Absolute Corruption

A blogging friend of mine has asked me to do a bit of a post. This, if you haven’t guessed, is that post. I’ll often use Wikipedia quotes because they are easy to use and have reference links that I then need not follow up in this post. You can go there and follow the links to learn more. My blogging friend robin claire asks:

Hi Mal,
Can you write a piece on how to overcome the reality that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
I think only having a faith in an equally great, life-giving, positive, “greater power” can overcome the pull of negative greed fraught in the “absolute power” that a government official must deal with in playing a role as part of a super-power such as the US is.
robin claire

This is awesome. Not perhaps because of what your thinking. This promotes discussion. No matter whether the two us agree or not, It’s an honest request to share information. If only the world had more folk honestly seeking.


Lets start with some context on the phrase/quote. Lord Acton is credited with it yet there are those who don’t see it that way.

In 1870, along with his mentor Döllinger, Acton opposed the moves to promulgate the doctrine of papal infallibility in the First Vatican Council going to Rome in order to lobby against it, ultimately unsuccessfully. Unlike Döllinger Acton did not become an Old Catholic, and kept on attending Mass regularly and receiving the last rites on his deathbed.[9] The Catholic Church did not try to force his hand. It was in this context that, in a letter he wrote to scholar and ecclesiastic Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887, Acton made his most famous pronouncement:

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, 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. 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. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III. ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here 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, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.[4]

It appears that Acton used this concept to oppose the infallibility of the Pope. That sort of throws stones at the ideas of a god. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then god must be pretty corrupt. Yes, yes, I know that you’ll say that god is different and I’ll argue that you have no way to know that. Moving on…

As an adage this phrase has some power but it is not a rule. One of my favorite historical figures is George Washington. Among the many things that he accomplished, and there were many worth learning about, he navigated a world full of superstition and dogma. (From Wikipedia because it’s easiest)

On February 1, 1800, a few weeks after Washington’s death, Thomas Jefferson made the following entry in his journal, regarding an incident on the occasion of Washington’s departure from office:[55][56]

Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion. “I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.”

There is much discussion about Washington being offered to be king. The truth of it, whether clear or not, is that he chose to not take power, to keep his soldiers civil and humane even when it caused hardships.

George Washington replied to Nicola the same day, stating that he had read Nicola’s letter “with a mixture of great surprise and astonishment.” Washington continued: “no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.” Washington wrote that he could not think of anything in his own conduct that would suggest that he would consider being king. “You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

What we can see in this one example is that power does not corrupt wantonly and without rebuff. It has no magical hold on the individual that the individual does not seek on their own. There are other examples but with this thought, we can rewrite the phrase more appropriately. Power can corrupt, absolute power allows the corrupt to become absolutely corrupt.


The search for an honest politician is an arduous one. If you search the Internet for such you will find a plethora of thought and fact. What can be generally said is that not often enough is it that honest people seek political office. Thus it can be inferred that not many honest people seek power, or at least the two seldom go hand in hand. This does not mean that power corrupts but it strongly indicates that power is very often sought by those that are corrupt. Correlation is not causation, as they say. When we examine such expressions as this we forget those leaders who were honest and good.

What Is Power?

When we define what power is, we can see that it means a lot of different things. At least the seem different, but if you boil it down to influence we can see that there are people all around us with power yet we do not see all of them as corrupt. Clearly then, power on it’s own does not corrupt.

God and Power

That leaves one thing left, can belief in god cause us to avoid being corrupt? The short answer is no. We have only to look at religious leaders who have fallen to see that belief in a god does not prevent one from being corrupt. It perhaps is not fair to characterize all big religious leaders as corrupt, but there are a lot of believers with power who turn out to be corrupt. The list is long. Some of these are still in jail. We have plenty of examples of corrupt religious leaders in this century alone (yes, all 12 years of it) without going back in history. In the 70s it was supposed to be satanists who were into child pornography and abuse… turns out it was the church itself.


While it can fairly be said that corruption and power go hand in hand, it cannot be said that one causes the other. There is is much corruption in the world that when you hand out power, the corrupt are very likely to abuse it… whether they believe in a god or not. That is simply being human.

The original question asks this in reference to gods and belief. While it is argued that Washington was religious, in his time you had to be, just as it is today. Was he religious? Doubtful. Was he corrupt? No. Did he have power? Yes.

I have basically used only one example, and the reason for this is simple. The word count is getting high. Power does not corrupt, but the corrupt do seek power.

    • J_Agathokles
    • December 17th, 2012

    I have a slightly different opinion on power and corruption. Rather then that power actively corrupts, I believe that it actually just passively attracts that which is corruptible.

    And I agree that belief in the Divine – in whichever form – does not mean one can not be corrupt. The more pious and god-fearing one makes oneself out to be, the more it can be suspected that this person is anything but pious.

    • “passively attracts that which is corruptible”

      What a wonderful way to put it!

    • I think we agree, in that I said it allows a corrupt person to be more corrupt.
      “There is is much corruption in the world that when you hand out power, the corrupt are very likely to abuse it”

      To me it’s the same anyway.

  1. You nailed it with Washington. I did know he was offered the Kingship, but I’d never applied that example to this subject. Very good catch! A supremely excellent argument. Convincing, factual, accurate.

    • Some of the founding fathers and first presidents were terribly interesting people. James Madison is a man whose story could fill volumes upon volumes. He had to evacuate Washington, something few presidents will ever even think about. His wife’s story is an awesome read as well. It’s the kind of history that we often gloss over in order to remember dates etc. but the actual stories are inspirational. Their struggles are not much different than the kind we see today but in these stories they didn’t have the luxuries of Constitutional Case Law, they were making it up as they went along… riveting stuff.

  2. Thank you Mal, for addressing this issue. I read your entire argument and I have to say, it has added to my thoughts about this matter. I had never thought about the fact that it might be that corrupt people are the one’s seeking the power. Many good people are content with their position in life as it has been given to them and don’t seem to greed for more than that.
    I will pray on this for a while asking God if there is anything else I need to know in regard to this subject.
    robin claire

    • I think that the presumption that there is a god involved muddies the waters to the point that we often don’t see the simple truth of things.

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