The Berkeley Table

    An Obvious Flaw in Aristotle’s “the Best Laws Beat the Best Ruler” Argument

    Jonathan Hofer
    Feb 13 · 7 min read
    (Aristotle bust by DEA Picture Library by De Agostini)

    In his celebrated work The Politics, Aristotle poses the question of which is more expedient, “to be ruled by the best laws, or to be ruled by the best ruler (221)?” After deliberation, Aristotle concludes that the best ruler would be favorable to the best laws and a state with the best ruler would be the ideal constitution for a polis.

    When commentators and scholars consider the choice of best ruler or best laws, the issue of corruptibility is frequently the point of focus. The Constitutional Rights Foundation describes how the American Founding Father’s were keenly aware of the liability of corrupt leadership in an Aristotelian sense. Why this is a point of focus is quite bizarre. Rather, it is quite the failure to stop this short and not account for the metaphysical differences between laws and men, for the contrary position in favor of the best laws seems more obvious.

    Instead, if faced with the binary choice between the best body of laws versus the best ruler, preference should be given to the laws on account that the laws have a natural advantage in both continuity and reproduction relative to the best ruler. That is, the laws can last uninterrupted throughout the years and can be universalized, where the ruler’s influence is confined to a particular space-time and to a state.

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    Aristotle’s favor with the best ruler is shortsighted. Upon assuming office, the best ruler from his inception is terminal. Every ruler, irrespective of the quality of their craft of governance will at some point cease to continue in their rulership. If the best ruler is not deposed by some hostile agency, natural biological causes will eventually conclude his rule. It is for this reason that all states find the occasion to substitute their respective human members with new persons, which it must out of necessity do from time to time to maintain continuity.

    But, whereas rulers die, laws live forever. Given that law by its nature is neither material, nor animate in its composition, it may last in perpetuity. Thus, the law persists and outlasts the individuals that compose the organelles of the state. Any given body of law does not require subsequent laws to take its place upon death or age of retirement if it has been concluded that the law should continue in its place of authority. In the case of the best laws, they will remain eternally because they will lack the need for dissolution or amendments.

    Moreover, once in place, the law remains fixed until it is undone or unrecognized. It does not face cyclical times of turbulence and uncertainty. There is no transitory period like that of a public official where the new regime replaces the old regime and uncertainty results if there is an expectation that the new regime will do things differently than the old.

    This turbulence is a characteristic of the personal state like that of the best ruler, that is, when the legal persona of the state is identical to a natural person, as opposed to a nation state (which is a corporation whose identity is separate from the rulers).

    The ascension of a new ruler effectively replaces the state upon the start of the new regime, causing uncertainty among the populace. When Ruler B supplants Ruler A, there is no guarantee that the policies and disposition of Ruler B will be reminiscent of Ruler A in any fashion. In this sense, the regime that governs according to the best ruler is liable to experience dramatic constitutional changes. The system committed to its laws, continues into the new regime with those rules, while the tendencies of the ruler do not continue into the new regime upon substitution.

    Another natural quality that law has which grants it supremacy over the best ruler is in the matter of reproduction. For this purpose, reproduction may be defined as the duplication of the effect the best ruler, or the best laws would have on a political order. The best ruler is constrained by their material scarcity. In the discipline of economics, the best ruler would be understood as scarce good.

    The qualifier of “best” ipso facto limits his quantity to one. Yet, economic scarcity does not only describe the quantity of the best ruler, which is of course small, it also suggests that demand for the best ruler would exceed his supply. The best ruler cannot manifest himself ruler for all existing political venues and thus his rulership cannot be universalized across the various political orders without dilution of his rulership. This would then condemn the constitutions of those states who lacked his rulership unsatisfactory.

    But the laws do not constitute a scarce good, contra they are a free good and therefore can be simultaneously executed by a multiplicity of political bodies without compromise. That is, because law lacks metaphysical existence, its reproduction and application for one state does not in any manner abridge its use by another state.

    The use of the best laws by Athens does not diminish Sparta’s capacity to use the best laws. Nor does Athens use of the best laws in time t1, prevent Athens from using the best laws in time t2. Law’s ability to be reproduced indefinitely satisfies the Aristotelian mandate of political science to derive from its study solutions to be applied to N-number of regimes.

    The fourth point in Book Four of The Politics makes this clear when Aristotle states that political philosophers should consider “[what constitution] will suit pretty well all states (236)”. Since the Aristotelian tradition lays out universal applications to the problems of states as an objective of political science, the hypothesis favoring the best ruler is deficient in that particular, as the best ruler is limited in his capacity of the number of states he can feasibly rule, where the laws can be reproduced for all states.

    In The Politics, Aristotle mentions a potential advantage the best ruler has over the laws. In an analogy, he provides an example of how a doctor, not being fixed to a particular dogma, may cease an ineffective treatment for one of his patients (221). The implication being that the flexibility that a ruler would have allows him to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Yet, this implication is not adequately applicable to the laws. The best of laws would allow for latitude.

    There is nothing about the nature of current laws that prohibits bona fide deviations from its precepts. Law in its many iterations allows for peculiar situations. In current contract law for instance, the concept of force majeure, may exempt contracting parties from their duties due to “acts of god”. This concept recognizes that external forces are at play outside the control of individuals, and that it is permissible for the legal system to recognize and adapt to adverse situations.

    Absent in Aristotle’s argument is how the relative inflexibility of the laws are socially functional and are in fact desirable. The laws, having been written down, are predictable. This gives parameters for permissible human conduct and interaction. When society en masse knows the laws, they would function better in the areas of commerce and socialization. The best laws would be transparent and available for public inquiry. They would be unambiguous in its text and would be so construed as to not lend itself to open interpretations.

    Therefore, a man wishing to participate in the economy, for example, would not be burdened with trying to conjecture what the best ruler might think of his actions, he need only to consult the laws to know with definite conviction what is allowable and what is not. In accordance to the characterization of the best laws in Plato’s work, the best laws would explain the duties, if any, each individual owes to others (1404).

    Another critique of the laws present in The Laws draws attention to the principle that laws require fallible legislators to construct said laws (Plato 1406). Since the premise of Aristotle’s dichotomy supposes the equal plausibility of the best ruler and the best laws coming into being, the discussion may be shifted away from the manifestation of the laws. Instead, the argument present in Plato’s Laws can be altered so as to ask, “Would not the best laws rely on imperfect humans to interpret the laws and subsequently rule from those interpretations?”

    However, whether in the case of the best ruler, or the best laws, each schema requires human agents to carry out the edicts of each. Though it may be conceded that the laws require someone to issue verdicts on its behalf, the best ruler does not escape the same fate. Namely, the best ruler relies on subordinates to carry out his commands.

    The ruler cannot, as a matter of practicality, issue and then enforce all his decrees. One ruler alone does not constitute a state. If there is nobody to enforce the ruler’s decrees, then his commands have no effect. Thus, the same human agency that would qualify as a weakness in the case of the laws, is likewise present in the case of the best ruler, thereby making the point extraneous. It could be just as easily be contended that the best ruler is relying on fallible persons for his rulership.

    Thus, it can be affirmed that the best laws are superior to the best ruler. When considering which framework exceeds in continuity and reproduction, the laws carry over across the various succeeding regimes. Whereas the best ruler will wan and leave office because of his humanity. Laws preserve and outlay the rules for a state, the ruler leaves it open for turmoil. For this reason, it is preferable to ruled by the best laws.


    Works Cited

    Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by T A Sinclair, Penguin Group, 1992.

    Plato. Plato: Complete works. Edited by John M. Cooper and D.S Hutchinson, Hackett Publishing Company, 2009.

      Jonathan Hofer

      Written by

      Public Policy Research Associate/Former Comparative Political Economy Researcher/Oakland, CA; B.A Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

      The Berkeley Table

      Facilitating interdisciplinary work to increase public access to world-class research in the social sciences and humanities along with commentary for popular enrichment.

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