101 Quotations on the Use and Abuse of Power


February 26, 2017 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

A topic that’s been much on my mind this month. Whose words resonate most for you?


Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power. Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry

Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry, Courtesy Do Not Annoy the Writer.


I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me. George Orwell, 1984.


Everybody has to have their little tooth of power. Everybody wants to be able to bite. Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures.


The people who must never have power are the humorless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Selected Essays.


Power is the ability to get things done, to mobilize resources, to get and use whatever it is that a person needs for the goals he or she is attempting to meet. In this way, a monopoly on power means that only very few have this capacity, and they prevent the majority of others from being able to act effectively. Thus, the total amount of power — and total system effectiveness — is restricted, even though some people seem to have a great deal of it. However, when more people are empowered — that is, allowed to have control over the conditions that make their actions possible — then more is accomplished, more gets done. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation.


I want to disabuse people of the idea that knowledge is power. Knowing how to get to Detroit is not the same thing as having the bus fare. Andrew Vachss


I shall be an autocrat: that’s my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that’s his. Catherine the Great, attributed (1762)


To the young man a kind of worship of some power outside himself is essential. One has strength and enthusiasm and wants gods to worship. Sherwood Anderson, A Story Teller’s Story.


You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire. Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.


Courtesy OkayAfrica.


See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.


All respect for the office of the presidency aside, I assumed that the obvious and unadulterated decline of freedom and constitutional sovereignty, not to mention the efforts to curb the power of judicial review, spoke for itself. Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Consider the black widow spider. It’s a timid little beastie, useful and, for my taste, the prettiest of the arachnids, with its shiny, patent-leather finish and its red hourglass trademark. But the poor thing has the fatal misfortune of possessing enormously too much power for its size. So everybody kills it on sight. Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.


Poise is power. Florence Scovel Shinn


The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. Michel Foucault


You have gathered the many powers, / You have clasped them now / Like necklaces unto your breast. Enheduanna , The Hymn to Inanna (c. 2350 BCE), in Jane Hirschfield, ed., Women in Praise of the Sacred.


But by this time I was acutely conscious of the gap between law and justice. I knew that the letter of the law was not as important as who held the power in any real-life situation. Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.


Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be. Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland.


The fairy tale belongs to the poor…I know of no fairy tale which upholds the tyrant, or takes the part of the strong against the weak. A fascist fairy tale is an absurdity. Erik Christian Haugaard


The instruments of power — arms, gold, machines, magical or technical secrets — always exist independently of him who disposes of them, and can be taken up by others. Consequently all power is unstable. Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty.


I recreate myself; that is my only power. Dejan Stojanovic

By Goran Mikic - Private collection., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11716524

By Goran Mikic – Private collection., CC BY 3.0,


For obviously the advantage for most writers is that no one sees them. The writer is invisible, which confers power. Joyce Carol Oates


When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do. Ru Paul


It’s not the first time I’ve noticed how much more power words have than ideas, particularly in France. George Sand, Indiana.


It is true that words have power, and one of the things they are able to do is get out of someone’s mouth before the speaker has the chance to stop them. Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters.


Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves. Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly.


Power is okay, and stupidity is usually harmless. Power and stupidity together are dangerous. Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind.


The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places.


Someone that you have deprived of everything is no longer in your power. He is once again entirely free. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.

In the movies there is always one with red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all the away. He power is her own. She will not give it away.

I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.

Sandra Cisneros,The House on Mango Street.


The real power in America is held by a fast-emerging new Oligarchy of pimps and preachers who see no need for Democracy or fairness or even trees, except maybe the ones in their own yards, and they don’t mind admitting it. They worship money and power and death. Their ideal solution to all the nation’s problems would be another 100 Year War. ― Hunter S. Thompson


One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless. Deconstruct that disempowerment. Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth. Winona LaDuke


Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move. Ossie Davis


What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table.


I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine. Emily Dickinson


Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. Philip K. Dick


Information, long of reach, devastating, and as a side benefit, a substance with no serious legal repercussions, was superior to any other form of power. ― Louise Erdrich, LaRose.


My son, your ineptitude is so vast, your incompetence so profound, that I am certain you are inhabited by greater power than I have ever known. Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn.


Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. Margaret Thatcher


We all know that there are language forms that are considered impolite and out of order, no matter what truths these languages might be carrying. If you talk with a harsh, urbanized accent and you use too many profanities, that will often get you barred from many arenas, no matter what you’re trying to say. On the other hand, polite, formal language is allowed almost anywhere even when all it is communicating is hatred and violence. Power always privileges its own discourse while marginalizing those who would challenge it or that are the victims of its power. Junot Díaz


The thought system which dominates our culture is laced with selfish values, and relinquishing those values is a lot easier said than done. The journey to a pure heart can be highly disorienting. For years, we may have worked for power, money or prestige. Now all of a sudden we’ve learned that these are just the values of a dying world. Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love.


[W] hen a man gives his order to produce a definite result and stands by that order it seems to have the effect of giving him what might be termed a second sight which enables him to see right through ordinary problems. What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it. Alexander Graham Bell


Power can be seen as power with rather than power over, and it can be used for competence and co-operation, rather than dominance and control. Anne Llewellyn Barstow


Character is power. Booker T. Washington


Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. Amelia Earhart, letter to her sister (1937), in Jean L. Backus, Letters From Amelia: 1901-1937.


Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate … the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead.


Differences of power are always manifested in asymmetrical access. The President of the United States has access to almost everybody for almost anything he might want of them, and almost nobody has access to him. The super-rich have access to almost everybody; almost nobody has access to them. … The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access. Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.


Men of power have not time to read, yet men who do not read are not fit for power. Michael Foot


The one who decides who goes ahead has the upper hand, regardless of who gets to go. This is why many women do not feel empowered by such privileges as having doors held open for them. The advantage of going first through the door is less salient to them than the disadvantage of being granted the right to walk through a door by someone who is framed, by his magnanimous gesture, as the arbiter of the right-of-way. Deborah Tannen


In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don’t mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power. While in the parlors of indignation the right-thinking citizen brings his heart to a boil. Saul Bellow, Herzog.


When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is. Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance.


Our institutions are too big; they represent not the best but the worst characteristics of human beings. By submitting to huge hierarchies of power, we gain freedom from personal responsibility for what we do and are forced to do – the seduction of it – but we lose the dignity of being real men and women. Power corrupts; attracts the worst and corrupts the best. … Refuse to participate in evil; insist on taking part in what is healthy, generous, and responsible. Stand up, speak out, and when necessary fight back. Get down off the fence and lend a hand, grab a-hold, be a citizen – not a subject. Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast.


All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Crises of the Republic.


The worship of power is an old religion. George Santayana


There’s power to: and everyone should have that, but everyone doesn’t. Power to play Bach, or tennis, or boccie if you like. And there’s power over; and no one should have that, but people do. Marilyn French, The Bleeding Heart.


I find comfort in the fact that the longer I’m in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes, that striving for power and rank and fame seems to betray a poverty of ambition, and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience. ― Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.


Power, like fear, had a taste. But power tasted better. Lois Wyse, Far From Innocence.


So, once again, back to the question – just what IS power? Is it perhaps no more than a deadly mutation of ambition, one that may or may not translate into social activity? Any fool, any moron, any psychopath can aspire to the seizure and exercise of power, and of course the more psychopathic, the more efficient: Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Sergeant Doe and the latest in the line of the unconscionably driven, our own lately departed General Sanni Abacha – all have proved that power, as long as you are sufficiently ruthless, amoral and manipulative, is within the grasp of even the mentally deficient. Wole Soyinka, Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World.


Power is a companion it is not easy to part with, when it goes, the zest of life goes with it. With dry eyes and clenched fist, one stares after it, jealous of the next one it will single out. Marie of Romania, 1926


The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. White America is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, white people would cease to exist for want of reasons. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is also the author of The Beautiful Struggle.</

Nina Subin | Random House. Courtesy Newsweek.


More and more I come to loathe any dominion of one over another; any leadership, any imposition of the will. Virginia Woolf


I had all kinds of answers ready for the commissions that called me in and asked me what had made me become a Communist, but what had attracted me to the movement more than anything, dazzled me, was the feeling (real or apparent) of standing near the wheel of history. For in those days we actually did decide the fate of men and events, especially at the universities; in those early years there were very few Communists on the faculty, and the Communists in the student body ran the universities almost single-handed, making decisions on academic staffing, teaching reform, and the curriculum. The intoxication we experienced is commonly known as the intoxication of power, but (with a bit of good will) I could choose less severe words: we were bewitched by history; we were drunk with the thought of jumping on its back and feeling it beneath us; admittedly, in most cases the result was an ugly lust for power, but (as all human affairs are ambiguous) there was still (and especially, perhaps, in us, the young), an altogether idealistic illusion that we were inaugurating a human era in which man (all men) would be neither outside history, nor under the heel of history, but would create and direct it. Milan Kundera, The Joke.


We certainly do not want to abolish power, that would be abolishing life itself, but we need a new orientation toward it. Mary Parker Follett, Creative Experience.


The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power–and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time


When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful. Malala Yousafzai


It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god. Anthony Trollope, The Warden


Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness. Anne Frank


Adversity has its compensations, that in falling, and in failing, we rise. It is as if there is a hand behind us that sets to right all imbalances. Why do you think the saints seldom had the temporal power that we mistakenly identify with the fruits of justice? Do you think they needed it, or cared? Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale.


Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes. Eleanor Roosevelt


For who was in thrall to whom, really? And could it ever be known? Each agent working in collusion and antagonism – like the cold and the sun alike creating a deadly spear of ice… Who is in thrall to whom? And while you wait to learn, the deadly icicle, formed by all opposing forces, falls and drives its cold nail into penetrable flesh. Gregory Maguire, Wicked.


Military dictatorship is born from the power of the gun, and so it undermines the concept of the rule of law and gives birth to a culture of might, a culture of weapons, violence and intolerance. Benazir Bhutto

Courtesy Dawn.com

Courtesy Dawn.com


Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely Lord Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg.


What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power, and the power to abuse. Isabel Allende


The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself. Noam Chomsky


This House cannot function without an open, accountable, and independent ethics process; and the molestation of that process by the majority is an abuse of power that cannot stand. Louise Slaughter


Power makes you lazy. Insofar as our earlier theoretical discussion of structural violence revealed anything, it was this: that while those in situations of power and privilege often feel it as a terrible burden of responsibility, in most ways, most of the time, power is all about what you don’t have to worry about, don’t have to know about, and don’t have to do. David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.


The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to help the world; I am like a snowball – the further I am rolled the more I gain. Susan B. Anthony


There are few uglier traits of human nature than this tendency—which I now witnessed in men no worse than their neighbours—to grow cruel, merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm. Nathaniel Hawthorne


Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told … Carolyn Heilbrun


In the end I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like. Just as in corrupt, totalitarian regimes, those who exercise power over others can do anything. Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile


I think the associations people have with kindness are often things like meekness and sweetness and maybe sickly sweetness; whereas I do think of kindness as a force, as a power. Sharon Salzberg


Man can attempt to become one with the world by submission to a person, to a group, to an institution, to God. In this way, he transcends the separateness of his individual existence by becoming part of somebody or something bigger than himself, and experiences his identity in connection with the power to which he has submitted. Erich Fromm, The Sane Society


Courage to be is the key to revelatory power of the feminist revolution. Mary Daly


And so it is, that both the Devil and the angelic Spirit present us with objects of desire to awaken our power of choice. Rumi


The power to question is the basis of all human progress. Indira Gandhi


Knowledge is power, if you know it about the right person. Ethel Watts Mumford


Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself. Elie Wiesel


There is no power on earth more formidable than the truth. Margaret Lee Runbeck


The right? Ah, what does it help to be in the right if you don’t have any power? Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People.


The power of visibility can never be underestimated. Margaret Cho

(Photo by Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images)

Photo by Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images, Courtesy Variety.


The strong take from the weak. That’s what power is for. Creepox the insectoid – Power Rangers


I think after Sandy Hook, when Obama went out, and he talked a lot about gun control and met with the parents, there was a sense that something was going to happen. But then, I guess, the power of special interests was greater than public sentiment. Doris Kearns Goodwin


You can’t write novels without a touch of paranoia. I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship, concerned about what the powerful people are up to. Kurt Vonnegut


Unity is power; without unity women cannot fight for their rights anywhere. Nawal El Saadawi


The world is run largely by urban, sedentary males. The symbol of power is the chair. Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man.


When we are angry or depressed in our creativity, we have misplaced our power. We have allowed someone else to determine our worth, and then we are angry at being undervalued. Julia Margaret Cameron


Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country. Franklin D. Roosevelt


Power is just using energy in a wise way to get things done. Power has been misinterpreted to mean getting my way on the backs of other people. Getting whatever I want, forgetting that there are other beings and species and energies involved. Elizabeth Lesser


Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Power is a debt to the people Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Ethel Churchill (or The Two Brides).


Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. Abraham Lincoln

Courtesy Salon.

Courtesy Salon.

14 thoughts on “101 Quotations on the Use and Abuse of Power

  1. So very timely, Paula! Your posts are among the most thoughtful in a crowded Internet of Ideas, Web of Words. Thank you. I’ll be sharing many of these with others.


  2. Charli Mills says:

    Cliche to say this post is powerful, buy it is. The power is in the arrangement of the words. One quote elicits a response, the next as to it or takes us to another response. Timely, in regards to current power struggles.


  3. Judi Lynn says:

    Your writing is always thoughtful and thought provoking. These quotes are no different. The last, #101, really struck me. It’s interesting to see how people react when given even a little bit of power. I’d hate to be powerless, but it’s a lot of responsibility to wield power, and I’m not fond of that either.


  4. Terry Tyler says:

    What a terrific collection, and so well put together. I like how you’ve thought about different types of power, too :)


  5. Annecdotist says:

    Wow, 101 quotes – a labour of love I’m sure.


    • Sortof. In truth it was probably a labor of procrastination. Power was the theme of our story slam last month, and I got lost in quotations when brainstorming. The story itself wasn’t one that i felt appropriate for online sharing, but at least I had these. ;-)


  6. […] Source: 101 Quotations on the Use and Abuse of Power […]


  7. Kara Post-Kennedy says:

    I could make 101 comments in response to this, but I will limit myself to mentioning these things: I am a (not-so-secret) Scovall Schinn aficionado and wondered, reading these quotes, if Graham Bell might have been too (Google shed no light). Also: Mark Helprin’s “A Winter’s Tale” is the most gorgeous, quasi-inspiring novel I have ever read that goes absolutely nowhere. I can remember thinking (as I read)–“This book will change my life!”–and then getting to the end and admitting “Probably not”.


  8. elainemansfield says:

    This grabbed by attention: “Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told.” Carolyn Heilbrun I notice how much power I have over Vic’s legacy or story as I write portraits of him, his childhood, his mother, his work through my eyes. The power of the “Last One Standing.”.

    “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln Interesting in light of #45 who seems unable to tolerate adversity but shows his true character from a position of power. We’re all living his Shakespearean tragedy.

    I haven’t read every quote, but I will. Thank you for compiling this great list, Paula.


  9. Patricia Enger says:

    Thank you, Paula.


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