Is There any Legitimate Authority or Only
the Inevitable Use and Abuse of Power?
All power, for power’s sake, is habit-forming. The phenomenology of power and the phenomenology of addiction show remarkable parallels. An addict gets to know an experience of euphoria, an extraordinary sense of well-being, at his first acquaintance with the drug. As he wants to renew the experience he will soon have to take a greater quantity. But the pattern changes; the addict without the drug is not just a normal being without a sense of happiness: he is in distress. And soon it is this distress which dominates his life. The drug is no longer needed to produce bliss: it has to be taken for a merely negative purpose—namely to escape misery.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
The entire Christian and classical tradition took it for granted that there are objective hierarchies: that of parents to children for example, that of learned over ignorant and—what is not the same thing—that of wise over foolish. To say that all people are equal is true in some senses, but it needs to be complemented by recognition of the complementary hierarchical principle within the universe.
Ignazio Silone told me once how, when he was a member of the old Comintern, some stratagem was under discussion, and a delegate, a newcomer who had never attended before, made the extraordinary observation that if such and such a statement were to be put out, it wouldn’t be true. There was a moment of dazed silence, and then everyone began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until tears ran down their cheeks and the Kremlin walls seemed to shake. The same laughter echoes in every council chamber and cabinet room, wherever two or more are gathered together to exercise authority.
The exercise and enjoyment of power is rarely conducive to speaking the truth; rather the reverse.
[Whenever we think of the abuse of power we tend to think first of political power. But most abuses of power are not political. In his autobiography Alec Guinness relates the circumstances that led to his being ostracized by the eminent poet Edith Sitwell: ‘For at least two years I was cast into outer darkness. As she said to Max Adrian, who repeated it to me with glee, “Alec Guinness is not a Plantagenet.”’ His crime, as described below, was his energetic refusal to accept Edith’s artistic authority.]
The Apollo Society had arranged an evening of music and poetry at a London theatre one Sunday evening. The readers were Cathleen Nesbitt, Dylan Thomas and myself, and the pianist, who was to play some Beethoven, was Franz Osborn. Part of the programme consisted of poems by all three Sitwells and Edith arranged a small supper party after the performance at her club. At the table Dylan was placed on her right and I sat at her left. There were also present Stephen Spender and his wife Natasha Litvin, Caitlin Thomas and, I seem to remember, David Horner and two others. All went swingingly well until, towards the end of the meal, Edith expressed her disapproval of the piano-playing and of Beethoven in particular. “Beethoven was a great bore!” she announced. “Not a first-rate artist. I’m sure everyone here will agree that Beethoven is deadly.” There was a murmur of agreement from most people at the table; I was shocked. Then, unfortunately, she decided to elicit condemnation of Beethoven from all present. “Dylan, you agree he is terribly boring?” “Yes, Edith.” “And Stephen?” “Of course, Edith.” Pray God she doesn’t come to me, I thought. She went round the table, from right to left, receiving nods of agreement. Probably everyone there knew she had suddenly fallen into an aggressive mood and that it would be wise, for the sake of calm, to agree with whatever she said but, bumptiously, I couldn’t see it that way. At the moment when I thought I had escaped, as an uncultured nonentity, she turned to me with, “And you, Alec, you agree Beethoven is a bore.” “I got pleasure from the playing this evening,” I said, somewhat evasively. “But you do agree about Beethoven?” she persisted. My face flushed and a sudden temper surged through me. “Not at all,” I replied. “I imagine Beethoven will be played and loved long after everyone at this table has been entirely forgotten.”
It was an unpardonable remark, of course. There was a gasp from the other guests. A deprecating look or two came from the Spenders, as if to say, “Oh, dear, you should have known better!” Conversation flagged almost to a standstill, of the “More coffee? Not for me at this time of night” variety. Edith never spoke to me again until she took the Pope as her guide when, as she expected to be forgiven any sins she may have committed, doubtless she decided to forgive her supposed “enemies” and I fear I must have figured among them.
Abuse of power is not a male monopoly.
There is in its very essence a fundamental contradiction that prevents power from ever existing in the true sense of the word. The instruments of power—arms, gold, machines, magical or technical secrets—always exist independently of him who disposes of them and can be taken up by others. Consequently all power is unstable. There never is power, but only a race for power.
All power is borrowed.
Thoughts about Power & Authority
A reform is a correction of abuses; a revolution is a transfer of power.
E. R. Bulwer-Lytton
Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.
George Bernard Shaw
Are there ways of disarming oppressive power that do not betray the cause that uses them?
The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.
Despite a flattering supposition to the contrary, people come readily to terms with power.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Each new power won by man [over Nature] is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.
C. S. Lewis
It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.
C. S. Lewis
I have never really been able to understand how anyone can believe in the possibility of compromise in matters of power, which is an absolutist passion.
When you take a benevolent man and make him a despot, his despotism survives but his benevolence rather fades away.
If everything is possible then nothing is possible. Nothing is possible for the self because it is the object that is possible. Absolute power is impotence.
It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.
The strongest bulwark of authority is uniformity; the least divergence from it is the greatest crime.
Michel Foucault taught that power determines everything: truth is simply an expression of police power and knowledge is neither true nor false but instead is made legitimate or illegitimate by established power.
No one can go on being a rebel too long without turning into an autocrat.
G. K. Chesterton
Only through big government can democratic authority resist concentrated economic power.
Economic power, when sufficiently vast, becomes by its very nature political power.
Our society honours the powerful and punishes the weak.
Weakness [i.e. powerlessness] alone is punished in life and is certain to be punished.
Power never takes a step back except in the face of more power.
Power has its own mysticism of violence, symbolised in the USSR by what Stalin called the ‘Flaming Sword of the Proletariat.’
The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.
The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong.
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
The modern project of underwriting love with power has failed.
The seat of power is the inner self.
When market dependence reaches a certain threshold it deprives those affected by it of their power to live creatively and to act autonomously. And precisely because this new impotence is so deeply experienced, it is expressed with difficulty.
Want of principle is power. Truth and honesty set a limit to our efforts, which impudence and hypocrisy easily overleap.
The brightest and the best are often out-manoeuvred by the trickiest and the most unscrupulous.
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.
Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
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