“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.