Liberty Matters

Can Power in the Right Hands Prevent Tyranny?


I’ll comment briefly on Zuckert’s last remarks on The Winter’s Tale, introduce one more play not yet considered, then offer some final generalizations regarding Shakespeare and Acton.
Zuckert’s speculations upon the sudden jealousy of Leontes I find a most plausible solution to the often noted problem of accounting for the abrupt alteration of the king toward his old friend. I think the generalization he applies regarding Shakespeare’s modification of Acton’s axiom is warranted by the tendency of our discussion. It does seem to me that Shakespeare, in Zuckert’s words, “does not accept the thesis that it is the possession of power per se which corrupts[;] he seems to accept that possessing power can facilitate an urge to tyranny arising from motives inherently part of human selfhood.” The human being prefers himself to all others, and yet, just as unavoidably, he wants to love and to be loved by others, or at least by one other. This, combined with Zuckert’s remarks on Shakespeare’s Theseus (pointing to this founder’s understanding of that in human nature which dissociates self from self yet ever exists in tension with that which associates and causes us to desire freely to be loved), seems to underlie Shakespeare’s address to the various issues posed by the use and abuse of political power.
We might do well to consider Coriolanus in connection with what I said in my last regarding Julius Caesar. I had said that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare depicts a ruler who seeks absolute power in Acton’s sense of the phrase, i.e., power not accountable to any other political institution--“his word is law”--or, as I’ve mentioned, Shakespeare has his Caesar proclaim, “The cause is in my will./That is enough to satisfy the Senate.” (2.2.70-71 ) This speech defines absolute power as arbitrary, i.e., dependent upon will alone, therefore giving a license to a sovereign for willfulness. This indicates how the possession of unaccountable sovereignty corrupts absolutely, or tends to do so. (“Tends” because we’ve noted Shakespeare may present absolute sovereigns who succeed in overcoming the tendency.) Only in God is there assurance of an identity between what is willed and what is good. I also noted that for Caesar to succeed in making this statement to be accepted by Rome is to destroy the republic--because the reason for there being a republic at all is to guard against any person’s or group’s having such power as to get away with saying what Shakespeare’s Caesar has claimed for himself and has challenged his countrymen to accept.
But in Coriolanus Shakespeare has depicted the Roman republic in action, and, consequently, puts to the test the form of regime designed to prevent absolute power residing in the hands of anyone. So in that play we can assess the merits of a constitution designed to answer to Acton’s desiderata for a means to prevent aggregations of power amounting to absolute. What do we discover?
The Rome of Coriolanus is so designed that the polity takes action through promulgating laws, not by issuing edicts from one man or several. Laws are general, rationally directed, and publicly manifest. These characteristics tend to militate against arbitrariness. Beyond that, two parties in cooperation are required to make a law. The Senate formulates the regulation after debate and deliberation. But that formulation does not have force of law unless or until it secures the approval of a popular assembly. Hence, the class of the few and wealthy must work together with the classes of the relatively poor but more numerous. The advantage of thus dividing authority in safeguarding against absolute power is obvious but it is not sufficient. Because the great danger ever threatening is that some man or some party will become sufficiently popular to control the assemblies and intimidate the Senate. This threat has one avenue through the tribunes who protect the rights of the people but also, as the play demonstrates, work upon the populace to control assemblies and through applying the pressure of crowds outside the prescribed assemblies. The protagonist of the play warns of this danger but to no avail. He goes the length of advertising his loathing of commoners partly because he perceives the danger of the demagogue: the extremely popular figure who will rule without check upon his will by virtue of his ability to create majority sentiment at will. This will occur when a strong member of the senatorial class can overcome genteel snobbery—or appear to have—and flatter the common people. Interest contending against interest will prevent impulse and opportunity to coincide (to employ Madison’s language). Thus a certain kind and degree of class conflict is relied upon to secure freedom defined as liberation from such concentration of power as to be deemed absolute. Coriolanus’s refusal to court the commoners brings about his destruction. Yet Caesar combines the military and political prowess of his patrician class with willingness to cultivate, even to flatter, the common people. Caesar also exploits another circumstance that has resulted from Rome’s imperial expansion. The polity is no longer a city-state surrounded by hostile neighboring city-states. In the time of Coriolanus the continual threat to survival had greatly assisted in giving the contending classes a common cause while still allowing for class discrimination to protect from demagogues within the walls. With empire comes the all-but-irresistible opportunity for both classes to live together on other people's’ productivity confiscated.
For Machiavelli, and likely for Hobbes, such an arrangement would seem to be acceptable. Is it also acceptable to Shakespeare? Does Shakespeare contemplate such a possibility in the foreign policy of Henry V? Another possibility—a monarchy that lives by rule of law and has its laws produced by a monarch who must, however, win the assent of a legislative body within which membership in one of its two parts is determined by election from a suffrage somewhat popular, somewhat propertied. Can a constitution of this sort manage to prevent absolute aggregations of power in any class or in a demagogue, or in an emperor? This line of inquiry might end with the question: however Shakespeare may diverge from Acton, does he provide guidance for avoiding what Acton would have us provide against?
Urban’s directing us to Adam Smith strikes me as a promising extension of our discussion. Would not such an extension lead to our asking what provides moral bearings for Smith’s candid “spectator within the breast” and further to ask whether the answer to that question would satisfy Prospero as well.
Sonnet 94 is, as Skwire maintains, the most explicit statement by Shakespeare on the proper conduct of one who possesses power, and she is right to point out the resemblance of Prospero to that figure powerful, cold, yet evidently liable to corruption and otherwise unidentified. If we could surmise what it means to “rightly inherit heaven’s graces and husband nature’s riches from expense,” I suspect we would also perceive the answer to our question of why Prospero renounces his access to a power greater than that possessed by any other Shakespearean character. One possibility of heaven’s riches is man’s freedom to choose his way of life. The expense of that freedom would then consist in choosing what annuls the freedom of other beings equally endowed with that liberty distinguishing the species. Prospero’s continued employment of his power, even though directed to good ends, would annul the freedom of those subject to his rule. Prospero may reason that if God himself has chosen not thus to exercise his absolute power even to ensure the good, it does not behoove one inferior to God to choose to rule in a manner which God has declined.     
Do we arrive at the net conclusion that power is insufficient to assure personal happiness or for securing that common good which is the well-being of a nation, but that some power in the right hands on the right occasions is indispensable for preventing tyrants or for escaping tyranny once it has arisen? What would be the equivalent within the soul of an individual for a republic in the political order?