It Is Not Wisdom But Authority That Makes a Law. t – tymoff

it is not wisdom but authority that makes a law. t - tymoff

Laws are fundamental to the structure and order of societies, shaping behaviors, ensuring justice, and maintaining peace. Yet, the nature of law—its creation, its enforcement, and its legitimacy—has been a subject of philosophical inquiry for centuries. The quote, “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law,” attributed to Tymoff, invites us to explore the essence of what makes laws binding and effective. This statement suggests that the legitimacy and enforceability of laws stem from the power and authority of the entities that create and enforce them, rather than from the inherent wisdom or moral correctness of the laws themselves. This perspective raises important questions about the nature of legal authority, the role of wisdom in governance, and the interplay between power and justice.

Historical Context of Lawmaking

Ancient Civilizations

From the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon to the Laws of the Twelve Tables in Rome, early legal systems were often justified by the divine right or the unquestionable authority of rulers. These laws were not necessarily crafted with an eye towards fairness or ethical reasoning but were decrees that subjects were expected to follow because they were imposed by those in power.

Medieval and Early Modern Periods

During the medieval period, the intertwining of religious authority with political power meant that laws often carried the weight of divine mandate. Kings and emperors ruled by divine right, and their edicts were seen as unchallengeable. The early modern period saw the rise of the nation-state, where the sovereign’s authority became the primary source of law, often irrespective of whether the laws themselves were just or wise.

Enlightenment and Rationalism

The Enlightenment brought a shift towards viewing laws through the lens of reason and ethics. Philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for the social contract theory, suggesting that legitimate laws must be based on the consent of the governed and should aim at the common good. However, despite these philosophical advances, the actual practice of lawmaking remained largely an exercise of authority.

Authority Versus Wisdom in Lawmaking

Defining Authority and Wisdom

Authority refers to the recognized power or right to enforce rules and make decisions. It is inherently tied to the structures of power and governance. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves the application of knowledge, experience, and judgment to make sound decisions. While wisdom might inform the creation of just and effective laws, authority ensures their implementation and adherence.

The Role of Authority

Authority is essential in lawmaking because it provides the necessary structure and enforcement mechanism. Without authority, laws would be mere suggestions, lacking the power to compel compliance. Authority ensures that there is a system in place to create, interpret, and enforce laws, providing stability and order within a society.

The Limitations of Wisdom Alone

While wisdom is crucial for crafting laws that are fair and beneficial, it is not sufficient by itself. Wise laws need the backing of authority to be implemented effectively. A law that is wise but lacks the support of authority may be ignored or undermined, leading to chaos and disorder. Conversely, even laws that are not particularly wise can be enforced if they are backed by strong authority.

Case Studies in Authority and Lawmaking

The Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, enacted by the Nazi regime, are a stark example of how authority can impose laws that are neither wise nor just. These laws, which institutionalized racial discrimination and laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, were enforced through the absolute authority of the Nazi state. Despite their profound injustice and lack of ethical grounding, the laws were strictly followed due to the regime’s authoritarian control.

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States

In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s showcased the struggle against unjust laws enforced by authority. Activists sought to overturn segregation and discriminatory laws that were legally binding but lacked moral wisdom. The success of this movement highlighted the importance of aligning legal authority with ethical principles and social justice.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 illustrates the collapse of authoritative power that upheld laws of separation and restriction. When the authority that enforced these laws weakened, the laws themselves lost their binding power. This event underscores how the authority backing a law is crucial to its existence and enforcement, regardless of the wisdom or morality behind the law.

Theoretical Perspectives

Legal Positivism

Legal positivism argues that the validity of a law is not dependent on its moral correctness but on its creation through proper authority. According to this view, a law is a law because it is enacted by a recognized legal authority, regardless of whether it is wise or just. This perspective aligns with Tymoff’s assertion that authority, rather than wisdom, is what makes a law.

Natural Law Theory

In contrast, natural law theory posits that laws must be grounded in moral principles and universal truths. According to natural law theorists, unjust laws are not true laws and lack legitimacy, even if they are enforced by authority. This theory suggests that wisdom and moral correctness should be integral to the lawmaking process.

Critical Legal Studies

Critical legal studies challenge the idea that laws are neutral and objective. This perspective emphasizes that laws often reflect the interests and power dynamics of dominant groups in society. From this viewpoint, authority shapes laws in ways that maintain existing power structures, often at the expense of wisdom and justice.

The Practicalities of Lawmaking

Legislatures and Lawmakers

In modern democracies, legislatures are tasked with the creation of laws. While ideally, these laws should be crafted with wisdom, the reality is that political considerations, power dynamics, and authority often play a more significant role. Lawmakers must navigate the complexities of political authority, public opinion, and interest groups, which can sometimes lead to laws that are more reflective of power struggles than of wise judgment.

The Judiciary and Interpretation

The judiciary plays a critical role in interpreting and enforcing laws. Judges are expected to apply legal wisdom in their interpretations, but their authority to do so stems from the legal system and the constitution. This interplay between judicial wisdom and legal authority highlights the ongoing tension between wisdom and authority in the application of laws.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies are responsible for the practical implementation of laws. Their authority to enforce laws is what gives the legal system its teeth. Even the wisest laws would be ineffective without the authority of police and other law enforcement bodies to ensure compliance.

The Role of Public Perception and Consent

Social Contract and Legitimacy

The concept of the social contract, as articulated by philosophers like Rousseau, suggests that the legitimacy of laws comes from the consent of the governed. Authority is granted by the people to their rulers in exchange for laws that protect their rights and promote the common good. This highlights a crucial aspect of authority: it must be seen as legitimate by the populace to be effective.

Public Opinion and Authority

Public opinion can greatly influence the authority of laws. Laws that are perceived as unjust or unwise can lead to public dissent and resistance, undermining their enforceability. Conversely, laws that align with the public’s sense of justice and fairness are more likely to be respected and followed.

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of protest where individuals intentionally violate laws they perceive as unjust. This act challenges the authority of the law and highlights the moral and ethical considerations that should underpin legal systems. Figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. used civil disobedience to draw attention to the wisdom (or lack thereof) of certain laws, ultimately seeking to align legal authority with ethical principles.

Balancing Authority and Wisdom in Modern Governance

Democratic Processes

In democratic societies, the balance between authority and wisdom is achieved through various checks and balances. Elected representatives, public debates, and transparent legislative processes aim to ensure that laws are both wise and authoritative. However, this balance is delicate and often subject to political pressures and power dynamics.

Rule of Law

The principle of the rule of law asserts that everyone, including those in positions of authority, is subject to the law. This principle seeks to prevent the abuse of authority and ensure that laws are applied fairly and consistently. The rule of law requires a legal system where authority is exercised within the bounds of established legal frameworks, ideally informed by wisdom and justice.

International Law and Human Rights

International law and human rights frameworks attempt to establish a global standard for justice and fairness. These frameworks seek to limit the authority of states to enact laws that violate fundamental human rights. The authority of international bodies, such as the United Nations, aims to enforce these standards, promoting laws that are not only authoritative but also wise and just.


The assertion that “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law” reflects a fundamental truth about the nature of legal systems: laws derive their power and enforceability from the authority behind them, not necessarily from their inherent wisdom or moral correctness. While wisdom is crucial for creating just and effective laws, it is the authority of the state and its institutions that ensures these laws are implemented and followed. The challenge for modern societies is to balance authority with wisdom, ensuring that laws are not only enforceable but also fair, just, and reflective of ethical principles. Through democratic processes, the rule of law, and adherence to human rights, societies can strive to align legal authority with the wisdom necessary for true justice.