Aristotle says power is
- The agent causing a change in something
- The ability or potential in an object enabling it to act
- The ability in an object to remain unchanged
In the social sciences and political life power usually means the ability to make decisions that influence, regulate or coerce.¹
For democratic countries political power is limited to the extent that the next elected representative has the ability to change or modify a set of power relations, as we see with US President Trump trying to unravel or remedy, depending on how you look at it, many of former President Obama’s initiatives.
But power goes far beyond big politics and weighty issues. It is found in the doctor’s office, the workplace, the schools and our neighborhoods. And thinkers like R. D. Laing suggest that power manifests within family dynamics.
A Little Theory
Different cultural critics hold diverse views of power and how it is best applied. From Machiavelli to Marx, power is always present. But just how it is interpreted is a uniquely human act.
Postmodern and other social thinkers often overlook the fact that power, as a noun, is ethically ambivalent. Both good and bad can things be modified by the adjective “powerful”—for example, powerful love and powerful hate.
The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that knowledge gained from philosophical understanding creates power. Hobbes added that such power should be applied in ways good for the Commonwealth. His argument is echoed in the G-8 countries’ rationale behind military strikes against the enemies of democracy and freedom. In Catholicism, this is called the “Just War.”
Michel Foucault says power is embedded in our social relationships but he doesn’t emphasize an ethical dimension to power. Rather, Foucault sees power as an ongoing struggle of competing intentions.
To some observers, it is almost as if Foucault portrays ethics and morality as historically relative products of social power.
If true, good and evil are not absolute, timeless and universal truths. They are relative to a given social time and place. That is, good and evil are social constructions.
However, Jules Evans argues that Foucault’s later work, such as The Care of the Self (1984), reveals a developing interest in an ethic of wellness. As Foucault says:
Perhaps I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested…in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self.²
Whether or not Foucault’s interest in wellness was purely intellectual or, perhaps, an emerging practical concern remains open to debate.
Anthropology, Depth Psychology and Religion
In keeping with Max Weber‘s idea of charisma, individuals with a lot of social power may possess, command or mediate a good deal of spiritual, otherworldly power.
I think Weber’s concept of charisma is important because, for some, it links spiritual and political power.
Science vs Religion
Another central question is whether or not a given set of otherworldly powers are good or evil. This issue was once of great importance. It is now pretty well passed over by the media and most everyone else.
In its place we have the popular mindset of “health” and “illness.” In a nutshell, science and technology have moved in where religion and ritual once held sway.
So the 21st century mass murderer is “mentally ill” and not “possessed by Satan.”
At least, this is how the courts see it. And they, to return to our initial topic, have the power.³
¹ See my highlights at LINER for some recent distinctions in the ongoing dialog about power:
Hard Power – http://lnr.li/C0mV7/
Soft Power – http://lnr.li/IQQXv/
Smart Power – http://lnr.li/0rJdk/
² Michel Foucault, lecture given in 1982 cited in Jules Evans, “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Eurasian Home Analytical Resource, August 15, 2007.
³ Most traditional theologians would say the courts only hold as much power as God permits, God being the bearer of all power.
Two Concepts of Polarization (3quarksdaily.com)
The last sacred kings (aeon.co)
What are your desert island philosophy essays? (ask.metafilter.com)
If Time Is Money, They’re Both Lies (therooflesschurch.com)
Porn stars go mainstream (foxnews.com)