and Thomas Scarborough
What is man? The answers to this question vary – typically according to the scientific discipline which asks it. Chemistry, genetics, biology, psychology, history, or religion, all yield different answers as to what man is.
In fact all of these disciplines are in some way symptomatic of the essence of man, and none should we dare to exclude from our explorations. And then, too, since the middle of the 20th century, linguistics has joined the inquiry into the nature of 'man' – language being what we call a semiotic code which reveals (in coded form) much about the structure and function of the mind. With this in mind, the purpose here is to reflect on the importance of a single word in our language in revealing what man is, namely: 'power'.
'Power' has one of the highest word frequencies in English. According to research of the University of Central Lancashire, 'power' boasts 385 occurrences per million. This makes it a word which is weightier than love and war and the weather. It plays a bigger part in our language than dogs and cats, and hours and minutes. Plato, in fact, implied that this is the one word which defines man. What he (or she) does with power, he wrote, is 'the measure of a man'.
At first sight, it might seem difficult to discern any coherence in the many variant definitions of power. In fact sociologists David and Julia Jary present it as a prime example of an 'essentially contested word'. We speak of the power of an earthquake, one's power of mind, colonial power, a power pitcher, the power of a performance, even the power which one has over one's own self. How might we derive, from all these many uses of 'power', a unified insight into the nature of 'man'?
Power is a 'transformational capacity', wrote the sociologist Anthony Giddens. 'Despite resistance', wrote the sociologist Max Weber. In fact, on closer inspection, it is the triumph of power over resistance in all our human activities which would seem most appropriately to define it. This is a definition, too, which we can universalise: power is 'the ability to overcome significant resistance in a relatively short period of time':
• Physical power: Military power overcomes the resistance of enemy forces.Contrast this with the eighteenth century French philosopher Paul d'Holbach, the first to (scandalously) suggest that the laws of Newton now applied to man: '[Man] is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control.' Yet power, if we are to believe the linguistic evidence, belongs to the very essence of man, in virtually every sphere. In fact, it is a theme of Biblical proportions. The opening chapters of Genesis grandly portray not only the power of God, but man's procreative power, physical power, and intellectual power.
• Social power: A popular movement overcomes the resistance of history.
• Intellectual power: A theory resists being known, until the power of mind reveals it.
• Moral power: We have the power to choose against the resistance of pain, and pleasure.
• Power of imagination: The imagination overcomes the resistance of familiarity. And
• Sexual power: All resistance crumbles (need we say more)?
Power is far more than the narrow conception of it which was extolled by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: namely, the 'will to power' which drives us to achieve. Rather, it is to be found in all the ordinary moments of life. And this is not who we may yet become, but who we are.
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
A single post does not permit a survey of the many aspects and examples of power. Author Gregory Kyle Klug unfolds further thoughts on the subject at The Philosopher and at What is Power?