Wednesday 2 September 2015

What is Power? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Perspectives and Speculations

By Gregory Kyle Klug

Elemental power?

What is Power? 

A Reuters headline of 18 April 2014 reads 'Powerful earthquake rattles Mexico, shakes buildings.' The earthquake is powerful in that it overcomes the resistance of land and buildings. Isaac Asimov writes of inventor Johann Gutenberg: 'he introduced printing as a powerful force in human affairs.' Printing enables ideas to be widely disseminated, thereby initiating thoughts in people's minds that would otherwise not have been initiated. The passive resistance offered by whatever else people were thinking is overcome by new ideas - ideas that originated in the mind of a writer. Even the active resistance of other people's ideas may be overcome with different ideas. John Locke's sub-title to his Two Treatises on Government reads, 'The false principles and foundation of Sir Robert Filmer and his followers are detected and overthrown.' Locke overthrows someone else's principles, and replaces them with his own. The change takes place in readers' minds as he convinces and persuades them using the power of intellect and imagination.

How then should power be conceived? The variety of contexts in which the word 'power' is used demonstrates the difficulty in establishing a clear and all-encompassing definition. Consider some other cases:
• Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to his enemies, self-flatteringly, as 'all men of some intellectual power;'

• Musicologist Susan McClary describes Bizet's anti-heroine Carmen: 'She arouses desire' and 'apparently has the power to deliver or withhold gratification of the desires she instills;'

• Socrates articulates the capstone of Plato's Republic: 'Until...the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy...cities will never have rest from their evils-no, nor the human race...''

• Solomon writes: ' Where the word of a king is there is power; and who may say unto him, What doest thou?'
What do the power of an earthquake, intelligent enemies, a seductive gypsy-woman, philosopher-kings, and the printing press all have in common? If these and similar uses of the term are legitimate, which I take them to be, then any definition of power must be flexible enough to explain them all - and yet focused enough to distinguish power from similar ideas embodied by words like 'strength', 'might',  'influence', 'domination' and so on.

Webster defines power as 'the ability to do or act.' Perhaps this is true from some perspective, but intuitively it seems too simple and broad. Max Weber instead defines power as 'the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.' But resistance, as seen above, may be either passive or active. Power is thus not limited to ' social' contexts. This notion is parallel to Locke's description of active power as an attribute of spirit and passive power of matter.

Two things, then, cause physical motion in the universe: firstly, the motion of other physical bodies - 'accidents' - which can be traced back to other physical motions and ultimately to the Big Bang; and secondly, spirit, or the will of conscious agency. The physical motion directly under the control of a human being exists in the form of its physical body; and while the energy of the body is determined by the laws of conservation, the available energy is like money in a bank account which one has the ability to spend or conserve at will. Thus the motion that I produce is different than that of the earth orbiting the sun, or a gust of wind blowing down a tree, or a rock rolling down a hill. What I do is determined by my will alone.

However, the forces of pain and pleasure that create incentives that influence my will. Like magnetic forces, they push and pull my decisions. The heat of the fire causes me to remove my hand; the hunger of my stomach causes me to pick berries in the field - whether to eat, or for hire so I can buy steak. Different people respond to the incentives of pain and pleasure differently. On one extreme, the hedonist seeks to lay down before the force of pleasure, allowing it to guide his or her actions despite harm caused to others. On the opposite extreme, the ascetic seeks to resist pleasure as a form of self-discipline. On another spectrum is the 'prudent' and the 'fool'.

The former foregoes pleasure or endures pain in the present for the sake of greater pleasure or less pain in the future; the latter doesn't know or care about the difference. The prudent takes time into account; the fool doesn't - but both are guided by the perception of pain and pleasure, whether present or future.

True power is the ability to choose freely despite the influence of pain or pleasure when necessary. In this sense, love, courage, and patience defy the predictions of pain and pleasure over one's actions. 'He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty,' Solomon utters, 'and he that rules his spirit than the one that takes a city.' The one who controls his passions, rather than is controlled by them, demonstrates as much and even more power than the man of war.

Solomon understood power. 'Wisdom is better than weapons of war'. 'A soft tongue breaks the bone.' Throughout his writings, the ancient thinker identifies the limitations of physical power in comparison with other things: wisdom, words, and women. He also intimates that power, coveted as it is, is not the sole object of value in life:
To everything there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to get and a time to lose.
In the book of Genesis, the first thing God says to man and woman is, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.' The injunction implies various forms of power: procreative power - 'be fruitful and multiply'; physical power - 'subdue the earth'; and intellectual power - 'have dominion over' animals that are physically more powerful than you. Power in this broad sense is integral to what it means to be human. The constructive and cooperative exercise of power is, or at least should be, the province of the entire human race.

The story of the Garden of Eden illustrates how pain and pleasure are powerful forces determining human action. The object of resistance to moral power, therefore, is one's own tendency to succumb to the subjective 'force' of pain and pleasure despite perceived moral imperatives. Under this view, moral power is a paradox whereby one strives for mastery over the active resistance within oneself. Thus, Plato's 'power of philosophy,' whereby the lover of absolute truth rules the 'wild beast nature,' common to all, within himself.

Moral power is thus the ability to attain mastery over oneself. The exercise of moral power is by definition active, since inanimate matter is obviously incapable of moral or immoral action. The object of resistance, again, does not originate from any external source, but within oneself when tempted. As the New Testament author, James, writes: 'Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.' This theme is developed throughout the Biblical canon, and is also evident in the Islamic conception of greater Jihad - the 'struggle against oneself.'

If power is the ability to overcome resistance, what then is the object of resistance to intellectual power? The etymology of the words used to describe the activity of the mind - taken to be the source of intellectual power - is illuminating. To process literally means to 'go forward.' To perceive literally means to 'grasp' or 'seize.' The one who processes information and perceives a conclusion 'goes forward and grasps' something. The conclusion resists passively by remaining hidden unless one observes and seizes it.

Or consider the word concentration. It literally means to 'bring to the centre.' This implies motion - subjective and metaphorical, but real nonetheless. One who concentrates 'pulls' something into the centre of his attention. The word calculate derives from calculus which in times past literally signified a pebble used to count with. Here again metaphorical motion is implied: the processing of pebbles.

Owen Barfield calls human languages a body of metaphors: Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. As C.S. Lewis also observes, it is impossible to speak of non-physical realities without in some way using metaphor. Other metaphors besides 'pebbles' may describe the object of intellectual resistance - 'intellectual ideas' for example. Appearances to the contrary, this is no escape from metaphorical speech: 'intellectual' is akin to the Latin intellegere, 'to distinguish' or 'choose between'; and the Greek idéa signifies 'form' or 'pattern,' akin to the verb ideîn 'to see.'

Once again, and inescapably, a physical sensation or activity - distinguishing different forms - is analogous to a subjective, metaphysical reality.

And what about imagination? Intellect and strength without imagination are powerless. Imagination thus causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise. The power of imagination causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise - either in the mind, or in the physical world through physical execution. Without imagination, reality would have remained formless and void. In terms of The Never-ending Story, imagination is confronted by The Nothing. The Nothing is the object of resistance to the imagination; to yield to it is to cease to imagine.

Yet if the ability to imagine -  that is, to conceive images or phenomenalistic ideas in the mind as if out of nothing - is indeed a unique form of power, what then is the object of resistance to it? The object of resistance to imagination is, familiarly, whatever else the subject's attention is occupied with.

Without imagination, reality will continue to be what it is - unable to be anything other than what it is, incapable of changing its state or course. The mind, apart from imagination, is occupied with reality simply as it is - determined either by nature or other minds. With imagination, however, one may conceive something other than what already exists. This act takes place in the mind, and the thing imagined can potentially (if it is not impossible by definition) be expressed and/or made real in the physical world. The one who imagines a doghouse in his backyard can chop down a tree and labor with this end result in mind. He works having imagined what he will make.

In his powerful 'I Have a Dream' speech, Martin Luther King imagined things that were different than the contemporary reality of race inequality in the United States, and that have since become reality to a significant extent (although not yet completely). Again, Ronald Reagan in his speech at the Berlin wall in 1987 said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' He imagined and spoke something other than what his military foes had imagined, and saw his vision become reality not long after.

No one form of power seems to have absolute superiority. However, physical power often ranks lowest. The moral power of India under Gandhi's leadership overcame British rule in that country. The intellectual and creative power of humans has made us the most powerful species on earth (a status which implies the responsibility to serve our fellow creatures and care for the world we have inherited). Delilah's the sexual appeal overcame Samson's heroic might. In all cases, however, the feeling of power is profound and itself a powerful motivator of human action. Any conception of power that ignores the metaphysical forms thereof ignores with them the chorus of poets, prophets, and philosophers over the ages who testify to them, and surely also the evidence of personal experience and intuition.

Contact details: Gregory Kyle is a composer with a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Please visit: or

No comments:

Post a Comment

Our authors very much value feedback from readers. Unfortunately, there is so much spam on the internet now that we now have to moderate posts on the older articles. Please accept our apologies for any extra time this may require of you.