‘Might is right’


It is disturbing when a pupil takes extreme political views. When he starts trying to convert his teacher, it becomes unnerving. This boy’s parting shot when he left was to give me, without permission, six months’ subscription to a hair-raising magazine that promulgated his belief.

For his credo people use words like fascist and right-wing, although these do not quite answer. The basis is given by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias. He takes Socrates to task for being a puerile idealist rather than a man of the world: for Socrates is proposing that it is nobler to suffer wrong than to inflict it.

‘You, Socrates, pretend to be engaged in the pursuit of truth. But you are now appealing to the popular and vulgar notion of right, which is not natural, but only conventional…

‘It usually happens that convention and nature conflict with each other… By convention, to do evil is more disgraceful than to suffer it. But the law of Nature says that to suffer injustice is a greater disgrace than to inflict it. Suffering injustice is not the role of a man, but of a slave, who would be better off dying than living: for when he is wronged and trampled on, he is unable to help himself, or help anyone else he cares about.

‘But convention makes the inflicting of injustice to be the more disgraceful of the two. Why? Because, I think, laws are made by the majority, who are weak: they make laws, and distribute praise and blame, with a view to themselves and their own interests. Their aim is to terrify stronger men and those who are able to get the upper hand, in case they prevail: therefore people say that dishonesty is shameful and unjust. They call unjust the desire of a man to have more than his neighbours; knowing their own inferiority, the mass of people, I suspect, are glad to be on an equal footing with their betters.

‘So the attempt to possess more than other people is conventionally said to be shameful and unjust: it is called injustice. But Nature herself tells us that it is just for better people to have more than worse, and the powerful more than the weaker. In many ways Nature shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice means the superior ruling over the inferior and possessing more than him. For on what principle of justice did Xerxes invade Greece, or his father invade Scythia – not to speak of other countless examples? …

‘I take this to be the meaning of Pindar when he says in his poem that:

‘Law is the king of all,
both mortals and immortals’:

This law, he says,

acts with a high hand,
making the greatest violence to be just:
I mark this from the deeds of Heracles,
when without paying a price…’

‘I do not remember the exact words of the poem, but the meaning is this: that Heracles carried off the oxen of Geryon, without paying for them or receiving them as a gift, because this was right, according to the law of Nature: Nature says that the oxen, and all other possessions, of the weaker and inferior belong by right to the stronger and superior.’
Plato, Gorgias 482e

This was the stance of the Athenians to justify their massacre and   enslavement of the people of Melos in 416 BC (Thucydides V.84).

Next post: A powerful myth.

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