Portrait of Algernon Sidney

Algernon Sidney on the need for the law to be “deaf, inexorable, inflexible” and not subject to the arbitrary will of the ruler (1698)

Found in: Discourses Concerning Government

This passage from Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) encapsulates an important part of the idea of the rule of law (or “written reason”), namely that it must be applied equally and impartially to all individuals and must not be subject to “mitigation or interpretation” by the ruler. It appeared in Sidney’s unpublished book Discourses Concerning Government which was used to charge, try, and execute him for treason in 1683:


’Tis not therefore upon the uncertain will or understanding of a prince, that the safety of a nation ought to depend. He is sometimes a child, and sometimes overburden’d with years. Some are weak, negligent, slothful, foolish or vicious: others, who may have something of rectitude in their intentions, and naturally are not incapable of doing well, are drawn out of the right way by the subtlety of ill men who gain credit with them. That rule must always be uncertain, and subject to be distorted, which depends upon the fancy of such a man. He always fluctuates, and every passion that arises in his mind, or is infused by others, disorders him. The good of a people ought to be established upon a more solid foundation. For this reason the law is established, which no passion can disturb. ’Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ’Tis mens sine affectu [mind without passion], written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but without any regard to persons commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low. ’Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible.