Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely Meaning
Definition: Having power corrupts a man, or lessens his morality, and the more power a man has, the more corrupted he will become.
This idiom means that those in power often do not have the people’s best interests in mind. They are primarily focused on their own benefits, and they may abuse their position of power to help themselves. If you follow the thread that absolute power corrupts absolutely, you can believe that monarchs—those with the most authority—have the least amount of morals. Kinder souls would be found among poorer, less influential people.
Naturally this is not always the case, as there are many examples of kind and good leaders. Of those who are corrupted, it is it is hard to distinguish whether the power corrupted the man or the men who were drawn to power were already corrupted.
Origin of Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Quotations of similar ideas have been around since the 1700s, often referring to the monarchs of the time.
William Pitt the Elder, the British Prime Minister at the time, said in a speech in the House of Lords in 1770:
“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”
This idea was later expressed in an essay by Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine in 1848 as (translated from French):
“It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free… the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,… for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton coined the most current incarnation of the phrase, writing, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Example of Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
In the modern day, this idiom is used as an admonition against letting power change your character. It is not often said in conversation, and only occasionally appears in writing with a specific reference to it being an idiom. It does not flow naturally off the tongue.
“People always say absolute power corrupts absolutely… I’m not surprised he spent our tax money on personal interests.”
- “Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. Brussels, the seat of power of the European Union, is learning that lesson the hard way… Unelected Brussels bureaucrats, drunk on centralized power and the ability to impose a globalist agenda on their subjects, went too far.” –The Washington Times
- “‘Start with Lord Acton and the famous axiom that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ said Wayne Flynt, a retired professor of history at Auburn University. ‘Alabama has had a seamless transition from Democratic one-party rule and synonymous corruption to Republican one-party rule and synonymous corruption.'” –The New York Times
As a person’s power increases, their sense of morality decreases.