“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts..Perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Stalin’s grandson, Alexander Burdonsky, once visited Stalin’s dacha decades after his death. He was frightened by the deafening silence and the overwhelming loneliness that its halls emanated. He ruefully remarked, “Power robs a person emotionally, sucks absolutely all the juices out of you. It’s never ending. The man of power alone on a cold mountain peak.”
Even as we are littered with cautionary tales of power, many of us still find ourselves allured by having more and more of it.
In Norse mythology, Odin, who rules over the realm of Asgard, is often depicted by his obsessive love for wisdom and knowledge. His lust for absolute dominance first led him to hang himself from the tree of Yygdrasil, where he absorbed the knowledge of magic. When that wasn’t enough, he sacrificed his eye so that he could drink from the well of Mimir — And with that, he acquired wisdom that allowed his one good eye to see much further in the world than he ever did with two.
But the more he saw, the less he knew.
The more powerful he became, he only grew more paranoid that his reign was in danger. To fashion himself as all-knowing, he sent out his ravens all over the world as his spies, he became a collector of prophecies, he committed genocides against enemies of other realms, and he either banished or tortured his own advisers and subordinates — Whoever seemed to threaten his dominion.
He was obsessed with preventing Ragnarök, an event foretold in prophecies, that spelled the end of old times and the beginning of a new one — He probably knew that he wasn’t going to live forever, but still, he was determined to prove the prophecy wrong anyway.
Power might seem like a big word at times. It’s often connoted with world leaders and big-time business owners. Similarly, Odin might seem like a far-fetched or archaic example of a power-hungry person. But really, none of us are exempt from the desire for power, albeit in its different forms.
We all crave power at some level. We all want something that could expand that little grey area in our lives which we have control over. To some extent, we all want the freedom to do the things we want, whenever we want, in the ways we want them to be done.
It’s human nature to want these things. And it’s not wrong either.
But in our careless nature as human beings, we tend to forget that there’s a cost to everything that we wish to obtain. To live a certain life, there are always things that we need to keep doing, and there are things that we need to give away.
In the ladder of power, especially, the higher the rung we find ourselves on, the more responsibilities we have — And with that, the more stress, worries, and perhaps even anxiety and obsession that we carry with us.
The author Ryan Holiday once shared that when he first experienced major success in his writing career, he was overwhelmed with the emails he had to keep up with, so much that he was stricken with panic attacks, and had to be rushed to the hospital. He struggled to balance his work and personal life, that his wife told him that he had changed.
Not to forget, as is often said, “It’s lonely at the top”. Being so focused on attaining power would ultimately just rob us of meaningful relationships and stillness. Every person we meet is potentially a pawn that we could manipulate to suit our own needs. Every minute we have on our hands is spent on maintaining our position.
All of that power, and for what? Would it all matter when we can’t take any of that with us to our graves?
Throughout the ages, literature and pop culture has continuously reminded us of the futility of power when the vicissitude of time renders its toll.
When we watch the Godfather, we are conferred the Shakespearean tragedy of Michael Corleone, who initially took his father’s place as Mafia boss only to protect his family. But he stayed in the game long enough until he no longer knew why he was in it anymore. His power rose, the family business prospered, his enemies vanquished — At the cost of ordering his own brother’s death, being separated from his wife, and losing his closest allies. In the end he was just a powerful man, as he grieved the younger days when everyone was alive and happy.
When we listen to Hurt by Johnny Cash, we hear the voice of a lonely, dying man. Hurt was originally written by another musician, Trent Reznor, yet he masterfully used Reznor’s lyrics to tell his own story and evoke his own pain. “You could have it all,” Cash’s weathered voice sang, “My empire of dirt.” It’s painful to see a man who had literally built an empire in the music industry, whose image has achieved legendary, almost mythical status, be at his most vulnerable. The song gives us a picture of his long struggle with drugs and alcohol, and that no matter how famous or wealthy he became, he was never satisfied. Now, lonesome after his wife had passed away, and he himself was about to knock on heaven’s door — He lamented over his long life and regretted not being able to bring any of his riches with him.
It’s comparable to Percy Shelley’s acclaimed poem, Ozymandias. In it, Shelley mused on the fate of ancient empires, how time rendered them insignificant. Statues of pompous leaders that once stood so tall, now crumbled into dust, leaving only a small fragment of its whole history for future generations to remember. The poem illustrates an ancient statue, on which it says,
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The antidote to being swayed by the seductive forces of power, as I’ve discussed numerous times before, is to always be more concerned about being a good person than about your work. If you invest in your inner life and your moral reservoir, you would always have the strength to value what’s truly important.
Keep in mind that here and now are what matter. If your idea of happiness is tied to achieving things, you’ll never feel happy or satisfied. Because you’ll just find more things to crave for. While having aspirations is important, it’s not everything. Do your best to appreciate the company of your loved ones, and everything that you’re blessed to have in the current moment.
Also, remember that a very long way from now, so many of the things that we chase will ultimately fritter away, together with ourselves. Even something monumental as having a city named after you, as Alexandria was named after Alexander the Great, none of it would mean much if we wouldn’t even be alive to enjoy it.
As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself about the fate of Alexander the Great — In the end, the famous conqueror was buried in the same ground as his mule driver.