Liberty Matters

More Like Aristotle than Acton

John Alvis has put to Shakespeare the question: Do you, bard of Avon, agree with Lord Acton’s famous adage about power?  It is an interesting question to pose to Shakespeare, for of all the writers we know of, he seems to portray the widest variety of human types, as well as to see most deeply into the human soul.  Who better than Shakespeare to render a judgment on Lord Acton’s pronouncement?
A judgment by a Shakespeare would be of value, for it is not as though Acton’s adage is self-evidently correct.  Consider the views on Acton’s topic taken by two of Shakespeare’s most important predecessors.  Aristotle had a more positive view of the potential effect of wielding power, for he saw it as necessary to the rounding off and completion of practical virtue.  Aristotle would, on the whole but not universally (see his treatment of the ancient monarchy), agree with Acton that absolute power is a problem, thus his favoring of the aristocratic republic or the polity as the best regimes in most circumstances.  But he would take a more nuanced position on the inherent tendency of power to corrupt.  It can ennoble as well, and the actual effects of power-holding are apparently more circumstantial than Acton allows.  Thus Aristotle does not seem to share Acton’s libertarian-leaning politics.
At almost the opposite extreme lies the other Shakespeare predecessor of interest here—Machiavelli.  The Florentine would take issue with Acton’s apparent presumption that human beings are or tend to be incorrupt save for the temptations of power.  Human beings are by nature corrupt, if by corrupt we mean indisposed to play nicely with one another on their own.  As Machiavelli says in one place:  “it is very natural to desire to acquire”[29] —more than others and at the expense of others.  Machiavelli might almost but not quite reverse Acton’s saying:  being subject to and even exercising power is needed to make men incorrupt, if by incorrupt we mean better suited to live together in social life.
John Alvis is either a bit uncertain or a bit cagey in extracting Shakespeare’s judgment on Acton’s claim.  Indeed, his very last words are these:  “If we could know why Shakespeare imputes this choice [to return to the ‘real world’ without his magical powers] to the one mind with which he has invested [the] best claim to wisdom, we might put Acton’s principle to a more definitive test.”  Shakespeare, in Alvis’s judgment, does not put Acton’s principle to a “definitive test,” and thus the issue remains unsettled.  This conclusion to Alvis’s treatment of Shakespeare’s Prospero holds, I believe, for his essay as a whole.  He finds Macbeth a poor test because Macbeth, not following Machiavelli enough, never achieves absolute power to provide a good test.  Antony and Cleopatra are also inconclusive because we cannot find a proper standard to gauge their corruption just as we cannot judge the degree of power they hold.  Richard II is also inconclusive, for he believes himself absolute by virtue of his constitutional and divinely ordained power, but is in fact anything but because of his dependence on the barons and his personal weakness and poor judgment.  Alvis does notice one pattern in the plays that might indirectly partially confirm Acton’s assertion:  several of the character are made less corrupt by their loss of power.  They became wiser, more moderate, more loyal to others.
To generalize a bit on Alvis’s conclusion and to push his analysis further: Shakespeare shows us such a range of human types that it is not possible simply to affirm or deny Acton’s principle.  Shakespeare partakes of both the perspectives of Aristotle and of Machiavelli on the issue, but, I would say, he is ultimately more Aristotelian.
To be more concrete, let us begin where Alvis does, with Macbeth.  Alvis seems to see Macbeth as a poor test of Acton’s thesis for, among other reasons, he sees Macbeth as thoroughly corrupt before he takes power.  He sees “Macbeth [as] remarkable among Shakespeare’s rulers because of what we might call the ‘purity’ of his will to power.”  He cites Macbeth’s admission that he has no motive for supplanting Duncan but “only vaulting ambition.”  I would not, however, identify “ambition” with “will to power”; the latter is abstract and particularly objectless in a way the former is not.  Ambition has an object—honor.  By appealing to his desire for honor, Macbeth is raising a certain claim to justice, a claim with a special resonance in Macbeth’s Scotland.  Desire for him is the desire to have one’s worth duly recognized and rewarded.  Macbeth’s worth has been demonstrated and partially recognized early in the play where he is credited by Duncan for dominating the battle against the many enemies of the sitting king.  His worth is partially recognized when Duncan promotes him to Thane of Cawdor, but at the same time Duncan admits that this reward is not commensurate with Macbeth’s desert.  Yet, at nearly that very moment in a move that demonstrates Duncan’s incompetence as king, he promotes his son Malcolm to the status of successor to the throne, a recognition that his son does not deserve on the basis of the standard of excellence most widely recognized in Macbeth’s Scotland, military prowess. 
Macbeth may not have a public-policy agenda as extensive as Hillary Clinton’s, but he has a claim of justice lying beneath his admission of ambition: he is more deserving of rule than Malcolm or than Duncan, for that matter, if we understand justice to require the commensuration of highest honor with highest worth.  Shakespeare may not agree with Macbeth about military prowess as the highest claim of worth, but he no doubt does agree that honor is a respectable and valid aim of rule.  Aristotle surely does agree.  Honor can be a good and incorrupt aim, for it may lead a ruler to attempt to rule in such a way as to deserve honor, that is to say, to rule in a way that benefits his subjects and thus earns their esteem.  Ambition is not corrupt in itself and it does not seem that Shakespeare means to show that honor achieved through attaining power is necessarily corrupting.  A clearer case of one who is corrupt before attaining power is Richard III.  It is difficult to say that possessing absolute or near absolute power made him worse; it merely gave him the opportunity to do more mischief.
Alvis’s account of Macbeth omits mention of the role of the witches, who do, after all, play a large part in both Macbeth’s acquisition and fall from power.  Likewise, he ignores the role of Duncan’s selection of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland: “That is a step/on which I must fall down, or else o’er leap.”  [Macbeth, Act I, sc. IV, 48-49]. The witches’ prophecy brings Macbeth to believe he can be king.  The elevation of Malcolm makes him realize there is no noncriminal path for him to take to his destination.  Once he faces that necessity he develops qualms, but not over the injustice of the deed.  He fears “the consequences”[30] —in this world not the next—of the murder.  In a word he fears he will be caught and punished.  Macbeth’s ambition is not so neutral a thing as first described: he seeks honor but is not committed to achieving it honorably.  In attaining power, then, Macbeth is not corrupted but more nearly reveals what he has inwardly been.  Creon in Sophocles’s Antigone had stated that only in rule does a man’s “soul” became knowable, for in ruling, a man is no longer trammeled by fear of punishment as is the case for most men.  Macbeth is not one who is corrupted by power but one who reveals what he already is—an unjust man. 
Although Macbeth is but one case, it is not clear that Shakespeare shows any individual who became corrupted through possession of power.  Does he show any who are made better through holding power?  There is of course the difficult and complex case of Prospero.  But on balance he seems to have become better not through wielding power but through losing power.  When Duke of Milan, he spent his time and attention on his studies to the neglect of his dukedom and his duties.  It is only when supplanted and exiled that he comes to take seriously his responsibility for the welfare of those over whom he rules.  On his island and with his small polity he becomes less corrupt in the sense of more responsible.  But as Alvis rightly says, Prospero remains an enigma.
Perhaps a more straightforward case is Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  At the beginning he is a tyrant in both his domestic and political actions.  He approaches his marriage to Hippolyta as the reward due to one who has triumphed in war.  He acts to impose severe penalties on various of his subjects when they seek to act freely in choosing their marriage mates.  He suppresses their freedom in firmly maintaining the prerogative of the fathers to control their children’s marriages.  By the end of the play he is quite transformed.  He no longer treats Hippolyta as a mere spoil of war but as a loved and loving companion.  By the end of the play he no longer supports or imposes the tyrannical laws that thwarted the lovers’ desires.  The exercise of power has made him better.  Just how is a complex story that cannot be recounted in the space available here.
Even this brief sketch shows that Shakespeare is closer to Aristotle than to either Lord Acton or Machiavelli.  Much of what he shows about men in power is Creonic.  Often he may remind one of Machiavelli, but the examples of at least two—Prospero and Theseus—strongly suggest otherwise.  These are rulers who do not live down to Machiavelli cynical theory.  As I suggested earlier, Shakespeare’s view appears closest to Aristotle’s: not so deterministic or antipolitical as Acton, not so harsh on human nature as Machiavelli.
[29.] See for example, Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, First Book, chap. V:
On that occasion there was much discussion as to which was the most ambitious, he who wished to preserve power or he who wished to acquire it; as both the one and the other of these motives may be the cause of great troubles. It seems, however, that they are most frequently occasioned by those who possess; for the fear to lose stirs the same passions in men as the desire to gain, as men do not believe themselves sure of what they already possess except by acquiring still more; and, moreover, these new acquisitions are so many means of strength and power for abuses.
In Niccolo Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 2. </titles/775#Machiavelli_0076-02_234>.
[30.] Macbeth says:
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly; if the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success; that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here, But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We’d jump the life to come.” [Act I, sc. VII, 1-7].