This is an aphorism that is well known in modern America from the Spiderman comics and films. These media are the carriers of our modern mythology- shared stories that convey our shared concept of how the universe works. The story has the young nerd getting powers by a freak accident with which he decides to make some money, but when he chooses not to help catch a criminal, his uncle is killed, and he realizes that he could have prevented it, and thus becomes a crime fighter.
The concept, however. is much older. In an article on Stan Lee, I found the phrase “with great power goes great responsibility” was spoken by J. Hector Fezandie in an 1894 graduation address at The Stevens Institute of Technology, and a member of Parliament implied that it was already a cliché in 1817. Of course it was. It’s universal.
In the modern world, we are big on the idea that people should EARN their power, and in the comics writers and publishers have played with reducing or taking away the powers of Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes, along with having some heroes like Green Arrow and Batman having no special powers, but simply being VERY good, very strong, coordinated, and smart. But the ones with powers do get the back- because they are worthy. Once they have proven that they will use them correctly, they should have them.
In the “old days” there were legends and hero-tales, where heroes destroyed (or tricked) the evil beings and saved the people or princess or whoever needed saving. The thing is that the hero was the one who slew the dragon. We don’t tell stories or sing songs about the dozen other knights who went out there and died before Saint George or Clever Jack managed to win. We tell stories about the winners.
We know that there are monsters, we need to know that the monsters can be beaten.
We want our heroes to have power. It used to be that they had it (like Saint George or Hercules) because they were favored by God/the Gods. Now we prefer that the special abilities are randomly distributed, but we still expect those who have them to use them for good. We need to know that even if you have great power, you can still make the choice to use it for the benefit of all. Another aphorism is that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Stamford Prison experiment shows that it’s true that people often find that lack of consequences (and perhaps expectations) can lead to behavior that we don’t want in those with power over others. If you don’t choose to use them for good, you are like Peter Parker in the beginning, and the universe will show you that it doesn’t give these abilities out for free. You have to decide whether to use them for yourself or for the good of all.
In theory, in the United States the people govern themselves, because they give the power to make and enforce laws to individuals who they can replace at will, and have frequent, periodic opportunities to do so. The system fails when those in power get to rig the system so they don’t get voted out, and when they are responsive not to those who elected them, but to those who paid to enable them to get elected.
I have always held that these who are willing to put the amount of work in probably started out with the goal of helping people, righting wrongs that they had seen, fixing problems that needed fixing, and that the problems were often that they had simply not seen other problems and how their solutions might cause problems for other groups. The question of abortion leaps to mind. Both sides are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause, so they work hard to do what they see as right. However I am now convinced that some of those in politics are there for getting a personal advantage. It’s not impossible that they may feel that pursuing their agenda justifies their actions, but I think when people have the huge power that a large country like ours gives those in the government, we need them to be heroes. We need them to take responsibility for EVERYONE, not just their tribe, their group, their club, their gender, their class, their race, or those who agree with them. They don’t have the right to serve themselves and their friends once they have been handed the power we give them.
We expect that those who have power, whether it’s political or the “bully pulpit” of fame, (or media, or economic advantage) to look at the broad picture and use that power for the greater good. It’s difficult for people to give up the perks of their privileged lifestyle to do good- charity is easy when you give from the excess you won’t miss. Suffering is not intrinsically noble, but being willing to give up something you miss to make sure that others don’t suffer does give your sacrifice value. To be willing for others to suffer so that you can have more than you need, that is wrong. We-the-people must take whatever power we have left to require our “public servants” to use the power that comes from us for the good of all, not just their cohort.