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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

of laws and not of men

"... of laws and not of men."
What do people mean when they say that?
John Adams, writing as Novanglus, quoted James Harrington from a 1656 work, The Commonwealth of Oceana as describing government as the empire of laws and not of men.
What did Harrington mean?
What did John Adams mean?
Many people use the phrase, "... of laws and not of men" in conversation today. What do they mean?

I have tried to make sense of it.

Webster's 1828 has 26 definitions. Here are ones I see as relevant to my question.
LAW, n. [L. lex; from the root of lay. See lay. A law is that which is laid, set or fixed, like statute, constitution, from L. statuo.]

1. A rule, particularly an established or permanent rule, prescribed by the supreme power of a state to its subjects, for regulating their actions, particularly their social actions. Laws are imperative or mandatory, commanding what shall be done; prohibitory, restraining from what is to be forborn; or permissive, declaring what may be done without incurring a penalty. The laws which enjoin the duties of piety and morality, are prescribed by God and found in the Scriptures.

Law is beneficence acting by rule.

2. Municipal law, is a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power of a state, commanding what its subjects are to do, and prohibiting what they are to forbear; a statute.

Municipal or civil laws are established by the decrees, edicts or ordinances of absolute princes, as emperors and kings, or by the formal acts of the legislatures of free states. Law therefore is sometimes equivalent to decree, edict, or ordinance.

3. Law of nature, is a rule of conduct arising out of the natural relations of human beings established by the Creator, and existing prior to any positive precept. Thus it is a law of nature, that one man should not injure another, and murder and fraud would be crimes, independent of any prohibition from a supreme power.

4. Laws of animal nature, the inherent principles by which the economy and functions of animal bodies are performed, such as respiration, the circulation of the blood, digestion, nutrition, various secretions, &c.

6. Physical laws, or laws of nature. The invariable tendency or determination of any species of matter to a particular form with definite properties, and the determination of a body to certain motions, changes, and relations, which uniformly take place in the same circumstances, is called a physical law. These tendencies or determinations, whether called laws or affections of matter, have been established by the Creator, and are, with a peculiar felicity of expression, denominated in Scripture, ordinances of heaven.

And here is how he defines men:

MEN, plu. of man. Two or more males, individuals of the human race.

1. Males of bravery. We will live in honor, or die like men.

2. Persons; people; mankind; in an indefinite sense. Men are apt to forget the benefactor, while they riot on the benefit.

How could people be using "men"? I think what is meant is most likely in the singular sense, referring to any particular person. So, what could be the actual intent of the term? Is it possible to determine from the use of "men" what is actually meant by the phrase? I don't think so. I think it needs to be balanced against the use of the word "laws". So, which meaning above would people be using for law?

My guess, from the context and the way I usually hear that phrase in the course of conversation is meaning 1 or 2. Are definitions 1 and 2 actually that different? Are they different in kind? I really don't think they are. Definition 1 controls social actions and 2 dictates civil conduct.

A nation of commands, prohibitions, edicts and decrees but not of men? Is that what people mean?

What about 3? a rule of conduct arising out of the natural relations of human beings established by the Creator, but not of men?

Did John Adams mean that? Did James Harrington mean that? Is that the type of society in which we live?

We know its not 4, but I'm leaving that in for a reason.

How about 6? Well, that is fairly similar to 4 in kind.

What do 3, 4 and 6 have in common that differentiate them in kind from 1 and 2?
It seems to me that 3,4 and 6 are inherent in the nature of things. They are laws that are discovered. 1 and 2 are laws that are decreed. How can 2 concepts that are so entirely different in kind from each other be subsumed by the same word? Well, there are plenty of words that have very diverse meanings. But, one can usually tell by the context what meaning is implied.

So, why is it the case that the majority of people assume meanings 1 and 2?
1 : an order usually having the force of law

2 a : an authoritative rule dealing with details or procedure b : a rule or order issued by an executive authority or regulatory agency of a government and having the force of law

So, to rephrase again so we can better understand what is meant, "the empire of a rule or an order from a man backed by force by a man, but not of men".

Does this make any sense? Is there a contradiction in the two phrases of that statement? How can one claim it is not an empire of men when it is man made laws that are enforced by men that are the type of laws in question? Doesn't that reduce to "a nation of men, but not of men?" Is there any meaning in that? Is it even a phrase that has any point to its utterance? Is there yet a contradiction in the statement that needs to be resolved? I see the contradiction in the fact that for the statement to have any meaning there must be a contradistinction between the two phrases and there isn't one. From the use of the words, it seems apparent to me that what is meant by "men" is "the whims of individual persons". Decrees and the like are often created from the whims of individual persons.

How can we resolve that contradiction?

What if we choose the concept expressed by 3, 4 and 6? The concept of discovered laws; laws inherent in and determined by the nature of things. How would the phrase then read?
"an empire based on the identified nature of things and not the whims of men". Does this make sense? Do we find an actual contradistinction between the two phrases? It seems to me we do.

If the statement is to have any meaning and any value in being uttered, doesn't it seem that there should be an obvious difference between the two phrases?

The way I see it, what should be meant when people use that statement is the second meaning. What would it be like to live in a society based on natural laws where no whim of one man could be inflicted on another man by force?

So, I ask again: "... of laws and not of men."
What do people mean when they say that?
Do they mean the same thing Adams and Harrington meant? Did Adams mean what Harrington meant? Here's an excerpt from page 7 of The Commonwealth of Oceana from gutenberg:
And government (to define it de facto, or according to modern prudence) is an art whereby some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according to his or their private interest; which, because the laws in such cases are made according to the interest of a man, or of some few families, may be said to be the empire of men, and not of laws.

The former kind is that which Machiavel (whose books are neglected) is the only politician that has gone about to retrieve; and that Leviathan (who would have his book imposed upon the universities) goes about to destroy. For "it is," says he, "another error of Aristotle's politics that in a well-ordered commonwealth, not men should govern, but the laws. What man that has his natural senses, though he can neither write nor read, does not find himself governed by them he fears, and believes can kill or hurt him when he obeys not? or, who believes that the law can hurt him, which is but words and paper, without the hands and swords of men?" I confess that the magistrate upon his bench is that to the law which a gunner upon his platform is to his cannon. Nevertheless, I should not dare to argue with a man of any ingenuity after this manner. A whole army, though they can neither write nor read, are not afraid of a platform, which they know is but earth or stone; nor of a cannon, which, without a hand to give fire to it, is but cold iron; therefore a whole army is afraid of one man. But of this kind is the ratiocination of Leviathan, as I shall show in divers places that come in my way, throughout his whole politics, or worse; as where he says, "of Aristotle and of Cicero, of the Greeks, and of the Romans, who lived under popular States, that they derived those rights, not from the principles of nature, but transcribed them into their books out of the practice of their own commonwealths, as grammarians describe the rules of language out of poets." Which is as if a man should tell famous Harvey that he transcribed his circulation of the blood, not out of the principles of nature, but out of the anatomy of this or that body.
(emphasis mine)

Well, I couldn't find the actual quote, but I found the inverse.
It sounds as if Harrington meant it the way I interpret it.

Do you use that statement?
What do you mean when you say that?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I don't use the statement, and haven't heard it much.

    The important thing I take away from it is that it is usually uttered by those who feel THEY have the right(or ability or heritage or whatever) to tell OTHERS what laws should be. The contradiction in the saying is well pointed out. Someone who does not have a hand in making law obviously would not think the same way of this statement, unless he's not smart enough to think for himself and only puppets that which he hears.

    Looking forward to your stuff here.

    - Kyle D