“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was certainly right when he said those words.
The test of a man’s or a woman’s character is power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So goes the saying. Power can seduce and corrupt even the most ordinary mortals. It’s not that people are corrupted in general but the lure of power is often too tempting for many people to resist. Only those who are able to resist this lure of power and remain humble despite being powerful are hailed as noble human beings. And these are generally people of strong character.
Power and Personality
Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt, resist and survive. They can fight back when they are oppressed, create new things and do much more. The evolutionary process has endowed each of us with the remarkable ability of adaption. This capacity to adapt is the only reason humans have been able to stand adversity, create grand civilizations and prosper. This capacity, however, comes at a cost. When humans evolved, they competed with each other and the better ones, the ones that were the most capable of adapting to a changing environment survived. It never was an egalitarian setting. The fittest genes survived while the weakest died. This can be understood from Darwin’s theory of evolution.
This evolutionary struggle had an impact on our behaviour. Some people claim that it is only culture that shapes our personalities but such claims are not true. Most psychologists agree that our personalities have a definite genetic component along with a cultural component. Evolutionary psychologists say that our evolution has endowed us with certain predispositions that manifest themselves if certain environmental conditions are met. Thus our personalities can be said to be a complex interplay between nature and culture. Now the question is – why is this genetic component important in our understanding of power?
In our quest for survival we have always looked at ways that would give us an edge over others, our competitors. And that is where power comes into play. The German sociologist Max Weber defined power as the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action. Thus, the ones able to realize their own will even at the cost of others had always had an evolutionary advantage over those that didn’t. The way we evolved throughout millennia was characterised by such power relations between people and that shaped us and allowed us to survive. Therefore almost everyone is attracted to power. It’s innate. It’s hardwired in our brains. It is therefore, very hard to resist. Power seduces because it appeals to the basic survival instincts in humans. Of course, some people might claim that they are unaffected by the lure of power but that does not mean they are completely impervious. It’s there. The desire exists, it just does not manifest itself. These contradictions underlie basic human nature. And it shows in our personalities from time to time.
Despite these contradictions, in general people have done well to survive. And amongst them many have glowed like diamonds. Take the examples of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and many more. They were men and women of strong character who left their mark on this world. Despite being the President of the United States of America, Lincoln, who could be considered as the most powerful man of the planet at that point in time, abolished slavery in the United States. And because of acts like these, these people are respected and admired all over the world. And yet, there were many who were blinded by power and became despots in their unique ways. Take the example of Hitler in Germany or Stalin in the former USSR. Millions died because people like them could not restrain to exercise their will. We are all familiar with the horror stories associated with such leaders. And it’s not that only great leaders can be considered as examples. Even in our day-to-day lives examples are abound of both people who have done good with the power that they have and also those who have abused power.
Power corrupts easily. It is very easy to be seduced by power because it appeals to our basic human instincts. Once those instincts are triggered, and if circumstances allow, power then manifests itself in its own way. It is no longer confined to basic survival instincts. It then takes a reality of its own which can be used in a multitude of ways. Thus, it takes a lot of character to resist the temptation of power. In normal circumstances power cannot be obtained so easily in everyday life, so most people are not too bothered. But for those that can acquire power, it takes a lot of character to not abuse it. In that sense, Lincoln was perfectly right.
Education and personality
Only someone with a strong will or strong character can do something good for someone despite being powerful. It takes a humongous amount of effort to override our basic nature. We all have that in-built capacity to fight adversity, but to overcome the seduction of power is another ballgame. Not everyone can. Only the strong of heart can. But the question is how does one get or acquire such a strong character? A good education for a start, can guarantee that. A balanced holistic education that allows a person to see multiple sides to the same reality can build a strong character. It need not be a formal western education. It could be a local version of education. If it is unbiased, prejudice free and holistic in nature, it can shape a person’s character. As stated earlier, human personalities are a result of both a genetic component and a cultural component. In this battle of nature and culture it would be wrong to say what aspect dominates – whether it is nature or whether it is culture. Rather, it is how nature manifests in a particular culture. That’s where education is important. Education can mould a person in its own way. The predispositions exist but with the right kind of education, human beings of strong character can be produced.
The triumph of culture over nature is what is regarded as being human. That is something that is cherished. But not everyone can triumph over nature. The weak can’t. Only the strong can. The ones with a strong character can override the most basic of our desires. One such desire is the desire to acquire power.
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