“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. It also appears to be the overriding theme of the recent teaser-trailer for the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The quote is even stated directly in the trailer in a voiceover (by actress Holly Hunter). Is it applicable in this context? Would Lord Acton agree that absolute power has corrupted Superman? I think he would.
That particular quote comes from a letter to Bishop Creighton in which Lord Acton explains that historians should condemn murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is the context:
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.
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.
Lord Acton is saying that rather than excuse “great men” because of the burdens placed upon them by their office or authority, we should judge them even more harshly than we would actions of the common man or woman. This is especially true when those in power commit a serious crime:
My dogma is not the special wickedness of my own spiritual superiors, but the general wickedness of men in authority—of Luther and Zwingli, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII., of Philip II. and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV., James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken.
The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse.
Of killing from private motives or from public, from political or from religious, eadem est ratio; morally the worst is the last. The source of crime is pars melior nostri, what ought to save, destroys; the sinner is hardened and proof against Repentance.
Crimes by constituted authorities worse than crimes by Madame Tussaud’s private malefactors.
Murder may be done by legal means, by plausible and profitable war, by calumny, as well as by dose or dagger.
Let’s consider how this might apply to Superman (specifically the Superman of the recent Man of Steel movie). In that film—Spoiler Alert!—Superman does something out of character: he kills General Zod. Here is the scene from the movie:
This scene was quite controversial among comic fans because Superman doesn’t kill anyone for any reason. Rob Bricken provides an eloquent explanation for why “letting Superman kill kills Superman”:
I have two problems with letting Superman kill anybody, whether Zod in Man of Steel, Zod of Superman II, or any of those other deaths you’ve mentioned (and admittedly there have been a few). The first problem is that it breaks the character. In Man of Steel, Superman has to kill Zod to keep him from murdering a family, right? Well, other villains like Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo and the rest also kill innocent people — why doesn’t Superman kill them during their evil plots? And then, since we all know Lex Luthor and all of Superman’s other bad guys are going to kill innocent people the next time they show up, shouldn’t Superman simply hunt them down and kill them now for that same “greater good”? Aren’t they always going to kill innocent people? If he’s killing Zod to save that one family, why doesn’t he kill all his other villains to prevent all those other future innocent people from dying?
If Superman is justified in killing one foe, then he’s justified in killing all of them. . . . Superman shouldn’t be about ethical dilemmas, it should be about Superman finding solutions even when there don’t seem to be any.
Superman is especially the character that is supposed to inspire us to aspire to something greater. That’s his whole damn point. He is supposed to represent humanity at its best. He’s supposed make the right decision even when they doesn’t seem to be one. When faced with two impossible choices — like, say, killing Zod or letting an innocent family die — he’s supposed to somehow figure out a third option, so he wins without compromising his principles. That’s his greatest superpower — to always do the right thing.
I suspect Lord Acton would agree with Bricken both that, because of his great power, Superman must be held to a greater standard and that he is unjustified in killing Zod. However, I think Lord Acton would also point out that Superman’s killing of Zod was more like reality than the typical Superman myth. The killing of an enemies is the type of crime we should expect of people who are given too much power. As Lord Acton says, “Great men are almost always bad men”—this is often true of their actions, if not necessarily their motives.
As a historian, Lord Acton would likely unleash the harshest criticism of Superman. But so what? Why does it matter what the historian of liberty thinks about the man of steel?
Because considering the case of Superman not only helps us better understand Lord Acton’s quote, it also helps us better understand the truth behind it and how it applies in our world.
We tend to fall into two errors when thinking of positions of power: We assume the office will sanctify the holder or that the holder will redeem the office. As economist David Henderson says,
If people think “the office sanctifies the holder”–I think of Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, for example, who often talks about how he respects the office of the Presidency no matter who is President–then it’s easier for the office-holder to get away with bad things. Who is attracted to the Presidency? All other things equal, people who want to get away with bad things.
Similarly, we think someone of pure and noble intention—someone like Superman—will be able to transcend the corrupting influence of power. This is rarely the case, as history clearly reveals. (Indeed, there has only ever been one exception: Jesus.) This is also why Lord Acton considers it a moral imperative for professional historians to be critical of those in power: “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.”
We can’t change human (or alien) nature, which is why we must limit the access to power held by individuals. Absolute power corrupts absolutely is a near universal truth, whether the power is given to a pope, a king, or a well-meaning alien from the planet Krypton.