Zbigniew STAWROWSKI: The Rule of Law as a European Value.  The Philosophical Context of the Prevailing Political Dispute

The Rule of Law as a European Value.
The Philosophical Context of the Prevailing Political Dispute

Photo of Prof. Zbigniew STAWROWSKI

Prof. Zbigniew STAWROWSKI

Philosopher of politics, lecturer at the The Cardinal Wyszynski University in Warsaw. Author of, among others, Natural Law and Political Order (2006), Immoral Democracy (2008), Solidarity Means Ties (2010), Around the Idea of Community (2012), Building on Sand. Sketches on the Third Republic (2014).


other articles by this author

Current political disputes about the rule of law – whether in the context of the domestic order or interstate relations and their new forms that have emerged within the European Union – are merely the contemporary actualisation of the above-described eternal conflict between two visions of man. One is represented by those who prioritise self-interest and perceive power as the ultimate determining factor, the other by those who know that a meaningful human life is permeated by a sense of community, solidarity and responsibility towards others.


.The rule of law is a concept that Western countries have come to regard as a fundamental determinant of properly functioning political entities. There is perhaps no more serious accusation in the European Union today than that of violating the rule of law, resulting in accused states being publicly shamed for distancing themselves from the community of civilised nations. Many prominent European politicians continue to remind us of this. Allow me to demonstrate with an example – the words spoken by a highly significant individual, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, during his address on  28 August 2022 at Charles University in Prague:

Peace and freedom, democracy and the rule of law [Rechtsstaatlichkeit], human rights and human dignity – these values of the European Union are a heritage we gained together. (…) That’s why we are supporting the Commission in its work for the rule of law. The European Parliament is also following the subject with close attention. For that I am very grateful. We should not shy away from using all the means at our disposal to correct failings. Surveys show that a large majority of the general public, in Hungary and Poland as elsewhere, actually want the EU to do more to stand up for freedom and democracy in their countries.

Those means include the rule-of-law procedure under Article 7 of the TEU. Here as elsewhere, we need to come away from the ways in which progress can be blocked.

It also seems sensible to consistently tie payments to the maintenance of rule of law standards – as we have done with the 2021-2027 Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund in the COVID crisis.

And we should give the Commission a new way to launch infringement proceedings when there are breaches of what unites us at the very core: our fundamental values, enshrined by all of us in the EU Treaty, of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and defence of human rights. At the same time, I would prefer not to have arguments about the rule of law go all the way to court. What we most need, next to all the procedures and sanctions, is an open dialogue at the political level about failings, which exist in all countries. The Commission’s report on the rule of law, with its country-specific recommendations, provides a good basis for this. We will keep a close political eye on the implementation of those recommendations and do our own housekeeping too. After all, the rule of law is a fundamental value which should bind our union together. Especially at this time, with autocracy challenging our democracies, it is more important than ever.[1]

This platform text by the German Chancellor[2], in which the noble ideas and values of the European Union are coupled with undisguised threats of financial and political coercion towards non-compliant states, who are consequently accused of authoritarian inclinations, should come as no surprise. The selective application of the rule of law criterion within the EU has long been evident, with some states being harshly criticised for certain policies or institutional solutions, while others, typically the stronger states, are quietly left alone or regarded as irreproachable or even exemplary. In political practice and international relations, the rule of law is taking an alarmingly Protean form.

An instructive illustration of this phenomenon is provided by the Venice Commission’s opinion of 16 January 2020 on the condition of the rule of law in Poland. Paragraph 9 of this opinion reads that although in certain European countries judges are elected by the executive power, which in no way compromises their independence, the Commission recommends that new democracies establish judicial councils because “such councils help in ensuring that the judicial community may make a meaningful input in decisions concerning judges.”[3] Leaving aside the ludicrous notion that new democracies should grant special political or power privileges to such a judicial community[4] – a bizarre elite or perhaps even an “absolutely exceptional caste” – it strikes one as a blatant disregard for the principle of equality among states. It appears that although equality is presented as the fundamental value of the European Union – as stated in Article 4.2: “The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties” – in reality the Orwellian principle applies: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”[5]

The fact that this principle reigns in the European Union is well known to Polish politicians – both those who find it unacceptable and protest loudly against it and those who have long since come to terms with it and are trying to find the best possible place for themselves in the current hierarchy in order to build their careers. When recently asked why Poland accepted the collapse of the Polish shipyards and did not support them economically as Germany did, Janusz Lewandowski – an MEP from the Polish Civic Platform party and a former EU Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget – replied that  “sometimes, the bigger one can do more.”[6] It is worth remembering this perceptive interpretation of what exactly the rule of law seems to mean in the increasingly revealing European Union project, namely that what is and what is not the rule of law is ultimately to be decided by the interests of the stronger. This leads to a situation where individuals and countries without sufficient power are likely to face constant disregard of their legitimate rights, unfair treatment or disadvantage in major disputes.

This should not come as a surprise, as the belief that the rule of law equates to the dominance of the more powerful has been deeply embedded in European civilisation since its origin, serving as one – though fortunately not the only – method of structuring interpersonal relations within a community and, by extension, between nations.


.The introductory remarks above referred to the prevailing understanding of the rule of law within the European Union. However, the focus of my reflection today is not on the rule of law as a value of the EU, but rather as a European value – a universal value that forms the foundation of the entire Western world. The European Union, which adopted this name just three decades ago after the Maastricht Treaty, has merely echoed something that preceded it. The idea of the rule of law, which is prominently mentioned in the Treaty on European Union, both in the Preamble and Article 2, obviously has a long history. It had been the subject of reflection many centuries before anyone even thought of not only the European Union but of Europe itself. This shifts our focus away from current political or political science disputes and towards a philosophical question of what the rule of law really is.

  Before attempting to answer this question, let me start with a few remarks on linguistic issues. Two terms particularly relevant in this context are similar but not identical English “rule of law” and GermanRechtsstaatlichkeit.” Each of them was formed in its own particular place and time, meaning that they correspond to different historical experiences of specific communities and countries. The concept of the “rule of law” grew out of the English political tradition, beginning with Magna Charta (1215). Its modern interpretation, shaped in the 17th century and theorised by John Locke, can be traced back to the Bill of Rights (1689). In contrast, German “Rechtsstaatlichkeit” (derived from the word Rechtsstaat – rule of law) derives primarily from the philosophical reflections of Immanuel Kant.[7] Despite their differences, there is something that both traditions have in common. Firstly, they acknowledge that all individuals are equally susceptible to the same law – the principle of the rule of law means that all people are equal within the country and the community of lawful states. Secondly, they believe that law cannot be made freely and arbitrarily by the powerful but should be reasonable, just and possible to justify rationally. Thirdly and finally, both traditions share the conviction that public order must be founded on respect for the elementary, inalienable or inherent rights of every individual. These rights, as is particularly evident in the Kantian tradition, are rooted in the dignity of human beings – their infinite and absolute worth – and are therefore due to every person equally and without exception.

While acknowledging the significance and value of both the German and Anglo-Saxon models, we should refrain from idealising or blindly emulating them. Other nations have their own noteworthy experiences and accomplishments in advancing the concept of the rule of law. Poland’s historical uniqueness and the specificity of our approach to the rule of law are also worthy of consideration. This, however, is a task for a different study. Here, I would just like to draw attention to two important lines of reflection on the rule of law in Poland. The first concerns the current state of affairs and the intellectual frameworks that shape our understanding of the rule of law. The second line takes us back to the very beginning of a distinctively Polish tradition of understanding the nature and purpose of law.

First of all, it should be noted that in the Polish version of the Treaty on European Union the word praworządność [rule of law] does not appear at all. Instead, the term państwo prawne [state ruled by law][8] is used as an equivalent to the German Rechtsstaatlichkeit or the English rule of law.[9] The fact the term “state ruled by law” was used in the Polish translation of the Treaty instead of the “rule of law” is rooted in history and has intellectual and institutional consequences.

The concept of a state ruled by law first appeared in the “December Amendment” of 1989, where Article 1 of the Constitution of the (henceforth) Republic of Poland was worded as follows: “The Republic of Poland shall be a democratic state ruled by law and implementing the principles of social justice.”[10] This article has been reiterated – now as Article 2 – in the current Constitution of 1997. The authors of the Polish version of the Treaty on European Union, in a clear reference to this not very long but already established legal tradition, consistently introduce the term “state ruled by law” where the rule of law is mentioned.[11]

The fact that the term “state ruled by law,” simply a literal translation of the German Rechtsstaat, has become the most important juristic term in the Third Polish Republic, clearly indicates the educational background and inspiration of influential Polish jurists. But the matter is even more serious, given that such a translation is by no means obvious, and the interpretation it provides appears strongly one-sided. This is evident from the usage of the term “state ruled by law” in colloquial language to denote the concept of the rule of law. In the Polish language, we can distinguish between a state ruled by law – in which every act of the state authority must be legal (i.e. have a basis in the constitution or a legal act conforming to the constitution) – and a state of law (or, to put it more strongly: a lawful, just state), where not only the actions of the authority must be legal, but where both these actions and the constitution (with legal regulations derived from it) must be based on rational, legal and just premises. The fact that it was “a state rule by law” that was applied as the main concept to the Polish political system after 1989 suggests that those who decided on it were not only influenced by the German tradition rather than the Anglo-Saxon, but also belonged to a specific judicial school of thought – legal positivism. It is hard not to notice that in this particular understanding of a state ruled by law, where legalism becomes the ultimate value and is safeguarded by individuals professionally involved in the interpretation of edictal law, there is a natural tendency to reduce the rule of law to the rule of lawyers. Furthermore,  the legal elite – the aforementioned judicial community – begins to show an equally natural inclination to view itself as an “absolutely exceptional caste.”

Conversely, the rule of law prevailing in a “state of law” refers to an entirely different, older and nobler, tradition – the tradition of natural law, in which the validity of legal acts depends primarily on their rational, just content. In such an approach, the rule of law means the rule of just laws. The rule of law emerges as identical to justice and is almost synonymous with it.

The Polish tradition of thinking about the rule of law grew out of these roots and has followed its own unique path over the centuries. Its beginning can be ascribed to an entry penned by Master Wincenty Kadłubek in Chronica Polonorum. We read there that in the legendary era of King Grakch, when the Polish state was in the making, the old concept of justice favouring the rich was replaced by a new order that perceived justice as benefiting the powerless (“et dicta est iustitia, quae plurimum prodest ei qui minimum potes”).[12] This sentence goes beyond the Roman understanding of justice as suum cuique tribuere and – showing a clear Christian provenance – postulates what has come to be known in contemporary Catholic social teaching as the preferential option in favour of the poor. Today, the Christian-rooted understanding of the rule of law is becoming increasingly obscure in the majority of European countries and, most notably, within the European Union itself.[13] Instead of governance based on just principles and the absolute equality of all individuals before the law, with additional protection and care for the most vulnerable, there is a growing prevalence of a rule of law that favours the wealthiest and most powerful.


.The classic articulation of the conviction that law deserves its name only insofar as it is based on rational, just principles comes from St Thomas Aquinas, who expressed it as follows: “Human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence.”[14] St. Thomas is in fact following the lead of St. Augustine, for whom an “unjust law is not law at all,”[15] while states deprived of justice are no different from bands of robbers.[16]

But already in pre-Christian times there was an awareness that the laws governing human societies must be reasonable and just. This idea can be found both in the Jewish religious tradition and in the ancient Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics), and later in the Roman jurists (Cicero), who introduced the concept of natural law as a measure of the “rightfulness” or justness of the legal acts of the state.[17]

Allow me, then, to return to the very source of European thought, the philosopher who first articulated the issue of the rule of law – the rule of just laws – in such a clear and precise way that it continues to furnish us with invaluable instruments for comprehending the current state of affairs. I refer, of course, to Plato. His works – most notably the Republic but also many other dialogues – offer insightful reflections on fundamental philosophical ideas that precede the question of the rule of law and help to reveal its true, rational meaning. These culminate in Plato’s final dialogue, the Laws (gr. Nomoi), which presents the first, comprehensive yet detailed, project of a state embedded in the rule of law: a political community governed by just laws and rational institutions. The spirit of this project is best captured in the words of the author himself: “We maintain, in fact, that statesmanship consists of essentially this – strict justice.”[18]

The most important form of political activity is the formulation of laws to which all are subject equally: “(…) we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws.”[19] Plato means the rule of  “true law”, which must be rational. It means – without going into its specific content – it must be something general, universal, binding on everyone and treating everyone equally.[20] In a well-ordered state, such a rational and just law is the supreme authority, and those holding even the highest positions of power should be its faithful servants:

Such people are usually referred to as ‘rulers’, and if I have called them ‘servants of the laws’ it’s not because I want to mint a new expression but because I believe that the success or failure of a state hinges on this point more than on anything else. Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.[21]

A more unequivocal glorification of the rule of law and its recognition as a supreme value would indeed be difficult to find. At the same time, Plato emphasises that the rule of law is only possible where politicians – individuals responsible for the fate of the community – display a servile attitude:

No one will ever make a commendable master without having been a servant first; one should be proud not so much of ruling well but of serving well – and serving the laws above all (because this is the way we serve the gods).[22]

Plato’s works address a wide range of specific issues that remain consistent with elements now recognised as important to the rule of law. The right to property[23] is particularly noteworthy for its fundamental nature, as it provides people with an elementary sense of security. It is this right that leads to the need for just regulation of matters relating to the transfer of property and its violation, all of which can be found in the civil and criminal codes of modern states. Plato also proposes the correct way to organise the judicial system,[24] including the introduction of instance courts. He emphasises the importance of the independence of judges,[25] which can be ensured by appointing only people of the highest moral standards to perform judicial functions, and by establishing control mechanisms that allow for the dismissal and punishment of unjust judges. He also provides a model for the institution of law guardians – the prototype of today’s constitutional courts.

This is not, however, the place to analyse it in more detail.[26] Let us instead take a closer look at what precedes it, both in temporal order – since Plato had already considered it several decades earlier – and in logical order. The latter means that I wish to consider here also the fundamental decisions that make it possible or impossible to create a rationally organised community governed by just laws. The first question concerns justice itself: what is justice at its core, and what is its opposite, injustice?


.Plato’s first political work, the Republic, is dedicated to this question; it inaugurates the history of philosophical reflection on justice as the foundation of the rule of law. At the very beginning of this dialogue, after recalling the words of the poet Simonides that “it is just to give back whatever a person has lent to you”[27] and after specifying that it is “just to give to each what is appropriate to him,”[28] the discussion ensues regarding what is actually due to whom.

It immediately outlines two radically opposed ways of understanding justice – ways that still play the most important role today and remain in sharp conflict with each other. The first approach is a development and consequence of the famous words of the sophist Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.”[29] The second view, shared by Plato and later presented by Socrates, the protagonist of the dialogue, is instead based on the conviction – to use the words of Plato’s final work – that it is “God who is preeminently the ‘measure of all things,’ much more so than any ‘man,’ as they say. So if you want to recommend yourself to someone of this character, you must do your level best to make your own character reflect his, and on this principle the moderate man is God’s friend, being like him, whereas the immoderate and unjust man is not like him and is his enemy; and the same reasoning applies to the other vices too.”[30] The fact that this “healthy sense of measure (sophrosyne)” is rooted in God does not at all imply that we are to refer to religious content. Rather, it emphasises that the criterion of justice is given to us and imposed on us from above, and as such, is independent of our will. The measure by which our lives, actions and all that we create can be properly judged is the order of nature created by God. For the world in which we live, including the political world, is not chaos but a cosmos. Within it, we can discern an organisation governed by unchanging and inevitable laws. This natural order is an expression of the omnipresent rationality permeating the cosmos. By recognising rationality through the rational part of our souls, human beings are able to partake in it. A just act – whether a single deed or the much more complex work of building a just community – should first and foremost give due respect and obedience to the reasonableness inscribed in the world as the proper measure of justice. The main body of Plato’s Republic – where the vision of the perfect community is presented, along with its later modification and concretisation in the Laws that move this vision from the world of ideas to reality – expresses the consistent development of the ethical, political and institutional consequences of this mindset.

But before outlining his vision of the just individual and the just polis, Plato seeks to show how following the path proposed by Protagoras affects thinking about man and the community. Since it involves the denial of an objective order applicable to all and the belief that each man is the sole measure of his actions, this path inevitably leads to the conviction that what is most important and conclusively determines justice is one’s power. However, depending on how we perceive man – who is here the ultimate measure of everything, including what is and what is not just – two possible variants of the social order emerge: a radical one, based solely on strength, and a moderate one, based on compromise and agreement. 

In its radical version, the principle of “man as the measure of all things” means that there is no common and objective criterion for judging what is just, good and true. These concepts become empty words because individuals perceive the world solely through their own perspectives and interests. In the Republic, the sophist Thrasymachus shows that behind this beautiful slogan, which ostensibly suggests the glorification of man, lies the ennoblement of ruthless self-will: “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”[31] In other words, he who wields power and authority sets the measure of what is valid for himself and others according to his own liking. The stronger can therefore not only harm the weaker but force them to see the evil he inflicts on them as an act of justice. This applies both to relations between individuals and entire states.[32] To summarise his views, Thrasymachus says: “(…) injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice. And, as I said from the first, justice is what is advantageous to the stronger, while injustice is to one’s own profit and advantage.”[33]

This gives rise to a legitimate question: If Thrasymachus’ assumptions about human nature are correct, and only strength matters in human interaction, how can there be forms of interpersonal and international relations more civilised than terror and despotism, of which there are, indeed, many examples?


.The answer to this question is one of the key themes in the history of philosophical contemplation on politics. It is voiced by Glaucon, Plato’s brother, in a manner that leaves little doubt as to whose thoughts he expresses, especially given Plato’s absence from the dialogue. The author of the Republic thus demonstrates his ability to recognise a significant standpoint that he does not personally align with yet acknowledges its significance and prevalence in the surrounding world. Not only that – he is able to clarify it intellectually in order to bring out its essence.[34] Here is the argumentation put forward by Glaucon:

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins.[35]

Glaucon also points out that those who share Thrasymachus’s view of human nature usually see something else as well. If humans were motivated solely by self-interest, consistently pursuing it at the expense of others, they would have to be omnipotent to achieve their goals in all circumstances. But this is not the case. Leaving aside the complacent, dangerous lunatics who, like Thrasymachus and his successors of all eras, live in the illusion of their own power and therefore have no regard for anything or anyone, the mere awareness of one’s own weakness, fragility and mortality seems to be sufficient motivation to refrain from harming others if they too agree to do the same. Hence, it is beneficial for everyone to agree not to harm each other – this is plainly in our own best interests, as long as we are realistic about our capabilities and strengths. Such an agreement lies at the heart of the laws established in society. Their specific provisions are essentially an elaboration of this one simple principle: we shall not harm each other. Through an agreement that affirms the mutual renunciation of acting to the detriment of others, a code of law is created as a common measure of human conduct, establishing what we unanimously agree is just and what we rightly owe to one another.

It should be emphasised that the principle of not harming others is by no means regarded by such individuals as an absolute good, nor is it the primary motive for their actions. Rather, it is an interim renunciation of the currently unattainable but still desirable supreme “good” of absolute domination – a temporary compromise worth maintaining in one’s own best interests until one becomes powerful enough to no longer have to consider others. It is difficult not to notice that with such assumptions and such a view of man, the temptation to violate the principles of justice and to harm others if only there were no consequences, remains ever present, even if it is suppressed.

Ultimately, then, Glaucon’s measure of justice is similar to that of Thrasymachus, namely, human being – an egocentric individual, albeit one who, aware of his own fragility, does not delude himself that he can arbitrarily determine the order of the world around him. Driven by this rationale, a person is willing to constrain his or her aspirations and engage in dialogue with others to create a reality where individuals can coexist without resorting to aggression, thereby fostering a space of safety and personal freedom.

The whole of the above argument put forth by Plato in the Republic – which started from the vision of man as an individual motivated solely by self-interest and then progressed to exploring the possibility of establishing rational (accepted by everyone) general laws – was repeated, without any acknowledgement of the origin, in 17th century by Thomas Hobbes in his social contract theory. The core of this whole argument[36] has since become a permanent feature of modern reflection on politics and can be easily found in contemporary political theory and practice. Recognising the principle of not harming one another, and thus of equal treatment, is the foundation of our current rule of law and the state of law.

At the same time, it is difficult not to notice that if we were to uphold that principle as presented by Glaucon or Hobbes, then the rule of law in such a state, particularly its extent, would give rise to serious concerns. We need only to ask: who does this principle actually apply to and who does it include? Who can expect equal rights and fair treatment from the state? The answer is in the very premise. The basis of such justice and such rule of law is – as we have discussed – a mutual agreement to refrain from harming one another. Those who are willing and able to harm others refrain from doing so in order to protect their selfish interests, as this allows them to feel more secure. However, further questions immediately arise: What about those who pose no threat to anyone because they lack the capacity to do so, being too weak to harm anyone? And what about those who, although strong enough, simply do not wish or intend to harm others because they see no good in it or even consider such behaviour to be always and in all circumstances absolutely wrong? It seems that the above argument does not take such people into account, which may lead to their exclusion from the benefits of the rule of law thus founded. In this view, only those who are perceived by others as at least potentially threatening are entitled to the mentioned benefits. This creates the possibility of establishing a special community of equal subjects, whose equality, including under the law, is the result of their power. Hobbes captured it brilliantly, stating, “they are equalls who can doe equall things one against the other; but they who can do the greatest things, (namely kill) can doe equall things. All men therefore among themselves are by nature equall.”[37] No one has expressed more pointedly than the author of Leviathan the belief that only those who have both the will and the ability to pose a real threat to others deserve to be called fully human – equal in their humanity to other human beings. As the logical consequence of this approach, a tendency arises to exclude from the ranks of persons (i.e. subjects of the law, protected by the power of the state) those who, though alive, do not (yet or already) possess sufficient power to pose a mortal danger to others. The contemporary model of the state based on the rule of law, in which the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia is becoming commonplace, is clearly approaching such a vision.

Likewise, it is easy to find a similar model of thought and action in international relations, which, according to many,[38] are essentially reminiscent of a Hobbesian state of nature. The state – like the human being – is primarily driven by self-interest, looking after its own security and trying to increase its power. Agreements are often honoured for as long as the parties consider them to be generally beneficial to themselves, remembering that violating the agreed rules may result in painful retaliation. It is therefore not surprising that for a powerful state, when dealing with weaker states – especially if it has never experienced aggression from these states, but has instead been the one to cause them suffering – the temptation not to treat them as equal subjects of international law is almost natural and difficult to resist.

In summary, the specific rationale for equality under the law found in modern states allows for the exclusion or discrimination of the weakest. Those sharing such an interpretation of the rule of law are likely to turn a blind eye to acts clearly harmful and unjust to subjects who cannot defend themselves. This is the mode of argument that mainstream Western political thought has inherited from Hobbes, and this is the understanding of the rule of law that dominates contemporary politics.


.One thing is certain: the principle of mutual non-harm is the necessary foundation of every community, with no exceptions. Without it, there can be no coexistence or coaction. Already in Plato’s works, Socrates recognised that this principle must be followed even in a band of robbers.[39] Of course, in this case, it applies only to the robbers themselves, because – looking at the world through their eyes – there is no reason why those who do not belong to their ranks should also be subject to it.

But could the obvious imperative to do no harm not be justified in a different and deeper way that would exclude no one and allow no one, especially the weakest, to be harmed? A clear trace of such thinking has been present in the history of mankind since time immemorial. It is found, above all, in the image of the “last judgement,”[40] often repeated in ancient religious beliefs, signifying that each person will be judged after death to receive a just reward or punishment for the deeds committed during life. This image clearly challenges the belief that man should be the ultimate measure of his own actions. Instead, such measure exists outside of him, is given to him and transcends him, so that human laws exist alongside the unchanging laws of God.[41] Even if a man ignores and disregards them in his life, sooner or later he will have to face these laws in order to finally realise the true worth of all his actions. This premonition, present in many separate religious traditions and mythologies, suggests that the principle of non-harm may have different roots and a deeper meaning than the purely pragmatic calculations of self-interested individuals. Ignoring this intuition would not be wise. Plato certainly believes so.[42] In the very first book of the Republic, before Thrasymachus and Glaucon present their view, there are words spoken that express a different but equally prevalent belief: “good people are just and able to do no wrong;”[43] “it isn’t the function of a just person to harm a friend or anyone else, rather it is the function of his opposite, an unjust person;”[44] “it is never just to harm anyone.”[45] These words are uttered by Socrates, and it is to him that we shall now devote a little more attention.

Contrary to the phrase “I know that I know nothing,”[46] which has been wrongly attributed to him, Socrates knew some things very well and did not fail to talk about them. The most important was that no one should be harmed or wronged.[47] He did not need a sophisticated argument for this, nor did he appeal to the myths of Athenian society. Instead, he invoked something else – an inner voice that simply forbade him to act unjustly. This voice of the daimonion,[48] or – as we say today – the voice of conscience, did not tell Socrates what to do and did not command anything, but warned him: “This is wrong, don’t do it.” The pages of Plato’s Apology provide us with the first documented instance in history of a man who was aware of his own conscience and resolved to be unfailingly guided by its counsel. With Socrates begins the age of men of conscience and their eternal dispute with all those who are unable or unwilling to transcend the perspective of egocentric interest. The voice of conscience is most personal and intimate, but at the same time, it is something over which man has no power and to which he cannot impose his own standards. Conscience is conclusive and reminds a person of what is right and what is absolutely wrong, regardless of what they consider to be currently advantageous to them. Although, of course, as a free being one can choose to listen to it or drown out its voice and ignore it.

For people guided by conscience, the imperative “do not harm others” needs no further substantiation and is absolutely binding. Absolutely means that the principle “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” also applies to people who are incapable of doing anything “hateful” to us. More than that, it extends to those who do not uphold this principle themselves and actually cause us harm. Socrates knew this very well. The day before he died, he said to his friend Crito:

whether the majority agree or not, and whether we must still suffer worse things than we do now, or will be treated more gently, that nonetheless, wrongdoing or injustice is in every way harmful and shameful to the wrongdoer? Do we say so or not?  (…) Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong. (…) Doing harm to people is no different from wrongdoing. (…) One should never do wrong in return, nor do any man harm, no matter what he may have done to you.[49]

Evil is not conquered by evil but by good.[50] A just man who follows the voice of his conscience does not repay injustice with injustice but patiently endures it.[51] However, Socrates is aware that only a few are able to recognise that: “For I know that only a few people hold this view or will hold it, and there is no common ground between those who hold this view and those who do not, but they inevitably despise each other’s views.”[52] There is arguably no more important resolution – existentially, politically and metaphysically – than choosing a side in this dispute! In this sense, the words that Socrates addresses to Crito are also directed to each of us, to people of all times:

So then consider very carefully whether we have this view in common, and whether you agree, and let this be the basis of our deliberation, that neither to do wrong nor to return a wrong is ever correct, nor is doing harm in return for harm done.[53]

Therefore, if we agree with Socrates and join the ranks of people aware that “one must never in any way do wrong willingly,”[54] should we not also expect to one day end up like him? Yes, that is possible. On the other hand, such an attitude does not mean that we should not respond at all to the evil, injustice and harm that befall us and our loved ones. In this perspective, a just response that gives back to everyone what is rightfully their due – be it a necessary defence, adequate punishment or just war – is not evil or forbidden. Indeed, it is something good, not only for the victim of the attack but – in a deeper sense – also for the aggressor, because justice “proves to be a treatment against corruption.”[55] Even with such an attitude, there is room for the rule of a just law that makes no exceptions in protecting all men from harm.

The radical path of the man of conscience proposed by Socrates seems extremely demanding, and probably few, if any, could honestly say as he did: “I am convinced that I never willingly wrong anyone.”[56]  However, seeing the value of such an attitude and recognising it as one’s own does not necessarily have to result from the independent reflection of an exceptional thinker, available only to a select few. Reading Socrates’ writings on the appropriate measure of justice, we naturally associate them today with the ethical guidance coming from the Western religious tradition.[57] After all, we have dual access to the transcendent measure that expresses the moral order of this world. We have two sources of Divine Revelation: natural revelation, accessible to those who listen to the voice of reason and conscience, and positive revelation, conveyed in the stories of religious traditions – for Western civilisation it means primarily the message contained in the Bible.

 Already in the Old Testament, in addition to the Decalogue’s prohibitions against harming others[58], there is a call to take special care of those who are weakest and most vulnerable: widows, orphans and foreigners.[59] There we also find the commandment “you will love your neighbour as yourself,”[60] which is later reaffirmed by Jesus[61] and becomes the core of the ethical attitude of Christians. Of course, the commandment of love does not reject the principle of non-harm, expressed in the words “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but goes beyond and fulfils it. Its true substance is better expressed by the positive formula: “So always treat others as you would like them to treat you.”[62] Not only should we not harm each other, but we also need to do good to each other, support each other in times of need and care for each other.

 A different ideal of community and human relations is clearly visible in the Socratic and Christian approaches. People are not and do not always have to be self-centred, focused on their own interests, fighting or competing with one another. They do not have to act so, because they can find experiences and motivations within themselves that are much stronger and deeper than simply seeking their own benefit. Socrates, Plato and their successors believed that the most important goal of the good life is to build a community of friends, while in the Christian world the principle of charity is such a goal. This principle, with our Polish contribution being difficult not to mention, has been combined for several decades with the phrase “carry each other’s burdens”[63] and the postulate of interpersonal and international solidarity.[64]

Plato believes that the concept of the perfect community, which can be glimpsed through the experience of friendship, provides a framework for all existing communities and visions of political organisation. The problem, however, is how to put this ideal into practice and translate it into institutions. On the one hand, it is difficult not to agree with the claim that the more its citizens embrace the spirit of friendship, the more a state transforms into a genuine community. It is hard not to appreciate the idealistic viewpoint that encourages us to perceive each member of the community, without any exceptions – and in a similar vein, every other nation – as potential friends.[65] On the other hand, it would be somewhat naïve to always anticipate a positive response when adopting a general attitude of openness towards other people or other states. Of course, if humans were angels, they would not need laws or institutions, and authority, if it existed at all, would never have to resort to coercion. One law would reign – the law of brotherly kindness that lives in the heart of every human being.

It is likewise for Christians. Bound together by the commandment of love, they strive to build a community here on earth that comes as close as possible to the model presented by the words and deeds of their Master. The ideal of the perfect community of Christ’s disciples does not at all postulate a rejection of edictal law and state institutions. Rather, it is a call addressed to those who freely choose to follow His way, to seek a better and deeper form of community life. This is a much more difficult and demanding path than the one that places the foundation of human relationships solely in the observance of a negative norm – the prohibition of harming others. True disciples of Christ avoid evil not because they fear external punishment, but because they are guided by the inner attitude of neighbourly love that excludes such actions on principle. In so doing, Christians are outside both the statute law and the rule of the state of law. Moreover, in a certain important sense, they are also outside the prohibitions of the Divine Law revealed in the Decalogue:

for to love the other person is to fulfil the law. All these: You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and all the other commandments that there are, are summed up in this single phrase: You must love your neighbour as yourself. Love can cause no harm to your neighbour, and so love is the fulfilment of the Law.[66]

 However, since the world we experience too often deviates from this philosophical and, at the same time, Christian ideal, it is necessary to set and protect boundaries in interpersonal relationships. Adherence to the law prohibiting harm to others, supported by the presence and strength of the entire system of relevant state institutions, is a necessary condition for peaceful coexistence within a given community. It is a response to the real possibility of aggression and conflict, to a situation in which people do not treat each other as friends and neighbours, but are willing to harm each other. Therefore, institutions guarding security and peace do not at all embody or reflect the ideal of a perfect community. Rather, they are a response and a remedy to the fact that concrete reality constantly deviates from this ideal.


.Current political disputes about the rule of law – whether in the context of the domestic order or interstate relations and their new forms that have emerged within the European Union – are merely the contemporary actualisation of the above-described eternal conflict between two visions of man. One is represented by those who prioritise self-interest and perceive power as the ultimate determining factor, the other by those who know that a meaningful human life is permeated by a sense of community, solidarity and responsibility towards others. Both these opposing visions are supported not only by the voices of individual thinkers but also by elaborate ideals and ideological concepts. Thus, on the one side, we have the epigones of Thrasymachus and Hobbes, who represent such ideological trends as, above all, utilitarianism, liberalism (in its vast majority) or Marxism and their constantly evolving combinations and variations. On the other end are the successors of Socrates and Plato, the school of natural law (including its modern representatives such as Locke and Kant, counted among the fathers of classical liberalism) and a whole current of thought that openly refers to the Christian tradition. One could also say that both of these visions find support in religion. The first vision sees it in the divinisation of man, who considers himself the ultimate measure of all things, and thus regards himself as an absolute. The second finds it in the acknowledgement of the existence of a transcendent God, the creator of all things and the guarantor of the physical and moral order that permeates them. Which of these visions will triumph? It is difficult to foretell, although there are many signs today of the growing dominance of the advocates of interest and power. However, for those who cherish the motto plus ratio quam vis, the answer, in its crucial moral and eschatological dimensions, seems obvious.

Zbigniew Stawrowski

[1] “Speech by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Charles University in Prague on Monday, 29 August 2022,” Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/scholz-speech-prague-charles-university-2080752.

[2] In the opening part of his speech, Scholz agrees to the enlargement of the Union to include new countries (Moldova, Ukraine, the Western Balkans and Georgia), provided that integration is accelerated and, most importantly, that the principle of unanimity is ultimately relinquished. This would entail the remaining countries consenting to the federalization or centralization of the European Union, consequently subordinating it to the leadership of the strongest states, Germany and France.

[3] “There are democratic countries where the judiciary is independent even though judicial appointments are made by the executive. Nevertheless, the Venice Commission has always welcomed that practically all new democracies, where in the recent history the judiciary was subordinated to other branches of power, have established judicial councils. Such councils help in ensuring that the judicial community may make a meaningful input in decisions concerning judges.” “European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). Poland,” Council of Europe, issued January 16, 2020, Strasburg, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-PI(2020)002-e.

[4] Montesquieu already warned of the danger of forming such a group in the Spirit of the Laws, bk. 11. 6,

[5] George Orwell, Animal Farm, chap. 10, produced for Project Gutenberg Australia by Colin Choat, last updated March 2008, accessed October 11, 2023, https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100011h.html.

To depict such a disposition, the Polish tradition offers another fitting, literary term, “Kali’s ethics,” as well as a matching proverb that translates into: “A governor gets to do this, but you don’t.”

[6] Janusz Lewandowski, “Kaczyński ma głowę skierowaną do tyłu, jest nasiąknięty PRL-em,” Radio ZET, released October 13, 2022, accessed October 11, 2023, https://wiadomosci.radiozet.pl/Popoludniowy-Gosc-Radia-ZET/Gosc-Radia-ZET.-Janusz-Lewandowski-u-Beaty-Lubeckiej-13.10.2022.

[7] Kant himself did not yet use this term and referred to a country governed by the rule of law as “rechtlicher” / “bürgerlicher Zustand.” According to August von Hayek, Konstytucja Wolności (Warsaw: PWN, 2006), 453–4, fn. 26, the word Rechtsstaat appears for the first time – though not quite in the modern sense – in: Karl Theodor Welcker, Die letzten Gründe von Recht, Staat und Strafe: philosophisch und nach den Gesetzen der merkwürdigsten Völker rechtshistorisch entwickelt (Giessen: Heyer, 1813) where three types of government are identified: despotism, theocracy and Rechtsstaat. This concept was popularised by Robert von Mohl’s book, Die deutsche Polizei-Wissenschaft nach den Grundsätzen des Rechtsstaates (Tübingen: Laupp, 1833).

[8] In subsequent mentions of the Polish language texts, the translation substitutes the term “praworządność” with “rule of law” and “państwo prawne” with “state ruled by law” to enhance readability – translator’s note.

[9] “Unia opiera się na wartościach poszanowania godności osoby ludzkiej, wolności, demokracji, równości, państwa prawnego” (The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law). “Traktat o Unii Europejskiej, Wersja Skonsolidowana,” (Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union), Article 2, EUR-Lex, accessed October 11, 2023, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN-PL/TXT/?from=PL&uri=CELEX%3A12016ME%2FTXT.

[10] “Act of 29 December 1989 on the Amendment of the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic,” Art. 1, item 3, Sejm of the Republic of Poland, ISAP Internet System of Legal Acts, accessed October 11, 2023, https://isap.sejm.gov.pl/isap.nsf/download.xsp/WDU19890750444/U/D19890444Lj.pdf.

[11] The 1997 Constitution of the Republic of Poland does not include the term “rule of law” at any point.

[12] Wincenty Kadłubek, Kronika Polska, bk. 3:5 (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1996), 12.

[13] The remnants of such thinking can still be found but its manifestations – such as the promotion of “excluded” groups – can be confusing, as they are not always about supporting the weakest.

[14] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1–2, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2um, quoted in John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae,” Holly Sea, accessed October 11, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html.

[15] See St. Augustine, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies,” in De libero arbitrio, bk. 1, 5. 11, https://www.augustinus.it/latino/libero_arbitrio/index2.htm: “Non videtur esse lex, quae iusta non fuerit.”

[16] “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” St. Augustine, The City of God, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), chap. 4, revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120104.htm.

[17] As Cicero wrote in De re publica: “There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong. It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones. No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether. Neither the people or the senate can absolve us from it. It wants no commentator or interpreter. It is not different in Rome and Athens, different now and later, but as a unique, eternal and unchangeable law, it applies to all peoples and all times. God, the sole Ruler, and universal Lord has framed and proclaimed this law. He who does not obey it, renounces himself, and is false to his own nature: he brings upon himself the direst tortures, even when he escapes human punishments.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, introduction to The republic of Cicero, trans. G. W. Featherstonhaugh, Esq. (New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1829), produced for Project Gutenberg by Richard Tonsing and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, last updated February 12, 2017, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/54161/pg54161-images.html#f1.

[18] Plato, “Laws,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, trans. Trevor J. Saunders (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 1433; 757c (hereafter cited in text as “Laws”).

Cf. “no city nor individual can be happy except by living in company with wisdom under the guidance of justice.” Plato, “Letters,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, trans. Glenn R. Morrow (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 1655; 335d (hereafter cited in text as “Letters”).

[19] “Laws,” 1401; 715b.

[20] In Letter VII, we read explicitly that a just system is one that gives everyone equal rights. “Letters,” 1648; 326d.

[21] “Laws,” 1402; 715c-d.

[22] “Laws,” 1438; 762e.

[23] This is where the difference and tension between the Platonic ideal and its potential realisation become most apparent. While in the Republic Plato saw private property as the source of all evil, in Laws he wrote: “No one may seize or make off with other people’s property, nor use any of his neighbour’s possessions without getting the permission of the owner. Contempt for this principle has always been (and still is and always will be) the source of all the evils just mentioned” (“Laws,” 1542; 884); or “no one should touch my property or tamper with it, unless I have given him some sort of permission; and if I am sensible I shall treat the property of others with the same respect” (“Laws,” 1567; 913a). For how to reconcile these apparently contradictory positions, see Zbigniew Stawrowski, “Solidarność a idea doskonałej wspólnoty,” in Solidarność znaczy więź AD 2020 (Kraków: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 2021), 314–317.

[24] “Of course, any state without duly established courts simply ceases to be a state.” “Laws,” 1441; 766d.

[25] “Laws,” 1442; 768c.

[26] I have provided a more detailed description of this model, albeit from a slightly different angle, in: Zbigniew Stawrowski, “Trop sprawiedliwości i rozumu – Platon,” in Prawo naturalne a ład polityczny (Kraków: Instytut Myśli Józefa Tischnera, 2018), 54–93.

[27] Plato, “Republic,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 976; 331e (hereafter cited in text as “Republic”).

[28] “Republic,” 976; 332b–c.

[29] Diogenes Laertios, “Democritus,” in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, bk 9, sect. 397, transl. C. D. Yonge Laërtius, produced for Project Gutenberg by Ted Garvin and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, last updated October 4, 2023, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57342/57342-h/57342-h.htm.

Cf. “Man is the measure of all things: of those things which exist as he is; and of those things which do not exist as he is not.” Plato, “Theaetetus,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, transl. M. J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 169; 151e.

[30] “Laws,” 1403; 716c–716d.

[31] “Republic,” 983; 338c.

Cf. “But I believe that nature itself reveals that it’s a just thing for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man.” Plato, “Gorgias,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, transl. Donald. J. Zeyl (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 828; 483d (hereafter cited in text as “Gorgias”).

Interestingly, Callicles supports his belief with a quotation from a poem by the Boeotian poet Pindar (518–440), whose words “nomos ho panton basileus” (“Law, king of all”) could even be considered the first declaration of the universal rule of law. But the point here is that the law that Callicles is referring to – and, in fact, explicitly mentions – is the law of nature (nomos physeos) understood in the sense of our modern concept of the “law of the jungle,” whereby the stronger individual justifiably – in accordance with nature – “preys” upon the weaker. It is noteworthy that this first-ever record explicitly invoking the law of nature represents the radical opposite of what would later be termed natural law in our cultural circle.

[32] Callicles explicitly says that in Gorgias: “Nature shows that this is so in many places; both among the other animals and in whole cities and races of men, it shows that this is what justice has been decided to be: that the superior rule the inferior and have a greater share than they. For what sort of justice did Xerxes go by when he campaigned against Greece, or e his father when he campaigned against Scythia? Countless other such examples could be mentioned. I believe that these men do these things in accordance with the nature of what’s just – yes, by Zeus, in accordance with the law of nature (…)” “Gorgias,” 828; 483d–e.

[33] “Republic,” 988; 344c.

[34] Plato’s work has been our primary source of knowledge that this understanding of justice and law was already present in ancient Greece.

[35] “Republic,” 1000; 358e–359b.

[36] It is centred around the following theses:

1. Man’s selfish interest, and consequently his desire for constant expansion and domination over others, is the main motive for human action.

2. person may agree to partially suppress this drive and restrain himself, but only in the name of a more fundamental self-interest – ensuring personal safety.

3. The permissible extent of this self-restraint is determined by the Hobbesian principle of reciprocity: “That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe.” This principle, together with: “Men Performe Their Covenants Made,” that Hobbes describes as the “Fountain and Originall of Justice” – for as long as no covenant is in place, everyone is entitled to everything and no action is unjust, “but when a Covenant is made, then to break it is Unjust” – forms the rational basis for a whole system of specific state laws, whose detailed content ultimately amounts to a simple rule: “Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them” (Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne faceris).
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, produced for Project Gutenberg by Edward White and David Widger, last updated March 27, 2021, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_4_0149

[37] “(…) they are equalls who can doe equall things one against the other; but they who can do the greatest things, (namely kill) can doe e∣quall things. All men therefore among themselves are by nature equall (…)” Thomas Hobbes, Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Civil Society (London: J.G. for R. Royston, 1651), 8–9, provided by The University of Michigan Library for Early English Books Online (EEBO) TCP, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A86417.0001.001/1:6.2?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

[38] This refers primarily to the realist school of international relations theory.

[39] “Do you think that a city, an army, a band of robbers or thieves, or any other tribe with a common unjust purpose would be able to achieve it if they were unjust to each other?” “Republic,” 995; 131c.

[40] This theme can be traced back to ancient Egypt as far as the 3rd millennium BC, where it appears in the ceremony of judging the dead, called the “Judgement of Osiris”.

[41] For example, “So you will not exploit one another, but fear your God, for I am Yahweh your God.” Lev 25:17 (NJB).

[42] As the culmination of his reflections on justice, in the tenth, final book of the Republic, Plato evokes the story of an afterlife judgement in which the dead are confronted with the eternal law established by the gods and receive just retribution for all their deeds (“Republic,” 1218; 614c). Different versions of this myth appear in Plato’s other dialogues: Phaedo (113d–115a), Gorgias (523a–526d) and Apology (40d–41d).

[43] “Republic,”979; 334d.

[44] “Republic,”980; 335d.

[45] “Republic,”981; 335e.

[46] In Plato’s Apology, Socrates puts this quite differently: “when I do not know, neither do I think I know (…)” Plato, “Apology,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 21; 21d (hereafter cited in text as “Apology”).

[47] “I do know, however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man.” “Apology,” 27; 29b.

[48] “Apology,” 35; 40a–c.

[49] Plato, “Crito,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D. S. Hutchinson, G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 43–44; 49b–d (hereafter cited in text as “Crito”).

[50] This was obvious to Socrates almost five centuries before St Paul wrote: “Never pay back evil with evil, but bear in mind the ideals that all regard with respect. (…) Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.” Rom 12:17, 21 (NJB).

[51] “Therefore we must count it a lesser evil to suffer great wrongs and injustices than to do them.” “Letters,” 1654; 335a. Similar statement can be found in Gorgias: “to commit any unjust act at all against me and my possessions is both worse and more shameful for the one who does these unjust acts than it is for me, the one who suffers them.” “Gorgias,” 852: 508e.

[52] “Crito,” 44; 49d.

[53] “Crito,” 44; 49d.

[54] “Crito,” 43: 49a.

[55] “Gorgias,” 823; 478d. This approach, whereby just punishment also has an educational purpose, is presented by Socrates in his conversation with Polus: “a man who acts unjustly, a man who is unjust, is thoroughly miserable, the more so if he doesn’t get his due punishment for the wrongdoing he commits, the less so if he pays and receives what is due at the hands of both gods and men.” “Gorgias,” 816; 472e.

[56] “Apology,” 33; 37a.

[57] The principle of not harming others, which refers not to an agreement but to the metaphysical order and laws governing the world, is also found in religious and ethical traditions other than Christianity, such as Confucianism: “Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Analects, 15:23); in Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.”(Mahabharata, 5:1517) or in Buddhism “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga, 5:18). “The Golden Rule is Universal,” Golden Rule Project, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.goldenruleproject.org/formulations.

Thales of Miletus is said to have proclaimed similar words: “When asked how men might live most virtuously and most justly, he said, “If we never do ourselves what we blame in others.” Diogenes Laertios, “Thales,” in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, bk 1, sect. 36–37, transl. C. D. Yonge Laërtius, produced for Project Gutenberg by Ted Garvin and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, last updated October 4, 2023, accessed October 11, 2023, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57342/57342-h/57342-h.htm.

[58] “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false evidence against your neighbour.” Ex 20:13-16 (NJB).

[59] “Learn to do good, search for justice, discipline the violent, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.” Is, 1:17 (NJB); “Yahweh Sabaoth says this. He said, ‘Apply the law fairly, and show faithful love and compassion towards one another. Do not oppress the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the poor, and do not secretly plan evil against one another.’ ” Zec 7:9-10 (NJB).

[60] Lev, 19:18.

[61] See Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27.

[62] Mt 7:12 (NJB). Jesus concludes this commandment with the words: “that is the Law and the Prophets.”

[63] Galatians 6:2 (NJB). Cf. J. Tischner, Etyka solidarności (Kraków: Znak, 1981), 6.

[64] Zbigniew Stawrowski, “Solidarność a idea doskonałej wspólnoty,” in Solidarność znaczy więź AD 2020 (Kraków: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 2021), 313–324.

[65] Plato argues, for example, that the purpose of the institution of punishment is not merely to right wrongs, but to reconcile the wrongdoer and the wronged: “And when atonement has been made by compensation, he must try by his laws to make the criminal and the victim, in each separate case of injury, friends instead of enemies.” “Laws,” 1520; 862c.

[66] Rom 13, 8–10 (NJB).

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