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  • T. W. Emory

Neither poverty nor riches?

If given a choice between poverty or riches, I’ve got to think that most people would choose riches hands down—a decision that some would surely call a no-brainer. And yet, in ancient Semitic wisdom literature, we find a biblical proverb that presents what seems a curious request made to God: “give me neither poverty nor riches.” While good and bad people can certainly be found in the ranks of both rich and poor, reflections on this appeal have led some to conclude that the supplicant (a man named Agur) was speaking to the possible skewing effects on one’s attitude, life, and character, posed by either economic extreme. Hence, the appeal he made.

Of the two extremes, perhaps the detriments of poverty can be most easily imagined. Still, the overnight acquisition of great wealth and its negative impact on the acquirer seems to be borne out by what has reportedly happened to some who have won a great deal of money in a lottery. As another axiom would have it: “Sudden wealth doesn’t so much change you, as it unmasks you.”

Again, the matter of an extreme change in one’s economic life seems to be the issue. However, given what some notables have observed, it would appear that what can happen with the acquiring of great wealth, can also be true when it comes to the acquisition of great authority or power over others. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato observed: “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” Closer to our time, Abraham Lincoln, who knew the stresses and strains of having power, stated: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And too, who hasn’t heard or read the following words of the English historian, politician, and writer, Lord Acton: “I cannot accept, your canon that we are to judge pope and king unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they do no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power… Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

And when chronicling the power shifts brought about by the French Revolution, and with Robespierre in mind in particular, it is interesting that historian Will Durant wrote: “Power dements even more than it corrupts, lowering the guard of foresight and raising the haste of action.”

While it surely goes without saying that no one in his right mind would want too much of a bad thing, popular wisdom has it that a person can actually get too much of even a good thing, as noted above—if, that is, great wealth and great power are genuinely good things.

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