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 Greek κρατερός krateros, meaning "strong") 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.

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.

History[edit]

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.

The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War 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, 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 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."[7]

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.

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".[8]

In literature[edit]

The author T. H. White covers the topic extensively in the Arthurian novel The Once and Future King. Merlin teaches the young Arthur to challenge that concept. Arthur, after assuming the throne, attempts to tame violence in his realm.

In video games[edit]

In Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, Plague Knight is blamed for stealing every essence of the Order of No Quarter. Plague Knight claims that the Order's motto is "might makes right" and that he just took some initiative.[9]

In Mega Man X7, Soldier Stoneking told X to stop talking and let their swords speak for them, and that only the victors will be viewed as righteous in the eyes of history.

See also[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hausheer, Herman (1942). "Kratocracy". In Runes, Dagobert D. (ed.). Dictionary of Philosophy.
  2. ^ GE White (1973), Evolution of Reasoned Elaboration: Jurisprudential Criticism and Social Change, The, Va. L. Rev.
  3. ^ JL Ray (1982), "Understanding Rummel", Journal of Conflict Resolution, 26: 161–187, doi:10.1177/0022002782026001007
  4. ^ Thucydides (431). The Melian Dialogue.
  5. ^ Plato (375). "Book 1". Plato's Republic.
  6. ^ Plato (380). Gorgias.
  7. ^ Ballou, Adin (1846). Christian Non-Resistance, in All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended. Philadelphia: J. Miller M'Kim. p. 119. OCLC 7335706411.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Yacht Club Games (17 September 2015). Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows (Nintendo 3DS). Level/area: Tower of Fate: Ascent.

General references[edit]

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

External links[edit]