Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 20 Summary

The Pathology of Power

“… So stretch’d out in length the arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake …”

Some men and women enter public life out of a wish to serve the common good. They might have a special area of interest or expertise, a policy or a piece of legislation which they believe will be a benefit to all of us. There are others who enter public life, sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scene, who seek power for the sake of power. They have no interest in the common good. No amount of power seems to be enough power and the power they exercise almost invariably has harmful, sometimes dreadful, consequences.

Who are these people, those who exercise deadly power without remorse? Are they like us? Are they different? According to Lord Acton, power corrupts people. One can just as easily argue the reverse, that there is a subset of people who bring the corruption with them. They are addicted to power, the way an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol.

In the good old days, the conquistador could glory in his gory acts, but in today’s culture, the warrior has to offer a benign, well-mannered, civilized veneer in order to gain the power he needs to satisfy his wish to destroy. It is in this context that words like “narcissistic personality” and “psychopath” enter the discussion. 

The narcissist is one who has a grandiose sense of who he is. He is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited power. He is arrogant and exploitative. He lacks empathy. The description of the psychopath is similar. He is glib, superficially charming, can be charismatic, is cunning and manipulative. He is emotionally empty and callous and lacks empathy. He shows no remorse and refuses to or cannot accept responsibility for his actions. He craves power over others.

For people like this, violence is an escape from inner emptiness. It provides a necessary feeling of being alive. It is their own humaneness which they seek to escape. It fills them with a sense of dread and vulnerability. They must kill it in others and in themselves.