How can you have power ?

  • Post last modified:June 1, 2024
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Do you remember when, as a child, you played the majestic king fighting barbarians, or a queen ruling over your siblings? Even back then, you sought power. No one is here on earth to suffer from domination. Everyone is willing to be free, i.e. to express themself, to act independently and to create. We may define power as this capacity and ability to influence people or exercise control over them — in a good or bad way.

Warning ! This article doesn’t provide any recipe or ready-to-use instructions to reach out power. We’re philosophying here, and philosophy means “love of wisdom” which, in principle, is the opposite of dogma. Hence we shall analyse findings from empirical studies and consequent theories.

Power through self-recognition

Self-recognition constitutes a “vital human need”, which roots in childhood as soon as the child can call himself by the first pronoun. From that moment, self-consciousness rises and immediately faces what Hegel calls “struggle for recognition”. Let’s illustrate this idea : Charles is five. For one year, he has known how to speak and is now using the “I” pronoun. Through his par-ents, Charles begins to realize his social position and his power of decision. When Charles feels he needs attention (such as when he is hungry), he cries, expecting one of his parents to come to him. This constant presence allows Charles to go out and discover the world fearlessly, as, when he returns home, he knows he will find love and protection. Charles’s need for recognition is fulfilled. When growing up, he will develop maturity and self-confidence that will help him to succeed in his career, and in his private life.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel highlights that only through recognition can a human being be constituted as a self. It implies that to define yourself, you need interpersonal relationships. For children, this need for a relationship with their parents is crucial to build cognitive schemes that will influence vision of themselves and building of their identity.

Power through social recognition

It is all about seeking eternity. You may have noticed that life is absurd — Camus may have helped you to acknowledge that. “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” At first, we strive to find meaning and recognition in nature (also called god), by believing that if we behave well, we will be rewarded in the future. Yet, nature (or god) often seems to respond with cold indifference. We therefore look out to find social recognition — although even society may respond with cold indifference.

The New York Times studied how 353 college athletes from various sports reacted after being injured. They found 51% exhibited symptoms of depression and 12% became moderately to severely depressed. When having lost what made them unique, i.e. impressive physical capacities, athletes feel they have lost their identity and thus may lose some confidence in themselves. The tragic fate of Kenny McKinley demonstrates how essential society is for humans. In September 2010, American footballer, wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had grown despondent following a knee injury; being a football player was his strongest form of identity. McKinley illustrates the dangerous case of a man who developed on “pillar of skill” so much that it ended up defining himself. He therefore lost himself following his knee injury.

Also notice how mental health mirrors physical health. The development of extraordinary skills is triggered by the will to be memorable, which stems from denial to accept that existence is contingent.

Power through hard skills

Aristotle’s “political animal” illustrates that each human being exercises power over his/her counterparts. These interlocking relations of power are framed by the hierarchy between the dominant one and the dominated one, which type of relation is not always as bad as it morally sounds.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche argues about two ways to exercise power over people: you can make people feel your power in a crude way – and a dangerous way, since they may seek to revenge themselves’; and you can make people indebted to you, which is usually a preferable way to feel your sense of power – and thereby you extend your power, since those you benefit see the advantage of rallying you. Let’s take Julius Caesar as an example. The military hero successfully led a Roman army for nine years in Gaul. In addition to his military strategy skills, Caesar took care of his soldiers, which led them to show deep loyalty towards Caesar: they knew he kept them alive, and they trusted him completely. Their blind faith in Caesar led them to betrayal of Roman law. When their general ordered his troops to cross the Rubicon, soldiers entered Rome. This story illustrates how strong power is when its legitimacy is based on hard skills. Caesar is what Thomas Caryle calls a “great man”- a highly influential and unique individual. His natural attributes-superior intellect, heroic courage, and extraordinary leadership abilities–allow Caesar to make history.

Yet, power is not only a question of quantity – stock capacities and concrete abilities; there exists an entire qualitative and subjective part of power.

Power through soft skills

The French language makes a distinction that English does not, between pouvoir and puissance. So far, we have argued that to exercise power over people, knowledge and experience are necessary tools. Yet, “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” as one croissant guy would say (“clothes don’t make the man”!). Take two professors of the same age, holding the same Phd, teaching in the same institution. All else equal, one may still have an impact on students that the other does not have by being more charismatic.

Here comes Baruch Spinoza. His concept of “Puissance” highlights the power of representation, which is subjective. What makes you more charismatic is your ability to invent yourself in a relationship. One may not have power, but rather creates his power by establishing a trustworthy and stable relationship. Being trusted results in being perennially listened to, which eventually leads to being powerful. This is a very narrow description of the power of charisma, which complex notion you can investigate further by reading Michel Foucault.

Power therefore also stems from “soft skills,” or your ability to create a quality relationships.

Summary of our practical, daily philosophy lesson

You already have more or less power but are always aspiring to get more. To answer your quest, it is necessary to define yourself, but for that matter, others such as family, friends, society play an essential role. Concurrently, having power is not only about how much you know and how much you can do ; quality of social relations is as much, if not more, essential in the matter of power. Founders of the Sciences Po blazon already knew this lesson. The readers Machiavelli allied power of the lion with the fox’s cunning. Follow our mascots and you will grow power.

This lesson being learnt, now please, forget it. Forget it to be authentic. Because as one guy said in Star Trek : “Great men do not seek power. They have power thrust upon them.”