One of my most popular epigrams (which is why I made it the title of one of my books) says: “All I want is a warm bed, and a kind word – and unlimited power.”
I suppose we’d all like to be able to control things a little more than we can – starting with our own minds and bodies, and then extending to the behavior of other people and world events. That is probably why so many of us go after money, or political office, or social status. Such attainments are of course notoriously ephemeral – but then, so is life itself. And there is something delicious about being in command, even if it’s only having the power to say no. My sister Myrna was famous in our family for her stubbornness, especially in refusing to do things expected of her. My mother once said “Well, you’ve got to admire her will-power,” to which my father responded that “I would call it her won’t power.”
The only time I ever felt I had any significant power was when I was a young teacher, in high school, and especially in college, when I had to assign grades. I found this role quite distasteful, particularly when students came to me, virtually begging for a higher grade than I thought they deserved. It was even more difficult when the student happened to be an attractive female. I was able to resist such pressures, but that kind of experience helped me to understand the cases we hear about so often today of powerful people in spheres such as business or the media who are alleged to have used that power for naughty purposes.
But of course, there’s nothing new about the connection between power and sex. In Medieval Europe, where an elaborate system of social inequality called Feudalism prevailed, there was supposedly a custom called “jus primae noctis” (“right of the first night”) or “droit du seigneur” (“right of the overlord”) giving the master the right to sleep with his vassal’s bride on the first night after their wedding. That was certainly a way of demonstrating who had the power!
But when we’re not thinking about the power of people over people, or about that of God or the Gods over us all (“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory” as many of us learn to say in our first prayer) we are usually thinking, nowadays, about mechanical or technical power.
All the way through history, until machines such as steam engines came along, there was no need for a standard by which you could measure and compare the amount of work anybody or anything could do. And when such a need finally did arise, in the Seventeenth Century, it was only natural to use as a standard what had always been the chief source of non-human power: the horse. Hence came horsepower, a term which of course we still use today. James Watt, a Scottish Engineer, is generally credited with originating the term. (There is no monument to the anonymous horse whose power helped him establish this standard.) And in a way it’s ironical that his own name has itself become an even more widely used unit of power. (In case you’re interested, the International System of Units defines One Watt as 1/746 of a horsepower – but please don’t ask me how this was arrived at.)
In any case, one undeniable fact is that all the power available to us on earth comes ultimately from that big burning ball in the sky called the sun. One way or another, the heat and light and whatever else it has been transmitting in our direction for a very long time have been turned into all the forces which make our wheels go round. A major component of this process is what we call “fossil fuels.” Hard as it is to believe (for me anyway) the unlovely items like coal and oil which today we extract from the earth were once plants and animals which themselves derived their energy from the sun.
That whole process took millions of years – which is why I find it so exciting that we now have ways of getting usable power directly from the sun. This idea of extracting “solar energy” right from its source is hardly a century old, and would by now, in a rational world, have totally prevailed. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the world to come to its senses.