Aristotle on Wit, and Conscience vs. Law

In the eighth section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of wit.

As you should expect by this point, Aristotle thinks that there are those who are overly-serious, those who try to make a joke out of everything, and pleasant people who find the sweet spot in the middle.

Various translations of the virtue and vices concerning wit
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
ready wit
graceful wit

(The “urbane” vs. “rustic” terminology hints at an interesting investigation, but I’ve got too much on my plate to look in to it right now. Any pointers?)

Much of this section is predictable from the pattern shown by the previous ones and from common sense. But Aristotle lets slip a passage that allows us to take an interesting detour.

[Of t]he man who jokes well… There are… jokes he will not make; for the jest is a sort of abuse, and there are things that lawgivers forbid us to abuse; and they should, perhaps, have forbidden us even to make a jest of such. The refined and well-bred man, therefore, will be as we have described, being as it were a law to himself.

The “a law to [or unto] himself” translation is common to all of the translators I have been referring to (Ross, Chase, Browne, Gilles, Grant, Hatch, Moore, Peters, Stock, Taylor, Vincent, Welldon, Williams), though some say that the refined man behaves “as though” he were a law unto himself, others say that the refined man “is” a law unto himself (in these matters). Stock goes so far as to add (in his paraphrase) “It is the use of philosophy to render law superfluous.”

I assume the translators used the phrase “a law unto himself” to translate “νόμος ὢν ἑαυτῷ” because they were following the lead of the translators of the King James Bible, who used a similar phrase to translate the similar Greek phrase “ἑαυτοῖς εἰσιν νόμος” in Romans 2:14 (“a law unto themselves”).

That passage in Romans reads as follows:

For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

Both Aristotle and Paul are saying that in the absence of explicit laws, a righteous person still has a conscience that can guide them and act as an internal lawbook.

But both Aristotle and Paul seemed to believe that there is or ought to be a set of explicit external laws that takes priority. In Paul’s case, these laws were the revealed commands of God; in Aristotle’s case, the considered and codified guidance of the enlightened polis.

(Aristotle seems to believe that the whole point of having a government and laws is to train people in virtue, punish vice, and enforce Justice. This seems a naive and limited view of what governments are actually for, but, on the other hand, most people who criticize governments but who believe in them tend to implicitly make their criticisms by way of contrasting an existing government with an ideal one that is much like Aristotle’s. So maybe Aristotle is just fleshing-out this ideal government that people use for such comparisons.)

Thoreau upended this hierarchy: he put conscience first, and said that the written laws of governments and religions are only fall-back measures for people with simple minds or faulty consciences.

He wrote a number of times of the tension between law and conscience, law and freedom, and even conscience and freedom. Not all of what he said seems to cohere into a single point of view, but much of it is, as you might expect, thought provoking and rhetorically powerful. Here are some examples:

The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it.

Slavery in Massachusetts

Who ever can discern truth has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest justice in the world who can discern only law.

Slavery in Massachusetts

He who lives according to the highest law is in one sense lawless. That is an unfortunate discovery, certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist! He for whom the law is made, who does not obey the law but whom the law obeys, reclines on pillows of down and is wafted at will whither he pleases, for man is superior to all laws, both of heaven and earth, when he takes his liberty.

Journal, (unknown date)

No good ever came of obeying a law which you had discovered.

Journal, 19 March 1851

There is something servile in the habit of seeking after a law which we may obey. We may study the laws of matter at and for our convenience, but a successful life knows no law. It is an unfortunate discovery certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know before that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist—and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist. The man who takes the liberty to live is superior to all the laws, by virtue of his relation to the law-maker.


Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

Resistance to Civil Government

I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

Resistance to Civil Government

What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity — who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority. The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.

Slavery in Massachusetts

It behooves every man to see that his influence is on the side of justice, and let the courts make their own characters.

Slavery in Massachusetts

There is but one obligation and that is the obligation to obey the highest dictate.— None can lay me under another which will supersede this. The Gods have given me these years without any incumbrance—society has no mortgage on them. If any man assist me in the way of the world, let him derive satisfaction from the deed itself—for I think I never shall have dissolved my prior obligations to God.


I must confess I see no resource but to conclude that conscience was not given us to no purpose, or for a hindrance but that however flattering order and expediency may look—it is but the repose of a lethargy—and we will choose rather to be awake though it be stormy and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life as we may—without signing our death-warrant in the outset.— What does the law protect my rights? or any rights—my right or the right? If I avail myself of it, it may help my sin, it cannot help my virtue— Let us see if we cannot stay here where God has put us on his own conditions.


The stern command is—move or ye shall be moved—be the master of your own action—or you shall unawares become the tool of the meanest slave. Any can command him who doth not command himself. Let men be men & stones be stones and we shall see if majorities do rule.


It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery “to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place one’s self in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society.” He declared that “a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require half so much courage as a foot-pad.” “Honor and religion have never stood in the way of a well-considered and a firm resolve. Tell me, Du Saillant, when you lead your regiment into the heat of battle, to conquer a province to which he whom you call your master has no right whatever, do you consider that you are performing a better action than mine, in stopping your friend on the king’s highway, and demanding his purse?”

“I obey without reasoning,” replied the count.

“And I reason without obeying, when obedience appears to me to be contrary to reason,” rejoined Mirabeau.

This was good and manly, as the world goes; and yet it was desperate. A saner man would have found opportunities enough to put himself in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society, and so test his resolution, in the natural course of events, without violating the laws of his own nature. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he finds himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government. Cut the leather only where the shoe pinches. Let us not have a rabid virtue that will be revenged on society — that falls on it, not like the morning dew, but like the fervid noonday sun, to wither it.


[John Brown] was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things; he did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid; & here he is called insane by all who could not appreciate such magnanimity.


Is it not possible that an individual may be right & a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made, & declared by any number of men to be good, when they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which his higher nature disapproves?


What right have you to enter into a compact with yourself (even) that you will do thus or so, against the light within you? Is it for you to make up your mind—to form any resolution whatever—& not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, & which even pass your understanding?

Any man knows when he is justified, & not all the wits in the world can enlighten him on that point.

I do not believe in lawyers—in that mode of defending or attacking a man—because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground, & in cases of the highest importance, it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let lawyers decide trivial cases. Business men may arrange that among themselves. It is comparatively a different matter. If they were interpreters of the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing.


Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics