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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 07/28/2003
Volume 2, #87

I received the following from a visitor to The Round Table this week, and I thought the whole question was stimulating enough to merit a full column in response.
Just as an aside, I took your message about not being too smart, and being open to things, to heart. I have a sort of feeble belief in God. You know, the kind of person who claims not to believe in a God, but who prays in foxholes. I'm probably too analytical, and am too demanding of proof that a god exists.

The main point of this message, however, is to ask whether you think that a being like Superman, if he existed, would ultimately be corrupted by his power. Granted that being raised by the Kents, Superman would be, at least at first, inclined to be the benevolent doer of good deeds that he is, at some point, he might be tempted to use his power for his own selfish aims and desires. I know that Superman is considered to be incorruptable, but I think that there is no such person on the face of the earth. Care to speculate a bit on the subject? Thanks for your time."

-Allen Smith
I think, to start with, that there's simply no way to believe in God all by yourself, through some kind of proof. As I said, I don't even use the word because people mean so many different things by it. Which changes, of course, in a foxhole. But to seek by being open instead of closed, by being attentive to what's happening without preconditions, I don't think there's any other way. But now, corruptibility and power, that's really complicated

In 1870 when Pius IX almost split the Roman Catholic Church by proclaiming the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, Lord Acton, always a strong Catholic but equally a liberal and a learned historian declared that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

A relevant comment at the time, but not particularly true, especially when taken out of its context. And certainly it's a leap to assume that Superman's absolute power could corrupt him. Remember, what Acton meant was that absolute power could corrupt the church, that absolute entity for its time.

But let's consider Superman. He was created as having so much power, what was there he could have wanted that might have corrupted him? Indeed, living beings as opposed to institutions, having absolute power, would seem to be, in fact, incorruptible. If Pius IX was corrupting the church, it was because he was reaching for more power. He didn't have enough. Therefore, you might say that lack of absolute power, when you've got an awful lot of it to begin with, can indeed be corrupting. Anyone ever heard of George Bush?

We know, of course, that Superman is a made up character whose only capacity for corruption would be the result of a disability where, as I once wrote, he lost control of his powers and unintentionally did things he normally wouldn't have. But that was incapacity, not free will. So Superman, by definition, you might say, is incorruptible. You can add to that a very interesting corollary that follows: It is impossible for absolute power to be corrupted. By what? Out of what need? Absolute power has no need. And still another interesting theological corollary follows: The God of Israel, during the time of Israel's captivity in Egypt, did not have absolute power. In fact, as many historians have acknowledged, the early Israelites were not monotheists, but monolatrists. They believed there were other Gods but their God was stronger. He could destroy the First Born of Egypt and visit all the plagues upon that nation, something he wouldn't have had to do if he were the only God since he could then have whisked the Israelites out of Egypt or done any number of things to rectify a captivity, if he had been all-powerful, that need never have happened except for a possible purpose of teaching the Israelites a lesson. In which case, why would he also have to punish the Egyptians? To cap all this, it's worth pointing out that Akhenaton, an early Pharoah of Egypt is generally credited with being the first true monotheist. And it's believed by a number of scholars that it was the Egyptian Jews who brought from Egypt the monotheist idea. In fact, Martin Buber, the great Hebrew scholar and philosopher, in his book Two Types of Faith mentions this to account for clashes in idealogy between those more enlightened Jews who had been through the Egyptian experience and the less enlightened, tribally minded Jews who had never been to Egypt. So you get those odd differences between Exodus and Deuteronomy. But this gets long and complicated. Obviously Superman had been not only to Egypt but Krypton and didn't have a tribal mentality. So, I'd say, his incorruptibility was never threatened. Not nearly.

And remember, while absolute power stands in the way of corruption, it's corrupt to seek absolute power.

Interesting comparison here, I was discussing the notion of "self" in a previous column, and pointed out that it's basically a failure of language to say that the Buddhists didn't believe in a self. The only real self, that is, the pure, unadulterated incorruptible self was "the selfless self." Go back and read the column. And keep in mind that if Lord Acton's axiom had been true, Gautama Sakyamuni, the Buddha, who was the son of an emperor and all powerful, was not only not corruptible, but became the most well known incorruptible human ever known.

--Alvin (and alas!--corruptible)

<< 07/21/2003 | 07/28/2003 | 08/25/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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