Lord Acton’s line is so famous and so undeniably true that most people don’t even know that it’s a quote from a real person: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It’s been proven time and time again in history. When people get power, it changes them. That’s why the biggest breakthroughs in the evolution of government have been around checks and balances on power–so that no one person can be fully corrupted, and if they are corrupt, can’t simply do what they want.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t have much of a choice as far as the government he took over. Rome hadn’t been a republic for several generations. Marcus wasn’t even born into the emperorship, he was chosen for it by the emperor Hadrian. So too was his “stepfather” Antoninus.
Yet this is what makes their reigns so remarkable. As Ernest Renan observed, it’s nearly unbelievable that “two models of irreproachable virtue are to be found in its ranks and that the most beautiful lessons of patience and disinterestedness could proceed from a condition which we may suppose was unreservedly exposed to all the seductions of pleasure and vanity.”
Just think about what the emperors before them had done: Nero killed his mother and step brothers. It is said that Claudius appointed his horse, Incitatus, a senator. Augustus (Octavian at the time) executed 300 senators. Even after Marcus, look at Commodus. His own son spent most of his time slaughtering animals in the Coliseum because he enjoyed wanton killing more than serving the state. And who could tell him to do otherwise?
Both Marcus and Antoninus had unlimited power too. Unlimited wealth. Unlimited sycophants. But they ignored it. They didn’t give into it. They did their jobs instead. They stayed true to their values. They were virtuous.
This all must have been extraordinarily difficult, and in resisting it, proved Lord Acton at least partially wrong: it is not that power absolutely corrupts, it is that power reveals the character of those who are susceptible to corruption, who are corrupt in their bones.
Renan believed that “the throne sometimes is an aid to virtue, and Marcus Aurelius certainly would not have been what he was if it had not been that he exercised supreme power.” By that he means that as a regular citizen, Marcus still would have been virtuous. That was his character. But it would have been much less impressive wouldn’t it? The temptations and opportunities of power make his goodness shine brighter and more of an example to each of us.
Today, we should remain wary of power and fame, for they are hard to resist. But if we find ourselves in the spotlight or in a position of leadership, let us see that as both a gift and a challenge. Can we be good despite it? Can we strive to be an example for others to follow? Can power be an aid to our virtue? Let it reveal our character, and let us rise to the occasion.