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And so when I hear so much impatient and irritable complaint, so much readiness to replace what we have by guardians for us all, those supermen, evoked somewhere from the clouds, whom none have seen and none are ready to name, I lapse into a dream, as it were. I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children’s are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with anther, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come to straighten the game.

Learned Hand (1872-1961) American jurist
“Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities,” speech, Federal Bar Association, Washington, DC (1932-03-08)

Collected in The Spirit of Liberty (1953).
Added on 21-Dec-23 | Last updated 21-Dec-23
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No man rules safely unless he is willing to be ruled. No man commands safely unless he has learned well how to obey.

[Nemo secure apparet nisi qui libenter latet. Nemo secure præcipit nisi qui obedire didicit.]

Thomas von Kempen
Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471) German-Dutch priest, author
The Imitation of Christ [De Imitatione Christi], Book 1, ch. 20, v. 2 (1.20.2) (c. 1418-27) [tr. Croft/Bolton (1940)]

See also Cicero. (Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

No man is sure in prelacy, but that he would gladly be a subject: no, none may surely command, but he that hath learned gladly to obey
[tr. Whitford/Raynal (1530/1871)]

No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey.
[tr. Whitford/Gardiner (1530/1955)]

No man ruleth safely but he that is ruled willingly, no man securely doth command, but he that hath learned readily to obey.
[tr. Page (1639), 1.20.9]

No Man is fit to govern who hath not learned how to obey.
[tr. Stanhope (1696; 1706 ed.)]

No man can safely govern, that would not cheerfully become subject; no man can safely command, that has not truly learned to obey.
[tr. Payne (1803), 1.20.4]

No man ruleth safely, but he that is willingly ruled. No man securely doth command, but he that hath learned readily to obey.
[ed. Parker (1841)]

No man can safely govern, that would not willingly be governed; no man can safely command, that has not well learned to obey.
[tr. Dibdin (1851), 1.20.3]

No man is safe to govern, but he who would rather live in subjection. No man is safe to command, but he who has learned well how to obey.
[ed. Bagster (1860)]

No man safely ruleth but he who loveth to be subject. No man safely commandeth but he who loveth to obey.
[tr. Benham (1874)]

No man doth safely rule, but he that is glad to be ruled. No man doth safely rule, but he that hath learned gladly to obey.
[tr. Anon. (1901)]

No one is safely set above who would not cheerfully be subject. No one safely gives orders but he who has thoroughly learned to obey.
[tr. Daplyn (1952)]

No man can safely command, unless he who has learned to obey well.
[tr. Sherley-Price (1952)]

Never trust yourself [...] to come to the front, unless you would sooner be at the back; to give orders, unless you know how to obey them.
[tr. Knox-Oakley (1959), 1.20(b)]

No one can safely be in command, but the man who has learned complete obedience.
[tr. Knott (1962)]

No one governs with safety who is unwilling to be governed. No one gives commands with safety who has not learned well how to obey.
[tr. Rooney (1979)]

No one leads securely except the person who freely serves.
[tr. Creasy (1989)]

Added on 9-Aug-23 | Last updated 28-Sep-23
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Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defense.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3, ch. 12 “Totalitarianism in Power,” sec. 1 (1951)
Added on 5-Jul-22 | Last updated 5-Jul-22
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The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)
Added on 12-May-21 | Last updated 12-May-21
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Therefore he who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men. The law is reason unaffected by desire.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Politics [Πολιτικά], Book 3, ch. 16 / 1287a.32 [tr. Jowett (1885)]

Alternate translations:

  • "He, therefore, who wishes Law to govern seems to wish for the rule of God and Intellect alone; he who wishes men to rule bring sin the element of the animal. For appetites are of this lower nature, and anger distorts the judgment of rulers, even of the best. And so Law is Intellect without animal impulses." [tr. Bolland (1877)]

  • "Moreover, he who would place the supreme power in mind, would place it in God and the laws; but he who entrusts man with it, gives it to a wild beast, for such his appetites sometimes make him; for passion influences those who are in power, even the very best of men: for which reason law is reason without desire." [tr. Ellis (1912)]

  • "He therefore that recommends that the law shall govern seems to recommend that God and reason alone shall govern, but he that would have man govern adds a wild animal also; for appetite is like a wild animal, and also passion warps the rule even of the best men. Therefore the law is wisdom without desire." [tr. Rackham (1932)]

  • "One who asks law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite." [tr. Lord (1984)]
Added on 29-Jan-21 | Last updated 12-Feb-21
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Ill can he rule the great, that cannot reach the small.

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) English poet
The Faerie Queene, Book 5, Canto 2, st. 43 (1589-96)
Added on 22-Jun-20 | Last updated 22-Jun-20
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Base and absurd requests he should reject, not harshly but gently, informing the askers by way of consolation that the requests are not in accord with their own excellence and reputation.

Plutarch (AD 46-127) Greek historian, biographer, essayist [Mestrius Plutarchos]
Moralia, Vol. 10 “Precepts of Statecraft” (13) [tr. Helmbold (1936)]
Added on 9-Jan-17 | Last updated 9-Jan-17
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The power to tax is the power to rule.

Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) American drama critic and journalist
Once Around the Sun, “March 1” (1951)

See also John Marshall.
Added on 24-Oct-16 | Last updated 21-Dec-22
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An excellent master is always better than an excellent law. Let your laws be ever so good, if the lawmakers are bad, all will come to nothing.

Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) English Puritan divine, writer
Heaven on Earth (1654)
Added on 3-Dec-14 | Last updated 3-Dec-14
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We need supermen to rule us — the job is so vast and the need for wise judgment is so urgent. But, alas, there are no supermen. Those who rule us are like you and me. It is a frightening situation.

Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) American drama critic and journalist
Once Around the Sun, “January 27” (1951)
Added on 4-Sep-13 | Last updated 21-Dec-22
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Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Introduction (1517) [tr. Detmold (1882)]

Alt. trans.: "It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope." [Discourse upon the First Ten Books of Livy, Book 1, ch. 3 (1513-18) [tr. Gilbert]]
Added on 19-Sep-11 | Last updated 27-Jan-20
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CREON: Am I to rule for others, or myself?
HAEMON: A State for one man is no State at all.
CREON: The State is his who rules it, so ’tis held.
HAEMON: As monarch of a desert thou wouldst shine.

Κρέων: ἄλλῳ γὰρ ἢ ‘μοὶ χρή με τῆσδ᾽ ἄρχειν χθονός;
Αἵμων: πόλις γὰρ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ἥτις ἀνδρός ἐσθ᾽ ἑνός.
Κρέων: οὐ τοῦ κρατοῦντος ἡ πόλις νομίζεται;
Αἵμων: καλῶς γ᾽ ἐρήμης ἂν σὺ γῆς ἄρχοις μόνος.

Sophocles (496-406 BC) Greek tragic playwright
Antigone, l. 736 ff (441 BC) [tr. Storr (1859)]

Original Greek. Alt. trans.:

CREON: Shall other men prescribe my government?
HAEMON: One only makes not up a city, father.
CREON: Is not the city in the sovereign's hand?
HAEMON: Nobly you'd govern as the desert's king.
[tr. Campbell (1873)]

CREON: Am I to rule this land by the will of another than myself?
HAEMON: That is no city, which belongs to one man.
CREON: Does not the city by tradition belong to the man in power?
HAEMON: You would make a fine monarch in a desert.
[tr. Jebb (1891)]

CREON: My voice is the one voice giving orders in this City!
HAIMON: It is no City if it takes orders from one voice.
CREON: The State is the King!
HAIMON: Yes, if the State is a desert.
[tr. Fitts/Fitzgerald (1939)]

CREON: No, I am king, and responsible only to myself.
HAEMON: A one-man state? What sort of state is that?
CREON: Why, does not every state belong to its ruler?
HAEMON: You’d be an excellent king -- on a desert island.
[tr. Watling (1947), ll. 632 ff]

CREON: Am I to rule by other mind than mine?
HAEMON: No city is property of a single man.
CREON: But custom gives possession to the ruler.
HAEMON: You'd rule a desert beautifully alone.
[tr. Wyckoff (1954)]

CREON: Am I to rule for them, not for myself?
HAEMON: That is not government, but tyranny.
CREON: The king is lord and master of his city.
HAEMON: Then you had better rule a desert island!
[tr. Kitto (1962)]

CREON: Am I to rule this land for others -- or myself?
HAEMON: It's no city at all, owned by one man alone.
CREON: What? The city is the king's -- that's the law!
HAEMON: What a splendid king you'd make of a desert island --
you and you alone.
[tr. Fagles (1982)]

CREON: So I should rule this country for someone other than myself?
HAEMON: A place for one man alone is not a city.
CREON: A city belongs to its master. Isn't that the rule?
HAEMON: Then go be ruler of a desert, all alone. You'd do it well.
[tr. Woodruff (2001)]

CREON: Should I govern the city for others and not for me?
HAEMON: There is no city that belongs to one man.
CREON: So a city does not belong to the man who governs it?
HAEMON: One man alone can only govern an empty city.
[tr. Theodoridis (2004)]

CREON: Am I to rule this land at someone else’s whim or by myself?
HAEMON: A city which belongs to just one man is no true city.
CREON: According to our laws, does not the ruler own the city?
HAEMON: By yourself you’d make an excellent king but in a desert.
[tr. Johnston (2005)]

CREON: Should I rule the land for anyone other than myself?
HAEMON: There is no city that is one man’s.
CREON: Is not the city considered to belong to the ruling man?
HAEMON: Nobly you could rule an empty land, alone.
[tr. Tyrell/Bennett (2002)]

  • "The state which belongs to one man is no state at all." [tr. @sentantiq (2020)]
  • "A state is not a state if it belongs to one man."
Added on 5-Jan-09 | Last updated 22-Dec-20
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I am not one of those who think that the people are never in the wrong. They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this. But I do say, that in all disputes between them and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
“Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” (23 Apr 1770)
Added on 25-Aug-08 | Last updated 9-Nov-20
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No other touchstone can test the heart of a man,
The temper of his mind and spirit, till he be tried
In the practice of authority and rule.

[ἀμήχανον δὲ παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐκμαθεῖν
ψυχήν τε καὶ φρόνημα καὶ γνώμην, πρὶν ἂν
ἀρχαῖς τε καὶ νόμοισιν ἐντριβὴς φανῇ.]

Sophocles (496-406 BC) Greek tragic playwright
Antigone, l. 175ff [Creon] (441 BC) [tr. Watling (1947)]

Alt. trans.:

There is no man whose soul and will and meaning
Stand forth as outward things for all to see,
'Till he has shown himself by practice versed
In ruling under law and making laws.
[tr. Donaldson (1848)]

But hard it is to learn
The mind of any mortal or the heart,
Till he be tried in chief authority.
Power shows the man.
[tr. Campbell (1873)]

Yet 'tis no easy matter to discern
The temper of a man, his mind and will,
Till he be proved by exercise of power.
[tr. Storr (1859)]

Now, it is impossible to know fully any man's character, will, or judgment, until he has been proved by the test of rule and law-giving.
[tr. Jebb (1891)]

Never can man be known.
His mind, his will, his passion ne'er appear,
Till power and office call them forth.
[tr. Werner (1892)]

No man can be fully known, in soul and spirit and mind, until he hath been seen versed in rule and law-giving.
[tr. Jebb (1917)]

I am aware, of course, that no Ruler can expect complete loyalty from his subjects until he has been tested in office.
[tr. Fitts/Fitzgerald (1939)]

You cannot learn of any man the soul,
the mind, and the intent until he shows
his practice of the government and law.
[tr. Wyckoff (1954)]

There is no art that teaches us to know
The temper, mind, or spirit of any man
Until he has been proved by government
And lawgiving.
[tr. Kitto (1962)]

Of course you cannot know a man completely,
his character, his principles, sense of judgment,
not till he's shown his colors, ruling the people,
making laws. Experience, there's the test.
[tr. Fagles (1982), l. 194ff]

No man has a mind that can be fully known,
In character or judgment, till he rules and makes law.
[tr. Woodruff (2001)]

Now, there is no way to learn thoroughly the essence
of the whole man as well as his thought and judgment
until he has been seen engaged in ruling and making laws.
[tr. Tyrell/Bennett (2002)]

It’s impossible
to really know a man, to know his soul,
his mind and will, before one witnesses
his skill in governing and making laws.
[tr. Johnston (2005), ll. 198-201]

It is impossible to really learn a man’s
mind, thought and opinion before he’s been initiated
into the offices and laws of the state.
[tr. @sentantiq (2020)]
Added on 30-Jun-08 | Last updated 21-Dec-20
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Of the best rulers
The people (only) know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile.
When they do not command the people’s faith,
Some will lose faith in them,
And then they resort to oaths!
But (of the best) when their task is accomplished, their work done,
The people all remark, “We have done it ourselves.”

Lao-tzu (604?-531? BC) Chinese philosopher, poet [also Lao-tse, Laozi]
The Wisdom of Laotse, ch 17 (1948) [tr. Lin Yutang]

Alt. trans. [Tao-te Ching tr. Wing-Tsit Chan]:
"The best are those whose existence is merely known by the people.
The next best are those who are loved and praised.
The next are those who are feared. And the next are those who are reviled.
The great rulers accomplish their task; they complete their work.
Nevertheless their people say that they simply follow Nature."
Added on 28-Feb-08 | Last updated 6-Apr-17
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