The next candidate Aquinas considers is power. Remember, we are working our way up from the most foolish to the most wise. Power, in this context, refers to the ability to control the actions of oneself and of others. Why do people think that power brings ultimate happiness?
Well, like our other candidates for happiness, power seems to be something that everyone wants. Nobody wants to be the low man on the totem pole. We all want the power to control our own actions, and most of us would like to be in charge of other people’s actions.
For most of us, when we get promoted to a management position, we’re happy. Why? One reason is because we’re in charge. Virtually everyone says things like, “If I were in charge, things would be different,” or “I could do a better job than my boss can.” Few people turn down an offer to be king. The desire to rule over others seems like an almost universal desire, so power must make us ultimately happy.
Is this true? I think not.
Certainly, having the power to control your own destiny is a good thing, so like the other candidates we’ve considered, power can bring some happiness. But there is an important thing to understand about power. The more powerful a person is, the more spectacular the consequences of their actions will be. What do I mean by that?
Consider a man who has no power over anyone but himself. If he gives some of his personal income to the poor, he commits a virtuous act. But if that same man had control over a corporation with thousands of people, his donations to the poor could be far greater because he has access to the resources of the corporation he controls. As an individual, his impact is much smaller than his impact as a business leader. Greater power gives him the ability to do greater good.
Take the same individual, but this time he is a murderer. Before the age of 30, he manages to kill 10 people. This is horrible enough, but let’s say this same man comes to power over an entire nation, and he uses the people of his nation to kill millions of people. This is exactly what dictators do and we have numerous examples of this happening throughout history.
The communist and fascist regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung killed over 100 million of their own people during the 20th century. They all had great power. But greater power gives a person the ability to do much greater evil. Do you see how power enables an individual to amplify his good or evil actions?
God has ultimate power and it seems, that as Christians, we’re supposed to be like God. So shouldn’t we desire power for its own sake?
No, we are only to emulate God’s moral attributes, not his power. Jesus never said, “Be powerful, as your Father in Heaven is powerful.” There is one important difference between God’s power and ours. God can only use His power for good. We can use ours for either good or evil, and we tend to often use it for evil. Therefore, power, by itself, cannot be the ultimate good that brings happiness.
Power, in the hands of a good man, is a means to doing greater good deeds. It is not the end. As Lord Acton said of human rulers, “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Only God can wield unlimited power.
Wealth, honor, fame, and power are all incapable of providing ultimate happiness to a human being. They cannot be the ultimate purpose for our lives. Each of them can certainly contribute to happiness, but the person that mistakes them for ultimate happiness is in great danger of missing true happiness. Next we will consider four more options and continue the countdown to what will bring us ultimate happiness.