The question of might versus right is one that has received a variety of answers from thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition. There are, on the one hand, those who hold firmly to the idea that a thing is true or good if those with political, military, or other power claim the opposite. This especially seems to be the case among the ancients in the biblical tradition and the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. On the other hand, more recent thinkers of the Western tradition have taken different approaches to the question. Niccolo Machiavelli perhaps initiated this movement by introducing the idea that a ruler need not use his might to attain to the right. Friedrich Nietzsche continues this line of thinking in a refined form in what amounts to an assertion that might does indeed make right. Karl Marx presents a more complicated approach to the question that attempts in some ways to cling to the older understanding of right being undetermined by might, yet only maintains this older belief tenuously and in a manner that may not be entirely consistent with his philosophical outlook as a whole. Each of these thinkers provides an inlet to a deeper engagement with the question of what makes something right, whether it is somehow the nature of the thing itself or the ability of the powerful to enforce it.
At the foundations of both of the major strands of Western Civilization, the biblical tradition and the tradition of Greek philosophy, stands the insistence that right stands apart from might. Among both the Jews and the most influential Greek philosophers, a distinction was drawn between those with power and the higher truths of the created order that even these could not violate. In both instances, it seems that this sense of the tension between might and right grew out, at least to some extent, out of the experience of injustice and persecution as the hands of those more powerful.
In the biblical tradition, the insistence on the superiority and independence of right to might almost certainly finds its origins in the experience of persecution by the Jewish people. This is true both in their civilizational origin story of enslavement and exodus from Egypt as well as the experience of conquest and colonization at the hands of more powerful empires, such as the Babylonians and the Persians. As a result of these experiences and perhaps other aspects of their experience and the development of their thought, the ancient Jewish people developed an understanding of the right as superior to all might, including even that of the king.
It is remarkable that in a time when the kings and rulers of the various kingdoms and empires surrounding them in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt claimed to be gods or the emissaries of gods, the Jews placed great emphasis on the subordination of their kings to their God and his law. As evidence of this, the story of David and Bathsheba is of note. Stories of kings running astray of the rules laid down by their gods are hardly something new. The Epic of Gilgamesh may very well be the oldest story in the world and it features just such a plot in Gilgamesh’s continual defiance of the gods and especially in his rejection of the advances of the goddess Ishtar. In these stories, however, the king is often represented as something like an equal or at least justly barely subordinate to the gods. Jewish tradition holds that David penned Psalm 51 with its supplication to “have mercy on me, O God” (Psalm 51:1, ESV) in response to his punishment by God for murder and adultery in his affair with Bathsheba. This is a long way from a prayer that one could reasonably imagine Gilgamesh or another king like him ever reciting and does a great deal to demonstrate the absolute subordination of the king, as a human being, to the supremacy of God and the laws of moral right that he has ordained. While Gilgamesh and Enkidu can kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the gods to wreak havoc in Uruk, there is no might that can overcome the right ordained by the God of the Jews.
With this in mind, the opening of the Book of Proverbs is highly significant. There, the author, ostensibly David’s son Solomon, who has become King of Israel, addresses the work to an unnamed son so that this son can “know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight” and “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:1-3, ESV). That this is traditionally believed to have been written by a king addressing a son who will presumably one day be king himself is important to understanding the significance of this address. This future king must learn about wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity. It is not his decree that makes it so, but, rather, these things exist apart from and above his word and he must not run up against them. Might must become right; it cannot create right.
The origins of a similar insight in the philosophy of Plato bear a noteworthy resemblance to the development of this idea among the Jewish people. Plato’s Apology and Republic can be seen as extended arguments against the notion that might makes right in the various forms in which this idea has appeared. In Plato’s case, this insight derives from the injustice perpetrated by the people of Athens against his teacher Socrates. Having been condemned to death, Socrates reproaches those who have so voted, reminding them that the right is superior to their collective might: “if you suppose that by killing human beings you will prevent someone from reproaching you for not living correctly, you do not think nobly.” While the citizens of the Athenian democracy may be able to vote to take away the life of Socrates, the truth is not determined by popular vote. In short, they are not “correct,” or right, because of their might.
In the Republic, Plato once again confronts the problem of might versus right as it is introduced by Thrasymachus with the assertion that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” Thrasymachus’s explanation of his position is particularly telling when the comparison with Jewish kingship and the unjust punishment of Socrates is kept in mind; he explains,
Each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a democracy sets down democratic laws; a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others do the same. And they declare that what they have set down—their own advantage—is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds. This, best of men, is what I mean: in every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body. It surely is master; so the man who reasons rightly concludes that everywhere justice is the same thing, the advantage of the stronger.
This is clearly the thought of the ancient kings of Babylon, Persia, and Egypt on the nature of justice. What is right is, in short, what might proclaims to be right.
Socrates refutes this idea, in its presentation by Thrasymachus, by pointing out that what is decreed by those with the might may not always be in their own interest; there is, then, the problem of whether what is right is what is decreed by the mighty or what is actually in their interest, making the entire proposition self-refuting. This refutation, in turn, becomes the basis for most of the rest of the argument of the Republic, in which Plato-via-Socrates attempts to demonstrate, in a noteworthy similarity to the attitude of the Book of Proverbs, that the rulers of a state must discover the right rather than attempt to create it. Their might is not the source of the right, but instead must be used to find it and implement it. Its existence and nature are, however, not dependent upon their decrees.
Plato’s student Aristotle, while departing from his teacher in some interesting ways, continues in this line of thought laid out by Socrates. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle advises that “perhaps it might be held to be better, and in fact to be obligatory, at least for the sake of preserving the truth, to do away with even one’s own things, especially for those who are philosophers. For although both are dear, it is a pious thing to honor the truth first.” The separation between “one’s own things” and “the truth” made explicit here places Aristotle in direct continuity with the Socratic/Platonic separation of might from right. For Aristotle as for Plato, truth is a thing to be searched for rather than a thing to be decreed by any authority no matter how powerful.
This line of thinking that dominated Western thought on the relationship of might to right because of its simultaneous and seemingly independent origins in both its biblical and its Greek philosophical foundations came under serious question beginning in the early modern era. In many ways, Machiavelli ushered in early modernity by opening up this relationship between might and right to question in The Prince. There, Machiavelli writes, “It is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able to be not good, and to use it according to necessity.” In this simple statement, Machiavelli undermined the entire Western tradition of separation between might and right.
Implicit in his statement is the belief that what is right morally may not always be what is right practically. Such a pragmatic approach to right by those with might, in turns, calls into question the entire tradition of thinking that places the definition of right outside of the control of the powerful. If the ruler determines that the right thing to do practically speaking is not what is right according to a supposedly transcendent moral law, the importance of this moral law is diminished. There seems to be no reason to continue to affirm that there is such a transcendent moral law if it is no sense a guide for action.
While Machiavelli does not seem willing to entirely follow through on the implications of such thinking, other, later thinkers certainly did. Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly foremost among these. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche declares, in what amounts to a nearly full circle return to the proclamations of Thrasymachus, that the “the will to power” is in fact the very “essence of life.” In this declaration, Nietzsche follows Machiavelli’s thought through to its logical conclusions. While Machiavelli had severed the relationship of might to right that had prevailed in Western thought up to him, which claimed for might a submission to the dictates of right, Nietzsche abandons the idea of right altogether. For Nietzsche, the only eternal and immutable law is the law of the will to power and it is this that leads to determinations of right and wrong by those who are more powerful. What is right is, in essence, what those with the might claim it to be.
Karl Marx represents an interesting and noteworthy deviation from the modern ideas about the relationship between right and might represented by the words of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. According to Marx, it is the prevalent economic forces of a given society that in fact possess the might and therefore determine the right. Marx writes, “since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges all things, it is the general confounding and compounding of all things—the world upside-down—the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities.” Nearly all aspects of a culture, including its arts and religions, are the products of economic forces, according to Marx’s understanding of the world.
While affirming the supremacy of the economic forces over all other aspects of human life, however, Marx also sees the injustice of the unequal distribution of wealth caused by capitalist economics and, while positing an inevitability to the end of the capitalist system, also seeks to lay out the program for an end to capitalism and the transformation into a communist social and economic system. The introduction of the ideas of injustice, inequality, and the possibility that an economic system can be dehumanizing, all things that Marx claims of the capitalist system, however, introduces a degree of incoherence into Marx’s philosophy. If indeed right is determined by the might of the impersonal economic forces of the time, an appeal to a universal moral law of justice and equality as well as an innate human nature implied by Marx’s critique have no place of origin or philosophical foundations that fit within the Marxist paradigm. Marx attempts to appeal to a universal and transcendent right while giving it no place to perch or operate within his system of thought, thereby rendering his philosophy incorrectly inconsistent. In his attempt to reconcile the ancient and modern views on the relationship of might to right, Marx creates the conditions for a refutation of his philosophy.
While Marx’s philosophy is internally incoherent and Plato’s refutation of Thrasymachus stands as a solid rebuttal of the thought of Machiavelli and Nietzsche on the question, there remains what seems to be a lingering problem in the thought of both the biblical and Greek philosophical traditions on the matter of might versus right. This problem is that in attempting to place right in a superior position to might, both traditions found it necessary to appeal to a superior might as the source of right. In the case of the biblical tradition this is the God of Israel and in the case of the Greek philosophical tradition this is more ambiguously pointed to as the realm of the Forms or, in Aristotle’s philosophy, some other vaguely defined realm of transcendent truth and, importantly, superior power. In both traditions, it is posited that right is determined above the level of human might but that this right is also enforced either through the direct activity of God upon the world and through the laws that are written into the nature of the world. Whichever of these two alternatives one looks to, it is the case that right is determined by might, though that might is utterly transcendent to the might of any human ruler. It would seem, then, that might indeed makes right, though this might is not the might of kings or democratic assemblies but rather the might of an Almighty God or a universal truth.
It has been a common assumption in the Western world since at least the time of Plato that that which is true is also necessarily that which is good. A basic premise of the Western philosophical and scientific projects, for example, has been the axiom that a greater understanding of man and of the world in which he lives lead inevitably to an increase in the quality of his life, whether individually or in communities. The search for truth, then, has been prompted by the belief that such truth would be for the ultimate good of human beings. This equation of truth and goodness persists as an essential aspect of the paradigm of Western thought. Yet, given the largely naturalistic framework which has emerged as the dominant mode of thought, there does not seem to be reason to believe that that which is good for man must be that which is true nor that that which is true is necessarily good for mankind.
Charles Darwin, writing during the emergence of our contemporary naturalistic framework in the nineteenth century, presents a curious case of the desire to cling to philosophical principles—especially moral principles—which seem ill-fitted to the incipient naturalistic framework to which he contributed a great deal in its development. In his Descent of Man, Darwin moves quickly—nearly imperceptibly—from a descriptive to a prescriptive mode of thinking and writing as he attempts to discuss the development of the sense of moral responsibility humans feel toward other humans. “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him,” he writes. As in this sentence, he goes on to waver several more times between ought and is as he simultaneously advocates for and believes himself to be describing the extension of sympathy to “all sentient beings.”
Such attempts to grasp at the equation of goodness and truth within a paradigm that excludes the necessity of this connection are, it should be added, hardly a relic of the early development of modern naturalism. One of the key aspects of the argumentation of so-called “New Atheist” figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is the assertion that religious faith and practice have a deleterious effect on individuals and societies. That “all religions are bad,” to use Dawkins’ blunt phrasing, does not inevitably lead one to believe that any or all of them are untrue unless one presupposes that the good and the true are always aligned.
It can hardly be the case, however, that goodness and truth always coincide within the frameworks of a universe that was not designed for the ultimate good of man and for man’s rational inquiry into that good. In a universe that is indifferent to mankind qua mankind and person qua person, it just as possible that what is true may be harmful for mankind and what is false may be of benefit to him. To return to the example of Dawkins’ pontification on the goodness and badness of religion, there is good evidence that religions in a general sense do in fact contribute positively to mankind, as in the development of the various cultural, philosophical, and literary traditions of the world. One could hardly deny the marked positive influence of Buddhist religion in the development of East Asian culture, for example. While this does nothing to prove the truth of Buddhist doctrine, it does provide an example of the ways in which the potentially false serves the role of the good for mankind.
If older frameworks are to be abandoned in favor of one that is purely naturalistic, the assumptions of the older frameworks must also be abandoned along with them. Among these assumptions is, of course, the assumption that goodness and truth are identical. It has been a key component of the Western perspective for more than 2000 years. A naturalist paradigm of thought, however, necessarily excludes it and must be willing to say that what is true may in fact be bad for mankind and what is good may in fact be false.
One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.
Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.
Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.
Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.
But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”