Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

We begin by asking whether it is more expedient to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter XV, 1286A7

         It has long been debated whether a “benign despotism” is a better form of government than any other.  In this regard, even Plato’s philosopher-king seems to be an example:  take the best, wisest person of all of us, and empower that person to make decisions; by definition the best person will be the one who makes the best decisions, so this wisest and most benevolent despot will make better judgments than any group of lesser souls ever could.  J.S. Mill takes pains to argue against the notion of benign despotism, precisely because it seems so logical and is so often accepted, at least tacitly.  People may say democracy is better because no one person has the wisdom and benevolence to wield unlimited power; but often they go on to say or wish that if such a one did arise, that person should be given sole rule and the power to back up their decrees. [1]  In Christian political thought into the Enlightenment, monarchy was often assumed as both the most natural form of human government, and as reflecting God’s own reign; Jesus is the King of Kings, raised from lowliness and from death to rule, and your local king was Christ’s viceroy.  Whether the secular humanist or theocratic model is preferred, the agreement is that the ideal government would be one where a supremely good person had supreme power as well, and was free to make decisions and set policies for society unchecked either by lesser persons or by the dead letter of the law.  Aristotle, too, discusses such arguments.  He uses the analogy of a doctor; wouldn’t it be better to have a doctor who was well-trained and perceptive who could prescribe treatment based on the unique problem at hand, rather than one who read the treatment from a book? 

         But while there are arguments in favor of the benign despot, Aristotle rejects the notion.  Ultimately, he says, the best society will be one that is run according to written laws and unwritten customs, with individual case-by-case human judgment kept to a minimum.  Returning to the analogy of the doctor, he says, suppose you feared your doctor might have been bribed by your enemies; in that case, wouldn’t you prefer that he treat you according to previously-established rules and procedures?[2]  This is the situation in the state.  The supposedly “benign despot” still has appetites and desires that may run counter to yours, or even to the good of the nation as a whole.  Furthermore, every group has its own interests:  the poor want power given to the many since they outnumber the rich, while the rich want power restricted; the military, the agriculturalists, even the tradesmen all have their own agendas.  A stable government is one that is accepted as just and beneficial by all, or at least by the overwhelming majority.  If the state is run by a king who is furthermore unchecked by laws and customs, each person will fear that the decisions of that king are bought by their competitors.  The law, Aristotle says, is “intellect without appetition.”[3]  It is both general and, usually, long-established, and the same for everyone; it is what has been.  Everyone knows “the rules of the game,” as we say today, and can accept that there’s “nothing personal” when things don’t work out in their favor.  Aristotle even goes so far as to say, “he who asks law to rule is asking god and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rules and the very best of men.”  So even though he says elsewhere that if it were possible to have a single morally superlative ruler, that would be like having a god who should be obeyed unquestioned, in fact he claims that in a realistic society with realistic people we should be governed by good laws.  It is these laws which will in turn educate the citizens and leaders, turning them into the kinds of people who can know how best to apply these general principles to actual cases.

         While Aristotle discusses this primarily in relation to monarchy, his comments about rule of law apply to all governments whether they be rule by the one, the few or the many.  A “correct” government is one that rules in the interest of the state as a whole; a “deviant” one rules in the interests of the rulers.[4]  And it is rule of law that protects against arbitrariness and self-serving government.  In fact, the laws (written and customary) reflect the constitution.  Aristotle’s definition of the “constitution” of the state is the organization of the citizen-body:  who has authority, who holds what offices and so on.  The laws reflect this organization, laying down general principles whereby this authority is exercised.[5]  So rule according to the laws precisely is rule that seeks to preserve the state, and thus the only justified government at all. 

         In Aristotle’s time, it was an established practice that someone leaving office would present an account of his tenure; if he was found to have failed or acted corruptly, he could be punished.  In our day, President Trump sought to overthrow those “unwritten” laws, norms and customs of government, as well as many of the written laws, in an attempt to subvert the established principles of our government on January 6th, 2021.  In response, he was impeached by the House, but was not sanctioned by the Senate.  This is despite the words of Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Senate, who said, “”Former President Trump’s actions (preceding) the riot were a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” and, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”[6]  In an Athenian “scrutiny,” this would have been all the cause needed to punish.  In fact, though, the entire administration had been one of ignoring both written and unwritten rules, particularly when the financial profit of some government official was at stake or the political and personal feud of some person was being pursued.  And in fact, there are still many cases when politicians of both parties use government information to profit in the stock market, use their power to protect their personal investments, condemn in their opponents what they praise in their allies and otherwise put the interests of themselves and their faction over the welfare of the state as a whole.  Whereas Aristotle considered the unwritten norms and customs of the state to often be even more crucial in decision-making than were the written laws, today the unwritten norms are shredded if it suits the power of demagogues.  And too often, those who think themselves championed by some demagogue not only tolerate violations of law and custom:  they demand it.  Now, it is largely the “conservatives” who seem least interested in “conserving” our traditions of government; recent polls have indicated more than half of Republican voters are ready to abandon our Constitution’s democracy in favor of some vision of “America” that better suits them.  When I was in college, I heard that same sort of rhetoric from self-professed “liberals,” who referred to the government’s written laws (whether it was student government or national) as a “toolbox” from which the leaders could select whichever “laws” would help them promote their agenda, while leaving the rest aside.  Always, whether it’s liberal or conservative, the impulse to abandon rule of law, norms, and rituals of government represents a faction and its leaders putting themselves ahead of the health of the nation.  There is no true “enlightened” or “benign” despot; anyone with governmental power and office is either a servant and executor of the laws of the nation, or its enemy.


[1] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xvi, 1287a32

[3] 1287a23

[4] Politics Book III, chapter vii, 1279a22

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

[6] MacKenzie Sadeghi “Fact Check:  Yes, McConnell Said Trump Was ‘Practically and Morally Responsible’ for Capitol Riot;” USA Today February 16, 2021 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/02/16/fact-check-mcconnell-said-trump-was-responsible-for-capitol-riot/6767311002/)

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