(Note: This article was taken from the book Foundations, by R.G. Martin
Hans Morgenthau was an influential political scientist in the middle part of the 20th century. It was his belief that you could understand much of human behavior as the struggle for power. It was instinctual for men and women to want as much power as they could have.
But what is it?
By power, Morgenthau meant the ability to control or influence life around a person or a group. He argued that the politics of a family, a coffee klatch, and international conflict were all basically the same: a struggle for power.
Power can take many different forms. Here are some examples of some of these different forms: a corporate executive has power over his employees, a mother has power over her children, a teacher has power over his students, and a policeman has power over citizens.
Having different degrees of power also has an effect on one’s personality and one’s biology. A person in power can feel more energetic, more important, more alive, and even more sexual.
We can see this desire for power with political leaders in non-democratic countries. Often they would rather die (and kill) than give up their political power.
A main manifestation of power is the everyday desire to be effective, that is, to impact everyday history. We see that often young people want to change the world during their lifetimes. In fact, Barack Obama tapped into this desire in 2008 to motivate his young supporters. He told them if they voted for him, “We can change the world.” As an antithesis to youthful Obama supporters, many youth in some Muslim countries are joining ISIS because they, too, want to “change the world.”
One of the main components of power is the virtue of competence, that is the ability to effectively interact with one’s environment, the ability to problem solve, and the ability to complete complex projects.
Competence can be directly correlated with mental health. The more competent a person is, the more she is able to deal with her psychosocial situation and to achieve her goals.
Incompetence, on the other hand, can lead one to feel helpless with her psychosocial situation; feel inferior; and act out in irresponsible and dysfunctional ways.
Making a difference
Many people want to make a difference with their lives. And the more “power” one has, whether it is political power, social power, or economic power, the more one is able to influence life around him. Power often has a negative connotation, but it seems that most people want some level of power in their lives, and for many people, the more power they have the better. One political writer said that virtually every U.S. senator would like to be President.
Technology and power
One continuous theme in all of world history is the correlation between weapons and domination (power) over others. Tribes and nations with a higher level of weapons have declared war on those tribes and nations with a lower level of technological development. We can even see how the development of weapons—for example, the bow and arrow and the gun—have aided Homo sapiens to dominate all the other species.
The German development of higher technology was one reason for this small nation to almost conquer the whole Western world in World War II, and the development of the atomic bomb ended the war. Now, numerous smaller countries have a nuclear bomb and many more countries want to develop the bomb. It doesn’t take much thought to see where this arms race will lead us.
Then, in the spirit of equality, current history has given almost every nation the ability to execute cyber warfare against its enemies. As computers get more powerful and the economies of countries get more dependent on their software programs, these countries becomes more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Another example of the strategy of the weak is the modern suicide bomber. Once a political group can convince fighters to commit suicide while exploding a bomb, this group has a lethal weapon that is hard to defend against. Big armies and nuclear weapons are useless. They are like muscle-bound men who are unable to effectively fistfight.
We see again how we are all living on thin ice.
Sex and power
The striving for power in people over age 30 may be even more significant than the striving for sex and other drives. Even Freud—who believed that the sexual drive was the primary drive in the human personality—was probably driven more by the desire to be the head of an influential psychoanalytic society (power), to be famous (superior), and to help thousands of people (meaning) than he was in having a good sexual relationship (sex).
The battle of the sexes
In many marriages, this power struggle is apparent. Often, each partner wants the marriage and their lifestyles to move in opposite and contradictory directions. And the battle for power is on! Each partner often has fiery loyalty to their own family traditions and their own visions of what their lives should be like, including which existential projects they want to complete in their lives.
Morgenthau’s thesis and Adler’s thesis are similar. Both see people struggling to climb the mountain of superiority. Hans Morgenthau sees his path to superiority as having more power and Alfred Adler sees various other paths—for example, economic or genetic superiority—all leading to the top of the mountain of superiority. But it may be the same phenomenal mountain.
Morgenthau’s core idea may be similar to Einstein’s equation of E=mc2, which shows that matter and energy are just different forms of the same physical phenomenon. Many of the various forms of human conflict may be, underneath, the same phenomenon: the struggle for power. In a similar way, we can speculate that perhaps Freud’s libido, Morgenthau’s struggle for power, and Adler’s struggle for superiority may be, underneath, the same phenomenon: the selfish gene at work.