Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

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10 thoughts on “Right, Not Might

  1. Excellent post, Hugh. I fear we are at that point, or close to it, and maybe have been for a while where we it surely seems that might equals right. The oligarchy replacing a democratic republic, as you wrote about the other day. It seems it would be a natural, inevitable conclusion to the machinery of capitalism, so I wonder if that’s why there’s not the large and widespread outcry like there might be in other nations when the scales tip so heavily toward a small group. Maybe a lot of people here are too hesitant to speak out about the dangerous side of capitalism, because it is supposed to be the system that works in America? I don’t know, but sometimes it feels like that is the case. There are small surges of opposition led or fueled by those who feel left out of the system, or run over by it, but they never fully flower.

    One way we see that might fuses into right is the way wealth is such an influence in the court systems. The super-rich hire expensive lawyers who so often seem to shield a client from serious legal consequences in a crime, or settle early (and cheaply) in civil cases — if those cases aren’t dismissed right away anyway. The poor and even the middle class don’t have the resources to hire good lawyers who can find creative solutions to get their client out of a jam, or, as is also often the case, simply to wait and wait, filing motion after motion, until the legal proceeding peters out. In a sad way, this can have the effect of almost magically giving the wealthy person the ability to make almost any incident or circumstance “right,” simply by paying his way out of the problem. It becomes stamped with legitimacy, a legal ruling, maybe even codification as precedent. It also happens in legislatures or Congress, where big money shapes legislation that permits awful behavior to persist. (And more of that likely to come, given the rollbacks to environmental protection and research Trump already has signed, along with other deregulations likely to come.)

    I still try to take solace in remembering that regimes that superimpose might on right and try to call them the same thing seldom last long. Not in other nations, not in the U.S.

    • Good comment. Thanks. And I do think it a bit of a sin to make critical comments about capitalism in the country. It’s like speaking ill of the dead — or something. But we can agree that it has provided us with many benefits while also admitting that it may have killed the spirit and replaced it with raw materialism.

  2. Hugh, while I was reading this I was reminded that winners write the story. Even though, they were not right, be it dictatorial power move or settling a court case where “no blame” is accepted and the settler cannot talk about it, the winners control the message. A major company wins by settling a court case and not tarring their image further. I was reading earlier this morning a post by Jill or Gronda about a Russian attorney who was allegedly killed by Putin for trying to expose Putin’s ties to organized crime that stole money from businesses. The attorney was proven right, but he has beed dead for years. Keith

    • We like to read about winners. We don’t like to read about losers! The winners do “control the message” and they have the might — though not always the right!

  3. Great post, Hugh! As you know, I absolutely do not believe in the concept of “might makes right”, have been ranting about that very thing for years now. However … I look to the animal kindgdom where that is precisely how things work … survival of the fittest. Those with strength and power kill and eat the weakest. And I wonder … since I have always felt that animals have much purer motives than humans … if that is actually the way the world was meant to be? Mind you, it doesn’t change a thing in the way I think, and I shall continue to speak out as long as I breathe against injustices and inhumanitarian acts … but I wonder …

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, my friend!

    • Sorry. I can’t agree that animals “have a purer motive” than humans. And you know I am a misanthrope! But humans have the capacity to act morally while animals do not. I say “capacity” because we have the ability to ask ourselves whether or not a given act is right or wrong. The fact that we choose not to reflect often is immaterial. We can do the right thing; we often fail to do so and we fail more often as we gain more and more power I suspect.

      • Ah … if it were not 2:00 a.m., and if I were not fairly exhausted, I might elaborate on my position. Briefly, I see the animal kingdom as more pure because … they do not kill simply because a fellow muskrat looks different from them. Generally, animals kill only for one of two reasons: food or protection. Humans, however, kill because … they don’t like the colour of somebody’s skin, they don’t agree with a person’s religion, they dislike who a person falls in love with, they … well, you get my point. I DO agree with you that humans have the capacity to act morally, but there are two problems with even that. First, they often do not ‘do the right thing’, despite knowing what ‘the right thing’ would have been; and in acting morally, they often use morality as a criteria for being judgmental, for condemning others on superficial grounds. And to conclude my ‘Cliff Notes’ argument … I like most animals better than most humans. 🙂 However, you are one of the few humans whom I like and respect, and I don’t completely disagree with you … 🙂

      • I also like animals more than humans (except you and Keith and a few others!). But it is precisely because humans CAN act morally and choose not to do so that they are deserving of harsh judgment! Animals are not subject to moral judgments because they act on impulse or instinct. But I cannot admit that they are “pure” in any sense of that word. Monkeys fight among themselves all the time, as do many other animal species. And the carnivores eat other animal species — often even their own. (You should be deep in sleep at 2:00 AM, by the way!! 😊

  4. Great post. Your last paragraph perfectly summarizes what happens in our times. We are taught from early on and kept aligned by punishment and reward that might is right, money is success, power is great personality, and publicity is truth. Thanks for sharing and all the best!

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