The recent sexual misconduct allegations of influential men abusing their towering positions for contemptuous behaviors provide yet another reminder that power corrupts. As the British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote in an 1887 letter to the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton,
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.
The recent scandals lay bare the three distinctive characteristics of the intoxication of power: the inflation of the self, the devaluation of the helpless, and a dreadful shortfall in self-awareness of actions and consequences.
In the case of studio executive Harvey Weinstein, the worse outrage is that, many prominent people, despite their awareness of Weinstein’s uninhibited abuse, stayed silent—and possibly benefited. Some Hollywood celebrities are said to have overlooked his transgressions. Meryl Streep, one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, who once referred to Weinstein as ‘God,’ had to contend the blame that everyone in Hollywood knew of Weinstein’s conduct. His staff sheltered him or paid off victims, many of whom chose to remain silent for fear of derailing their budding careers. Going public would have hurt them more than it would have damaged Weinstein, until those accusations reach a critical mass and suddenly everyone flipped against him.
The Intoxication of Power
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell first wrote about the “intoxication of power” in A History of Western Philosophy (1945,) and best described what develops in the minds of many people who, in all walks of life, exercise a measure of power and dominance.
The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. … Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God.
In all of this I feel a great danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.
Idea for Impact: People with even the smallest amount of authority can and will find ways to abuse it
People can become corrupt with power, fame, wealth, and influence, and, as I’ve written previously, they regularly get away with it. The solution, I believe, is to subject our elites (and the sycophantic supporters who are disposed to collude in self-interest) to as many restrictions, supervisions, and checks and balances as possible, and scrutinize them closely so as to spot hubristic traits and symptoms of the abuse of power.