Famous Sayings #106 — ‘Might Makes Right’

May 27, 2018

Whenever powerful people get away with crimes, we are reminded that ‘might makes right.’

might makes right, famous sayings

This is a phrase that I first learned of during my seventh-grade history class. I don’t quite remember what was being discussed, but my teacher was illustrating how people throughout history have used force to justify their actions. The message was received.

What Does ‘Might Makes Right’ Mean?

The idiom “Might makes right” means that someone’s superior strength can be used to impose their will or dictate justice. The phrase we know it today generally goes hand in hand with the notion that “History is written by the victors,” in that those who have seized power and won wars can determine what morality and justice are. According to Montague, the general concept supports the idea of a Kratocracy (a phrase he coined; from the Greek κρατερός or krateros, which means “strong”), a government in which those who are strong enough to rule can do so by coercion, social persuasion, or deceptive cunning.


We can kind of see the idea of “might makes right” in how humans respond to each other, and quite literally, especially, with men.

  • In some groups and some nations, people may find that the most powerful, those who have the most cunning and can effectively steer the military, make the best leaders.
  • Some men quantify their self-worth in how physically strong they are or by who wins the most fights.
  • Between the sexes, they believe that might makes right can take a dangerous course. While there are traditional beliefs about work and homemaking, some men feel that it is right to abuse women because men are generally stronger.

I don’t particularly like these ideas, but it’s something I’ve noticed.

Alternate Definitions?

On October 12, 2009, an eNotes user called pohnpei397, a certified educator, said the phrase “might is right” was a recognition of how human society works or it’s in reference to the animal kingdom. Among human beings, “might makes right” is about perception; even if something is morally reprehensible, it may be seen as right because the person (or group or nation) doing it has a tremendous amount of power. Also, since “the winners write the history,” it will be narrated as just. In the animal kingdom, the strong survive, so there isn’t really a question of right or wrong.

In an eNotes entry posted on December 1, 2017, a user called favoritethings, a certified educator, gave the example of white privilege in the United States. In this case, “might” equals privilege (which could result from a person’s race, gender, finances, etc.). In the U.S., white people collectively are a privileged group because more of them are in public office and more of them serve as judges. As a result, they make more decisions about laws and punishments; thus, white people have a greater say in what justice is, or what is “right.”

This idea is and the others I spoke of above are giving precedence in Might Is Right or The Survival of the Fittest, a 96-page book published in 1890 by the pseudonymous author called Ragnar Redbeard. The book promoted an outlook that places white people and men above others in society, the author expresses a disdain for Christianity, and the book contains bits of anti-Semitism. Some have argued that the book is partly a satire of Social Darwinism, but others have referred to it as a “proto-fascist white-power manifesto.”

When Did the Phrase Originate?

“Might makes right” is an aphorism whose basic principles have existed for centuries. The idea of “might makes right” may be attributed to Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War. In the work, you will find these words:

[R]ight, 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.

This idea was also toyed about in Plato’s The Republic.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the exact phrase first appeared in the English language around 1327. Yet The phrase “might makes right” may have been first recorded in the 1846 work entitled, Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended by Adin Ballou (1803-1890), an American pacifist and abolitionist.

But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of the discomforted error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. ‘Might makes right,’ and hoary folly totters on in her made career escorted by armies and navies.

What Made Me Discuss This Phrase Today?

It so happens to be Memorial Day Weekend, but I have been thinking about this phrase for a while because of the looming threat of war. The United States is already engaged in 8 or so countries right now, a segment of Americans is weary of war, but there isn’t a big anti-war movement right now.

While some Americans have been speaking up, many more or silenced or scared into silence or discredited. That bothers me, but I understand that there are things under the surface steering this conversation.

One thing that we are told or pressured into believing is this concept of American excellence. Since we are the richest nation and we have the biggest military, we are the most powerful nation and thus the U.S. has the final say on what is right and what justice is. We are to view the world through this lens. To question it is “unpatriotic” and those who persist are called apologists for terrorists and/or dictators.

I have talked about this idea before in various posts, and I would like to discuss it further. In short, I love the phrase “might makes right” in the cynical sense because it describes a pervasive attitude, but I don’t like it in practice.

Works Cited

Ammer, Christine. “Might Makes Right.” The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1995, 2001, 2002. Print.

favoritethings. “What is the meaning of the phrase ‘might is right’?”” eNotes, 1 Dec. 2017. Web. Accessed 27 May 2018. <https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-does-mean-that-might-right-107075>.

pohnpei397. “What is the meaning of the phrase ”might is right”?” eNotes, 12 Oct. 2009. Web. Accessed 27 May 2018. <https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-does-mean-that-might-right-107075>.

“Might makes right |Define Might makes right at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 27 May 2018. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/might-makes-right>.

Various. “Might Is Right.” Wikipedia. Created 19 Apr 2015. Last Updated 19 May 2018. Web. Retrieved 27 May 27, 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Might_Is_Right>.

Various. “Might makes right.” Wikipedia. Created 18 Dec 2014. Last Updated 24 May 2018. Web. Retrieved 27 May 27, 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Might_makes_right>.


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