The Lesbian Rule of Sheriff Andy Taylor

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.)

17 thoughts on “The Lesbian Rule of Sheriff Andy Taylor

  1. Pingback: The Lesbian Rule of Sheriff Andy Taylor | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Lesbian Rule of Sheriff Andy Taylor — The Orthosphere | un-ironic machete

  3. Ha…enjoyed this. Being familiar with equitable remedies in our modern American court system, but not familiar with the Lesbian Rule or the Andy Griffith Show, I found myself torn between the view of Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife as I read along. And it is precisely because of the tension of how I might want it to be and how I view what is necessary given the current environment.

    • The tension you feel is at the heart of the question of justice, and is why justice is never simple. Equality before the law seems at first obvious, but further reflection discovers that this is too simple. Sheriff Taylor is wiser than Deputy Fife because he understands that his job is to ensure justice, not just law enforcement; but Deputy Fife sees that it is possible to get too far away from simple law enforcement.

  4. I’ve only been ticketed for a driving/parking violation by an officer of the law once during my adult life that I recall. Although I was once pulled over for a (slight) speeding violation, in a business zone at 11:00pm, and I immediately began to argue that justice and equity *required* that my offense be treated according to the “lesbian rule.” At the time, and until I read your post, I didn’t know to call it by its proper and historic name. But I surely know by what name to call it now!

    Btw, the officer didn’t ticket me in the case cited, but only gave me a formal warning. He did tell me to never question his authority again, which I’m pretty sure I never did, but anyway. 🙂

    • As Aristotle tells us, the Lesbian Rule is essential to justice, although invoking the rule by name might have the opposite effect nowadays.

      • “’Lesbian Rule’ remained a common expression until the twentieth century”

        It remains in frequent use in the Scottish courts, usually in debates as to whether a variation between the pleadings and the proof is fatal, probably because it is enshrined in any number of previous judgments

      • Imagining the expression said with a straight face and in a Scottish accent has, for some reason, really cheered me up this morning.

  5. 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.

    The difference between law and legalism is in here somewhere. It’s important that the mason wielding the Lesbian Rule is attempting to build a building. When the mason forgets that he is building a building and starts to believe that he is wielding the Lesbian Rule, then the building will be crooked. He may even fall under the influence of vandals who seduce him with new and creative uses for the Lesbian Rule. And the building will fall down.

    Thus, the rule of law is impossible. The rule of law conduces to lawlessness.

  6. Yes, the degeneration seems to be inherent in the Lesbian Rule. This seems to result from the pride and ambition of judges, who expand their right to bend law to circumstances into a right to twist law to some ulterior end.

    • Properly used, some principle underlying the rule in question is usually invoked.

      For example, the rule requiring an indictment to state the tempus, locus and modus of an offence is treated as an expression of the broader principle that the panel must be sufficinetly certiorated of the charge he has to meet; so, in a proper case, a very wide latitude has sometimes been upheld, especially when the grounds for doing so are duly stated

      Thus, the “time” of a theft was held sufficiently libelled by “On the 7th September 1979, or on one or other of the days of that month, or of the months intervening, between the month of June 1979, when the sheep on the farm were shorn and counted over and the 1st November 1979, when the sheep on the said farm and grazings were again counted.”

  7. Pingback: The Lesbian Rule of Sheriff Andy Taylor | Reaction Times

    • I should have recognized the name of the former mayor of the big brown smudge on our southeastern horizon, but I’ll confess, I had to look it up.

  8. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/12/17) - Social Matter


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