Hans J. Morgenthau’s column “Public Affairs” appears in COMMENTARY every other month. Previous pieces have dealt with a wide range of subjects, including the Berlin crisis, the changed meaning of death in the nuclear age, and President Kennedy’s first year in office.
The proposition that power and love are organically connected, growing as they do from the same root of loneliness, must appear to the modern mind paradoxical, if not outright absurd. For power as the domination of man by man, pleasurable to one and painful to the other, and love as the voluntary and pleasurable surrender of two human beings to each other, seem not only to have nothing in common but to be mutually exclusive. Where two human beings are in the relation of power, they cannot be, so it seems to the modern mind, in the relation of love. The inability of the modern mind to see this connection between love and power is the measure of its inability to understand the true dimensions of either love or power. As Paul Tillich put it in the introductory chapter to Love, Power, and Justice, “It is unusual to take the word ‘confusion’ into the title of a chapter. But if one has to write about love, power, and justice the unusual becomes natural.”
The modern mind, both in its Marxist and non-Marxist expressions, sees in the power of man over man not an ineluctable outgrowth of human nature but only an ephemeral phenomenon, the product of a peculiar historic configuration, bound to disappear with the disappearance of that configuration. According to Marx, the lust for power and its political manifestations are a mere by-product of the class division of society. In the classless society, the domination of man by man will be replaced by the administration of things. In liberal thought, power politics is regarded as a kind of atavism, a residue from the less enlightened and civilized era of autocratic rule, which is destined to be superseded by the institutions and practices of liberal democracy.
While the modern mind denies the intrinsic relation between the lust for power and human nature, transcending all historic configurations, antedating them, as it were, and even determining them, it does not understand the nature of love at all. Love as the reunion of two souls and bodies which belong together or, in the Platonic mythology, once were united, is reduced in the modern understanding to sex and gregariousness, the togetherness of the sexes on dates, in marriage, and in other associations, tending to be of a more or less fleeting nature. What the modern understanding misses is the totality of the commitment that characterizes the pure phenomenon of love. It is aware only of surface phenomena which may or may not be manifestations of love, because it is unaware of that very element in man on which love is built: his soul. And it is unaware of that quality of human existence which is the root both of the lust for power and the longing for love: loneliness.
Of all creatures, only man is capable of loneliness because only he is in need of not being alone, without being able in the end to escape being alone. It is that striving to escape his loneliness which gives the impetus to both the lust for power and the longing for love, and it is the inability to escape that loneliness, either at all or for more than a moment, that creates the tension between longing and lack of achievement, which is the tragedy of both power and love. In that existential loneliness man’s insufficiency manifests itself. He cannot fulfill himself, he cannot become what he is destined to be, by his own effort, in isolation from other beings. The awareness of that insufficiency drives him on in search of love and power. It drives him on to seek the extension of his self in offspring—the work of his body; in the manufacture of material things—the work of his hands; in philosophy and scholarship—the work of his mind; in art and literature—the work of his imagination; in religion—the work of his pure longing toward transcendence.
Love and power both try to overcome loneliness, and the sense of man’s insufficiency stemming from this loneliness, through duplication of his individuality. Through love, man seeks another human being like himself, the Platonic other half of his soul, to form a union which will make him whole. Through power, man seeks to impose his will upon another man, so that the will of the object of his power mirrors his own. What love seeks to discover in another man as a gift of nature, power must create through the artifice of psychological manipulation. Love is reunion through spontaneous mutuality, power seeks to create a union through unilateral imposition.
It is the common quality of love and power that each contains an element of the other. Power points toward love as its fulfillment, as love starts from power and is always threatened with corruption by it. Power, in its ultimate consummation, is the same as love, albeit love is corrupted by an irreducible residue of power. Love, in its ultimate corruption, is the same as power, albeit power is redeemed by an irreducible residue of love.
Love is a psychological relationship which in its pure form is marked by complete and spontaneous mutuality. A surrenders himself to B, as B surrenders himself to A; and both do so spontaneously, in recognition of their belonging together. Both are lover and beloved; what A is, feels, and wants, B is, feels, and wants, too. Love is the most perfect union two human beings are capable of, without losing their respective individualities. Aristophanes has given in the Symposium the classic description of the nature of pure love:
And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself . . . the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment . . . this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.
Love in its purest form is the rarest of experiences. It is given to few men to experience it at all, and those who experience it do so only in fleeting moments of exaltation. What makes love as commonly experienced fall short of its pure form is the element of power with which love begins in triumph and ends in defeat and which corrupts it throughout. Love typically begins with A trying to submit B to his will, that is, as a relationship of power, and frequently it does not progress beyond it. As Socrates puts it in the Phaedrus: “As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves.” And it is significant that Socrates, in his first speech in that dialogue, in parodying Lysias’ conception of love, presents a picture of the love relation which is tantamount to what we would call a relationship of power.
What makes the lover behave like a master and the beloved like the object of the master’s power, what makes, in other words, the love relationship similar to the power relationship is the inevitable frustration of love. For if love is a reunion of two human beings who belong together, that reunion can never be complete for any length of time. For, except in the Liebestod, which destroys the lovers by uniting them, it stops short of the complete merger of the individualities of the lovers. It is the paradox of love that it seeks the reunion of two individuals while leaving their individualities intact. A and B want to be one, yet they must want to preserve each other’s individuality for the sake of their love for each other. So it is their very love that stands in the way of their love’s consummation.
That inner contradiction the lovers endeavor to overcome by letting power do what love is unable to do by itself. Power tries to break down the barrier of individuality which love, because it is love, must leave intact. Yet in the measure that power tries to do the work love cannot do, it puts love in jeopardy. An irreducible element of power is requisite to make a stable relationship of love, which without it would be nothing more than a succession of precarious exaltations. Thus without power love cannot persist; but through power it is corrupted and threatened with destruction. That destruction becomes actual when A and B, by trying to reduce each other to an object of their respective wills, transform the spontaneous mutuality of the love relationship into the unilateral imposition of the relationship of power.
Thus the lust for power is, as it were, the twin of despairing love. Power becomes a substitute for love. What man cannot achieve for any length of time through love he tries to achieve through power: to fulfill himself, to make himself whole by overcoming his loneliness, his isolation. As Shakespeare’s Richard III puts it:
And this word ‘love,’ which greybeards
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone. . . .
And am I then a man to be belov’d?
O, monstrous fault, to harbor such a
Then, since this earth affords no joy to
But to command, to check, to o’erbear
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the
crown. . . .
Yet of what love can at least approximate and in a fleeting moment actually achieve, power can only give the illusion.
Power is a psychological relationship in which one man controls certain actions of another man through the influence he exerts over the latter’s will. That influence derives from three sources: the expectation of benefits, the fear of disadvantages, the respect or love for men or institutions. It may be exerted through orders, threats, promises, persuasion, the authority or charisma of a man or of an office, or a combination of any of these.
It is in the very nature of the power relationship that the position of the two actors within it is ambivalent. A seeks to exert power over B; B tries to resist that power and seeks to exert power over A, which A resists. Thus the actor on the political stage is always at the same time a prospective master over others and a prospective object of the power of others. While he seeks power over others, others seek power over him. Victory will fall to him who marshals the stronger weapons of influence with greater skill.
Yet a political victory won with the weapons of threats and promises is likely to be precarious; for the power relation thus established depends upon the continuing submissiveness of a recalcitrant will, generated and maintained by the master’s continuing influence. The will of the subject reflects the will of the master but incompletely and tenuously as long as the will of the master is imposed upon the will of the subject from without and against the latter’s resistance. How to overcome that resistance and make the will of the subject one with the will of the master is one of the crucial issues with which all political orders must come to terms. It is the issue of political stability. The political masters, actual and potential, and on all levels of social interaction from the family to the state, have sought to meet that issue by basing their power upon the spontaneous consent of the subject. If the subject can be made to duplicate spontaneously within himself the master’s will so that what the master wills the subject wills, too, not through inducement from without but through spontaneous consent from within, then the will of the master and the will of the subject are one, and the power of the master is founded not upon the master’s threats and promises but upon the subject’s love for the master.
So it is not by accident that the political philosophies which emphasize the stability of power relationships, such as those of monarchies and autocracies, make a point of appealing to the love of the subject for the ruler. The philosophy and ritual of absolute monarchy, in particular, are full of references to the love of the subject for the monarch as the foundation of the monarch’s power. That foundation has perhaps nowhere been more clearly revealed than in a letter which John Durie, Scotch Presbyterian and worker for Protestant unity, wrote in 1632 to the British Ambassador, Thomas Roe, explaining the decline of the power of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, then fighting for the Protestant cause in Germany:
The increase of his authority is the ground of his abode; and love is the ground of his authority; it must be through love; for it cannot be through power; for his power is not in his own subjects but in strangers; not in his money, but in theirs; not in their good will, but in mere necessity as things stand now betwixt him and them; therefore if the necessity be not so urgent as it is; or if any other means be shown by God (who is able to do as much by another man as by him) to avoid this necessity; the money and the power and the assistance which it yieldeth unto him will fall from him and so his authority is lost, and his abode will be no longer: for the love which was at first is gone. . . .
In recent times, the continuous references to “our beloved leader” in the literature and ritual of Nazism and Stalinism point to the same relationship between ruler and subject—in the case of Nazism in good measure as an actual fact, however corrupted by power and hate; in the case of Stalinism as something to be desired but unattainable.
Obviously, this transformation of the unilateral imposition of the power relationship into the mutuality of love is in the political sphere, at least in its modern secular form, an ideal rather than an attainable goal. Thus the great political masters, the Alexanders and Napoleons, while painfully aware of the love that is beyond their reach, seek to compensate for the love they must miss with an ever greater accumulation of power. From the subjection of ever more men to their will, they seem to expect the achievement of that communion which the lack of love withholds from them. Yet the acquisition of power only begets the desire for more; for the more men the master holds bound to his will, the more he is aware of his loneliness. His success in terms of power only serves to illuminate his failure in terms of love.
There is then in the great political masters a demoniac and frantic striving for ever more power—as there is in the misguided lovers, the Don Juans who mistake sex for love, a limitless and ever unsatiated compulsion toward more and more experiences of sex—which will be satisfied only when the last living man has been subjected to the master’s will. “‘More! More!’” in the words of William Blake, “is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than all cannot satisfy man.” Thus the heights of the master’s power signal the depths of his despair. For the world conqueror can subject all inhabitants of the earth to his will, but he cannot compel a single one to love him. The master of all men is also the loneliest of all men; for his loneliness, in spite of the totality of his power, proves that it cannot be cured by power. That fruitless search for love through power leads in the most passionate of the seekers of power from a despair, impotent in the fullness of power, to a hate, destructive of the objects of their successful power and frustrated love. Thus the Genghis Khans, Hitlers, and Stalins lash out with unreasoning fury at their subjects whom they can dominate but whose love they cannot command and, hence, whom they cannot afford to love.
Yet while the subjects may not love the master and the master may impose his will with bloody tyranny, there is even in the crudest of power relationships an irreducible element of love. What both master and subject seek is that union which remedies the awareness of insufficiency born of loneliness and which only love can give. But they have chosen the wrong track of power and are doomed to failure. Thus they—master and subject—must search forever and in vain for that other human being to whom they could say: I love you, to hear the reply: I love you, too.
The power relationship is, then, in the last analysis, a frustrated relationship of love. Those who must use and suffer power would rather be united in love. Master and subject are at the bottom of their souls lovers who have gone astray. The hostility of their relationship carries a trace of that frustrated love which is at the root of a type of hate. Napoleon, in his conversations with de Las Cases on Saint Helena, and Hitler, in his harangues to his generals, have bemoaned their fate that in the fullness of their power they could trust nobody and found nobody worthy of their love. Many of the powerful have throughout history sought the illusion of love in the promiscuous enjoyment of sex. Beneath that artificial community which power builds as a substitute for, and a spite to, love, there remains at least a glimmer of an aspiration which longs for that reunion only love can give. It manifests itself in the sometimes sudden emergence of charity, pity, and forgiveness in the relations between master and subject. Nowhere has that kinship of power and love been expressed with simpler profoundity than in the two words which Homer makes Achilles speak when he is about to slay Lykaos: “Die, friend.”
The loneliness of man is, then, impervious to both love and power. Power can only unite through the unilateral imposition of subjection, which leaves the master’s isolation intact. Behold that master whom the wills of millions obey and who cannot find a single soul with which to unite his own. Love can unite only in the fleeting moments when two souls and bodies merge in spontaneous mutuality. The lovers bear the dual burden of Adam and Eve and of Moses. They see the promised land in their longing’s imagination and enter it only to be expelled from it. Behold the lovers who find in their embrace the illusion of complete union and in fleeting moments even its reality, only to awaken alone in the embrace of another lover.
Thus in the end, his wings seared, his heart-blood spent, his projects come to nought—despairing of power and thirsting for, and forsaken by, love—man peoples the heavens with gods and mothers and virgins and saints who love him and whom he can love and to whose power he can subject himself spontaneously because their power is the power of love. Yet whatever he expects of the other world, he must leave this world as he entered it: alone.