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Might makes right

Might makes 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, following the anarchist philospher Kropotkin[1][2] 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.

"Might makes right" has been described as the credo of totalitarian regimes.[3] 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.[4]

Prescriptively (or normatively), the phrase is most often used pejoratively, to protest perceived tyranny. Jesus fiercely contradicted the idea in the beatitudes: "Blessed are the meek . . . blessed are the poor in spirit."

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.

HistoryEdit

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."[5]

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.[6] Callicles in Gorgias argues similarly that the strong should rule the weak, as a right owed to their superiority.[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." (Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended, 1846.)

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.[2]

In a letter to Albert Einstein from 1932, Sigmund Freud also explores the history and validity of "might versus right".[8]

References in literatureEdit

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

See alsoEdit

NotesEdit

  1. ^ Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich, kni︠a︡zʹ, 1842-1921. (1955). Mutual aid, a factor of evolution. Paul Avrich Collection (Library of Congress). Boston: Extending Horizons Books. ISBN 0875580246. OCLC 7811405.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b "Dictionary of Philosophy".
  3. ^ GE White (1973), Evolution of Reasoned Elaboration: Jurisprudential Criticism and Social Change, The, Va. L. Rev.
  4. ^ JL Ray (1982), "Understanding Rummel" (PDF), Journal of Conflict Resolution, 26: 161–187, doi:10.1177/0022002782026001007
  5. ^ Thucydides (431). The Melian Dialogue.
  6. ^ Plato (375). "Book 1". Plato's Republic.
  7. ^ Plato (380). Gorgias.
  8. ^ "Why War? An Exchange of Letter Between Freud and Einstein" (PDF). freud.org.uk. 30 July 1932. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 June 2015.

ReferencesEdit

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

External linksEdit