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The Problem with Power

At least five separate opinion polls named J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy the best books of the twentieth century, and the three movies based on it only increased its popularity. What many fans of the trilogy don't know, however, is that Tolkien's plot about a magic ring came from the Greek philosopher Plato. In the second book of Plato's Republic, Plato's brother, Glaucon, plays devil's advocate in a discussion with Socrates about morality. Glaucon recounts an ancient story of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a golden ring after an earthquake split the ground where he was pasturing his flock. When he put on the ring, he discovered that when he turned it a certain way, he became invisible, and when he turned it back, he was visible again. Realizing the power invisibility gave him, Gyges used the ring to seduce the queen, kill the king, and con the people. Glaucon's point was that if men thought they could get away with their deeds (by, for instance, becoming invisible when it was convenient), they would live greedy, cruel, and selfish lives.

(In addition to The Lord of the Rings, the story of Gyges was the basis for the medieval Germanic legend of the Niebelungs, Wagner's great operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung, and H. G. Wells' book The Invisible Man).

In Tolkien's retelling of the story, Gyges becomes the character Gollum, and Tolkien uses Gollum to make the point that contrary to what many think, power doesn't bring happiness. The quest in The Lord of the Rings is not to get something (which is the aim of most quests), but to get rid of something. The ring of power had to be destroyed because power corrupts! And nothing, I think, in The Lord of the Rings, makes this point more vividly than the scene at the end when not even good, noble Frodo can let go of the ring.

If you doubt Lord Acton's maxim that "Power tends to corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," take a look at our political situation. I don't think it's painting with too broad a brush to say that for every Mr. Smith who Goes to Washington (or to the state capital, or to the city municipal building) and remains untainted by the experience, there's a carload of politicians who use the power of their office for self-aggrandizement. And when we allow these modern-day Gyges/Gollums to get away with their chicanery, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the ensuing corruption and loss of liberty.

Years ago I read an aphorism by C. C. Colton that said something to the effect: Those who desire power don't deserve it, and those who deserve it don't desire it. And therein lies the problem. There are people capable and qualified of serving as our leaders, but they have no inclination to do so (which is one reason why they are qualified to do so).

When England's King George III heard that George Washington had relinquished command of the Continental Army and returned to private life—rather than use his position to establish a military dictatorship—he thought his former enemy the greatest man in the world. Historians say King George went mad; but he was sane enough to know that true greatness doesn't grasp power. Rather it uses it to serve and bless others, and then humbly gives it up.