What Lord Acton Got Wrong

Little do the people comprehend the great–that is, the creating. But they have a mind for all showmen and actors of great things. —Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche

Two ants were in mortal combat over disputed territory. As I watched, it seemed that this battle meant the world to them. But from my perspective, the ants were fighting over a tiny chip of wood that a recent cloudburst was washing down the street curb to a storm drain.

Entire ant armies have been observed to battle with tactics similar to those used by human beings. For example, two battle lines of ants charging each other “with a suicidal single-mindedness. Utterly devoted to duty, the fighters never retreat from a confrontation—even in the face of certain death.” But we’re more conscious than ants, right?

A large majority of people polled in countries around the world agreed that they worry about climate change and believe humans are causing the crisis. Even in the country with the lowest score, 73% of the people agreed with these statements. The majority also supported specific governmental climate policies, with an average global score of 72% agreement. So, people are conscious of the intensifying global ruin and human suffering caused by global warming.

Nevertheless, meteorologists are in despair that anything will be done to stop global temperatures from rising above the 1.5°C limit set by international agreement. Almost half of the experts polled believe temperatures will rise 2.5°C above the pre-Industrial average, a devastating degree of heating. At the same time, we are still going to war with each other while our tiny planet heats up. Can’t people with enough power save us from meeting a similar fate as the ants? 

Or, perhaps power is the problem, not the solution. Understanding how power and strength differ explains why Lord Acton got some things about power wrong, and why those differences are vitally important today. Lord Acton wrote in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton:

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 holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers’ lifetimes]. 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 the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . .” [Brackets in the original]. 

Power is expressed outwardly by controlling people and other objects in the external world. Strength is experienced inwardly by the individual or may be observed as stout resistance to external influences of power.

Lord Acton said corruption increases as power increases, but that may be true only for people who have previously envied and identified with power. Strength does not identify with power, and inner strength is not corrupted by power. For example, Tom Bombadil in The Fellowship of the Ring was relatively immune to the seduction of the “One Ring,” not because he was a fictional character, but because whatever he was, he had no lust for power for the ring to exploit. Bombadil could not be “bought” by the ring. Abraham Lincoln, who was also already decent, has been described as a person who became better with power, showing deep commitment to the concerns of ordinary people.

Both religious and secular people can lust for power. The religious power reading of Jesus authorizes the Crusades and Christian Nationalism for the long disputed end of proving which God, and worshippers, would rule. The secular power reading of Friedrich Nietzsche leads to the “blunt claim that ‘Might makes right,’” no God endorsement needed for the end of never having to say you’re sorry, even though you have sickened the earth and shortened the lives of billions of people.

On the other hand, the strength reading of Jesus inspires lives of service, even at great risk. The strength reading of Nietzsche leads to a person who indiscriminately (i.e., unconditionally) uses “worldly” power for the benefit of all: a “Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.” This person knows they could get away with murder, but does not kill; get away with thievery, but does not steal; and get away with cheating, but plays fairly in all matters. Their strength cannot be bought.

Strength uses integrity to solve all problems equitably; power uses corruption to make their problems go away—permanently, if possible. And, as Lord Acton suggested and we have seen, power believes that any means are justified for any end, large or tiny, that power craves.

If we continue to cheer the outer show of power rather than the inner strength of character then, like ants, we will remain gridlocked in mindless power struggles until the very end. Except, instead of drowning in a random flood, we will burn in the hot hell of our own intentional making. 

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