Power Corrupts

In 1870, the man who was then Pope Pius IX announced the doctrine of Papal infallibility. In recent years, there’s been a lot of hedging on this whole idea, and the Pope is only considered infallible in certain narrow situations. But when this doctrine was being debated as an idea in the 1st Vatican Council, Lord Acton went to Rome to personally argue against it.

This was a very contentious issue, and while writing about the idea that any man or organization would be considered infallible, it was in 1887 that Lord Acton made the statement that became the quote I used in my last post.

“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 the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All 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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

I bolded the last line, because that idea should be held up again. At every level of government, office holders are fawned over, given security, ornate buildings, offices full of fine furniture, free travel, all paid for by the citizens they purport to serve. Lord Acton may have been talking about the Pope in 1887, but what would he have said about this?

We haven’t really gotten the credit for what we have done.
–Nancy Pelosi


3 thoughts on “Power Corrupts

  1. A very good quote – especially when taken with the entire statement. For something to consider, however … David Brin, in his book “The Postman” (the basis for the movie), suggested that a better phrase may have been “Power attracts the corruptible.”

    While not interchangeable, they both certainly apply to a good deal of those people with authority.

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