The other day I asked my students a simple question: Do those with power and authority tend to abuse those qualities?

Before you reverse engineer my question too much, understand that the students got the straightforward implication about the corrupting tendency of power. But even I was shocked by the result. My in-class poll revealed unanimous affirmation that, indeed, power and authority go hand in hand with abuse.

Power and authority are ordinarily used well

This opinion is fundamentally wrong. Our life is replete with people in positions of power and authority that exercise very good stewardship of that. For example, I think of the number of parents every day working hard to raise their kids. Or you might see a local business owner diligently guiding his employees, serving customers, and making things work. There's the ordinary work of teachers, cops, doctors, and other helping professionals whose mere words can have an enormous impact on people. I haven't even gotten to pastors or priests.

We've become deeply, deeply cynical of those in positions of power and authority. Part of that is certainly justified. The corruption we see among our elites in political, cultural, and financial spheres is really endemic. But the popularity of pointing out the abuses of power and authority make it seem that the exception is instead the rule. We tend to gravitate towards the extremes of the situation: absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that, to paraphrase Lord Acton.

But let's suppose that, under a theory of virtue, this is simply not tenable. Most paths that lead to power and authority in life require a great deal of training and discipline. That is, there's a process that requires a person who comes into power to acquire a certain bit of self-discipline and self-sacrifice in its acquisition. For example, I enjoy lifting weights and think myself to be fairly stronger than the average person. That's certainly an amount of strength, of power that I have greater than others. But it's been darn hard lifting those weights all those years and putting in the work, even when I haven't felt like it. That's required some self-discipline and mastery of my will.

Similarly, think of someone practicing a martial art or being trained by the military. These folks literally have the power of life and death over others. But their skills were acquired thanks to a great deal of hard work, and only within a framework concerning their proper use. The framework, of course, is absolutely key. We can think of raw power being acquired for nefarious purposes. Perhaps it's something we see more in movies than in reality, but it's all too easy to succumb to Godwin's law here in every case where we see authority.

Ironically, some of the most important positions of power and authority in life have the easiest paths toward them. Hello, parenting! When a process brings someone into a position of authority easily, or without a framework of merit, it is absolutely up to external factors such as culture and custom — and even other sources of authority in the family — to make up for any lacking discipline. A robust social network really does serve as an important check and guide for the proper use of power and authority.

And Let's not forget prayer

But let's not confuse mere action for actually doing something important. One can imagine people in the background who have quiet influence with others. I'm thinking of the friends who give good advice, or perhaps more importantly still, those who in our Catholic faith spend their time in quiet prayer and offering their sacrifices up for others. These are the lowly or the overlooked whom the world sees as unimportant. And indeed, within worldly structures they are. 

But if power and authority are about proper use, then what better use of our faculties can there be but a quiet offering up of our sufferings and a humble supplication unto God? This is a position that we are all required to learn, but one that often requires much suffering to achieve. And yet, in the end, it reflects the truest use of power and authority. 


Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.