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073 - On The Rule Of Law - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The rule of law is a gift beyond price that should be defended at all costs.
View of hotels along a British seaside resort - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

There is a public virtue that is as important for the modern philosopher as the private virtue I have been encouraging you to cultivate. Although we remind ourselves to place no value in external things, still we operate in the external world. “What is this public good,” you ask, “and why is it of benefit to the philosopher?” I will tell you, Deuteros, so that you may give it the proper respect and through your actions also reinforce it: it is the rule of law.

We can think of the rule of law as the reason of a well-ordered mind applied to the body politic on a society-wide scale. Just as we individuals know, or rather we should know and must continually remind ourselves, that our actions have predictable consequences, so the rule of law gives us certainty that defined actions will have guaranteed results:

  • If we enter into a binding contract in which I am to lease an apartment from you, then I may be sure that I will have quiet enjoyment of it as of the agreed date for the agreed sum, or I will have a remedy that I can reliably enforce.
  • Property that belongs to a person, the fruit of their personal labor, cannot be taken from them by any other person without due process of law.
  • The state will protect your person from physical harm by another, and though it is more powerful than every citizen, the state will not prevent even the weakest from speaking their mind freely.

Though some of our fellow citizens accept these blessings without a thought, the philosopher knows to praise them above all else. For it is the rule of law and its governing of external things that gives us the freedom to focus on internal things. When we know that our person and our property are secure from assault, we ourselves become the only person who can create a real threat to our happiness. When we know that we can not only think freely but talk freely, this allows us to share our learnings and let wisdom grow in any individual where it has taken root.

“But aren’t the benefits of the rule of law as you’ve described available to all?” Indeed they are, at least within the same society where the rule of law is applied. But though a commodity is equally distributed, it will be prized most highly by those that have contemplated its worth. How ironic that we only come to appreciate the worth of something after it has been taken from us. A sailor cast adrift will appreciate the sight of shore more heartily than those who walk the same streets daily. A starving man will approach the buffet with an appetite not shared by his well-fed fellow diners. Citizens of a country at war will relish a quiet morning uninterrupted by martial cries far more than those who have only known peace. Wallowing in our peace and prosperity, too many have forgotten that our condition is not the default in human history, and that our riches have been hard fought for and hard won.

“Are you saying that suffering is the precondition for appreciation,” you ask, “and do you suggest that philosophers are the only ones who have suffered?” Give me a moment, my dear Deuteros! I am about the explanation, and I need you to be a patient traveling companion as I make my way. Do not rush me through the waypoints just because you think you have sighted our ultimate destination. To travel well is to experience the journey and not just to arrive. Keep faithfully with me on the journey and I promise you will not look back and consider our stops to have been wasted time.

Here is what I mean to say when I say that one must recognize the true value of a thing to properly appreciate it. The citizens in the wealthiest and most secure countries have become so preoccupied with possessions and status that they risk losing everything of value they have gained by seeking things of little value. Consider the Western obsession with income inequality. Many wring their hands and wail that the top 1% have more wealth than they need, when everyone in society has seen their standard of living rise above that of kings a few generations ago. Truly we are blind when we can see only that our neighbor has a crumb more than us. We lose sight of the fact that we ourselves have mountains more than just about every other person alive today, let alone across the sweep of history.

The situation is more dire than you would at first think, Deuteros. When people argue that the wealthy should not be allowed to keep the harvest they have brought in, that it shall be forcibly wrested from them and redistributed, not to the needy but to the mere wanting, we are pouring powerful acid on one of the pillars of the rule of law. This corrosive once applied inevitably spills over onto the other pillars: their speech is offensive and serves no purpose, what harm is there in censoring it; certain persons have received power and prestige out of proportion to their numbers, shall we not redistribute positions and status more equitably?

Though they are separated by just two letters, equity and equality could not operate at more opposite ends of humankind. Because you cannot make some plants grow as high as others, the only way to create parity when seeking equity is to cut all down to the same size. It is true that the condition otherwise guaranteed by the rule of law, equality of treatment in all things, means some will take to the conditions of the soil and thrive, while others languish. But do we tear up the entire field, plow it under and salt the earth, because some seeds are strewn on rocky ground or are shaded by their neighbors’ faster growth?

I can see the scythes, pitchforks, and plows none too far, Deuteros, lit up by the glow of the mobs’ torches. The hunger for more is insatiable and knows no reason. It will burn and destroy what it cannot possess, for spite also knows no reason. Thus I tell you that the rule of law is a gift beyond price that should be defended at all costs. If philosophers see the truth in this it is our duty to spread the word. Every person who comes to see that taking things to oneself does not add to the stock of joy in the world but only adds to its misery, is one member of the mob quietly slipping away, one less building torched. It is our sacred duty to protect and preserve the rule of law so that more may become rich in internal reason.

Be well.

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