Four years ago I began reading Will Durant’s eleven-volume Story of Civilization. I’m now near the end of volume 6, The Reformation. As is true of each of the other Durant volumes that I’ve read, this one is eloquent, well-paced, objective, and very enjoyable.
Durant’s portrait of England’s king Henry VIII is especially engaging. Always vain, Henry VIII began his reign in 1509 as a monarch who was, by the grotesque standards of the era, rather enlightened. Compared to France’s Francis I, Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Holy Roman Empire’s Charles V, the young Henry was tolerant and open. But as night follows day, Henry’s vanity hardened into arrogance that tolerated no dissent; he became increasingly cruel; step by step he become a monster.
And reading about the intrigues, the threats to his power from both within and without his kingdom, Henry’s tyranny is revealed as something understandable if not forgivable – understandable, that is, as a fellow human being. Almost anyone given such power over others will become callous, cruel, monstrous. As I read about Henry VIII’s transformation from a man into a beast, I couldn’t help but often recall Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’m struck especially by Durant’s observation, in his discussion of Henry’s reign, that “it is a lesson of history that men lie most when they govern states” [p. 527]. This is a truth that anyone who deserves membership in the ‘reality-based community’ ought take to heart.
Everyone of us lies, is vain, is petty, and envies others. Each of us craves influence, recognition, and praise. We all prefer luxury to penury. And each of us regards his or her own ideas, standards, and values to be the ‘right’ ones, the best ones, the ones that would magnificently benefit all humankind if only humankind did not so stupidly refuse to adopt our ideas, standards, and values wholesale.
Fortunately, most of us have no power over others. Few of us get to order others around with threats of violence. If we want others to act in ways that benefit us, we must offer to act in ways that benefit them. This tit-for-tat arrangement in private life leads us, through our own self-interest, to be flexible, understanding, civil. If I disdain my boss’s religious beliefs, I keep my thoughts to myself; if he disdains my religious beliefs, he, too, keeps his thoughts to himself.
Acton was right. We become worse and worse as human beings as the power we have over others grows.