One of the advantages of doing a written Q & A instead of a live interview is that you have time to check things out instead of just burbling on. My most recent blog post, in which I answered questions from long-time History in the Margins reader, Bart Ingraldi, is a wonderful example of this. In it I quoted George Santayana’s famous statement that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In doing so, I may have probably left you with the impression that I had the details about Santayana and the quotation right on the tip of my mind. That was not entirely accurate.
I certainly knew the quotation, but I wasn’t sure who had said it. I suspected it might have been Winston Churchill.* Or perhaps nineteenth century historian Lord Acton. A quick search of the internet gave me the proper attribution.**
It also caused me to look more closely at Lord Acton’s own famous aphorism: “all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I had never never looked at Acton’s pithy line in context. Having done so, I find myself uncertain, uncomfortable, and eager to share.
As best I can tell, Acton used the line twice, with a slightly different twist each time.
In 1881, he wrote to Mary Gladstone, daughter and secretary to then Prime Minister William Gladstone:
And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely….The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.
That’s a version of the aphorism I can live with.
It’s the later version that makes me bite my lip, squirm in my chair and go “but, but but…”. Writing to the Anglican Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton in 1887, Acton moves from discussing the corruption of a class to discussing the corruption of an individual:
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. [emphasis mine]
Great men are almost always bad men???!!!! Really??
I’d love to here what you smart people out in the Margins think about this. I want rants and pontification. Examples and counter-examples. Let the discussion begin.
*Churchill is sometimes given credit for a pithier version of Santanya’s line: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But the folks at the National Churchill Museum say it’s not so.
**And an answer to the question “George who?” Mid-20th century philosophers are not one of my strongest subjects.