Notes From Berle's Book on Power
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

** Berle, Adolf A. (1969). Power. New York: Harcourt Brace & World:

This is an outstanding book, in my opinion, and the best examination of power I have found. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print. Although I encourage you to find and read the entire book, perhaps the following notes from my reading may be useful.

Berle had a long and distinguished public career, beginning when he was a member of the American delegation to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and continuing with service in the administrations of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. He also was a Professor of Law at Columbia University, Chairman of the Board of The Twentieth Century Fund, and wrote many other books and papers.

The book's 603 pages are divided into seven sections. The following notes deal with the three sections I think are most relevant to typical organizations: (a) the two introductory chapters, (b) "Book One - The Laws of Power," and (c) "Book Six - The Decline of Power." The other four sections in the book are more specialized, but also have much good thinking (2- Economic Power, 3- Political Power in the U.S., 4- Judicial Political Power: The Supreme Court of the U.S., and 5- International Power).


I experience this book as an extremely valuable and insightful exposition of many aspects of power, rather than as advocating a particular (possibly oppressive) orientation toward the use of power. The value of the book to me has increased as I have spent additional time with it and with Berle's ideas. I'm impressed with his intellect, insights, and ability to write with clarity and elegance.

Some of the parts I found particularly useful were:


Prologue in Pergamum, just inland from the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (p.3ff): * Altar of Zeus set up c. 226 B.C., rededicated in 190 B.C. for c. the following half-century, Pergamum was perhaps the most brilliant kingdom in the Mediterranean world. Second only to that of Alexandria, its library was the greatest. Its sculpture rivaled that of Athens in the age of Pericles. Its temples reflected its worship of power.

* (p.7) Near Zeus's altar on the Pergamum acropolis lie ruins of the temple of Pallas Athena; she signified wisdom and the results of thought; she could reason, a capacity not given to Zeus. He lay with Metis. Earth and Heaven warned him against this: Metis was, they said wiser than the gods. Her offspring could challenge him and he had best be on his guard. ...So Zeus swallowed Metis... but thought could not be destroyed. Palas Athena, Metis' daughter, exploded, fully armed, from the head of Zeus; and thereafter, in an odd love-hate relations she became his favorite daughter.
The allegory dramatically expresses one of the laws of power. Truth and reason can challenge power. It is, apparently, impossible to kill or constrain thought and reason. It is, of course, possible to kill the thinker - but his thought remains; it cannot be wiped out. ...Nor can power, if it is to survive, do without thought, wisdom, reason, and knowledge. So it must live with their challenge while using their product.

(p.8) The myth outlines the endless paradox of contest between power and its companion idea system; the endless love-hate between king and priest. The alliance is at once essential and uneasy. Ideas and knowledge threaten the power holder; the priest continually threatens the king. The power holder steadily fears, often contests with, the thinker; frequently he tries to destroy him. On his side, the thinker plots against the power holder; the priest seeks to make himself king. Victory of either over the other is self-destructive. The two forces must coexist. Each is essential to the other; neither can exercise both functions.

(p.10) (gazing again across the Aegean Sea) we discover a third ever-present element in the exercise of power. Its divinity is Apollo, god of the lyre, father of the Muses, symbol of artistic force.

Historically, power has always sought the assistance of the arts. Why, it is difficult to tell. ...(11) we find power associated invariably with two external forces: a system of ideas and, more hesitantly, a system of art. One of the fascinations of the study of power lies in the fact that artists and thinkers, will they, nill they, never fully accept power. Yet they are never fulfilled except under conditions only power can create.

(11) Power, wielded by its holders, was a developed fact when known history begins. (13) History ...records how uneasy the coexistence is between the power system and the idea system. ...(14) But a companion constant in history is the fact that where the priest takes over power, or, alternatively, where the king takes over the religion, the system explodes or decays. ...(14) Well, power can decree a dogma, and perhaps men can be made to swallow it, but power cannot make acquired characteristics hereditary, and empiric evidence presently will establish that fact. Then the knowledge and the conclusion drawn from it will cease to be valid. Power systems attempting to rely on invalid knowledge are bound to get into trouble. ...(15) Conversely, when the priest becomes power holder, he fares little better. Power invariably involves dealing with realities. The priest-become-king cannot impose the absolutes of his religion on the affairs of the day. He must adjust to the fact that soldiers can go only so far; that an economic system can support only so many people; that men, armies, and the forces of production do not come into existence merely because he asks the gods to provide them. ...(15) The king cannot for long be high priest; the religious leader cannot for long be ruler. The two callings are incompatible. If there are exceptions to this rule, I have not encountered them.

(17) Power and love are the two oldest known phenomena of human emotions. Neither wholly yields to rational discussion; poets have as good insights as philosophers. ...The literature of power is surprisingly scant. Perhaps it is natural that power comes off second best. Love is intensely personal and might be expected to interest everyone. Power, though also personal, is most dramatic when intensely political; its political aspects overshadow the personal dramas it causes.

(18) Current American thinking has regarded power as a dirty subject, and desire for its possession a naughty emotion... In point of fact, an element of power is essential to every human development above the level of Robinson Crusoe on his island. But power, wherever found and at whatever level, is capable of abuse.

(19) In the U.S., we have made a discovery. We are coming to understand, slowly, that property and power are essentially the same substance - although in different phases of distribution. ...Property changes its form and aggregates its power elements as great collectives... increasingly carry on production...

(21) Power... is both subjective - an aspect of human experience - and objective - a fact in society. Like love, it can be intensely personal. Or it can be vastly and diffusively inclusive. It is also a universal human experience. Few individuals have not had and exercised some of it in their lives... (25) I propose ...that what happened yesterday ... will continue to happen five thousand years hence (that we can learn from and project from the past to the future)

(19) When the greatest single study of power on record - Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince - was written, the subject seemed comparatively understandable... A modern Machiavelli has to follow power endlessly divided, subdivided, maintained, and applied through thousands of institution The subject has thus become more complex. Yet it is the same story.

(28ff) Machiavelli, a frustrated government servant, exiled at the age of 44, living penuriously outside Florence from the year 1513, where he wrote The Prince, a detached treatise on the method by which dictatorial power was got or held, which he hoped would get him a new job in the Florentine government, then dominated by his enemy Lorenzo de 'Medici.

What Machiavelli did have was a powerful sense of the necessity of order. ...But a major consideration was left out. Without a system of law or morals, there is no way by which institutions can be built or power transmitted.

(30) In justice to Machiavelli, he was not attempting a theory of power; he was writing a manual of renaissance politics. ...There is a danger of taking Machiavelli more seriously than he intended. His doctrine outlined rules of action for power holders who were not princes but businessmen.

(31) It is quite another proposition to say that power is inherently evil, dangerous, or useless. Actually, power is an essential ingredient at every level of human organization. ...Power, ... is governed by the same laws in any situation, great or small, and wherever found. (32) The cases of Stalin and Ford can be duplicated ...Absolute power holders... do become mad and have been destroyed with wearing frequency. ...Unlike Nietzsche, we shall find that power is rarely, if ever, a force by itself. Nietzsche, like the Marquis de Sade, who anticipated some of his doctrines, ended in a madhouse - the only possible result of a religion of power for its own sake. The interplay between power and its institutions and the idea system and its impact - the continuing duel between Zeus and Metis (Thought) and, after her, Palas Athena (Intellect) - is constant.


The overall organization of this section is around "five natural laws of power, which he offers as testable" (37):

  1. Power invariably fills any vacuum in human organization. As between chaos and power, the latter always prevails.
  2. Power is invariably personal. There is no such thing as "class power," "elite power," or "group power," though classes, elites, and groups may assist processes of organization by which power is lodged in individuals.
  3. Power is invariably based on a system of ideas or philosophy. Absent such a system or philosophy, the institutions essential to power cease to be reliable, power ceases to be effective, and the power holder is eventually displaced.
  4. Power is exercised through, and depends on, institutions. By their existence, they limit, come to control, and eventually confer or withdraw power.
  5. Power is invariably confronted with, and acts in the presence of, a field of responsibility. The two constantly interact, in hostility or cooperation, in conflict or through some form of dialogue, organized or unorganized, made part of, or perhaps intruding into, the institutions on which power depends.

Law I. Power invariably fills any vacuum in human organization (between chaos and power, the latter always prevails):

  1. Two reasons: need for order & instinct for power (39-40)
  2. Order against chaos
    * Examples: Yugoslavia after WW2, Dominican Republic & Johnson troops in 1965 (43), NYC blackout in 1965 (44), death of business head (45), Mass. Gov. Coolidge calling out militia to restore order on Boston after police strike in 1919 led to VP and succession on death of Harding (49)
    * When normal processes of distribution of power break down, someone steps in, gives directions, and takes charge until the police or other established authority arrives to take over. The individual may do so because he is that kind of person (has instinct for power) or feels an obligation to the people suffering from danger and confusion. ...production of chaos is a standard method used by designing politicians as an avenue toward their assumption of power (48-49)
  3. The Birth of Power (50)
    * Power is brought into existence by coalescence of three elements: men, a philosophy, and a group capable of organization into institutions (however rudimentary)
    * e.g., Christ, Lawrence of Arabia helping formation of government of Syria near close of WW1, change of governments (to 54)
    * Institutional processes place individuals "in power" but this does not mean they really have it, but, rather, that they have a license to take it. They must establish their personal grip and control over the institutions they head.
  4. The "Power Form" (55)
    * The gestalt or image of power must exist in the minds of men affected by it at the time.
    * Can sense it even if poorly understood
    * Culture

Law II. Power Is Invariably Personal (59)

  1. The power instinct
    * Fundamental concept (Bertrand Russell), expresses itself in different forms, continually passes from one form to another
    * One definition of power: The capacity or ability of an individual or a group of individuals to determine the behavior of other individuals or groups in accordance with his own wishes (60)
    * Power in the abstract does not exist. As abstraction, it is a potential - not a social - fact. It becomes fact only when a person following his inborn instinct takes and uses it. This is why power is invariably individual. (60)
    * Capacity to make others do as you wish knows only two limitations: either you can not or you consciously decide that you will not.
  2. Power as a Personal Attribute (62)
    * No group in and of itself wields power or can use it - it needs organization by which power is assigned, distributed, and used. (63)
    * Elites and classes (and groups) may have influence, but this is different (64)
  3. The Effects of Power on Personality (65)
    * Few men know themselves well; still fewer express what little they do know - power holders perhaps least of all. (65)
    * For one thing, power holding is itself an emotional experience. The greater the power, the greater the impact.
    * Effects can be major, are unpredictable, are of great interest (65) and are especially unpredictable re effects on emotions and minds of individuals affected (67)
    * Men in power can cause events to happen at short range - but long-range results may be surprising (Tolstoy) (66)
    * Failure to realize this is to live in a world of illusion (66), FDR re trying to avoid WW2: once involved, we start on a course "whose end results none of us can foresee." (66)
    * The power to cause an event has scant relation to capacity to control the feelings and opinions of men about the thing done, or ensure their adhesion to a larger plan... The instinct for power consequently is likely to have more reach than grasp (67)
  4. The Fallacy of "Class Power" (67)
    * Classes exist - with common factor of experience, common interest, and that each member of the group knows consciously or vaguely that his interests are the same as those of the other members of the group (68)
    * The presence of all these elements is frequently assumed to exist when it does not. (68)
    * Attraction of the notion of "class power" - is convenient to attribute responsibility for unpleasant realities to a mysterious "they" (69)
    * Simple test (69): ask self whether I am or ever have been part of "they" - individual is always out of it; the "they" never becomes a "we"
    * Classes are important (not because they have power) because they are potential fields of organization. Therefore, classes do exert influence. (72)
  5. The End of Power (73)
    * The power of any man or men invariably ends in time.
    * Death aside, men leave power in three ways: (a) voluntarily resign or abdicate (b) term of office expires, or (c) they are expelled by means not contemplated in the institutional structure (73)
    * Voluntary abandonment of power creating chaos is properly considered a major offense... achievement of power sets up a relationship between the power holder and those affected. That relationship cannot be ignored, humanly or politically. (76)
    * Power holders are expected to defend their power and to defend the institutions that vested power in them. They are allowed to retire if the institution vesting power in them requires it. When expelled... (77)
    * Taking power by winning damages the institution by which power was vested - the new power holder has less capacity to govern, is "illegitimate" (78) - at least at first
  6. The "Post-Power Syndrome" (80)
    Most lose power before death and has effects, especially two emotions: (a) gnawing bitterness that their hour of greatness is ended + desire somehow to get back, and (b) feeling of hostility to their successors in power and corresponding groups. (81) e.g., of Machiavelli, T. Roosevelt

Law III. Power is Invariably Based on a System of Ideas or Philosophy (84)

  1. A Precondition of Lasting Power
    * Two ingredients of power are inseparable: (a) an idea system, a philosophy and (b) an institutional structure transmitting the will of the power holder. Without an idea system, institutions cannot be constructed and certainly cannot endure. Without institutions, power cannot be generated, used, or expanded. (84)
    * Philosophy is a precondition of forming an organization (84)
  2. Limits Imposed by the Philosophy (88)
    * The constituting philosophy limits the exercise of power by the head of the organization based on it (88)
    * Tension in some measure always exists between the power holder heading the institution and the men loyal to the idea system holding his institution together (89) Invariably, situations arise where the opportune thing to do does not correspond with the idea system... see rest to 91 for good examples and ideas for discussion

Law IV. Power is Exercised Through, and Depends on, Institutions (92)

  1. The Necessity for an Apparatus
    * Top power holders must work through existing institutions, perhaps extending or modifying them, or must at once create new institutions. There is no other way of exercising power (92) See also 94, 95
  2. The Emergence of Institutions (95)
    * Two classes of power holders: (a) those considering themselves subject to no control or check except outside circumstances, and (b) those claiming authority to exercise power on behalf of someone else or some group for the purpose of achieving results determined or desire by them.
    * In the latter case, the institutions ensure that the power holder will exercise his will in accordance with the mandate. (95) * Even if institutions do not claim to control the power holder, they exert influence over him. (96)
    * The care and feeding of institutions is a primary concern of any power holder ... (98)
  3. The Relation Between Institutions and Power (98)
    * Existing institutions aside, the simplest and swiftest method of organization is by force (98-99)
  4. Personality and Organization (101)
    * Power and the operation of its institutions must in some measure prevent individuals from doing as they please. Friction between individuals who seek to act against or outside the scope of functioning institutions and the organization is perpetual. (101)
    * Human life of necessity involves two simultaneous elements: personal entity, and social structure permitting such entity to survive. The history of civilization is in part the search for frameworks of society providing for both elements. (102) see also 105
  5. Mandate and Institutional Organization (105)
    * Even absolute power holders and their institutions usually claim to act under some authority or mandate - usually not reachable or available for consultation! (105) - e.g., God, history, necessity (107)
  6. Institutions as Instruments for the Delegation of Power (108)
    * Power is vested in holders by delegation from the supporting institutions. The will of the power holder is transmitted and executed by delegation to subordinates ...may be bottom up or top down (108-9)
    * Could debate widely held theory that organizations grow in strength to a certain point, then, inevitably, become static, begin to decay, and eventually break up (109)
    * Power must be delegated in order to be extended, and that each fragment of power - handed downward through any organization - must yield a dividend of increased power to the central authority. When it does not, the central power holder must meet the issue or suffer. (110)
    * e.g. of org. trying to override boss: MacArthur/Truman, JFK/Morrison, Casals/Spain/JFK concert (to 113)
    * Two kinds of men who never amounted to anything: those who could not do what they were told, and those who could not do anything else (114)

Law V. Power Is Invariably Confronted with, and Acts in the Presence of, a Field of Responsibility (115)

  1. Responsibility and Dialogue (115)
    * Power is invariably confronted with a field of responsibility ..those affected by power have feelings and opinions about it ...these cannot fail to interest the power holder
  2. Organized and Unorganized Forums (116)
    * The field is a collection of tiny or great power organisms (116)
    * Recognition of the field of responsibility and the organization of an orderly dialogue between it and the power holder are, precisely, the qualities of democracy (116)
    * Organization and recognition of the field of responsibility and the resulting dialogue are essential tasks of power at any level (117)
    * Danger exists when any substantial body of opinion is not involved in the dialogue (118)
    * Paradoxically, a verdict rendered in the field of responsibility is essential even to the most absolute of power holders... (119)
  3. The Processes of Dialogue (120)
    * e.g. of effects on health +
  4. The "Intellectuals" (124)
    * Roughly, individuals who by occupation engage in study and expression of views - about anything of interest ...based on assumption that prior study and thought give weight to the opinions they express. (124)
    * Modern government depends, increasingly, on work of intellectuals (125)
    * Contribute in four ways (125)
    * Assumption that only by free debate in the field of power responsibility is the truth likely to emerge (127)...
  5. Foreign Invasion of the Field of Responsibility (132)
    * Frequently used

VI. Concluding Section: The Higher Criticism


(533) We began our study of power at the altar of Zeus on the high acropolis of Pergamum. ...In their brief but brilliant era, the rulers of Pergamum gave order and law to most of Asia Minor and doctrine and learning to much of the world of history. All aspects of Pergamese power had been concentrated on that rock cap, today a majestic mass of ruins overlooking an insignificant Turkish town. Comparable meeting of power cannot be had in the twentieth-century world, certainly not in the most powerful single nation, the United States....

(534) Implacable, it seems, the balance of twentieth-century currents undermines the possibility of concentrated power. Power exists, as it always has, but fragmented, lodged among men administering all manner of diverse institutions - political, commercial, military, educational - and is subdivided among and within each of these. Yet strangely and paradoxically, never has power been more urgently invoked, perhaps, than at present.

Above all, it is sought most passionately by those who attack it as an undefined "power structure," when their desires or ideals are frustrated, their grievances unattended, their possibilities unrealized. Intellectuals cry out against it even as they silently cherish (and sometimes express) their wish that a locus of power may come into being whose fiat will make their dreams real. Humbler people, finding life difficult and unfair, demand that an abstraction, the "state," legislate more gracious and tolerable conditions. Rarely, perhaps, has there been such yearning for a center of power to which appeal can be made, and that is capable of making changes in conditions and altering the course of events.

(535) The notable fact of contemporary history is that power finds ultimate embodiment in men directing states - this means in heads of political institutions. But these chiefs, principal bearers of power, have sunk from rulers to administrators. They must devise, plead, and persuade more often than they command. As always, men seek and enjoy power when they can get it. Having it, they nevertheless work in a climate of conditions essentially adverse to power holders.

(536) Though power holders did not and do not replace prophets, popes, priests, or philosophers, another group in some measure now occupies part of the ecclesiastical territory. These are the scientists and their children, the technicians... But they refuse to represent either god or state, though they may believe in the former and sometimes serve the latter.

(537) Monopoly of political, spiritual, and intellectual resources is now impossible... Legendary Zeus may have sensed his downfall when Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to men. Prometheus could be chained, but fire was irrevocably loose among men, for each to make of it what he chose.

(538) Meanwhile, the religions, the philosophies, the idea systems on which power institutions have been based cease to have that passionate hold on the minds and hearts of men which reinforced the older power systems...

Each power holder must therefore choose - or develop - his own philosophy, and attain acceptance of it as best he can... So each power holder constructs or adopts or at least professes his own philosophy or religion, necessarily drawing heavily on the inheritance and tradition of the nation he governs, the corporation he runs, the school he administers, or the family he guides.

Plato dreamed of a civilization in which philosophers would be kings and kings philosophers. Surprisingly, it has in a measure arrived - with the sardonic twist history often gives to realized ideas. The twist of our time is that the political leader is not a king, except occasionally; that he is not a philosopher, but is conscripted into being one; that he must accommodate his philosophy to his politics, instead of the reverse.

(547) The scope of a modern capital in a superpower today is so great that each institution can, does, and, in fact, must acquire a life of its own. Each can, and as a rule will, accommodate the expressed policies of the president. It will obey his direct orders, though a great deal can be done to change or shift them by "interpreting" them... So the palace become a place where conflicting interests are resolved, rather than where orders are given.

(548) He (the president) has a strategic position from which to exercise "leadership." In terms of American power, leadership is no better than the extent of followership it excites.

As one element, the power of the palace in America is qualified by widespread information... (although the knowledge may be illusory)

(549) Nor is it possible for the American (or perhaps any other) palace now to know enough about all the myriad fields for whose conditions it is held responsible. Other men must accumulate and estimate the knowledge; on their summaries the power holder mus decide.

(550) An yet, obstinate human instinct seeks to find and trust a man in any major emergency... Americans expect him, as personal leader, to avert impending chaos, to interpret events to them, to act. They hold him responsible for the outcome. Though the acropolis is dispersed, the palace is not extinct.

Epilogue in America

This last chapter in Berle's book is a clever imaginary discussion between Berle and Zeus, later including Athena, in Berle's office in the 1960s, in which Berle asks questions while Zeus and Athena provide the insights. A few examples:

(554) "Any resource of nature brought under control of men can and will be used. After Prometheus stole my fire, no act of mine could control it. Momentarily, power can determine what occurs next - little more. During its moment, only it creates reality. Never has power on this earth held control beyond the moment."

(555) "Power exists. At any given minute, any given man may be completely in its grip. Or, for that matter, kingdoms or continents. When I say you take it too seriously, I mean you assume its lasting effects can be willed by the holder. This is illusion."

(556) "I say power controls immediate events - but forces other than power determine their results.

(559) "You are confusing two subjects - the existence and maintenance of power, on the one hand, and, on the other, an estimate of the use to which it is put....

Power is no judge of values. It acts instinctively against chaos and to maintain itself. Automatically, it will create a degree of order, if only because no order exists without power and no power exists without order... What the order signifies, what its control of immediate events does with and to people, not excepting my power-holding pupils, is, whether good or bad, really not my business."

(559) " yourself observed... that the results of any act, especially acts of historical significance, were unpredictable... So a power holder will, in your absurd modern phrase, 'conserve options,' meaning that he tries not to bind his future actions...

(560) "I give power to men, and men are curious animals. They work on two levels. In power, they try to do what has to be done. But also, they obstinately keep on thinking. There, I cannot help. I somewhat limit their thinking because they must do what has to be done, and in doing so usually become more interested in the process of their power than in the results of their thought. Still worse, when they think, they usually battle their own power instincts. I concede that thought at long last can bind power itself."

Now, Athena is talking with Berle:

(561) "He probably said, with his usual disarming honesty, that power rarely knew what it was doing. So it sought the view of thinkers and artists and occasionally followed them. In any case, without the order he creates, thought and feeling could not very well be pursued... (men) often ask me and my pupils to what use they can put their power. More often than not they find the advice inconvenient. Frequently, the best use of power may be not to use it, or sometimes not even to have it - a view that hardly can please a power holder."

(562) "The real function of power and the order it creates... is the liberation of men and women to think and be and make the most of themselves...

"Paradoxically," I commented, "this liberation of men seems to run counter to the principle of power, perhaps even of order. Men and women given the instruments of life and production and thought will be able to refuse allegiance or obedience to power."

"Any woman understands that paradox... The essence of creation is that the thing created, be it child or idea or work of art, is independent of its creator; strong enough, indeed, to defy or even deny him...

Power always can destroy itself without help... If it has no purpose, its owner goes mad, and self-destruction ends it If its holder's chief purpose is to deify the power holder, disintegration is even more rapid. But when it liberates men and women, each develops in himself a measure of power. They contend with themselves, with each other, and with their power itself... Power is most safely held when it fosters and gives effect to these dreams and makes possible their pursuit.

(563) Your democratic institutions... must foster, defend, and enlarge institutions by which knowledge can be made greater and choices wider and more certain... Power must even devise and maintain political institutions capable of changing power holders themselves - an idea not widely accepted until recently, and not happily accepted in many places even now.

(564) ...power is not the producer, is not the merchant, is not the teacher, is not the painter, is not the musician. It can only command my pupils and my brother's disciples to go to work."

(567) Zeus nodded, "But giving power to any of them means denying power to most of their fellows. So a few of them must dominate the rest... They fight what they call the 'Establishment' because, in fact, they wish to be the 'Establishment.'

"No," Athena answered. "They think they are fighting an establishment. In fact, they are fighting themselves. They ask my father for power for the purpose, they say, of finding a meaningful life - as though he could give that or had ever given it...

(568) "Little as you liked my mother, you pondered marvelous schemes in your heart to bring into being men who would defend against destructive gods..."

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