Aristotle and Aquinas
Among political theorists, the debate over the rule of law has been quite intense. From the earliest days of political philosophy through to the enlightenment, there have been varying views on what the rule of law should be. Two thinkers in particular - Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas - are perhaps the most influential. On the surface, they both advocate the rule of law as playing a crucial role in society. But upon deeper analysis, one finds that Aristotle's views sharply contrast with those of Aquinas. This essay shall attempt to elucidate the disagreement between Aristotle and Aquinas, by first outlining Aristotle's arguments for and against the rule of law, and then by explaining what Aristotle would find inadequate with Aquinas' arguments.
In the third book of Politics (1286a8ff.), Aristotle presents a number of arguments for and against the rule of law. He begins by posing a question around which his ensuing discussion revolves:
The beginning point of the inquiry if this: whether it is more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.1
He proceeds to point out that laws only speak of the universal, and that they "do not command a view to circumstance"2 He uses the analogy of an Egyptian doctor to prove his point. In Egypt, a doctor must follow legal procedure when treating a patient. It is only after the fourth day that the doctor is legally permitted to use his or her own discretion, and even then, it is at his or her own risk. Thus, the doctor must follow the prescribed routine (until the fourth day), even if it leads to the death of his patient. Aristotle uses this example to illustrate that the best regime cannot be one that is based on written rules or laws. By their very nature, written laws are rigid and inflexible, and cannot tend to the ever-changing needs of the people. Take, for example, the crime of murder. How can murder be classified? No two murders can ever be identical. Each murderer has his or her own motives. Some may kill in self-defence, while others may kill as a psychological disorder. Is it thus fair to judge all murderers as equals? Of course not. Accordingly, it would seem that the rule of law is necessarily deficient in some areas. Yet, Aristotle does not discard the rule of law altogether. In fact, he supports it by saying that the ruler must himself "necessarily be a legislator, and that laws must exist."3 But what about those things that the law is unable to determine? In these cases, who should wield authority?
Aristotle presents two arguments which seem to indicate that he supports aristocratic rule. Firstly, because of their numerical superiority, the multitude are better equipped to judge in areas where the law is deficient. In his own words, he writes "a crowd can judge many matters better than any single person."4 The logic of this argument is simple: The multitude has many different...