Does Power Corrupt?
By Mark Epstein
Lord Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men."
George Orwell’s Animal Farm tells the story of the progress of the animal-led farm, Napoleon the boar’s rise to power, and his descent toward totalitarian rule. Acton’s concept arguably shows up in the book, but is it true? Power as such does not corrupt, although power does bring out and emphasize evil. In Animal Farm, there are examples of creatures with power who are not corrupt, and examples of creatures without power who are.
To begin, power does not always corrupt. Literacy (which represents education and intelligence) is certainly a form of power in Animal Farm. It allows the animals to do things like designate laws and gain knowledge. Now, some of the animals do abuse this power, twisting the laws originally agreed upon by the animals to their own liking. The original commandments promote the welfare of all animals and are the result of the animals’ attempt to avoid their former owner’s mistakes. They ban drinking alcohol, associating with humans, sleeping in beds, wearing clothes, and killing other animals. Napoleon makes subtle adjustments, such as changing “No animal shall drink alcohol” to “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess” and rewording “No animal shall kill any other animal” to read “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause,” until the original commandments have been completely butchered, leaving only, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Yet if power as such corrupts, then literacy should always corrupt. However, there are numerous instances within Animal Farm where animals are not corrupted by this ability. One clear example involves Snowball, one of the pigs who opposed Napoleon. Snowball records the original seven commandments. He uses his literacy to study military methods, to defend Animal Farm from human attempts to recapture it. Snowball also reads about different methods in farming to save the animals labor, and studies building to design a windmill to provide electricity. Throughout the novel, Snowball never abuses his literacy. The donkey, Benjamin, likewise manages to learn to read and write. As a result, he nearly saves Boxer the horse when Napoleon sells the trusting horse to the knackers, nor does Benjamin use literacy to take advantage of his fellow creatures.
Conversely, several animals on the farm act corruptly, but some do so with little to no power. Napoleon exhibits terrible cruelty as the leader of Animal Farm, and this lends credence to the idea that power corrupts. But the cat begins shirking his duties right from the start. While all the other animals labor to raise food, the cat disappears, but when food is served, the cat is present. This feline takes advantage of the hard-working farm animals; even though he has no power, he is corrupt. Likewise, Mollie the horse often dishonestly avoids work. She is “not good at getting up in the mornings, and [has] a way of leaving work early on the grounds that there [is] a stone in her hoof.” She eventually betrays the animals, abandoning the farm due to her vanity and desire for sugar. Mollie too lacks power of any kind. Corruption is found at every level of power, including none. This is no surprise if one believes what Scripture teaches about humans: mankind is fallen. All are born with a sinful nature, and thus corruption is found in all kinds of people, regardless of their power or status.
One may still wonder, however: why does power seem to corrupt? This is primarily because the effects of corruption are more widespread and evident when an individual holds more power. Increased power accentuates existing corruption. The pigs are smarter than most of the other animals, and they know it. Squealer slyly persuades the simpler animals that the pigs must consume the coveted milk and apples because of the importance of their brainpower. This pride leads them to justify thinking only of themselves, completely abandoning their original principles, and, ultimately, placing themselves in totalitarian rule over the others.
So, if people are fallen and power accentuates evil, how can anyone rule without corruption? As a Christian, the present writer believes that God is omnipotent. If one believed that morality goes down as power increases, then God should be the most corrupt ruler of all, but this is utterly false. He is a God of justice and righteousness; unlike mankind, he is not fallen. With God’s help and a firm moral base, it is possible to live honestly and honorably, whether in power or in poverty.
Mark Epstein is a 16-year-old homeschool student. He enjoys writing, mathematics, music, languages, government, and debate; his hobbies include reading, mountain biking, and airsoft. He is considering undergraduate studies in engineering and law.
If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy our series on “the Great Conversation,” featuring posts on ideas like fate and oligarchy and the soul. And try our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down every week to discuss education and culture with leading advocates and intellectuals.