If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Friday 9 November 2012
Read earlier gnomica here! 1-150 here!
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I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature and that power,
whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping,
and like the grave, cries, ‘Give, give.’
Abigail Adams (22 Nov 1744 – 28 Oct 1818)
This wife of the second president of the United States, John Adams [1729-1801], and mother of the country’s sixth, John Quincy Adams [1825-1829], had probably seen raw power up near and close for a long time as the United States of America came into being, and she surely would have known what Lord Acton would be talking about some few years later (1887) when he observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – a thought apparently based on a statement from over a hundred years earlier by the British P.M. William Pitt the Elder: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” Of course, the idea and its real-world instantiation is considerably older than any of these worthies – think Julio-Claudian emperors, for example, or, think — earlier still — Agamemnon in Book 1 of Homer’s Iliad — never mind our own sanguinary twentieth century! It’s an old, a familiar story.
Some admittedly cynical (but with some germ of truth?), desultory thoughts …
We think of this general sentiment no doubt more in terms of the great names parading puffed up across the stages of human history in many parts of the world and at many times, but it seems to me equally apposite in modulated form to the more circumscribed confines of our own limited lives. Let me once more invoke my ready-made emblem, my all-purpose icon of the ugly-American-in-the-making … the third-grade class monitor: an invidious figure, as resented as feared, equally loathed and of status aspired to — in the dark heart of every third-grader I ever recall talking to about it, a toady, favored, invested with authority, a snitch, beyond all suasive reach.
Not exactly Abigail’s “dangerous creature”, but someone with first taste at impressionable age of what ‘connection with protection’ can afford: safe exploitation of one’s fellow students in the form of dessert ‘shared’ from a lunch box, a walk home together, being picked for the ‘team’ … essentially harmless perquisites, but potent seeds sown in the fertile soil of self-advancement’s school.
What healthy third-grader can fail to imbibe the powerful lessons for life to be learned here about membership in and control of all those exclusionary cliques that will be applied as the years unfold through high-school, college, work … and point to one way of making making it in America possible?