“The corruption of the best is the worst of all corruptions.” When those called to serve instead oppress citizens, disaster follows.

by Massimo Introvigne

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 16th, 2021.

Ivan Illich (from Facebook).
Ivan Illich (from Facebook).

As we approach the International Day Against Corruption, I would like to reflect on the Tai Ji Men case based on the notion of “corruptio optimi pessima,” an old idea that was at the center of the philosophical reflection of an important European philosopher I met personally, Ivan Illich (1926–2006), a former Austrian Catholic priest who renounced his priesthood after a political conflict with the Vatican but remained a Roman Catholic throughout all his life.

Interestingly, many quote the sentence “corruptio optimi pessima,” meaning “the corruption of the best is the worst of all corruptions,” but nobody really knows where it came from. Some attribute it to Aristotle, but in fact there is no evidence it was used by anybody before Pope Gregory I the Great, who died in the year 604 CE.

Pope Gregory the Great, 12th-century miniature.
Pope Gregory the Great, 12th-century miniature. Credits.

While the sentence is repeated everywhere, Ivan Illich stated in 1996 that for him “corruptio optimi pessima” is the thread keeping together not only all his work but all the history of the Western world. Nonetheless, he never managed to write the great work he had in mind about the concept. He died suddenly in his office in Bremen on December 2, 2002, surrounded by the notes for the magnum opus on the “corruptio” he would never write.

Illich’s vision is both an apology and a criticism of Christianity. For him, the most important change in Western history happened when Christians accepted that God had incarnated as a human being, Jesus Christ. Before that time, there was no universal ethic in the West (although it existed in Asia). Moral obligations were only towards members of your own people, and “ethos” was confused with “ethnos.” Christianity made values such as conscience, love, and peace—to borrow the terminology of our Tai Ji Men friends—universal. Now, if you were a Roman, you were supposed to be fair and kind not only to your fellow Romans, as it was before Christianity, but to everybody.

The visionary and utopian side of Illich’s thought emerges when he claims that “corruptio optimi,” the corruption of the best proposal ever made to the West, i.e., Christian love, immediately started. According to Illich, love and charity can work only at the level of face to face relationships, what he called “short” relations. Their gratuity also involves an element of creativity and even craziness.

In-person charity: “Christian Deeds of Mercy,” by Pieter Aertsen (ca. 1508–1575).
In-person charity: “Christian Deeds of Mercy,” by Pieter Aertsen (ca. 1508–1575). Credits.

In a few generations, all this was eliminated. The spontaneous, small, perhaps crazy but effective acts of love and charity were transformed into a bureaucracy of institutions operating by misusing the name of love. Illich saw a typical example of this change in the fact that early Christians always kept a bed and food in their houses for any poor traveler who might show up at their door. After some generations, rather than doing this, they were asked to pay a tax to support public boarding houses for travelers, managed by specialized bureaucrats. Unlike the individuals who offered a bed to pilgrims, the bureaucrats who managed the boarding houses and the taxes paid to support them became easily and almost by definition corrupted. This, Illich said, was typical “corruptio,” a drama the West has still not recovered from today.

I remember conversations with Illich. He was a visionary and a prophet, and such persons are naturally radical. Taken to its most extreme consequences, Illich’s ideas would imply that all institutions are evil, and only the small, “short” personal acts of love and kindness should remain.

However, beyond the utopian radicalism, Illich was up to something important, i.e., that modern bureaucracies may cause enormous damage, both materially, by generating corruption, and spiritually, by taking their meaning out of the supreme values of conscience, love, and peace.

This is consistent with reflections we have repeatedly proposed in our webinars about the dangers of bureaucracy and the Tai Ji Men case. And Illich may help us today to see a further, philosophical, or spiritual dimension of the injustice perpetrated against the Tai Ji Men. Why do we need ministers of Finances, tax officers, and enforcement agents? Illich might tell us that in fact we don’t need them, and we would be better off living in small communities based on mutual kindness and love. Some may obviously make this choice, but in complex societies like modern states we do need ministries and bureaucrats. However they are, as the English word says, “civil servants,” meaning they should serve the citizens and not try to be served by them.

In other words, civil servants exist for making realizing the ultimate aims of society possible. They should not control the aims. And what they do is part of means towards an aim. It is not the aim. “Corruptio, ” indeed “corruptio optimi” as civil servants should be the custodians of the nation, occurs when bureaucrats are allowed to define the aims, and lose sight of the aims themselves.

Protesting corrupted bureaucracy: Tai Ji Men in Taipei.
Protesting corrupted bureaucracy: Tai Ji Men in Taipei.

In the Tai Ji Men case, bureaucrats forgot, or willingly ignored, that they are “civil servants” and should work at the service of the deeper aims of the state, human rights and the well-being of citizens. Instead, they believed they were called to protect bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake, not to mention they tried to enrich themselves through the bonuses.

The Tai Ji Men case of “corruptio” went beyond taxes and money. It attacked the very soul of a nation, corrupting it deeply. Only a solution of the Tai Ji Men case may stop this slow erosion and poisoning of the integrity of Taiwan’s soul, a kind of process that, as history shows, normally leads to the ruin of a nation.