Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

Does Might Make Right? Ancient Perspectives on an Enduring Dilemma

S24_OSUN_Does Might Make Right


Course Schedule:

Tuesdays, 9:10 - 12:30 EST (UTC -5)

Professor: Thomas Bartscherer
Semester: Spring 2024 (January 29  – May 21)
Course Level:
HR (Human Rights)
Number of Bard Credits:
Course Title:
Does Might Make Right? Ancient Perspectives on an Enduring Dilemma
Max Enrollment:
Tuesdays, 9:10 – 12:30 EST (UTC – 5)
Distribution Area:
Historical Analysis
Cross-Listing(s): Classics, Literature
Language of Instruction:

Speaking at the United Nations in September, 2021, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted that in ratifying the Charter of the UN and adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the member states were disavowing the idea, as she put it, that “might makes right,” and committing themselves instead to “a new set of self-binding principles” that aim to “prevent conflict, alleviate human suffering, defend human rights, and engage in an ongoing dialogue to improve the lives of all people.” Her remarks evoke a famous passage from an English translation of the Greek historian Thucydides, often cited as the classical statement of political realism: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In this course, we will focus on the vibrant debate over the question of whether “might makes right” that occurs in the literary, historical, and philosophical writings of Athens in the fifth century BCE. Most of the texts we read will be ancient, but the questions they address are of urgent contemporary concern. We will look at the original context of that passage, wherein Thucydides conducts a subtle analysis of the claims of justice against the prerogatives of force. We will also see how this debate plays out in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle and in contemporaneous literary texts, including the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. We will also compare material in ancient texts from other traditions, including the Buddhist Edicts of Asoka, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian New Testament. Our aims will be: to see how these cultures, so different from the one that brought forth the UN’s Universal Declaration, grappled with this enduring dilemma; to trace the influence of the these ancient texts on modern conceptions of human rights; and to bring these diverse perspectives to bear on our own thinking about “might” and “right.” All readings will be in English