Civilization and the Rule of Law

We’ve talked about how the Star Trek-Star Wars divide reflects preferences for a more lawful or more chaotic world; how F&SF stories often show us a defense of civilization against chaos; and how civilization makes science possible and rests in turn on human technology.  But both order and technology can be oppressive.  The missing element is the rule of law.

Universal Laws

It’s a crucial element of right governance that there are rules applying to everyone, as opposed to the arbitrary wishes of a dictator, who can make decisions based on favoritism, political preferences, or personal relationships.  The Wikipedia article describes rule of law as “the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by decisions of individual government officials.”

Rule of Law pyramid

(Rule of Law Institute of Australia)

As we saw in The Good King, the concept of the rule of law goes back at least to Aristotle.  It became a central principle of the American founders via the English tradition of John Locke.  “Rule of law implies that every citizen is subject to the law, including lawmakers themselves” (Wikipedia again).  It is thus in tension with kingship, where rule is almost by definition arbitrary and personal.  But one can have mixed cases—kings who are bound by certain laws, as in the British constitutional monarchy.

Without the rule of law, we depend on the good behavior of those who have power of some sort—physical, military, economic.  We slide toward the “war of each against all,” where might makes right and the vulnerable are the pawns of the strong.  Autocracy soon follows, as people look for any means to find safety from those who are powerful but unscrupulous.  Hence the quotation from John Christian Falkenberg, which I’ve used before:  “The rule of law is the essence of freedom.”  (Jerry Pournelle, Prince of Mercenaries (New York:  Baen 1989), ch. 21, p. 254.)  Strength itself, a good thing, is only safe under laws.

Test Cases

It’s easy to miss the importance of the rule of law.  We’re typically born into a society with better or worse laws, and criticize them from the inside.  It’s less common to find ourselves in straits where lawfulness as such has collapsed.  Regrettably, sizable numbers of people are exposed to such conditions in the world today.  But many of us are fortunate enough not to see them ourselves.  As always, fantasy and science fiction provide useful “virtual laboratories” for examining the possibilities.

Tunnel in the Sky (audiobook) coverA classic SF case is where a group thrown into a “state of nature” attempts to set up a lawful society.  For example, in Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955), students from a high-school class on survival techniques are given a final exam in which they are dropped onto an unspecified planet to survive for up to ten days.  When an astronomical accident leaves them stranded, they need to organize for the long term.  Rod Walker, the hero, becomes the leader-by-default of a growing group of young people.  The tension between this informal leadership and the question of forming an actual constitution—complete with committees, regulations, and power politics—makes up a central theme of the story.

David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman (1985), later made into a 1997 movie with Kevin Costner, illustrates the power of civil order, the unstated practices of a culture, as recalling—and perhaps fostering—the rule of law.  The hero, a wanderer who happens to have appropriated a dead postman’s uniform and mail sack, presents himself as a mail carrier for the “Restored United States of America” to gain shelter in one of the isolated fortress-towns, ruled by petty tyrants, that remain.  His desperate imposture snowballs into a spreading movement in which people begin to believe in this fiction, and this belief puts them on the road toward rebuilding civilization.  The result is a sort of field-test not only of civil order and government, but of what Plato famously imagined as the “noble lie.”The Postman movie poster

Last time, I cited Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), where a small community headed by a United States Senator hopes to serve as a nucleus for reconstructing civilization after a comet strike.  We see at the end the strong pull of personal rule or kingship:  as the Senator lies dying, the future of the community will be determined by which of the competing characters gains the personal trust and endorsement of the people—and the hand of the Senator’s daughter, a situation in which she herself recognizes the resurfacing of an atavistic criterion for rule.  Unstated, but perhaps implicit, is the nebulous idea that deciding in favor of scientific progress may also mean an eventual movement back toward an ideal of rule by laws, not by inherited power.

Seeking a Balance

The “laboratory” of F&SF is full of subversions, variations, and elaborations on the rule of law.  In particular, we should note the counter-trend previously discussed as “chaotic good.”  Laws can be stifling as well as liberating.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress coverHeinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966) imagines how the “rational anarchy” of a lunar prison colony is mobilized to throw off autocratic rule.  The healthy chaos of the libertarian Loonies is hardly utopian, but the story does make it seem appealing.  Interestingly, Heinlein returned to this setting with a kind of critique twenty years later in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), where the post-revolution lunar anarchy seems much less benign, seen from an outsider’s perspective.

While fantasy seems to concern itself with this issue much less than science fiction, consider the region called the “Free Commots” in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.  When protagonist Taran visits this area in the fourth book (Taran Wanderer), he finds a society of independent villages, where the most prominent citizens are master-craftspeople.  They neither have nor need a lord to organize them.  The Commots contrast favorably to the feudal or wilderness regions through which Taran travels.  A kind of anarchic democracy, as an ideal, thus sneaks into what otherwise seems to be a traditional aristocratic high fantasy.Taran Wanderer book cover

One way of managing the tension between a government of laws and a culture of liberty is the principle of subsidiarity:  the notion that matters should be governed or controlled at the lowest possible organizational level where they can be properly handled.  It’s frequently illustrated in G.K. Chesterton’s ardent defenses of localism.  In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), extreme localism is played for laughs—“half fun and full earnest,” to borrow Andrew Greeley’s phrase.  The more mature Tales of the Long Bow (1924), which might qualify as a sort of proto-steampunk story, treats the idea more seriously, in the form of an oddly high-tech (for 1924) revolt of local liberty against overweening and arbitrary national rule.

The Fragility of Civilization

When we grow up taking for granted the rule of law, we can fail to see how vulnerable it is—along with the civilization that it reflects and makes possible.

“The Establishment,” as they used to say in the 1960s, seems vast and invulnerable.  When we’re trying to make a change, it seems insuperable, so rigid that nothing can be done about it.  But this is an illusion.  The structure of civilization, good and bad, is fragile.  It’s easier than we think to throw away the rule of law, so painfully constructed (as Rod Walker found), in favor of shortcuts or easy answers to our problems.

One thing F&SF have brought us is a better sense of this vulnerability.  The spate of post-apocalyptic tales in recent years—zombie apocalypses, worldwide disasters, future dystopias like The Hunger Games, going all the way back to the nuclear-war stories of the 1950s—do help us appreciate that our civilization can go away.

But that collapse doesn’t require a disaster.  Civilization, and the rule of law, can erode gradually, insidiously, as in the “Long Night” stories we talked about earlier.

Historically, the Sixties counterculture fostered anarchists who felt “the Establishment” was invulnerable.  Often with the best of intentions, they did more to undermine civil order than they expected.  Those who now see no better aim than breaking up the structures of democratic government and civil life—whether from the side of government, or from the grass roots—also fray the fabric of civilization.  The extrapolations of science fiction and fantasy illustrate why eroding the rule of law should not be taken lightly.

Near the bottom of David Brin’s Web home page, he places the following:

I am a member of a civilization

It’s good that we have a rambunctious society, filled with opinionated individualists. Serenity is nice, but serenity alone never brought progress. Hermits don’t solve problems. The adversarial process helps us to improve as individuals and as a culture. Criticism is the only known antidote to error — elites shunned it and spread ruin across history. We do each other a favor (though not always appreciated) by helping find each others’ mistakes.

And yet — we’d all be happier, better off and more resilient if each of us were to now and then say:

“I am a member of a civilization.” (IAAMOAC)

Step back from anger. Study how awful our ancestors had it, yet they struggled to get you here. Repay them by appreciating the civilization you inherited.

It’s incumbent on all of us to cherish and defend the rule of law.  Give up civilization lightly, and we may not have the choice again.


Civilization and Science

The Stars Are Ours!

Andre Norton’s The Stars Are Ours! (1954) was one of my favorite books in early childhood.  Dard Nordis, his young niece Dessie, and her crippled father Lars eke out a living on an impoverished farm under the tyranny of the ironically named “Company of Pax.”  Pax came to power after nationalist forces seized the space stations built by independent-minded Free Scientists and used them to devastate much of the Earth.  Turning people against scientists in a bloody purge, Pax imposed a worldwide dictatorship.  Lars is a former scientist, and the family is suspected by neighbors and “Peacemen” alike.

The Stars Are Ours! coverDard discovers that Lars has been secretly developing a form of suspended animation as the final step in a project carried out by renegade Free Scientists.  Under the current world order, their only hope is to escape Earth altogether.  When Lars is killed, Dard and Dessie make the perilous journey to the Cleft, bringing the secret of Lars’ discovery to the hidden Scientists.  Dard helps fight a desperate rearguard action to hold off attackers while the star ship is prepared.  He is bundled aboard at the last moment and the refugee Scientists take off into the unknown.

And that’s just Part One.

The Defense of Reason

What makes this tale so gripping, for me, is seeing characters with their backs against the wall, defending freedom, human decency, and rationality:  civilization.  The ideal of civilization in this story specifically includes the freedom of inquiry that makes science possible.  That underlying alliance between reason and virtue is all the more powerful because the characters’ means of escape itself involves dramatic scientific advances.

The motif of scientific civilization is, of course, a natural fit for science fiction.  But it’s well-grounded in basic humanity.  Science and technology are what humans do:  not the only thing, but a key element.  Hannah Arendt, among others, spoke of Homo faber, humanity the maker.

The idea of humans as makers and builders is not limited to what we think of advanced technology.  Blacksmithing is technology.  Agriculture is technology.  Using spears against mammoths is technology.  It’s a matter of degree.

As noted above, science is not everything.  We are not only homo faber but also organic beings, the animal laborans, as well as acting persons who relate to each other in uniquely personal ways.  (Not to mention philosophers.)  But in building a civilization, the scientific and technical mind is of great importance.

Science on the Run

Stories that play out the relationship between science and civilization can be tremendously moving.

Fallen Angels book coverLarry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn collaborated on a novel called Fallen Angels (1991), in which the few humans living and working in space stations like the ISS become exiles from an Earth controlled by an essentially anti-scientific government, like Norton’s Pax.  In Chapter Sixteen, “The Last Shuttle,” a character tells the story of the final group of refugee scientists and engineers that made it into orbit.  As in The Stars Are Ours!, they make their escape under attack:

“. . . Mission Control kept feeding corrections to the main computer.  They’re the real heroes, the NASA ground crew.  I never knew their names.”

“Why them?” asked one of the young fans.

“Because they stayed at their posts.”


“The mob broke through.”


“The fighting in Mission Control was hand to hand . . . The crew held on, nobody left, nobody left a console until Enterprise Two was up.”  (pp. 291-92)

Niven and Pournelle called on a similar idea in Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), where isolated groups struggle to hold onto civilization after a disastrous comet impact.  Part of the climax involves the fight to sustain a nuclear power plant, the only remaining source for electricity—and all that electricity makes possible, from hot showers to antibiotics.  Many of the survivors are reluctant to risk their precarious security for this “luxury”—until one of the remaining astronauts shames them into it.

“So.  We’ll live. . . . As peasants! . . . But . . . don’t we want to hope for something better?

“And we’re going to keep slaves,” Delanty said.  “Not because we want to.  Because we need them.  And we used to control the lightning!”  (p. 636)

The Appeal of the Primitive

Of course this high regard for scientific civilization is not the only side of science fiction.  It isn’t even the most prevalent.  All sorts of SF stories preach the dangers of technology instead.  Many of them show a common yearning for a simpler, pre-technological age.

I’ve mentioned that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars—Barsoom—has a peculiarly archaic flavor, as exemplified in the stories’ fondness for swordfighting even when more effective combat technologies are available.  Burroughs’ idealization of the primitive is even more prominent in his more famous creation, Tarzan.  Tarzan is a paradigm of the “natural man,” with an instinctive decency and even chivalry that belies his savage habits.  The Tarzan tales play into a widespread fascination—I’ve got it too, right alongside the enthusiasm for technology—with the ideal of living close to nature and putting aside artificiality.

The Word for World is Forest coverBack-to-nature paradises are endemic in SF, especially when ecological advocacy gets mixed in.  Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972) is a classic example of such a story, as the title alone makes clear.  The movie Avatar (2009) hews to a similar plotline.  Even Norton’s sequel to The Stars Are Ours!, published three years later as Star Born (1957), pits the Terran colonists, now reverted to a more natural lifestyle, against the suspect technology of “Those Others,” in a contrast more characteristic of Norton’s later work.

Sometimes a group seeks to colonize another planet in order to “get away from it all” and return to a more natural lifestyle.  Anne McCaffrey’s Pern was settled in exactly that way.  In Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series, the original colonists of the quasi-fantasy world of Gramarye actually belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism and aimed to set up a society modeled on an idealized Middle Ages.

The subgenre of desert island or castaway stories such as The Swiss Family Robinson frequently showcases an opportunity to live a more primitive life in an island paradise—though “Robinsonades” as a whole include a variety of attitudes toward the primitive.

The Mysterious Island coverYet such desert-island excursions can also provide an opportunity to build your own civilization from scratch, technology and all.  In Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (the 1874 novel, not the maladapted movies), a band of energetic American castaways, headed by a capable engineer, construct a remarkably sophisticated settlement, with such modern conveniences as telegraph lines.  Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955) shows a group of young people stranded on a far planet creating a new society that includes such technology as they can muster—together with close attention to the structure of society and form of government, of which more anon.

Science and Civilization

These latter examples, in contrast to the pull of the primitive, remind us that humans are by nature makers and builders.  For us, technology is natural.  And science, which underlies technology, helps satisfy the fundamental human drive to understand the universe.

In a civilization, science ranges itself on the side of order.  It involves rigorous thought and discovery as a method, and gives rise to reliable technology and innovation as results.  It’s not opposed to a modest degree of chaos—which fuels innovation—but it relies on cultural features like free communication and freedom of speech that are enabled by good organization.

Lest we think of science and reason in terms of Mr. Spock, we need to keep in mind that science and technology do not exclude passion, freedom, or nature.  When rightly carried out, science and reason deliberately provide a place for these goods.  (When wrongly carried out, they can lead to the kinds of cautionary dystopias regularly featured in the back-to-nature subgenres—and all these types, pro and con, are good science fiction.)

When we consider the preconditions of doing science, or of beneficial technologies, we begin to see the connections between scientific civilization and certain kinds of social arrangements.  This leads naturally to our topic for next time—civilization and the rule of law.