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Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely

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An observation that a person's sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. The statement was made by Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

MORE ABOUT POWER TENDS TO CORRUPT; ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY

What does Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely mean?

The quote Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely comes from the nineteenth-century English historian Lord Acton (1834–1902) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton about how historians should judge the abuse of power by past rulers, especially popes.

Acton’s observation is interpreted to mean that the more power someone has, the more their sense of morality is weakened. People cite or reference the quote today to warn against the abuses of unchecked power, especially in the context of politics or government.

Where does Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely come from?

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely is an observation Lord Acton made in a letter to Bishop Creighton on April 5, 1887. This letter was published in 1907 as part of a collection of Lord Acton’s work, Historical Essays and Studies.

For some context, Lord Acton (his full name, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, is quite the mouthful) was an English scholar and considered to be one of the most learned men of his time. He grew up speaking four languages, became a professor at Cambridge, and even pursued politics for a while. Acton was Catholic, and cared deeply about religious and political freedom. He believed that, in the search for truth, it was a historian’s duty to make moral judgments on history, even if it went against personal beliefs.

Back to the quote, though: In his letter to Creighton, Acton argues that people in positions of power, especially popes and monarchs, should be held to a higher standard of judgment because of—not in spite of—the tremendous power they have. He goes on to suggest that historians have a responsibility to uphold moral standards, calling out injustices rather than excusing them. Just because a leader has power doesn’t mean the actions they take are automatically right or good.

This is where Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely comes in. Rather than assuming powerful figures in history did no wrong, which he accused Creighton of believing, Lord Acton made his famous observation:

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.

Acton is saying that powerful people shouldn’t just get a pass. The fact of their power doesn’t make them somehow morally superior. In fact, it tends to have the opposite effect. Power enables people to commit—and get away with—horrible atrocities. In his letter, Acton cites the Spanish Inquisition and Queen Elizabeth’s execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as examples.

Let’s break down the language of the quote a little more. Power tends to corrupt: people in positions of power often abuse their power to do bad things. They become corrupted, or “morally compromised.” Absolute power corrupts absolutely: the more authority someone has, the worse their morality becomes. Absolute, here, means “unlimited, without constraint,” so, rulers who don’t have any limits on their power tend to become corrupted beyond any limit.

The moral of the story? Power can make people do some pretty messed up things. Acton felt that it was the historian’s job to make sure powerful people were brought to account, even if only in hindsight.

How is Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely used in real life?

People quote Acton’s observation in shortened or modified form, such as “power corrupts” or “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The quotation is predominantly used in the context of politics or government. People may use it to highlight the dangers of too much power, especially with regard to authoritarianism or dictatorships

… or to emphasize the importance of checks and balances on power in government systems.

People also cite or reference the quote as a more general warning against the pursuit of power.

The quotation has been featured in not one, but two series of the Star Trek franchise. Captain Kirk uses it once to talk about the Nazis, while Captain Picard references it when First Officer Riker unexpectedly gains supernatural abilities.

 

It was also said in the trailer for the 2016 film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and was a major theme in the film.

The quotation has even inspired titles in popular media. To name just a few:

  • Absolute Power, a 1996 novel by David Baldacci and 1997 movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood
  • Absolute Power, an early 2000s BBC television and radio series
  • Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World,  a 2018 nonfiction book by Paul Collins

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