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Politics (Excerpts)

by Aristotle

Translated by Michael Pakaluk

[Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Michael Pakaluk. Princeton, N.J.: The Witherspoon Institute. 2012. 3.16.1287a8–32. Used with permission.]


As regards what is referred to as “absolute monarchy,” that is, where the king decides everything by his own judgment—some people consider that it is hardly consistent with nature for one man to make decisions for all the citizens, in a city-state composed of citizens who are all alike, on the grounds that, necessarily, the same thing is just by nature for those who are alike, and those who are alike all merit the same thing by nature. These people conclude that, just as it is harmful for unequal members of a living body to receive the same food or clothing, so it is harmful for citizens who are unequal to receive the same share in authority—but then similarly it’s harmful for equals to receive unequal shares. That is why, they say, it is not any more just that someone should rule than that he should be ruled; and, therefore, they should take turns ruling.

But this is already a “law”—because an ordering is a law. For the law to rule, then, is better than for any one of the citizens to rule. (By the same line of thought, even if it were better for certain persons to govern, such men should be established as “guardians of the law” and ministers of the laws only.)

It is necessary that some individuals govern, they agree, but there is nothing just about this person in particular governing, when all the citizens are alike. And it is not as if a man would know how to make a determination in cases in which the law could not. It is the law, rather, which makes explicit provision for this and appoints authorities to determine any remaining matters by their judgment as to what is most just, and as they see fit. Further, the law allows them to try to improve existing laws by amendment as seems best.

So then, anyone whose command is that “law should govern” seems to command that “only God and Intelligence should govern;” and anyone whose command is that “this man should govern” slips a beast in as well. (That is the sort of thing that sense-desire is. And as for spirit, it corrupts rulers, even the best among them.) That is why the law simply is intelligence but without desire.

Rhetoric  (Excerpts)

by Aristotle

Translated by Michael Pakaluk

[Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by Michael Pakaluk. Princeton, N.J.: The Witherspoon Institute. 2012. 1.13.1373b2–17. Used with permission.]


Justices and injustices, then, have been defined in relation to two kinds of law…: I mean, law which is distinctive, and law which is common to everyone. Distinctive law is that which a particular group sets down for its own members (it is partly written down, and partly unwritten); law which is common to everyone is that which accords with nature. For there really is, as everyone senses, something just by nature and common to all – and something unjust – even when people have no association or agreement with one another.

This for example is what Sophocles’ Antigone is plainly referring to, when she says that the burial of Polyneices, although prohibited, is just, meaning that it is just by nature:

Not belonging to today or tomorrow,
It lives eternally: no one knows how it arose.

Another example is how Empedocles remarks that “Kill no living thing” is not just for some but unjust for others:

Nay, rather, this is lawfully binding on everyone, with a lawfulness which
     stretches unbroken,
Throughout the boundless illumination of the overarching sky.

Rhetoric  (Excerpts)

by Aristotle

Translated by Michael Pakaluk

[Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by Michael Pakaluk. Princeton, N.J.: The Witherspoon Institute. 2012. 1.15.1375a25–b8. Used with permission.]



Let us first speak about how law might be appealed to in persuading and in dissuading, and in making accusations and in defending against accusations.

Clearly, if the written law counts against the thing done, one ought to appeal to the law which is common to everyone, and which is binding upon those who are the more equitable and more just, as follows:

  • “The juror’s oath, ‘by my best judgment,’ means that one should not appeal only to the written law and no more than that.”

  • “What is equitable always remains the same; it never changes: neither then does that law which is common to everyone – because it conforms to nature – but the written laws often change. That is why Antigone says what she does in Sophocles’ play. She defends herself by saying that she buried her brother contrary to Creon’s law but not contrary to the unwritten law:

“Not belonging to today or tomorrow, it lives eternally …
I wasn’t about (to risk the punishment of the gods) for fear of a mere man …”

  • “Justice, of course, is true and beneficial, not what people merely believe to be just. Hence the written law in this case is not law, since it does not fulfill the purpose of law. A judge is like someone assaying silver: he has to distinguish spurious justice from true justice.”

  • “The better man is the one who looks to the unwritten law and keeps that law, in preference to the written law.”

Nicomachean Ethics (Excerpts)

by Aristotle

Translated by Michael Pakaluk

[Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Michael Pakaluk. Princeton, N.J.: The Witherspoon Institute. 2012. 5.7.1134b19–1135a5. Used with permission]

Of political justice part is natural, part legal. Natural is that which everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people's thinking it to be so or not. Legal is:

  1. that which originally makes no difference whether it is this way or that, but when it has been set down it makes a difference, e.g.

    1. a prisoner’s ransom is a mina; or
    2. sacrifice a goat, not two sheep;
  2. and again all laws set down for particular circumstances, e.g.

    1. sacrifice in honour of Brasidas; or
    2. the provisions of decrees.

To some people it looks as though all justice is of this sort, because that which is by nature is unchangeable and has everywhere the same force (as fire burns both here and in Persia), but they see matters of justice changing.