Power as a Substitute for Love

"Make love, not war" is the best of the graffiti that today's youngsters have passed along to us. It is a new phrase representing an old truth - the ancient Greeks coupled the god of war with the goddess of love, to symbolize the strange relationship between the two.

Man is said to be essentially composed of an "erotic" and an "aggressive" drive. I believe it, and I also believe that an excess of the one indicates a deficiency of the other. Undue aggressiveness, in my view, is a result of the lack of the ability to love or be loved.

If there were some way we could examine the private lives of public men - with a sort of psychic x-ray - I think we would discover that the loving faculty in them had been dammed up and diverted into channels that ran toward power and position and conquest.

It was easy enough to see without such a device in the case of a Hitler, who had no personal emotive life, and in whom the excitement of hate evidently gave the same thrill that love gives to normal people. I suspect that much the same was true of Napoleon, despite his amorous adventurings; he lacked the gift of intimacy, and while he could "possess" women, it was only as possessions, not as persons.

It is no historical accident that leaders are almost always worse than the people they lead, or that their power to summon their subjects' worst instincts for cruelty is far greater than their power to call upon the people's vast capacity for good will and generosity.

We find the same tendency among children, where good or at least average boys will follow the worst of their number - who appeal to their suppressed and forbidden feelings - but will rarely follow the best of their number. Virtue seems individual, while vice is collective.

Since political power goes to those who crave it and combat for it, and since those who crave it (in my opinion) are enjoying it as a substitute for the erotic pleasure they cannot achieve, it is hardly surprising that most leaders have plunged their nations into bloodbaths with dismaying regularity throughout the centuries.

This is doubtless what Socrates meant when he observed that "power should be entrusted only to those who do not want it." A man whose aggressive and erotic drives are in balance will no more abuse his office than he would abuse his love object; but such a man has to be drafted for public life. Those who volunteer to lead too often want to lead us into making war, and away from making love.

__ Sydney J. Harris, from a collection of his newspaper columns. This one was written in the '60s.