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Personal Identity in the Face of Power


    Maybe we change. Maybe we move on. Maybe things should change. But in a lot of ways, they don't. We all try to move forward—it's the natural path of humanity. Change, unfortunately, needs a catalyst for it to exist. This catalyst is power. And shockingly, no matter how lofty it sounds, it is with us always. 
     What positions of authority are you in? Maybe you teach kids at your church. Maybe you have a position of honor among your siblings. As humans, we are all created by God. We are all equally sinful. Since the Fall, man has been in a state of original sin, keeping man from being able to be reconciled with God. This however, does not speak to the differences in people. We are all different. We all have specific skills and weaknesses and quirks that make us who we are. Those quirks are often not immoral or moral—harmless in a sense. If they defy social norms as to make people uncomfortable, and inhibit you loving your neighbor, then they are a problem. 
     But aside from that, the point being, we are all separated by our skills. Morally, we are all in the same boat. Of course, we as humans want to be safe. We desire comfort, peace, and happiness. The end of philosophy is the good life, as Boethius points out in The Consolation of Philosophy, written during imprisonment as a comfort mechanism for its author. Politics is, at the nexus, applied philosophy. Politics is to protect us, and the end goal of any state is first and foremost the good of the people under the political system—and their safety. Proverbs 3:29 says 
“Do not devise evil against your neighbor, for he dwells by you for safety’s sake.” 
     Safety is an illusion society creates. Political systems who do not look to the good of all the citizens are condemned, and a coup d'├ętat is in order. God wishes government to exist as well: 
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Romans 13:1) 
     Government is composed of people, and these people are either there with the consent of the people, or without the consent of the people. Any and all governments follow three patterns—either rule of the one, or monarchy. Rule of the few, or oligarchy. Or rule of the many, democracy. Each system, by necessity, has a person, or a group of people, over the others. Man must rule over other men for a political system to happen. Is that just? 
     But imagine your life without a political system. Anarchy. Terror. Freedom—but a miserable, painful freedom. A life without limits is not a life worth living. There is no societal illusion of safety in anarchy. And we want safety. The simplest form of government is arguably monarchy, but also the most revealing of character. There have been some good princes, too, like Charlemagne, or the just rulers found in Dante’s Paradiso, on Jupiter. David, Hezekiah, Trajan, Constantine, William of Naples, and Ripheus the Trojan. But there is a problem here. If all men are our neighbors, and my neighbor is my equal, then what right does my neighbor have to rule over me? He is not objectively better than me, so why is he allowed to tell me what to do? Whatever position of authority you are in, you behave as though you were God. 
     Monarchy is the most common form of government. But monarchy is not just played out in great kingdoms and bloodlines stretching back to the days of William of Malmesbury. We can see it in ourselves—when we are given authority, even in the blog I have been assigned to write. We can see it in our families, in how our fathers have the ultimate authority over everyone involved. And princes abound, from the beginning of political systems in Egypt, Babylon, and Greece, to Charlemagne, and even more recently, as the British line of kings and queens still lives today. Power should be scary. Power reveals, and absolute power reveals absolutely. 
     There have been leaders who have given up their power, and had a proper understanding of when they needed to abstain from that power. Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer, was called to battle as the dictator of Rome for the lack of a better candidate. After he had vanquished the enemies of Rome, he gave up his power and returned to farming. But this is not the case with most leaders, and most certainly not the notorious “Prince” of Machiavellian political practice. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, authored in 1515 by Machiavelli as he was living in retirement, is the basis for many "practical" political views. Most grasp for power, and want to keep it that way. Desire for our will to be exercised is the ultimate cause of power struggles. The human mind wants what it wants, and wants things to go as they particularly have planned, because of their innate desire for peace. And in our flawed worldviews, who better to dictate what is best than ourselves? Paul says that the state is supposed to uphold justice, hence Romans 13:4—
“for he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” 
As Cicero also said, a state needs justice in order to survive. If a state does not punish those who do wrong, and communicates the idea that vice is acceptable, ultimately that vice, vice’s essential component being rebellion against God, will be rebellious against the state. 
     I have heard this viewpoint brought forward by good colleagues and friends on multiple occasions. On the contrary, the state cannot survive without injustice. Injustice, in that, one sinful person being above another sinful person, and having power over his equals, is unjust. Most ultimately, that power invested in one person is supremely unjust. 
“Where the word of a king is, there is power; and who may say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Ecclesiastes 8:4) 
     We measure a culture and a state by two things—their evaluation of God—and the value the people place on human life. If one is a prince? Then he has done evil. It is impossible to place yourself—or be placed—above man, and not act as god. And by “god,” I mean one who is beyond human morality. Beyond the price that man’s justice demands for immoral acts. The prince makes the laws. He is the laws. 
     As in the one argument of Plato’s Euthyphro, the prince makes the standard and therefore is above it. As a prince, everything is for your people. You sacrifice your life, your morals, your everything, because of the high value you must place on the lives of the humans you have sworn to protect. Even if that means turning down cries for help from outside. Your duty is first and foremost to your people. We all have experience with heroes—that’s the Christian life, one of heroism. Exploitable idealism, and the frequently terminal affliction known as altruism. But the problem with princes is that they are fundamentally different. You can’t think of them as normal men. You can’t even think of them as behaving human—that’s thinking too small. They are larger than that, bigger than that. They exist above other men because they were born that way. Authority began at the cradle, you see. Their very idea of morality is different than what we’re used to. The people—their people—expect them to do violence to ensure a certain amount of peace and prosperity. And like gods, they are also expected to commit murder. So the people can sleep at night knowing they are protected. And what is that called? Warfare. 
     One can easily establish warfare as wrong in most cases. Machiavelli says that warfare is the chief art of the Prince in section 14: 
“A prince therefore, should have no other object of thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organization, and its discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler…” 
     War can be part justified, but not in the hands of the Prince by Machiavelli’s own requirements that the Prince is unjust when it suits him. Power reveals, and it reveals you as you truly are. Do you think Henry II of England, murderer of Thomas Becket, would’ve acted the same way he did as a layman? All of us have the potential to be princes. Princes aren’t different from us—they just have the ability to be who they really are—and not objectively good. It is a good thing to serve your people. 
     Plato said in The Republic that everything has a state of being good, from a thing, to an idea, to the state. The definition of “good” for a prince is to not be a good man. From the good desire to spread Christianity and help people, Charlemagne badly attempted to forcibly convert many people. To be a good prince is to lay yourself down for your people, even at the sacrifice of yourself. What good prince has truly given all that he has had, and not taken it so far as to commit immoral deeds for the sake of his people? A good prince will die for his people. Why do we call leadership serving? Because a leader lays down everything, his ambitions, his personal goals, his life, in the name of the people. It is a natural progression from one point to the other. People looks to princes to protect them. To save them. The same thing they look to God or the gods for. Safety. Salvation. 
     We usually see this word in conjunction with the work of Christ, but the same thing is expected of society by the individual. The entire history of the human race is defined by the struggle to be like God. 
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” (Genesis 3:22) 
     We all want to be like God. And the core difference between us and God is authority. Power. Princes are trying to act like God. Stripped of the facades of limitations and laws, all of us could be princes. We should be scared of power. We should recognize when we are the people suited to the task, but we should know when to lay it down, just like Cincinnatus and George Washington. All of us, especially in the mostly democratic systems we live in, will have some interaction with power. Power is not good or bad—the people who use it decide how it is utilized.
     Danger is unavoidable. And just because something is dangerous, it does not mean it should be avoided at all times. Everything that gives you control is something to be held at arm's length. Something that you should be wary of. Power is not to be taken lightly. Great power always has responsibility attached to it. And your job is to harness power and understand responsibility.
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