Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

Real power

Real power
To hold the horizon is to rule the world

“Great power, not clinging to power, has true power. Lesser power, clinging to power, lacks true power. Great power, doing nothing, has nothing to do. Lesser power, doing nothing, has an end in view.”

Tao Te Ching §38, translated by Ursula Le Guin.

In recent years, the total leftardation of culture—a sort of left-hemispheric cultural retardation with Freudo-Marxian characteristics and progressive overtones—has run concurrently with an increasing obsession with power, accompanied by some of the deepest ignorance about what power is. The rhetorical default is to poke fingers at various so-called imbalances in power and to lean into various activistic spasms towards dismantling such things. However, the question of the nature of power is hardly ever raised. Is it merely equal to control or force? Is it about calling the shots and having the last word? Is it about domineering and domination? Coercion seems to be rather high up on the definitional list.

I started pondering the question of the nature of power again recently when reminded of the story of the patron saint of comedians, the martyr, St. Lawrence. During the third century, the Roman emperor Valerian came to believe that the Catholic Church was absurdly wealthy. Valierian was a dimwit. He was also greedy and wanted whatever treasure the Church was supposedly hoarding. One of his officials asked Lawrence where the treasure was and one can detect in his response a fair foretaste of so much Reddit trolling. He gathered together a lot of poor people and told the officials that they, those downtrodden citizens, were the Church’s true treasures. Well, that’s one way to get yourself thrown into prison and then sentenced to death.

Lawrence’s executioners stripped him and placed him on an iron grill. They then piled burning coals under it and pressed scolding hot iron pitchforks onto his body. Lawrence was miraculously nonplussed, although he flinched at the pain. “Look, you wretch,” he told one of his persecutors, “you’ve got me well done on the one side. So, come on now, turn me over and eat!” What a brilliant deconstruction of the expected interpretation of the meaning of power! From one perspective, power was very much in the hands of the emperor with armies, officials, and executioners at his disposal. In this specific scenario, the executioners would seem to have held all the power, while Lawrence held none of it. But, in his words and his attitude, the real power belonged to him. He knew something his murderers did not.

He was, of course, riffing on a recognizable but often overlooked biblical theme. Perhaps one of the weirdest pronouncements offered by St. Paul, who was no stranger to saying odd things, is in his first letter to the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians 1:25-30). There he offers the paradoxical claim that weakness is not weakness but strength; that foolishness is not foolishness but wisdom; and that things of barely any significance can bring to nothing what seems to be of tremendous stature and importance.

One biblical image to keep in mind as an illustration of this is the story of a little shrimp of an adolescent named David who brought down a mighty giant with a pebble (1 Samuel 17). Another is that of Gideon’s tiny army of 300, selected out of a possible army of 22000, taking out an army we are told was so vast that it was “as thick as locusts” (Judges 7:12). Moreover, Gideon’s army of 300 didn’t conquer through force but by sowing confusion: they woke the enemy up in the middle of the night with such an uproar that the enemy’s army was thrown into a panic. Each man began to fight and kill his fellow soldiers and Gideon’s men didn’t even need to lift a finger. This recalls God’s statement to Moses as he and his people stood on the banks of the Red Sea: “I, the Lord your God, will fight for you. Your job is to do absolutely nothing.” (Exodus 14:14). Perhaps power is not in force or coercion, after all, but in a particular way of observing and interpreting the world.

St. Paul’s paradigm case for strong weakness and foolish wisdom is Christ. In him, God made himself manifest in the world, in a vulnerable body capable of revealing the horror of sinews and muscles and blood; and God, the very ground of being, was tortured and executed. Like a lamb, he was mute as he was led to the slaughter. God was pronounced dead in the Christian Scriptures long before Nietzsche arrived on the world’s stage to hurl equivocities at being and to suggest that the same had happened. The Bible remains more radical than Nietzsche could ever hope to be.

But it is precisely in Christ’s being raised on that cross, naked and bleeding and dying because a state official capitulated to the mob and commanded it, that he was being enthroned. His death was less a confirmation of his powerlessness than it was proof of his power. To kill God and expect him to stay dead is to have misunderstood something. Even Nietzsche perceived rightly the significance of this Christ event. What mattered, as with Dionysus (but with significant differences), was its meaning. Meaning is where the real power is. Even if Hegel’s reading of the crucifixion was right in suggesting that Christ died on the cross and was never resurrected, and I don’t think Hegel is right in the least on this, the Pauline principle remains true: here is power, in the dying man who, by dying, transforms the way the world understands itself. The world, in fact, will no longer be capable of understanding itself apart from this event. Hegel’s resurrected ‘Holy Spirit’ suggests a total reconfiguration of how we ought to read the world. To observe it, to witness it, is already to be altered. It is, in some sense, not just Schrödinger’s thought experiment with the cat that changes when observed but the universe itself. To observe the event is to find the event transformed into a lens and to discover the world transformed when it is viewed through that lens.

The very state official who ordered the execution of Jesus for being a disturber of the peace had a sign pinned above his thorn-crowned head: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. This was assumed by most to be ironic. It was not taken seriously by the chief sacrificers of Christ, the scribes and the regime-supporters. When Jesus was on that cross, they mocked him with words to the effect that he was so good at saving others but incapable of saving himself; and if he wanted them to believe in him, why didn’t he just come down from the cross? (See Matthew 27:42-43).

This is always a great temptation: to believe that truth must impress us with a display of unbridled might. Truth, we think, ought to have unequivocal, unquestionable potency. We may think that truth ought to be univocal. When we are in a space of being beaten down and belittled, when there are forces far beyond what we are capable of handling, we want some sort of undeniable intervention, don’t we? Won’t Jesus step down from the cross for us, just this once? Maybe we are all a bit like the crucifiers of Christ from time to time. We want a bit of a show; a bit of a spectacle. We want to be dazzled and we want our enemies to be not just beaten but humiliated. They often leave the scene thinking they’ve won and that just can’t be right, can it?

The ancient Christians had an unexpected way of interpreting Jesus’s words about money, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:15-22). They didn’t see this as an excuse to be good little regime-supporting boys and girls. They saw this as a command to upend the usual take on power. Every martyr, by giving up his or her life at the command of rulers like Valerian, was effectively saying: My life I will give to you, oh ruler of this earthly realm; but that is only because my life really belongs to God. A single act of self-sacrifice, of submitting to the highest reality, would force the earthly regime to bow—even if only eventually. By the witness of the martyrs, the West became Christian. By the submission of the martyrs to a meaning that transcended and included the regime’s shortcomings, the horizon was altered.

I heard a story many years ago, although I can’t remember where, about the late philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard, who at the end of a lecture was lambasted by an egotistical student. I can’t recall what the topic was or what the argument was about but the person telling the story said the student’s claims and proposals, drenched in resentment, were, to put it kindly, stupid. Willard was no pushover and he could have very easily put the student in his place. But he didn’t. He dismissed the class without the least show of bitterness or frustration. Afterwards, one very upset student came up to him and asked, “Why didn’t you say something, Professor Willard?” He responded that he was trying to practice the spiritual discipline of not having the last word.

This last story offers a very ordinary example of precisely the sort of power at play in the supposed weakness of St. Lawrence, David, Gideon’s army of 300, and Christ. At the heart of it is a revelation of the rea. What is real becomes inescapably obvious. Coercion is made to look ridiculous. True power, by which I mean, authoritative power is not coercive but mediatory. True power is found in the hermeneutic event; that is, in the event of understanding and, in many cases, the reconfiguring of understanding.

Coercive power, which could be called stupid power or self-destructive power, attempts to rid the world of mediation. It is brittle and breaks easily because it cannot cope with the inherent uncontrollability of the world, which amounts to the call of the world for interpretation. It attempts to make things clear, to name the obvious victors and the obvious losers, but it always scapegoats meanings that inevitably prove impossible to escape. Force is its only method. It cannot manoeuvre itself nimbly. But how powerful is the one who refuses to understand or is incapable of understanding? Not very powerful at all, I’d say.

True power is rich in mediation. I think of the story of the highly compelling film, Godzilla Minus One (2023), which is so profoundly humane that it is difficult to think of it as a movie about a monster. That’s because it isn’t a movie about a monster but, among other things, about the triumph of mediation over univocal coercion. It reminds me of my favourite interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, which suggests that the monolithic perspective of the tower builders—oh, what might they aspire to possess!—is disrupted by the power of interpretive difference. It is an echo of the words of God towards the beginning of Genesis 1. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was, as one language became unavoidably different from another, the advent of the necessity of interpretation.

It is through interpretation that we become selves; that relationships are fostered; that worlds are built. It is through interpretation that an interweaving of meanings enworlds us. It is through the gift of interpretation that meaningfulness resists reduction to some merely abstract and utterly blunt theory. It is through recovering mediation that selfhood itself is recovered. True power perceives truth in being. False power wants to enforce brute will upon being. There’s an argument to be made, although I would rather make the claim than present the argument, that Nietzsche’s brazen proclamation that the world is the will to power and nothing besides might be read less as an assertion that everything is a force to be reckoned with than that everything is destined to reveal itself as itself; it is destined, if our capacity to allow it is expanded beyond our univocalising, to invite us into the dance of meaning.

As Byung-Chul Han discusses in his provocative book, What is Power? (Polity, 2018), when mediation disappears, when this essential continuity between the self and the other is lost, power ceases to be power and changes into violence. In violence, the other must not merely be coerced but must be obliterated. If you want to spot where power is losing its grip, all you have to do is notice that it stops being quiet and starts getting loud. The screaming toddler, opposing the will of the world and the demands of enworldedness, signals an absence of power. The ecofascist who glues herself to a work of art to make a point is clearly without real power. There is will and a desire to manipulate in this toddlerite posturing but mediation has been diminished. The tantrum may seem like power. It is so loud. It is so dramatic. But quiet authorities, parents and others, who won’t let the toddler or the toddlerite get her way and who also don’t let such turbulence infect them—they are really in charge. Authoritative power is precisely what the toddler does not have. Authoritative power, the power to know better, is the real power. It is such power that wins even when it loses; it is such power that overcomes even when it is overcome. “Look, you wretch, you’ve got me well done on the one side. So, come on now, turn me over and eat!” We remember St. Lawrence but the names of his executioners are irrelevant. And the emperor Valerian’s death has none of Lawrence’s heroism. Valerian was humiliated in life and humiliated in death. He was powerless even though he ruled Rome.

Han writes, “Processes of power are not exhausted by attempts to break resistance or to compel obedience. Power does not have to take the form of coercion.” Arguably, the “fact that there is a will forming that opposes the holder of power bears witness to the weakness of that power. The more powerful power is, the more silent is its efficacy. Where it needs to draw special attention to itself, it is already weakened.” “It is the sign of a superior power,” Han continues, “that those subjected to it explicitly want what the holder of power wants, that those subjected to power follow the will of its holder as if it were their own, or even anticipate that will.”

Another way to understand this is through a concept I have already hinted at. It is the concept of what philosophical hermeneutics, after Hans-Georg Gadamer, calls the horizon of understanding. We commonly engage with the world at the level of what is called a worldview. This is more or less explicit. If you were to ask someone what they think about such and such a topic or what they believe about this or that, he or she would almost certainly have some kind of an answer. The answer may not be well formulated and it may not even be coherent but it will be there as a reflection of how the person thinks about the world. This is roughly what the idea of a worldview suggests.

But a person’s horizon of understanding is much wider and deeper, with existential resonances present that cannot necessarily be fully articulated. Your horizon may be something you can’t articulate at all. Our horizons of understanding tend to become manifest, even while remaining unspeakable, in desperate situations; when the standard workings and wordings of the world collapse around us. If your worldview is a bit like an umbrella, your horizon is what you fall back on when wind and torrential rain have ripped that umbrella from your hand. An example of this would be how so many explicit nihilists default to the expectation that the world should make sense when things around them disintegrate. Materialists default every day to idealism. And, yes, many religious people may default to materialism.

Arguably, one reason so many modern fundamentalists don’t attend to the horizon is found in the fact that they have no worldview left and have only their ideology. Ideology is a shrunken worldview just as much as a worldview is a shrunken horizon of understanding. With worldviews in ruins, the bridge from thought to things, and from beliefs to the horizon of understanding, is gone.

Ideology is particularly rigid and particularly prone to univocalising where hermeneutical playfulness would be better. One of the consequences of this is the proliferating of measures of control. So many rules pile up one after the other. The anxiety and frustration beneath the wish to make the world controllable gestures towards making more rules. The pile-up of rules makes the anxiety and frustration worse. So more rules are required. In other words, interpretive shrinkage, which leads to the flattening of meaning, gestures towards even more control—and so also to existential disaster. The end of this will be just more coercion and even violence. It is the irony of coercive power, which we see in every massive multiplayer online/offline role-playing political system and which wants so badly to render the world controllable, that its most likely result is chaos.

All of this is to say that true power is aligned with the horizon of understanding and can therefore adapt to the demands of that odd blend of reality and culture and anti-culture and lived complexity that makes up our world of meaning. To hold fast to the horizon is to rule the world. And, since we are playing with paradoxes and letting them seep into us, perhaps this amounts to simply saying that a martyr who understands is more powerful by an almost infinite degree than an emperor who does not.

Support the author here