In my previous post noting my pet criteria for selecting a candidate, I said that the question above would be what I’d initially ask if given the opportunity to question a candidate for public office. Yes, even if I were given the chance to ask only one question, that question would be it. A colleague of mine at work responded, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I am quite serious.
In his book History and Truth, the late philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote:
Power is the central question of politics: Who commands? For whom? Within what limits and under what restrictions? It is in activities which concern power, either from the side of those who possess it or from the side of those who come under its sway, challenge it, or court it—it is in all these activities that the destiny of a nation is created or doomed.We can use the power of the State to do great things for the common good. We can aid the poor, the oppressed, and the destitute. The hungry can be fed, the thirsty given drink, and the homeless provided shelter. We can wield this power to defend the innocent, to protect ourselves from harm, and to punish the guilty. We can pour this power into organizing society, regulating our economic endeavors, advancing knowledge and understanding. The list goes on.
The most deadly passions proliferate around power: pride, hate, fear. This sinister trilogy shows that wherever is man’s greatness is also his fault.
But the political power used for good is the same power that tempts the powerful to sins of pride, hate, and fear. No sinner is immune to its dark pull on the heart and mind.
It may be a particular temptation for Americans to consider themselves more immune to the corruptive nature of power because we have used power often and well to advance freedom for ourselves and for others. Russell Kirk, who didn’t shy away from declaring the greatness of the American cause, knew better: “I am afraid that we must confess, now, that Americans have no peculiar exemption from Sin, as a people, and that pure power, in our hands, is as dreadful as pure power in the hands of any other nation.” Kirk also didn’t shy away from noting our vices and failures. He had a sense of the humility that I so look for in our public servants; the humility that doesn’t demean one’s vision of self, but rather clarifies one’s vision of self.
To be humble is to see the truth of oneself. The character Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is a model of this humility. The character in the books was not the pusillanimous orc-slayer played, albeit well, by Viggo Mortensen, whose beloved had constantly to tell him to toughen up and be a man. The magnanimous Aragorn of the books knew his competence to be king and pursued the throne of Gondor prudently and patiently. He knew he was a great man. He saw himself truly, his foul-looking vices and his shrouded virtues.
He was humble, not proud. He knew the power of the Ring and the raw power of the State would easily corrupt him, despite his greatness of body and soul. He used power, sought it for the good of Middle-Earth, yet he knew the dangers that such power holds.
Today the President of the United States, aided not a little by self-described limited-government conservatives, wields power the scope and degree of which is frightening to behold. His daily decisions affect the whole world in ways we cannot calculate or imagine. The collected power of the U.S. government extends even wider and pierces even deeper.
To make matters worse, we are losing the placements of checks and balances in our country. Lawyers write secret memos granting secret powers to those whose power is supposed to come from the consent of the governed. Supreme Courts strike down state laws banning the killing of unborn human beings, and the states have no immediate check upon the unaccountable nine, whose jobs are pretty much secure no matter how ludicrous their logic. Read the Declaration of Independence. As Joseph Sobran has argued, some of the tyrannies of King George pale in comparison to the crap we’re perpetrating today.
Chesterton wrote that we will be governed either by rules or by rulers. Humble public servants knows this. They will make sure that the rules restrain them so that they will not cease to be responsible leaders by becoming tyrannical rulers.
If we are to have a free society, then we must have humble leaders who will wield power prudently.
*This post is the second part of a series on my pet criteria for choosing a candidate for public office.