A major theme in our book “the Great Covid Panic” (now also on Kindle!) is how a whole layer of politicians, medical advisers, and opportunistic business people grabbed the opportunity for more power and money during the lockdowns of 2020-2021. We detail how they did it and what the effects were on their society. The tilt towards authoritarianism happened nearly all over the world to varying degrees, but nowhere more obviously than in Australia. Just last week, for instance, parliament passed a bill allowing the police to access and change any online communication (email, facebook, Troppo) that Australians engage in. That bill is symptomatic of a grab for power under the cloak of fear, which of course will mean a transfer of resources from poor to powerful. In Victoria one can think of Brett Sutton as an exemplar of someone seduced by power, whilst people like Fauci and Witty come to mind in the US and the UK, both sitting on top of rapidly expanding empires like the CDC in the US that even tried to grab power over housing (curtailed by the Supreme Court).
In this post I want to talk about something not in the book: the tragedy of these power-grabbers themselves. What do our greatest pieces of art say about what is in stall for those seduced by power? The Tragedy of Faust of course is exactly on the topic of how seductive power is and what it costs those who succumb to it. The Game of Thrones story-arc of Daenerys was also on that theme of how someone good became someone bad as fame went to her head.
The reasons for why and how power corrupts are directly related to evolution. A more powerful man or woman is better able to provide for their children. This makes them more attractive mates. So it makes evolutionary sense to want power, to mate with power, and to espouse its benefits to the offspring. Power brings respect, fame, and sexual attention. What is not to like, one might think?
As Lord Acton said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What Lord Acton also said was that as a result nearly all ‘great men’ in history were bad men, a lesson seldom told in history classrooms for the obvious reason that power is celebrated and fawned over in our culture, so we don’t want to hear the bit about its corruption, preferring to believe we and our favourite leaders are immune. That blindness too makes perfect evolutionary sense because an awareness of the loss that comes with power diminishes how hard we fight for it. It is only in great art that this most unwelcome lesson is truly allowed to come out in full force.
The Lord of the Rings saga perfectly reflects the thinking of Lord Acton. The ring of power corrupts everyone in it, with no exceptions. Frodo, the hero of the saga, is the most immune to the influence of the ring. He is physically weak, simple, loves nature, loves his people, and only takes the ring at the request of others, in order to destroy it. How noble can one get!? Yet even Frodo gets seduced by the ring as he cannot bring himself to part with it when it matters. It is only in the competition with someone else who wants the ring that the ring gets destroyed.
Even though it cost him dearly, Frodo still somewhat yearns for the ring years after it was destroyed, just like Bilbo still yearns to wear the ring over 50 years after losing it. The saga of the Lord of the Rings is thus a study in the universal corruption of power and how those who have had it will keep dreaming of regaining it, whatever their personal loss due to power has been. It is a very sobering tale, depicting power as a kind of all-consuming corrupting drug that never quite gets washed away with time. Some versions of the Faust saga are also of this ilk. A never ending hunger for power is thus one of the prices paid by those seduced by it.
The Lord of the Rings is a cautionary tale for another reason, which is that it lays out in extreme detail what the cost is to those seduced by power: in his quest Frodo gradually loses the ability to connect with the good things in life, such as memories of strawberries and fields, friendship and song. The ring of power starts to be his only reality and only joy. This is a lesson I myself examined at length in my book on love and power of 2013: how power makes one dismissive of the ‘small things’ in life and how it costs the powerful the ability to love others. They end up only loving themselves and what is needed to be powerful (the ring). In this way, power makes someone’s inner world smaller and reduces its joys. There is the loss of wonder and awe, replaced by ‘more me’.
It is not a choice I recommend for myself or those I love, nor a choice Tolkien recommended. Power might be seductive and impossible to resist indefinitely, but that does not make it a suitable or desirable goal of life. Power thus costs those seduced by it the things that make life most worthwhile: the ability to experience wonder and love.
This is the tragedy that I think has befallen Sutton, Witty, Fauci, and thousands of similar people in the world the last two years. ‘We’ have been their victims, but ‘they’ have also been let down by us in that we did not protect them from this temptation. We did not structure the institutions around them such as to prevent them falling prey like they have, and as everyone would have eventually fallen prey. As I said in my March 2020 lament for the victims that I knew were going to come “Forgive the doom-sayers, the bullies, and the health advisers. They know not what they have done.” They least of all know the tragedy to themselves.