Might makes right

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Might makes right or Might is right is an aphorism on the origin of morality, with both descriptive and prescriptive senses.

Descriptively, it asserts that a society's view of right and wrong is determined by those in power, with a meaning similar to "History is written by the victors". That is, although all people have their personal ideas of the good, only those strong enough to overcome obstacles and enemies can put their ideas into effect, and spread their own standards to society at large. Montague defined kratocracy or kraterocracy (from the Ancient Greek: κράτος, romanizedkrátos, lit.'might; strength') as a government based on coercive power, by those strong enough to seize control through physical violence or demagogic manipulation.[1]

"Might makes right" has been described as the credo of totalitarian regimes.[2] The sociologist Max Weber analyzed the relations between a state's power and its moral authority in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Realist scholars of international politics use the phrase to describe the "state of nature" in which power determines the relations among sovereign states.[3]

Prescriptively (or normatively), the phrase is most often used pejoratively, to protest perceived tyranny.[citation needed]

The phrase sometimes has a positive connotation in the context of master morality or social Darwinism, which hold that a society's strongest members should rule and determine its standards of right and wrong, as well as its goals for the greater good.[citation needed]


The idea of "woe to the conquered" is vividly expressed in Homer, in the hawk parable from Hesiod's Works and Days, and in Livy, in which the equivalent Latin phrase "vae victis" is first recorded.[citation needed]

The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War, written around 410 BC by the ancient 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."[4]

In the first chapter of Plato's Republic, authored around 375 BC Thrasymachus claims that "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger", which Socrates then disputes.[5] Callicles in Gorgias argues similarly that the strong should rule the weak, as a right owed to their superiority.[6]

The Apocryphal Book of Wisdom, written around the first century BC to first century AD says: "Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless."[7]

The first commonly quoted use of "might makes right" in English 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."[8]

Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union campaign address (1860) reverses the phrase: "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". He spoke in defense of neutral engagement with slave-holders, as against violent confrontation.

Philosopher William Pepperell Montague coined the term Kratocracy, from the Greek: κρατερός (krateros), meaning "strong", for government by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.[1]

In a letter to Albert Einstein from 1932, Sigmund Freud also explores the history and validity of "might versus right".[9]

Pope Francis has observed that "immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence" have arisen from adoption of the principle of "might is right".[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hausheer, Herman (1942). "Kratocracy". In Runes, Dagobert D. (ed.). Dictionary of Philosophy.
  2. ^ White, G.E. (1973), Evolution of Reasoned Elaboration: Jurisprudential Criticism and Social Change, The, Va. L. Rev.
  3. ^ Ray, J.L. (1982), "Understanding Rummel", Journal of Conflict Resolution, 26: 161–187, doi:10.1177/0022002782026001007, S2CID 220628906
  4. ^ Thucydides (431). The Melian Dialogue.
  5. ^ Plato (375). "Book 1". Plato's Republic.
  6. ^ Plato (380). Gorgias.
  7. ^ Wisdom 2, 10-11
  8. ^ Ballou, Adin (1846). Christian Non-Resistance, in All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended. Philadelphia: J. Miller M'Kim. p. 119. OCLC 7335706411.
  9. ^ Why War? An Exchange of Letters Between Freud and Einstein (PDF). Freud Museum. 30 July 1932. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 June 2015.
  10. ^ Pope Francis, Laudato si' (On Care for our Common Home), paragraph 82, published 24 May 2015, accessed 11 June 2023

General references[edit]

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

External links[edit]