Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of essays about politics and the moral life by Victor Nuovo, Middlebury College professor emeritus of philosophy. The essays develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato titled “Laws,” which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 BCE. “Laws” is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself.
We don’t often think about the rule of law. This may be a good sign showing that we are a civilized people for whom law and its constraints are second nature.
I can provide a perfect example of this.
Almost every day, when I travel between my home and downtown, I cross the intersection of Washington and Seminary streets. It is a four-way stop. Regularly, drivers take their turn, proceeding as though by prearrangement, as though they had agreed beforehand to a rule that they each in turn yield the right of way to whomever has reached the intersection before them.
It’s wonderful, and what makes it so is not just that it works so well, but that it works at all. Not only is this practice efficient; it has an additional social benefit. Often two drivers will reach the intersection almost simultaneously, and then I’ve noticed how ready each is to give way to the other with a generous wave of the hand or a nod of the head that evokes a similar response. These are welcome expressions of civility and friendliness, which are hallmarks of a civil society and community. It is therapeutic. Observing a simple rule that serves the public good distracts us from our private cares and concerns and lightens our burdens.
Of course, not all laws work this well or evoke the same positive affections. But, for the time being, let us focus on this example, for it has much to teach us about the rule of law.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize the value of this simple rule to yield the right of way at intersections to those who reach it before us. It is easy to follow. It is efficient. It plays no favorites. It is hard to imagine anything more reasonable. Without it, crossing an intersection would be chaotic and dangerous; the rule of law would be displaced by incessant conflict and the dominion of force.
Observance of this law, therefore, keeps the peace. Surely this is the right thing to do, and because its practice also creates community, one may also describe it as good. Observe also how this rule affects us personally. The more we practice it, the more we learn self-restraint and become masters of ourselves.
Reflecting on this simple rule reveals even more remarkable things about ourselves. We discover within us a capacity to make rational choices about what is useful and good, and along with this, a capacity to act upon them. And this leads us to a discovery that is genuinely exalting: that we are free and rational agents. As such we are not merely followers of laws, but potential lawmakers, because now we understand the purpose and design, indeed, the very idea of law.
Within each of us there is a capacity to create laws fit for a civil society founded on liberty, equality, friendliness and fairness. The mere following of a rule may be drudgery; but when a homely traffic ordinance can show us that the source of all law, indeed the very idea of law, resides in us, the scene changes and we are transfigured, while yet remaining firmly fixed in the world.
It must be emphasized that laws and the idea of law do not descend from above, wrought by a mysterious being, a worker of miracles, whose ways are beyond understanding, and whom we dare not disobey. We see ourselves as the proper source of law, of civil society, and of the bonds of community, of the unity of a people. These sources and capabilities belong to all of us together, and, when we use them in harmony with one another, not to do harm but for the common good, the result is a wonderful life, although, to be sure, not an eternal one.
Still, I am reminded by the remark in Plato’s “Laws” that between human communities there exists a constant state of war extending even to the human soul. Yet, Plato was no pessimist. He believed that the reasonableness of law could triumph over the unreason of violence, the higher over the lower passions, and that through education, persons might learn to use that internal golden thread and become self-governors, who are thereby fit to join others in the public rule of law.
In the second book of “Laws,” the Athenian stranger, who is the main character of this narrative, remarks that rational consent is the foundation of all human excellence or virtue upon which the rule of law depends. Rational consent follows when we understand the good purpose of a law and acknowledge our obligation to obey it — it is an expression of practical wisdom.
Next, after understanding and consent, there emerges within ourselves a power to persist in the observance of laws, to obey them even when it is not fashionable to do so, or when it may be unprofitable or dangerous — let’s call this moral courage.
Finally, this combination of self-control and courage, informed by our understanding of the rational intent of law, inclines us to deal fairly with ourselves and others, and so we become just.
It is noteworthy that the powers of rational self-control — to make laws, to apply them fairly, and to live by them — mirror the three powers of civil government: legislative, judicial and executive. For this reason, government is not something alien to us, and if it seems so, this may be either because we are alienated from ourselves, or because our government is in need of reform — probably both are true.
All of this shows that the rule of law is established and maintained only when individuals, like you and me, practice the art of self-control, using the golden wire to good effect, and with a good will endeavor to make our government conform to the best that is within us.