‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: From Age-Old Axiom to Spider-Man’s Mantra

It all started with Jesus. Or Muhammad. Or the Reign of Terror.
He does rock.
He does rock. / (Spider-Man) Robert Mora/Getty Images; (Speech bubble) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

While writing the majority opinion for a 2015 Supreme Court case involving royalties for toy web shooters, Justice Elena Kagan seized the opportunity to toss in a few nods to Spider-Man. 

“[In] this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility,” she wrote, in reference to the court’s restraint at overturning precedent.

That axiom, often rendered as with great power comes great responsibility, is most closely associated with Peter Parker’s uncle Ben. But Uncle Ben didn’t originate it—and in fact, he wasn’t even the first fictional father figure to say it to a young superhero.

Who Said “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”?

People have been articulating the idea that power comes with responsibility for at least a couple thousand years. You can see shades of it in Christianity’s Parable of the Faithful Servant, in which Jesus tells his disciples that a servant placed in charge of the household shouldn’t take advantage of their master’s absence by carousing and mistreating the other servants.

“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required,” reads one iteration in the New King James Version of the Bible. Islam has a similar message in one of the prophet Muhammad’s hadiths, translated from Arabic as “All of you are shepherds and every one of you is responsible for his herd.”

Though Voltaire is sometimes credited with coining the phrase with great power comes great responsibility, Quote Investigator couldn’t locate it in any of his writings. The earliest citation they identified is from 15 years after Voltaire’s death, in a 1793 decree written by members of France’s National Convention (the assembly that replaced the monarchy during the French Revolution).

Louis XVI before the National Convention in December 1792
Louis XVI before the National Convention in December 1792. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

[Les Représentans du peuple] doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir,” they wrote, roughly translated as “[The people’s representatives] must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.”

Quote Investigator also unearthed enough 19th-century references to suggest that the expression was a pretty popular thing to include in any musings on power. In 1817, for example, British parliamentarian (and future prime minister) William Lamb deployed it during a debate in which he “[reminded] 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.’” He was warning journalists not to let their own “interests” and “passions” get in the way of their service to “justice” and “truth.”

World Leaders Take Up the Torch

Lamb wasn’t the only future prime minister to utter the phrase on the floor of the House of Commons. In 1906, during a debate about how to handle systemic racial injustice in South Africa (and Great Britain’s colonies at large), Winston Churchill used it to express his opinion that their duty to intervene was “directly proportionate” to their power in a given territory. “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,” he said.

Both Presidents Roosevelt invoked the adage, too—Theodore in a 1908 letter and Franklin in a 1945 undelivered radio address.

“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 one,” TR wrote while explaining why he wouldn’t run for office a third time. (He actually did end up running again in 1912, but that fact doesn’t necessarily contradict what he said about power’s relationship to responsibility: He ran out of a sense of duty to steer the country back toward progressivism.)

Theodore Roosevelt leaning over a railing outside in 1910
Theodore Roosevelt in Cleveland, 1910. / Louis Van Oeyen/ WRHS/GettyImages

For FDR, the responsibility in question had to do with using power to bring about peace: “Today we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility. … We seek peace—enduring peace. More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars—yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman, and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments.”

He passed away before he could give the speech, but it was widely printed in newspapers days after his death. Just three years later, with great power comes great responsibility surfaced yet again—this time in reference to literal superpowers.

Spider-Man: Here He Comes

At the end of the first episode of Columbia Pictures’ 15-part film serial Superman, Jonathan Kent has a pivotal heart-to-heart with his adopted son, Clark.

“You’re different from other people,” he says. “Your unique abilities make you a kind of ‘super-man.’ Because of these great powers—your speed and strength, your X-ray vision and super-sensitive hearing—you have a great responsibility.”

That responsibility, Jonathan explains, is not only to “use them always in the interest of truth, tolerance, and justice,” but also to “go where they can be best put to use.” It’s not exactly a gentle nudge to get his son to fly the coop—he literally tells him “you must leave this farm.” So Clark heads to Metropolis (though only after Mr. and Mrs. Kent have died), and the rest is, if not history, at least common knowledge.

But one fleeting reference in a 1940s film serial is hardly enough to glue with power comes great responsibility to Superman, especially not when it’s competing against decades’ worth of mentions in Spider-Man stories.

The expression first appeared in the first-ever Spider-Man comic, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and published in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker uses his newfound abilities to turn Spider-Man into a TV sensation, and the fame makes him so self-involved that he won’t even stop a thief who runs right by him. When that same thief murders Uncle Ben mere days later, Peter is forced to reckon with who he has become.

“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!” reads the closing panel.

So while Uncle Ben did inspire the phrasing, he didn’t originally say it himself. He would later, though—first, per GoCollect’s Luke Smith, in a 1972 music-comic fusion album called The Amazing Spider-Man: A Rockomic!

“What was it Uncle Ben used to tell me?” Peter says. “I remember, he used to say, ‘Petey, never forget—the stronger the man, the heavier the load. With great power comes great responsibility.’”

It came up a couple times in the 1980s, too: once when Peter hallucinates Uncle Ben during a battle in 1986’s The Amazing Spider-Man #274; and again when Peter recalls Uncle Ben’s words in 1987’s Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1.

Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man reinforced Uncle Ben’s association with the phrase: He says it to Peter by way of explaining why it’s not always good to beat someone up just because you can.

In short, with great power comes great responsibility is a key element of Spider-Man’s character development and it has been since the very beginning. The phrase is so closely tied to Uncle Ben at this point that it’s even become a bit of a cliché, and creators of late have looked for new ways to retain the message without having him say it word for word (or at all). In 2021’s Tom Holland–starring Spider-Man: No Way Home, for example, it’s Aunt May who says it, and she uses the formulation from Amazing Fantasy #15. In 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales’s dad tells him that “with great ability comes great accountability.”

“That’s not even how the saying goes, Dad,” Miles says. France’s National Convention would agree.

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