It seems that for every crisis we try to create a series of rules to prevent the crisis recurring. Judges, teachers, doctors – all professionals – seem to be ruled by rules. Many are denied the satisfaction of doing the good they would do because the rule book forbids it.
The problem with rules is that we find ourselves on one side of the rule or the other. Either ruled in or ruled out. It is intensely frustrating to be unjustifiably ruled out. We need to learn a lesson from the tape measure. The tape measure is a rule that fits round things that are real.
Apparently Aristotle was impressed by the improvisation of the craftsmen that he was watching on the island of Lesbos. They were building rounded columns for which rigid rulers were useless. The craftsmen improvised with a ruler that bends – which we call a tape measure.
Aristotle talks a lot about wisdom. For him practical wisdom is the key to happiness. The wise person is like the improvising builders of Lesbos who knows that rules have to be bent and that we all need to deal with others flexibly.
And this is the nature of the equitable, a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality. … For when the thing is indefinite the rule also is indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts. [Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”]
Schwartz and Sharpe have published a book on practical wisdom.They talk about the importance of character and virtue as an alternative response to the crises which we face. They recognise two great sources of hope. The first of those they refer to as “canny outlaws” who have the moral courage to find a way around the rules. The second of those they refer to as “system changers” who have the moral courage to transform the system. (You can hear Barry Schwartz’s talk on this here).
John’s Gospel (7:53-8:11) has the story of the woman caught in adultery. According to the rules she should have been stoned to death. The (foolish) lawyers brought the woman to Jesus for his condemnation. What does he do? He kneels down and draws a rule in the sand. The woman’s accusers no longer know which side of the line they stand – wisdom had blurred their difference. Throughout the story Jesus is on the woman’s side – the side of the accused. He had blown away their rules for the sake of the woman whose proposed punishment – in now way – fitted her “crime”.