The essence of power, most Americans (and indeed most people throughout the world) would say, is strength. And the military might of a nation, they probably would concur, determines how powerful it is.
By this standard, most people regard the United States of America as the most powerful nation on earth for the simple reason that its military assets are second to none.
But if the capacity to endure is the hallmark of true power, then history demonstrates again and again that so-called “powerful nations” frequently had a short lifespan. In 1926, the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery wrote: “In modern times no single power or empire in Europe has been able to stand supreme, to dominate others far and near or even to retain its conquests for longer than 50 years. The greatest men have failed to achieve this object, and even the most fortunate led their countries to ruin: Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Metternich, Bismarck: average span — 50 years. There are no exceptions.”
Since then, the names of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo could be added, and Valery’s conclusion would still apply. And the USSR would qualify as well, since Bolshevism from the time of the Russian Revolution to the time of its implosion in the 1980s spanned just a fraction more than a half a century. Today there are some who say our own country’s military adventurism in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq may be following the same historical pattern.
Military supremacy as an enduring manifestation of power, it appears, does not guarantee longevity. Indeed, when military supremacy is used only to instill fear in those who have been conquered or occupied, the seeds of resistance have already been planted. At a certain point the conquered will hate what they fear more than they fear it and revolt. If the revolution succeeds, the rebels could in turn become oppressors themselves, and the cycle would repeat itself.
Even those who continue to believe in military superiority as an emblem of national greatness are forced to admit that such supremacy in our era is finally synonymous with technological superiority — not valor or the customarily esteemed virtues of the warrior. But even technological superiority extracts a price in human terms.
In Of Flight and Life, a prophetic book that he wrote in his later years, Charles Lindbergh described an incident when he was piloting a Lockheed Lightning P38 back from a raid on Palau in the South Pacific. Flying in formation with three other P38s, he was suddenly attacked by a Zero. The Japanese pilot had surprised Lindbergh and would have shot him down had he not been able to evade the Zero until the other three pilots joined the battle and saved Lindbergh. The incident taught Lindbergh that he had survived because the Lightning was a better plane than the Zero, which could not outmaneuver the American pilots.
However, he concluded years afterward that a victory guaranteed by science was not sufficient since “in worshipping science man gains power but loses the quality of life.” And he added presciently: “Was science’s power of survival only temporary, capable of winning battles but not of saving man?”
Prowess and luck
Of course, history demonstrates also that power conceived only as force (technological or otherwise) has often been bested by prowess, luck or guile, which proves that military power has other opponents beside counter-power.
Regarding prowess, the slow and weighty warships of the Spanish Armada, viewed in their era as invincible, proved no match for the lighter and more maneuverable vessels commanded by Sir Francis Drake, who became their nemesis.
Luck also can trump power, as in the battle of Tarawa in World War II. Before the invasion, the Japanese commander was killed purely by chance by an incoming shell while he was moving from one command post to another. From then on the Japanese forces were leaderless at the top. The fierce battle lasted for three days, but the outcome was never in doubt because the Japanese forces were left without a central command.
And guile can often outsmart power. According to Homer and Virgil, the Trojan War had been fought over 10 years to a standstill when Odysseus convinced the Greeks to conceal soldiers inside a huge wooden horse, which would be offered as a gift to the Trojans. If the Trojans accepted the ruse and brought the horse within the walls of Troy, the concealed soldiers could emerge and open the gates of the city to the main Greek force. The trick worked, and Troy fell, a victory of cunning intelligence over strength.
For a contemporary parallel in guile consider the 1974 heavyweight title match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. For eight rounds Ali permitted himself to be pummeled at will by Foreman in what came to be called the “rope-a-dope” strategy. The more powerful of the two, Foreman punched and punched until he was spent. At that point Ali struck, and the fight was over — again, a victory of intelligence over strength.
Speaking of intelligence, how can the enriching of natural intelligence in the quest for knowledge not be regarded as one of the most powerful factors in what is called human progress? From the time of the invention of the wheel to the advanced surgical knowledge that permitted a surgeon recently to remove cataracts from both my eyes, insert crystal lenses and reward me with 20-20 vision with no need for glasses, the power of knowledge is an enduring history of possibilities that became facts. And their staying power — their ability to endure — has become as beneficial as it is indisputable — not only in scientific terms (medicine, architecture, aeronautics, agriculture and so on) but in the human disciplines and the arts as well.
It is an irony I appreciate: true power in its most obvious forms is the least enduring while power in its least obvious forms is the most enduring.
What gives literature its staying power, for example, is its affirmation of the permanent truths of human nature and its capacity to touch the human spirit everywhere and at any time. A play such as Medea is still in repertory after 2,000 years, offering solid proof that a woman wronged by her husband is capable of deeds far beyond our imagining. Readers still respond to the Iliad and the Odyssey, which show how life always means a departure from home, a struggle with whatever forces await us (in war, in education, in business, in politics, in everything) and then, we hope, a return to the home we left.
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet still resonates, as we sympathize with lovers who come together by choice and not to accommodate a family’s or a community’s wishes. And who among us cannot identify with what the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of The Seafarer says about the risks of sailing:
But there isn’t a man on earth so proud,
So born to greatness, so bold in his youth,
Grown so brave, or so graced by God,
That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl,
Wondering what fate has willed or will do.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Ezra Pound, from whose translation of The Seafarer from Anglo-Saxon I have excerpted these few lines, could and did say that all poetry is contemporary, which means that the ongoing presence of poetry in particular (and literature in general) has no past tense. That is where the power of literature lies — in the presence that words create when they are read or heard. And that presence is invariably undeniable and enduring.
One need not be a sailor to sense what the author of The Seafarer is implying, namely, that fate never absolves us of our fear of the possible no matter how pride, destiny, youth, bravery or blessedness has favored us. That fear is universal, and we recognize and feel it in the poet’s words.
This is what Robert Frost confirmed when he wrote:
The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to wait the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it.
This naturally leads to a consideration of the power of education, since it is as a result of education that we were exposed to those subjects upon which our culture rests — poetry included. We were first educated by those who raised us, who taught us everything from basic hygiene to good manners. Then came professional teachers from whom we learned the basics — the American language, history, mathematics, the natural and social sciences, the disciplines of various sports and so on. After high school, when we would no longer be pupils but voluntary learners or students, there would be more history, more literature, more science and the rest of the canon.
I am speaking here of liberal education, where truth is pursued for its own sake and where our natural appetite to know is an end in itself. This is where minds are born, and the power of teachers to put such minds in motion is in fact the gift of gifts. Once in motion the mind seeks truth on its own momentum, pursues it to its multiple sources, rids itself of superstition and seeks the ultimate prize — intellectual freedom. The seeker is then truly liberated and lives the life of a free man.
It is relevant here to be reminded that the word libera in Latin — from which we derive words like liberty and liberal — is in turn derived from the Latin word for book, liber, which suggests that the Romans saw a connection between books and independence of mind — between learning and freedom.
Teachers who champion and spur independence of thought possess (often without their being aware of it) the power to inspire. At Notre Dame there were great teachers like Father Leo R. Ward, Frank O’Malley, Richard Sullivan, John T. Frederick, Thomas Stritch and others, and their names are enshrined in the minds of those students who were empowered and emancipated by them. And there have been inspiring teachers since, including presidents Cavanaugh, Hesburgh, Malloy and Jenkins, each of whom was both priest and educator first and foremost. If a student in his college career is fortunate enough to have one or two of such teachers, as opposed to merely qualified academicians, he should consider himself lucky.
The impact of Frank O’Malley on his students has been well documented in memoirs, essays and biographies since his death in 1974. Perhaps the greatest tribute was the number of his former students who attended a three-day retrospective for O’Malley in the early ’90s.
It was widely known that O’Malley’s devotion to his students was sacrosanct. Teaching was his primary mission in life, as his sister verified during the conference, even though he combined it with editorial work and the writing of occasional essays. But he never published the “big book.”
After his death, a friend was asked to inspect his bachelor quarters in Dillon Hall. He found on one side of O’Malley’s bed a number of books published by his former students, including The Last Hurrah, which the author Edwin O’Connor dedicated to O’Malley. On the other side of the bed was a collection of the best papers written by former students back to 1936. Under the bed was a shoebox filled with uncashed checks made out to O’Malley from students to whom he had “lent” money when they were in need as undergraduates. After graduation they paid him back by check, but he never cashed a one.
To many who heard the story (and I hope it’s true) it was evident that the “big book” was in that shoebox. Frank O’Malley’s life confirmed the powerful bond that exists (and continues to exist) between teacher and generations of that teacher’s students. It is a spiritual power, and it is immortal.
History is rife with similar legacies of teachers whose names survive not in bronze entablature but in the lives of those who were the beneficiaries of those who generously shared their knowledge: Socrates, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Erasmus, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Henry Newman, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mark Van Doren, William Sloane Coffin and Sarah Johnston.
Sarah Johnston, you say? How does she deserve to be listed among the luminaries? This is how.
Tom Lincoln, the father of Abraham and Sarah Lincoln, lost his wife, Nancy Hanks, to a cattle-borne transmittable “milk sickness” when Abraham was 9 years old and his sister but slightly older. Being a dawn-to-dusk farmer, Tom Lincoln desperately needed someone to rear his two children. He was told of a widow in Kentucky named Sarah Johnston with three children of her own. In due course Tom Lincoln proposed to Sarah Johnston and brought her and her two daughters and son back to his farm in Indiana.
There she developed a special love for Abraham, taught him to read and write and gave him his first books, Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables and the King James version of the Bible. Had Nancy Hanks lived, she certainly would not have been capable of giving Lincoln what Sarah Johnston gave him since she, as well as her husband, was illiterate.
In retrospect, we can rightly wonder what would have happened to Abraham Lincoln without Sarah Johnston. He probably would have remained a farmer like his father. He certainly could not have been a lawyer, a congressman or the president of the United States had it not been for the love and tutelage he received from Johnston. And had Lincoln not been president at the time of the Civil War, the United States of America might not be the country as we know it today. And all of this was because of the love and care that one woman had for a son who was not even her own.
Despite the debt that all Americans owe to Johnston, there are too few who know who she was. In Springfield, Illinois, there is a boulevard named after Sarah Johnston, but the majority of the users of the boulevard know nothing of the history of the woman whose name it bears. My guess is that Sarah Johnston would make light of this. Like all who act out of selflessness and love, she undoubtedly regarded her affection for Lincoln as an end in itself, proving that love is its own reward. But the powerful consequences of that love outlived both Sarah Johnston and Lincoln himself and have repercussions to this day.
In a recent Newsweek article, Jon Meacham wrote about imperium, the Latin word for power. He concluded that power or imperium was “at heart the capacity to bend reality to your will.” The inevitable conclusion that one is forced to draw from Meacham’s thesis is that power is ultimately coercive. Whether achieved by force, money, deception, seduction or training, the aim is to compel people to do what you want them to do. If this sounds more than vaguely fascistic, the reason is that it is.
My belief is that genuine power is derivative in the fullest sense not from imperium but from the Latin verb potere and its French descendent poeir. The meaning of power here can best be translated as “to be able” or “to enable.” The imperial meaning of power as coercion is not even implied.
In this sense the enabling of Lincoln by Sarah Johnston fully qualifies as the true meaning of power. Hers was a selfless act of sharing what she knew with young Lincoln and making it possible for him to continue to learn as he grew, relying on the basic skills and appetite for learning that she had awakened in him. It is the same impulse that motivates parents and teachers at all levels of education, and its power can never be underestimated.
This same transformative power, I would argue, is one of the many beneficial capabilities of the arts, particularly the arts of music and poetry. Both music and poetry seem to have the power of putting those who are exposed to them in touch with their deeper selves. How this happens is truly a mystery, but we know that it does happen when the imagination of someone is inspired to manifest itself in song or words so that the listeners or readers are changed by the experience.
The little sparrow
Consider the esteem in which the French chanteuse Edith Piaf was held by the French people before, during and after World War II. Physical beauty had nothing to do with her appeal. Here was a woman who was not called a sparrow for nothing; she was diminutive, eschewed opulent wardrobes on stage and seemed indifferent to cosmetics. But she had a quintessentially Parisian voice that was the voice of France for more than half a century, and she holds a permanent place in the French pantheon of song that can only be described as timeless.
Her death in 1963 had such a crushing effect on the internationally famous author Jean Cocteau that he said he no longer wished to live. Such was the effect (or power) that one woman’s voice had on one man. And Cocteau and others listened to Edith Piaf as others do to this day because of something in her songs that touched and still touches them.
The same can be said of the legendary Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum. She was revered not only in Egypt but also in many other Middle Eastern countries. Her appeal was to women as well as men, but particularly to men who seemed almost mesmerized by her songs. She had created the custom of presenting a concert once a month in an open theater on the banks of the Nile. By midafternoon on the day of the concert many businesses, stores and government offices would close so that the owners or employees could ready themselves spiritually for the evening.
It was said — not quite in jest — that if she were invited by an Arab head of state to perform in his country and refused the invitation, that government would collapse on the following day. When she died in 1975, it was a time of national mourning among all Arabic-speaking people and beyond. As a final tribute, it was estimated that more than 4 million people came to her funeral in Cairo.
Like music, poetry has the same irresistible power to awaken the self that exists deeply within each one of us. Like music, its true power is the power to endure unforgettably. It would not be farfetched to claim that words spoken or written so as to qualify as poems are actually immortal. They not only never die; they stay alive in their original form. Many whose lives are “immortalized” by having buildings, colleges, airports, ships or even whole cities named after them cannot rival the immortality that a poet’s words bestow upon the poet who wrote them.
The Song of Solomon possesses a passion and an eroticism that is timeless, thus immortalizing Solomon. And what of William Shakespeare? All we know of Shakespeare historically is the rather thin biography that scholars have given us. But in his 37 plays, his superb sonnets and the additional poems we have Shakespeare in full, sometimes in the characters of his plays and at other times directly.
If we did not have the plays and the poetry, Shakespeare would be just a name parenthesized between 1564 and 1616. But his words survive and transcend the time and place of their creation so that they resonate with people everywhere and at all times. (As a matter of personal endorsement of this statement, I knew a foreign author who told me years ago that the only reason he learned English was so that he could read Shakespeare in the original.)
I have come to the belief that power conceived of as force to achieve supremacy or control is in essence related to pride, vanity and egotism. Yes, force is sometimes required in human or national relations. Police work and acts of self-defense often justifiably necessitate the use of force. But unless we choose to live in a Hobbesian world where men are regarded as mutually predatory and where power in its most violent forms is seen as the final arbiter, I believe that a more enlightened norm of power should be preferred and constantly extolled.
This is the power that I associate with education, love, and the liberal and fine arts. The sharing of knowledge has a beneficial effect upon both the teacher and the taught, and its ultimate benefits are incalculable. The power of love — fraternal, conjugal or communal — is at heart the mother and father of the trust without which social life is impossible. And finally the liberal and fine arts “enable” men to fulfill their personal and creative natures in ways that simply do not die.
Contrasted with power that possesses these beneficial attributes, power that is allied with militarism, money, class, race or science, however triumphant it may appear and however long it may prevail, is by nature secondary because it is finite.
Samuel Hazo is the McAnulty distinguished professor emeritus at Duquesne University and founder and director of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh. He was awarded an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 2008.