John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton said that

"[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

What did he mean by this? How might power compel evil or restrict free will?

  • 1
    A child cries for candy. The more powerful the child, the less likely a healthy diet. The all powerful child eats nothing but candy never understanding the reason for the fatal stomach ache and untimely death. Apr 2, 2015 at 2:01
  • power to do what one wants / power to act correctly ( Leibniz, New Essays , in a discussion regarding freedom)
    – user37859
    May 23, 2020 at 7:00
  • Also, Bossuet, On Death
    – user37859
    May 23, 2020 at 7:00
  • If you perform a rough calculation of the current leaders of counties labeled as 'illiberal', that is primarily one-person controlled in all government and public aspects, and look into how those people came into power, what you will find is that many started out as real champions of democracy. Apparently once they realized what was in their power to control they became and still remain essentially dictators. Examples include: Erdogan, Orban, Presidents of Peru, Myanmar, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, etc. etc. Living examples of how power corrupts. Oh yes, add Donald Trump. CMS
    – user37981
    May 23, 2020 at 14:13

2 Answers 2


NOTE: This answer was given to a previous incarnation of this question. The block quotes I am responding to come from this incarnation. If I have the time I will modify my answer to respond more directly to this version of the question.

When a person is placed in a position of absolute power, is it necessarily true that this power will condemn that person to commit evil acts?

No, it isn't necessarily true, and that isn't a part of the claim Acton is making. Note the use of the word "tends". Many people have defended the possibility of a benevolent dictator. Plato's Republic advances an oligarchy of "Philosopher Kings", which he thought would produce the best society.

In effect, does power restrict free will?

I don't think there is any very interesting connection between these two concepts, if anything it seems to be the opposite. Someone with absolute (unchallengeable) power would be faced with no external compulsions and so (assuming the possibility of free will) would have the best chance at freely acting.

NOTE: The following is a bit of an aside that is only indirectly relevant, but which you may, nevertheless, find interesting.

There is, however, an interesting claim that Socrates makes in Plato's Gorgias:

I say, Polus, that both orators and tyrants have the least power in their cities, as I was saying just now. For they do just about nothing they want to, though they certainly do whatever they see most fit to do. (Gorgias, 466e)

This weird claim has to do with Socrates' denial of akrasia, or weakness of will, where you act against what you believe to be best. Essentially, the claim he makes here is tyrants who commit evil are, in fact, slaves to their stupidity (to put it rather crudely). For, Socrates contends, they are making mistakes in measurement and wrongly considering the evil act to be the best.

This is, in fact, a bit of a caricature of the view, at least it doesn't explain it fully. I just thought it was interesting in connection with your question and presents a view on which "doing whatever you see fit" is not to have great power. It is also a view on which someone with the ability to do whatever they see fit actually does very little that they want to do.


Sadly the quote isn't actually correct.

It has gained in popularity due to its appeal, but is entirely misleading. It is fair to say that power for the most part adds choice. The choices we make, given greater freedoms, are reflected in large by our individual characters and circumstances at the time of that choice. Part of the reason the addage often appears to have a measure of truth is that the more self-centered and ambitious individual is more drawn to power than most, and more likely to sacrifice ethics as a means of getting it.

There is a wide and sadly often justified stereotype of the wealthy having little ethical value and little concern for others. Such an individual gaining greater power is certainly no more likely to use it for the benefit of others.

That said, someone with strong ethical values and concern for others, given greater power, is certainly not doomed to corruption and may achieve greater good. It must always be considered that circumstance and behavioural patterns that affect those circumstances can warp statistics, often leading to false positives by individuals that don't dig deeply enough into the reasoning behind them.

Even where you might try to add alternative interpretation and attribute decisions to stupidity, the same spread of stupidity exists across the powerful and the weak. Dennis's summary of a caricature is a fair one. The quote isn't accurate. The quote isn't a rule. It is merely a whimiscal portrayal of stereotype.

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