The rule of law is an ancient ideal, and was discussed by Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle around 350 BC. Plato wrote:
Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.
Likewise, Aristotle endorsed the rule of law, writing that "law should govern", and those in power should be "servants of the laws."
Cicero wrote, "We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free." During the republic, controversial magistrates might be put on trial when their terms of office expired. Under the empire, the sovereign was personally immune (legibus solutus), but those with grievances could sue the treasury.
An allusion to the rule of law applying to the Median kingdom is found in the Book of Daniel, where it is stated that not even that king can arbitrarily alter a law he has previously enacted: "The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked."
The supremacy of law is by no means an exclusively western notion: in the Chinese philosophical school of Legalism in the 3rd century BC, Han Fei Zi articulated three principles of governance, the first being Fa (Chinese: 法; pinyin: fǎ; literally "law or principle"), which states that laws, rather than rulers, run the state, and further that laws be written and public.
In Islamic jurisprudence rule of law was formulated before the twelfth century, so that no official could claim to be above the law, not even the caliph. However, this was not a reference to secular law, but to Islamic religious law in the form of Sharia law.
In 1215 AD, a similar development occurred in England: King John placed himself and England's future sovereigns and magistrates at least partially within the rule of law, by signing Magna Carta.
In a petition to James I of England in 1610, the House of Commons said:
Amongst many other points of happiness and freedom which your majesty's subjects of this kingdom have enjoyed under your royal progenitors, kings and queens of this realm, there is none which they have accounted more dear and precious than this, to be guided and governed by the certain rule of the law which giveth both to the head and members that which of right belongeth to them, and not by any uncertain or arbitrary form of government....
Among the first modern authors to give the principle theoretical foundations was Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex (1644). The title is Latin for "the law is king" and reverses the traditional rex lex ("the king is the law"). John Locke also discussed this issue in his Second Treatise of Government (1690). Later, the principle was further entrenched by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748).
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