Not long ago, I was given a parking ticket. And in giving me that ticket, the minion of our campus parking authority was, strictly speaking, correct. I was not blocking a fire lane, or a dumpster, or the valet parking outside the football team’s massage parlor, but neither was I occupying what a parking lot precisian would recognize as a space. “Dead to rights” just about sums it up how they had me.
Just about, but not entirely.
Because, you see, I left my car for a matter of only ten minutes, and did this at the edge of a parking lot to which I have a valid (and not inexpensive) permit, and did this because it was 7:00 p.m. and the lot is open to (and filled by) students after 5:00. Moreover, I was doing all of this in order to perform what might be seen as an act of charity. I drive an elderly emeritus professor home from campus a couple of nights each week, and, since she moves slowly with her walker, do not call her to the curb with blasts of my horn.
All of these things strike me as mitigating factors, and it was as such that I described them in the obsequious appeal that I wrote to our campus parking authority. If I had thought our campus parking authority was au fait with Aristotle, I would have asked them to judge my case with the Lesbian Rule.
This does not mean what you may think it means.
Aristotle introduced the Lesbian Rule in his discussion of equity (Nicomachean Ethics 5.14). As he explained, equity is “a rectification of legal justice” in “cases upon which it is impossible to pronounce correctly in general terms.” For instance, in the case of a benefactor who has taken harmless liberties with trifling parking regulations in order to perform an act of charity. Thus, although I agree that the rule against leaving one’s car at the curb properly “embraces the majority of cases,” I think my “particular case is an exception to the general law.”
In other words, I think my particular case should be judged by what Aristotle called the Lesbian Rule.
You must first understand that Aristotle’s Lesbians were the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea. On the island of Lesbos, the architects of long ago built with what is known as “cyclopean masonry.” This means that they used very large and irregularly shaped boulders fitted closely together, as if by the hands of a giant cyclops.
Building with irregular boulders is, needless to say, very different than building with the regular, square-cut blocks of stone that were common in Aristotle’s Athens. When dressing these square-cut blocks, one requires a rigid straight edge and an unbending square, because every block must be equal in size and shape (Pink Floyd wrote a song about this). When fitting irregular boulders together, on the other hand, one requires a flexible ruler that can match the convexity of one unique boulder to the concavity of another unique bolder. The Lesbian builders had such a ruler, which they made of bendable lead rather than rigid bronze, and this flexible ruler was therefore known among the ancient Greeks as a leaden or Lesbian Rule.
This is why Aristotle illustrated the principle of equity with the example of the Lesbian Rule.
“For where the thing to be measured is indefinite the rule must be indefinite, like the leaden rule that is used in Lesbian architecture; for as the rule is not rigid but adapts itself to the shape of the stone, so does the [equitable] decree to the circumstances of the case.”
It is to this line of Aristotle that we owe the expression “to bend a rule.”
“Lesbian Rule” remained a common expression until the twentieth century, when the word lesbian took on its exclusive modern meaning. Although Aristotle had clearly praised equity as the perfection of justice, and therefore offered the Lesbian Rule as a symbol of something that was admirable and good, many later writers saw fit to warn against use of the Lesbian Rule.
This is because Lesbian Rule came to denote, not equitably “bending a rule” to the circumstances of a particular case, but rather a rule that was so vague and “indefinite” that it could be “twisted” to whatever shape those with the power to twist it wished to see it twisted. This is what John Calvin had in mind when he warned against “a Lesbian Rule to make of everything what we list” (The Institutions of Christian Religion, chap. 8).
The difference may be stated this way. A sheriff might “bend the rule” against public consumption of alcohol when an ebullient crowd, otherwise orderly, is, for some reasonable period, celebrating an important football victory. In “turning a blind eye” to their infraction, he exhibits equity and applies the Lesbian Rule in Aristotle’s encomiastic sense. On the other hand, a city council might write an alcohol ordinance that is so vague and “indefinite” that the Sheriff or the lawyers could “twist” it into an excuse to lock up anyone, or no one at all. Such an ordinance would be a Lesbian Rule in the bad sense of lawlessness and arbitrary justice. (A vague and easily twisted rule was also called a “wax nose”).
The example of an equitable sheriff springs to mind because I have been watching old re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show with my daughter, and Aristotelian equity is almost certainly the greatest virtue of Sheriff Andy Taylor. Sheriff Taylor looks upon the citizens of Mayberry, not as impersonal square-cut blocks, but as unique individuals who fit together and form a community like the irregular boulders in cyclopean masonry. In Mayberry, no rule is rigid, but is in every case adapted by Sheriff Taylor to “the shape of the stone.”
Thus, we might say that, under Sheriff Taylor, Mayberry is run on the Lesbian Rule. The most obvious example is the way he handles the town drunk, Otis Campbell, but the theme is so pervasive that the show might as well have been called “Sheriff Taylor Bends the Rules.”
His bending of the rules is, you may recall, a recurrent scandal to his deputy, Barney Fife, a man inclined to rigidity and doing things “by the book.” Barney is scandalized by Sheriff Taylor’s Lesbian Rule because he fears that it will lead to the complete breakdown of public order in Mayberry County. This is because, in addition to being rigid, Deputy Fife is a great believer in the “slippery slope” and the “thin edge of the wedge.”
Deputy Fife thinks there is a limit to the Lesbian Rule, and he doubts that Sheriff Taylor knows just where that limit lies.
Barney’s fear of Sheriff Taylor’ Lesbian Rule is, of course, a running joke in the show. This fear was made ridiculous by placing the pair in Mayberry County, a traditional community in which use of the Lesbian Rule was, indeed, Aristotelian equity and a perfection of justice. Sheriff Taylor knew Mayberry County, and Otis Campbell, and therefore just how far he could (and should) bend the county’s laws to equitably punish the peculiarities of poor old Otis.
Barney’s fear was, however, not at all ridiculous when placed in the larger context of the United States in the 1960s (the Andy Griffith Show ran from 1960-1971). Here a great many television viewers had good reason to believe that they were witnessing a complete breakdown in public order — that the amiable Lesbian Rule had degenerated into lawlessness and arbitrary justice.
This was because Deputy Fife was right to think that Sheriff Taylor’s Lesbian Rule had a limit, and because the limit to his Lesbian rule was the Mayberry county line.
(For those who are wondering, the university parking authority is not the Mayberry County Sheriff Department, but they did knock a few bucks off my fine.)