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This quote means: ‘If you want to test a man’s character, give him power’ | News explained

Power is a topic that philosophers and thinkers have thought about a lot – in defining it, in discussing who wields power, what to do with it, and whether power is inherently good or bad.

Quotes such as ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ and ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ also give great weight to it in popular culture. Another popular quote says, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

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It is popularly attributed to US President Abraham Lincoln and probably has a different source, but is nevertheless evidence that power is linked to broader ethics and morality. What exactly does it say about the nature of power, and how does it differ from other views on it? We explain. Also topics related to ethics and morality are part of the UPSC CSE syllabus.

What does this quote mean?

According to a 2021 Reuters fact check, the quote comes from an American politician named Robert G. Ingersoll, who said it about Lincoln.

In an 1883 speech he reportedly said: ‘If you want to know what a man is at his core, give him power. Every person can endure adversity; only a great man can endure prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused his power merely on the side of mercy.”

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It is said that everyone gives in to their survival instinct in times of trouble. However, when someone is given power, which can be understood as the ability to influence or change things in a meaningful way, we get a sense of what their true character is like.

Power can also mean control over resources. A poor person may not be able to achieve what he wants or translate his intentions (good or bad) into reality. But if someone has power, he or she can make a difference, and then we can understand someone’s true character.

Even at an individual or micro level this can be observed to some extent, for example when someone becomes head of a local neighborhood association or is put in charge of organizing an event. As part of the responsibilities they are given, do they become a team player or simply give instructions to others? Are they more interested in making their views prevail or are they open to criticism? Do they use that power to their advantage, for example by asking others to do their work for them? In this way, power allows us to understand someone’s worldview.

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On a larger level, when politicians are elected to powerful posts, or when bureaucrats, judges or media people have to tackle major issues related to their jobs that can affect thousands of people, one can witness their values ​​and ethics through their work.

Different views on power

Nivedita Menon, professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote that in political and social theory, “power refers to the ability to do things and the ability to produce effects within social interaction.” Therefore, it is not deeply connected to individuals, but to them in relation to others.

Political scientist Hannah Arendt viewed power not only as coercion, but as a means of communication between people. No one can suddenly show up and wield power – it is something that derives its legitimacy from a group of people agreeing to be part of a system.

She wrote: ‘power needs no justification because it is inherent in the existence of political communities; what it does need is legitimacy… Power arises whenever people come together and act together, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial coming together rather than from any action whatsoever.”

In that sense, power can give energy. A democratically elected leader can choose to fix a broken system because he derives his authority from the community he is part of. He may be aware that his power comes from deliberation, discussion, and a history of larger forces that cause people to work together. He would then like to use it to improve the lives of people in that community.

On the other hand, several Marxist scholars view power as the ability of dominant groups or economic classes in society to exercise control over others. For others, it is simply a tool to get someone to do what he or she wants.

Furthermore, gaining power is one thing, but maintaining it can force one to make decisions that are often amoral. As a result, the intention to do something when given power may be noble, but the practical realities in society can make it difficult to be ethical in its exercise.

While it is not a justification for all unethical actions, it is a criticism of the idea that all actions of a person in power directly reflect his character. They can also reflect the times they are in or the systems they are a part of, and can be linked to larger external factors.

Finally, the quote makes another claim: that “every man can endure adversity.” Hard times – losing a loved one, money or other intangibles of value – can force a man to fend for himself. But if they are kind in that situation and choose to do good for others, isn’t that also a testament to their character? So it begs the question: Is power the true judge of someone’s character?