Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Acton's Axiom

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” —Lord Acton

This is probably one of the most–invoked, but least understood lines in literature. Acton truly believed that power corrupts, but his more important point is that power also corrupts those who are enamored of the powerful.  

The quote occurs in a letter Acton wrote to Anglican bishop Mandell Creighton. Creighton had asked Acton to review a history book he was writing, in which he was sympathetic to the Reformation era popes, most of whom were very bad men. Acton wrote in response…

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable 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. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely… 

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. Here (in the papacy of that day) are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice… The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of  authority. If we debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation… we serve the worst cause rather than the purest.

In other words, we should not excuse moral failure because that person is prominent or powerful. It is beyond absurd to say that what one believes about good and evil has nothing to do with his or her ability to lead. Character matters. Therefore, we can and should hold kings, priests, popes, politicians, pastors, and others in positions of authority, to what Acton called “the inflexible integrity of the moral code.”

I think of certain athletes whose off–field behavior is reprehensible, yet they get a pass because they “get it done” on the field of play. 

And I think of certain celebrities and politicians whose personal lives are fetid and foul, yet they likewise get a pass because they “get it done” in their field of endeavor. 

In both cases it is those who approve them that are corrupted—absolutely. 

David Roper



Daisy Rain Martin said...

Hi! My pastor, Jim Halbert, sent me this post. Wowza. I'm currently writing a curriculum for churches called, "Dealing Effectively with Child Sexual Abuse Within our Own Congregations". This was precipitated by a scandal that involves such ignorance and egregious mishandling of children's lives. Even now, people are rallying behind those who protected the perpetrators. I've heard several times now, "Touch not God's anointed." I would love to video an interview with you about this very topic and include it in the curriculum if you'd be willing. I am local. My website is: if you want to make sure I'm legit.

YOU'RE LEGIT! Goodness gracious! Great article!

You can contact me through Jim or through my website.

Take care,
Daisy Rain

Brian K said...

I read this devo. recently and thought I would share it:

Can it then be said that the non-religious world is without
wisdom ? Has it no Aristotle, no Socrates, no Tacitus, no
Goethe, no Gibbon ? Let us understand what wisdom is.
It is not any mere amount of knowledge that constitutes
wisdom. Appropriate knowledge is essential to wisdom.
"A man who has not the knowledge appropriate to his posi
tion, who does not know himself in his relation to God and
to his fellow-men, who is misinformed as to his duties, his
dangers, his necessities, though he may have written innu
merable works of a most exalted character, yet is he to be
set down as a man without wisdom. What is it to you
that your servant is acquainted with mathematics, if he is
ignorant of your will, and of the way to do it ? The genius
of a Voltaire, a Spinoza, a Byron, only makes their folly
the more striking. As though a man floating rapidly on
wards to the Falls of Niagara should occupy himself in
drawing a very admirable picture of the scenery. Men
who are exceedingly great in the world's estimation have
made the most signal blunders with regard to the most im
portant things ; and it is only because these things are not
considered important by the world, that the reputation of
these men remains.
If you have learned to estimate things in some measure
as God estimates them, to desire what he offers, to relin
quish what he forbids, and to recognise the duties that he
has appointed you, you are in the path of wisdom, and the
great men we have been speaking about are far behind you
—far from the narrow gate which you have entered. He
only is wise, who can call Christ the wisdom of God.
The fear of God is that deference to God which leads
you to subordinate your will to his :—makes you intent on
pleasing him ; penitent in view of past wilfulness ; happy
in his smile ; transported by his love ; hopeful of his glory."
(George Bowen) Daily Meditations [March 9]

 The God-Man “If ever we get hungry to see God, we must look at his picture.”  “Where is that, sir?”  “ Ah, Davie … don’t you know ...