Might makes right is an aphorism with several potential meanings (in
order of increasing complexity):
The 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". Because every person labels what
they think is good for themselves as right, only those who are able to
defeat their enemies can push their idea of what is right into
fruition. The phrase is most often used in negative assessments of
expressions of power.
According to Montague, Kratocracy or kraterocracy (from the Greek
κρατερός krateros, meaning "strong") is a government by those
who are strong enough to seize power through coercive power, social
persuasion, or deceptive cunning. The term was used by
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, but is now rarely seen. In terms of
Master morality, those who are the strongest will rule others and have
the power to determine both right and wrong, and what constitutes "the
greater good". 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
Weberian themes of the authority of the state (e.g.
Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft).
2 References in literature
3 See also
The idea of "woe to the conquered" can be found in
Homer and the hawk
parable in Hesiod's
Works and Days
Works and Days and in Livy, in which "vae victis",
Latin for "woe to the conquered", is first recorded.
The first commonly quoted 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
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." 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
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
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.
"Might makes right" has been described as the credo of totalitarian
regimes. Realist scholars of international politics think of it as
a game in a kind of "state of nature" in which might makes right.
References in literature
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
reduce violence through various means and with varying degrees of
Law of the jungle
Might is Right
Right of conquest
Fortune favors the bold
Prize of war
Marquis de Sade
^ "Dictionary of Philosophy".
^ "Dictionary of Philosophy".
^ Freud 1968, p. 83.
^ Plato, Plato's Republic, Book 1
^ GE White (1973), Evolution of Reasoned Elaboration: Jurisprudential
Criticism and Social Change, The, Va. L. Rev.
^ JL Ray (1982), Understanding Rummel (PDF), Journal of Conflict
Freud, Sigmund (1968). "Why War?", Civilizati