Friday, March 24, 2023

What Power Corrupts


The Repentant King David by Luca Giordano, oil on canvas. 164 x 207 cm

What are the psychological effects of being a prison guard? This was the primary objective of the controversial Stanford Prison Study, which took place in August 1971. The lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo, recruited 24 undergraduate students to volunteer for the study; the group was divided evenly into “guards” and “prisoners,” and they were meant to conform to that role.


Ultimately, what unfolded was extremely disturbing. The “guards” quickly became drunk with power and began to exhibit increasing sadism towards their “prisoners.” What was intended to be a two-week study had to be cut short, and was ended on day six.


Zimbardo offered this summary of his study: Everyone and everything in the prison was defined by power. To be a guard who did not take advantage of this institutionally sanctioned use of power was to appear “weak,”... Using Erich Fromm's definition of sadism, as ‘the wish for absolute control over another living being,’ all of the mock guards at one time or another during this study behaved sadistically toward the prisoners.


In a matter of days, a group of ordinary university students were transformed by a simulation; the illusion of dominance turned them into brutes. The very system that gives leaders power also pressures those who wield it to use it. In other words, power corrupts.


Zimbardo's study has many critics, including many who considered the study to be unethical. But the intuition that power corrupts is well accepted, and there are many examples, too numerous to count, of this being the case. And the question is: Why does power corrupt?


There are several answers offered. Perhaps, as in the case of Macbeth, ambition becomes a compulsion. The slightest taste of power leaves one hungering for more and more, which launches an endless spiral that devours one's soul. Or perhaps it is actually an illusion; it is not so much that power corrupts, but rather that the corrupt are drawn to power.


An unusual verse in Leviticus (4:22) leads several commentaries to offer their own understanding of how power corrupts. It says “that a king has sinned, and done something unintentionally against any of the commandments of the Lord his God….he shall bring as his offering a kid of the goats, a male without blemish.”


Four types of sin-offerings are mentioned in this chapter: that of the High Priest, the Sanhedrin along with the entire community, the king, and of individuals.


The unusual language before the king’s sin-offering catches the attention of the commentaries. The three other offerings are introduced with the Hebrew word “im,” “if.” In other words, these people may do what is right, and avoid sin; they only have to bring a sacrifice “if” they sin. But the King’s sin-offering begins with the word “asher,” “that.” This implies that there is no doubt or question: the King will certainly sin. 


Two commentaries, Rabbeinu Bachya and Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, offer the following explanation: power will make a king arrogant. Success and comfort can confuse one’s moral compass, and without humility, a powerful person can begin to think that they are omnipotent. One can predict with certainty that the king will sin because the power he holds will corrupt him.


Rabbeinu Bachya notes that for this reason the Torah legislates clear limits on the King’s wealth and stature, and requires him to carry a Torah scroll at all times. This will ensure “that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right or to the left…” (Deuteronomy 17:21.) Unbridled political power is a recipe for decadence and decay, and for this reason, the Torah limits the power of the king.


These are the most common, and most obvious, explanations for why power corrupts. Arrogance and ambition can erode one’s conscience, and then the unethical becomes an expedient way of preserving power.


But what is of greater importance is that power doesn’t just undermine one’s character; it undermines one’s judgment.


Rashi, based on the Talmud (Horayot 10b), offers a poetic reading of this verse. He re-reads the Hebrew word “asher,” “that,” as implying “ashrei,” “happy,” and says: “Happy is the generation whose king takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice…”


This Rashi offers two important lessons. The first is that a king doesn’t diminish their stature by admitting their mistake; on the contrary, by seeking atonement, they become a true role model. The Talmud here emphasizes that “if a king brings a sin-offering, certainly the common man will do so as well.” Elsewhere, the Talmud explains that King David, by admitting his sin with Batsheva, becomes the role model of repentance (Moed Katan 16b). One can be a role model by having the courage to confess one’s mistakes.


The second lesson of Rashi is even more critical. The full quotation of Rashi is “Happy is the generation whose king takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice even for an inadvertent act of his; how much the more certain is it that he will do penance for his wilful sins.”


This Rashi is puzzling. To rephrase it, it says that the generation should be happy that the king is meticulous about small sins, because then we know he will be careful about large sins as well. It is difficult to understand why this is a further reason for happiness; what is exceptional is that the king cares even about small sins!


The answer lies in why a king might avoid bringing a sacrifice for a small, unintentional sin. It is easy for someone in power to justify hiding a minor transgression. They are public figures, and it might make sense to keep things quiet, both to avoid controversy as well as unnecessary shame and embarrassment. Small sins are small enough to overlook with a clean conscience.


But this is precisely what Rashi is teaching us; that those who ignore small sins will soon be comfortable with large ones. “One transgression leads to another” (Pirkei Avot 4:2,) and a king who can rationalize one sin will quickly rationalize another. This will contaminate one’s judgment, and give them a false sense of reality. As time goes on, it gets even worse; what was once unthinkable is now readily embraced.


Power can certainly corrupt the soul; what Rashi reminds us is that it can corrupt one’s mind as well.


All too often, a tyrant’s undoing will lie in their inability to accept that they made a mistake. They will reject good advice, and demand to hear only positive news, even if there is none. Having twisted their minds with endless rationalizations, they no longer can see reality clearly. They will make mistakes in the cabinet and on the battlefield, and even in the doctor’s office. And over time, these misjudgments will eventually cause their ruin.


But until that happens, those drunk with power can cause enormous destruction. Rashi is correct when he says, “Happy is the generation whose king admits his mistakes."

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