Power: 1. History

Dr. Roche, who has taught history and philosophy at the Colorado School of Mines, now is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.

The problem of power is as new as today’s newspaper and as old as man’s civilization. Most politi­cal thinkers and philosophers have concerned themselves with pow­er’s definition and management. Virtually all politicians and statesmen have concerned them­selves with power’s exercise. No man, past or present, has ever successfully evaded the long shad­ow which the exercise of power has cast over his life.

What is this phenomenon that leaves no man untouched, whether peasant or philosopher? If we turn to Western man’s thinking on the subject for an analysis of his definitions and applications of power, a pattern emerges which offers some valuable guidelines for our own age, a time when the shadow of power is perhaps dark­er and more all-pervasive than ever before.

The Greeks

Man’s ideas on the subject of power have evolved only gradu­ally. Socrates felt that he owed obedience to the power of the Athenian city-state when it un­justly and hysterically sentenced him to death. His disciple, Plato, conceived a society in The Re­public which placed all power over everyone in society in the keep­ing of a "philosopher-king." But when, then as now, "philosopher-kings" proved difficult to find, Plato began to limit the pow­er which he felt should be exercised by the state. He had written The Republic as a young man, producing The Statesman in mid­dle life and The Laws in his old age. In each of these works, as his maturity and experience in­creased, he steadily multiplied the legal and moral restrictions which he felt should be placed on the power of the ruler.

Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, car­ried this limitation of power still further, devising the idea of con­stitutionalism. The basis of this constitutional fabric as devised by Aristotle was "natural justice." This Aristotelian natural justice was intended as binding upon all men, ruler as well as ruled, and exhibiting a power beyond man’s control.

Although the Greeks were ex­hibiting a recognition that the centralization of power had to be limited in a just society, they still tended to view the city-state and its exercise of power as the key­stone of society. Aristotle’s asser­tion that man was "by nature a political animal" was typical of the Greek view that the polis was the chief means through which human potentiality could be developed. For this reason, the Greek concept of the distinction between society and state was faulty and partial at best. The Greek system of di­rect democracy, when tied to the concept that the polis was the cen­ter of human life, eventually pro­duced the downfall of the Athen­ian experiment.

The people of Athens themselves became the tyrant, dominating and crushing any other power or opin­ion, stripping their economic de­pendencies of all wealth until re­volt cost them their maritime holdings, interfering with their military commanders till they pro­duced disaster on the battlefield, and displaying such greed that desperate property holders plotted the overthrow of the government. When such unbridled exercise of power produced a debacle, the tyr­annical majority hysterically lashed out to find a scapegoat for their own folly. The execution of Socrates stands as the crown­ing viciousness of unbridled Athe­nian democracy.

The Greek confusion between state and society had proven fatal to both. As the historian, Herodo­tus, sadly remarked "… even the best of men raised to such a posi­tion [of irresponsible power] would be bound to change for the worst." Western man was already beginning to get an inkling of the dark threat posed by too great a concentration of power.

Natural Law

The Greek idea of natural jus­tice soon grew into Western man’s next great discovery concerning power and its limitation. The idea of a "natural justice," derived from man’s proper use of his capac­ity for rational thought, became the basis for the idea of Natural Law, based upon the idea of a Su­preme Lawgiver, a Lawgiver whose perfect intelligence was re­flected in man’s capacity for thought: God. Thus developed the Natural Law philosophy of the Stoics and Cicero. The idea of Nat­ural Law, of a fixed code of right and wrong binding upon ruler and ruled alike, placed power in a new perspective, since it limited the exercise of power by placing God’s will above man’s will. References to this concept of Natural Law fill Roman philosophy. Probably no more influential advocate of the doctrine could be found than the Roman lawyer, Cicero, writing in De Republica:

Right reason is indeed a true law which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchange­able and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the per­formance of their duties; by its pro­hibition it restrains them from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibi­tions always influence good men, but are without effect upon the bad. To invalidate this law by human legisla­tion is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict its opera­tion, and to annul it wholly is impos­sible. Neither the senate nor the peo­ple can absolve us from our obligation to obey this law… It will not lay down one rule at Rome and another at Athens, nor will it be one rule to­day and another tomorrow. But there will be one law, eternal and un­changeable, binding at all times upon all peoples; and there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of men, namely God, who is the au­thor of this law, its interpreter, and its sponsor. The man who will not obey it will abandon his better self, and, in denying the true nature of man, will thereby suffer the severest of penalties, though he has escaped all the other consequences which men call punishment.

The Romans were told, "Be­cause you bear yourself as less than the gods, you rule the world." Thus, as the heyday of Roman prosperity and success illuminated the ancient world, the Romans came to understand that through obedience to a higher power they had achieved power. Had a Roman chosen to speculate upon this point, he might have marveled that Rome grew powerful and prosperous while it recognized a power above that of the state, de­clining only when the power of the state, personified in the em­peror, came to be viewed as un­limited and even divine. In both its success and its ultimate fail­ure, Rome added another dimen­sion to man’s understanding of power.


While the pagan world had been advancing in its understanding of power and its limitation, the Ju­deo-Christian heritage was also in process of formation. As the trials of the Hebrew nation as chronicled in the Old Testament had unfold­ed, certain patterns of thinking had emerged. Foremost among these was the doctrine of a higher law, centering on the principle that all political authorities were to be judged and limited in ac­cordance with a code not relative to man and his affairs.

This was a doctrine implicit in Christianity from the beginning. The Church Fathers early recog­nized the perils of power, not only to the ruled, but to the ruler as well. In the words of St. Ambrose, "A wise man, though he be a slave, is at liberty, and from this it follows that though a fool rule, he is in slavery." The measure of wisdom or foolishness described here referred to man’s capacity for understanding and living in conformity to a higher, God-given morality transcending the earthly exercise of power.

Unlike the Greeks, who had seen the state as the central feature of society and a part of the "natur­al" order, the early Christians saw the state as an institution in and of the sinful world. While the state was needed to exercise power to protect men from other men in this flawed world, the Christian saw the state itself as a flawed, and therefore potentially dangerous, wielder of power. Christians in the early Church did not concern themselves over much with politics as such, so they developed no clear distinction between the legitimate and the illegitimate state. But they did make explicit what had already been implicit in the Roman Natur­al Law philosophy: God and not man was the final arbiter of jus­tice, thus limiting any man’s ex­ercise of power.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Greek "natural justice" thus merged with Roman and Christian Natural Law to emphasize that the state was man’s tool rather than his master. As the centuries passed by, the Christian idea of self-transcendence, of man’s abil­ity to rise above himself and above his society, became more and more explicit. At the height of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "The obligation of observing justice is indeed per­petual. But the determination of those things that are just, accord­ing to human or divine institu­tion, must needs be different, ac­cording to the different states of mankind… Laws are laid down for human acts dealing with sin­gular and contingent matters which have infinite variations. To make a rule fit every case is im­possible."

If circumstances altered cases, could the state justly exercise un­limited power over the individual? The Christian answer was a re­sounding "No!" Thomas insisted: "Man is not ordained to the body politic according to all that he is and has." The objection to totali­tarian control developed by the Greeks and furthered in Stoic and Christian thought, was now made even stronger:

Here we have the first clear and explicit challenge to totalitarianism. Although by nature part of civil so­ciety, the individual person is not to be swallowed up whole in society or state. On the contrary, by virtue of certain aspects of his being — what Kierkegaard was later to call his "God-relationship" — man as such is elevated above political society and the social order. It is man’s ordina­tion to the divine that thus raises him above everything social and political that would totally engulf him. Who denies this, denies both God and man.¹

Medieval Society

While the philosophers and the­ologians were making more and more specific the moral limita­tions surrounding the exercise of power, medieval society as a whole was also making its contribution. After the Roman Empire had col­lapsed in the West, society had be­come highly decentralized in char­acter and had fragmented power through the institution of feudal­ism. All attempts to discover a unity of power within society had been discarded, since ultimate au­thority was felt to rest only in God. Medieval society functioned large­ly through semi-autonomous reli­gious orders and independent towns and cities.

What early forms of national governments existed in the Middle Ages found their purse strings tightly controlled by semi representative legislatures, especially in France, England, and Spain. In practice, these bodies, repre­sentative of the social strata of the times, exercised tremendous power because they could and oc­casionally did withhold all financial support from centralized ad­ministration when they chose to do so. Power remained diffused over a widely decentralized fabric of public, semiprivate, and pri­vate institutions, all limited by a moral order above both man and the state, a moral order placing its premium upon individual con­science.

This is not to suggest that abuses of power still did not oc­cur. The point is, rather, that medieval man had succeeded in setting up two barriers to the ex­ercise of unlimited power: (1) The recognition that the exercise of excessive power was in itself an immoral act; and (2) The discov­ery in practice that power was more safely exercised when frag­mented and decentralized through a variety of separate institutions.


With the Renaissance, a new view of politics, man, and power came on the scene. Machiavelli completely dismissed the idea of any superior power providing a moral order in political life. As Francis Bacon described Machi­avelli’s politics, the Renaissance Italian concerned himself with "what men do instead of what they ought to do." From the time of Plato and Aristotle through the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, the central question had been the legit­imate purpose and exercise of power. Power, to the extent that it was to be used at all, was to be used only in the achievement of some higher end such as justice or freedom. But with Machiavelli, for the first time, power became an end in itself. Power was thus separated from any ethical or metaphysical limitation and the state became independent of any other value system.

It was never Machiavelli’s in­tention to further immorality or encourage the destruction of values, but his amorality was based on the assumption that the acquisition of power was an end unto itself, having priority over ethical considerations. Once power becomes an end in itself, success in political affairs is measured by the acquisition and expansion of power, rather than by its wise use or moral limitation. In Lord Ac­ton’s phrase: "Machiavelli re­leased government from the re­straint of law…."

Like other realists after him Mach­iavelli identifies all too readily naked power politics with the whole of polit­ical reality, and he thus fails to grasp that ideas and ideals, if properly mobilized, can become potent facts, even decisive weapons, in the strug­gle for political survival. History is a vast graveyard filled with the corpses of self-styled "realists" like Napoleon, William II, Hitler, and Mussolini. They all underestimated the important imponderables in the equation of power but missed, in par­ticular, the one component that in the end proved decisive: The will of man to be free, to put freedom above all other goods, even above life itself.2

Machiavelli and the Renaissance thus paved the way for the age of absolutism. The dynastic crime-waves which followed, during which despots ran roughshod over their subjects, over morality, and over their fellow despots in the unprincipled pursuit of power, are a demonstration of Machiavelli’s system in action.

The Reformation

Even while the long shadow of unprincipled and unlimited power was spreading across the conti­nent in the age of absolutism, an­other turning point in individual freedom and conscience was about to arrive: The Protestant Refor­mation.

In the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther’s decision to chal­lenge the authority of the Catholic Church, it appeared doubtful that his act of disobedience would go unpunished. He was confronting a powerful and entrenched author­ity, an authority which seemed to exercise vast social and political power. During this time, in the period before the German princes had provided a strong political base for Luther’s position, he em­phasized the necessity for toler­ance of differing viewpoints, in­sisting that political power should not be used to suppress dissent.

The rise of other Protestant sects such as Anabaptism and the Zwinglian group, coupled with the Peasants’ War in Germany, soon modified Luther’s position. What had begun as a theory of the right of private judgment and dissent was quickly modified when he and the German princes supporting him became the revolted-against rather than the revolutionaries. The social revolution implicit in the Peasants’ War in Germany caused Luther to alter his politi­cal philosophy almost entirely. Though he had begun his depar­ture from the church in quest of liberty for individual judgment, he was not willing to grant that same privilege to others and was perfectly willing to sanction the use of political force to enforce his view. Many aspects of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation demonstrate the side of human nature which complains of the ex­ercise of power in the hands of others yet remains perfectly will­ing to exercise that power itself. Thus the flood tide of the Reformation, which at first glance appeared directed against the un­limited power of absolutism, was soon deflected from its original course. The alliance of the powers of church and state, true through­out most of Catholic Europe, soon became equally true throughout Protestant Germany. Thus Martin Luther was at once an insurgent against power and the defender of an existing power structure.

Zwingli and Calvin

Though the Lutheran revolt did little to alter the fundamental centralization of power, only mov­ing it from one base to another, some of the Swiss Protestants were more aggressive in combin­ing their religious revolt with political revolt. The Swiss cantons were republican in their political sentiments, and this background tended to exercise a considerable measure of influence over both Zwingli and Calvin. Zwingli, for example, upheld the medieval doc­trine that holders of political power who failed to conform to a higher law could and should be deposed. Unfortunately, Zwingli was killed too early to affect seri­ously the course of politics in the Protestant Reformation.

Although Calvin developed his ideas in the same Swiss republi­can atmosphere, he tended to make such a close connection between religion and politics that he desired a state with a means of punishing all forms of "mistaken" or "vicious" behavior. He viewed the medieval legal system as too permissive and set up in its place a theocracy in Geneva which united tremendous political and religious powers.

If Luther had done his political thinking in the framework of petty tyrannies which composed the Germany of his day, and Zwingli had reached maturity in the relatively free air of the Swiss cantons, Calvin allowed no such political side issues to influence his thought. Religious truth as he saw it was dominant and left no room for the interference of polit­ical niceties in the application of that "truth" to the pattern of society.

Though Calvin was responsible for the exercise and centralization of power, his concept of the dig­nity of the individual has out­lasted the policy of religious per­secution which he pursued during his own lifetime. While it is true that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation were not always out­spoken opponents of the centrali­zation of power, it is also true that the freedom of individual conscience which they encouraged would in the long run become a potent source of opposition to centralized power.

The Calvinistic doctrine of a flawed human nature also encour­aged the limitation of power:

The vice or imperfection of man therefore renders it safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hands of many, that they may af­ford each other mutual assistance and admonition and that, if anyone arrogate to himself more than is right, the others may act as censors and masters to restrain his ambi­tion.3

Political Impact

Actually, the influence of the Reformation had less direct political impact than is often sup­posed. In fact, the principal im­mediate effect of both the Protes­tant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation did more to further the increase of power than to control power:

Scotland was the only kingdom in which the Reformation triumphed over the resistance of the State; and Ireland was the only instance where it failed, in spite of government sup­port. But in almost every other case, both the princes that spread their canvas to the gale and those that faced it, employed the zeal, the alarm, the passions it aroused as instru­ments for the increase of power. Na­tions eagerly invested their rulers with every prerogative needed to pre­serve their faith, and all the care to keep Church and State asunder, and to prevent the confusion of their pow­er, which had been the work of ages, was renounced in the intensity of the crisis. Atrocious deeds were done, in which religious passion was often the instrument, but policy was the mo­tive.4

The story of the crimes commit­ted by both Protestant and Catho­lic rulers in pursuit of political power is a long and unsavory tale in which religious faith was all too often made the handmaiden of political ambition. Protestant and Catholic alike may have preached a religious viewpoint, but the political viewpoint of Machiavelli seems to have had the last word.

As the nation-states, Protestant and Catholic alike, evolved toward their modern form, the men of the Reformation relearned the hard lesson which has perpetually con­fronted all men. In the words of Milton, a man active in both the religious and political disputa­tions of his age: "… long con­tinuance of Power may corrupt sincerest Men."

The Age of Absolutism

Since the Renaissance had pro­duced Machiavelli’s theory of power unlimited by moral con­cerns and the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Ref­ormat on had provided the excuse for the actual application of these doctrines on the European politi­cal scene, the stage was set for the age of absolutism.

The medieval political frame­work as obviously dead or dying throughout Europe by the late sixteenth century. The regional and institutional pattern of cities and guilds and local controls re­tained its form but not its sub­stance. A new unit of political au­thority was gradually gathering all power unto itself: the State. Such as the state of affairs when Bodin published his Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576. In Bodin the new age of absolutism had fund its theorist. Machiavelli had favored the accumulation and exercise of power for its own sake but had never developed his con­cept o power to include the state as a sovereign entity in its own right. Such a development awaited Bodin and the centralized, abso­lute French monarchy. Bodin uti­lized he old concept of the Na­tural Law, divorcing God and morality from it and substituting the state in their place. Thus robbed of its legitimate meaning, Natural Law was perverted by Bodin into the bulwark of the new, absolute, sovereign State.

Many of the greatest tyrants on the records of history have begun their reigns in the fairest manner. But the truth is, this unnatural power corrupts both the heart and the understanding.

The rise of "Divine Right" and the absolute state, although begin­ning in France, was soon paral­leled throughout Europe, even in the European nation most suspi­cious of power: England.

The Bourbons, who had snatched the crown from a rebellious democ­racy, the Stuarts, who had come in as usurpers, set up the doctrine that States are formed by the valour, the policy, and the appropriate marriages of the royal family; that the king is consequently anterior to the people, that he is its maker rather than its handiwork, and reigns independently of consent. Theology followed up di­vine right with passive obedience….

The clergy… were associated now with the interest of royalty…. The absolute monarchy of France was built up in the two following cen­turies by twelve political cardinals. The kings of Spain obtained the same effect almost at a single stroke by reviving and appropriating to their own use the tribunal of the Inquisi­tion, which had been growing obso­lete, but now served to arm them with terrors which effectually made them despotic. One generation beheld the change all over Europe, from the an­archy of the days of the Roses to the passionate submission, the gratified acquiescence in tyranny that marks the reign of Henry VIII and the kings of his time.5

Once in the seat of power, the age of absolutism became difficult to depose. Resistance to kings be­came a sin against religious faith. Worse yet, the political philoso­phers strongly supported this un­holy union between religion and politics:

Bacon fixed his hopes of all human progress on the strong hand of kings. Descartes advised them to crush all those who might be able to resist their power. Hobbes taught that au­thority is always in the right. Pascal considered it absurd to reform laws, or to set up an ideal justice against actual force. Even Spinoza, who was a Republican and a Jew, assigned to the State the absolute control of re­ligion.6

This entire generation of des­pots was epitomized in the reign of the "Sun-king," Louis XIV. In the France of that day the slight­est disobedience to the royal will was a crime punishable by death. Even while the subjects were com­pletely bound to the ruler, no re­ciprocal obligation of any kind was recognized. No guarantee of property or person was considered defensible. The impact of such un­limited power upon the crowned heads of Europe was disastrous for the rulers as well as the ruled. Good intentions, ruling in the "in­terest" of the people, were much discussed and little practiced. Edmund Burke, writing his Thoughts on the Causes of Our Present Discontents, warned: "… many of the greatest tyrants on the records of history have be­gun their reigns in the fairest manner. But the truth is, this un­natural power corrupts both the heart and the understanding."

English Constitutionalism

Though the age of absolutism further darkened the shadow of centralized power spreading across Europe, there remained some en­couraging exceptions. In early seventeenth century England, Sir Edward Coke, greatest of the English parliamentarian lawyers, led the struggle against the abso­lutist pretensions of the Stuart monarchy. Coke renewed the prin­ciple that both ruler and ruled were subject to Natural Law. It was Coke who was primarily re­sponsible for the renewed em­phasis upon Magna Charta and upon traditional limitations to the exercise of royal power.

Before the end of the century, the Glorious Revolution of 168$ was to complete the rejection of unlimited royal power in England. The perils of unlimited democratic power remained to be faced in the modern world, but at least royal power based on Divine Right had begun its decline. That decline, which began in England in the seventeenth century, was destined to spread throughout Europe within the next one hundred years.

The American Revolution

The harbinger of the change to come first developed not in Europe, but in the New World. Even while the English had been moving toward the limitation of royal power, their colonies in North America had been making even greater strides:

No greater contrast could be noted in the position of men than that be­tween the Englishman at home, in the early seventeenth century, and the Englishman who emigrated to America. Almost all the conditions that surrounded the former were re­versed in the case of the latter. The pressure of central government was immediately and almost completely withdrawn. Many of the most urgent activities of government in England, such as the vagabondage, almost ceased in the colonies. The class of settled rural gentry from which most local officials were drawn in England did not exist in America. On the other hand, the wilderness, the Indians, the freedom from restraint, the religious liberty, the op­portunity for economic and social rise in the New World made a set of conditions which had been quite unknown in the mother country.7

But by the second half of the eighteenth century the constitu­tional limitations of power, begun in England and implemented in the colonies, began to interfere with the ambition of King George III in his quest for "personal" rule. A number of Englishmen, most prominent among them Edmund Burke, insisted that the Americans were defending estab­lished rights and traditions with deep roots in English history and wide implementation in the Amer­ican colonies. To these opponents of centralized power, the American Revolution was the next logical step in the process begun a hun­dred years before in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when Stuart absolutism had been rejected by the British people.

The Americans so clearly recog­nized the dangers of excessively centralized power that they soon erected barriers in their new sys­tem of government to ensure that such concentrations did not again occur. The idea of separated powers and a system of checks and balances, deriving largely from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, reflected that basic distrust of centralized authority. Thus, the American experiment in dealing with power presupposed the two great lessons which Western man had learned at such great cost:

(1)           Decentralize political power;

(2)           Make the exercise of any power subordinate to a Higher Law of right and wrong which no man and no government has au­thority to change.8

The French Revolution

The assault upon royal absolut­ism in Europe was destined to proceed along very different lines. The French Revolution, drawing heavily upon the work of the philosophés, adopted a completely dif­ferent attitude toward the law and order necessary to the main­tenance of society and substituted a faith in the "General Will" of Rousseau for the older religious ideals evidenced in the American Revolution, thus perverting Nat­ural Law into "natural rights." The distinction was to prove cru­cial: If the ultimate source of au­thority is God, the authority of the state is limited; but if no au­thority is placed above the mys­tique of the state, the door stands open to the great excesses of power which have since occurred in the modern world. The French Revolution thus substituted the "General Will" for "Divine Right," and in the process rejected a powerful master only to assume another master destined to prove still more powerful.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was among the first to see the vital distinction between the American and French Revolution and to sense the danger to human freedom implicit in the French experiment. Grounded in the tradition of Cicero and Aqui­nas, Burke understood the neces­sity of a religious foundation for Natural Law. He drew upon the heritage of Western man’s experi­ence in the handling of power, and warned that a society which would not recognize God as its sovereign and which elevated man to a pre­tension as ruler of the Universe, would ultimately center such ter­rible power in the state that indi­vidual man would be degraded beyond recognition.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the contrast between the American and French Revolutions was argued on both sides of the Atlantic. The Ameri­can experiment generally main­tained its limitation and fragmen­tation of power, based on the as­sumption of human rights exer­cised as the consequence of a God‑given individual dignity. Europe in larger part pursued the ideas drawn from the French Revolu­tion and Rousseau’s "General Will," ultimately generating a host of socialistic theories in the works of Fourier, St. Simon, Marx, and the numerous other collective thinkers which dotted the nine­teenth century European intellec­tual landscape. All these theorists shared a view of the world stress­ing collective humanity and there­fore ultimately minimizing the individual.

It is one or the other of these two traditions which lies at the root of all the approaches to the problem of power which Western civilization pursues in the mid-twentieth century. Stripped to their essentials, two choices con­front modern man: (1) Accept­ance of man as a unique individual with spiritual and creative capaci­ties derived from a power above the state and protected by a frag­mentation of power within society; or (2) Rejection of this tradi­tional view of man held by Western civilization and acceptance of the "Collective We" as the supreme power in the universe, recognizing no limitation upon its authority and enshrining the state as its supremely powerful agent.

Subsequent articles in this series on Power will deal with: (2) Some Modern Manifestations; (3) Social Effects; (4) Prospects.



1 Will Herberg, "Christian Faith and Totalitarian Rule," Modern Age (Win­ter 1966-67), p. 67.

2 William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, p. 285.

3 John Calvin, Institutes, IV, p. 20.

4 Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, pp. 94-95.

5 Ibid., pp. 99, 93.

6 Ibid., p. 99.

7 Edward P. Cheyney, European Back­ground of American History, 1300-1600, p. 183.

8 See "American Federalism: Origins" (The Freeman, Dec. 1966.)