Power Corrupts History, While Reality Remains Obscured

by | May 31, 2017

Know that one phrase attributed to Lord Acton?

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

Although these are not his exact words, he meant more or less what you think.  However, the context for the quotation was a commentary on the history profession and the idea that history absolves the powerful because they have power.  Lord Acton suggests we ought to take an opposite tack. (see this discussion)

I think that one way to conceive of this phrase is to imagine power corrupting the practice of history.  The powerful get more attention from historians, let alone praise.  The reason is simple: the powerful leave more records.

Human society is a tapestry of many colors.  Very little of the everyday emotions and choices, market decisions, or personal struggles of the majority of the people makes it onto paper for posterity to recall.  Especially before YouTube.

Most records that provide a broad description of a society at a given time are those produced by entities that happen to hold or exercise centralized power.  This is only natural.  But a consequence of this is that history’s frame is almost exclusively from the perspective of powerful men and big empires.

While empires and kings surely had a huge impact on the lives of their subjects and victims relative to other persons, it’s not necessarily the case that they were anything other than marginal to the lives of everyday people.  Some provincials and villagers in the heart of the Roman Empire in Gaul would barely have had contact with Rome, except for small fees they paid at the colonial outpost if they engaged in trade.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that “power corrupts” the historical record is that it gives a possibly false impression of the importance of central political power.

Why does history focus on war and leaders?  Why doesn’t it focus almost exclusively on technological innovation, commercial patterns, and demographics?  Because the latter categories are inferential and speculative, while solid documentary evidence exists in abundance for the first.  Moreover, records leaving past kings themselves understood history by looking at even more ancient emperors and their statist records.

I would wager that most of what affects society most substantially occurs under the nose of the state, beyond its purview.  In fact, I’d argue that this is sort of obvious.  But most people don’t think that way because that’s not what the academy teaches.

Because power corrupts history, and when you can burn libraries and airbrush photographs: absolute power corrupts it absolutely.

About Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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