Might makes right

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Might makes right is an aphorism with several potential meanings (in order of increasing complexity):

  • In English, the phrase is most often used in negative assessments of expressions of power.
  • The second related idea associated with the phrase connotes that a society's view of right and wrong is determined, like its perspective on history, by those currently in power.
  • The term can be used in the descriptive, rather than prescriptive way, in the same sense that people say that "History is written by the victors." Since every person labels what he/she thinks is good for himself/herself as "right," only those who are able to defeat their enemies are the ones who can push their idea of what is right into fruition.
  • In terms of morality, those who are the strongest will rule others and have the power to determine right and wrong. By this definition, the phrase manifests itself in a normative sense. This meaning is often used to define a proscriptive moral code for society to follow, as well as while discussing social Darwinism and Weberian themes of the authority of the state (e.g. 'Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft').

History[edit]

The idea of "woe to the conquered" can be found in Homer and the hawk parable in Hesiod's 'Works and Days' and in Livy, in which "vae victis", Latin for "woe to the conquered", is first recorded.

The first known use of might makes right in the English language was in 1846 by the American pacifist and abolitionist Adin Ballou (1803–1890), who wrote, "But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of discomfited error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. 'Might makes right,' and hoary folly totters on in her mad career escorted by armies and navies." (Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended, 1846.)

The phrase in reverse is echoed in Abraham Lincoln's words in his February 26, 1860, Cooper Union Address ("Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it") in his attempt to defend a policy of neutral engagement with those who practised slavery, perhaps to appear more nationally oriented and religiously convicted in hopes of winning the presidential election later that year (which he did).

The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who stated that "right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." [1]

In a letter to Albert Einstein from 1932, Sigmund Freud clearly explores this idea of "might versus right" as well. He discusses the relationship between the two and how this concept has in fact existed throughout time.[2]

In the first chapter of Plato's The Republic, Thrasymachus claims that "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger", which Socrates then disputes.[3]

"Might makes right" has been described as the credo of totalitarian regimes.[4] Realist scholars of international politics think of it as a game in a kind of "state of nature" in which might makes right.[5]

References in literature[edit]

The author T.H. White covered this topic extensively in the Arthurian novel The Once and Future King. Merlyn teaches young Arthur to challenge this concept; Arthur, after assuming the throne, attempts to reduce violence through various means and with varying degrees of success.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Freud, Sigmund (1968). "Why War?", Civilization, War and Death.