3 minute read


The Value Of Power

There exists a range of different ideas in the different world traditions about the value of pursuing, having, and using power. Among the Old Testament Hebrews and in Islam, where temporal government and religion are very closely associated, the use and pursuit of power are accepted without question. Both the Old Testament Jews and the followers of Mohammed were quite content to use the temporal power in their possession for the purpose of extending the realm of the one true God. At the same time, the close association of governance and the deity imposed moral limitations on the uses of power. They were permitted only in the service of extending God's realm.

Both Judaism and Islam, in their classical formations, were religions of this world. While Islam speaks of an afterlife, the work of the religious person was in this world to extend and fortify the rule of the divine. Some Eastern religions, by contrast, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, saw everyday life as full of suffering and a realm of mere appearance. The goal of the religious individual was to overcome suffering by detaching him-or herself from ordinary desires, from emotions, from attachment to the things of this world.

Nevertheless, dominant strands of Buddhism and Hinduism were willing to use secular and military power to extend the sway of their religions. But at the same time, Buddhist and Hindu thought made room for a radical rejection of the pursuit and use of power. Doing no harm to any human or animal is an important principle of Buddhism. The thought of Mahatma Gandhi illustrates one version of Hinduism that rejects all uses of power, other than the power of persuasion. It resolutely refuses to coerce anyone or to use power to dominate. In this context, the use of violence is definitely an inferior alternative to the use of nonviolence.

The Christian tradition is equally conflicted. Jesus's saying that we should "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25) has encouraged Christian monarchs and popes to use violence and power to dominate in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, and in the conquest and devastation of the Americas. But there is another Christian tradition of nonviolence exemplified by the Christian injunction that we turn the other cheek to those who strike us (Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29). Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) elaborated this reading of Christianity in his doctrine and practice of nonviolence, which substituted persuasion for coercion.

See also Authority; Autonomy; Liberty.


Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970.

Barnes, Barry. The Nature of Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Clastres, Pierre. Society against the State: The Leader as Servant and the Humane Uses of Power among the Indians of the Americas. Translated by Robert Hurley, in collaboration with Abe Stein. New York: Urizen, 1977.

Cocks, Joan. The Oppositional Imagination—Feminism, Critique, and Political Theory. London: Routledge, 1989.

Dahl, Robert A. "On the Concept of Power." Behavioral Science 2 (1957): 201–215.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore. Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Edited and translated by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford: Blackwell, n.d.

Kelsay, John. Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Translated by Howard Davis, John Raffran, and Kathryn Rooney. Chichester, U.K., and New York: John Wiley, 1979.

Parsons, Talcott. Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Russell, Bertrand. Power: A New Social Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1938.

Schmitt, Richard. Beyond Separateness: The Social Nature of Human Beings—Their Autonomy, Knowledge, and Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. R. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Edited with an introduction by Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Richard Schmitt

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPower - Personal Power, Impersonal Power, The Value Of Power, Bibliography