When someone in authority asks you to do something, it can be challenging, sometimes dangerous, or even fatal not to comply with the request. Rulers are uncommonly adept at detecting and punishing opponents or friends of opponents, or friends of friends of opponents. The problem is not who is in authority or where, but in the harmful nature of power itself. There is abundant evidence for the truth of Lord Acton’s statement in a letter he penned to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. “Power tends to corrupt,” he wrote, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In this post, I want briefly to look at three approaches to handling conflicts with corrupt power. The first suggests employing art; the second, engaging in revolution; and the third, relying upon the law. I will draw upon a historical example to illustrate the last method. There are other strategies, but I am particularly interested in these three.
One of my youthful idols was the American President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). He said something that I much admire in an address he delivered at Amherst College in October 1963, less than a month before an assassin took his life in Dallas, Texas.
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.President John F. Kennedy, Address at Amherst College [October 26, 1963].
These are lofty words, but I’m not sure how many people have heard them or believe them. The world seems not quite ready to use poetry to solve its corrupt power problems, as much as some might like to have it do so. Keep in mind that Plato, the greatest of all philosophers, banished most poets from his ideal Republic, Homer, among them. That should at least give us pause for thought concerning the potential political power of poetry.
A very different method of dealing with power is to attack it and destroy it. The English word “anarchism” is rooted in the Greek word “anarchos,” meaning “no ruler.” Anarchism holds that no form of government is compatible with freedom, individual or social. To be free requires abolishing all governments, bringing down their leaders, and destroying the institutions that support them.
In her essay, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the noted anarchist and political activist, begins her definition of anarchism as follows:
ANARCHISM:—The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.Goldman, Emma. Anarchism and Other Essays (p. 44). Kindle Edition.
To me, anarchism smacks of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) claimed that humankind without governments or rulers would descend into a perpetual state of war—every person against every other person: a world with “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [Leviathan, I, 13].
Thomas More (1478-1535), High Chancellor of England during the rule of Henry VIII, took a different tack. More found himself at odds with an extraordinarily egotistical and powerful King of England. Henry, desperately desiring an heir, wanted a new wife, Anne Boleyn. More was a devout Roman Catholic. He was unable in good conscience to support Henry’s request to have Pope Clement VII annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Ultimately, the struggle was less about More and Henry than London and Rome, but More got caught up in the fight. He placed his hope in the rule of law, specifically English civil law. Was it well-placed?
In “A Man for All Seasons,” Fred Zinneman’s 1966 film of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, one scene captures the essence of More’s position, the hook on which he hangs his future. The incomparable Paul Scofield plays Thomas More. It is the most moving argument in favor of the rule of civil law I’ve ever heard. He has just turned down a man’s request for employment. The man, Richard Rich, leaves the room.
Here is the text of More’s speech taken directly from Bolt’s play. NB: Statements in parentheses are his stage directions.
Roper’s next line in the play is not in the movie. “I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law’s your god.” [Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons (Modern Classics). Bloomsbury Publishing.]
In the end, at least as far as this world is concerned, More lost his fight with Henry. A “witness,” Richard Rich, perjured himself at More’s trial. Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason and executed in London on July 6, 1535, aged 57. The authorities placed his head on a pike over London Bridge, where it remained for a month, after which his daughter retrieved it.
It was not the law that failed More; it was the authorities’ failure to follow the law. Sometimes, the dealer stacks the deck against you. There are other courts, however. Pope Pius XI canonized More on May 19, 1935; Sir Thomas More became Saint Thomas More. Some courts of justice work differently than others. Thank goodness!
In Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2, the third Mishna, Rabban Gamliel, the son of Judah HaNassi, offers some sound advice. “Be wary of those in power,” he says, “for they befriend a person only for their own benefit; they seem to be friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his hour of need.” [Chabad Siddur, Tehillat Hashem].
All the best,