In their editorial last Sunday, The Journalist warned us that “Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”.
Their editorial, and the quote about how power can corrupt, reminded me about a conversation I had with a friend of Bhutan several years ago. This is how she explained the context of the quote by Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, an English historian and the First Baron of Acton (1834-1902):
In 1870, the Catholic Church entered a crisis over Vatican’s promulgation of the dogma of “papal infallibility” — the dogma in Catholic theology that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error, when he teaches faith or morals in the context of divine revelation.
Lord Acton was a devout Catholic. He went to Rome to fight against the dogma of papal infallibility, but failed. It was in this context that, on April 1887, Lord Acton made his famous statement in a letter to an ecclesiastic scholar Mandell Creighton:
“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 certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. “
This friend of Bhutan carries considerable influence and authority herself. And she explained that knowledge of this story could be useful in any fight against those who abuse authority and misuse power.
And for good measure, she added:
I have met only one man in my career who quoted the much misquoted quote accurately, word for word: His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.