Created By: kjnoren on March 27, 2012 Last Edited By: kjnoren on October 28, 2013

Power Corrupts

How having power is dangerous to you and everyone around you

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope

YKTTW Notes

  • Rolled in examples and added some more related tropes.

No Launching Please, Rolling Updates, Early Development Phase

Note that there is a wiki page for this, but it's empty. Given the numbers of possible sub-tropes and how common this is, should this be made an index too?

Description

"Nearly any man can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
— Abraham Lincoln

Having Power or Authority is dangerous. Not only is there the temptation to use for your own gain, or for your family and friends, there is also an expectation from others that you can use your power for their sake. Having and using power is all too often a Dirty Business. Simply having the power to impose your will on others will shape your thinking. Using the power you have is simpler than working through all the motions: When All You Have Is a Hammer.

So even the best intentions, great humility, or being a paragon of virtue might not be protection.

Super Trope of Comes Great Responsibility, The Corruption, Drunk with Power, Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!, Screw the Rules, I Have Money!, Screw the Rules, I Make Them!, With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, With Great Power Comes Great Perks.

Compare A God Am I, The Chains of Commanding, Power Is Sexy, Pride, Power at a Price. Contrast Was It Really Worth It?.

Please list only works where none of the SubTropes really fit, which use use several of them in a reinforcing manner, discuss the use of power explicitly, or have it as an underlying theme.

Examples:

Manga:

  • Death Note shows how having the power of life and death over others by means of the title artifact corrupted Light Yagami.

Literature:

  • The Prince by Machiavelli is the classic treatise on how to handle this from a pragmatic standpoint. Ie, how to avoid becoming too corrupt or let it interfere with the ability to rule.
  • Chronicles of the Kencyrath by PC Hodgell has its characters constantly grappling with power both supernatural and mundane, if they aren't already corrupt.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell shows how the pigs gradually become no different from the humans.
  • Used in the 1632 series by Eric Flint et al:
    • In 1635: The Eastern Front and 1636: The Saxon Uprising this causes Prime Minister Wilhelm Wettin to lose track of his political goals and destroy the political opposition by force.
    • In The Dreeson Incident, mayor Henry Dreeson was murdered by Huegenot fanatics, but initial public suspicion and outrage fell on the anti-Semitic groups in Germany. Mike Stearns was made aware of the truth, but instead turned over all the government files on anti-Semtic groups to the most militant elements in the Committees of Correspondence. Later discussed in 1635 - The Eastern Front:
      To this day, he'd [Mike Stearns] never felt the slightest twinge of remorse over his actions after the Dreeson Incident. None.
      How many times could a man do something on the grounds that the end justifies the means before he rubs away his conscience altogether?
      Mike didn't know. What he did know was that today he was scraping away some more of it.

Webcomics:

  • Eerie Cuties: This is what happened to Chloe, when she donned the Doom panties prematurely. They fed off her feelings of inadequacy in conjunction with her desire for Layla's fiance, Dio, which brought out her Superpowered Evil Side.
Community Feedback Replies: 29
  • March 27, 2012
    TwoGunAngel
    • One of the underlying themes of Death Note. Just look at how having the power of life and death over others by means of the title artifact corrupted Light Yagami. It's no accident that one of the page quotes of the works page was this quote by Abraham Lincoln:
      "Nearly any man can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
  • March 28, 2012
    Arivne
    Another related trope: A God Am I.
  • March 28, 2012
    troublegum
    • The Lord Of The Rings is entirely about this. Morgoth, Sauron, Saruman; all fall to evil because they wanted power; dominion over other. Boromir wanted the power to become a hero.
      "The only measure known to Sauron is desire, the desire for power. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it or that having the ring we may seek to destroy it."
      -- Gandalf The Grey, The Fellowship Of The Ring

    But wouldn't Power Corrupts arguably just be An Aesop? This gets mentioned on the With Great Power Comes Great Insanity page.

  • March 28, 2012
    kjnoren
    ^ Probably not unless we include a list of common Aesops on An Aesop. The Aesop is a type of tale that delivers a moral lesson, while Power Corrupts is a theme about a specific (but broad) moral issue. Ie, I think the two concepts are orthogonal.
  • March 30, 2012
    kjnoren
    Some more examples:

    Literature:

  • May 28, 2012
    kjnoren
    Bump.
  • May 28, 2012
    MiinU

    Webcomics

    • Eerie Cuties: This is what happened to Chloe, when she donned the Doom panties prematurely. They fed off her feelings of inadequacy in conjunction with her desire for Layla's fiance, Dio, which brought out her Superpowered Evil Side.
  • May 28, 2012
    Fanra
    "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
    -- John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton [Lord Acton] (1834 - 1902)
  • May 28, 2012
    captainsandwich
    I didn't know that there was a second sentence to that quote.
  • May 28, 2012
    jatay3
    Interestingly it has been said that Acton was making another point with that quote. He was referenceing some biographers who he accused of giving their subjects a pass because they were historically important. In other words that being to enamoured with power is what corrupts.
  • January 23, 2013
    atheist723
    Justice League:

    Power corrupts, after all, and who has more power than Superman!?"
    -- The Brainiac/Lex Luthor android version of Justice Lord Superman
  • October 11, 2013
    Niria
    It seems to happen a fair amount of time in fiction (as well as Real Life), and it seems that many of its sub-tropes are overly harsh (e.g. "...Comes Great Insanity.", but not only that one).

    I think it should be added.
  • October 11, 2013
    DAN004
    So is this a Missing Supertrope?
  • October 12, 2013
    DracMonster
    Um.. hmm... Power At A Price is the supertrope, I think.

    Although a really evil character may not consider corruption a "price" so much as a bonus, so maybe not.
  • October 12, 2013
    kjnoren
    Yes, it is. Also, whenever a work goes on to discuss any of the underlying tropes, they are quite likely to generalise a bit.

    ^^^ Anything else other than a pithy quote?

    I think the Lincoln quote in the original description is the most apt, since it feels like it actually discusses this and doesn't only put it as a binary thing.

    Anyway, a really good example from the protagonist's point of view (these are the really interesting examples here), which leads me to another Sixteen Thirty Two example

    Literature:

    • In The Dreeson Incident, mayor Henry Dreeson was murdered by Huegenot fanatics, but initial public suspicion and outrage fell on the anti-Semitic groups in Germany. Mike Stearns was made aware of the truth, but instead turned over all the government files on anti-Semtic groups to the most militant elements in the Committees of Correspondence. Later discussed in 1635 - The Eastern Front:
      To this day, he'd [Mike Stearns] never felt the slightest twinge of remorse over his actions after the Dreeson Incident. None.
      How many times could a man do something on the grounds that the end justifies the means before he rubs away his conscience altogether?
      Mike didn't know. What he did know was that today he was scraping away some more of it.
  • October 12, 2013
    kjnoren
    ^^ Power At A Price is orthogonal to this. Sometimes the price in the work is corruption, but it doesn't eg imply something about grappling with the issues. Also, Power At A Price says that you need to give up something to get power, while Power Corrupts is an implication in the other direction, that having power turns you into someone else.

    Power At A Price also seems to have a lot to do with game balance and similar.
  • October 26, 2013
    Koveras
    Also a supertrope to Unfit For Greatness.
  • October 26, 2013
    kjnoren
    Not really a supertrope for that; I think. One can more likely claim that Unfit For Greatness is the supertrope, though I think making it that will make for Unfortunate Implications (ie, that only incorruptible people are fit for greatness). This being a supertrope for Drunk With Power seems more arguable.

    Anyway, hats? Examples?
  • October 26, 2013
    DAN004
    I kinda think Drunk With Power and With Great Power Comes Great Insanity already cover this. :/
  • October 26, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    ^ It's hard to disagree with that given that the laconic of Drunk With Power actually is: "Power corrupts" :D
  • October 27, 2013
    kjnoren
    On the other hand, my eyes just glaze over when I read Drunk With Power, and relatively few of the examples in my draft can be said to fit the trope description there.

    Also, trope names matter. A lot. Drunk With Power to me implies something temporary, some loss of control or rationality, or that it arrives quickly; ie a milder form of With Great Power Comes Great Insanity. Power Corrupts is would almost be the inverse of this as a trope name. A corrupting influence that comes slowly and from entirely rational decisions.
  • October 27, 2013
    DAN004
    Then we also have Transformation Of The Possessed, The Dark Side Will Make You Forget, Power High, Drunk On The Dark Side...

    Really, With Great Power Comes Great Insanity also covers "A corrupting influence that comes slowly and from entirely rational decisions."
  • October 27, 2013
    kjnoren
    Yeah, in a lot of ways I think this is a case where we have too many tropes, most of them poorly defined and named at the spur of the moment. And then shoehorning and maybes has been heaped on top until it's all just a confusing mess.

    BTW, where is the mention of rational decisions in With Great Power Comes Great Insanity?
  • October 27, 2013
    DAN004
    Even so this trope is merely The Same But More Specific.
  • October 28, 2013
    kjnoren
    Is it? To me, it's a very much needed supertrope, as evidenced by the overlap and shoehorning in the various tropes about power and corruption.
  • October 28, 2013
    xanderiskander
    I could see it making more sense for some of the other tropes being broadened to cover this instead of having a bunch of similar pages. Drunk With Power even says it's "usually" temporary. So temporary assignment to power is not a strict requirement, and that page could be updated to reflect that. Also, to me, Drunk With Power reads more like it's supposed to read as an Example As Thesis rather than a specific scenario. This does sort of seem like The Samebut More Specific to me as well to be honest.
  • October 28, 2013
    kjnoren
    Read the example from Sixteen Thirty Two in the draft, and tell me which subtropes can be broadened to encompass those examples, especially the second one about Mike Stearns.

    Or for that matter, which of the above-mentioned tropes should No Man Should Have This Power refer to?
  • October 28, 2013
    xanderiskander
    ^The first example sounds like it could fit on Drunk With Power already, because the character is so absorbed in the politics that he wants to destroy anyone getting in his way.

    The latter one I'm not sure of. It doesn't seem to make it very clear that Mike Stearns was corrupt because of power. The quote just says that what he did was immoral, and that he has no remorse for it, but doesn't explain the reason behind what he did beyond that.
  • October 28, 2013
    kjnoren
    The first example isn't really the most interesting here, though it should be mentioned that in the case of Wettin, it wasn't having power that was corrupting, but more the goal of power. Basically, he sought power so hard that he allied himself to lots of extremist groups, making it impossible to compromise with Stearns ("the loyal opposition"), and then managing to drive off his own moderates.

    As for the second, Stearns turned the most militant and extreme of his allies (or perhaps "allies") loose on the anti-Semite arch-conservative (for 17th century values of conservative) groups of Germany, as retaliation for a deed they didn't do or were involved with at all.

    The thing with Drunk With Power is that the trope name itself implies a loss of rationality - it's part and parcel of being drunk. Sergeant Colon in The Fifth Elephant is a nigh-perfect example of that. That means the trope name in and of itself excludes a large part of the corrupting mechanisms behind having and using power.
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