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Do we read the story of the woman caught in adultery aright, I wonder? It is often supposed that the scribes and Pharisees were testing our Lord, in the sense of seeing whether He would follow the path of Law or of gentleness, so that they could accuse Him of neglecting one or the other. Again, it is also generally supposed that the words ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ are meant as a warning not to condemn others while having sins on one’s own conscience. I don’t deny either of these interpretations, but I wonder if they give the principal meaning of the dialogue.

Surely, the trap that the scribes and Pharisees had in mind was that if Christ told them not to stone the woman then He would, as everyone recognises, be seeming to deny the authority of the old Law, and that if He told them to stone her, then He would be seeming to usurp an authority that the Romans had reserved to themselves, that of capital punishment. I don’t know of any evidence that giving commands to stone adulterers was contrary to the popular picture of the Messiah, and would have therefore caused anyone to stop believing in Christ; even though such a command would have been incongruous with the work He had come to do, as perhaps the Pharisees half-understood. On the other hand, anyone who openly pronounced a sentence of death on another person would surely have been brought to the attention of the Roman authorities promptly.

If this is the test, then it throws light on our Lord’s reply: ‘‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ One might be inclined to say: ‘Either the scribes and Pharisees had judicial authority or they didn’t; if they did, then they should have carried out the sentence of the Mosaic Law even if they were themselves sinful; and if they didn’t, they were not the proper people to carry it out, however perfect they were.’

But perhaps Christ’s words are meant to address this very question, of whether the scribes did have judicial authority to order an execution or not. As far as appearances went, they did not: the temporal sword, in 1st century Judaea, was clearly in the hands of the Romans, however much the Jews might dislike the fact. There was no realistic prospect of their wresting it from Roman hands, nor was it clear that the Romans were doing anything to them that would make such an effort lawful, even had it not been hopeless. Only one thing, therefore, could have justified someone’s taking the temporal sword to himself: the kind of surpassing excellence that Aristotle speculates about in Book III of the Politics:

When therefore it comes about that there is either a whole family or even some one individual that differs from the other citizens in virtue so greatly that his virtue exceeds that of all the others, then it is just for this family to be the royal family or this individual king, and sovereign over all matters. … It remains therefore, and this seems to be the natural course, for all to obey such a man gladly, so that men of this sort may be kings in the cities for all time.

If any of the scribes or Pharisees had surpassed all other men in this way, then he could have justly set aside the dominion of the Romans, and thrown the first stone. But seeing that none of them did so excel, it was just that they should continue to bear the Roman yoke.


What is the essential division of love? St Thomas presents it as the division between ‘love of friendship’ (amor amicitiae) and ‘love of desire’ (amor concupiscentiae).

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 4), ‘to love is to wish good to someone.’ Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good (1a 2ae 26, 4).

This allows St Thomas to solve the problem raised in Plato’s Lysis and only partially answered in books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, of whether likeness or unlikeness is the cause of love. He answers that the cause of love of friendship is an actual likeness between the friends:

For the very fact that two men are alike, having, as it were, one form, makes them to be, in a manner, one in that form: thus two men are one thing in the species of humanity, and two white men are one thing in whiteness. Hence the affections of one tend to the other, as being one with him; and he wishes good to him as to himself.

By contrast, the love of desire is caused by a potential likeness. It derives from the ‘likeness’ that exists between potentiality and its act; akin to the similarity that exists between a hole in a jig-saw puzzle and the piece that fits into it. Thus, thirst is like the quenching of thirst rather than like, say, the satisfaction of curiosity. And this is only ‘likeness’ in an analogous sense, and indeed includes a contrariety within itself, and so seems to be an explanation of whatever truth there is in the proverb, already found in antiquity, that opposites attract. Thus, a silent person and a loquacious one might be mutually attracted insofar as each best realised the other’s potentiality for conversation.

So, we have two basic forms of love, corresponding to the relations of act-act and potency-act. But this raises the question: is there another basic form, corresponding to the relation of act-potency? That is, if someone has a perfection that he can communicate to another, does that give rise to a third kind of love?

We might think for example of the love of a parent for a little child. The parent may have some ‘love of desire’ for the child, for example, as he thinks of how the child may grow up to shed lustre on the family. And the parent will have the ‘love of friendship’ for the child: because of the similarity between them – the child being, as Aristotle says, ‘a sort of other himself’ – the parent spontaneously wills good for the child for the child’s own sake.

But there seems to be another kind of love, not obviously reducible to the first two, by which the very helplessness of the child endears him to the parent. We might even call this ‘love of endearment’. Older writers might have called it ‘love of condescension’, though the term would be hopeless nowadays. At any rate, it seems to correspond to the relation of act-potency.

And with what kind of love does God love rational creatures when He offers them His friendship? Can it already be with the love of friendship? Yet surely they do not have a similarity to Him sufficient to call forth a love of friendship.

But thou wast cast out upon the face of the earth in the abjection of thy soul, in the day that thou wast born. And passing by thee, I saw that thou wast trodden under foot in thy own blood. and I said to thee when thou wast in thy blood: Live.

So, does this mean that our basic division of love should be into three, and not two?

Why does Aristotle say in book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics that there are three good polities? What principle of division is he using, so that he comes up with three, rather than two or four? It is normally said that the difference lies in whether the rulers are one (kingship), a few (aristocracy), or many (‘timocracy’). This seems rather too vague to be a good philosophical division. Does ‘many’ mean 10% of the population? Or 25%? Or 50 %? And why should not these differing percentages also be said to yield different polities?

We do not normally divide actions into species by simply looking at how many people are performing them. For example, if we are asking what the species of farming are, we might say that they are arable, dairy, and mixed; but it would be strange to say that the species are farms run by one man, farms run by a family, and farms run by a village. It is true we might distinguish five-a-side football and eleven-a-side as two species of the game; but this is because the differing numbers mean that the games require different skills and strategies, not simply because the players are more and less. In the same way, acts of governing do not seem to be distinct simply because they are performed by different numbers of people.

Another problem with this explanation is that while kingship and aristocracy are corrupted by the one man or the few ruling selfishly, timocracy is said to be corrupted not by the many ruling badly but by the many being extended by the abolition of a property qualification to the all. But why is ‘rule by all’ not a fourth basic species that could be done well or badly, and why is rule by many-but-not-all not also able to be done well or badly?

Another problem is that Aristotle says that the three good polities are patterned on three basic forms of relationship within a family, namely, the paternal, the fraternal and the marital. This is easy to understand for kingship: the good father rules his sons as a good monarch. It is a bit harder to understand why he says that the fraternal relation provides the basis for timocracy: there is no property qualification needed for brothers to be able to relate to each other, and all of them are related to each other as brothers, so why not compare brothers rather to a democracy? And it becomes baffling for the marital relation: for it is not, it seems, the parental rule over the children which is aristocratic, but the husband’s rule over the wife. But since there is only one husband, how is this the pattern for aristocracy, if the essence of aristocracy includes having several rulers?

In the Politics, the key distinction between aristocracy/oligarchy and timocracy/democracy appears to be whether the rich or poor are governing. But this is hardly more satisfying, since how can monarchy/tyranny be fitted into this scheme, using the same principle of division? Again, how would the distinction between rule by the rich and rule by the poor be patterned after the distinction of marital and fraternal relations?

I suggest that the principle of division of polities is to be sought not per se in the number of those who wield supreme power, but in the different ways in which ‘ruling’ can be related to ‘being ruled’. What I mean is this: those who rule may simply rule and not be ruled; or they may both rule and be ruled, while those whom they rule are simply ruled; or they may both rule and be ruled, with none who are simply ruled. So we have:

(i) ruler


This applies to monarchy, tyranny and (good and bad) fatherhood

(ii) ruler



This applies to aristocracy, oligarchy and marriage

(iii) ruling-and ruled


This applies to timocracy, democracy, brothers, and what Aristotle calls ‘dwellings without a master’ e.g. students in shared rented accommodation.

(i) is clear. The subjects of the king have no political authority, as the children have no authority over the household. But it is not essential to kingship that there be only one person with supreme authority; it is simply necessarily so with men, since the wills of more than one man will not always coincide. But the rule of the Blessed Trinity over creation is a monarchy, not an aristocracy.

(ii) is suggested by Aristotle’s remarks about oligarchy, namely that the few rulers ‘always assign ruling offices to the same people’. This doesn’t seem to mean just ‘to themselves’, but also ‘to their favourites’. So, in oligarchy, and in aristocracy, there will be those who are chosen by the rulers but who also themselves have ruling power. This corresponds to matrimony, in that the husband, as Aristotle puts it, ‘assigns what is fitting to each’, i.e. manly tasks to himself and womanly to his wife. The wife is ruled by her husband, but also rules; she has her own sphere of authority and initiative within the household, for example over the small children. The husband’s rule is, or should be, aristocratic, though he is only one man.

(iii)  is the remaining possibility. It is exemplified clearly enough by democracy, and in the case of brothers and of those who dwell in shared accommodation. At first site it is incompatible with timocracy, since in this polity those who do not meet the property requirement (originally, possession of heavy armour) are excluded from rule. I suggest though that this exclusion happens because it is assumed that those below this level will not have the sufficient manliness to be good rulers; hence, per accidens, some are found in this polity who are merely ruled.

What we have said already makes it further clear that a poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse — indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history, whether written in metre or not. The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and worthwhile than history (διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν) because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts (Poetics, 1451).