Lord Acton, a British politician of the middle of the 19th century, is best known for his aphorism on the corruptive influence of power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rarely has a lesson been so appropriate for our age where our age is so ill-equipped to handle its truth. In our age, one of the many lies about power and its corrupting influence has been that it is identity that is corrupt and not power. There are all kinds of discussions about supposed systemic privilege and power as an evil thing, and these discussions almost always content themselves to discuss the identity of the people involved, as if white men could be corrupt, but that other people were somehow immune from the corrupting influence of power because they checked off enough boxes of being disadvantaged minorities. Indeed, we know from such lies and hypocrisy, such a lack of reciprocity in our dealings with others, that we have been corrupted by power before even possessing it in many cases.
What is it that makes power so corrupting? A great deal of what makes power corrupting is the illusion of control that power brings. All too often in this world we seek power over others and power over creation as a means of overcoming the difficulty of changing ourselves and changing our lives. We think that if we can control what other people say and think and do that our lives will be better. We think that if we acquire power that people will honor us and respect us the way that we want. No matter how noble our desire to coerce other people into gratifying some sort of wish or longing of ourselves, that coercion is a corruption of power, and if we are blind to the possibility that we too can abuse power just as others have abused power in the past, then we will likely hold to certain double standards that blind us to the reality of our own corruption even as we rail against the corruption of others.
The corruption of power is more widespread than we tend to think. Before we are corrupted into doing evil and taking advantage of others and exploiting others, our understanding of ourselves is corrupted to the extent that we do not see that we are in fact corrupt. Long after we have become corrupted by the possession of and the quest for power, our ability to recognize the sense data that would clue us into that corruption has been hindered by the presence of that unrecognized corruption that we confuse with justice. If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged, and if we would remember that we will be judged by the same standard we judge others, we would be more generous to others and more harsh to ourselves. And yet we are not, and those who fancy themselves to be the most just are often poisoned the most by the corruptive influence of power and seduced by the longing to coerce others into gratifying their own millennial longings.
It is telling that Lord Acton lived at the same time as early socialist and Communist and Utilitarian leaders who pushed for corruption in two different directions simultaneously, on the idealist side to the point where basic aspects of reality were viewed as being inessential and unimportant because of the ideological commitments that people had that imagined that some sort of different viewpoint of reality was valid, thus leading to widespread ignorance of and denial of reality that persists to the present-day. On the other hand, idealistic refusal to engage in certain means was undercut by appeals to the pragmatic use of power. So it is that our world is full of people who fancy themselves to be idealists when it comes to ignoring the less pleasant parts of reality, while simultaneously being pragmatists in their search for and use of power in order to pursue what they consider to be noble ends by inglorious and ignoble means, all of which is corrupting their sense of goodness and justice without their awareness.