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.