Friday, 8 February 2013

Shakespeare's explanation of why power corrupts

"Why does power corrupt most people?" is a fascinating question.

There is no question that power often hardens the heart. It can ruin even the best. Loss of it often improves us as if we are waking from a bad dream.

But why?  What is so powerful about power that it can even ruin a solid and good character? We would be naive not to recognise this to be true.

The levers of power in Britain are consciously set in perfect balance to limit any one person or party getting hold of absolute power. Power is balanced between:  voters (en masse), politicians, the Crown, the law and the press.  Democracy, itself, is a way of minimising absolute power.  US Presidents are not allowed to run for three terms in office, on the basis that a third term inflates one's ego and destroys one's sanity.

Shakespeare writes "even a good and virtuous nature may recoil in an imperial charge".  Think of Nero, Hitler, Stalin.  It happens everyday, much closer to home.  I will never forget one fine preacher saying that "When a man gets a secretary, I have noted that often his character changes...." I have seen this happen to women, too.

No one is proof against the effects of power. One could say that power makes people complacent and cut off from the suffering of others, through wealth.  I have often noted that when, rarely, I have stayed in a great house, that they are "worlds" in themselves, fortresses against the world.  Who cares what goes on outside?  But power is not just about complacency, a feeling of "I am alright".  It is also about a kind poisoning from the inside.

Shakespeare sees man as having a coiled and hidden serpent in his heart, which when he is struggling, working hard, does not stir. The creature is held down and controlled by the effort to stay alive, to fulfil duties, to make a living.  But, when a person is surrounded by ease, freedom, endless choice, fear or admiration as well as false people flattering,  a "serpent" wakes and stirs within.  At worst, it can start to turn the personality "reptilian".

When I moved to where we live now, at the edge of a wood, one warm summer evening I started cutting very long grass with a push lawnmower. A neighbour rushed into our garden and said "Please don't do that with a hand mower! Adders come out at the edge of a wood and bask in long grass in the warmth in summer.  They bite, if trodden on". Kindly, he lent his own safer machine.

William Shakespeare was very wary of stepping on adders.  He grew up on the edge of the Forest of Arden.  He called adders secret, "creeping" venom'd things. His famous quote is that "the bright day brings forth the adder".  This fact requires "wary walking".

Shakespeare sees power as bringing forth the hidden adder in us - just as the warm sun in summer brings out the natural adder - and its sting.  He says that power "brings out the sting, through its sunshine".

It is no accident that a Serpent destroyed The Garden of Eden. Christians would say that power brings out our inherent, fallen, sinful nature.  They would also say that being in a living relationship with Jesus Christ is -  like the most powerful antidote against a mortal sting - our only hope of defence against the venomed Serpent. I believe that this is why we still, unconsciously, want our Prime Ministers to be Christians.

Christians need not avoid power all together. We desperately need more powerful people who serve the nation not for person gain, status, ease or money but for the service of God and the love of others.

But any kind of power requires constant prayer and a lot of "wary walking".

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