When the 19th century Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 stating- ”Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, he also finished the statement by saying ”Great men are almost always bad men” (ref 1). This statement has to be seen in its historical time, in context and I would argue as a heuristic. Firstly, Lord Acton (the gentleman in the main image) grew up in a very wealthy and socially elite family (he was the only son of a Knight and 7th Baronet, ref 2) and had political positions of power in Britain during the American civil war, where he gave his sympathies to the Confederates, writing in support of General Lee upon his defeat (ref 3). He was also a well-travelled and educated man who rejected nationalism and had a type of liberalism rooted in Christianity (ref 4). So it is against this backdrop that we must examine his famous quote. It is important to note that he was not the originator of such an idea, with others such as William Pitt the Elder stating in 1770 to the House of Lords- “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” (ref 5), and that his thoughts on power were influenced from his studies of the Roman emperors and Napoleon Bonaparte (who made himself the Emperor of France). Also importantly, the original letter was written as a protest against the idea that Kings and Pope should not be judged like all else (ref 6). Therefore the original quote from Lord Acton should be understood to mean that most men of power in history have been bad, tyrannical men, and that the more power they have accumulated, the more corrupt they get.
An example from modern history that could be shown to exemplify this was the rise of Joseph Stalin in Soviet Russia. Stalin grew up in a time where Communist ideologies led by Bolsheviks, was starting to disrupt the existing power held by the Tsars over the Russian Empire. This culminated in the murder of the entire royal family, and Bolshevik power was consolidated, with Vladimir Lenin at the helm by 1917. After succumbing to a stroke and coma, Lenin’s passing in 1924 gave way to Stalin’s leadership, making him the most powerful man in Russia. This absolute power was able to exist by way of a one-party state that used sham courts, secret police and violent enforcers. Ultimately, Stalin would be remembered for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people, leaving a degenerate cultural legacy that somewhat still pervades into the 21st century. (See ref 7 for more on the history of Stalin’s rise to power).
Now, it is important to both learn from history and also to learn from newer information garnered from the modern age. The works of Katherine A. DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto (ref 8) suggest that power merely amplifies the existing moral compass of an individual. Of course, the research is unable to discern is absolute power always corrupts absolutely, it does perhaps suggest we have been looking at certain historical figures the wrong way around. The assumption from Lord Acton would appear to be that it is power that first corrupts when perhaps we need to consider more frequently that ‘bad men’ (who have been the majority of power-holders in history), were already corrupted then ascended to power, seeking it out and becoming more unethical as they accumulated more power. If we look at the early life of Stalin for example, he was always a juvenile thug (for example he became a bank robber) and one who grew up without much power initially, so he had to make his own through violence (ref 7). But what about those who grow up in positions of power? Well we can also see the same example of starting off with a poor moral compass and ethical grounding prior to absolute power by looking at the life of Nero, the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (ref 9). Nero grew up in a wealthy and powerful family (his mother was Caligula’s sister), but from an early age he showed signs of moral degeneracy (for example, in 39 AD, he had his two surviving sisters banished; ref 10). His brutal behaviour continued the more power he accumulated, including putting his own mother to death a year into his reign in AD 59 and kicking his wife to death (ref 11). So, what both examples highlight is that many powerful and vile men in history have started out with low pre-existing ethical tendencies and have sought power out, becoming more and more corrupt.
However, the question must be asked- is this always true? Given that I see Lord Acton’s statement more of a heuristic, and my personal interest in history, I would say ‘No’. Of course, a full academic investigation into this is warranted but outside the bounds of this essay’s purpose. I will give an example of a leader in absolute power who appeared to not be corrupted by it. The controversial example I will use is of one of my favourite leader in history; Genghis Khan. Now whist I will admit Genghis was a brutal leader, he must be looked at for a man of his position in his time. Unlike Nero, Genghis was both a competent leader and one who never carried out unexpected atrocities to his own people (a Roman leader kicking his wife to death was unexpected; a Mongol leader killing millions of enemies was not unexpected). Genghis was brutal yes, but he often gave his enemies a chance to compromise (such as his bloody Persian campaign that only came about after 2 of his trade emissaries were murdered; he did not immediately go on a war path and allowed initial forgiveness after the first murder). Genghis also abolished the slavery of women, abolished torture, instituted a meritocracy for the running of regions, regulated game hunting, united Mongol tribes, was tolerant of other religions and even had some of his generals taken from enemy fighters (refs 12, 13). For his time, he was quite un-corrupt, with a lack of deviancy evolving as he gained more power (of note, a lot of effort, particularly from the now defunct USSR, was put into removing historical information about Genghis). (For more on Genghis Khan and leadership lessons from him see ref 13).
I think leaders can learn a lot from Genghis Khan, and some of the key lessons would be: have end goals in mind, serve a greater good than yourself, have a vision, be humble, be moderate, understand your people, and when change is required do it gradually (ref 13). Self awareness is also key if a leader is to avoid corruption when they attain power (ref 14). One must understand their desires, motivations and weaknesses and build a team around them that will constantly challenge them intelligently (like the apocryphal tale of Julius Caesar having a man walk behind him during public events whispering ”you are only a man, you are only a man”) (ref 15). Finally, in my opinion, a leader should welcome meritocratic systems and ensure they operate within a system that can replace them should they become deviant. This helps guard against future selves that may become twisted from our current selves.
10, Malitz, Jürgen (2005). Nero. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. ISBN 978-1-4051-4475-9.