Tuesday, September 22, 2015

School Paper: “Rulers and Justice” (Summer 2010)

I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the major papers that I wrote in college and seminary, and publish them here. Many of them are complete hunks of junk, but some of them aren’t so bad. This one is actually the first research paper that I wrote in college. It explores the theme of justice in ancient Greek literature. I did not choose the topic; it was assigned. And I was profoundly uninterested in it, which typically makes for a lame paper.

Rulers and Justice
History of Ideas 2
July 26, 2010


The Latin phrase Rex Lex (king is law) has been used to designate the form of government in which the king essentially is the law making him unaccountable to the law. This governmental structure is described sympathetically by Aegidius Romanus when he writes, “The law is a kind of inanimate prince; the prince, however, a kind of animate law. And in so far as the animate exceeds the inanimate the king or prince must exceed the law.”1 In other words, if ever the will of the king is in disharmony with the written law, the will of the king holds higher authority.

The opposite of Rex Lex is, of course, Lex Rex (law is king). Samuel Rutherford argued for the superiority of this governmental structure over against the pernicious and unbiblical despotism of a Rex Lex structure. He maintained that the king’s power in a Rex Lex government “is a supreme and highest power . . . to do above, without, or contrary to a law or reason, which is unreasonable . . . When God’s word speaketh of the power of kings and judges . . . there is not any footstep or any ground for such a power.”2

Charles M. Bakewell states that in Plato’s Republic the just state is one in which “each citizen [performs] the task for which he is best fitted, with an eye to the welfare of the whole.”3 It is imperative that this principle apply not only to the citizens of a given society but to the leadership of that society as well. Rulers cannot be free to define justice in whatever way they deem fit. Rather, justice must restrain the authority of the ruler. If a ruler has an absolute power which allows him to legislate whatever suits him at a given time, it will lead to an unhealthy society (or as we will see in Plato’s case, an unhealthy soul).

Numerous examples of the difficulties engendered by a Rex Lex governmental structure can be seen in the poets, playwrights, and philosophers of the ancient world. A clear pattern is conspicuous and consistent, beginning with a ruler who exercises absolute power and resulting in an amalgam of undesirable ramifications. Three examples in particular are the oppressive reign of Gilgamesh in the city of Uruk, Homer’s depiction of the egocentric demands of Agamemnon at the siege of Troy, and the discussion of the development of a tyrannical man in Plato’s Republic. In each of these three instances any objective concept of justice is sacrificed or ignored for the sake of fulfilling the subjective will of the man in power.


Discussions of the problems created by a form of government in which the king is above the law date back earlier than the twentieth century B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the ancient king Gilgamesh who ruled the city of Uruk. The opening lines of the epic contain much acclaim and praise for this king. He is called “superior to other kings, a warrior lord of great stature, a hero born of Uruk, . . . a strong net, the protection of his men, . . . perfect in strength.”4 He is even purported, also, to be two-thirds divine.

These words of commendation, however, last only temporarily. The anonymous author soon “rewinds” the narrative back to a time when the people of Uruk did not think so highly of their king. In transitioning to this prior historical context, the author makes mention of a sexually immoral practice that Gilgamesh, as king, engages in. The reader is informed that “Gilgamesh will not leave young girls alone, the daughters of warriors, the brides of young men.”5 These words seem to indicate that Gilgamesh enforced a kind of jus primae noctus, a Latin phrase which means “right of the first night” (also referred to as droit de seigneur, the French equivalent). This gave the king a right to sleep with newly-wed brides on their wedding night.

Jeffrey H. Tigay discusses this feature of the Gilgamesh epic and maintains that while we can’t be certain whether jus primae noctis was the exact nature of Gilgamesh’s oppression of Uruk, “it is hard to believe that jus primae noctis was not at least part of what is suggested.”6 If Tigay is right then it’s no wonder that we soon witness the misery of the people of Uruk as they begin pleading to the goddess Aruru, beseeching her to create a rival to match Gilgamesh: “Now create someone for [Gilgamesh], to match the ardour of his energies! Let them be regular rivals, and let Uruk be allowed peace!” While it’s uncertain whether the events of Gilgamesh are entirely historical, this scenario nevertheless provides a clear example of the problems which ensue when an objective concept of justice is abandoned in favor of preserving the absolute power of the king. A king who rules in such a way that does not acknowledge the welfare or common good of the whole will inevitably see the loyalty of his people dwindle.


Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem that recounts the events which took place in the final year of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy. At the beginning of the story Chryses, a priest of Apollo, asks Agamemon, king of Argos and leader of the Greek army, to return his daughter Chryseis whom Agamemnon had captured as a war-prize. When Agamemnon refuses the priest’s request, the Greeks begin to be afflicted by a plague. When the prophet Calchas informs Agamemnon that the plague will lift when he returns the daughter of Chryses, Agamenon becomes furious and the reader begins to observe how his Rex Lex mentality drives the decisions that follow.

Agamemnon initially seems to act justly when he agrees to send Chryseis back to her father: “I’ll give her back, if that’s what’s best. I don’t want to see the army destroyed like this.”7 This acquiescence would mean the lifting of the plague thus making it the best course of action for everyone. However, he expresses his ultimate dissatisfaction when he immediately follows up with orders: “But I want another prize ready for me right way. I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize, it wouldn’t be right.”8 Francis M. Cornford writes that the “The Greek word for just has as many senses as the English right9 and so we might just as easily understand Agamemnon as saying that his own lack of a prize wouldn’t be just.

Justice, however, is the last of Agamemnon’s concerns as he later takes for himself Briseis, the war-prize of Achilles, the mightiest warrior of the Greek army. This proves to be an unwise decision as it incites the Myrmidons, Achilles’ battalion, to temporarily back out of the war. In the absence of the Myrmidon ranks the Greeks take unanticipated casualties. Agamemnon initially seemed to be acting for the common good of his soldiers when he returned Chryseis thereby lifting the plague, but when he decides to steal Achilles’ war-prize as compensation it leads to a prolonged military struggle which results in countless unnecessary deaths. Inconsistent justice is essentially injustice and yields the same detrimental consequences. The historicity of Iliad, like Gilgamesh, is debatable and the justice of owning a female slave as a war-prize is itself questionable to say the least, but this particular scene in Iliad provides a good example of the problems caused by a governmental structure in which the king defines what is just.

Plato’s Tyrannical Man

The aim of Plato’s Republic, while largely a discussion about the characteristics of a utopia or ideal state, is to arrive at a comprehensive definition of the virtue of justice. After a few unsatisfactory attempts at defining the elusive essence of said virtue, the three interlocutors, lead by Socrates (who presumably represents the view of Plato), decide that understanding justice on a broad societal level is the best way to understand justice on an individual level.10 As Socrates famously states, the city is the soul writ large. Cornford writes that “little as Plato valued what he has described as democratic liberty, no democrat could surpass him in detestation of the despotism (tyranny) which is the triumph of injustice and the very negation of the liberty he did believe in.”11 Socrates describes tyranny as the most unjust of all governmental structures and therefore the tyrannical soul is the most unjust of all souls.

Book nine contains a lengthy and psychologically insightful analysis of the man with a tyrannical soul. If a tyrannical state is one governed, not by justice, but by its desires, then a tyrannical man is one who is likewise driven by his fleshly desires. Socrates explains that “a man becomes tyrannical in the precise sense of the term when either his nature or his way of life or both of them together make him drunk, filled with erotic desire, and mad.”12 When all of this man’s money is gone, the “crowd of desires that [have] nested within him inevitably shout in protest”13, paralleling the crowd of unhappy citizens who live within a tyrannically governed state. The tyrannical man will stop at nothing to insure that these desires within him are satisfied, even if this means stealing from his parents or looting temples. His desires “live like a tyrant within him, in complete anarchy and lawlessness as his sole ruler, and drives him, as if he were a city, to dare anything that will provide sustenance for itself.”14 His own reason functioning as the ruler of his soul, this tyrannical man mirrors, on a personal level, the flaws seen previously in the despotic reigns of Gilgamesh and Agamemnon.


Juan de Mariana pithily states that “nothing is better than to have the Prince restrained by the laws, nothing a heavier curse than that he be free from them.”15 Plato was convinced that “the having and doing of one’s own”16 was an essential component of justice. From the works of ancient writers three illustrations have been seen of the consequences that follow a neglect of this crucial component. Gilgamesh encroached on that which was not his own when he violated newly-wed brides as an exercise of his absolute power. The result was an oppressed and desperate people. Agamemnon, by way of his Rex Lex authority, took that which was not his own when he stole the war-prize of Achilles. The result was a prolonged military struggle which cost many lives. Plato’s tyrannical man is willing to take what doesn’t belong to him in order to satisfy the desires which drive him. The result is an unhealthy soul. These examples serve to illustrate what was argued in the introduction, namely that if a man is free to define justice in whatever way he deems appropriate, it will inevitably lead to despondency and distress in a society or soul.

1. Aegidius Romanus, quoted in Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 134.
2. Samuel Rutherfod, Lex Rex; or, The Law and the Prince [book on-line] (Oxford University, 1843, accessed 22 July 2010), 106; available from http://books.google.com.au/books?id=jtYDAAAAQAAJ&dq; Internet.
3. Charles M. Bakewell, introduction to Plato, Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), xxxviii.
4. “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in Myths from Mesopotamia, rev. ed., trans. Stephanie Dalley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 51.
5. Ibid., 52.
6. Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1982), 184.
7. Homer, Iliad, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 4.
8. Ibid., 4-5.
9. Francis M. Cornford, introduction to “Book I” in The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 1.
10. Plato Republic 368c-369a.
11. Francis M. Cornford, introduction to “Chapter XXXII” in The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 287 (emphasis mine).
12. Plato Republic 573c.
13. Ibid. 573e.
14. Ibid. 574e.
15. Juan de Mariana, The King and the Education of the King, trans. George A. Moore (Washington D.C.: The Country Dollar Press, 1948), 119.
16. Plato Republic 434a.

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