Worse Laws, If Immoveable

“But the worst mischief of all is this, that nothing we decree shall stand firm and that we will not know that a city with the worse laws, if immoveable, is better than one with good laws when they be not binding, and that a plain wit accompanied with modesty is more profitable to the state than dexterity with arrogance, and that the more ignorant sort of men do, for the most part, better regulate a commonwealth than they that are wiser. For these love to appear wiser than the laws and in all public debatings to carry the victory as the worthiest things wherein to show their wisdom, from whence most commonly proceeds the ruin of the states they live in. Whereas the other sort, mistrusting their own wits, are content to be esteemed not so wise as the laws and not able to carp at what is well spoken by another, and so, making themselves equal judges rather than contenders for mastery, govern a state for the most part well. We therefore should do the like and not be carried away with combats of eloquence and wit to give such counsel to your multitude as in our own judgments we think not good.” (Thucydides, tr. Thomas Hobbes, 1628)

“Bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority; that unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination; and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their wit in more important matters, and by such behaviour too often ruin their country; while those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate, instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions.” (Thucydides, tr. Richard Crawley, 1874)

“We should realize that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered, that lack of learning combined with sound common sense is more helpful than the kind of cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals. These are the sort of people who want to appear wiser than the laws, who want to get their own way in every general discussion, because they feel that they cannot show off their intelligence in matters of greater importance, and who, as a result, very often bring ruin on their country. But the other kind — the people who are not so confident in their own intelligence — are prepared to admit that the laws are wiser than they are and that they lack the ability to pull to pieces a speech made by a good speaker; they are unbiased judges, and not people taking part in some kind of a competition; so things usually go well when they are in control. We statesmen, too, should try to be like them, instead of being carried away by mere cleverness and a desire to show off our intelligence and so giving you, the people, advice which we do not really believe in ourselves.” (Thucydides, tr. Rex Warner, 1954)