Years ago a columnist quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying; ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’  I was shocked that this columnist didn’t acknowledge the source of this statement which is found in Matthew 12:25.  I couldn’t believe it was possible that the columnist didn’t know where this famous quote originated.  I thought perhaps this was just another case of ‘Bible snubbing’ by pseudo intellectuals.  But perhaps this person just didn’t care about the history and origin of the saying.

I ‘googled’ the phrase ‘a house divided’ and up came Wikipedia’s entry; “The House Divided Speech was an address given by Abraham Lincoln (who would later become President of the United States) on June 16, 1858, at what was then the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, upon accepting the Illinois Republican Party‘s nomination as that state’s United States senator.”  It was only in the very bottom of the entry that the Bible was mentioned.  The columnist may not have read that far.

I wondered how many people would read this columnist’s article and not having read the New Testament would now come to believe that ‘Honest Abe’ was the originator of the phrase ‘a house divided cannot stand’.  Today, everybody is in a hurry and it takes too much time to get to the bottom of every detail – even the important ones.  Flattening out history by not delving back into it takes wisdom and makes it ‘folk wisdom’.  Folk wisdom is stuff everybody knows about the past but isn’t really as powerful in explaining what’s going on as ‘contemporary’ research.

And yesterday,  I read in the Globe and Mail;

Allegations of harassment and sexual aggression by members of two of Canada’s most esteemed institutions may be shocking to some, but they are part of a pattern that is showing up ever more frequently in our news feeds.

Given the exploits of such a variety of famous people, it’s no wonder there’s a pervasive folk psychology around how power affects people. We often hear how power corrupts, or how power causes people to behave in ways that are damaging to others and to powerful people themselves.

For many of us, the news stories of the past couple of weeks are unsurprising, and the folk psychology surrounding them seems to make intuitive sense. But is there any truth to it? What exactly does psychological research say about how power affects behaviour?

(Power may not corrupt, but it sure does facilitate by SUKHVINDER OBHI, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 12 2014)

Notice how history is compressed and flattened out.  Phrases like ‘news feeds’, ‘exploits of famous people’ (as if politicians and radio show hosts are now famous people), ‘news stories of the past couple of weeks’ and ‘the folk psychology surrounding them’ all give the impression that the abuse of power is something that has just recently cropped up and any insights about the nature of why powerful people abuse others can only be found in ‘psychological research’.

Why not go back and consider where this idea of power corrupting came from and the history around it.  The saying; “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is attributed to John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton. Wikipedia states; “He is famous for his remark, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.'”  He was talking about ‘great historical figures’ not mundane politicians or radio talk show hosts.  His was offended by the double standard by which we tend to exempt those who hold high and powerful offices from abuse of power.  His point that people who hold great power must be held ‘powerfully’ accountable for their actions.   Dalberg-Acton wrote;

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. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III. ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.

(Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton, Apr. 5, 1887)

Dalberg-Acton spoke to not only what power brings out in the people who wield it but also how those around powerful people facilitate and enable abuse of power through a subtle double standard. Contemporary psychological research simply ‘re-discovers’ what was already well known.  Cause and effect are collapsed and transposed across both sides of the ‘equation; only the abuser (who is profaned)  is to blame and the abused is the victim only (whose status is sacred).  Sadly, in this day of psychology and celebrity the ‘best’ conclusion that shallow analysis offers up is;

Not all people with power harass others. So while power is part of the story, it’s not the whole story – a person’s pre-existing psychological traits also matter. With this in mind, the folk-psychology notion that power corrupts is almost accurate, but not quite.

So does power corrupt? In short, it depends.

Where will we go with that?

Today, we confuse celebrity with fame and social status with power.  Those who have celebrity and social status as well as those who don’t, all agree – if you’re well known, voted in or viewed as successful – you have and deserve power.  This kind of adolescent shallow social contract is prevalent and sets the conditions for abuse.  When instances of abuse surface we are all outraged.  Those abused are devastated and the abusers are often surprised that others think they have done wrong.  The abusers as well as the abused feel betrayed.

George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Which will work just fine today because of our short attention spans and love of shallow celebrity. Everyday will be a new day just full of discovery that puts ‘old fogey’ folk wisdom to shame!  Everything will just get better and better because we are getting smarter and smarter!

My wife often points out that people can get so smart they’re stupid!

She’s right.