It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law. t – tymoff

It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law. t – tymoff

The phrase “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law,” attributed to Thomas Hobbes, encapsulates a profound truth about the nature of legal systems and governance. This statement highlights the distinction between the theoretical ideals of wisdom and the practical realities of authority in the creation and enforcement of laws. Understanding this distinction requires an exploration of the origins and purposes of law, the role of authority in maintaining social order, and the potential dissonance between just laws and those simply enacted by power.

The Nature and Purpose of Law

Law as a Social Contract

Laws are fundamentally social constructs designed to regulate behavior within a community or society. They emerge from the collective need to establish order, protect rights, and resolve conflicts. The concept of a social contract suggests that individuals consent, either explicitly or implicitly, to surrender some of their freedoms in exchange for security and protection provided by the state. This contract is not inherently wise; it is pragmatic, aimed at ensuring mutual survival and stability.

The Role of Authority in Lawmaking

Authority, in the context of law, refers to the legitimate power to create, enforce, and interpret laws. This power is vested in various entities, such as governments, monarchs, or elected officials, who possess the mandate to maintain order and administer justice. Authority is essential in lawmaking because, without it, laws would lack the enforcement mechanisms necessary to compel compliance. The effectiveness of a law is not contingent on its wisdom but on the authority behind it.

Authority versus Wisdom in Lawmaking

Authority: The Backbone of Legal Systems

Authority underpins the entire structure of legal systems. It is the force that ensures adherence to laws, providing the means to enforce penalties for violations. This enforcement capability is what differentiates a mere suggestion or guideline from a binding law. Authority imbues laws with the power to shape behavior, create societal norms, and maintain order. Without authority, laws would be ineffectual, mere words without the power to influence actions.

Wisdom: The Ideal Versus the Real

While wisdom involves the judicious application of knowledge and experience to achieve the best outcomes, it is not always the driving force behind the creation of laws. Idealistically, laws should be wise, reflecting deep understanding and foresight. However, in practice, laws are often the result of political, social, and economic pressures. Authority prioritizes order and control, sometimes at the expense of wisdom. Historical and contemporary examples abound where laws enacted by authoritative bodies are not necessarily wise or just, but they are enforced because of the authority behind them.

Historical Perspectives on Law and Authority

Hobbes and the Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes, a prominent philosopher, argued in his seminal work “Leviathan” that in a state of nature, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape this chaotic state, individuals form a social contract, granting authority to a sovereign power to create and enforce laws. Hobbes posited that the centralization of authority is crucial for preventing disorder and ensuring collective security. In this framework, the legitimacy of laws stems from the authority of the sovereign, not from their inherent wisdom.

Legal Positivism and Authority

Legal positivism, a school of thought in jurisprudence, further underscores the importance of authority in lawmaking. Prominent legal positivists like John Austin assert that laws are commands issued by a sovereign and backed by sanctions. According to this view, the validity of a law is determined by its source of authority, not its moral or rational content. This perspective reinforces the idea that it is authority, rather than wisdom, that gives laws their binding power.

Modern Implications of Authority in Law

The Role of Government

In contemporary societies, governments wield the authority to create laws through legislative processes. Elected officials, representing the populace, enact laws that reflect the interests and values of their constituents. However, this process is often influenced by political agendas, lobbying efforts, and societal dynamics. As a result, laws may be enacted that prioritize political expediency over wisdom. The authority of the state ensures these laws are enforced, regardless of their merit.

The Judiciary and Interpretative Authority

The judiciary plays a critical role in interpreting and applying laws. Courts possess the authority to resolve disputes, interpret statutes, and ensure laws align with constitutional principles. Judicial decisions carry the weight of authority, shaping the application of laws in ways that may or may not reflect wise judgment. Judicial authority thus reinforces the primacy of authority in the legal system, often bridging the gap between legislative intent and practical enforcement.

The Tension Between Just Laws and Authoritative Laws

Ethical Considerations

The ethical dimensions of lawmaking highlight the tension between authority and wisdom. Just laws, ideally, should embody principles of fairness, equity, and moral righteousness. However, the reality is that laws enacted by authoritative bodies may not always align with ethical standards. Historical injustices, such as segregation laws or colonial statutes, illustrate how authoritative laws can perpetuate systemic inequities. These laws were enforced not because they were wise or just, but because they were backed by authority.

Civil Disobedience and Moral Authority

Civil disobedience arises as a response to the dissonance between authoritative laws and ethical considerations. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi exemplified the power of moral authority in challenging unjust laws. They argued that individuals have a duty to oppose laws that violate fundamental human rights, even if such laws are backed by political authority. This form of resistance underscores the potential for wisdom and ethics to confront and reform authoritative laws.

Balancing Authority and Wisdom in Lawmaking

Democratic Processes

Democratic systems attempt to balance authority and wisdom through participatory governance. By involving citizens in the legislative process, democracies aim to create laws that reflect collective wisdom and societal values. Public consultations, referendums, and representative elections are mechanisms designed to infuse wisdom into lawmaking. However, the effectiveness of these mechanisms depends on the informed and active participation of the citizenry.

The Role of Checks and Balances

Checks and balances within government structures are essential for mitigating the potential misuse of authority. Independent judicial review, legislative oversight, and executive accountability help ensure that laws are not only authoritative but also aligned with principles of justice and wisdom. These mechanisms provide a counterbalance to the concentration of power, promoting a more nuanced and balanced approach to lawmaking.


The assertion that “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law” underscores a fundamental truth about the nature of legal systems. While wisdom ideally informs the creation of just and effective laws, it is authority that ultimately gives laws their binding power. This distinction has profound implications for how societies understand and engage with their legal systems. Recognizing the primacy of authority in lawmaking challenges individuals and institutions to strive for a balance where authority is exercised with wisdom, ensuring that laws serve the collective good while maintaining order and stability.

In a world where authority often supersedes wisdom in lawmaking, the pursuit of just laws requires vigilance, ethical commitment, and active participation from all members of society. By acknowledging the central role of authority, we can better appreciate the complexities of legal systems and work towards a more equitable and wise application of laws.

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