Voltaire? Spider-Man? Winston Churchill? Theodore Roosevelt? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Lord Melbourne? John Cumming? Hercules G. R. Robinson? Henry W. Haynes? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about the relationship between ascendancy and obligation:
With great power comes great responsibility.
This expression has been attributed to two very different sources: Voltaire and the Spider-Man comic book. Would you please examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have been unable to locate this statement in the oeuvre of Voltaire who died in 1778, and currently that linkage is unsupported.
QI has found a strong match during the period of the French Revolution. The following passage appeared with a date of May 8, 1793 in a collection of the decrees made by the French National Convention. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Les Représentans du peuple se rendront à leur destination, investis de la plus haute confiance et de pouvoirs illimités. Ils vont déployer un grand caractère. Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir. Ce sera à leur énergie, à leur courage, et sur-tout à leur prudence, qu’ils devront leur succès et leur gloire.
Here’s one possible translation into English:
The people’s representatives will reach their destination, invested with the highest confidence and unlimited power. They will show great character. They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power. To their energy, to their courage, and above all to their prudence, they shall owe their success and their glory.
Prominent leaders such as Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar statements in later years. Also, the appearance of an instance in a Spider-Man story in 1962 was influential in U.S. popular culture.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A thematic precursor appeared in a well-known Biblical verse: Luke 12:48. The meaning was somewhat different because it did not mention power. The New International and King James translations rendered the verse as follows: 2
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
In 1793 the following statement appeared in a volume issued by the French National Convention as mentioned previously:
Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.
English translation: They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.
In 1817 a debate was held in the United Kingdom House of Commons concerning the suspension of habeas corpus, and a member named William Lamb spoke in favor of suspension. During the following decades Lamb became a powerful political figure, and ultimately he emerged as Prime Minister and now is better known as Lord Melbourne. The transcript of Lamb’s words in 1817 used quotation marks to enclose the maxim indicating that the expression was already in circulation. Please note that the modern reader will find the style of the transcript atypical because it was presented from a third-person perspective. The referent “he” was used to identify the speaker Mr. Lamb: 3
It was common to speak of the power of the press, and he admitted that its power was great. He should, however, beg leave to remind the conductors of the press of their duty to apply to themselves a maxim which they never neglected to urge on the consideration of government –“that the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.” They stood in a high situation, and ought to consider justice and truth the great objects of their labours, and not yield themselves up to their interests or their passions.
The order of God’s providence, and certainly the law of Christ’s Gospel, is, that wherever there is great power, lofty position, there is great responsibility, and a call to instant duty. If your house is very magnificent in its architectural splendors without, and in its furniture within, it is that you should look around you, and take care that the houses in the lanes behind shall not be so miserable and wretched as they are.
In 1858 a Masonic periodical called “The Ashlar” printed a thematic instance that re-ordered the sequence of the two key terms: 6
He cannot act on their judgment, but must be governed by his own. As he has great responsibility, he has great power, and is bound by the strongest obligations to maintain that power and the dignity of his office.
During a speech in 1879, Sir Hercules G. R. Robinson extended the saying by adding anxiety as an inescapable addendum: 7
But great power carries with it great responsibility, and great responsibility entails a large amount of anxiety.
In 1879 a report by the Trustees of the Public Library of Boston, Massachusetts included a statement from Professor Henry W. Haynes that contained a version of the saying: 8
The possession of great powers and capacity for good implies equally great responsibilities in their employment. Where so much has been given much is required.
In 1906 statesman Winston Churchill delivered a speech in the House of Commons that included an extended instance of the adage: 9
Where there is great power there is great responsibility, where there is less power there is less responsibility, and where there is no power there can, I think, be no responsibility.
In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to Sir George Otto Trevelyan that included a discussion of his reasons for declining to seek a third term as President: 10
I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power; but I believe that responsibility should go with power, and that it is not well that the strong executive should be a perpetual executive.
In 1913 John A. Fitch wrote a commentary that discussed the power of the United States Steel Corporation in the journal “The Railroad Trainman”, and he referenced the adage: 11
It may be no crime to be possessed of great power. But great power carries with it great responsibility as to the use that is made of it.
The night before Franklin D. Roosevelt died he penned a speech about Thomas Jefferson which he was planning to deliver during a radio address. Instead, the text was given to journalists after Roosevelt’s death, and it was released by the Associated Press: 12
Today we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility. Today we can no more escape the consequences of German and Japanese aggression than could he avoid the consequences of attacks by the Barbary Corsairs a century and a half before.
The heroic fantasy figure Spider-Man was introduced in the August 1962 issue of the comic book “Amazing Fantasy”. The guiding principle of Spider-Man’s actions was formulated in this origin story and expressed as a caption. However, the words were spoken neither by the main character, Peter Parker, nor by his Uncle Ben. Instead, an omniscient narrative voice was employed: 13 14
And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come–great responsibility!
In conclusion, based on current knowledge QI would ascribe the saying to the writer of the 1793 passage, but QI does not know the precise identity of this writer. Also, it is certainly possible that earlier close matches will be discovered by future researchers.
In addition, major figures such as Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt employed versions of the adage. The creators of Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, were important vectors for the popularization of the saying.
Image Notes: Scales of Justice from jpornelasadv at Pixabay. Cropped detail from the painting (Storming the Tuileries) Prise du palais des Tuileries le 10 août 1792, durant la Révolution française by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux via Wikimedia Commons. Two panel low-resolution excerpt from the Spider-Man story in “Amazing Fantasy” used for educational purposes under the Fair Use doctrine.
Update History: On July 24, 2015 the 1817 citation was added.
(Great thanks to Sandra Ikuta whose inquiry about this interesting topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to S. M. Colowick and Anton Sherwood for providing translations of the 1793 passage. All errors are the responsibility of QI. Also thanks to Kelly Di Donato, Charles Early, and Murl Winters who pointed to the biblical reference. In addition, thanks to the “Yale Book of Quotations” for identifying the 1854 citation. Further thanks to Vaios K. who mentioned the 1817 citation in a response at Yahoo! Answers.)
- 1793 May, Title: Collection Générale des Décrets Rendus par la Convention Nationale, Date: May 8, 1793 (Du 8 Mai 1793), Quote Page 72, Publisher: Chez Baudouin, Imprimeur de la Convention Nationale. A, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- Website: Bible Hub, Article title: Parallel Verses of Luke 12:48, Translations: King James Bible and New International Version, Website description: Online Bible Study Suite. Bible hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed biblehub.com on July 23, 2015) link ↩
- 1817, The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, Volume 36, Comprising the Period from the Twenty-Eight Day of April to the Twelfth Day of July, 1817, Topic: Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill, Speaker: Mr. Lamb (William Lamb), Date: June 27, 1817, Start Column Number 1225, Quote Column Number 1226 and 1227, Published Under the Superintendence of T. C. Hansard, Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1854, Voices of the Dead by Rev. John Cumming (Minister of the Scottish National Church), Chapter 7: Rejected Greatness, Start Page 110, Quote Page 121, Published by John P. Jewett & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Stan Lee, Quote Page 449, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1858 April, The Ashlar, Allyn Weston and Charles Scott, Volume 3, Number 8, Duties of the W.M., Start Page 348, Quote Page 348, Published by C. Scott & Company, Printers, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1879, Speeches Delivered by His Excellency Sir Hercules G. R. Robinson, G. C. M. G.: During His Administration of the Government of New South Wales, (Vice-Regal Visit to Parramatta: Public Banquet, Date: July 8, 1872), Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Published by Gibbs, Shallard, & Company, Sydney, Australia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1879, City of Boston, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, City Document Number 78, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, (Quotation appeared in excerpt of report from Prof. Henry W. Haynes who was a former trustee of the Library), Published by City of Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906, The Parliamentary Debates (Authorised Edition), Fourth Series, First Session of the Twenty-Eighth Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 152 (First Volume of Session), Commons, Speaker: Winston Churchill, Date: February 28, 1906, Start Column Number 1233, Quote Column Number 1239, Printed and Published Under Contract with His Majesty’s Stationery Office by Wyman and Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time: Shown in His Own Letters by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Volume 2, (Excerpt of letter dated June 19, 1908 from Theodore Roosevelt to Sir George Otto Trevelyan), Start Page 92, Quote Page 94, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1913 April, The Railroad Trainman, Volume 30, Number 4, The Labor Policies Of Unrestricted Capital by John A. Fitch, Start Page 302, Quote Page 305, Column 2, Published by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1945 April 14, Daily Illinois State Journal, Speech Written By Roosevelt On Night Before His Death (Associated Press), Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1962 August (Cover Date), Amazing Fantasy #15 (Formerly: Amazing Adult Fantasy), Comic Book Story Title: “Spider-Man!”, Writer: Stan Lee, Illustrator: Steve Ditko, (Quotation appeared in caption above a panel showing the back of character Peter Parker walking away down an urban street), Published by Marvel Comics, New York. (This comic book has not been seen directly by QI; Quotation is based on text in panel image) ↩
- Website: We Minored in Film, Article title: The Origin of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” & 7 Other Surprising Parts of Spider-Man’s Comic Book History, Article author: Kelly Kond, Date on website: April 22, 2014, Comment: The webpage displayed two panels from the August 1962 Amazing Fantasy #15, Website description: “Covering Film, Television & All Things Geek”. (Accessed weminoredinfilm.com on July 23, 2015) link ↩