An Ancient Law So Bad That It Served As Aristotle’s Prime Example Of Laws That Need Amending

In regard to amending laws, the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), believed that law codes should indeed be fixed and improved when they are faulty, but that amendments should be done at a slow and cautious pace. As was often the case in Aristotle’s philosophy, he suggested a balanced middle-ground approach. Not too much change—which could lead to anarchy, revolution, or simply the disregard for law—and not too little change, as unrest could also occur when laws are deemed archaic and unjust in public opinion. Therefore Aristotle proposed a careful median, where laws could and should be bettered, but at a slow enough pace so ensure that the populace never lost respect for the authority of the law code. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote:

“Generally, of course, it is the good, and not simply the traditional, that is aimed at. It would be foolish to adhere to the notions of primitive men…But looking at it another way we must say that there will be need of the very greatest caution. In a particular case we may have to weigh a very small improvement against the danger of getting accustomed to casual abrogation of the laws…A man will receive less benefit from changing the law than damage from becoming accustomed to disobey authority” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker page 1269a).

Despite the potential danger of change, there are some laws that are so ill-conceived and ineffective that they must be rewritten or amended. In his Politics, Aristotle called out by name a particular city that had one such laughably unacceptable law in its history. The city given this unwanted name-recognition was Cyme, which once had a prosecutorial system that was so flawed that it was sure to bring up some smirks, scoffs and laughter anytime it was mentioned in Greece’s intellectual circles. At its core, the issue of Cyme’s ancient legal system apparently centered on the unregulated power of the prosecutors. On this, Aristotle wrote, “traces survive of other practices once doubtless customary, which merely make us smile today, such as the law relating to homicide in Cyme, by which, if the prosecutor can produce a number of witnesses, members of his own kin, then the defendant is guilty of murder” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker page 1269a).

Fortunately, Cyme’s legal system, with its concerning prosecutorial power and conflicts of interest, had evidently been addressed long before Aristotle brought it up as his example in his Politics. And Cyme was not alone in facing the philosopher’s criticism. Aristotle was a prolific critic, who critiqued almost anything he encountered, be it law, philosophy, poetry, plays, so on and so forth. Even the great Plato was not immune from Aristotle’s published criticisms.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Interior of Roman Building with Figures, by Ettore Forti (c. active late 19th century – early 20th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum.jpg).



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